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Natural England’s new powers

The news that Natural England (NE)stands to get wider enforcement powers is provoking a mixed response from shooters and land managers.

NE is already responsible for overseeing much of what we do in the countryside. Among a whole range of issues, it decides what you can do on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), such as whether you can burn heather or control various pest species.

If you get something wrong, such as failing to obtain consent for a prohibited operation on a SSSI, or failing to comply with all of the conditions of a General Licence, NE has the right to issue a caution or prosecute. The way in which NE has used its powers to date seems fairly reasonable. Land managers suspected of falling foul of its requirements do not, as a rule, find themselves faced with immediate threat of prosecution. More likely, a series of discussions will take place. On the one hand, NE may decide that, on reflection, some activities can go ahead, and, on the other, the land manager may be persuaded to cease some of his activities or not to proceed with others. However, if he refuses to behave responsibly, the ultimate sanction of prosecution is still available to NE.

As a result, the environment is properly protected, land managers are not treated disproportionately and relations between the regulator and the regulated are maintained as well as they can be. In essence, the system works.

All this looks like it is about to change, though. Under recent proposals, NE is set to be given a range of new powers. Perhaps most importantly, it will be able to charge so-called Variable Monetary Penalties (VMPs). This basically means NE can impose fines, the level of which vary according to the perceived gravity of the offence and the willingness of the person involved to put matters right.

VMPs are only to be used in the more serious cases, though it is not yet clear what these would be. For the more minor offences, we will have Fixed Monetary Penalties. These are intended to be used in cases such as failing to maintain records or to give notice when required.

A range of mechanisms focusing on preventing damage or putting damage right have also been proposed. Restoration notices will be used to require the land to be returned to the condition it was in before the offence was committed. Stop notices will require a particular activity to cease within a specified time period.

These alternatives to prosecution can seem attractive. After all, nobody wants to be prosecuted. Even if the suspect is eventually found to be not guilty, he would have lost time, paid for lawyers and had his reputation called into question. No doubt many land managers who find their conduct questioned will be willing to accept a financial penalty as an alternative to going to court.

There is absolutely no reason to suppose that NE has any intention of using its new powers to circumvent the various checks and balances in the current system. But we cannot be completely sure that such an event would never happen. From now on, those responsible for managing the land who find themselves having disagreements with NE will need to ensure more than ever that they fully understand what they are accused of and what the various options are.

Have your say: if you have a view on a current news topic, send it, in no more than 500 words, to [email protected].

Have your say: if you have a view on a current news topic, send it, in no more than 500 words, to [email protected].

Have your say: if you have a view on a current news topic,send it, in no more than 500 words, to [email protected].

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