Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)
WEDNESDAY 3 JULY 2002
140. So what has the Department got against
the National Trust then?
(Mr Burton) There were opportunities; probably we
were not able to make the one seminar date which was presented
to us in the Green Alliance co-ordinated event. So, although it
was welcome that there was some debate, and we were aware of a
process, and if we had chosen we could have become more involved,
our resources and attentions were focused more on Curry and the
farming agenda at the time. It was not the most robust of processes,
but it was a process which was there, we recognised and one we
welcomed. In terms of the document, it is not a major step forward
really, it is a sort of representation of the Sustainable Development
Strategy for Government as a whole, in relation to the Department,
and some useful few new sentences, explaining the relevance of
some of the key principles, as the Government see it, of sustainable
development in relation to DEFRA; and not much of an update, frankly,
of the indicators. And you have heard previously from CPRE about
the lack of progress on that, and that further development has
been under programme on quite a lot of those indicators for quite
a lot of the time. But we should not underestimate the importance
of having this in one set of covers, and the use that we and others
outside Government can make of documents like this in asking pertinent
questions at pertinent points in the development of policy or
in response to decisions that are being made.
141. So the process could have been improved,
the product is alright but could sit on a shelf, and it is a useful
tool to hit people with, is it not?
(Mr Burton) It is not a living document yet, it is
not an active document; the reporting, the enforcement, the sort
of carry forward, the implementation, is as it is with the aims
and objectives, all a bit unclear, and we will be interested to
see what the second Annual Report is able to say on that kind
of monitoring and evaluation of progress.
142. And your evidence is pretty hard about
land planning issues and the fact that the Department now has
very little role and responsibility in this. Tell me about who
is driving sustainability forward across Government now; if I
were trying to identify the real driver for sustainability across
the Government, where would I look?
(Mr Burton) The conscious drive for sustainable development
across Government does not lie within Government, it lies within
the NGOs, there is no question in my mind, the NGOs are much more
joined up in bringing that to Government's attention in all sorts
of places than Government is itself, and more effective in using
Government's own documents to drive policy and change within Government.
There are examples where we have seen progress, and I think the
most helpful in recent months has been the approach that Treasury
has taken to sustainable development, in relation to the Spending
Review, where there is genuine progress, and we have yet clearly
to see the results, to judge those. And the results, as we understand
it, will not be as transparent as perhaps we might wish them to
be, but we are confident, from the conversations and the discussions
that we have had, that Ministers have genuinely been asked searching
questions around sustainable development, for the first time,
in their bids and proposals. So that is the major step forward,
from the last wave of activity around environmental appraisal
and Green Government and Green Ministers networks. And the Sustainable
Development Unit still has this aspiration, but a lack of clout,
to take that more proactively to Government as a whole. So if
you wanted a single point where you would want to chew the cud
about the difficulties, that is where we would go and whom we
would talk to.
143. But the Department itself, in its Annual
Report, says that "sustainability is our prime concern";
are you telling me they have got a lot to do to achieve this then?
(Mr Burton) There are many organisations who say that,
and you will know, as well as anyone, the sort of various conceptions
of what sustainability is, what sustainable development means,
it is a journey, not a destination, it is something which actually
everyone quite easily can say they are doing, but what matters
is, what is different as a result of those kinds of changes. And
there is progress, but it is, as you would expect us to say, slower
progress than is necessary, and what it needs is searching scrutiny,
review and examination, constantly, asking the questions at the
right time, as policies are made and decisions are taken.
144. By the Department, or elsewhere?
(Mr Burton) By people such as yourselves, by the Environmental
Audit Committee, by the Department, but the Department should
not be seen as the enforcer, it should be the policing of this
system, it needs to be owned and bought into by Departments, so
it is a natural part of their thinking, just as other Government
priorities are a natural part of Government thinking. So the Department
is not there to police it or to enforce it but it is there to
help, to assist and to identify shortcomings and to provide mechanisms
for raising the game across Government as a whole.
