By Joshua.Chambers

04 Mar 2014

With the environment department badly hit in the Spending Review, many of its agencies saw hefty cuts. Joshua Chambers speaks to Dave Webster, chief executive of Natural England, on how the quango wielded its secateurs.

There aren’t many chief executives who spend much of their working week living out of the Travelodge chain of budget motels, but Dave Webster is one who does. The boss of Natural England, an organisation with a budget stretching into hundreds of millions of pounds, doesn’t have a fixed office, instead living on the road as he flits between offices in London, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield – with the occasional stop at home in South Wales.

It’s all part of his organisation’s drive to cut costs by encouraging flexible working, he explains; what’s good enough for the troops is good enough for him. Natural England was landed with a whopping budget cut in the 2010 Spending Review, and has responded by slashing staff numbers and selling swathes of its estate.

A natural birth

Natural England is the non-departmental public body responsible for conserving England’s environment for future generations, Webster says. It’s also government’s statutory adviser on nature conservation, covering topics including national parks, badger culling, marine conservation zones, and the £450m of grants – predominantly from the European Union – handed to farmers for activities that protect the environment. Employing 2,200 staff, and with a resource budget of £150m, Natural England is no public sector minnow.

It started life in 2006, born out of a merger of three organisations: English Nature, which looked after rural diversity; the Rural Development Service, which managed agricultural grants; and the Countryside Agency, which sought to improve the quality of life in the countryside. The organisation survived 2010’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’ because of its need to remain independent, Webster says: it provides impartial scientific advice on, for example, bovine tuberculosis, environment regulations, bumblebees and butterflies.

It isn’t all badger bothering and butterfly breeding at Natural England, though. It’s also a delivery organisation, and advises business on environmental policy. Both of these roles require strong partnerships with the whole panoply of relevant lobby groups, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trust, the Country Land & Business Association, and the Tenant Farmers’ Association. As for Whitehall, the quango reports into Defra, and also advises both the energy and communities departments – mostly on planning policy.

“We’re here to support the environment, but we’re also not here to get in the way of growth,” Webster insists, acknowledging that “there’s probably a perception that an environment body will be a blocker to growth.” In response, Natural England has been keen to present a more proactive face to the “development community” over the past few years: “There was a time when we went for perfect, and didn’t take our partners with us,” he says.

“Where it becomes a bit of a more challenging situation is where growth and development affects protected sites,” he adds. “What we try to do is work with developers at an early stage.” Natural England tries to influence businesses’ plans in order to avoid clashes with its duty to protect the most valuable wildlife habitats, steering development towards locations without environmental protection.

That said, there will always be times when there’ll be difficult conflicts, he adds, citing the case of Lodge Hill. This former defence training site in Kent houses a nationally-significant number of nightingales, but developers had wanted to house humans there instead – until Natural England stepped in.

Natural disadvantage

The reasons behind Natural England’s increasingly supportive attitude to business lie within the government’s desire to help companies through these lean times. The coalition’s strategy, of course, also involves cutting public spending – and Natural England has already had to cut 21.5%, or £42m, from its resource budget over the course of this Parliament. Now it has been challenged to find a further 10%, or £17m.
The scale of this financial retrenchment “is enormous,” Webster says, “and what we’ve done is focussed on reducing and making our back office services more effective – so our corporate services are 60% of the size they were in 2006.” The organisation also cut the cost of delivering agricultural grants by 50%. This latter saving was found by streamlining and unifying its grant management processes, which previously differed across the country. The agency introduced a common process, and ran it out nationally. This reduced the staff input required, permitting Natural England to make redundancies.

Staff losses have provided a large chunk of savings: since the Spending Review, more than 500 have left – more than a fifth of its 2010 strength. This is bound to have hit morale, though the agency is reluctant to reveal how much: when asked to provide its full Civil Service People Survey results, it declined on the basis that the findings are "confidential."

Webster does, though, admit that the staff losses damaged Natural England’s expertise and skills. “Inevitably, you can’t have 500-plus people leave the organisation without losing experience,” he says, “and what you’ve got to bear in mind is clearly those type of schemes are more attractive to people who’ve got lots of experience who are closer to retirement. But inevitably, that’s where the funding took us.” The organisation tried to prioritise redundancies in corporate and back office services rather than frontline delivery, he adds.

Following the job losses, Natural England worked to identify the skills remaining in the organisation, and moved staff around to plug gaps. It also began partnering experienced staff with people in newer roles, supporting better knowledge transfer. “We’ve tried to be more of a flexible, resilient workforce,” Webster says.

That flexibility extends to training, where the agency has tried to use partner organisations to rebuild its expertise. It piggybacks on much of the Environment Agency’s training, Webster says, and has just started using Civil Service Learning rather than creating bespoke courses. Another important move has been to encourage secondments into partner organisations, boosting staff development. “If you want to have career paths for staff, often that’s about getting some development,” Webster says, adding that after a secondment “they come back with that knowledge, that wider skill range – and that then helps the organisation.” That said, “it has to benefit the organisation as well as the individual; we’re not too altruistic about it”.

