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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)




  100. Welcome to the Committee. We have in front of us the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Mr Gregor Hutcheon, who is Head of Policy (Rural), Mr Neil Sinden, Assistant Director (Policy), and Mr Paul Hamblin, Head of Policy (Transport & Natural Resources). We are inquiring into what the role of DEFRA is and whether it is able to discharge that role, so we are not really interested in a sort of wish list of what everybody wished it was doing, we really want to know whether it has defined properly what it thinks it is doing and whether your experience of dealing with it shows that it is able to do so. So that is the key task. My first question is, you suggest, in your evidence to us, that, in fact, not a great deal has changed and there is still a lot of the old attitudes which are still embedded in the Department. Without naming individual officials, could you give an illustration of what you mean; what has happened to you, what phone calls have you had, as it were, what meetings have you had which you have come out of saying, "Nothing's changed"?

  (Mr Sinden) Yes; if I can kick off. To put this in a broader context, I think it is important to stress that for many years our experience of dealing with the former MAFF was a difficult one, and embraced long-standing problems to do with what we perceived as an inability of that institution to encompass and embrace change that was necessary in the way it addressed questions concerning the future of the countryside and the future of farming. I think some of these problems were structural, in terms of the way in which that Department was set up, and its failure to recognise, I think, the broader, multi-purpose role of farming and agriculture in the countryside, and its narrow focus, from the very early post-war period, on agricultural production and support, and that was reflected in, I think, a sort of very strong imbalance in the amount of resources and staffing that was going into commodity support and servicing of the agricultural industry. And I think what we are seeing now, with the new Department, is, to some extent, a continuation of that culture; we welcome the moves that the Department has made in terms of setting up a perhaps more balanced structure, in recognition of its wider remit, and we very much support the potential role that the Department can play in developing a strategy and an approach to rural areas which reflect society's aspirations for a modern countryside and for improved standards of environmental protection and environmental quality. I think that, in terms of the contact we have had with the Department and officials within the Department to date, we enjoy a largely positive relationship, particularly with senior members of staff, and we are very encouraged by the enthusiasm that staff at that level have shown towards the wider remit of the new Department. But we do have concerns, both in the centre and out in the regions, that the new culture, the new remit, the new approach, is not perhaps as widely shared as we would like it to be.

  101. And is that because you attribute that to a failure to change the culture, or do you attribute that just to the lack of, let us say, policy instruments to implement the new aspirations?
  (Mr Sinden) I think it is a bit of both. I think there are big questions about the challenge that the new Department faces in delivery on a new farming strategy, and I think there are big questions there about the policy instruments it needs to develop and promote in order to deliver on that very big, challenging agenda. I think there are also questions about the policy instruments it has at its disposal, in terms of promoting sustainable development across Government, as well, and we may want to go into more detail on those issues later on, if that would be helpful to the Committee.

  102. On the sustainable development thing, I always imagine, if I was working in the Department and I get up in the morning and look at myself in the shaving mirror and say, "Today, I'm really going to make sure I deliver this sustainable development sort of thing," what would I do, what sort of questions would I ask, as I am sitting at my desk, to make sure I am delivering this? It is one of these wonderful phrases, and I sometimes wonder, the poor blighters who have actually got to translate this into daily action, what does it actually mean, in terms of what they are doing?
  (Mr Hamblin) I think it is about looking at problems in slightly different ways, and, as Neil mentioned, taking a broader perspective to the problems and your place within that Department, so that you are no longer simply focusing on a sub-objective which is very narrowly defined, but you are taking a much broader outlook, you are recognising that sustainable development is a cross-cutting issue, and that you have a role to play within that. And, for the countryside, more tangibly, I think that means that we need to move away perhaps from looking at the countryside and the demands that we place on it, to what can the countryside sustainably provide, from consuming more from the countryside, in terms of resource use, to getting more from less, and really looking at broader issues about quality of life, rather than narrowly-defined economic growth, as measured by GDP.

Mr Jack

  103. But, Mr Sinden, you said at the beginning that you were hoping that DEFRA would develop yet more strategies, according to your own definition of what was required, and yet, if you look at the plethora of documents that have come out from DEFRA, if you look at their Annual Report, it is suffering almost from aspirational overkill. Do I get the impression that you do not think it has yet come up with a clear definition of what it is about, or, if you like, got off the starting-blocks in a forceful way, that you can happily define what this thing is all about?
  (Mr Sinden) I think we would recognise a certain proportion of the picture you paint there. Our concern here is not that we see the Department developing yet more strategies and more sets of aspirations, but actually we see the Department beginning to focus on implementation and delivery. And, for example, in that respect, we would be very keen to explore, and the Committee may well like to explore, the possibility of the Department having a much more coherent focus, a targeted set of delivery objectives in connection with the strategy statements that it has developed.