145. The Trust have been quite critical of DEFRA's
involvement in key policy areas. What impacts do you think that
it has made, bearing in mind DEFRA has only been in existence
a year, on Government decisions and policy-making areas, and,
in particular, do you think that it has got more or less muscle
in respect of its predecessors, in order to try to drive that
(Mr Burton) On the first part of the question, if
you are talking about decisions which are outside DEFRA's direct
responsibility, pretty limited, beyond the debate to add energy
and climate change, to a certain extent resource productivity,
and some of the sort of better equipping of the Spending Review
in relation to sustainable development, I would see there being
some purchase. But, particularly on the land use issues, around
planning, around transport, around the historic environment, we
really do not see DEFRA as visible in the way that we wish to
see them visible, and where they become visible it tends to be
end of pipe, it tends to be when the decision is just about to
be made to allow, or not allow, the Hastings bypass, for example;
that is not the place where we would want DEFRA to be making itself
visible, it needs to be much earlier in the process. And the changes
that are going on, in response to the debate the Planning Green
Paper has triggered, to the debate about transport, to the forthcoming
debate around aviation, the changes that Government is making,
in response to that debate, are not ones that really we see DEFRA
in the lead on, it is responding to other forces, largely forces
outside Government, and NGOs, business and others have been actually
much more important in helping Government rethink itself. In terms
of whether it is more effective, or not, I think I will have to
say it is too early to judge; give them a chance.
146. Given what you have just said, in a sense,
how do you think that they can improve their influence over decision-making
(Mr Burton) By giving it the strategic capacity and
attention resources that it needs; there is not that strategic
approach to what the role of DEFRA is, in relation to other Departments,
it tends to be a bit of people's jobs, the sort of check it out
elsewhere, but it tends to be more how does DEFRA's policies impact
on Government, not how does the rest of Government impact on DEFRA's
policies. And some clarity about, essentially, the protocols and
the working arrangements between different Departments, and there
will be a particular challenge there, I think, with the new Office
for the Deputy Prime Minister, which is potentially a very infrastructure
and development, has significant infrastructure and development
responsibilities, which DEFRA will want a very careful eye on.
147. So, in a way, you are saying that, taking
environment out of the DETR and putting it into DEFRA, the jury
is still out as to whether that was a more effective way of projecting
the environmental voice?
(Mr Burton) That new machinery has swings and roundabouts.
Clearly, there are benefits, in terms of the potential for integration
of agriculture and land management and land use and environmental
considerations, but it reopened the set of other debates about
the rural connections and the impact of the environment on a whole
range of other responsibilities, whether it be the work of Regional
Development Agencies, whether it be the planning, the transport,
the infrastructure debates which are going on.
148. In your experience, bearing in mind that
many other Departments have been in operation, in being, for quite
some time, are there any Departments which seem particularly to
work better than other Departments, or is there anything, in fact,
that DEFRA might learn from other Departments and the way in which
they work across departmental issues?
(Ms Robinson) The Department for Education and Skills
has been very proactive in looking across industry sectors, working
with DTI, in trying to set a skills agenda for the future, and
this is one area we are really hoping DEFRA will tackle, and see
DfES as a really key Department to help them build the capacity
of rural business, of the farming industry, to cope with change;
that is one example. And the others are much more to do with cross-sectoral
units that have got a defined point of project, and volunteering,
to give an example of something being run out of the Cabinet Office,
it has pulled together lots of different agencies and initiatives
from different Departments. With DEFRA, they have got to see and
have got to really push for other Departments to help them deliver
some of their core objectives, and rural affairs is just so vast
and so much of what they want to achieve is going to be controlled
149. So you seem to be saying that they need
to be more proactive rather than reactive?
(Ms Robinson) Certainly.
(Mr Burton) Yes, and identify those areas where the,
be very clear for itself and for the outside world of those areas
which it would see as the most important relationships with the
rest of Government, you know, has the mapping exercise been done,
of the potential impacts of other departmental decisions on what
DEFRA is trying to achieve, and have the resources then been put
in to address that.
