Toggle high contrast

Public Bodies & Sustainable Development: An Overview

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date

TUC Briefing

Public Bodies & Sustainable Development: An Overview

June 2011


This briefing aims to provide an overview of the implications of the Public Bodies Bill and the cutbacks in public funding for a range of public bodies arising from the Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010. We examine the on-the-ground impacts and consequences for good environmental stewardship and sustainable development in the UK. It will present a preliminary analysis of how the Bill and spending cuts will impact the organisations and activities concerned in terms of functionality, organisational structure, and workforce. The government has already announced a 24% cut in the NDPBs concerned, or £130m over the period 2011-2014: details are tabled in Section 3, below.

However, these statistics tell us little about how the funding shortfall will play out at the operational level - how many jobs are to be lost and from where; which research programs are to be cut; how management functions are to be reorganised or streamlined; and so on. This briefing will attempt to answer at least some of these questions:

Loss of expertise: Not only are the NDPBs losing a large percentage of their workforce, but also a disproportionate amount of knowledge, experience and practical competence.

Research & Analysis: The loss of the independent research functions in many of the bodies considered here has weakened their role in informing and developing public policy on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Loss of front line services: The bulk of the redundancies are being made on the administrative side, with the stated goal of streamlining 'back office' functions without losing too many 'front line' employees. However, those we have interviewed argue that this is a spurious distinction.

Short Term vs. Long Term Costs: Far from being a prudent exercise in economising inefficient or unnecessary services with an eye to long-term fiscal savings, many of the cuts will almost inevitably end up costing the government significantly more than they save.

Organisational confusion: The fact that two of the public bodies under review (Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission) are internally divided into different sections for each of the devolved administrations - England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland - adds further complications.

Independent oversight: Many of the public bodies we review provide some form of advisory or monitoring function. In particular, disbanding the Sustainable Development Commission means losing its independent watchdog function over Government policy as a whole, and its energy usage. This oversight role seems unlikely to be replaced.

Taken together, the cutbacks outlined in the CSR2010 and the Public Bodies Bill will have impacts on all environmental protection and sustainable development work undertaken in the UK, across both the public and private sectors, from pollution, waste management and recycling through to nature conservation, climate change adaption, and biodiversity.

This review reaches much the same conclusion as Jonathan Porritt in his report for Friends of the Earth:

'It is, I'm afraid, unavoidably depressing to see just how rapidly things have gone backwards since May 2010. Instead of having a really strong story to tell at the Rio + 20 Conference in a year's time, having built up an internationally-recognised framework for sustainable development in the 10 years running up to last year's General Election, our contribution in Rio - as things stand at the moment - will be humiliatingly insubstantial.'

'The Greenest Government Ever': One Year On, A Report to Friends of the Earth, May 2011.

Section 1: Introduction

On the 29th October 2010, the Government announced the Public Bodies Bill, part of a twin track strategy of spending cuts and reforms to non-departmental public bodies - the so-called bonfire of the quangos.

The Public Bodies Bill comprises a package of proposals to abolish, merge, privatise or dramatically restructure a large number of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), or 'quangos'. According to the Cabinet Office, the public bodies reform programme is designed to enable the 'substantial reform (of) hundreds of public bodies as part of the Government's commitment to radically increase the transparency and accountability of all public services and enable the Government to operate in a more efficient way.' The Bill is currently in the House of Commons, with the second reading likely in June 2011.

Many of the affected NDPBs function in, or are connected to, sustainable development and the environmental sector (the so-called 'Green Quangos'; see below), so it is clear that the Government intends to drastically streamline its commitment to and responsibilities in these areas. The TUC believes that the PBB is intended to transform the arms-length bodies into, effectively, Departmental bodies, under close ministerial supervision and budgetary control, with significantly reduced capacity, independence and oversight capability.

At the same time as making radical cuts in public spending, Government is attempting to shed itself of the limited watchdog oversight it felt constrained by in the past, by amalgamating watchdogs into the delivery architecture of government.

The Public Bodies Bill is being introduced alongside a wider public bodies reform programme, led by the Cabinet Office. This aims to reduce dramatically the number of non-departmental bodies and other public bodies. Some require need legislative changes to allow the reforms to take place, hence the Public Bodies Bill is necessary for the government to do this as speedily as they wish to.

In addition to the changes announced in the Public Bodies Bill, the current Government has also dramatically cut funding to several organisations outside the scope of the Bill, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review 2010 (CSR2010). The Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Protection have been abolished, while the Energy Saving Trust, Carbon Trust, the Zero Carbon Hub, and other organisations have had their budgets substantially reduced. Cuts such as these suggest that the Government's commitment to environmental issues has waned considerably.

In producing this brief, we interviewed a large number of union representatives employed in the NDPBs and other organisations involved (including PCS, Prospect, Unite, and the GMB), spoke directly to employees to senior level at the NDPBs themselves, took advice from former advisors to these organisations, and drew upon publicly available documentation.

Section 2: Structure of the Bill[1]

Schedule 1:

Power to abolish and transfer functions of abolished body to an "eligible person" (this may be a minister, other person exercising public functions, a company limited by guarantee, a community interest company or a body of trustees or other incorporated body of persons)

Affected 'Green' Public Bodies:

Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances

Advisory Committee on Pesticides

Advisory Committee on Pesticides for Northern Ireland

Agricultural Dwelling-House Advisory Committees for areas in England.

Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales.

Agricultural Wages Committees for areas in England.

Commission for Rural Communities.

Committee on Agricultural Valuation

Environment Protection Advisory Committees

Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee

Plant Varieties and Seeds Tribunal

Regional and local fisheries advisory committees established under section 13 of the Environment Act 1995

Both the RCEP & the SDC were abolished separately, and do not fall within the remit of the Public Bodies Bill

Schedule 2:

Power to merge - i.e. (i) to abolish all the bodies or offices in the group, create a new body corporate or office and transfer some or all of the functions of the abolished bodies or offices to that new one; or (ii) to abolish all but one of the bodies or offices in the group and to transfer some or all of the functions of the abolished bodies or offices to the remaining one. This power also allows the transfer of functions from an abolished office or body to an eligible person (see above). See also Schedule 5.

