Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Seventh Report

4  Relationships between the Agency and Natural England

100. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act has created a new agency—Natural England—comprising all of English Nature, the landscape, access and recreation elements of the Countryside Agency, and the environmental land management functions of the Rural Development Service. The new organisation's responsibilities include integrated resource management, nature conversation, biodiversity, landscape, access and recreation.[234] Pending its formal establishment in October 2006, the constituent bodies that are to form the new agency have been working as a confederation of partners—the Natural England Partnership. Our predecessor Committee examined the draft Bill that led to the Act in its Fifth Report of Session 2004-05.[235]

101. Defra wants the Agency and Natural England to work closely together to "maximise the impact of activities on the environment".[236] For example, the two organisations will take joint action to tackle diffuse water pollution and work together on local projects to generate improvements in biodiversity and flood defence.[237] The Natural England Partnership, the Agency and the Forestry Commission have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding which provides "a framework for future relations" between the three organisations.[238]  The Memorandum "defines individual responsibilities and shared priorities, and how the organisations will work together to deliver these in line with statutory purposes".[239]

102. Witnesses from both the Agency and Natural England Partnership organisations said the relationship between the two organisations had been progressing well, and both emphasised the importance of maintaining a close relationship once the new organisation was established. The Natural England Partnership was generally very positive about its relationship with the Agency, and told us its representatives liaised regularly with Agency officials.[240] The Minister told us there was a "good relationship" between the Agency and the newly appointed Chair of Natural England, and that they had been meeting and co-operating regularly.[241] One example of such co-operation was in relation to on-farm management of diffuse pollution.[242]

The Government's agri-environment budget

103. Although witnesses representing the Agency and Natural England Partnership told us they were broadly happy with the current relationship, it was clear that the Government's agri-environment budget was an area of tension. This budget of over £300 million per year will be controlled by Natural England and used to achieve its objectives of biodiversity, landscape, access and recreation, as set out in the NERC Act. However, the Agency stressed that the budget was also intended for its own aims of protecting the natural resources of air, land and water.[243] It therefore wanted Natural England to be given "clear guidance" on using agri-environmental funding to achieve both organisations' objectives.[244]

104. When questioned on this issue, the Natural England Partnership acknowledged that the agri-environment budget was a source of tension between the two organisations because they both wanted "a slice of the action".[245] However, it believed the main problem was simply that the budget was not big enough at present. One reason for this was that a recent EU budget settlement had placed the agri-environment budget under pressure.[246] The Natural England Partnership believed any further pressures on the budget would be "very painful … not only for Natural England but also for the Agency".[247] We asked whether these potential budget constraints could hinder the Agency's performance in some areas. Natural England did not believe budgetary problems would affect the Agency's "core" shared outcomes, such as the Water Framework Directive and the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) target.[248] However, it warned that some of the Agency's less important responsibilities—"the nice to do, the desirables"—could potentially be threatened.[249]

105. We welcome the progress made by officials in the Agency and the Natural England Partnership in establishing a close and constructive working relationship. Due to the overlapping nature of some of the Agency and Natural England's responsibilities, it is essential that these good relations continue once Natural England is established. We are concerned, however, that—even before the new body has been created—tensions already exist relating to the potential use of the agri-environment budget. This budget will be controlled by Natural England but, in effect, used to deliver both organisation's objectives. We therefore agree with the Agency that, in order to avoid potential disputes, Defra should provide Natural England with clear guidance on using the agri-environmental funding to achieve both organisations' objectives. It is also essential that any budget constraints that arise do not hinder the Agency's performance in relation to its core shared outcomes, such as the Water Framework Directive and SSSI responsibilities.


