New environmental watchdog – A toothless and needless newcomer?

A toothless and needless newcomer?

A knock-on effect of leaving the European Union is major reform of environmental protection policies, laws and regulations. As part of this process an Environment Bill is making its way through Parliament. Covid means it is well behind schedule and will not be considered again before the autumn. It includes provision for an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and this will now be launched on an interim basis in July.

The rise and fall of the Nature Conservancy

I’m sure we all wish this new watchdog well, but we do not have great track record with bodies like this. It all started so well in 1949 with the Nature Conservancy, which became the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) in 1973. Reasonably independent, science-based, and with well-respected leaders, these bodies built on the powers conferred by the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and subsequent legislation to lay the foundation for the designated landscapes and scheduled wildlife sites we have today. Unsurprisingly though they became unpopular amongst those, such as land-owners and farmers, who felt threatened by constraints imposed to protect the natural world. 

The influence of these vested interests culminated in a notorious protest on the Somerset Levels in 1989 when an effigy of the then Chair of the NCC, Sir William Wilkinson, was burnt. Shortly after this, in 1990, NCC became English Nature in a major shake-up of UK countryside agencies, including the Countryside Commission. The decline had started. Although he was no longer in office this re-organisation was the legacy of Nicholas Ridley’s spell as Secretary of State for the Environment from 1986 to 1989 (often at the time rendered as Secretary of State Against the Environment).

English Nature was again merged with other agencies within Defra to form Natural England in 2006. The previous Countryside Commission and its successor the Countryside Agency were also submerged in this rationalisation of bodies. As a result their pro-active approach to people-centred environmental management is long gone in today’s stodgy culture of centralised government. Natural England has been emasculated by political interference and years of budget and staff cuts and is a mere shadow of the old NCC. It is currently unclear as to how it, and indeed the Environment Agency, will relate to the new OEP. If these two bodies were better funded and supported then perhaps the new one would not be needed.

Bark or bite?

The Government says the OEP will be “a powerful new independent regulator that will hold the government to account. Importantly, the OEP will scrutinise all government policy to ensure the environment is at the heart of decision making. Crucially, it will have the power to run its own independent investigations and enforce environmental law, including taking government and other public bodies to court where necessary”. Those public bodies could include both Natural England and the Environment Agency!

The main worry though is that ultimately the OEP will be another piece of greenwash, a toothless watchdog, mired in internal politics, diverting resources which could otherwise be used to increase the capacity of existing bodies, and then berating them for not doing better. The Government is not short of advice on how to tackle pressures on wildlife and habitats, and address climate resilience. What it sometimes seems to be short of is the will and commitment to take difficult decisions and act accordingly. 

We must hope that the OEP does more than provide a mirage of action whilst everyone else gets on with business as usual.

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Shirley, Peter “New environmental watchdog – A toothless and needless newcomer?” ECOS vol. 42(2), ECOS 2021, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

One thought on “New environmental watchdog – A toothless and needless newcomer?

  1. Barry Larking says:

    I seem to recall the effigy burning down in the South West of England was bit earlier. Perhaps it’s a new ‘tradition’? I was working for the N.C.C. in Edinburgh at that time and gained from my lowly position in a far corridor the distinct impression the Scottish arm of the organisation – it’s Advisory Committee – was hand-in-glove with government. Wilkinson, who I chatted to, was some sort of merchant banker or City gent. He turned out to be wrong’un and went native. One former luminary of the B.A.N.C. parish told me he was a ‘good bloke’. Forty years after – yes it’s that long ago – I see things differently. There is absolutely no reason why any government should create a statutory body that disagrees with it or can’t be put back into its box. Seriously, would you if you were in power? How long would you last? The one and only time I strolled along to a local nature conservation pressure group I sat and listened to the assembled grey haired ‘Clark’s and Pringle’s’ attired concerned citizenry for a hour and then told them they hadn’t a chance in hell of saving anything, particularly as they were all so obviously nice. I don’t suffer from nice. Up against people with lots of money seeking a lucrative home, no number of red squirrels or butterflies will count for anything. Councils like money just as much as the next bunch of rapacious monomaniacs. You will lose. Every time. That’s how this game is played. They wrote the rule book.
    So what to do? You look for your enemies weak point. Now I doubt those nice people and almost no conservationist I ever met thinks of enemies in the same way I do. Misguided is about as far as enmity goes with normal people. In local terms the weak point to attack is votes. Local Councillors and M.P.’s of any party wish to be liked. They think that helps drag in the votes. So you go after their voters. Lots of people actually like nature; my local Wilco’s in a area of maximum deprivation gauged in refugee numbers, sells a colossal amount of wild bird food. That’s a clue. If conservationists gave up the useless part of their calling, that is, almost all of it, they could achieve more by foot slogging at election time and threaten the frequently wafer thin majorities of the local party cipher. In local elections twenty votes might swing it. So it is with General Elections. A small group could better spend time looking at ways to unseat local politicians than writing longish letters to the press on hand wringing or, fatally, believing legislation for wild life is there to protect wild life. No. Make a video of six and seven years old dancing about dressed as woodland creatures and then confronted by others in high vis jackets carrying shades with which to dig up Dingley Dell and then close ups of grief stricken said woodland rodents, and put the video on Y*uTube and make sure it goes viral. Do a bit of agit prop outside L*dl’s. Make sure the ‘house builders’ or ‘public utility’ or off shore corporation is seen to want to tread on the throats of six and seven years old to get what their way. In short,abandon the quaint notion that anything nasty about to befall the Great Outdoors or just simple green space will be the subject of objective scrutiny based on science. Do what no governmental environmental body has eve done or could do. Fight to win.

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