Broken pay system at Natural England poses risks to net zero and biodiversity targets

1 March 2022

A new report by Prospect trade union has found that Natural England’s broken pay system is threatening its ability to attract and retain highly-skilled and committed staff.

Prospect’s members in Natural England provide a vital public service, stewarding England’s natural environment, halting biodiversity decline and playing a crucial role in helping the Government to meet its net zero target.

Natural England’s staff are highly skilled experts committed to leaving the natural world in a better state than it is today. Their role impacts on citizens, industry and agriculture. Despite this important remit, they face the lowest starting salaries in Defra and excessively long pay scales that inhibit pay progression.

Prospect’s report found that:

• Natural England starting salaries are by far the lowest in Defra, and significantly lower than equivalents in the private and charity sectors, to the tune of thousands of pounds.
• Natural England has by far the longest pay scales, but individuals have no hope of progressing through these as a result of a decade of government-imposed pay restraint.
• Natural England salaries have fallen 20% in real terms over the last decade.
• Two-thirds of Natural England’s workforce currently languish below the mid-points in their scales, not even near the target rate for their job, including staff with over 15 years of experience.
• Equal pay has become a problem with widespread cases of men being paid more than women for doing similar jobs – despite promises this has not been resolved.

Natural England has been struggling to fulfil its regulatory duty for some time now due to skills loss driven by low pay and stress. Staffing numbers have stabilised recently, in part due to a concerted recruitment drive which is welcome, but there is a huge skills and experience imbalance. Often senior staff have had to leave, seeking better pay, or have changed teams as the only way to achieve pay progression within the organisation. This has crippled many operational teams, who are unable to retain their most experienced, expert staff or replace them with similarly skilled individuals resulting in a constant net loss of skills even though numbers remain steady. .

This situation is leading to high stress levels amongst staff, demoralised by excessive workloads and poor pay. In Natural England’s recent staff survey, nearly half of staff (47%) reported that they have felt unwell from work-related stress in the last 12 months, impacting on the organisation’s ability to achieve its objectives.

Prospect members are currently taking part in industrial action short of a strike against Natural England over pay and have a mandate to take strike action if necessary.

Garry Graham, Prospect Deputy General Secretary, said:

“Prospect members in Natural England work tirelessly to protect the English countryside from the impact of climate change, from our coastal paths and wetlands to Sites of Special Scientific Interest that are home to rare fauna and flora.

“Over the past two years of pandemic-related lockdowns and outdoor activity, spaces protected by Natural England staff provided a lifeline to millions of people across the country, from the rugged Cornish Lizard Coast to the breath-taking Yorkshire Dales.

“The government has mentioned protecting biodiversity as a key goal in its environmental policy, talking a good game while chairing COP26, but it is failing to back up that talk with genuine action to protect the stewards of our natural environment.

“The vital work of Natural England is being put at risk by a broken pay system that has seen their pay decline by 20% over the past decade. A proper pay rise is long overdue but on its own will be seen as tokenistic and won’t solve these deep-rooted problems – fundamental reform of the Natural England pay system is needed to safeguard the future of our precious natural environment.”

The State of Natural England 2022 report can be downloaded here.

Previous State of Natural England reports can be found here

Natural England

Highlighting the valuable work the organisation does and the threats it faces.

Public Services

From protecting our rivers to keeping us safe, Prospect members do vital work across a range of professions.