  104. Are they not already defined, as you may have seen in their Annual Report, with its PSA agreements; all of those are supposed to be about delivery? Do I adjudge that perhaps you do not think much of those?
  (Mr Hutcheon) I think, in terms of what the Department is trying to set out and what it wants to try to achieve, we welcome what it is trying to achieve, because one of the opportunities we think DEFRA offers is to look at the countryside in a far broader context than MAFF ever could and ever did. We are concerned, and whilst the Rural White Paper, for example, is a policy document that we think DEFRA should take ownership of, like the Curry Report, which I know the Committee is well aware of, the tremendous consensus there is around that, the Rural White Paper was a similar document, which was extremely wide-ranging, was very visionary, set out the future challenges facing the countryside, and we would like to see DEFRA being the champion of the implementation of the Rural White Paper. Last year, clearly, with foot and mouth disease, understandably, the Department's focus was elsewhere; we would like to see it now get back on track, we would like to see less of the effort being placed, now that the context has been set, about what it wants to try to do, and more on looking at the PSA targets and agreements, which we welcome. I do not think there is one, for example, on PSAs and rural service delivery, the Rural White Paper sets some rural service standards, perhaps those could be incorporated into the PSA agreements with all other Departments. Because one of the challenges that DEFRA faces is that it cannot deliver all it wants to do on its own, and so what we need to do is find mechanisms which make sure that it delivers across Government; and, obviously, with the distractions last year, it has not been able maybe to do that. So I do not think we would want to be overly critical of progress so far, but we are concerned that it really does wake up to the challenges that are facing the countryside now.

Mrs Shephard

  105. There does seem to be some internal contradiction between you, if I may say so. Mr Sinden is saying the individual should look, as it were, across the board, while one of his colleagues is saying there should be a more targeted approach. Now an individual can only do a certain number of things, and surely it is either one or the other, and I do not understand that apparent inconsistency; perhaps you can explain it?
  (Mr Hutcheon) Can I illustrate it maybe by an example. One of the recommendations of the Curry Report was for a food chain centre to be set up, to look at the whole food chain. An old MAFF approach to that might have been to look at the economic efficiencies that could be achieved, and that might be its focus. What we would argue DEFRA's focus for the food chain centre should be is not to focus purely on economic efficiency in the food chain but to look at quality in the food chain, so trying to improve the environmental performance of the way in which we produce food and trying to deliver more environmental benefits. To improve the economic efficiency, yes, because we want viable businesses, but to make sure that it actually delivers more for local economies in the countryside and more for GDP, and, in terms of society, delivering more jobs in rural areas. So, there, we have an example of a focused initiative, it is looking at the food chain, but it has a broader perspective and is trying to deliver a much broader range of objectives.

  106. Can you also tell me what your organisation's approach is, given that at the moment your strictures are defined to people in DEFRA, which is essentially centralised, to the setting up of regional government?
  (Mr Sinden) We, as an organisation, do not have any strong position on the pros and cons of a regional tier of government.

  107. Surely, you should have?
  (Mr Sinden) What we do have is a view on how regional structures can work best for the countryside and for the interests that CPRE represents. We also recognise, as an organisation, that the appetite for directly-elected regional assemblies varies from one part of the country to another, and, indeed, the diversity in public opinion is well reflected in CPRE's membership and amongst our local groups and our regional groups. Because we do have a firmly embedded regional structure, which matches the Government's standard planning regions, and we have had that for a number of years, because we saw, before the Labour Government came in, in 1997, a trend towards regional decision-making, the previous Government put in place the integrated Government Regional Offices, back in, I think, 1994, and we responded to that, as an organisation, by strengthening our regional structures. We have continued to strengthen our regional structures, as the trend towards regionalisation has progressed, and it is likely that, where we see, in one or more parts of the country, a strong expression of public support for directly-elected regional assemblies, we would seek to match that with further structural change within our organisation. So we are adopting a horses for courses approach. But I think the final point I would make on this is, in terms of CPRE's focus on the land use planning system, we are very concerned indeed that the Government appears to be pushing the regional governments agenda much further and much faster than is desirable, in terms of the planning structures that are required to deliver strong and effective strategic planning decisions at the sub-regional level. So we have been arguing very strongly, in the context of the planning review, but also in the context of the Regional Governments White Paper, that we would not want to see a significant move away from strategic planning decisions being taken at a county level, if there were not clear and directly-elected and democratically accountable regional assemblies in place. So we are concerned about the issue in that sense, and we would like to see the Government decoupling its regionalisation agenda, to some extent, from its planning reform agenda; but we do recognise that perhaps in one or two parts of the country it may well be that we see directly-elected regional assemblies in place within the next five to six years.

