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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



Mr Breed

  80. In your evidence you point out of course that DEFRA has got a huge range of different responsibilities and areas of policy and you go on to see linkages, and in fact you try to put them in a chart and suggest that there is an absolute mass of them. But then you make what I think is quite a worrying statement when you say, "these linkages are not well understood in DEFRA, especially at national level". One might think of course that that is one of the most fundamental principles of putting a department together in this particular case. Then you suggest that secondments might be one way forward. Do you think that the first year of DEFRA, and in particular the way it has formulated policy, has been damaged or reduced in some way because of its failure to get to grips with these obvious linkages?
  (Mr Way) I suppose what we have already said this morning is that we feel that DEFRA is yet to produce a long term vision for rural areas and yes, we would argue that that is partly because it has not understood these linkages. I do not know whether you would like us to amplify any of those.

  81. Let us take one particular area, one more obvious area than anything else, which might be agriculture and tourism. Where would you see that they have principally failed to get to grips and understand the linkages? Part of the whole raison d'étre of setting up DEFRA was to address these rather fundamental things but you are saying that actually here we are and they do not seem to understand them.
  (Mr Fursdon) We do not feel that at the moment they are being proactive and that would be a concern. A question to ask is whether the various different components that make up the department are just that or whether it has a greater ability as a whole, with all its components, to think of the bigger picture. I suppose you could take a small example on tourism and, as you have mentioned it, I would have thought one could perhaps have looked at the question of rural tourism and one could have looked at the linkages between visitors on farms and qualification for countryside stewardship and access through countryside stewardship. If you take areas where too much access could be a bad thing but some access would be a good thing, for example, I suspect the RSPB might share that way where you have dangers of too many people but some access would be good. There might be opportunities, for example, to link the provision of access on farms with farm tourism in a way that qualifies for certain countryside stewardship payments. It is just thinking slightly outside the box and I do not see that at the moment there is evidence of DEFRA doing that and coming out with some imaginative and original ideas.

  82. You then suggest that that might be covered by secondments principally between the Countryside Agency, regional offices and national offices, which is all the same sort of thing. Very often of course the best converts are people who come from totally outside who are not part of the culture. I was curious as to why you felt that secondments between people from different offices might blow some real fresh air into the whole process.
  (Mr Fursdon) I would go further and say secondments actually into the front line and into places where people have to make a profit or they fail, where people are provided. It is difficult to see how you can set it up, however. It is easy to see how in practical terms you might be able to get secondments with the Countryside Agency. Where people from DEFRA would have a role to be seconded into what is essentially a business of small individuals and operations and so on, it is much more difficult to see, but I agree with you: that is where they need to be seen and how these things could work, to get some of these ideas and come back with ideas that might be fresher and a new approach.

  83. Finally, and I touched on this with the RSPB, I am personally somewhat confused about the relationship between the Countryside Agency and DEFRA and their relative roles here. The Countryside Agency was set up principally so that they did not have to set up DEFRA and now we have got both. Do you think that perhaps at the end of the day a wholesale merger of the two might not just be one way of achieving this, mass secondment as it were?
  (Mr Fursdon) Then there would not be anywhere to second anyone to! I think that the Countryside Agency has a useful role because of its independence. Independence of government is a very important factor, and the ability to produce a state of the countryside report, for example, where the Countryside Agency could be critical or produce factual statistical evidence to support things from outside government, is useful. In practical terms I suspect it is probably more nimble on its feet and possibly able to introduce quicker pilot schemes, studies, whatever, that can then be fed through into the policy agenda. I think there is a role for the Countryside Agency and it is through the practical ability of being more nimble on its feet and also perhaps by its very independence it provides quite a good alternative check to what is going on.

Paddy Tipping

  84. The CLA were very early advocates of the Department of Rural Affairs. A year on how do you think they have done in the rural affairs agenda?
  (Mr Fursdon) I would say that it is very hard after a year to say because that year has not been a normal year. One would need, to be fair to them, to give them a normal year of operation to see where some of the things that we have been suggesting could come out. We have not yet seen a lot of original thinking. We have seen so far a lot of safety first and "Let us have more consultations after Curry" rather than "Let us take it on", and I would say that I would like to see signs of more originality but I do also think you have to be fair to them and say that they have had to pick up the consequences of foot and mouth.

  85. There were lot of good ideas in the Rural White Paper. What has happened to it? Has it sunk?
  (Mr Way) Some have been implemented. There has been progress on helping rural transport, for example. We think there is still need for more action. Affordable housing I would particularly flag up. DEFRA does not have the responsibility for affordable housing but we would hope that it would be—I am not sure "grit in the oyster" is the right phrase—the voice in government that would stir that up and push and lobby for that problem to be addressed where the decision is going to be taken, so for DEFRA to be successful it will have to be persuasive in No 10 and No 11 and it will have to have support from No 10 and No 11. There is no suggestion from us that it should have more bits of Whitehall added to it but that once it is able to put a persuasive voice on behalf of rural areas it should take that voice to the rest of Whitehall and should be the monitor of implementation of the Rural White Paper.

