Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. So you are going to be making some changes?
  (Mr Wakeford) Yes, we are.

  141. Have you started planning for that?
  (Mr Wakeford) We have, yes.

  142. Yours is nearly a £54 million business, but you have had quite an explosion in the number of additional people you are employing. Can you give us a flavour? You have brought two organisations together, so one might have argued that there should be economies of scale, yet the number of people, for example, in rural services, I see in the draft corporate plan, rises from three full-time equivalents to 12 in the year 2001, and that figure is sustained through the five years of that programme. If we come right to the end of the corporate plan we find that full-time equivalents have gone up from 118.5—I notice you have not brought the half with you—rising to 186 by the end of the plan. Give us a flavour as to why you need all these people. What are they all going to be doing?
  (Mr Wakeford) The Rural White paper established a series of new programmes which the Countryside Agency is carrying out in market towns, in the Vital Villages programme, in the Access to Mapping programme under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. Those were all new programmes which were not undertaken by either of the previous organisations, they were announced in the Rural White Paper. They were then formalised in the strategy and corporate plan that we submitted to the Government immediately after the Rural White Paper. So there were savings made as a result of merging the Agencies. My finance department has struggled a bit, but we have actually contracted the two finance departments into one which is not very much larger than the original. So in a sense, with a larger organisation, the finance department has created savings. There have also been savings in other central services like human resources. The people that we are putting in place now are going to deliver a much bigger programme for next year, because obviously you need to train people up and get them able to do it. So if you look at the spend line of the Agency, the grain-in-aid line of the Agency, you will find that that is growing rapidly over the next two years (that is, year 2 and year 3 of the current spending review plan) whereas staff costs are held relatively steady over that period. What we are doing now is investing in the staff to operate these new programmes which are really just getting off the ground now.

  143. I was intrigued by one line. Rural proofing, from our earlier exchange, sounds to me like you sent out your tick boxes, but you did not actually monitor with a great deal of detail the results coming back from government departments, there was no adversarial input, it was "Please take note of the boxes." Yet from 2000-2001 rural proofing studies in terms of people rises from ten through to 22 at the end of the five-year period. What are all these people going to be doing to improve the rural proofing effectiveness? Why do you need to double the number of people?
  (Mr Wakeford) Actually, listening to some of the questions and our answers to the questions from the Committee today, I find myself thinking that we definitely need to invest more in this area. There are a number of areas where you have told us that we have not been doing our job properly. I think that we are doing it quite well with the posts that we already have.

  144. More than the 22 you have planned for?
  (Mr Wakeford) I do not have 22 at the moment. I can tell you, as soon as I think I have too many, I will immediately be stopping that. Even the posts that we have in the current year—the ten—have suffered considerably, because I have vacancies and I have not secured the degree of secondments in from government departments that we had planned to do. Some of those 22 posts were actually designated to be inwards secondees from local government and from government departments, because we recognised that that is the best way of building understanding across Government of the rural dimension.

  145. In a rapidly expanding organisation, though, what systems do you have continually to review that you are not, if you like, growing like Topsy? It is very easy to keep taking on people because you think that the universe that we are dealing with is getting bigger and bigger, rather than saying, "Now hang on, let's just have a look and make certain that we're getting good productivity out of the people that we've got, before we simply expand the labour force." What systems do you have to get that right balance?
  (Mr Wakeford) We have been getting ourselves equipped to deliver, and the question is how far you can go. I have been under some pressure from the team saying, "We haven't got enough staff to deliver Vital Villages in the way that you want to, Chief Executive, at the moment." I have, however, advised my Board that I am not going to them to look for an increase in the staff resource line in the current corporate plan. That is placing some pressure on the organisations, which I have always found is a good way of revealing where the slack is. I worked with Michael Heseltine in the DoE in the early 1980s when it was a fairly crude approach that was followed, but as long as you do not actually follow right the way through with the crude approach, then you draw out the evidence to make judgements and you can reach the right decisions. We are starting a series of programme evaluations in April next year, in order to look in turn at each of our areas of work—not so much to look at the outputs which are easier to measure, but to look at the outcomes themselves, the difference that they are making on the ground. So I do have a series of checks in there, whether it is the crude "We're going to cap the staffing money" and my directors then have to work out how to do that, even though we are delivering a programme that is increasing, or whether it is a more formal evaluation system than that.

  146. "Merger reserve" is shown as £4.4 million. What is it for?
  (Mr Wakeford) I would need to come back to you on that.

  147. That is at page 18 in your accounts. The notes are not helpful; they do not tell us anything about it. If you are going to come back, could you also tell me what the "Deferred Government Grant" of nearly £2 million is about?
  (Mr Wakeford) I suspect that that is an underspend on Rural Transport Partnership. As I said to you, on that programme the Government gave us the money in three even slices to start with, and it turns out that we could not spend that money in that profile.

  148. I just make this observation that as a set of accounts, with notes attached, the notes are singularly unhelpful in giving you an idea of what the item of expenditure is about.
  (Mr Wakeford) I take your point, and since I have not signed the accounts for this year, I can actually learn from your observation and make sure that we put that right in this year's accounts. Perhaps it is fortunate that they are late.