  108. I am sure you would agree that regional arrangements for administration are one thing, but regional arrangements, either for diffusing centrally-taken decisions, which are not, of course, easy to be described as accountable, or, indeed, regional assemblies, which might be dominated by urban thinking and urban interests, are a very different matter. And I wonder if your organisation has analysed the likely composition of regional assemblies, or regional decision-making, and whether that would swamp, to use a very fashionable word, rural interests?
  (Mr Sinden) Yes, we are looking at this, in the context of the White Paper; and, as I said at the very beginning of my comments on this issue, we are concerned to ensure that any new regional structures work best for the countryside and for the interests we represent. And, therefore, the issue of representation of rural interests on any future directly-elected regional assembly is a key one for us. The only further comment I would add, at this stage, we have not refined our position precisely on this question, is that we are anxious that perhaps the relatively small size of regional assembly, which is being promoted in the White Paper, would not enable adequate representation of rural interests on a regional body of that kind; so we are likely to be pressing the Government to think much more carefully about this issue of rural representation. I do not know whether Gregor would like to say something about the ERDP angle on this.
  (Mr Hutcheon) Yes. Continuing the theme of regionalisation, actually, one of the things we were going to congratulate the former MAFF on, which was one of the few times we would have congratulated MAFF, I think, given our experience of them, was on the regionalisation agenda. It had set up the ERDP, the England Rural Development Programme, and its regional chapters, which, actually, for the first time, allowed a much more decentralised approach to rural policy, design and delivery. In the past, it had been very centralised, not even just nationally dictated but from Europe; and what we recognise is that the countryside is extremely diverse and that the priorities in the South West will be very different from the priorities in the South East. And so we welcome the changes that MAFF made in regionalising its delivery and design and also its integration into the Government Offices of the Region, because they also recognise that you cannot look at the farming sector in isolation from the rest of the economy and society in rural areas, and indeed urban areas, because the two are so closely interlinked. So that sort of progress down to the regional level is something that we welcome, and we believe that the ERDP is a mechanism which can help encourage that further integration and a better, more discerning approach to rural policy design and delivery.

Mr Borrow

  109. For the benefit of CPRE, there is a range of views amongst members of the Committee, when it comes to regional government, and no doubt we will continue to debate those elsewhere. But coming to this morning's area of work, we had a meeting here, last week, where the RSPB came along, and I think the comment they made was that the DEFRA still suffered from much of the silo thinking, I think was the phrase they used, of the old MAFF. I wonder to what extent, in your dealings with DEFRA, you feel that that is still the case, and whether you think there is any change taking place?
  (Mr Hutcheon) As Neil said earlier, we are enjoying very positive relationships, particularly at a senior level, with the new DEFRA, where I think there is a significant degree of buy-in to what DEFRA can offer, and the opportunities for a new approach, a much more integrated approach, to the countryside, which links farming, rural development and environmental issues. At a middle-ranking level, I think we are coming up against frustrations, that there is still a kind of territorial approach to issues; for example, the approach to delivering on the farm strategy, there tends to be a fairly hefty and old MAFF style attitude to what Curry has set out in his vision, from certain sectors within DEFRA, at that sort of middle-ranking level. And we find that the dialogue that we would like to see happening across DEFRA, so the environment and rural development and farming interests are actually trying to come up with an integrated approach and integrated solutions, is not yet quite happening. Whether that is something to do with just time-lag and the fact that you had a whole Ministry that had been working in a particular way for many, many years is too much to expect DEFRA to deliver now, well, we would argue, that may be the case, but the fact is, the challenges are here now and the opportunities are here now, and we would like to see them seize those opportunities more vigorously than they are at the moment.

  110. So that, if you are dealing with middle-ranking officials, rather than very senior officials, would it be true to say that you are having to speak to a large number of officials when discussing a particular subject, because they are compartmentalised within the Department, whereas, ideally, a group of officials should have knowledge of a wider range of policy and be able to liaise with you as one official, rather than half a dozen officials; would that be a reasonable assessment of the situation?
  (Mr Hutcheon) It would seem that way, certainly in the last few months, and we are actually having also to explain our rationale and the other arguments they might be hearing elsewhere within DEFRA to those officials, because that dialogue obviously has not happened yet.