  86. Do you think that voice exists at the moment? Is it a strong enough voice? Is there enough grit in the oyster? Is there enough political clout there? Is it going forward?
  (Mr Way) I think there is potential for the clout. I heard the earlier discussion. I am not sure there is enough coherence in it and one of the factors for being persuasive is to be coherent as to how what it proposed would bring about particular objectives and how these fit in with the government's wider plan. For example, on affordable housing, the government has now recognised that across the board there is a shortage of housing for people on average wages and below. That applies in rural areas as it does in urban areas and DEFRA should be making that point. They may be making it. We will see in the comprehensive spending review but an increase in the rural housing programme within the housing corporation's budget will be a sign of whether or not that voice has been heard.

  87. Of course it puts all these links into rural proofing.
  (Mr Way) Yes, it does.

  88. And of course the Countryside Agency independently has a role in this but again do you think it is making progress on rural proofing?
  (Mr Way) It is patchy. There are one or two examples in the Department of Education where it has. What we have been asking for is a more proactive approach to rural proofing so that DEFRA would go to other departments, for example, health, and discuss the needs of rural areas for sufficient health visitors, how people are going to visit those who convalesce after operations, because more operations are going to be in hi-tech general hospitals. The rural impact of that is how do people get to visit their relations after they come out of the main hospital.

  89. So you want to see a sense of enthusiasm and pro-activism within the department which, because of difficulties over the last year, you do not think is there just now?
  (Mr Way) I think it is there in some of the senior staff. I am not sure that it is inculcated lower down.
  (Mr Fursdon) It is linked with morale. The question is, can you attract the right people? It is patchy. We would have thought that these are really quite interesting jobs for people to do and to link these things and to find a blueprint and a way forward. I would have thought that they could have attracted people if they were given the opportunity. The question that we are not sure about is whether it has been seen that there is the opportunity to play this role on a wider canvas than they have so far.

  90. You have always taken as an organisation a big interest in planning issues. Planning is not part of the department now and that clearly creates some conflicts. How do you see the whole planning agenda going forward? What should the department be doing around planning issues?
  (Mr Way) I am certain there is a role. There are two things. One is for DEFRA through the Whitehall machinery to put its views in, for example, the Green Paper on planning; to get a rural voice heard there. We have a fear that what we will end up with is a gap between sub-regional strategies and local development frameworks and the balanced development of rural areas may get left out. The other thing it could do, if we could persuade it to do so, is to put forward one or two specifics. We have argued, for example, that because PPG7, which is the Countryside Planning Guidance, now has taken on board the sustainability agenda, now is the time to apply this in green belts. We are now looking at development in the countryside in terms of scale, design, how it fits into the environment of the wider countryside. Those should be the criteria for where the development should take place within the green belts, whereas in fact we see problems in green belts, we see development leap-frogging green belts and we see some slowing down of decision making and what to do in green belts. DEFRA could take a view on that because it represents the whole rural area.

  91. Are they doing that?
  (Mr Way) I do not think we have persuaded them to do it yet but we are seeking to. We have been in discussion with them because they are not sure that their views on rural areas and planning more widely, just putting green belts to one side, are being fully taken into account in the decision making on the Green Paper and moving into a Bill. They are concerned.

David Taylor

  92. My memory says that there was a Cabinet Sub-Committee formed to deal with rural affairs.
  (Mr Way) Yes.

  93. I am not certain if it still exists but I am going to make a heroic assumption. Paddy, who knows about these things, says it does. Where does that fit in with the role of DEFRA?
  (Mr Way) My understanding is that it exists and that indeed it was announced at the time of the creation of DEFRA that the Secretary of State was going to chair it. We welcomed that because we had suggested that. It is our hope that that would be a monitor for DEFRA to ensure rural proofing of other government policies.

  94. I sense from the way you are answering this question that you are not aware of whether it has met.
  (Mr Way) I am not aware that it has met.

  95. My memory says that the last time somebody asked a question about this it clearly had not met very often and, listening to your lines of argument which see DEFRA very much co-ordinating, observing, commenting, developing rural matters in government where it does not have a direct department responsibility, you might have thought that this committee could have been the ideal vehicle to have views for that task, but the fact that you are groping in the nicest sense to find something to tell me about suggests that it is not exactly planning a high profile role in the development and execution of rural policy, and indeed sustainability across government.
  (Mr Way) I do not know. I am not aware that it has. We would not put all our faith in committees but the advantage of a committee that is meeting regularly is that progress can be chased. I think outside a committee there has to be the co-operation anyway.