  • Powers to merge the CCW, Forestry Commission and Environment Agency are included in the section of the Bill on 'Powers of Welsh Ministers' and Schedule 13 - Powers relating to environmental bodies. This is the basis of union concerns. We would also argue that it is wrong to devolve powers to Welsh Ministers for bodies such as the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission that have a UK-wide remit.

Schedule 3:

Power to modify constitutional arrangements - to change such aspects of the body as: name; chairperson; members or employees of the body, governing procedures and arrangements; and the extent to which the body is accountable to ministers.

National Park authorities

Internal drainage boards for areas lying wholly or mainly in England

Joint Nature Conservation Committee

Schedule 4:

Power to modify funding arrangements - includes modifying the extent to which a body is funded by a minister and conferring power on the body / office-holder to charge fees for the exercise of a function (and to determine their amount).

Natural England

Marine Management Organisation

Inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State under section 86 of the Water Industry Act 1991.

Schedule 5:

Power to modify or transfer functions of a body or the holder of an office - includes conferring a function on the person; abolishing a function of the person; changing the purpose or objective for which the person exercises a function and changing the conditions under which a person exercises a function. This power also allows transfer of a function to an "eligible person" (see above)

Environment Agency

British Waterways Board

Internal drainage boards for areas lying wholly or mainly in England

Schedule 6 & 7:

Both Schedule 6 (power to authorize delegation) and Schedule 7 (bodies subject to power to add to other Schedules) were voluntarily removed from the Bill by the government after the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution questioned the constitutional legality of ministers unilaterally appropriating such extensive legislative powers to themselves.

Section 3: Overview of the Changes

The most obvious problem currently facing the vast majority of the green NDPB's in question is the issue of funding. Under CSR2010, funding for public bodies as a whole is to be cut by an average of 24.1%. Individual bodies under threat of major funding cutbacks are listed here, along with the likely impact on the workforce where data is available. More detailed analysis of the changes can be found in Section 4. The table below gives a quick overview of the scale of the cuts via a representative sample. These ten organisations alone, all administered by Defra, face a combined budget shortfall of some £130m, with a total of perhaps 4000 jobs to be cut.


DEFRA spend 2010-11 (£m)

DEFRA spend 2014-15 (£m)

% change, 2010-14

Jobs lost

British Waterways





Environment Agency (EP spend)





Forestry Commission





Joint Nature Conservation Committee





Marine Management Organisation





Public Forest Estate Company





National Parks and Broads Authorities





Natural England










Waste Resources Action Programme










total workforce reduction





3.1: Defra-Administered NDPBs

Environment Agency

Funding: overall budget cut of 15-25%

Capital spending on flood defence down 27% from £354m to £259m

Spending on environmental protection down 23% from £113m to £88m

Workforce: some 2000 posts have already been cut from a peak total of 11,000-11,500 in 2010, and more redundancies 'very likely'.

Forestry Commission

Funding: the funding picture for the FC is complicated by its devolved national structure.

FCGB & FC England- down from £44.8m to £33.4m, a 25% cut

FC Scotland- 11% cut

FC Wales- 7% cut

Workforce: 450 jobs cut: approximately one in seven employees. through a voluntary redundancy scheme.

Joint Nature Conservation Committee

Funding: down from £4.7m to £3.6m - a 25% budget cut but likely to be offset by emergency grants to meet marine environmental targets in order to avoid EU fines

Thus, no immediate headcount reduction

Marine Management Organisation

Funding: down from £30.9m to £24.4m, a 21% cut

Workforce: 16 employees taking voluntary redundancy but likely to be replaced by new recruitment; overall headcount to remain unaffected

Natural England

Funding: down from £197.1m to £155.1m, a 33% cut over 3yrs

Workforce: current workforce stands at 2500, planned reduction of at least 800 roles over 3 years

330 employees have already taken voluntary redundancy under early-exit scheme began in January

55 employees currently at risk of compulsory redundancy

Royal Botanical Gardens Kew

Funding: down from £24.6m to £17.3m, a 30% cut

Workforce: To date Kew has managed to avoid redundancies, mainly through holding open vacancies (60 reported by the Director recently, which is approaching 10% reduction in headcount - although fluctuating staff population makes exact estimates difficult). A voluntary retirement scheme has not been ruled out.

3.2: Non-Defra 'Green' public bodies and initiatives

CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme

Funding: down from £5.5m to £400k, a 93% cut

Workforce: 85 roles lost, with 41 redundancies, 15 employees reabsorbed into Defra central rural policy department and the rest transferred

Sustainable Development Commission

Funding: down from £4m to nothing, a 100% cut

Workforce: 2 staff temporarily seconded to the EAC, other 55 employees made redundant.

Royal Commission on Environmental Protection

Funding worth £950k p.a. withdrawn under CSR, abolished

Full-time secretariat of 5 reabsorbed into Defra

Energy Saving Trust

60% of total funding provided by Department of Energy & Climate Change

DECC spend to be halved in 2011-12, from £33m to £16.5m.

Likely to lose one-third of its 300-strong workforce

Carbon Trust

Government funding reduced from £95m to £50m for 2011-12, a cut of around 40%.

Anticipates 35 redundancies from its current headcount of 216 staff

Industrial Energy Efficiency Accelerator to be axed

Wound up investment in algal biofuels for use in commercial transport

Has cancelled a further 10 research projects, with 10 others under review (refused to disclose details due to private sector confidentiality)

Zero Carbon Hub

46% of total funding provided by Department for Communities and Local Government

Entire DCLG grant cut, = £600k

Expects to find enough extra private sector funding to secure jobs until March 2012.