  111. Is there a sense that that problem is recognised by DEFRA at a senior level and is being tackled, or is it not recognised at all?
  (Mr Hamblin) I think it is being recognised at the senior level, both with officials and with Ministers, about the need for a cultural shift, and that that requires a cultural shift in staff, at all levels, right from the top to the front-line staff. And, although it is early days, I think there are a number of things which DEFRA could do, in order to try to encourage that, new ways of thinking, that we have already discussed; and our evidence included a paper, "New Ways for a New Department", which incorporated a number of ideas about how we can ensure that staff are looking at this new approach and what DEFRA is. So things like training programmes, inductions for staff, are they aware of the Sustainable Development Strategy and understand its relevance to their daily work, are staff appraisals looking at how these new documents and the Strategy is going to shift the way in which they work, secondees, which have been used in the past, using those more intelligently, and providing rewards to staff who are thinking in new ways to try to deliver solutions. Even ideas like providing assertiveness training to front-line staff, who are actually wanting to question, perhaps, the status quo of doing things and might find it a bit difficult, but giving people confidence to say, "How can we tackle this problem in a new way, which ensures that all those multiple objectives are addressed?".

Mr Mitchell

  112. Can we just talk about the calibre of those staff, ignoring the kind of penumbra of guff of sustainability, that every Department feels itself obliged to utter, and ignoring the fact that their agenda, DEFRA's agenda, does not quite seem to tie in with yours, which I think is what you are saying, on the ground, what about the quality of the people, has the Department been able to attract a high level of talent, in its recruitment?
  (Mr Hutcheon) That is a difficult question. In a way, as we have said already, at a senior level, we have been very encouraged and very impressed with the calibre of the staff at DEFRA. We have also been frustrated at the apparent blindness of middle-ranking staff to see the new opportunities, or to understand the shift.

  113. To see things your way, or to see . . .
  (Mr Hutcheon) To see things, I think, our way, but also the way in which the whole general public now view the countryside and what they expect of the countryside, to deliver on the wider Rural White Paper agenda, which goes much beyond what MAFF would have sought to deliver. At a regional level, where we also have contact with DEFRA officials, again, it varies; we have experience of the regional consultation groups that DEFRA has set up, of meetings, which have been extremely well run, where they have sought active participation of our volunteers but also a whole range of interests. We have also seen meetings where it has been rather remote, as we are to you today, and where our participation has not been encouraged, where our views have not been sought, where simply we have been told what DEFRA is planning to do. So there is a challenge there, and I think, as DEFRA begins to deliver, it may, hopefully, become more attractive to the high calibre staff that we would like to see in there.

  114. So, okay at the top, where chaps talk to chaps; patchy in the regions. Has it been a case of the same people who were doing the job before carrying on in much the same way, much the same people, in a new Department, with a new role, on the ground?
  (Mr Hutcheon) On the ground, again, it varies, it is patchy, in some places there is a degree of movement, which possibly is a good thing, at this time, to help people to understand there is a new agenda; and where there has not been movement, where people are stuck in their silos, then obviously that is a more challenging situation in which to try to encourage change.
  (Mr Sinden) The key issue for us here is the issue of leadership from the top, and leadership within the regions, to deliver the culture change that we are all looking for, I think. And, as Paul has outlined, we put forward a number of proposals, in the Annex to our written evidence to this Committee, which could begin to achieve this change in approach, this wider perspective and this recognition that we have moved on, that the Department is about, as I said earlier, meeting society's aspirations for a modern countryside and higher standards of environmental protection, rather than simply looking after the interests of one particular part of the economy of rural areas.

  115. I get the impression that you see yourselves as having a role to educate and almost to train them along the lines you think the countryside should be developing; what is your impression of morale in the new Department?
  (Mr Sinden) We have been very encouraged, the high-level contacts we have had with civil servants within the Department, by the passion and the eagerness and the willingness to get to grips with this broader perspective and these critical issues, the future of farming, sustainable development, environmental standards, and so on. But I think it is fair to say that we detect a sort of growing sense of frustration at perhaps the inability of the Department to make an impact where it matters on the centre of Government, in terms of gaining resources, in terms of gaining commitment across Government to sustainable development objectives, and so on. So I think we are beginning to detect this sense of, "Well, we're here, we're established, we've got our new structures, we've got our new remit, we've got a set of strategies," and so on and so forth, but the next couple of years are going to be critical, in terms of the perception that groups like CPRE have of the Department and its ability actually to make an impact and deliver on the ground.

