One of the fundamentals skills of politics is to ensure that a cock up does not become a crisis. The row over general licences to control pigeons, crows and other species certainly started as a cock up. Natural England had failed to carry out the necessary assessments to ensure the general licences were lawful and campaigners with mischievous intent identified the legal vulnerability. That first cock up was compounded by the decision made by Natural England’s board to revoke the licences at a couple of days notice. How that decision was made is a matter of some speculation, and will be at the centre of the analysis of how this whole mess came about, but the situation was still manageable at that stage. If Natural England had put in immediate interim measures, and made changes to the General Licences which addressed the problems identified by the legal challenge and reissued them within days there would still have been frustration that we had been let down quite so badly, but the damage would have been contained.
That is not happening, and the reason it is not happening is that the General Licences that Natural England are publishing (the first two relate to crows and Canada geese) have not just been patched to address the points raised by campaigners in their Judicial Review. They represent fundamental changes to the way these species can be managed, which should never have been introduced without proper consideration and consultation. We have now reached a log jam with Natural England repeating parrot-like its lines that the new licences do not fundamentally change the operation of the licences (they do) and that they are all required to address the legal challenge (they aren’t). More than that Natural England suggests that if we are worried about the new licences they will be consulted on in the normal annual process of review. Amending regulations and only then consulting on them changes the baseline in any discussion and is simply not acceptable.
This cock up risks becoming a crisis because the rural organisations involved in this issue, and their huge membership, are losing confidence in Natural England. Defra Ministers, and the Secretary of State Michael Gove in particular, are in a position to avert a crisis. I have talked to Mr Gove and he certainly seemed to listen, so have colleagues from other organisations and many fairly irate MPs. For all our sakes we have to hope that listening translates into a change in attitude at Natural England.
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