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

Memorandum submitted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England ( G20)


  1.  CPRE is a national charity which helps people to protect their local countryside where there is threat, to enhance it where there is opportunity, and to keep it beautiful, productive and enjoyable for everyone. We have a longstanding interest in the role of Government in rural areas and welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into the role of the newly created Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

  2.  CPRE has in the past argued against the establishment of a "rural" Department because of concerns regarding the potential marginalisation of rural issues across Whitehall. With many of the key issues affecting rural areas such as the provision of healthcare, education and affordable housing being the responsibility of other Departments, there was also a risk that a "rural" Department would not have sufficient influence over key priorities and outcomes. We were also concerned about the dangers of separating environmental and rural responsibilities from the then DETR and the risk that this might create for a stronger focus within that Department on delivering infrastructure and development rather than achieving wider policy objectives.

  3.  Reflecting recent changes, CPRE has moved from this position. Our report A Department for Rural Affairs—changing MAFF or changing names, published in May 2001, outlined a range of ways in which MAFF could be restructured and re-invigorated to better a deliver a more integrated and innovative approach to rural areas. This included the establishment of new environment and rural development divisions within MAFF as well as a range of measures to foster a new culture within the Department, which together could secure the integrated approach to rural areas envisaged by the Rural White Paper.

  4.  Our key aspirations for the new Department were that it should:

    —  be a modern forward-looking Department that could enthusiastically take forward and deliver Government policy for land management (including farming), food, rural communities, landscape, heritage, public enjoyment, recreation and fisheries;

    —  be an integrated Department that moves forward on environmental, social, economic and resource management objectives together and where policies to deliver more sustainable farming fit within a wider approach to providing more sustainable and integrated land management and rural development;

    —  acknowledge the role of farming and agriculture in the modern economy of rural areas and not be dominated by agricultural interests;

    —  champion rural areas and help secure a strong rural dimension in the work of all Government Departments;

    —  promote integration between urban and rural communities and recognise the importance of the beauty, tranquillity and diversity of the countryside to the nation and quality of life;

    —  have a strong tier at a regional level that is integrated with other Government Departments and regional institutions, processes and stakeholders and has the capacity to tailor policy to suit the differing needs and opportunities of England's very diverse rural areas; and

    —  be open and accessible to a wide range of stakeholders and take a fully consultative approach to policy development.


  5.  CPRE broadly welcomed the opportunities created by DEFRA's establishment last year. Its overall structure reflects many of our recommendations and aspirations for a reformed MAFF and provides real opportunities to bring a stronger environmental input into the future of food and farming policy and to develop environmental policy in a manner which is better integrated with the countryside and rural land use issues. Its welcome aims and objectives are also broad and reflect the "multi-purpose" nature of the countryside and the need to deliver on a range of functions—not just the production of food and fibre. The establishment and subsequent report of the independent Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food (the Curry Report) has reinforced the need for a step-change in farming and the food chain in which the environment plays a more integral role—an objective to which DEFRA should be strongly positioned to respond.

  6.  We have also welcomed the strengthened regionalisation of DEFRA's responsibilities and, in particular, its integration with the Government Offices of the Regions. This, we hope, will help develop a more integrated approach to rural policy and delivery that links farming with the wider rural agenda. The ability to deliver such enhancements is improved by the continued support by DEFRA for the England Rural Development Programme and its Regional Chapters. These allow for a more discerning approach to rural programmes and the better matching of support to the diversity of rural England. The establishment of new consultative arrangements, such as the national and Regional Rural Affairs Forums and ERDP consultation groups, should also enable the refinement of policies and programmes to meet regional priorities and needs.

  7.  We remain concerned, however, that the environment overall is becoming divorced from other Government policy decisions. Moreover, we believe DEFRA has been slow to respond to the opportunities for an integrated approach to farming, the countryside and the environment offered by its creation. For example, DEFRA has, so far, been noticeably absent from engaging positively in some key debates including the Government's current review of the planning system, and its proposals to speed up consideration of major infrastructure projects and invest in new roads. It has also been slow to respond to the many welcome recommendations of the recent Curry Report, behind which there was almost universal support. While we recognise the constraints of the 2002 Spending Review process, and the uncertainty this creates for available resources, we believe that more than has been achieved through the recent round of regional consultations could have been done to move the debate on to the mechanics of implementation.


