Natural England critised for hindering rural businesses

St Ives MP, Derek Thomas has criticised Natural England’s approach to Sites of Special Scientific Interest in his constituency.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Thomas told MPs that

“My experience is that Natural England fails to engage, convince, and partner with our farmers and landowners. It is my view that the Government’s ambition in this area is at risk because of Natural England.”

He detailed how the West Penwith moors and downs were formally designated a SSSI in July this year, something which did not surprise anyone. However, Mr Thomas said that since then, landowners and farmers in the new SSSI have been hampered by Natural England red tape.

“In October 2022, SSSI notification packs landed on the doormats of landowners and farmers, and, contrary to our expectation, close to 1,000 acres of clean land—pastures, paddocks and land on which crops or even animal feed could be grown—was included. It also became very clear that Natural England’s case relied on scientific evidence that was not much more than desktop studies and old survey data. The risk to the viability of these farms and small holdings by Natural England’s approach was clear for all to see. For example, the notification documents that the landowners received did not include clear evidence or reasons why their clean land had been included.

“From that day forward, the way that Natural England approached the designation to many of these farming businesses came across as high-handed and paid no, or scant, regard to these businesses’ long custodianship of the land. This has caused huge resentment within the farming community and undermined future landscape recovery ambitions”.

Mr Thomas told the House that the lack of research by Natural England is especially galling to landowners and farmers because now “following confirmation of the SSSI, farmers are subject to the same Natural England staff dictating how they operate their farms.”

“That includes its telling farmers to stop milking cows and its imposing an arbitrary reduction in livestock, making some farming businesses unsustainable and impacting the rural economy and food security, while delivering no meaningful benefit to the environment.

“Farmers are already selling their businesses. It also includes refusing consent for the maintenance of utilities such as telegraph poles, and giving only time-limited consent for water abstraction and repair to the infrastructure of boreholes.”

He also said:

“To be clear, the West Penwith moors SSSI was and is welcome; the problem is how Natural England has gone about it by including good farming land that risks the viability of farms without robust evidence of any real harm to the rough land, as we would describe the moorland. My experience from engaging with the Department is that it fully understands the concerns that I have raised; it is Natural England that seems to have ridden roughshod across farmers’ interests and their understanding of how to care for their natural environment. Everything has been determined by how Natural England officers would like it to be done.”

Replying to Mr Thomas, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Trudy Harrison MP, said:

“A five-year plan was agreed to support farmers to transition to a more sustainable farming practice. They farm 70% of our land, and it is due to their management that many of these places are considered special for their beauty and heritage value and their ecological importance.

“To protect 30% of our land and water by 2030, to restore or create 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats, and to increase the tree canopy from 14% to 16.5% are all targets we have published in our EIP. To achieve that we must work with farmers. We want to improve the condition of SSSIs and marine protected areas.

“Through the scientific community, including Natural England, and supported by environmental land management schemes and other initiatives, I am confident we can do that. But no scientific insight in isolation and no Government policies or indeed financial incentives, public or private, can match the thousands of years of built up, deep, ingrained, inherited, unique knowledge and understanding that only lived experience provides. Perhaps it is a nigh-on indigenous knowledge, and that must be respected.”

Read the debate in full here.


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