Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Second Report


The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has agreed to the following




We have taken evidence about the Countryside Agency as part of our on-going oversight of the associated public bodies of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This volume contains the evidence we have taken, which we have published for the information of interested parties. In this short Report we draw attention to one matter of particular concern: that is, that the Agency's role and position should be clarified and restated following the creation of the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We also make clear that one of the urgent priorities confronting the Agency is to define clearly what is meant by 'rural'.


1. In the last Parliament both of our predecessor Committees regularly examined the expenditure and administration of those Executive Agencies and non-departmental public bodies within the remit of, respectively, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Environment Sub-committee of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee inquired into, amongst other organisations, English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Environment Agency.[1] The Agriculture Committee declared its intention to undertake a "rolling programme of single evidence sessions [with Agencies and non-departmental public bodies], covering as many as possible of the relevant bodies throughout the course of a Parliament".[2] It held hearings with Food From Britain, Horticulture Research International, the Forestry Commission and the CAP Payments Agency.

2. The new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which we oversee, is responsible for a considerable number of associated public bodies.[3] We have decided to continue the important work of our predecessors in overseeing such bodies: already we have taken evidence from the National Forest Company,[4] and, on the subject of flooding, from the Environment Agency.[5] As part of this oversight of the Department's associated public bodies we announced on 13 November 2001 our intention to inquire into the work of the Countryside Agency.[6] We took oral evidence on 21 November from Mr Ewen Cameron, Chairman, Pam Warhurst, Deputy Chair, and Mr Richard Wakeford, Chief Executive. The Agency also submitted two memoranda, which are printed with this Report. We are grateful to the Agency for the evidence it has submitted.

3. The Countryside Agency is an executive non-departmental public body which came into being on 1 April 1999 as a result of the merger of the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission. Its formation and early development were, as we have already indicated, considered by the Environment Sub-committee of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in 1998 and 1999.[7] The Agency took over the statutory duties of the two Commissions:[8] that is, in respect of the Countryside Commission, to preserve and enhance natural beauty in England, particularly in the National Parks, and to encourage the provision and improvement of facilities which enable the enjoyment of and access to the countryside,[9] and, in respect of the Rural Development Commission, to keep under review and to advise Ministers on the economic and social development of rural areas in England, and to take action to aid such development.[10] In 1999-2000 the Agency had a budget of approximately £53 million, and employed 461 staff.[11]

4. We examined our witnesses thoroughly about the administration and expenditure of the Countryside Agency.[12] The evidence we received did not suggest that there were particular problems with the day-to-day operations of the Agency, although we note that it faces the challenge of very rapid growth.[13] It has also been very slow recently in publishing its annual report and accounts - those for 1999-2000 were not published until June 2001.[14] However, our primary concern is the overall strategy and objectives of the Agency. In its Report in 1999, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee commented on the lack of clarity about the role of the new Agency. It asked "should it concentrate upon meeting long-term rural needs through sustained funding activities, or should its main role be as a think-tank and advisor to Government which monitors rural change and uses funds mainly to pump-prime time-limited, innovative and pilot projects? The predecessor Commissions carried out all these functions".[15] Clarity about the role of the Agency is again in question following the establishment of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The Agency's strategy and objectives

5. At its launch the Agency said that its role was "to champion the English countryside and tackle real rural priorities". To do so it would focus on the "social, economic and environmental well-being of the English countryside".[16] Its priorities were to show how to tackle rural disadvantage; to improve transport in rural areas while taming the impact of traffic growth; to demonstrate a more sustainable approach to agriculture; and to increase the amount and quality of access to the countryside.[17] The Agency said that in its first year it would be "taking a hard look at the future of the countryside and our role in shaping that. The result will be a strategy, identifying where we will focus our efforts and taking account of work on the Government's Rural White Paper".[18]

6. The Agency's strategy is derived from the Rural White Paper, published in November 2000, which included a number of initiatives for implementation by the Countryside Agency, and in the preparation of which the Agency played a significant role.[19] The strategy itself is contained in Towards Tomorrow's Countryside, published in January 2001, which said that the Agency's three main aims are "to conserve and enhance England's countryside; to spread social and economic opportunity for the people who live there; and to help everyone, wherever they live and whatever their background, to enjoy the countryside and share in this priceless national asset"[20] - an immensely wide and aspirational remit. The strategy said that the Agency's priorities were now "putting the countryside first; making the most of the countryside; reinvigorating market towns; creating village vitality; widening the welcome the countryside can offer recreation; creating better countryside around towns; securing the quality of England's finest landscapes; and helping people locally to care for their landscapes, landmarks and traditions".[21]