  8.  The attitude and approach of existing staff is a potential barrier to delivering the opportunities of a new approach to rural and environmental issues offered by DEFRA. It is essential that officials at all levels are conversant with its new aims and objectives and are encouraged to adopt a new and more holistic approach to solving rural problems. This will be a particular challenge given the cultural "inertia" that appeared endemic in the former MAFF and the dominance of staff, in terms of numbers and resources, focused on the agricultural sector. Our paper, DEFRA—A New Way for a New Department (see Annex) provides a range of integration mechanisms to assist the cultural change. In addition to restructuring and reviewing policies and programmes, therefore, we urge the Committee to recommend that DEFRA takes seriously the need for a cultural change within the Department. This agenda should be led by the Department's Corporate Strategy Unit with leadership from the Board and senior Ministers. In the longer term, DEFRA should seek to secure additional resources from a larger share of the EU Rural Development Regulation funds and as a result redress the current imbalance in the Department's resources to better reflect the role of farming in the modern economy of rural areas.


  9.  Clearly the foot and mouth outbreak last year was a major distraction from DEFRA's early programme. Now, more than ever, there is a pressing need to secure change on the ground. The Rural White Paper provides many welcome initiatives and ideas that could help address the problems of service decline, lack of affordable housing and poor access to training and childcare facing many rural communities. The challenge to DEFRA is to translate these into tangible improvements on the ground.

  10.  A key tool to assist this process of delivery is that of "rural proofing". The recent Countryside Agency report on rural proofing, however, highlighted that DEFRA could be doing more internally and externally to rural proof policy and practice. How the Department responds to this challenge will be critical in ensuring the effective implementation of the Rural White Paper, as many aspects of delivery lie beyond DEFRA's areas of responsibility. We urge the Committee to recommend that DEFRA gets back on track with the implementation of the Rural White Paper, and adopts the rural proofing processes identified by the Countryside Agency. Achieving the Rural Services Standard, as set out in the Rural White Paper, should be a cross-departmental Public Service Agreement coming out of Spending Review 2002.

  11.  DEFRA will also need to engage with the environmental aspects of the implementation of the Urban White Paper as many of the issues facing the countryside cannot be looked at in isolation from urban areas. While we strongly support the Government's commitment to securing an urban renaissance, we would highlight the disparity of commitment across Government to this process compared with the priority attached to the Rural White Paper. For example, plans for an Urban Summit with the active involvement of all relevant Government Departments are well advanced and supported by a dedicated team of civil servants within the former DTLR and there is a regular bulletin of progress on Urban White Paper implementation. We urge the Committee to encourage DEFRA to convene a "Rural Summit" and foster cross-Government support for the implementation of the Rural White Paper.


  12.  The role of DEFRA in relation to land use planning is also critical. DEFRA has established a small planning team but this is currently under-resourced and not effectively connected to key points of the Department. As highlighted above, we are concerned that they have been largely absent from the debate surrounding the Government's Planning Green Paper until very recently and have yet to articulate a clear view of the role of planning in relation to rural development and farm diversification. We urge the Committee to stress the need for the more active engagement of DEFRA in land use planning and highlight, in particular, the role of planning in securing sustainable patterns of development.

  13.  A key concern remains the relationship between DEFRA and other Government Departments. The Greening Government initiative no longer benefits from a senior member of the Government championing it, and the use of environmental appraisal elsewhere in Government is distinctly patchy. The most recent Annual Report of the Green Ministers Committee notes, for example, that only 55 environmental appraisals were produced between 1 April 2000 and 31 March 2001, and eleven departments produced no environmental appraisals at all. If the causes of unsustainable trends are to be tackled at source, it will be important that DEFRA's ability to influence thinking in other parts of Whitehall is strengthened. This requires the environment to be considered as a core priority for the Government as a whole, rather than a constraint or limitation on the activity of other departments. The Air Transport White Paper; recommendations of the Government's Multi-Modal Studies; the forthcoming Energy White Paper; and the DTI's programme on resource productivity, as well as the planning review, are all areas where DEFRA will need effectively to articulate environmental considerations. While processes were established for joint working with DTLR, the resources committed to this task were small and their effectiveness hard to judge. We recommend that the Committee calls for a stronger and more pro-active engagement of DEFRA in articulating the environmental dimension of Government policy, and promoting its integration into other policy areas.

  14.  It is also becoming increasingly apparent, for example through the planning review, that the loss of the former DETR environmental directorates from the former DTLR to DEFRA was having a negative impact on the work and objectives of the former DTLR. This may be further exacerbated by the recent reshuffle and reorganisation of Government Departments into separate Ministries for transport and regions, local government and planning. The focus of the slimmed down Department of Transport is likely to be on delivering improvements to the experience of travelling by investing in major new infrastructure. Rising traffic levels represent a Headline Sustainable Development Indicator which is moving in the wrong direction, yet which will not be sufficiently addressed through the current spending priorities in the 10-Year Transport Plan which forecasts a 17 per cent increase in traffic. It will be particularly important, therefore, that DEFRA is able to engage with the new DOT and ensure wider environmental and sustainable development objectives are incorporated into its policies and spending priorities. Mechanisms to do this could include: greater use of environmental appraisal by DOT in policy making; re-affirming that the DTLR/DEFRA Protocol on joint working applies to the DOT; increasing staff resources within DEFRA for joint working; and enabling a senior DEFRA official to continue to sit on the DOT Board. We recommend the Committee Highlights the need for greater cross-Government co-operation and integration by other Departments with DEFRA.

