Government confirms influential environmental campaigner is the front-runner to replace Andrew Sells
Tony Juniper has been selected as the government’s preferred candidate to take up the post of chair of Natural England, the government’s independent advisor for the natural environment in England.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove today confirmed the high profile environmental campaigner and writer had been selected following “a rigorous process which was conducted in accordance with the Ministerial Governance Code on Public Appointments”.
Defra said the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee has now been invited to hold a public pre-appointment hearing and report on Juniper’s suitability for the post, ahead of a final decision on the proposed appointment.
Juniper is one of the UK’s most high profile environmental campaigners. He is currently executive director for advocacy and campaigns at WWF-UK and president of Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, and previously held the post of executive director and vice chair of Friends of the Earth International.
He is also author of the influential book What has Nature Ever Done for Us? and a former advisor to the Prince of Wales – a post that saw him co-author a Ladybird Guide to Climate Change alongside Prince Charles and climate scientist Emily Shuckburgh.
He was recognised for his services to conservation with a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2017.
The government is looking to appoint a new chair for Natural England to replace Andrew Sells, who is set to retire.
The move comes at a challenging time for the agency. It has faced significant budget cuts over the past decade and a series of reports have detailed how staff have been reassigned from the independent body to work on Brexit planning within Defra.
Natural England’s CEO James Cross announced he was stepping down late last year, directly referencing the raid on staff in the statement confirming his departure.
Meanwhile, during a recent hearing with MPs Sells openly questioned the extent to which the agency was still independent from government.
“The difficulty is that all of our money effectively comes from DEFRA,” Sells told MPs. “There is an inherent contradiction there. They want us to deliver their priorities. We say we have 500 statutory duties and responsibilities. We want to deliver those.”
He also suggested the agency was badly over-stretched. “The staff are very hardworking, frankly overworked, underpaid and many of them are stressed and have been through endless re-organisations and uncertainty,” he said, adding that repeated budget cuts had been the “single biggest recurring challenge” under his tenure, with overall budgets for the agency having almost halved over the past 10 years.
The new in-coming chair will join an agency that is widely tipped to have an expanded role as the government leaves the EU and is required to replicate many of the environmental policing and governance structures currently delivered through EU agencies.
The government is working on plans for a new green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, but the precise details of how it will interact with the existing Natural England and Environment Agency bodies is yet to be finalised. Meanwhile, experts have warned that under a ‘no deal’ scenario the new watchdog would not be set up in time, raising the threat of a major governance gap that Natural England and other existing agencies may be required to fill.
The news also comes in the same week as the Natural Capital Committee published its annual report, warning the government was badly off track to meet many of its key environmental targets.