The Agency's work programme

7. The Agency achieves its objectives in part by implementing "specific work programmes".[22] The Chairman of the Countryside Agency, Mr Cameron, told us that the Countryside Agency operates "firstly, by looking at problems and researching solutions, carrying out research generally. Then by implementing demonstration projects and pilot schemes".[23] In practice the Agency is involved in a plethora of activities. In December 2001 the Government published a report on progress on implementing the Rural White Paper which revealed that the Agency was then, or had recently been, involved in:

  • producing a report, for publication in Spring 2002, on progress by Government in "integrating the rural agenda into the wider policy-making framework";[24]
  • preparing maps of all open country and registered common land in England, as required by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000;
  • hosting a seminar in January 2002 with the Regional Development Agencies and Regional Tourist Boards on rural tourism;
  • encouraging, with Food from Britain, the development of local markets and local branding;
  • a new three-year £15 million Community Services Grants scheme to protect village services (part of the 'Vital Villages' initiative);
  • the establishment of a Forum for Children and Young People for rural areas;
  • the extension nationwide of the Rural Housing Enabler scheme, which helps to increase the supply of affordable housing in rural areas;
  • a new Parish Transport Grants scheme (another part of the 'Vital Villages' initiative);
  • the development, with the English Tourism Council, of a joint rural tourism strategy;
  • a Market Towns initiative;
  • the launch of a new 'Eat the View' website, intended to encourage understanding of the link between food consumed and the landscape;
  • implementing a consultation on the designation of the New Forest and the South Downs as new National Parks;
  • offering grants under the new £12.9 million 'Doorstep Greens' programme;
  • the publication of a national Parish Training and Support Strategy;
  • launching a new £5 million Parish Plans scheme, intended to help a thousand communities prepare their own village or town plans (a further part of the 'Vital Villages' initiative); and
  • producing its regular 'State of the Countryside' report.[25]

Rural advocacy and rural proofing

8. The Countryside Agency also seeks to achieve its objectives by influencing "those whose decisions affect the countryside".[26] On the day that the Rural White Paper was launched, the Agency's Chairman, Mr Cameron, was appointed 'Rural Advocate',[27] a role which gives him "direct access to the Prime Minister and other Ministers" and allowed him to "join the Cabinet Committee of Ministers which co-ordinates rural affairs". His role is "to tell ministers what the countryside needs from the government, drawing on the Countryside Agency's own extensive research programme and practical experience".[28] In addition to meetings between Mr Cameron and Ministers, the Agency has also drawn up a 'rural proofing checklist' which, we were told, "highlights some of the problems of bringing policies and initiatives into the countryside, such as sparsity of population, lack of training facilities, lack of transport and so on".[29] All Departments should assess their policies and activities against the checklist to ensure "that Government policy properly responds to the needs of rural communities".[30]

9. The Agency claims some success in rural advocacy. Mr Cameron told us about a meeting he had held with the Minister of State for Work about the activities of the Department for Work and Pensions in rural areas.[31] He also pointed to the establishment, following a meeting between him and the Prime Minister, of the Rural Task Force which had addressed the wider impact of foot and mouth disease on rural communities rather than just on farming.[32] The Agency has also worked with Regional Development Agencies to ensure that rural considerations are given due weight in their work.[33]

Creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

10. The establishment of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs poses challenges to the Countryside Agency's role as advocate and voice for rural areas. The Government has said that the new Department is intended to mark "a new era in our approach to rural policy. It reflects the Government's recognition that not just farming and food, but the range of economic, social and environmental issues affecting rural England, need to be addressed in an integrated way".[34] The new Department is the "one Department responsible for the creation of a sustainable rural economy".[35] The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has told us that the Department is "responsible for trying to make sure that rural issues are properly taken into account and that the work of the [Rural] White Paper is taken forward".[36] The Government has also set up a Cabinet sub-committee with responsibility for rural renewal, chaired by the Secretary of State, and "charged with taking forward the rural agenda across Government".[37]

11. As well as potentially taking over some of the Agency's role as rural advocate, the activities of the Department may also come to conflict with those of the Agency. The Department is also already a significant source of funding for rural development, and is de facto the provider of much advice for rural communities. Such activities seem likely to grow in future, to some extent over-lapping and in conflict with the work of the Countryside Agency. It seems that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is intended to provide a focus for a single, integrated approach to rural issues, and to act as an advocate across Government for such matters. It is therefore likely that the Department will to some extent supersede the role of the Countryside Agency as rural advocate, and as the provider of funding and advice to rural communities. In order to forestall future conflicts between the Agency and the Department, and in order to allow the Agency to continue to fulfil its objectives, its future role and position vis-à-vis the Department, and the ways in which the two will work together, should, as a matter of urgency, be clarified.