Section 4: On-the-Ground Impact

As Section 3 makes clear, the size and severity of the cutbacks is considerable. This section presents a more detailed cross-section of the effects of the cutbacks, based on interviews and correspondence with employees and union representatives (PCS, Prospect, Unite) of the NDPB's concerned. The projections outlined here are necessarily tentative; however, they indicate how the changes in their funding arrangements are affecting NDPBs, both in terms of impact on staff and the services they provide to the public in the name of good environmental stewardship.

Natural England

NE is currently undergoing a 'complete restructuring' program, with its previous regional structure abolished and replaced by a centralized administrative core. As a result, programs which were primarily run on a regional basis, such as outreach work with specific urban communities, have been heavily impacted.

Land Management officers now predict that, due to the centralization of core functions, they will be unable to engage as closely with local communities and landowners as in the past, and risk becoming alienated from local views and issues. As most of the redundancies are being made from 'back office' administrative support staff, it is likely that the resulting burden of paperwork will fall largely on Land Management teams themselves, meaning officers will have less time to devote to their core functions.

In addition, the future of NE's stewardship of the National Nature Reserves is plagued with uncertainties. Some reserves are owned and managed by NE, some are already owned and managed by third parties / third sector and some are owned by NE but managed by third parties. Ministers have agreed to maintain the status quo and have told NE to cease plans to outsource any further ownership / management of NNRs. However unions remain concerned that the sale of National Nature Reserves will return to the agenda.

There are currently 224 NNRs in England, with a total area of over 94,400 hectares - approximately 0.6% of the country's land service. The Government originally intended to mutualise the reserves or hand them over to the 3rd Sector. Accordingly, the £200m annual grant that NE received to cover the cost of managing the Reserves was terminated. The mutualisation plan was subsequently abandoned at the same time as the climb-down over the sale of National Forests, and the Reserves will remain the responsibility of NE for the foreseeable future. However, there has been no confirmation that the £200m grant will be reinstated.

Finally, NE's £11.3m 'Walking For Health' program, funded by the Department of Health, is likely to be axed when its current allocation finishes in November. A pilot scheme designed to encourage healthier lifestyles through outdoor activities and walking tours, Walking For Health could save significant sums on health spending in the future. Preliminary figures from a cost-benefit analysis undertaken by the University of East Anglia suggest that, even in its trial phase, the program has already delivered savings to the health service totalling some £81.1m - a cost-benefit ratio of 1:7. The UAE concludes that '...where people have good perceived and/or actual access to green space they are 24% more likely to be physically active. If this effect was universal, it is estimated that the life-cost averted to the health service could be in the order of £2.1 billion per annum.' This is perhaps the most dramatic example of how a short-sighted attitude to cutbacks at any cost could end up costing the Government billions in the future.

Environment Agency

As one of the largest NDPBs under review, the funding picture for the EA is complicated by the fact that its Defra allocation is divided by function. Spending on environmental protection is due to fall from £113m to £88m by 2015, with an overall reduction on the revenue side of some 25%. According to EA employees, areas which are largely funded by grants - such as water supply regulation, fishery management, and discharge monitoring - are likely to be hardest hit by the cutbacks.

Flood defence is funded separately, and is due to fall some 27% from £354m to £259m over the next four years. Such a massive reduction in capital spending on flood defences seems short-sighted, if not myopic, given the recurrence of serious flooding in UK over the last ten years. Indeed, a recently published study on the impact of climate change on flood risk concluded that 'twentieth-century anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions substantially increase the risk of flood occurrence in England and Wales'. The 2007 floods alone cost the UK at least £3.2 billion, and lead to the then Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Baroness Young, to call for capital spending on flood defences to be increased to at least £1bn per annum. The present government's plans to reduce outlays on will drastically reduce the durability and effectiveness of current flood defence infrastructure (which is already insufficient) and can only amplify the damage of any future flooding.

From a 2010 peak of 11,500 employees, the EA is projected to shrink considerably. At the time of writing, there had already been a net loss of some 2000 posts, with the majority of redundancies managed under a voluntary early retirement scheme. The agency's environment and business directorate has already shed 30% of its employees, with similar cuts being made in the science and communication departments. However, those interviewed felt certain that more redundancies were certain, with compulsory redundancies becoming much more likely as the Agency contracts further.

Again, the bulk of the redundancies are being made on the administrative side, with the stated goal of streamlining 'back office' functions without losing too many 'front line' employees. However, those we have interviewed argue that this is a spurious distinction: the loss of administrative support will inevitably mean that front line teams will have to devote ever more time to picking up the resulting bureaucratic slack. The 14 regional advisory committees in England have been abolished, and replaced by 'direct stakeholder engagement and partnerships working at a more local level'. However, abolishing specifically regional committees and centralising operations is likely to result in less direct contact between EA employees and local stakeholders, not more.

Furthermore, Defra has warned the EA in no uncertain terms to 'stop policymaking and lobbying activities', effectively banning the Agency from publicly criticising or campaigning against government policy. For a body that has a statutory duty to advise on policy decisions and oversee implementation, Defra's gag order raises serious concerns over the provision of adequate environmental oversight.

Finally, the Wales region of the EA is likely to be hived off to an independent Welsh body currently being consulted on by the Welsh Assembly. This new Welsh body would also incorporate the Countryside Council for Wales and the Welsh section of the Forestry Commission. Existing responsibilities for waterway management are to be transferred to a reconstituted British Waterways, which is to be re-established as a private charity not under state control. Suspicions that the EA is to be merged with the Forestry Commission, either partially or fully, were also raised by those we spoke to.

Powers to merge the Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and CWW are included in the section of the Bill on 'Powers of Welsh Ministers' and Schedule 13 (powers relating to environmental bodies). This is the basis of union concerns. The TUC believes that it is wrong to devolve powers to Welsh Ministers for bodies such as the environment Agency and Forestry Commission that have a UK-wide remit.

