Scottish Natural Heritage is preparing to cut its staff by a fifth in order weather drastic reductions in its budget expected next year. It is also considering slashing grants to voluntary groups, selling property and cutting schemes to help farmers by managing geese.
The revelation has provoked concern from some environmentalists, but barely-disguised pleasure from others critical of SNH’s failings. It comes from a report (152Kb pdf) of a closed meeting of SNH’s board released under freedom of information law.
“Beyond 2010 the public sector financial outlook was bleak,” recorded the minute of the meeting in Edinburgh on 23 February this year. The agency’s grant of £66.86 million for 2010-11 is expected to be significantly reduced next year.
“As part of the scenario planning being undertaken by the management team, it was considered that the size of the organization would have to be reduced by around 150 posts,” the minute said.
It pointed out that staff turnover was relatively low, and that 50 employees were eligible for retirement. “It was suggested that only key vacancies arising should be filled in the future.”
The minute also disclosed that board members and managers discussed cutting grants to voluntary organisations. It noted that “there was a risk of public disquiet should SNH continue to cut the grants budget and not reduce paybill costs.”
Other options considered were “disposing of property” and sharing offices with local authorities. There were discussions with the Scottish government to try and resolve a shortfall in the funding Scotland’s seven goose management schemes around the coast.
SNH confirmed that it was contemplating deep cutbacks. “We won’t know the extent of savings we need to make until after the spending review, but we are anticipating and indeed planning for the need to make widespread efficiencies,” said an SNH spokesman.
“We think it's realistic to anticipate the need to reduce the workforce by around 150 posts over the spending review period. The precise timescale for this is uncertain and will depend on the detail of available budgets.”
He stressed that staff numbers would be reduced “primarily” by not filling vacancies. “Meanwhile we are continuing to look for savings in property, by reviewing needs as well as opportunities to share with other organisations in the public sector,” he added.
“Ultimately we will need to retain the current balance between fixed costs, such as salaries and properties, and project funding, such as grants and research. This means we are looking for savings in both.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland said it understood the difficulties facing the public sector in these tough economic times. “Nevertheless, we can't ignore the huge importance the natural environment brings to both Scotland's people and the economy,” argued the RSPB’s Lloyd Austin.
“If Scotland wants to continue as a world leader in the fight against climate change, it must first make sure the environment, that so many sectors rely on, remains healthy.”
He added: “Ensuring continued funding for environmental protection and enhancement is an investment in our future. Cuts to the environment are irreversible.”
But Dave Morris, the director of Ramblers Scotland, took a different tack. “It looks inevitable that SNH will need to trim its operations and the public will be expecting this to include reductions in staffing levels,” he said.
“This should be an opportunity for SNH to refocus its operations so that it learns to work together much more effectively with the voluntary sector.” SNH could learn from agencies like Sport Scotland and the Forestry Commission to deliver more for less by making better use of volunteers, he argued.
“In the longer term it might be better to split up SNH so that its habitat conservation role moves to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, while the remainder of SNH operations are joined with Sport Scotland to create a department for outdoor recreation and sport.”