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Natural England arrives with a whimper

[Monday 02 October 2006]

THE Government's latest countryside quango, Natural England">Natural England, officially came into being yesterday (Sunday) - but with an almost inaudible whimper rather than a bang, as we forecast two months ago.

foot and mouth sign
Natural England springs from the foot
and mouth disaster

Natural England grew out of the chaos following foot and mouth five years ago on the recommendation of Lord Haskins, the founder of Northern Foods who has a farm in East Yorkshire, when he decided that there were too many different agencies dealing with rural affairs.

As a result, long-standing bodies like English Nature, the Countryside Agency and parts of the Forestry Commission were told to merge into the new body which - at one time - was supposed to be based in Sheffield. So far, that decision has not been officially confirmed.

But even before Natural England came into being on Oct 1st, its budget had already been cut by the Treasury, causing one of its newly appointed leaders to complain that the "wheels were coming off" before the engine had even been started (See a Week in the Country, August 4).

Today, October 2, Natural England gets its own website but with some queries still being dealt with by English Nature which, officially, has ceased to exist. And already, the criticism is growing.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England issued an angry statement which read: "As Natural England, the new official watchdog for landscape and wildlife comes into being, there is a real risk it will be too poor and too weak to make a difference.

"Natural England has been set up to be the nation's independent watchdog for landscape, wildlife and access to the countryside. But savage cuts to its core funding mean that the organisation is seriously weakened even as it embarks on its crucial work,' said Tom Oliver, Head of Rural Policy at CPRE.

savage cuts to its core funding mean that the organisation is seriously weakened even as it embarks on its crucial work

Tom Oliver - CPRE

"One of the most important aspects of Natural England's work should be to make a substantial contribution to safeguarding the quality of life for everyone. CPRE is particularly keen that Natural England should show leadership in establishing robust and effective monitoring of countryside quality and in particular, tranquillity. This was promised by the Government in 2000 and has yet to be fully achieved.

"There is also a long term threat to the level of funding Natural England will be able to award to farmers to manage and enhance our landscapes and the wildlife that inhabits them. The farming community has been told for years that it should commit itself to delivering things the public want - healthy, abundant wildlife, characterful landscapes and more extensive public access to the countryside.

"Unless the Government acts swiftly and decisively, there simply won't be the resources available for farmers to undertake environmentally sensitive land management, "Natural England faces huge challenges before it has even begun its work. We look forward to working with the new agency to help it secure the resources it needs to deliver a high quality environment for town and country."

Daelnet's countryside commentator John Sheard, who has dealt with bodies like English Nature and the Countryside Agency for 20 years and more, comments: "It is very important that Natural England should work and - hopefully - that it is still to be based in Yorkshire so that rural problems in the North of England get the attention they deserve.

"But this is a very disappointing start, yet another countryside cock-up. It has all the hallmarks of the creation of the Rural Payments Agency, which put thousands of farmers on the brink of bankruptcy because it was as much as two years late in paying out some subsidy cheques."

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