Sustainable Development Commission

The termination of the SDC as of 31st March left some 55 people unemployed, but the eventual impact of the loss of this key SD watchdog remains to be seen. Its closure raises some difficult questions, not least why the Government chose to shut down an organization that was saving it money. It has been estimated that the value of the benefits from better management of carbon, energy, travel, waste and water in government departments for the year 2008-09 saved the government between £60-66 million per annum, while the SDC itself cost just £4 million - a saving of at least £15 for every pound invested. At a time when departments are faced with significant cutbacks, these savings are indispensable.

Even more troubling, however, is the loss of the unique cross-government oversight at the national level that the SDC provided, monitoring the formation and implementation of SD plans at every stage and providing detailed statistical breakdowns of departmental emissions and energy efficiency. At present, it is not clear how this oversight function is to be continued.

The Government argues that such oversight is no longer necessary, for two reasons. Firstly, it claims that departments have integrated SD best practice into their day-to-day operations. As Environment Secretary Caroline Spellman put it, 'most of the things that [the SDC] did are now part of what the Government does as a matter of course, others are now no longer necessary'.

However, the actual integration of SD best practice into departmental policy is patchy at best, and completely non-existent in some cases. The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee raised this issue in January 2011:

[The SDC's] disappearance will leave gaps in a number of processes, including reporting on Government sustainable operations and monitoring departmental action plans. However, the tools and mechanisms they have developed have not been enough in themselves to embed sustainable development fully into Government policy making.

Furthermore, Defra does not have the power or authority within Whitehall to enforce even the minimal mechanisms that do currently exist. As Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, has said, 'Defra has the expertise, but it does not have the influence to get the rest of Government to act more sustainably.'

SD is effectively run on an opt-in basis within Whitehall; as Andrew Lee, former CEO of the SDC explained: 'departments who want to do [SD] do it, some very successfully, and others are allowed to get away with not doing it.' DEFRA will monitor Departmental Business Plans, but there are currently no requirements that Departments develop their business plans with an eye towards sustainability. Indeed, the Department of Justice's current Business Plan fails to mention SD at all. Effectively, SD commitments no longer stand. Tory MP and EAC member Zac Goldsmith provided a damning assessment: 'it seems to me that, without the SDC, there isn't really any pressure at all [to pursue the sustainability agenda]'.

Furthermore, there is no codified sustainable development duty that covers every part of the public sector or extends across every layer of government. Some sustainability mechanisms exist at a regional level, but the Government's 'Big Society' proposals will delegate responsibility for SD to local authorities, where concrete imperatives for acting in a sustainable manner do not currently exist; the Localism Bill mentions sustainable development only twice. As Peter Roderick, barrister and co-director of the Climate Justice Programme, put it:

the UK's sustainable development strategy has been internationally acclaimed, but the legal approach has not been embedded systematically or institutionally, so that there is no unifying or framing statutory duty across government to achieve sustainable development.

Secondly, the government has also suggested that the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee can perform the role of carbon auditor & oversight watchdog more efficiently than the SDC. To this end, two ex-SDC employees from the audit side have been temporarily seconded to the EAC to help out with the transition. However, this is only two people, compared to the 7 that the SDC considered the 'bare minimum' required to run an effective environmental audit scheme. Furthermore, the EAC has openly stated that it does not want the job of enforcing SD objectives within government, and recommended in January 2011 that to ensure minimal compliance, a Cabinet-level position needs to be created with support from the Treasury. No plans to implement such a step have been announced.

Not only has the EAC itself made it clear that it alone cannot provide satisfactory oversight, but even if the EAC were willing there remain significant constitutional problems over its independence. Under current proposals, it seems that the job of ensuring the government delivers on its promise to place sustainable development at the heart of all it does will fall to MPs themselves. Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of sustainability communications consultancy Futerra, says that independent scrutiny is lacking. "If we know one thing about the public at the moment, it is that trust is very low in government, in its delivery. While the EAC does good work it will not be seen by the public as independent."

The cessation of the SDC also removes an important centre of independent research into sustainable development and government policy, responsible in the past for major studies in such diverse fields as food security, nuclear energy, education, and tidal power. The SDC was a hub of non-partisan analysis and commentary, unafraid to draw potentially contentious conclusions. Indeed, some of those spoken to during this research suggested that one of the chief reasons the SDC had been abolished was because it was felt to be insufficiently obsequious.

Forestry Commission

Tim Rollinson, Director General of the Forestry Commission, stated in a letter to the Forestry Commission Trade Unions on the 24th March:

In terms of future delivery, it is extremely doubtful that we will be able to continue to deliver the range and level of service that the public currently enjoy.

Most of the impact of the proposed cutbacks at the Forestry Commission will be felt in the size, composition and organization of the workforce. As one union interviewee commented, 'there does not seem to have been any effort to make savings outside of simply reducing staff numbers'. On 23 May, it was announced that one in four Forestry Commission jobs will be cut. Unions criticised the Forestry Commission management for carrying out draconian cuts some months ahead of the independent forestry panel's interim report, due in August 2011, and 11 months ahead of its final report.

The workforce would therefore shrink by at least 25%, with a voluntary early exit scheme heavily front-loaded so that most of the 450 volunteers would leave over the next 12 months. Those employees with the most experience, such as senior forestry workers, are the most likely to leave under the early exit scheme, as they have larger pension entitlements than those who have only recently joined the FC. As such, the voluntary redundancy scheme risks seriously distorting the organizational hierarchy of the Commission, with a significant experience vacuum opening up at the higher levels.

In response to public concerns, the Government has established an Independent Panel on Forestry Policy in England, tasked with advising the Environment secretary 'on the future direction of forestry and woodland management'. Whilst welcoming this review, the TUC is concerned that the Government is proceeding with dramatic budget cutbacks and further forest sales without waiting for the Panel to finish its consultation and deliver its report, not due until Spring 2012. Given that the Panel has not clarified the objectives of forestry deregulation, the FC has been obliged to operate in the dark. Without any clear information over what functionality is to be expected of it in the future, it has struggled to decide which jobs should be cut.