  David Taylor: Perhaps, Chairman, we might return to further investigation of this area.

Mr Borrow

  96. You sat in the back of the room when we had the group discussion about the Department's sustainable development strategy which was announced last week. I wonder if you would like to touch on your views on the strategy for an involvement you have had in developing the strategy and how you see that fitting in in terms of the Department's role and within government in general.
  (Mr Way) We had some opportunity to feed into it. We were not very closely involved in its development and we have seen the result. I suppose, to be frank with you, the area that I have looked at—and it will not be the only one that we do look at—is food and farming and we were concerned that the two objectives or measures that are in here are productivity of farming (and there is nothing wrong with that as a measure in itself but we do not think it is enough) and real food prices. The graph shows productivity going up and it shows real food prices going down but that is considered as I read this report as being a sufficient guide that all is well within the government's objective to modernise agriculture. Of course there are other measures for sustainable development of the countryside, including woodland and farmland birds and so on. I do not think we have an objection to those measures being there. We would like to see how they will go, but on farming our problem with this is that looking just at those measures, achievement of them is consistent with a contraction in the amount of land farmed in the UK and it is consistent with a reduction in the number of people employed in farming in the UK, ie on much larger farms. We are very unsure that either of those outcomes is going to produce the means for sustainability in terms of the capacity to operate stewardship, so we think on their own these measures do not come up with an answer for sustainable development for agriculture. You have to consider how the objective of environmental sustainability and social sustainability in the countryside, how agriculture is going to achieve both of those, and we think this actually for once is too economic and has not taken those into account.

  97. In spite of the difficulties of balancing social, economic and environmental aspects, I suppose there is an argument that if the amount of land that is used for agriculture and the number of people who are employed in agriculture and the intensity of agriculture will reduce, then some of the negative aspects of agriculture on the environment will also reduce in terms of the use of pesticides, etc. The point you are making, I take it, is that that may still need some input from the Exchequer to ensure that the landscape and woodland and the other environmental aspects of rural life can be sustained.
  (Mr Way) We believe that conservation of the countryside depends on active land management and that an outcome which may be a contraction of British agriculture is not on its own guaranteed to produce that active management. It may if the land that is not being used for agriculture is being actively managed for something else. There is no indication in here of how that is going to come about. If the alternative is that the same amount of land is used but on much larger farms, as you have just said, it is not clear whether that is going to be managed with stewardship or not and we believe that stewardship option should be there in order to provide the conservation that we think is part of sustainable development.

  98. You sat in the back when we discussed these issues earlier with the RSPB. Guy Thompson made a comment that the document was very much just dealing with bits of the sustainable development agenda that fell within DEFRA and that it ought really to extend it beyond DEFRA or at least there ought to be a more government-wide view rather than simply the remit of DEFRA to develop it. Do you have any views on that aspect?
  (Mr Way) Only in that we have said, and it is not rocket science or perhaps the whole answer, that DEFRA needs the support of No 10 and No 11 in agitating for sustainable development criteria to be integrated into other departments' policies and we are in support of that. We have accepted it for rural areas and we have tried to suggest ways in which it could be advanced in rural areas, so I think we would be a bit disturbed if it is not happening in urban areas.
  (Mr Fursdon) Even if you take just the rural areas and go outside of DEFRA's remit, the question of the sustainability of a village community, for example, involves discussions about planning as well and what is a threshold population to make a village viable if it is going to provide anything in the way of services or opportunities for the people living within that village. Therefore it has to go wider into other departmental remits other than just DEFRA than the way it is organised at the moment. DEFRA cannot do everything. There is an interaction.

Mr Lepper

  99. In the light of all that you have said to us this morning do you see evidence of those clear links between DEFRA and other government departments responsible, for instance, for planning, transport, housing, education, the NHS, all the things which you mention in your submission as vital to considering the rural economy let alone the urban economy? Do you see clear evidence of those links between DEFRA and those departments which ministers who came before us last autumn assured us were in place or were being put in place?
  (Mr Way) When we speak to ministers we see some evidence that ministers see those linkages. We were pleased that after seeing the Minister for Small Businesses we have had a connection made to the Small Business Service which we see as being relevant in rural areas. The discussion goes on and the civil servants do share information and copy their policy material around but, at the risk of repeating ourselves, what we do not yet see is the DEFRA officials taking an agenda forward with their opposite numbers in the other departments and seeing why they would wish to do so.
  (Mr Fursdon) It is a question of ownership, I think. It is very easy to have everything sub-divided into sections and nobody actually sits up there and I know there were comments made at the Curry Commission and so on, but someone needs to take ownership of the co-ordination of these things. It is either done by somebody else or it is done by DEFRA being a bit more forthright and going further into trying to draw the threads together.

  Mr Lepper: We are back to clout again.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed.


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