Environment Agency may merge with Natural England

Two executive non-departmental public bodies responsible for the environment may merge in proposals set out by the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The Environment Agency (EA), responsible for ‘improving the environment, and promoting sustainable development’ (with a specific focus on flooding and environmental crime), and Natural England (NE), a body responsible for ‘protecting and improving’ England’s natural environment, currently work as two separate organisations, but under proposals listed in Defra’s joint triennial review, could merge to form one body.

The triennial review – part of government’s rolling programme that examines non-departmental delivery bodies every three years – was launched last week (12 December) and will assess the functions the bodies carry out and how they do it to ‘ensure that… [there are] sufficiently strong and resilient delivery bodies to meet our environmental ambitions’.

Proposals listed in the review include either keeping both agencies separate and introducing budget cuts to improve service, or merging the two agencies together to form a single body responsible for environmental affairs.

The suggestion comes after a similar merger in Wales saw the Environment Agency Wales, The Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales, merge to form a single body, now known as Natural Resources Wales (or Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru in Welsh.

Beginning operations in April 2013, it is hoped that Natural Resources Wales will deliver ‘better outcomes to environmental protection’, save a maximum of £158 million over 10 years by removing duplication between services and improve the level of service offered to the customer by having a single devolved Welsh body.

A discussion paper calling on those with an ‘interest’ in the EA and NE has now been released by Defra in order to gauge stakeholder responses to the proposed merger.

Stakeholders have reportedly been ‘informally’ involved in the preparation of the review since July.

‘Fresh look at what these bodies do’

Owen PatersonSpeaking about the review proposals, Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson said: “The Environment Agency and Natural England are both vital in helping to achieve our vision of a healthy environment and a healthy economy. Improving our environment for future generations is one of the great challenges we face as a society and we are committed to the highest levels of environmental protection. 

“This review gives us the chance to take a fresh look at what these bodies do and how they do it in working towards this aim.  

“I want to capture the ideas of the people and groups who do so much for our environment about changes that would lead to better results for the environment, economic growth and for people right across England.”

In the foreword to the discussion paper, Paterson goes on to outline that the review ‘must ensure that our public bodies offer the best value for money for the taxpayer, support economically and environmentally sustainable growth and deliver the right outcomes for businesses, customers and the public’.

However, there have been concerns voiced that merging the two bodies will lead to oversights and over-stretch already thin resources.

Mary Creagh, Shadow Environment Secretary, warned: “Merging the Environment Agency with Natural England, when both are sacking large numbers of staff to deliver government cuts, will leave strategic weaknesses in our environmental management, as ash dieback has shown. Whether it is planning reforms, or cuts to flood defences and National Parks, this weak and incompetent Tory-led government has failed every environmental test.”

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscapes at The Wildlife Trusts, added: "There is a huge risk that if you do collide those organisations together at this point you lose good staff and expertise, you slow things down and you look inwards rather than outwards.

“Millions of people across country want the protection and restoration of wildlife. They do not want the continual demise and erosion of natural assets.”

Preliminary conclusions of the review, assessed by a group chaired by Dame Deirdre Hutton, Chair of the Civil Aviation Authority, will be published in the spring.

The deadline for submission of views and supporting evidence is 4 February 2013.

Read more about the triennial review of the Environment Agency and Natural England.