The proposals to cut the Forestry Commission would result in a significant reorganisation of the existing structure of management at FC. Regional management teams would shrink considerably in personnel numbers, but the size of the area each team is responsible for has grown dramatically. Again, the administrative side has been targeted and 'back office' functions centralized, with local officers reorganised into a few central hubs. This combination will result in a much greater workload for front line managers, increased travel time, and the erosion of local contacts and intraregional expertise. The downsizing and relocation of administrative teams inevitably means more paperwork for forest workers, who are expected to shoulder an increasing share of the burden of paperwork and organization. This, in turn, limits the time they can spend on core functions such as combating insect outbreaks or tree disease - the work they were trained to do.

Forest Research

Forest Research is facing a similar reduction in front line teams. Furthermore, the decision over final budget cutbacks for Forest Research was taken by the government without apparently consulting the review panel.

Many at FR fear that research programs such as the Carbon Capture research unit at Alice Holt Research Station could be axed entirely, as such research (into sustainable, carbon neutral fuels) is not technically a statutory responsibility of the FC. Overall, FR faces a budget cut of 25% in nominal terms over the Spending Review period, with income due to fall in cash terms from £10,128,000 in 2010/11 to £7,776,000 by 2015/16.

As a consequence, staff numbers will fall by at least 25%, and research programmes will be drastically curtailed and, in many cases, discontinued altogether. There will be a 50% cut in the already small budget for library services and a 60% reduction in research into sustainable management and benefits to society. As Prospect has argued, in representation to Defra, 'it is not clear how in these circumstances Forest Research functions in England, Scotland and Wales would continue to operate to provide a GB-wide service.' Forest Research is a body of significant international reputation, and is widely recognised as a centre of excellence in the field of arboriculture and dendrology. Any cutbacks will inevitably damage not only FR's international standing, but also the reputation of the UK as a whole as a centre of responsible sustainable development policy.

Sale of Land

The potential sale or disposal of Forestry Commission land remains a worrying issue, despite the government's climb-down in February. Although it has for now renounced its plans for a mass privatisation of English woodland, the Government has asserted its intention to sell 15% of Public Forest Estate assets and asserted that it has the right to do so (on a very dubious and opaque premises).

The government has now stated that it will not sell this land until after the independent panel has considered the issue and come up with criteria for such sales. However it has also stated that it does still intend to do so over the spending review period. Many of the FC employees spoken to felt that such a 'stealth sale' was not only probable, but almost inevitable although the public awareness of this will mean that it will not be easy to do it without people noticing and protesting.

The sales would, by the Government's own admission, lead in any case to costs that equal or exceed the income from the sale. The FC would be required to issue large grants to the new private owners to help subsidise the costs of management, encourage best practice and ensure compliance with minimal standards. Such grants are likely to end up costing the Government almost as much as the returns from the sale, completely eroding any short-term economic benefit while simultaneously diminishing the asset base. For example, in 2010 the FC sold an area of woodland for £60,000, whereupon the new landowner applied for funds under the English Woodland Grant Scheme to grow and cut timber and was given assistance totalling £55,000.

A further issue is the future potential income from carbon sequestration. Forests capture carbon; if the carbon quota rules were changed to allow this to count towards companies' quotas, then the value of the capture could be traded and would far exceed the value of the timber and tourism income combined. Hypothetically, an investor could buy the forest, turn the carbon income into derivatives and make a killing without ever leaving the City. A further opportunity that would be traded away if the forests are sold is the use of the land for hydro and wind-based renewable energy programmes. There are concerns within the FC that the Government will end up subsidising companies to install renewable energy projects on land it used to own itself.

Finally, the proposed sale of the Public Forest Estate would hamper FR's ability to carry out effective fieldwork. The track record of private owners allowing research on their land is, according to one FR source, 'abysmal'. As research cannot take place without a large body of forest to work in, any diminution of the size of the forestry estate would result in a corresponding drop in the quality of research possible.

Supporting Local Business

Managed land under the care of the Forestry Commission is not simply woodland waiting to be turned into timber; it is also supports a diverse range of local enterprise other than logging. The data on the size and distribution of forest-dependent business is quite sparse and somewhat anecdotal, especially for England. During the closure of National Forests for the duration of the Foot & Mouth crisis of 2001, the Forest of Dean found that their £1m timber business was actually supporting a £4m tourism business that was severely affected. The economic role that the forests play is especially crucial given that forests are often situated in rural areas where the local economy is fragile. Further potential can be illustrated by taking Kielder forest in Northumberland as a case study.

A recent study by Bowles Green Ltd, 2010, found that wildlife tourism in the Kielder forest & water park was worth about £450,000 every year, with the potential to double this through public investment in wildlife management and visitor facilities in the near future. About 3.5 million visitors, including 400,000 overnight tourists, include nature study as an activity in tourism visits to the Northeast. As such, the park generates activity that supports about 250 accommodation businesses, thus contributing to the overall sustainability of restaurants and shops throughout the area. Extrapolating from the Parliamentary Committee's figures, it can be estimated that between 1000 and 1200 businesses in the Northeast are dependent to a large extent on tourism and sporting activities generated by forest parks, all in a rural area of relative economic deprivation. This economic activity is made possible through the toilets, car parks, path and bridleways, and other recreational infrastructure provided and maintained by the FC.

One of the key sectors sustained by the forests is mountain biking. Data is limited but in Scotland, mountain biking on FC land was worth around £20m in 2003/4. An estimate based on activity at Glentress in Scotland indicates an annual economic value for mountain biking of around £7 - £10m at Kielder. This is based on 750,000 - 1,000,000 visitors each producing a consumer surplus of around £85. There are 12 mountain biking centres in FC forests in England, made possible by infrastructure & investment from the FC and Defra (for example, a £300,000 investment was undertaken by Defra in 2007 for the construction of a mountain biking centre at Kielder). One FC employee estimated that these centres generate upwards of £20m a year - all for businesses outside the forestry sector - and support perhaps 3000 rural businesses.

