Does this report signal the resurrection of Natural England and the revitalisation of rural communities?

Today saw the publication of a House of Lords Select Committee report – The countryside at a crossroads: is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 still fit for purpose? – you can download it here.

On the surface this may seem like a rather dry and obscure topic but this 96 page report analyses how policy work in government has further marginalised rural communities and details how Natural England has been emasculated since May 2010. The report explores why these two issues are important and explains the impact that this has had on rural communities, biodiversity and landscapes. It goes on to make a number of recommendations which aim to rectify the situation. It is a withering critique of the policies of the Coalition and Conservative Governments that have overseen a catalogue of changes which have diminished the quality of rural life and the conservation of biodiversity in England.

For me there is considerable irony in much of this story – the 2006 Act was passed under Tony Blair’s government and was championed by the then Secretary of State David Miliband, Labour were not naturally seen as the party of the countryside. The demolition job that has been carried out since 2010 has happened under political parties who are purported to support country life and the countryside. The main suspects involved were four Conservative Secretaries of State: Caroline Spelman, Owen Paterson, Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom.

The best way for me to summarise this report is to print below the first five paragraphs of it. The emphases within the text are mine and not those of the Select Committee.

Twelve years have passed since the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act received Royal Assent in March 2006. This legislation built upon institutional changes that began with the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2001. The Act introduced major structural changes, abolishing the Countryside Agency and English Nature and transferring many of their functions to a new body, Natural England, which was charged with conserving, enhancing and managing the natural environment. The Act also sought to promote the interests of rural areas by establishing an independent Commission for Rural Communities, charged with raising awareness of rural needs, and passed responsibility for some elements of rural delivery to the Regional Development Agencies.

Since 2006 many of these provisions have been hollowed out. Natural England has been subjected to severe budget cuts, leading to concerns regarding its ongoing ability to perform core regulatory functions. The Commission for Rural Communities has been abolished and was replaced by a unit within Defra—the Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU)—which has itself subsequently been abolished. Rural society, the rural economy and our natural environment have not been well served by these changes.

The Act gave Natural England a broad remit, including the promotion of nature conservation, protection of biodiversity, conservation of the landscape and promotion of public access to the countryside. To deliver against this remit requires adequate resources and—within the recognised procedures applied to non- departmental public bodies—a good degree of independence from Government. Natural England currently enjoys neither of these essential prerequisites.

The Government must address this situation urgently. We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities. We share the concerns of witnesses who have told us that Natural England no longer has a distinctive voice and urge the Government to take action in recognition of these concerns. We also make specific recommendations that seek to improve Natural England’s performance of its planning obligations, particularly with regard to conserving the landscape.

The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) performed an important role as an advocate for rural England. Abolition of the Commission has left a number of gaps in the Government’s understanding of the needs of rural areas; of particular concern is the loss of the CRC’s independent research capacity. More broadly the closure of the CRC and the RCPU, combined with the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies, means that most of the NERC Act’s provisions pertaining to rural communities have now been annulled. This has had a profound negative impact upon the way in which the Government handles rural needs and has diminished focus on the economic potential of rural areas, to the cost of us all.

The Report contains 45 recommendations. 5 about Brexit and the natural environment, 23 about the role of Natural England, 6 around the biodiversity role, 9 about rural communities and 2 about green lanes and rights of way.

In essence the Report states that the Government needs to effectively fund and allow Natural England much more independence and ensure that rural communities are given a voice at the heart of Government.

To achieve this the Report urges that Natural England’s budget is increased significantly, that the rural affairs remit of Defra (Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is shifted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and that the responsibility for ‘rural proofing’ future Government policy is taken from Defra and given to the Cabinet Office.

It is easy to forget that before Natural England was emasculated and had its work framed as ‘the badger cull’, ‘sorting out the mess in the uplands’ and ‘hen harrier re-introductions’ it was a strong and powerful voice for nature as was its predecessor body English Nature.

This Report if implemented would make a massive difference to biodiversity and to rural communities in England. I wonder how Michael Gove will react? Will he allow some parts of the Defra empire go so that he and it can focus on the massive task of Brexit, agriculture, the environment and food and will he adequately fund Natural England or will he ignore the recommendations and file the report?

Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink Moon

Yesterday evening saw April’s new full moon, known as the Pink Moon  – named as such by North American / Canadian Indians because it co-incides with the flowering of a pink flower known as the Wild Ground Phlox and the Creeping Phlox. The moon isn’t pink but the landscape is.


The ‘Pink’ full moon photographed yesterday evening in Exeter


The pink Creeping Phlox after which the Pink Moon is named
Copyright 2007 Andy Fyon, Ontariowildflower.com


One of my favourite albums – Pink Moon by the late and sorely missed Nick Drake – if you don’t know the folk musician Nick Drake I recommend you check him out. Pink Moon is a rather dark album – a better starting place is perhaps either Five Leaves Left or Bryter Later.

 

The moon, the earth and us

Friday night saw two lunar events – a New Moon and a lunar eclipse.

The February Full Moon is known as a Snow Moon as some native American Indians used this term historically as it was the time of the year when snow was most prevalent in their homeland. It is also known as a Hunger Moon – signifying the time of the year (due to the snow) when it was most difficult to hunt animals which often resulted in periods of malnourishment.

The eclipse, known as a ‘penumbral lunar eclipse’ was a rather subtle affair! It is when the Moon travels through the outer part of the Earth’s shadow and it can be mistaken for a normal full moon. What makes this different from a normal full moon is that at least some part of the full moon will be darker than it typically appears. Here are three photos I took.

snow-moon-1
This was taken on Friday night at 10.18pm – looks like a normal full moon.

snow-moon-2
At 12.13am – the top left is perhaps a bit darker?

snow-moon-3At 12.43am (the peak of the eclipse), the top half is darker but it is quite subtle and if I hadn’t known about this phenomena in advance I very much doubt I would have noticed it!

Looking at these photos of the moon reminded me of the NASA pictures taken from space of the earth on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.

the_earth_seen_from_apollo_17Earth from space
By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans, via Wikimedia Commons

Such pictures changed forever the way we see our world. No longer could it be argued that we were at the centre of the Universe – we were now Spaceship Earth floating in deep space – a biophysical unit and a depiction of nature.

But what is nature and what is now natural in the 21st century? Nature used to be all the processes and phenomena that allowed life on Earth for us and our non-human co-habitees.

Historically nature was thought of as divine, then it became seen more as a creature or a machine which was constant and if disturbed returned to a stable equilibrium (see Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature for more on this).

Geologists now tell us we have left the Holocene and have now entered the Anthropocene (see here) – a nature no longer natural but one influenced all be it unwittingly by the actions of humans. Our modification of the climate along with the other forms of pollution and habitat destruction has put us on a course which is now unstable and not in equilibrium to an unknown destination.

It really is now time to take some responsibility for the situation.