All this talk about agency restructuring can be a bit ‘niche’ to say the least.  But this is (trust me) vital stuff.  

Yesterday, I made our pitch for the establishment of a new Forest and Wildlife Service to act as an independent champion for wildlife in England and act as the one-stop shop for sustainable land management.

Today, I want to make the case against a merger between Natural England and the Environment Agency.

Before I do, it’s worth remembering why we need agencies. Governments need them because some issues are so complicated, and important, that they require very specialist expertise and focus.   We have, for example, an Office of Budget Responsibility to keep an eye on the economy and we have the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to help ensure we have the best standards in health care.

Broadly speaking, Natural England is needed to protect wildlife and landscapes, while the Environment Agency is needed to protect the public from natural disasters such as flooding and pollution. Both tasks are growing increasingly complicated, and both are considered by the public to be hugely important in their own right.

But these are very different functions which can come into conflict (eg a flood defence scheme which impacts on a protected wildlife site).  A merged agency might mean that it needs to consent its own actions.  As Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, accepted the decoupling of operational functions from regulatory functions by proposing to separate the management of the public forest estate from wider forestry services, so should he respect this principle in the current debate about the future of EA and NE.

In a single body, our great fear is that the EA’s core business of flood defence would inevitably be prioritised over wildlife and landscape protection.  Currently, the Flood Risk and Coastal Erosion Management team has almost 4,500 staff while NE’s biodiversity team has less than 500. If there were a merger between the two organisations, this asymmetry would be reflected in management structure and organisational priorities, with conservation objectives inevitably suffering as a consequence.  What's more, if Defra had to make further cuts in public spending (which sadly looks increasingly likely), my fear would be that cuts would fall disproportionately on those functions which did not relate to flood protection.

And a full merger would lead to more upheaval at a time when the pressures on the natural world appear to be growing (ash die-back and extreme weather events compounding the many problems that the natural world faces).  I am also sceptical about savings that might be found from a merger.  As those involved in the creation of Natural England in 2006 or Natural Resources Wales today will testify, mergers don’t come cheap.  If the driver is to reduce costs then there are initiatives such as sharing back office systems and procurement processes which could realise savings without the disruption that a full merger would bring.

As I have said throughout this process, we will judge any decision on what’s best for the natural environment.  Nature remains in trouble: over 40% of priority species, 30% of priority habitats and 30% of ecosystem services are still declining.  If Mr Paterson decided to create a single body, then this would leave England without a government agency devoted to protecting and enhancing the countryside, for the first time since 1949.   We think this would be the wrong decision and do little to help deliver this government’s stated aim to “protect wildlife and … restore biodiversity”. 

But what do you think?  Are you attracted to the simplicity that a single body would bring, or do you fear that focus on wildlife would be lost?

It would be great to hear your views.