  15.  One of the main mechanisms for integrating environmental concerns into policy making has been the use of Sustainable Development Headline Indicators. While these have provided a useful monitoring tool, they have not been as effective in capturing the attention of Ministers and officials as specific targets (eg on climate change or congestion). More Departments are being encouraged to follow the lead taken by the Department of Health and the then DETR in publishing 10 Year Plans. In addition to the various strategies which DEFRA will be publishing, we believe there would be great value in DEFRA developing a 10-Year plan for the Environment. This would focus on outcomes and bind other Departments more effectively into Government-wide targets. The outcome targets of such a Plan could be incorporated into the Public Service Agreements of a range of departments in the Spending Review. We recommend that the Committee calls for the development of a 10-Year Plan for the Environment.


  16.  While we welcome the broad thrust of the aims and objectives of DEFRA, we are concerned that its vision fails specifically to mention the importance of a diverse and beautiful rural landscape. Moreover, we are disappointed that the importance of a high quality countryside is not yet fully understood by DEFRA overall. This is particularly the case given the lessons highlighted by the foot and mouth experience last year that demonstrated the importance of the rural landscape to local, regional and national economies and the public in general and the multi-purpose nature of a modern countryside. The 2000 Rural White Paper highlights the importance of rural landscape and included commitments to "look after, restore and conserve the landscape" and to "develop a more holistic approach which takes better account of all landscape in national best practice guidance".

  17.  DEFRA, however, has been slow to progress many of the commitments on landscape. For example, the development of an indicator of countryside quality, including tranquillity, dark skies and countryside character, is only in the very early stages. The Department has also taken a very cautious approach to the designation of the proposed National Park in the New Forest—recently announcing a full public inquiry which will potentially revisit many of the issues upon which there has already been extensive consultation by the Countryside Agency. We urge the Committee to call for a more concerted effort to recognise, protect and enhance the beauty and diversity of the rural landscape and the "countryside for its own sake" across DEFRA's areas of responsibility.


  18.  As highlighted above, we are disappointed at the pace of implementation of the recommendations of the Curry Report. We believe the Department should be taking a more confident and pro-active approach to fostering a more sustainable and viable farming industry that delivers a wide range of public goods, not least a beautiful and diverse countryside. This includes the establishment of pilot schemes to develop an entry-level agri-environment scheme which provides outputs at a landscape scale, further de-coupling of agricultural support payments from production and enabling farmers to meet the regulatory responsibilities of forthcoming EU legislation. We recommend that the Committee encourages DEFRA to take forward the vision outlined in the Curry report more vigorously and recognise the role of farming in delivering a range of benefits for the countryside and the nation as a whole.

  19.  While DEFRA should seek to minimise administrative costs of their schemes where possible, this objective should not undermine the ability of schemes to deliver their environmental objectives. We believe there is a strong justification for significant resources to be available for the facilitation of farm support and that a comprehensive farm audit should be included as an essential element of any future agri-environment scheme. We urge the Committee to recognise that good quality advice and planning is more than an "administrative overhead" but is an essential part of ensuring the delivery of the environmental outputs the schemes are designed to support.

  20.  DEFRA should also be adopting a positive stance in securing support for radical reform of the CAP across Europe, including securing some significant changes through the current Mid-Term Review. There is a significant consensus behind the need for CAP reform. With its broad aims and objectives, increasingly regionalised structure and potential for integration of environmental, farming and rural development objectives, DEFRA is well placed to pioneer a new approach to rural policy. We recommend that the Committee calls on DEFRA to take a more pro-active stance in Europe and lead the way in securing further reform of the CAP.


  21.  DEFRA is a Department which has tremendous potential to deliver an integrated rural policy which reflects the aspirations, needs and priorities of a modern countryside. It also has a key but challenging role to play in securing sustainable development as a core objective across Government. We believe DEFRA is taking these roles seriously and is beginning to make some welcome inroads. There remains, however, a long way to go and influencing activity across Government will be a major challenge. DEFRA should also not lose its broad perspective in its drive to secure a sustainable future for farming and should remain vigilant in remaining true to its vision.

May 2002

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