How Natural England became the servant of the landed classes.
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 7th June 2012
Listening to the National Farmers’ Union, the Countryside Alliance and the Country Land and Business Association, you could be forgiven for believing that the only people who live in the countryside are farmers and landowners.
In fact, there are 9.8 million people living in rural England (defined as settlements with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants). Of these, 140,000 people are full-time farmers, or the business partners, directors and spouses of full-time farmers. In other words, they constitute 1.4% of the rural population (and 0.3% of the total population).
Yet rural policy seems to be tailored largely to their needs. It’s not enough that (in the UK as a whole), taxpayers give farmers and landowners – among whom are the wealthiest people in Britain – £3.6 billion a year in the form of agricultural subsidies. Under this government the landowners must also be permitted to decide how and for whom the countryside is run. Ninety-nine per cent of rural people – and 99.7% of the nation as a whole – are marginalised from decision-making in the countryside.
There is no better illustration of this than the letter from Natural England in the Guardian today.
Natural England is supposed to regulate the relationship between those who own, farm and use the countryside, and the wildlife and natural places which are valued by so many of the nation’s people. But successive governments have pulled its teeth. Under New Labour its mandate was subtly changed. The Hampton Principle, incorporated by the government into the objectives of a wide range of agencies, insists that
“Regulators should recognise that a key element of their activity will be to allow, or even encourage, economic progress and only to intervene when there is a clear case for protection.”
You can find it embedded in the Regulators’ Compliance Code for Natural England. It is not clear to me why an agency whose stated aim is to defend the environment should have to “encourage economic progress” (otherwise known as growth), which is arguably the primary cause of environmental degradation. Surely a body such as Natural England should be one of those still, small voices within government asking the awkward questions, such as: “is perpetual growth in all respects a good thing?” and “might there be a downside?”
Under Cameron, Natural England has been reduced from a semi-independent voice, sporadically defending wildlife and habitats, to a gopher for the landed classes. The Hampton Principle appears to have been reinterpreted to mean “do nothing that will interfere with a landowner’s economic interests, however damaging they may be.”
Natural England’s letter begins with a non-explanation of why it dropped its legal case against the Walshaw Moor grouse estate, owned by the retail tycoon Richard Bannister, whose staff had been burning blanket bog and other habitats on a site of special scientific interest in the Pennines, in order to improve his grouse shooting. It’s not just that the burning cooks wildlife and ensures the habitat is less favourable to species other than the red grouse. It’s also that blanket bog sits atop the UK’s major carbon sinks: peat deposits. The Commission of Inquiry on UK Peatlands reports that:
“Damaged UK peatlands are releasing almost 3.7 million tonnes CO2e (Carbon
dioxide equivalent) each year … more than all the households of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds combined.”
“Peatlands are vitally important in the global carbon cycle and UK greenhouse gas budgets. They represent the single most important terrestrial carbon store in the UK. Blanket and raised bog peatlands cover around 23,000 km2 or 9.5% of the UK land area, with current estimates indicating they store at least 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon. A loss of only 5% of UK peatland carbon would equate to the total annual UK anthropogenic greenhouse gas
emissions. Healthy peat bogs have a net long-term ‘cooling’ effect on the climate.”
Natural England’s letter “explains” the abandonment of its legal action by stating that:
“At Walshaw, we have now entered into a 25-year agreement that provides improved environmental protection for the moors while allowing the estate to conduct its business activities.”
These business activities – as the agreement spells out – specifically include burning blanket bog. Perhaps the agency would care to explain the environmental case for this burning? It has singularly failed to do this so far, and a lot of people are eager to know.
The agreement represents total capitulation to a large landowner, who will be allowed to carry on damaging a place which is both a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation, a capitulation which is now being spun by the agency as some kind of success. And there is still no explanation from Natural England of why it dropped its legal case against Richard Bannister’s estate. Its silence on the matter becomes more telling by the day.
Or perhaps there is something resembling an explanation, later in the same letter. Here, the agency seeks to explain why it withdrew the mild and tentative document it published in 2009, called Vital Uplands. It proposed that the bare, scoured monoculture of sheep pasture and grouse moor that dominates almost all of upland England – including the conservation areas – might be moderated just a fraction by allowing a few trees to grow in a few places, by burning a little less and by permitting some wildlife to gain a toehold. The landowners went nuts. The chairman of Natural England, who also happens to be a farmer, turned up at a meeting of the National Farmers’ Union, denounced his own agency and publicly apologised for its heresies. The document was withdrawn and all trace of it was deleted from the agency’s website.
Now Natural England tells us that Vital Uplands was withdrawn because it
“had never been supported by the main land managers in the uplands, and a vision without followers cannot deliver outcomes for the natural environment.”
But there are millions of potential followers of a vision which seeks to allow some of our missing wildlife to return to the uplands, and to moderate the most severe impacts of grouse moor management and sheep ranching.
There are millions of people who might support a request that we get something in return for our £3.6 billion other than soil erosion, flooding (caused by the lack of trees and compaction of the soil by sheep), greenhouse gas emissions, the persecution of birds of prey and the destruction of habitat.
There are millions of people who might have expected a regulator to regulate, rather than just to grovel and doff its cap to the lords of the land.
But Natural England, neutered by successive governments, now seems to interpret its brief as keeping the one percent happy, whatever the rest of us might think. This is a classic example of regulatory capture. An agency which should be protecting the natural world appears to have identified and aligned itself with people damaging it. Who now will stand up for England’s wildlife?