Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Friday, 13 October 2006 13:44 UK

Rural watchdog breaks HR budget

Bale of hay (Image: BBC)
More than 70 people have been made redundant

Government spending on HR consultancy services to create the new rural watchdog has exceeded its budget by more than £63,000.

The 2,500-strong body Natural England has combined staff from English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service.

A consortium led by EDS won the year-long contract to provide personnel services to "assist in the set-up and transitioning of staff to Natural England".

Professional services firm Towers Perrin provided the actual work, with the budget set in March 2006 at £1,171,818.

But over the 12 months to September this year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) paid out £1,235,462.

It is estimated that the change programme will pay for itself within two to three years of its conclusion in 2007

And documents obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act show Defra had exceeded its budget half-way through the contract.

By February 2006, total spend had hit £1.11m.

And once the projected spend for March 2006 has been added in, the bill rises to more than £5,500 above the agreed contract value.

In a statement, Defra said it had achieved value for money: "Natural England... will conserve our wildlife and enhance our country's landscape.

"The Towers Perrin contract was part of the overall change programme.

"It is estimated that the change programme will pay for itself within two to three years of its conclusion in 2007, and deliver major savings beyond this period."

Job losses

The biggest area of spending up to February - more than £300,000 - was on the HR Project Manager responsible for managing the internal HR project team and external consultants.

Defra said the Project Manager also "...provided a range of specialist HR service and advice which would otherwise have required additional consultancy support".

Natural England is responsible for access to and quality of life in the countryside and has a budget of £500m.

About 78 staff were made redundant in the "transitioning", and more redundancies are expected.

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