It is doubtful that private landowners would make the kind of start-up investments required to establish the facilities for mountain biking, water sports, climbing and other outdoor pursuits. Most commercial owners are not only completely unwilling to invest in recreational infrastructure of this kind, but are also loath to even allow access for people wishing to use the forests for recreation. An unpublished 2010 study for the Timber Growers Association reveals that access in private woodlands is almost always restricted to linear rights of way with no access to the wider woodland and very little permissive (not legally enforceable) access. Nor are the rights of way maintained to anything more than the absolutely minimum legal requirement - no car parks, disabled access, school visits or surfaced paths. Only 22% of private forest owners provide public car parks, and only 7% provide toilet facilities. Over half of the commercially managed forests in England do not provide any public access at all. The Government maintains that private owners are perfectly capable of providing recreational access and facilities, but their view is not borne out by the statistics.

The sale of FC managed land to private owners would clearly have a deleterious effect on the viability of local forest-based businesses, as the track record of commercial managers in allowing access and maintaining infrastructure is extremely poor. However, even those forests remaining in FC hands are likely to suffer under the terms of the CSR and PB Bill. The provision of such facilities is not a statutory duty of the Commission, and as the FC contracts and concentrates on core functions, recreational infrastructure will fall by the wayside. The effect on local businesses is likely to be significant.

Royal Commission on Environmental Protection

The RCEP has been completely abolished, putting an end to 40 years of widely respected research and analysis. The RCEP was a small organisation, but, as the ENDS Report noted, 'it played a critical role in developing British - and even European - environmental policy, publishing a series of landmark reports on climate change, pollution and other issues.' Being created by Royal Warrant rather than Parliamentary statute, the RCEP is not covered by the Public Bodies Bill; instead the Queen issued a new Warrant to give effect to the abolition.

At the time of its dissolution, the RCEP was considering a number of possible directions for future research: a study of the sustainable use of phosphate, starting with the fact that almost half of the rivers in England and Wales do not meet minimum standards; research into the environmental impact of pharmaceutical products; and a detailed assessment of the various types of low carbon energy generation (nuclear, biomass, renewables) on the environment. The loss of the RCEP means a further loss of independent, world-class environmental research and policy analysis in the UK.


RBG Kew is an internationally important botanical research and education institution, hosting one of the largest herbariums in the world, the Millennium Seed Bank Project, and over 650 scientists and other specialist staff dedicated to botanical research in areas as diverse as DNA barcoding, sustainable agriculture, and ecological restoration. Until the CSR, Defra provided approximately 50% of Kew's funding, with the rest coming from self-generated revenue from commercial activity, research grants, donations etc. In 2010 Kew underwent an independent review, which recommended increased Defra funding.

However, in June 2010 the new Government gave Kew an in-year cut of about £900K, or roughly 5%. The reported 'baseline' figure in the Arms Length Bodies SR10 allocations document includes this reduction, thus concealing the true extent of the cuts in the CSR. With the original 5% cut factored in, Kew is in fact facing a funding reduction of 33.5%, not the 30% announced by the government.

To date Kew has managed to avoid redundancies, mainly through holding open vacancies (60 vacancies are currently reported, approaching a 10% reduction in headcount). Only 30 of these vacancies are to be filled, with priority to be given to revenue-generating roles. A voluntary early retirement scheme has not been ruled out to help manage the projected continued decline in funding, but Kew Management are committed to avoiding compulsory redundancies if at all possible. Immediate reduction in overall staffing through natural wastage is anticipated, with a corresponding increase in pressure on those that remain to maintain existing commitments.

The decline in public funding will necessarily lead to increased dependence on commercial and other self-generated revenue, causing not only increased risk and unpredictability due to the volatile nature of the market, but also further diversion of staff activity away from the core statutory duties of conservation and bioresearch.

Kew already has optimised its self-generated income after many years of level-funding and has managed to grow and develop its activities successfully, despite the declining year-on-year real-terms support from Government and the increasingly tough charitable and commercial environments. However, there is real concern that it will be a struggle to maintain self-generated revenue at current or past levels, let alone increase it.

We understand from our research that Kew is pinning some of its commercial hopes on increasing its consultancy services and other intellectual property exploitation schemes. There are concerns that these activities will further divert staff from core activity, and that the time scale required to build these services to a level that would bring material benefit will exceed the availability and level of 'seed-corn' non-core funding being applied to establish them.

On the organisational side, there is evident uncertainty for staff in HR, Finance and other Back Office roles, due to the mandated suspension of Kew's own Back Office Project whilst Defra reviews its Shared Services centralisation programme. Another problem has been the significant diversion of management effort away from core activity towards completing Defra demands for information.

In overall terms then, the impact on Kew's activity are predominately an across the board reduction in ability to deliver, rather than, for now at least, a wholesale cessation of specific projects or services.

Section 5: Cross-Cutting Issues

The cutbacks announced under the CSR and the PB Bill have a wide range of implications, unique to each affected organisation; for example, the massive lay-offs expected at the Environment Agency and Natural England will not be repeated at the JNCC. However, several themes emerged time and again during the research for this project, and it is clear that there are several issues that will affect all or almost all NDPBs, regardless of size or function. These cross-cutting issues are explored here.


Firstly, it is clear that cutbacks are being used by Defra as a tool to reign in arm's length bodies and strengthen central control over daughter organisations who were, perhaps, felt to be too independent. This is most apparent in the demise of the SDC, and indeed Caroline Spellman herself has admitted as much: 'the funding cut for the SDC was based on a decision to remove arms length scrutiny and take more control of the sustainability agenda.'

According to many of those interviewed, Defra has significantly stepped up requests for data and reporting from its NDPBs. At Kew, this has resulted in a significant diversion of management effort away from core activity towards completing Defra demands for information. It seems clear that the NDPBs are to be afforded far less independence in the future. Indeed, as Mike Penning, Under Secretary of State at the Department of Transport commented to the Public Administration Select Committee, 'I have several large agencies that under the previous Administration were given huge autonomy; I've reined that autonomy in as hard as I can.' It would appear that a similar process of 'reining-in' is happening at Defra.