106. Under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, the Agency is the lead organisation responsible for saltmarsh and mudflat Habitat Action Plans, while English Nature (and, in due course, Natural England) is the lead on wetland Habitat Action Plans (that is, fens, bogs, grazing marsh and reedbeds).[250] The two organisations have an annual target for creating 200 hectares of new saltmarsh, mudflat and other wetland habitats, through the Agency's flood risk management work.[251]

107. We asked both sets of witnesses whether the division of responsibilities for Habitat Action Plans could cause confusion or duplication of effort. The Natural England Partnership believed it was important that two organisations had responsibility because of the wide range of Action Plans for species and habitats.[252] It was also "logical" for the Agency to have lead responsibility for saltmarsh and mudflat Habitat Action Plans because of its work on flood and coastal defence.[253] Nevertheless, it stressed that each organisation had an important role to play on Action Plans led by the other organisation. For example, SSSIs often included a variety of habitats, and therefore required close collaboration between the Agency and English Nature. The Natural England Partnership believed this kind of joint working was "not an overlap, not a duplication [but] how we do our job".[254] What was important was that each Biodiversity Action Plan Group consisted of "the right constituent parts", and that the respective lead organisation in each case should "provide the lead and the vision necessary for the constituent parts to then do what is necessary within each of those organisations".[255]

108. The Agency recognised that the Biodiversity Action Plan process was "complicated".[256] However, it believed that giving Natural England direct responsibility for all 45 Habitat Action Plans "would not improve performance".[257] It explained that delivery would still depend on actions by the operational organisation which had the biggest influence on specific habitats—with the Agency's influence on issues of water quality, quantity and flood risk management, it followed that it should lead on wetland habitats.[258] The Agency told us that:

    The current arrangement, whereby lead responsibility reflects the influence of operating authorities such as [the Agency], increases the chances of action being delivered, because there is a corporate responsibility to deliver a Government target.[259]

109. The Minister believed it was "inevitable" that a body like the Agency—with responsibilities for air, land, water, pollution and flood defence—would have "implications in relation to biodiversity".[260] He also believed it was inevitable that overlaps would sometimes occur, regardless of the structure of government.[261] He stressed the fact, however, that the Agency had been developing Memoranda of Understanding with Natural England and the Forestry Commission where such overlaps occurred.[262]

110. The current arrangement between the Agency and English Nature—soon to be Natural England—in relation to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan is complicated. Each organisation has lead responsibility for certain Habitat Action Plans, depending on its type. However, the two organisations are often required to work together on specific Habitat Action Plans, as can occur with the restoration of SSSIs. Evidence suggests that all the parties involved believe that the current arrangement is the most logical one and, more importantly, that it is delivering results. We believe that rules and regulations defining responsibilities and boundaries are important, but ultimately it is the people involved in these collaborations that are vital. Provided the Agency and Natural England continue to work closely—with the lead organisation for each Biodiversity Action Plan Group providing the necessary lead and vision—and deliver results in this area, we are satisfied that the present arrangements should continue.

234 Back

235   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2004-05, The Government's Rural Strategy and the draft Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill, HC 408-I. Back

236 Back

237 Back

238 Back

239 Back

240   Q 156 Back

241   Q 312 Back

242   Q 312 Back

243   Ev 141 Back

244   Ev 141 Back

245   Q 172 Back

246   Q 165. As part of the deal on the EU Financial Perspective 2007-13, the budget for agri-environment funding under Pillar II of the Common Agricultural Policy (rural development) has been reduced by an average of up to 40% for all Member States compared to current levels of spending. Back

247   Q 165 Back

248   Q 168 Back

249   Q 168 Back

250   Ev 70 [English Nature on behalf of the Natural England Partnership] Back

251   Ev 142 [Environment Agency] Back

252   Q 176 Back

253   Q 176 Back

254   Q 179. The Committee saw a good example of such joint decision-making when it visited Abbots Hall Farm, Essex, in November 2005. Back

255   Q 173 Back

256   Ev 165 Back

257   Ev 165 Back

258   Ev 165 Back

259   Ev 165 Back

260   Q 254 Back

261   Q 254 Back

262   Q 254 Back

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Prepared 11 May 2006