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The Environment Agency and Natural England to Remain Separate

Non-Departmental Public Bodies, such as the Environmental Agency and Natural England, must be reviewed by their sponsoring Department (in this case, Defra) in line with the principles and procedures laid down by Cabinet Office Guidance.  Last month, Defra published its Triennial Review of the Environment Agency and Natural England.

Given the economic climate and the Government’s aim to reduce spending and address the fiscal deficit, there is a strong emphasis in the Review on efficiency and cost-cutting.  The tension between improving service with a decreasing budget is alluded to in the Introduction:

“The scale and nature of the challenges faced by the global environment have changed significantly since both bodies were established.  At the same time, the global economic climate has changed dramatically, requiring the Government to do all it can to stimulate sustainable economic growth.”

Almost exactly a year ago, the Natural Resources Body for Wales (Establishment) Order 2012 came into force, and on 1 April 2013, Natural Resources Wales took over work formerly within the scope of the Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency Wales and Forestry Commission Wales.  In Defra’s Triennial Review, the major topic of consideration is whether an equivalent approach should be taken in England: whether the Environment Agency and Natural England should be merged.  When considering the costs and benefits, the Review had regard to the experience of the Welsh Assembly Government in setting up Natural Resources Wales.  Stakeholders had suggested that there were problems of duplication and conflicts between the bodies, especially in advice services. 

The headline conclusion in the Triennial Review is that the Environment Agency and Natural England should be retained as separate Non-Departmental Public Bodies, whilst identifying the need for them “to work closely together to deliver their environmental outcomes in a climate of fiscal constraint.”  Advice should be “solution focussed and provided early in the planning process” and “nationally consistent, whilst being locally adapted as necessary”. 

The decision to keep the bodies apart appears largely to have been based on the fact that the up-front costs and inconvenience did not justify the long-term savings, which were less certain. 

There was a finding that the functions and services provided should be reformed:

“These include better integration of land management capability and customer experience, and consolidation of the bodies’ planning processes.  The Review also found that bodies could go even further to drive a customer-focused culture, develop effective partnership working, further reduce regulatory burdens, secure back office reforms, and streamline marine conservation advice with [the Joint Nature Conservation Committee].”

For developers, one major change is the finding that the bodies should consolidate their planning advice processes, with the aim of providing a seamless planning advice service. 

There are also echoes of the Big Society: Conclusion 4 includes that Natural England:

“should continue to explore opportunity to maintain or improve outcomes through increasing the involvement of delivery partners from the private and voluntary sectors in delivering access and engagement activities including, where appropriate, transferring responsibility for delivery to these partners, and the EA should continue to pursue partnership arrangements as part of its angling strategy.”

There is a proposal to explore the possibility of delegating renewable energy advice for English offshore waters from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to Natural England. 

Regarding customer engagement, the Triennial Review recommended further changes to build on the ‘yes if’ culture, and to develop a more pragmatic approach to engaging with customers whilst delivering necessary environmental outcomes.