This process of centralisation is reflected on a micro-level within the organisations themselves. The reorganisation of management structures necessitated by the funding shortfalls has led to core functions and decision-making responsibility clustering in central offices rather than distributed at the local level. Natural England and the Forestry Commission in particular have both seen an extensive centralisation of 'back-office' administration, with pared-down management teams becoming responsible for ever-larger geographical areas.

This twin process of centralisation - Defra tightening the leash on NDPBs who in turn are centralising their own regional structures - will inevitably lead to a reduction in the amount of local contact and on-the-ground expertise that the bodies will be able to deploy. This is especially troubling for large land-holding bodies such as the FC and NE, where a personal relationship with landowners, members of the public and local business is especially vital. Many of the employees spoken to were worried by the potential loss of front-line services that such centralisation would inexorably entail.

This Defra-led centralisation seems counterproductive, given that the Gov says it wants a greater focus on 'empowering local communities' and putting greater responsibility on local authorities for tasks that impinge particularly on sustainable development. The forthcoming Decentralisation and Localism Bill will reform the planning system to give local people new powers to shape development in their communities; however, in the absence of the practical expertise and local knowledge once provided by the NDPBs, it is unclear who will be available to guide and assist such communities in executing sound sustainable development policy.

Loss of Expertise

Almost all of the NDPBs spoken to were being forced by budget constraints to shrink the size of their workforce, in some cases to a quite dramatic degree - one in four jobs at the Environment Agency, for example. The vast majority of NDPBs are managing the downsizing via voluntary redundancy schemes. While the aim of avoiding compulsory layoffs is laudable, voluntary redundancy schemes of the type discussed here risk seriously distorting the makeup of the workforce. Employees who have worked at a specific body for longer, gaining higher salaries through promotion and larger pension entitlements, are far more likely to volunteer for redundancy. Therefore, early retirement schemes such as these have a tendency to select for experience and expertise, meaning that the NDPBs are in danger of a serious brain drain. Not only are the NDPBs losing a large percentage of their workforce, but also a disproportionate amount of knowledge, experience and practical competence.

Front Line vs. 'Back Office'

One issue that emerged repeatedly from our conversations with union representatives and public body employees is how job cuts are disproportionally slanted towards so-called 'back-office' functions such as administration. By making the cuts primarily among desk-bound staff, the Government presumably hopes to slash job numbers while still maintaining front line services in the field. However, the implied dichotomy between administration and implementation is a false one. Front line employees such as forestry officers and environmental assessment teams need support staff; without adequate administrative support and operational oversight, they cannot be effective on the ground. A real concern for many of those we spoke to is the devolution of paperwork onto front line staff, who increasingly are being expected to pick up the bureaucratic slack left in the wake of the back office cutbacks. In many cases - especially at the Environment Agency, Forestry Commission, and Natural England - this has significantly increased the pressure on front line teams and reduced the time they can spend on core statutory duties. Simply put, support staff cannot be made redundant without creating a serious knock-on impact upon front-line staff and the provision of core functions. For the government to suggest that they are merely pruning inefficient bureaucracy without damaging front line services is either disingenuous or naïve.

Short Term vs. Long Term Costs

Another major issue is that, far from being a prudent exercise in economising inefficient or unnecessary services with an eye to long-term fiscal savings, many of the cuts will almost inevitably end up costing the government significantly more than they save. This is certainly true with regard to the viability of long-term sustainable development in the UK, where any retardation of the process of decarbonising the economy and moving towards a greener society will only amplify the economic woes experienced down the line - as the secretary-general of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity commented with regard to the UK cutbacks, 'you may well save a few million pounds now but you will lose billions later'.

However, it is also demonstrably true even in the short to medium term that the cutbacks cannot be justified as mere cost-saving measures. There are several key areas in which the government seems to have failed to anticipate significant future costs thanks to a blinkered insistence on short-term savings:

SDC - cost £3m a year and delivered efficiency savings across Whitehall worth some £60-65m, a 1:20 cost-benefit ratio.

Flood Defence - a 27% reduction in capital spending will save taxpayers perhaps £100m, but will drastically reduce the durability and effectiveness of current flood defence infrastructure. By comparison, the 2007 floods alone cost the UK some £3.2 billion. Such catastrophic flooding is only made more likely by reductions in flood defence outlay.

Sale of the Forests -not only will the income generated from the sale of Public Forest Estate land be almost completely eroded by the statutory duty of the FC to provide land management grants to private owners, but the mass privatisation of public land is likely to have a deleterious effect on the strength of local business and the rural economy

Walking for Health (Natural England) - a pilot program that cost £11.3m a year but which could have lead to projected annual savings to the NHS of over £2 billion

Research & Analysis - the loss of the independent research functions in many of the bodies considered here has weakened their role in informing and developing public policy on climate change mitigation and adaptation. It also means that the Government will inevitably have to contract privately for consultation on future policy, likely at a greater cost to the taxpayer.

The Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Administration recognised this in January 2011, when its report on the so-called 'bonfire of the quangos' concluded that

the extent to which quangos reform would yield significant savings has been exaggerated. This created a false expectation that the [public bodies] review would deliver greater savings than it has been able to realise. Consequently, the Government appears unsure about the extent to which the reform will result in significant savings for the taxpayer.

It appears that the primary motivation behind the PB Bill, therefore, cannot be simple cost effectiveness, but is likely to be far more political or ideological in nature - establishing tighter departmental control over arm's length bodies; increasing 'accountability'; reducing the statutory responsibility of the state for protecting the environment; easing the burden of 'bothersome' environmental regulation; and removing obstreperous watchdogs which could potentially constrict the government's freedom of action.