Definition of 'rural'

12. An urgent task facing the Agency is to define what is meant by 'rural'. The Agency faces two principal difficulties of definition: the distinction between 'rural' and 'urban' areas, and the diversity of 'rural' areas once defined. The Chief Executive of the Agency explained to us that although work continues towards a more detailed definition of which areas are rural and which urban,[38] difficulties relating to the basis on which data is collected persist.[39] In any event, the difficulties faced by one 'rural' area may be very different from those of another. Moreover, as the Deputy Chair of the Agency made clear, "the interdependence between rural and urban areas is very significant".[40] In all of its activities the Agency depends on the development of a clear definition of what is a 'rural' area. Such a definition is critical also to other parts of Government, not least the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We therefore recommend that the Agency make its highest priority to define what is a 'rural' area, and seek to ensure that other Departments and Agencies and other public bodies adopt the same definition. Within that overall definition the Agency should recognise the need to categorize different types of rural areas to reflect the different pressures they face. Final definitions should be available by Summer 2002.

1   See Annual Report of the Work of the Committee to the Liaison Committee, First Special Report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC (2000-01) 65. Back

2   The Committee's Work, Session 1999-2000, Second Special Report of the Agriculture Committee, HC (2000-01) 117, para.5. Back

3   For a full list, see; there are 6 Executive Agencies, 52 non-departmental public bodies and 7 public corporations, tribunals and other bodies. Back

4   On Wednesday 5 December 2001, published as HC (2001-02) 432. Back

5   See Back

6   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Press Notice No. 7, 13 November 2001. Back

7   See The Countryside Agency, Fourth Report of the Environment, Food and Regional Affairs Committee, HC (1998-99) 6; see Back

8   In respect of the Countryside Commission, under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the Countryside Act 1968, the Local Government Act 1974 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and in respect of the Rural Development Commission under the Miscellaneous Financial Provisions Act 1983. Back

9   Taken from Section 1 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and Section 1 of the Countryside Act 1968. Back

10   Taken from Section 1 of the Miscellaneous Financial Provisions Act 1983. Back

11   See Countryside Agency Annual Report and Accounts 1999-2000, June 2001, HC (2001-02) 26, pp.16 and 27. Back

12   See, in particular, QQ.131 ff. Back

13   Q.142. Back

14   Q.131. Back

15   The Countryside Agency, Fourth Report of the Environment, Food and Regional Affairs Committee, HC (1998-99) 6, para.8. Back

16   This new statutory body will focus on the social, economic and environmental well-being of the English countryside, Countryside Agency; see Back

17   Countryside Agency news article, 29 March 1999. Back

18   Tomorrow's Countryside - 2020 vision, Countryside Agency, 1999, p.3. Back

19   Q.25. Back

20   Towards Tomorrow's Countryside, p.4; see Back

21   Towards Tomorrow's countryside, p.7. Back

22   Towards Tomorrow's Countryside, p.2. Back

23   Q.2. Back

24   England's Rural Future, DEFRA, December 2001, para.8. Back

25   See England's Rural Future, DEFRA, December 2001, para.8 ff. Back

26   Towards Tomorrow's Countryside, p.2. Back

27   Rural Advocate to Champion Countryside, Countryside Agency News Article, 28 November 2000; see article on the internet at Back

28   Rural Advocate to Champion Countryside, Countryside Agency News Article, 28 November 2000. Back

29   Q.49. Back

30   England's Rural Future, DEFRA, December 2001, p.7. Back

31   Q.49. Back

32   Q.49. Back

33   Q.34. Back

34   England's Rural Future, DEFRA, December 2001, p.7. Back

35   England's Rural Future, DEFRA, December 2001, p.20. Back

36   Evidence taken on the Establishment of DEFRA and other matters on 14 November 2001, HC (2001-02) 366-i. Back

37   England's Rural Future, DEFRA, December 2001, p.7. Back

38   Q.14. Back

39   Q.13. Back

40   Q.7. Back

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