Scrapping Natural England would be a “calamity” that would undermine the government’s net-zero goals, campaigners have said, after it emerged that ministers are considering absorbing it into Defra.
Campaigners have raised concerns after spotting plans to dismantle the arm’s-length body buried in a consultation document published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in March.
A Defra spokesperson did not deny the reports, confirming that “changes could be made to the current structure”, although they said no decisions had been made.
Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, told the Guardian “various ministers are a bit obsessed” with absorbing the conservation body into Defra.
He accused the government of having “an obsession with moving furniture around”.
“If they’re not careful, it’s going to be like moving deckchairs around on the Titanic while we face massive crises,” he said.
The Prospect trade union said abolishing the body would be “nothing short of vandalism”.
Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, said in a blog last month that the consultation paper “rightly considers all options for improving delivery for nature, including reform of arm’s-length bodies”.
Natural England advises the government on the natural environment in England, helping to protect the nation’s nature and landscapes.
Set up in 2006, the body was originally independent. But in 2018, then-outgoing chair Andrew Sells revealed that the financial, press, communications and HR functions were now under the control of Defra.
Campaigners and unions have said any proposals to close down the body could damage efforts to protect wildlife and reach net zero.
Bennett of Wildlife Trusts said the body needs more independence and funding to help tackle the nature and climate crises.
He said: “They need to be increasing funding to Natural England, give them more money and more power – instead of going in 100% the wrong direction.”
Kate Ashbrook, chair of the Open Spaces Society, agreed, calling for the body to be “given greater independence to act as government’s critical friend”.
Prospect’s general secretary Garry Graham said scrapping Natural England would be “a calamity for England’s natural environment and for the dedicated professionals who work there.”
“If we are to achieve net zero and protect the environment for future generations then it is vital we properly fund those who preserve and protect English nature,” he added.
He accused Defra of “sneaking the plan out” in the nature recovery green paper consultation, which he said was “at best deeply disrespectful and at worst extremely underhand”.
The morale of staff at Natural England has already been damaged by “low pay and high stress levels”, according to Prospect.
The union said in March that a “broken” pay system is undermining the government’s net-zero goals, after finding real-terms wages at the organisation have fallen by 20% over the last decade.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We have ambitious plans to deliver for nature, and our arm’s length bodies have a key role to play in this.
“It is right we ensure our ALB landscape supports this ambition, and there is a possibility that changes could be made to the current structure – however no decisions have been made.”