Organisational Confusion

The fact that two of the public bodies under review (EA, FC) are internally divided into different sections for each of the devolved administrations - England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland - adds further complication to an already chaotic picture. The nature of these divisions is extremely inconsistent - some local projects are administered nationally, while some national duties are effectively implemented only at the local level, and vice versa. This leads to such incoherencies as the Environment Agency for Wales supporting many of its Welsh functions out of an office in Edinburgh. It is difficult to gain a clear understanding of the complicated mosaic of interlocking supra- and intra-regional responsibilities of the various national and regional bodies, and the government has made little effort to do so. It is clear that, under the terms of the Public Bodies Bill, numerous cross-regional operations and research projects will be managed in future on a purely local basis, while some regional functions will be centralised in national offices, but the details of how this transition is to be managed have yet to emerge. Loss of capacity, inconsistent policy amongst regions, and/or duplication of function are very real dangers

Oversight Function

The essential role of the SDC in providing a watchdog function over Government policy and energy usage has already been noted. This oversight role seems unlikely to be replaced, as the Government argues it has now moved to a system of integrated inter-departmental reporting that makes external supervision unnecessary. The effectiveness of this approach, however, is questionable. As Andrew Lee, former chairman of the SDC noted,

Even if we move to a point of more integrated reporting... it doesn't bypass the need for somebody to actually look at department' plans and check up how robust they are and whether they're actually fit for purpose. Integrated reporting does not bypass that need. Somebody, somewhere, still needs to cast an eye over these... We don't know what plans Government has in place for the future to check Government policy plans. At the moment there's nothing.

However, it is not only the SDC that provides this essential oversight function. Many of the NDPBs studied in this report have, in the past, performed in an advisory capacity; some have a statutory duty to assist the government in policy development and to supervise implementation. However, the budget cutbacks will severely hamper the ability of the NDPBs to provide such oversight at the local and regional level, for example monitoring emission levels, or controlling the misuse of environmental grant money by local landowners or businesses.

Furthermore, it seems apparent to many that the present Government is ideologically opposed to having any kind of national government oversight in the first place; the PB Bill, with its powers to constitutionally modify the duties and functions of NDPBs, presents the perfect opportunity to strip public bodies of their responsibilities in this arena. As a policy review commissioned by the RSPB has noted, the Government seems keen to reshape the entire purpose of NDPBs:

In this new model, public bodies become part of the delivery architecture of Government, with little role in policy development or monitoring and commenting on performance and are, therefore, to be created or disposed of in that light. In the environmental sphere, it is now unlikely that bodies such as the Environment Agency or Natural England would be commenting robustly on Government performance in protecting the natural environment.

The loss of the oversight function of the SDC seems set to be mirrored across the public bodies landscape as a whole. As over 100 NDPBs have statutory responsibilities relating to the environment, this could potentially be devastating. The EAC has already stated that it is in no position to shoulder the burden of overseeing the emissions and energy usage of Whitehall; it would be nonsensical for the government to suggest that the EAC could also assume the watchdog responsibilities of all the different NDPBs working at a detailed local level. Andrew Lee again: 'Unless there is something clear in place about how the Government intends to measure the progress that the country as a whole is making, which balances economic, environmental and social aspects, we are building on sand.'


Taken together, the cutbacks outlined in the CSR2010 and the Public Bodies Bill will have impacts on all environmental protection and sustainable development work undertaken in the UK, across both the public and private sectors, from pollution, waste management and recycling through to nature conservation, climate change adaption, and biodiversity. The work of the NDPBs addressed in this paper is interrelated and cumulative in nature; reduced capacity in one area will reverberate throughout the sector, causing correlated repercussions across the board. As such, the potential damage of these cutbacks is far more than the mere sum of combined budget reductions.

If the UK is to have any hope of meeting the numerous international targets it is committed to - on habitat and species loss, carbon emissions, recycling and so on - the agencies responsible for these areas need more funding, not less. Failure to meet these goals is not only financially punitive in the short term - it is likely that the UK is to be fined £300m for consistently breaching EU air pollution standards in the first four months of 2011 - but potentially catastrophic in the long term as the effects of anthropogenic climate change continue to intensify.

Climate change is real, and poses a very real threat to the social, economic and security interests of the UK. Cuts to the environmental front line could not come at a worse time; the stakes of climate change are the highest imaginable and urgent action is required. As the UK faces a drastic deterioration of the quality of its environment, it should be strengthening the country's capacity to address and adapt to issues of climate change and ecological degradation, not stepping back from the tentative advances that have been made thus far. The Public Bodies Bill is the clearest evidence yet of this Government's retrenchment from the principles of sustainable development; its ultimate impact is likely to be dire.…

See: House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, 6th Report of Session 2010-11, 'Public Bodies Bill [HL]', at

Pardeep Pall, Tolu Aina, Dáithí A. Stone, Peter A. Stott, Toru Nozawa, Arno G. J. Hilberts, Dag Lohmann & Myles R. Allen: 'Anthropogenic greenhouse gas contribution to flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000', Nature 470, p. 382-385, 17th February 2011

ENDS Report 429, October 2010, p.8

ENDS Report 429, October 2010, p.8

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee: 'Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission', First Report of Session, 2010-11, p. 14…

EAC, 'Embedding Sustainable Development', appendix 1, section Ev 1…

Peter Roderick, 'Taking the Longer View: UK governance options for a finite planet', p 12

House of Commons NE Regional Committee, Tourism in the North East: Third report of session, 2009-10

Gajda, M. S. (2008): UK Mountain Biking Patterns: MSc in Tourism and Hospitality Management

Timber Growers Association Report: 'Survey of Woodland Recreation and Access Provision', 2010 (unpublished)


House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 'Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State', Fifth Report of Session 2010-11, p. 27

quoted in The Guardian, 'The Real Butterfly Effect', 17th August 2010

House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 'Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State', Fifth report of 2010-11 session, January 2011, p. 30

EAC report, 'Embedding sustainable development across Government' (HC 504), 10th Jan 2011

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).

Setup now