Today I had a long and helpful chat with James Diamond, the Director of Operations for Natural England.
I believe it's always good to talk - which is why I have been keen to arrange this discussion as part of our campaign to examine and potentially overhaul Natural England's licencing system.
Mr Diamond is an affable chap, and we had what really appeared to be an open conversation.
I'm happy to say we have made some progress.
Some Good News!
And a significant result which has come about because of our campaign.
Later this year, Natural England will begin to publish figures on their website which will detail the number of licences issued by the agency, including those issued to kill birds. The first set of figures, will be published sometime in 2019 (Mr Diamond couldn't provide an exact date but assures me it will be this year).
This will detail the licences issued for 2018. The figures will include the numbers of each species for which licences have been granted and the reasons why the licence was approved. The information will be available for all to see and peruse. This development will mark the start of an annual public reporting of licencing figures from the agency.
This is a major result which no doubt would not have happened without our petition.
"It Was A Mistake To Remove The Figures..."
Mr Diamond was keen to point out that Natural England did used to publish licence information routinely in the past but assured me that 'hardly anyone looked', so the practice was stopped. "It was a mistake to remove the figures" he says, "because we have nothing to hide".
He maintains that publishing the figures will, however, 'divert staff from working in other important areas', although my own opinion would be that this information is key to gaining public trust in the agency's activities and, as such, is an essential part of their work.
Unfortunately however, Natural England have absolutely no plans to disclose the names of applicants, nor to publish licences ahead of time for public scrutiny. I suggested this would be a good idea, in the same way that planning applications are published prior to being granted. There appears to be no flexibility over this decision, "We need to protect peoples' right to privacy and confidentiality", Mr Diamond insisted.
A System That Relies Too Heavily On Honesty...?
Mr Diamond explained a five point system which those applying for a licence have to satisfy before one is issued. The applicant has to assure Natural England staff that they have tried every other method of dealing with a bird problem before a licence will be granted.
My opinion, which I shared with Mr Diamond, is that relying so heavily on the honesty of an applicant does of course leave the system open to misuse...
And while he loyally defended his team against any criticism of their decisions in granting licences, Mr Diamond admits that the agency relies heavily on the 'good practice' of applicants in fulfilling their obligation to file returns in which they are supposed to detail the final outcome of the licence, including the number of birds killed. I asked him if there should be a fine imposed for those applicants who failed to provide this information but, alas, there are no plans to impose such a penalty. I think this might be a mistake as it appears to leave this part of the system open to misconduct. Defending that decision, Mr Diamond assured me that an applicant who failed to file a report would not be granted any future licence.
The Problem Of Netting....
On a side note, I asked about the recent epidemic of netting that has been appearing on trees, hedgerows and, notably, on the Norfolk coast in recent days and weeks. Although Norfolk council said that Natural England approved the use of netting, Mr Diamond strongly rejects this. "We have no power to approve the use of netting," he said, "we only offered advice, and we have no power to ask them to remove the netting either".
It seems that there is no official authority that oversees the use of netting in this way, something which needs to be addressed urgently, though this is currently not within the scope of our petition.
So, in summing up, I have asked Mr Diamond for some more detailed figures relating to licences issued for two species, House Sparrows and Coots, both of which appear in the Freedom of Information data in high numbers. I'll have that information in the next three weeks or so and will report back.
Meanwhile I think we can justifiably pat ourselves on the back for the progress we have made - and plough on with seeking more openness and transparency from Natural England, it is a public agency after all.
I'm keeping in contact with Mr Diamond and will update further in due course.
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