Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab):
I heard on the radio this morning that the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who just got up to leave but has now sat down again, was to make a speech today about beauty. I instantly
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1036
thought that it would be made in this debate, but my hopes were shattered within minutes when it was announced that it was to be made elsewhere. That is a pity, because we could have enjoyed a great speech from him in a debate on the natural environment in this Chamber. It was left to the Secretary of State to give a wonderful, lyrical description of the great beauty of our natural environment, including the alliteration of Shakespeare's "silver sea". I am sorry that the shadow Secretary of State has come off second best in the Chamber, but I hope that the speech that he delivered elsewhere received the reception that it deserved.
I was not a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament and took no part in the pre-legislative scrutiny, but I read the draft Bill and strongly support pre-legislative scrutiny as a general process for this Parliament to follow. It is satisfying to read, in the many briefings that I have received in preparation for this debate, that so many organisations took part in the pre-legislative scrutiny, making some sensible suggestions that were mirrored in the recommendations of the Select Committee's report. It was also satisfying that, in their response to the Select Committee, the Government accepted many of those suggestions and recommendations. The exchange between the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) highlighted a case in point. The Select Committee recommended several detailed changes to the provisions on guidance, all of which the Government accepted. That is a positive note on which to begin the passage of the Bill.
It is important to put the Bill in context as a crucial component of the Government's rural strategy. It is worth reminding ourselves that, among many other good things in that strategy, there is an intention to reduce 100 funding streams to three and to offer farmers a single payment scheme in what is increasingly becoming a whole-farm approach to regulationbe it inspections, audits or funding issues. The Bill contributes to the deregulatory direction of the strategy by bringing the three organisations dealing with the natural environment and conservation into one body and thereby providing one focal point for the customers of the natural environment such as land managers.
In essence, this is a deregulatory Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood pointed out, this will be the first Bill to receive its Second Reading in this Parliament, and it is a deregulatory Bill. Just as the emphasis on the environment for the first debate in this Chamber is welcome, so is the deregulatory nature of the Billkeeping promises that the Government have made. As a Bill that deregulates, does away with duplication and streamlines bureaucracy, it is inevitable that the Tories oppose it. I thought that they were in favour of deregulation, but apparently not when it comes to any particular Bill.
The Bill will be good for sustainable development and the natural environment, and some of the briefings that I have received show just how popular it is. The Wildlife and Countryside Link tells me that it supports the establishment of natural England as
The Wildlife Trusts also welcomes the establishment of natural England and points out that we face many challenges in ensuring England's biodiversity, including
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1037
climate change, protecting the marine environment and regionalisationI know what it means by that. For example, how far does the natural environment of the coastline extend into the marine environment, especially as the Government propose another Bill on marine issues?
All those issues require our urgent attention, retaining the regional and local focus of some of the work that has been done. We need to be able to withstand the pressures for economic development because the natural environment should come first. I am sure that we will explore such tensions in Committee.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I accept the statements by the bodies that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but can he assure us that natural England will have the independence necessary to be a powerful body?
Mr. Kidney: That is a good point and it was raised many times in the pre-legislative scrutiny responses that I mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was specifically asked to give an assurance about the independence of natural England and I do not think that she could have said more strongly than she did that it will be independent. Concern has been expressed about the direction provisions in the Bill, but similar provisions apply to the Environment Agency, the Countryside Agency and, since 1990, to English Nature. It was satisfying to hear the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) talk about the independent nature of those who work for English Nature. I totally agreed with his assessment of their ability and capacity.
The Bill will be good for rural communities. It is important that we will retain the policy advice and advocacy role of the Countryside Agency in the form of the commission for rural communities. I disagree with Lord Haskins on that and with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and the Liberal Democrats. The CRC will have an important role to play, including the promotion of the meeting of rural needs in ways consistent with sustainable development, with bodies such as local authorities. Its functions will involve representation, providing information and advice and monitoring. They will also include rural-proofing, about which I shall have more to say. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman cannot wait.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman think that DEFRA could not undertake the role that the CRC will be given? If DEFRA did, it would allow us the opportunity to hold the Government to account for how those duties are performed. It will be more difficult to hold the CRC to account.
That is a reasonable argument but, to give one example of rural-proofing, the Countryside Agency has named and shamed Departments that do not take into account the impact of their policies in rural
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1038
areas. That job is a good one for a body at arm's length from the Government to do, and it receives the hearing that it deserves in the media and among parliamentarians and Departments. I argue that the CRC would do a better job than DEFRA, but I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument.
Mr. Breed: The remaining function of the Countryside Agency will be to perform that very role and it will be a critical part of the spectrum. The rump of the CA could also undertake the rural-proofing role to ensure that it is effective and the local authorities could get on with the rest of the job.