Many of those secondments are into the Environment Agency or Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, NE has also started seconding people into businesses – particularly housing and energy organisations – “because they get to understand how we operate through that individual, and we use these organisations to provide our training”. These secondments also strengthen NE’s partnerships with businesses and other organisations, he adds.

Home is where the work is

Natural England achieved further savings by cutting its estate from 60 offices to 25. This saw a large increase in home working: 25% of the staff now work predominantly from home, “and that’s led to a change in the way that we deliver our business,” he says. It also gives better CSPS scores, because people can “marshal their time around their personal situation.”

Does that weaken organisational identity? Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer recently banned home working because she didn’t think it made for as creative a workforce as bringing people together in one place. Webster demurs: “It’s not where people work that’s important; it’s what they achieve,” he says, adding that organisations should focus on overall performance “rather than worry unnecessarily about where people are based.” Good people, he believes, will deliver the goods.

He admits that it’s important to “bring people together frequently enough to work as a collective team,” but adds that “when you’ve moved to a dispersed office, it’s not easy to say to people: ‘You’ve all got to come back into an office’.” And is there a danger that people can end up feeling isolated, or that units don’t develop a team spirit? “People have team events; they get together for a couple of days,” he responds. “Also, people get together for coffee and talk locally. You don’t need an office to do your business: teams have hired local halls.” Natural England has a travel and subsistence budget that allows for such spending – hence Webster’s own flexible working arrangements.

Also, Natural England has integrated its IT with Defra’s to allow employees to use the department’s offices when they need somewhere to work, and it’s developing similar arrangements with the Environment Agency – currently, these only cover the provision of desks and broadband, as the IT doesn’t yet sync up in as sophisticated a way as at the Defra buildings.

Replanting the organisation

Since 2010, Natural England has undergone significant restructuring. There used to be a whole regional tier of management, now removed to make savings. This left a small local network and a national centre, with much of the agency’s work centralised around key functions; for example, there is a marine group and a land use group.

However, that “meant we weren’t as local as we wanted to be,” Webster explains. NE has now beefed up its local tier, appointing 14 new area managers to oversee them. It’s not the same management structure as before, he says, but clearly the lesson was that the regional tier was there for a reason.

This change of emphasis has come about partly due to the conclusion of Natural England’s Triennial Review, which assessed both that organisation and the Environment Agency to see whether they should be merged, scrapped or retained. It decided to keep both as they were, but recommended greater back office efficiencies for the Environment Agency and more of a local focus at Natural England – with more work done to build up close partnerships with businesses and interest groups.

The Triennial Review also tasked Webster’s organisation with being more innovative, because more cuts are on the way. To adapt, NE has started charging for pre-application planning advice, to generate funds for the natural environment. The agency has even, Webster says, cut its carbon emissions by 50% – partly by ditching its office network, but also through web conferencing and better use of IT.

From small acorns, big contracts grow

Natural England’s IT is run by one big contractor, IBM. The deal ends in 2018, and “that’s been a good contract for us,” Webster says. The agency has been able to get the laptops and other services it needs to encourage home working, “but clearly the government is going in a different direction around smaller, more flexible contracts, and that’s what we will be going to – moving forward, we’ll be using the cloud more as well”. Natural England used to have a fair number of procurement people, but that area has seen staff cuts, and in future the organisation will procure more via Defra and central government, he says.

Time to turn to the badger culls. Webster has been relatively unphased throughout the interview, but he now starts to look… phased. “It’s a complex policy, and it’s very emotive,” he says. “For Natural England, we contributed to the guidance; we’ve taken expert advice where we needed to; we’ve got an independent panel that will conclude on it – then we’ll await government announcements to say what’s next.” Indeed, he adds, “we believe that we’ve acted professionally – and clearly there would have been a legal challenge to the process along the way if we hadn’t done. That hasn’t happened to date.”

The cost of the cull, though, appears to be very high; will the next set of culls kill badgers less expensively? “You’ve got to look at it in the context of disease control,” he replies. “Government is saying it’s £1bn over the next ten years, so it has to be in that context. From a Natural England perspective, we’ve reduced the cost as far as we can”. The biggest cost of the cull was policing, he adds.

With that, we wrap up and take photographs in a nearby park. It isn’t quite the green and pleasant lands we’d have liked for a portrait of the Natural England chief, but it beats the small office where the interview has taken place. That’s life when you’re partly reliant on other organisations’ offices, though: Natural England’s use of home working to save costs has been innovative, but there’s always an opportunity cost. Mercifully for Webster, the interview takes place on a Thursday, so he’ll be on the train back to South Wales in the evening, working the next day from home and, finally, sleeping once again in his own bed.

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