[Image credit: Crown Copyright, Natural England ]
Natural England is the government’s advisor for the natural environment in England and Wales. Established in 2006, its purpose is to help conserve, enhance and manage the natural environment. It enforces the laws that protect wildlife and the environment and state that enforcement is used as a last resort.
Natural England has responsibility for sites of scientific interest, environmental damage regulations, heather and grass burning, agricultural work affecting uncultivated land or semi-natural areas, breaches of wildlife licences and notices, pesticide poisoning to animals and complaints relating to weeds.
The regulator will conduct an investigation in appropriate circumstances in order to establish the facts and level of damage. They comply with the legal requirements under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and its Codes of Practice. They use the criminal standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, even in respect of civil sanctions.
Before imposing a sanction, the regulator would aim to provide advice and best guidance practice to ensure future compliance. Further sanctions were introduced in 2010, known as regulatory enforcement sanctions (RES). If an RES sanction is complied with, a criminal prosecution is not allowed by law (except in the case of a stop notice).
Sanctions used are:
• Compliance notice -specific steps to be taken in a specified time.
• Enforcement undertaking – offenders volunteer steps to remedy an offence, ensuring future compliance, restoring harm, giving up a financial benefit or providing restitution.
• Fixed monetary penalty – a notice requiring a fine of a fixed amount is served for a minor and clear-cut offence where advice and guidance have been ignored.
• Non-compliance penalty notice – can be served following non-compliance with a RES restoration or compliance notice. The level is set based on the costs an offender is avoiding by not complying with the notice.
• Restoration notice – specific steps to be taken in a specified time to ensure the position is restored, so far as possible, to what it would have been had the offence not occurred.
• Stop notice – to stop the offender from carrying on an activity until steps have been taken to come back into compliance.
• Third-party undertakings – an offender can provide restitution to affected local communities where they have been notified of the regulator’s intention to serve a compliance notice, restoration notice or a fixed monetary penalty.
• Variable monetary penalty – regulators can calculate the level of penalty to remove the financial benefit of non-compliance in more serious cases and deter non-compliance where appropriate.
Specialist civil sanctions are also available for cases falling within environmental damage and impact, injurious weeds and pesticides.
Criminal sanctions that can be imposed are simple cautions, prosecution or injunctions. Prosecutions are considered to punish significant and/or persistent environmental offending and create deterrence against future non-compliance.
The regulator has been most active in negotiating enforcement undertakings, followed by civil sanctions and SSSI (sites of specific scientific interest) prosecutions. Natural England says they prefer to take action other than prosecution but will do so where they are left with no other option.
Earlier this year, Andrew Cooper was prosecuted after he breached a stop notice and continued to plough land of historical importance. The land was regarded as archaeologically significant as many flint artefacts had been found with links to the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras. The fields were also used as training grounds by American forces in World War II. They featured dummy pillboxes, trenches and graffiti left by a soldier who later died in the Normandy invasion. Cooper was given a stop notice and ordered to remediate the land, but in 2017 he ignored the notice and continued to plough and lime a neighbouring field as well. He pleaded guilty to breaching the stop notice and was fined £7,500 with five months’ imprisonment in default, along with £24,000 costs.
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