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


Memorandum submitted by the Countryside Alliance (G10)


  The Countryside Alliance has produced much comment and information on the role and development of the DEFRA since it was created after the last election. The most recent comments were in response to the Commission on the Future of Food and Farming chaired by Sir Don Curry, and can be seen on our web site ( ).

  In the two years preceding the last general election, and in our policy handbook produced (The Real Rural Agenda, sent to every MP and peer), we have consistently called for the creation of a mainstream Government Department—headed at Secretary of State level—to bring all rural economy, environment, and livelihood issues under one roof, and with sufficient authority to influence the policies and priorities of the other major departments of state (not least the Treasury).

  We also believed that such a department would enable the UK to present more integrated and dynamic proposals to the EU for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, and its succession by a coherent investment-led rural development programme.

  Finally, we felt this would help to ensure that rural livelihoods did not suffer at the hands of simplistic approaches to the reform of global markets in the current round of world trade talks.

  Consequently, the Alliance applauded the Government's decision to create DEFRA, and we continue to fully support its continued development in what is inevitably a complex and rapidly changing international political and social environment. While we may disagree with individual policies, priorities, and management issues, the basic premise of DEFRA is sound. It continues to offer the greatest opportunity for radical change in the countryside in a manner that secures the continued liberty and sustainable livelihood of rural people.


Is the vision set out by the Secretary of State appropriate, and what progress has been made to meeting that vision?

  This is a very articulate vision, and the Alliance feels that it is highly appropriate. It has one major failing in that it does not recognise the need for market regulation on a global scale to protect the economic and social sustainability of rural communities. Nor does it recognise the need to manage the ways in which markets operate in order to prevent environmental costs being externalised and left for future generations to pick-up. That is the source of our current carbon emission problems, and the cause of unsustainable exploitation of fragile ecosystems such as the sea, tropical forests, and UK lowland pasture systems. The vision also suggests that there are competing uses for the countryside, which is correct. But this must also emphasise the development of systems where a variety of land-uses can work together to create individually profitable, economically viable, and environmentally sustainable land-holdings. That is what should be "at the heart of our whole way of life" (to quote the DEFRA vision).

  The Department has achieved very little or no progress towards these aims, but as it has only existed for a year, and the process of attitudinal change within its ranks has barely begun, that is hardly surprising. For most of its existence, it has been focused on the containment and eradication of Foot and Mouth Disease (a completely preventable inheritance from one of its predecessor institutions, MAFF). In itself, MAFF was politically moribund and institutionally demoralised. The political morbidity has gone with the appointment of, `by and large', a heavy weight and competent ministerial team. The changes at the top of the civil service management structure bode well for the future. But little progress toward the vision will be made until wholesale institutional reform is introduced to DEFRA.

  The Government has made progress with the creation of a carbon trading market, and we are definitely leading the world in the monitoring, supervision and management of green house gas emissions, but credit for that should go to the teams that came out of the old DETR.

  Almost no public progression has been made in preparing the ground for the mid-term review of CAP, the forthcoming Earth Summit in Johannesburg, nor the position relative to world trade talks. These are recognised in rural communities as being of seminal importance to their livelihoods, and yet there is no process in place for consultation or inclusion of stakeholders. The creation of the Curry Commission was an excellent idea, but somewhat diluted by its introduction as part of the foot and mouth review exercise.

  In summary, we believe that the aims are broadly sound, but they do need to demonstrate that viable and sustainable rural economy and community constitute the bedrock of environmental sustainability.

Are farming, food, environmental and conservation concerns, and rural affairs each given proper weight by the Department, and is the Department engineered to deliver its objectives?

  We feel that much needs to be done at a strategic level to bring together these areas of responsibility. At the moment, they are still implemented separately, and this is resulting in a slow pace of change. The question itself implies an inevitable conflict between these areas. There might competition in the allocation of resources within DEFRA, but that problem would be alleviated considerably if resource allocation was based on integrated strategy. Too much time at both ministerial and senior official level seems to be taken up with the burden of reaction to external drivers, or to administering the current portfolio of schemes and interventions. This is not an environment in which serious change will flourish.

  The current balance appears to us to be about right, at least at ministerial level. In terms of senior staff resources, we perceive that rural affairs is seriously under staffed, and consequently, the rural livelihood aspect of development and change comes second-best to environmental and conservation issues. The danger is that people in the countryside are seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Apart from the fact that, in the almost exclusively man-made and man-maintained UK countryside, this would be a contradiction, it also creates a feeling of increased alienation in rural communities. As an example, the recent press announcements and resources allocated to wildlife crime coincided with a time when police resources to cope with human crime prevention and detection in the countryside are inadequate. This is a comment on the level of resources allocated to rural development and rural proofing, and not a comment on the competence of the ministerial or senior civil service capability (which we believe is good).

What has been the impact on the role and influence of the Environmental Protection Group and the Wildlife and Countryside Directorate on their transfer from the former DETR?

  The Alliance believes that the impact has not changed, but we hope that these groups will be more relevant to overall rural development as time progresses. Their involvement with the Prime Minster's Contact Group on Food and Faming is welcome. Perhaps they should also participate more fully in the Rural Affairs Forum for England?

What objectives has the Department set itself in pursuing the rural affairs agenda; in what areas of policy other than those dealt with directly by the Department has it sought to make the case for rural affairs, and what examples are there of success?

  The publication of the first rural proofing review by the Rural Advocate, Ewen Cameron was welcome and successful. The Alliance was amongst the more cynical of organisations when this operation was set-up, even though we are very much in favour of the principle of rural proofing which formed a key recommendation of our Real Rural Agenda in June 2001. Ewen Cameron's report was excellent and went a great deal further than we thought possible at such an early stage. We have two points of serious criticism.

  Firstly, Government departments, DEFRA and the Countryside Agency seem to consider that the end-point of rural proofing is a tool kit for them to use, and then simply announce that they have applied it. That is not acceptable. Rural proofing should be a tool for accountability, and the results of both internal and external rural proofing exercises should be published. In fact, we believe that rural proofing should be the backbone of the work of your Select Committee, and should be formally reviewed by you each year on the publication of the report by the Rural Advocate.

  Secondly, we believe that Ewen Cameron's dual roles as both the Rural Advocate and Chair of the Countryside Agency, is untenable. The Agency itself is a major recipient of Government grants and is an implementing agency for a number of major projects. If the Rural Advocate is really to be seen as the impartial but doughty defender of rural people, then he must be divorced from the implementation of policy decisions. We would not ask the Chief Inspector of Schools to both run schools and then inspect them.


  The Alliance has kept its response to this Inquiry as brief as possible, and we have tried not to duplicate views that we have expressed elsewhere. The Alliance is more than happy to provide further information, and to give oral evidence.

  We are grateful for the opportunity to express our views on this issue to the Select Committee.

31 May 2002

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