Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has suffered a severe and escalating crisis of confidence and has lost the support of its staff. There is growing concern that nature conservation is slipping down the agenda of senior managers and Scottish ministers.
The latest survey of SNH’s 900 staff reveals that only a third of them had confidence in the organisation’s future, or its top management. And only a little over a half thought that their employer deserved their loyalty.
Although SNH managers insist that things have got better since the survey, insiders and critics say that the malaise infecting the agency has actually got worse. The leadership shown by the SNH board was described by one former board member as “insipid”.
The results of the staff survey, conducted in 2008, were released by SNH last week under freedom of information legislation. On almost every measure, morale amongst SNH staff had declined since the previous survey in 2007, sometimes dramatically so.
The proportion of staff who were “confident that SNH has a good future” - 34% - was down 23 points on the previous year. The proportion who thought that “SNH deserves the loyalty of its staff - 55% - was down 20%.
Only 34% agreed that “SNH is good at listening to its staff”, and just 35% said that SNH had “a clear sense of its future direction”. As few as 22% thought they had good career prospects in SNH (see below).
An internal report by senior managers in response to the survey attributed the crisis in morale to “a difficult and remarkably turbulent year”. The SNP government had placed “lots of new and additional demands on our time”, it said.
There had also been a “disappointing and extremely delayed” pay settlement. “There are worries that protecting the natural heritage has slipped down the political agenda and that SNH influence is declining,” warned the report.
“Scotland now has a government which has its sights set very much on the issue of how it could make an independent Scotland economically viable.”
The report argued that that SNH’s best strategy lay in helping to make sure that economic growth was sustainable. “Our chances of success in doing so will be maximised by engaging actively and willingly in the quest, rather than appearing to be dragging our feet,” it said.
In opposition leading SNP figures, like Fergus Ewing - now a junior minister - often criticised SNH for inhibiting development, causing relations to become fractious. That contributed to the SNP’s original plan, now shelved, to merge SNH with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
Environmentalists are worried that SNH has softened its stance towards damaging developments, like coal mines, housing developments and wind farms. An example was its failure to object to the expansion of an opencast coal mine into an important area for birds in East Ayrshire, they say.
One of the problems critics highlight is that there are currently no committed wildlife experts on the 11-person SNH board. It is chaired by Andrew Thin, who has a background in economic development, and is composed of businessmen, agriculturalists, former councillors and civil servants.
The last wildlife conservationist on the board was its deputy chairman from 1999 to 2005, Michael Scott. He thought that SNH’s managers had done well to keep the organisation running, given the huge pressures it had been under.
“The biggest disappointment has been the lack of any emerging champion for the environment within SNH,” he told the Sunday Herald. “The chairman has failed to inspire, and the rest of the board have been totally insipid in their duty as guardians of Scotland’s natural heritage.”
Dr Deborah Long, the conservation manager of Plantlife Scotland, accused the board of steering SNH away from its prime goal of conserving and improving Scotland’s natural environment. The country’s wildlife needed SNH to act as a “critical friend”, she argued.
“The claustrophobic nature of the way government controls its agencies is preventing SNH achieving what it was set up to do,“ she said.
Scotland’s wealth of natural diversity was under constant threat, according to Stuart Housden, the director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland. The nation “needs a strong and motivated statutory authority to act as its champion,” he said.
SNH accepted that staff had been upset in 2008 after a major restructuring and a delayed pay settlement. But it insisted that fears that nature would slip down the agenda had not materialised.
“SNH standing among MSPs and ministers has improved over the past couple of years and the government meanwhile has demonstrated commitment to its green agenda,” said SNH’s chief executive, Ian Jardine.
He pointed out that SNH had won an award last year for its commitment to people and promised another staff survey in April this year. This time concerns might be different, he said. “The prospect of budget cuts for example is widely anticipated and that can be unsettling.”
The Scottish government argued that the arrival of a new administration always generated uncertainty amongst public servants. “The Scottish government has pushed environmental issues up, not down, the political agenda,” said a spokesman.
“Our ambitious climate change agenda, our commitment to biodiversity and our action on wildlife crime have inevitably placed additional demands on SNH, but these are issues which we cannot afford to ignore.”
A copy of Scottish Natural Heritage’s 2008 staff survey can be downloaded here (14.9MB pdf).
A copy of the report on the survey by SNH senior management is available here (86KB pdf).
What the staff of Scottish Natural Heritage think
statement / proportion of SNH staff who agree / change from 2007
“I am confident that SNH has a good future” / 34% / down 23%
“I have confidence in the leadership provided by SNH senior management” / 33% / down 15%
“SNH has a clear sense of its future direction” / 35% / down 4%
“There are good career prospects for me within SNH” / 22% / down 11%
“SNH is good at listening to its staff” / 34% / down 10%
“SNH deserves the loyalty of its staff / 55% / down 20%
“SNH will give me the help I need to reach my full potential” / 39% / down 15%
“SNH usually selects the best people for jobs” / 36% / down 12%
“I am paid fairly for what I do” / 42% / down 21%
“I am clear about the role of each of the main parts of SNH” / 45% / down 13%
source: Scottish Natural Heritage