Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Natural England - notes from the launch

by Diana Pound

On Wednesday 11 October, Natural England (NE) was launched in the grand surroundings of the Foreign Office's Locarno Room. There was a generous quantity of champagne, tasty morsels, and fine words from Rt Hon David Miliband MP (Secretary of State for the Environment) Helen Philips (NE Chief Executive) and Martin Doughty (Chair of NE’s Board). The event was attended by Margaret Beckett, four other Defra Ministers, and the great and the good from other organisations.

The room was packed, sweltering, and with everyone standing, David Milliband decided to abandon his speech and ad-lib. He said that ‘Natural England is core to what Defra is about’ and essential to help people in England work towards ‘one planet living’. He spoke of the need for a NE to help form ‘a new environmental contract between citizens and government’ just as the ‘social contract’ was formed in the first half of the 20th Century and is now part of our psyche. He welcomed the fact that at last the historic divisions between access, landscape and biodiversity had been brought together and said that the shared values and shared ideas of staff would underpin NE’s work. He was careful to acknowledge the concerns raised about the ‘baby being strangled at birth’ following Defra clawing back money from all its Agencies in August to help fund agricultural payments. Some hoped that he would use the launch to announce improvements to NE’s budget, but he said this would not happen until Defra could consider all the relevant agencies' resources together.

Martin Doughty looked back at history and spoke of a new approach with a focus on resilient ecosystems, improved connectivity, a decrease in fragmentation, and helping people ‘connect to nature’.

Helen Philips surprised some of us by committing the agency to being a ‘campaigning agency’, which she declared a ‘radical approach’.

There were many other inspiring and motivating words, and if these are backed by enough funds, motivated staff and effective delivery then things will definitely change for the better.

Helen Philips acknowledged that from her perspective, birthing Natural England was ‘quite an ordeal’. Change is always difficult; and NE was bound to have some teething troubles. We’ve all heard of confusion about roles and responsibilities, experienced ecologists being shifted from conservation work to process payments to farmers, and practical things like office addresses and IT systems not working the way they should. These are the kind of things that can be ironed out, but what is of greater concern is that the process of transition seems to have left many of NE’s staff feeling pretty demoralised by the ‘ordeal’ Helen Philips referred to.

Natural England’s staff are passionate about their subject and committed to making a difference. But many are struggling with how to get on with the real job - delivering NE’s challenging remit of conserving and enhancing landscape and biodiversity, and improving access and education.

All of the 5 Directors and Helen Philips are from outside Natural England’s constituent bodies. Having all fresh faces at the top should help to form a new culture with fresh perspectives and without carrying over the baggage from the previous organisations – but the new faces will need to listen and learn as well as lead. They must inspire staff and demonstrate that, like good cooks, they can bake something better than the ingredients.

If NE is to turn the inspirational rhetoric we heard at the launch into reality, the Directors have a challenging time in front of them. Helen Philips spoke of ‘customer care’ - but perhaps the greatest short-term challenge is to build up trust, and motivate and empower NE’s own people so they can regain enthusiasm for their work and deliver what’s needed.

In the end "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating" and in a year's time, the true test of NE will be if it is getting on with the job and delivering better and more integrated results for ecosystems, landscapes, and countryside access. My own hope is that the organisation will harness the best characteristics of the three constituent organisations; the Countryside Agency’s informality, flexibility, risk taking, and innovation, English Nature’s commitment to science and protecting the best bits of our wildlife and geology, and the Rural Development Service's ability to work with landowners to deliver change at a systems level.

I wish Natural England well and great success.

Diana Pound

For David Miliband’s Blog about the launch and copy of his prepared speech go to:

For Natural England’s launch Press Release go to: