GovWire

Operational update: Coronavirus

Natural England

January 26
16:09 2021

How Natural England is working

In common with most organisations dealing with the effects of coronavirus (COVID-19), Natural England is continuing to follow the latest government guidance and taking all steps necessary to protect our staff and help prevent the spread of the virus.

We know that many people across the country rely on our services and even with current restrictions, we expect to continue to provide our full range of services. This includes the advice and guidance we offer, our regulatory work, and helping to maintain the publics access to nature in a safe and responsible way. We continue to monitor the impact of coronavirus on staff capacity, which has been reduced by staff illness and caring responsibilities, especially following school closures.

We are seeing some delivery pressures in some localities and in some business areas, such as advice to planning authorities and developers. We will prioritise critical casework on which customers depend and with significant environmental, economic or social implications, but may not meet our published service standards across all areas, or be able to respond in detail to all consultations. Our teams will do their best to agree revised timelines where possible.

We will continue to assess which of our planned field visits, surveys or regulatory farm visits can take place during this period of national lockdown and wherever possible remote working technology will be employed to help our customers deliver good environmental outcomes on their land. Where necessary enforcement visits will continue to ensure that our protected sites are looked after in an appropriate manner. We will not be holding meetings with partners and stakeholders face to face but will find alternative methods of group communication to continue good working partnerships.

Our National Nature Reserves (NNRs) remain open for visitors, and essential management work and volunteering activity will continue where safe to do so.

While our offices that are currently open will remain so for business-critical work, they continue to have reduced capacity in line with health and safety guidelines. Over the period of national restrictions, most staff will continue to do office-based work from home.

The coronavirus crisis has continued to show us that a thriving and accessible natural environment is vital to the nation. We continue therefore to progress the governments key policy ambitions for the environment, such as the 25 Year Environment Plan, the commitment to move towards net zero and the role of nature in mental and physical health, as well as ensuring that environmental law is maintained through our regulatory activities.

Although we have established effective ways of working within current restrictions the situation continues to develop and we will continue to publish updates on any changes here.

Staff

The majority of our staff continue to work from home but with some working from offices or National Nature Reserve (NNR) work bases where this is essential. We do have systems in place to allow most of our work to be carried out remotely and Natural England staff can be contacted as usual by email and phone (whether home or office based).

Our meetings and engagements with customers and stakeholders will continue via phone, email or video conferencing and work will continue on site as lone workers, or meeting no more than one other person where this is essential. Where a task is essential and can only be carried out by more than one person, we will work to the guidelines for safe working.

Offices

Across the Defra group, most offices are now open but with reduced capacity. No meetings will be taking place in offices during the national lockdown and visitors should not attend offices.

Customer enquiries

Our customer enquiries service (enquiries@naturalengland.org.uk, tel: 0300 060 3900) remains open. We ask you to use the email option in the first instance.

Our regulatory work

SSSI consent, wildlife licensing, the Wildlife Incident Investigation Service, planning and marine consents all continue as a priority so that we can assist all those people, businesses and groups who need consents and permissions from Natural England. Staff are dealing with case work remotely as far as possible, but can visit when it is safe to do so to gather evidence, or ensure our stakeholders can make good decisions for the environment. We continue as before to respond to reports of environmental damage and are carrying out other regulatory visits in line with government guidelines on working outdoors.

Natural England staff working from home are able to receive and respond to consultations/applications electronically. We will always do what we can to respond to normal deadlines, however, while we continue to have some staff unable to work as a result of the coronavirus, there may be situations when we are not always able to do so, and we ask you to bear with us. If necessary, we will prioritise consultation responses and licences where the environmental risks are highest and where health and safety is concerned.

We also appreciate that our customers and stakeholders are facing similar challenges and will work closely with you to understand what the impacts may be on existing or future Natural England consultation responses, statutory advice and licensing decisions.

For advice on managing protected sites or species, such as requests for consent for work on an SSSI, then please contact us as normal by emailing protectedsites@naturalengland.org.uk. We will then advise on next steps, making use of existing data where possible but with visits carried out where essential and safe to do so. Bear in mind, though, that there may be staff unable to work as a result of the coronavirus and so our capacity to respond could be affected.

The rules about protection of the natural environment are, of course, unchanged by the coronavirus outbreak. If there are any concerns about damage that require immediate action to prevent harm, or where serious breaches of the law are reported that merit immediate investigation, then we will make a site visit to inspect and will also take any steps necessary as usual but will ensure social distancing/safe working is observed within current government guidelines. You should report any concerns as usual.

Advice to farmers and land managers

We continue to provide technical advice to our customers and the Rural Payments Agency to facilitate agreement offers and payments to the rural community. Farmers, land managers and farm advisers all have an essential role in ensuring a healthy natural environment, which is key for sustainable farming, and this part of our work has remained a high priority throughout the coronavirus crisis.

However, we have adapted the way we give advice to support farmers, land managers and rural businesses during these unprecedented times. We have developed a range of processes to use technology including remote sensing, digital solutions and virtual meetings, to support Countryside Stewardship agreements.

Our advisers are able to give advice without always needing to visit, in particular where they have worked with the farmer before, by phone or video or using pictures.

Face-to-face visits will continue only where essential, within the constraints of numbers who can meet outside: all visits are individually risk assessed and our staff follow safe working guidelines. However, those land managers who would prefer not to have a face-to-face meeting can contact an adviser and book a phone or video session. We continue to support applicants through direct liaison with the Rural Payments Agency and we are issuing legal consents where appropriate to support management of SSSIs. We can offer technical advice and support on Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) by remote / digital means.

National Nature Reserves

All our National Nature Reserves (NNRs) remain open as much-needed green space which can be used during this period as long as this is in line with the restrictions the government has set out. It is fantastic to know how many people have valued and visited our?NNRs?over the last few months. Do please though follow the government advice, stay local and avoid long journeys to visit?NNRs.

Staff remain on site and essential management and visitor work continues.

Please note that facilities such as hides and visitor centres remain closed, and there are also a small number of car parks still closed:

  • Yarner Wood car park (East Dartmoor NNR) but other car parks are available
  • Bure Marshes NNR nature trail access from boat moorings
  • Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield NNR the manor house car park remains closed but other car parks are available

When visi

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