The government announced today that the Environment Agency and Natural England should be retained as separate public bodies. But with a minister casting doubt on the rollout of the England Coast Path, the future of one of Natural England’s flagship projects looks uncertain.
The decision follows a review launched by secretary of state Owen Paterson in December 2012. Paterson asked the review to consider a merger of the two organisations, but after considering submissions from interested parties including the BMC, “concluded that the functions and capabilities of the two bodies are different and stakeholders value their distinct roles and expertise.”
DEFRA also acknowledged in today’s statement that the costs involved in a merger would outweigh any possible savings and that “complex primary legislation” would be required, eating into valuable parliamentary time.
“I have concluded that the EA and NE should be retained as separate public bodies with separate purposes and functions, but that both bodies should continue to reform how they deliver their services to their customers and drive further efficiencies,” Paterson said.
Both agencies will be required to work more closely, using their “combined resources and processes in innovative ways” to simplify areas like land management and planning. The government has been determined to reduce planning restraints despite public opposition.
Although Natural England has been spared, doubt still remains about the government’s intentions for one of its flagship roles, the rollout of the England Coast Path. At the Royal Cornwall Show earlier this month, according to Farmers Weekly, DEFRA minister Richard Benyon said the government had inherited some legacies that would be extremely expensive to deliver – and any that were not of a high priority were “up for grabs”.
“The Coastal Access Bill was a sledge-hammer to miss a nut,” he said. Benyon's comments are a surprise following his earlier statements about the path. In 2012, when the first section of the England Coast Path opened at Weymouth, he said: "I want to see more people walking in and accessing our countryside."
Dave Turnbull, CEO of the BMC, said the BMC is pressing for the rollout of the England Coast Path to continue. “We’ve been supportive of this project from the start,” he said. Turnbull added that the concept of ‘spreading room’ along the path offers climbers statutory rights of access, as well as walkers – and many other users of the UK’s coast too. “It’s a key piece of infrastructure in boosting tourism and improving the nation’s health.”
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