  116. So the problem, as you see it, is not troops, it is not the officers, it is the impact on the general staff?
  (Mr Sinden) Partly that, but I think the point I was trying to make was that this is also a question of the relationship between the Department and other parts of Government, and the level of resourcing that it is able to command and to put into its core objectives.

  117. Just one final question; do you see strains caused by personnel issues, different rates of pay between the different parts brought together?
  (Mr Sinden) I am not sure that we have the evidence to comment on that.

  David Taylor: I do not know whether I ought to declare an interest, I will, as a member of the CPRE. Can I be the only member of this Committee that finds this phrase "rural proofing" pretty vacuous?

  Diana Organ: You are not alone.

  Mr Jack: Welcome to the Club.

David Taylor

  118. I think that was unanimous, the record should show. But, in other contexts, where we weather-proof, or idiot-proof, we seem to be protecting something against the influence of something else, and maybe "rural proofing" is doing just that, protecting policy against rural involvement and influence. Indeed, in the past, can I put to you what you have recorded in your own submission, that you have argued against the establishment of a rural department because of the concerns regarding potential marginalisation, although you have moved from that stance now, and you note the Countryside Agency report, which highlighted the void that exists between what DEFRA say they want to do and what they have achieved so far. Can I adapt the Chairman's very colourful illustration of senior civil servants looking at themselves in the shaving mirror, whether that includes women, or not, I am not sure, to say that how would a senior civil servant, travelling in from the rural vastness of green-booted Islington, into Westminster, really know that rural proofing was actually taking place within the work of DEFRA, because some of your earlier comments do seem to suggest that DEFRA is more interested in farming and international environmental policies and things of that kind? How can it measure its progress in this regard?
  (Mr Sinden) The CPRE, we have to say that we do strongly support the rural proofing mechanism, and I think Paul would have some detailed responses to your questions.
  (Mr Hamblin) Whatever you end up calling rural proofing, the idea of ensuring that all parts of Whitehall are thinking rural is extremely important, if DEFRA is going to be able to have a purchase on the activities of other Departments, and policies are going to be amended, so that, for example, the Rural White Paper can be implemented across Government. And I think that, if you look at the Countryside Agency's first Annual Report, it does show a very mixed picture, it has been variable how Departments have applied rural proofing; we have limited infrastructure in place, in the form of contacts in each Department, we have a checklist which has been produced and circulated. But one of the things that we were particularly worried by and disturbed by was that, according to the Countryside Agency's Report, DEFRA itself had not circulated the checklist widely within its own policy divisions, it was not using it as a regulatory part of policy-making; and if DEFRA is going to champion rural proofing across Whitehall then it is essential that it is an exemplar in its application, and, instead, it seems that it is more of a laggard, when it comes to rural proofing. So, although we have the tools available, in terms of the checklist, there is a real concern that Departments are not using the tools available, and the Countryside Agency has highlighted in its Report a number of problems. But we would urge the Committee to consider what happens now; should the Government be asked to respond formally to that Annual Report on rural proofing and explain to those who are interested in this how they are going to move forward and rectify the poor performance in rural proofing.

  119. Is timing part of the problem? The impression that one gets sometimes is that this vacuous concept is applied at the end of the process, when the product of the policy wonks is about to be released onto a startled world, and the finished elements of their creativity are then measured against some rural ideal, I suppose. Should there not be more involvement, as the policies develop, and, if you agree with that, how could that involvement actually work, in practice?
  (Mr Hamblin) We would agree absolutely that rural proofing, to be effective, needs to be incorporated from the very beginning, and that is about looking at what is the rural dimension, what are going to be the implications for rural areas and the differences between different rural areas, in looking at the objectives for Government programmes, or policies, or spending bids, and that, if we simply apply rural proofing as a checklist towards the end then there will be only marginal changes, and certainly a lot of the potential for the tool will have been lost. But, to answer the question directly, in terms of how you do it, one of the problems is that rural proofing lacks transparency, at the moment, it is very hard to know when policy decisions have been rural proofed; it is easier perhaps to say when they are not. But the Countryside Agency, in its own Annual Report, has said that it is quite difficult, because there is no product, as it were, from the rural proofing exercise, to see, clearly, in a transparent way, whether policies have been rural proofed or not.

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