150. You have just said that DEFRA should have,
I think, am I right in quoting you, a greater strategic capacity,
or a phrase like that?
(Mr Burton) Yes.
151. And you have just been describing how you
think that might work and how DEFRA could take a stronger lead
with other Departments. Would you see that strategic capacity
being strengthened or weakened by devolution to regional assemblies
for a number of the areas of responsibility that concern you?
(Mr Burton) I think it is needed, regardless of what
happens with either regional assemblies or directly-elected regional
assemblies, but there is
152. That was not my question. You have made
clear you think it is needed; would it be weakened or strengthened
by the devolution to regional assemblies, the capacity?
(Mr Burton) It would need to address those issues
where regional priorities were driving change; so, in a sense,
the strategic capacity will not be just to look at other Government
Departments, but it will also have to be looking at regional assemblies,
and that would need to be a part of the process.
153. Do you think it would be diffused, it would
(Mr Burton) It would have to cover more bases, it
would have to bring coherence to regional decision-making, where
there was a national interest at stake; but, equally, we are strongly
supportive of the way in which, particularly on farming policy,
that is actually getting closer to the ground, and the regional
dimension to the England Rural Development Plan is a very important
additional strength to the process of ensuring that we are putting
in the finances and establishing priorities which were appropriate
to particular areas, and not just being controlled from Whitehall,
as was the case under the previous regime.
154. Except that, of course, there were always
regional arrangements in place for MAFF, with Regional Offices,
from a very long time ago, and it seems to me that there is a
difference between having administrative arrangements to look
at the ways policies impact on different parts of England and
also the way those services are delivered, and a transfer of strategic
powers from the centre to the regions, which is the point of the
(Mr Burton) We would certainly support the need for
more differentiation, at a regional or a sub-regional level, about
what it is that farm spending, for example, is spent on, and previously
many of the regional MAFF structures were administrative arrangements
for ensuring that funds were made available on the ground.
155. But, surely, since you have been arguing
for a strategic approach from the centre, you must accept the
implication of that argument, which is that to devolve that strategic
capacity to the regions weakens the strategic power of the centre;
you cannot have it both ways?
(Mr Burton) I think you can.
156. I would like to know how?
(Mr Burton) It depends on the issues that you are
dealing with; there are some issues which need a stronger national
lead, there are other issues where we are strongly supportive
of the need for greater regional diversity.
157. Yes, quite so; but the regional devolution
you can go to the Government to differentiate, especially if there
is, as you say, no mapping exercise. What advice would you give
(Mr Burton) We would certainly want DEFRA to be very
conscious of the impact that any moves towards either stronger
regional assemblies or directly-elected regional assemblies would
have on its interests and its issues, on the farming but also
on the environmental side, just as they are already having to
do in relation to the growing influence of Regional Development
Agencies, who are a key part of the delivery of the new rural
agenda, as well as being economic drivers. So what you could be
saying is that the strategic capacity needs to be that much stronger,
to ensure it can deal with the fragmentation of policy, as well
as more strategic coherence of policy at a national level; you
need to look both ways.
158. Well, yes; in which case, what you are
saying is that you think that devolution to regional assemblies
would weaken the strategic strength that you are looking for from
the centre; that is the implication of what you have just said?
(Mr Burton) That is not what we are saying, we are
saying that there is a need for DEFRA to be clear about the impact
of other people's decisions on its objectives; therefore, it needs
to equip itself with the resources to ensure that it is aware
of those implications and can influence those implications. The
amount of resource that it needs to put into that clearly will
depend on the number of decisions that are not within its control.
159. But if the decision-making moves elsewhere,
it is not where you are, you cannot influence it?
(Mr Burton) I do not think that is true. One of the
welcome things has been, DEFRA has become a more effective part
of the Regional Office structure.