Low pay and high stress levels at Natural England are damaging morale and undermining the government’s net-zero goals, the Prospect trade union has said, after finding real-terms wages at the organisation have fallen by 20% over the last decade.
Natural England starting salaries are the lowest of any body in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and “significantly lower” than in the private and charity sectors, according to research by the union, which represents public sector professionals.
Meanwhile, nearly half of staff have said they have felt unwell because of work-related stress in the last 12 months, according to the non-departmental public body’s most recent staff survey
Natural England’s work to improve biodiversity and protect the natural environment from climate change is being “put at risk by a broken pay system”, Prospect’s deputy general secretary, Garry Graham, said.
“The government has mentioned protecting biodiversity as a key goal in its environmental policy, talking a good game while chairing Cop26, but it is failing to back up that talk with genuine action to protect the stewards of our natural environment,” he added.
The union is calling for “fundamental reform” of the NDPB’s pay system, saying that a pay rise alone – while overdue – “will be seen as tokenistic and won’t solve these deep-rooted problems”.
Prospect’s State of Natural England report found the body has the longest pay scales in Defra – with “no hope” of staff progressing upwards thanks to years of government pay restraint.
Two-thirds of Natural England’s workforce are below the mid-points in their pay scales, including staff with over 15 years’ experience, the report said.
Prospect also claims the NDPB, which advises the government on the natural environment, has failed to follow through on promises to address “widespread cases” where men are paid more than women for similar jobs.
All of this has led to a “huge skills and experience imbalance”, according to the union.
“Natural England has been struggling to fulfil its regulatory duty for some time now due to skills loss driven by low pay and stress,” the union said
“Staffing numbers have stabilised recently, in part due to a concerted recruitment drive which is welcome, but there is a huge skills and experience imbalance. Often, senior staff have had to leave, seeking better pay, or have changed teams as the only way to achieve pay progression within the organisation.
“This has crippled many operational teams, who are unable to retain their most experienced, expert staff or replace them with similarly skilled individuals resulting in a constant net loss of skills even though numbers remain steady.”
Prospect members at Natural England are currently taking industrial action short of a strike against Natural England over pay and have a mandate to take strike action if necessary.
Union members voted overwhelmingly in favour of action short of strike, and of strike action if that is unsuccessful, in a ballot last year.
A Natural England spokesperson said the body is bound by Treasury pay rules but is working with unions to reform pay.
“We value our staff hugely and have for some time recognised and acknowledged many of the issues being raised in this report. A shrinking budget in the recent past had brought particular difficulties for our teams, but the wellbeing of staff has and continues to be a top priority,” they said.
“We have in the last two years secured more resources for nature and the multi-year investment through the recent spending review will mean we can [go] a long way to tackling workloads, alongside our plans to reform the grades and pay band to which staff all are assigned.”