Mr Todd

  149. You made a useful distinction between "outputs" and "outcomes", because in your corporate plan you set down what your outputs are, and some of them can be measured better than others, but you do attempt to look at this. How do you measure the outcomes of what you have done? To take an example—your 200 Doorstep Greens which have been created by April 2005—how do you work out whether that was a tremendously good choice of strategy and that it produced some genuinely positive deliverable that people appreciate? You have measured a number and said, "We've done it", but to what end?
  (Mr Wakeford) Absolutely right. I can say there is a kind of cascade here. We are working within the broad policy framework which the Government sets, whether it is in the Rural White Paper or other ways. Because we are a non-departmental public body, we have statutory independence, but when they give us a grant-in-aid it is obviously because they intend us to achieve particular things with it. Within that, the Agency has established a strategy in which we have translated the goals which Ewen outlined at the very beginning of this session into a number of main programmes—seven implementation programmes and the programme of Rural Assurance and Rural Proofing. In our strategy Towards Tomorrow's Countryside, each of those seven programmes identified the sorts of outcomes we are looking for, in fairly broad strategic terms. Starting next April, we have a series of evaluation reviews which will look at each of those programmes in turn to try to see whether the output that we are achieving—and we will know we are achieving them, because we measure our output against the corporate plan, as you rightly say—are really delivering things on the ground. To take the Doorstep Greens example that you have specified, we will look at a cross-section or a random set of communities—I quite like to look at some that do not have Doorstep Greens or any Greens at all—to try to identify the benefits of bringing that sort of resource to communities. I can in a sense give you some more flavour of that, because it is the Doorstep Greens where we had some success, the 245 Millennium Greens that we produced using money from the Millennium Commission.

  150. Please do not interpret this as a criticism of the programme. I think it is probably a very good programme.
  (Mr Wakeford) What I was going on to say, though, was that one of the lessons that we learnt from that was that it was quite easy to produce Millennium Greens—I am coming back to these communities with Jaguars, I am afraid—it is quite easy to produce Millennium Greens in some villages, but it is much more difficult to produce them in places like Grimethorpe, yet we have produced several like the Millennium Green in Grimethorpe. We evaluated those and found that the benefits were sufficient to say that with the New Opportunities Fund, through our partnership with the Doorstep Greens programme, we would focus on deprived communities. Indeed, I am putting more staff resources per Doorstep Green than Millennium Green, because those deprived communities require more help to get a Doorstep Green programme off the ground.

  151. We see reference in the corporate plan to yet another body to examine rural issues, or at least a forum for rural facilities called the National Rural Sounding Board. I assume it is not an orchestra. What does it do? Is that covered somewhere else?
  (Mr Wakeford) It is the Rural Affairs Forum for England. It has been renamed.

  152. I see, it is rebranding.
  (Mr Wakeford) It is the Government's body, but we will have a seat on that body, according to the Rural White Paper, and we will be helping the Government with the secretariat of that forum.

  153. So is it the sort of spawn of the old MAFF farming one? Is it the son or the daughter or whatever of that?
  (Mr Cameron) You will have to ask the Minister about its exact nature.

  154. You are definitely on it, are you not?
  (Mr Cameron) We are helping with the administration and we will have a seat on it. It is an organisation obviously of rural organisations who want to input their views to the Government.

  155. I think we can take it that it has not yet got going, has it?
  (Mr Cameron) There will be an announcement next week, I think.
  (Mr Wakeford) You are not supposed to say that!

  156. It does say that you are providing administrative and secretarial support, so ignorance of its precise purpose or when it is getting going is perhaps a little threatening to your allocation of staff time.
  (Mr Wakeford) We do not have an ignorance of it. The Government has consulted on the terms of it. It will be making an announcement shortly, I am sure they would say. I believe personally that it is a successor to a number of similar bodies that have been set up on an ad hoc basis over the last few years. I had the pleasure of serving on the sounding board that Michael Meacher set up to help him with the Rural White Paper. More recently there is the Rural Task Force which came together as a result of a conversation between Ewen and the Prime Minister. There has been a need over the past years to have something like this, and to have it formalised is probably good.

  157. Does it not ever strike you that there are perhaps one or two too many of these bodies?
  (Mr Wakeford) And in the Agency's evidence back to the Government about the need for this it said that for goodness sake, this body must have a very clearly defined purpose of ensuring that all of the different bodies who are active know what they're doing, rather than setting out to do something itself.


  158. At the beginning I asked you, Mr Cameron, if you could in one minute tell me what you do. This is the final question, with the final answer in one minute. Convince me that you have not been "had" by the Government. You are the Rural Advocate. You are supposed to get in there, get into government departments and argue the countryside case. You cannot, can you? It is an utterly impossible job. It is a bit of a wallpaper, is it not? It is a wallpaper on behalf of, in effect, the Government. This Government, we learn, is dealt with mainly by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, so how do you even begin to try to be effective? Why do you not go to the Prime Minister and say, "I've got to make my mind up. How am I going to be independent if I'm part of the Government? I can't be both, it doesn't work"?
  (Mr Cameron) I think that certainly both as Chairman of the Countryside Agency and Rural Advocate I can remain independent. I have always lobbied, as I see it, on behalf of the countryside and will continue to do so. I have made my views known independently to this Government on various occasions about various issues, starting with modulation right from the word go, and other areas. For instance, just before the election I very publicly took the view that the environment ought to be included within the new department that was being set up.

  Chairman: You were hardly pushing against a closed door on that one, were you?

Mr Todd

  159. It was not an entirely open door either, was it?
  (Mr Cameron) Exactly. There had been a letter to The Times which I was responding to, saying that it should be excluded. I just felt, from the point of view of the countryside, that it would continue to be ignored unless it was included. As to other independent activities, there is the question of vaccination over foot and mouth. I again took a public view that I felt that there was room for the Government to look again at the question of vaccination more seriously in September. I believe it is possible to take an independent line. It is not always best, I may say, to take it in public. The insinuation behind your questioning is that our line was too close to the Government's. Actually, we are the Government's advisers, and when their line of policy differs from ours maybe you ought to ask them the questions. It is a question of who is following whom.

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