Mr. Kidney: If the hon. Gentleman and I both serve in Committee, I look forward to taking the debate further. I disagree with him that others could perform that role, for reasons on which I would be happy to expand in Committee. I say with no great certainty that the CRC will be up to the job, but the role of rural advocateand direct access to No. 10will be an important part of having a strong voice for rural communities at the heart of Government. That is what the CRC is intended to be. However, I have concerns about rural-proofing and about the loss of other good work that the Countryside Agency performed, such as seedcorn funding for projects at local level in rural communities and the vital villages programme. That will be lost to the CRC and pass to the regional development agencies. It worries me that a thematic programme that was designed especially with rural areas in mind will be diluted to the regions. If, as I hope, the CRC is to be a watchdog that speaks up for rural areas, it should be able to pick up such programmes.
The Bill builds on much good work that has already been done. The Countryside Agency has done good work and English Nature has been a superb defender of our rural and natural environments, with a direct impact on our constituencies. I am happy to give examples from my constituency of work done by those bodies. For example, Cannock Chase is a huge expanse of what was once a royal hunting forest and is now managed by Staffordshire county council. It has one area of outstanding natural beauty and several sites of special scientific interest, all supported by the work of English Nature and the Countryside Agency. Doxey marshes, an area visited by birds from all over the world, is managed by Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which benefits from advice and assistance from English Nature and the Countryside Agency. The wetland meadows at Wheaton Aston are owned and managed by English Nature and provide a superb example of that habitat that would not exist without that body's work. The work that the Countryside Agency has done with grants for bus services and rural transport partnerships, such as that in west Staffordshire, has helped to devise innovative ways to ensure that people from the smallest villages can reach the bus routes so that they can go where they want by public transporttruly, a success that has benefited many people in my constituency and in others all over the country.
The Countryside Agency has worked on improvements to rights of way and the creation of local access forums. With British Waterways, its work on the canal network and towpaths has been important in areas such as my constituency, which is criss-crossed by
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1039
three canals. Great work has already been done by the predecessor organisations. They deserve Parliament's thanks and praise and I hope, as they do, that by combining their efforts in one agency they will do even greater work for the benefit of our constituencies and our country.
I know less about the rural development service, another of the predecessor organisations. I am told that, as a directorate of DEFRA, it manages the agri-environment scheme. The British Ecological Society has asked us to ensure that some of DEFRA's science budget goes from that directorate to natural England, so I am happy to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that that sounds like a good idea.
Lord Haskins's report was an important forerunner to work on the strategy and the Bill, as was the Curry report. Each led to the Government producing substantial strategy documentsthe sustainable farming and food strategy and the rural strategy. Parliament, too, has done good work on which the Bill can build. We passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which opened up mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land to open access. Each time that a new area is mapped and made subject to open access, there are ever greater outpourings of praise from walkers and others who enjoy our countryside, with many thanks to people such as us who have made that possible.
As has been mentioned before, we also passed the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which has had some influence by giving local authorities and parish councils new powers to clean up their local environment. There are good things in the Bill and good things have been done in preparation for it.
I turn to some of the challenges ahead where more attention is required. The first of these is in the field of rural-proofing. I give credit to the Countryside Agency for what it has already done. During its short existence, it has made an impact nationally in rural-proofing by naming and shaming Departments that were formerly incapable of devising policies that could be assessed for their application to the special challenges and needs of rural areas and of distinguishing where a different solution was required. As a result of naming and shaming year after year, the last rural-proofing report that I read showed that only two Departments were not pulling their weight in that regard. By then, the Countryside Agency had extended its rural-proofing activities to the Government offices of the regions. Although that was only a couple of years ago, the agency has been able to report that some improvements are visible.
We need to look beyond that and consider the rural-proofing of the policies of regional development agencies and every local council. If the Countryside Agency is to be reduced to a rump, as the hon. Member for Lewes described the commission, which will none the less be responsible for issues such as monitoring, research and advice, is it really the body that can take forward the rural-proofing agenda and extend it to RDAs and local government while still retaining the influence that the agency has developed over the past
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1040
few years? I have my doubts and I want to be assured that what we are putting in place of the Countryside Agency's rural-proofing will be effective in the future.
Regional development agencies have recently been given the Countryside Agency's economic function and it is important to look beyond the economic activity of RDAs to the social, environmental and rural issues for which they are now responsible. When Advantage West Midlands, the west midlands RDA, was set up, its focus was on economic activity and on urban rather than rural areas. Over time that has changed. The biggest single factor was the disastrous foot and mouth disease outbreak and its effects on many businesses, far beyond what some people anticipated at the time. The response and support given to rural businesses was fantastic, thanks to Advantage West Midlands moving so quickly. The agency saw that the importance of the rural economy went beyond farming and it has developed much better policies, so I have more confidence in RDAs now. However, when I look back at their short existence and the economic regeneration focus in the Act that established them, I wonder whether they have developed so far beyond their statutory basis that we should consider amending it. The Bill may not be the place for that, but the commission for rural communities should consider whether we are getting a fair deal from RDAs in rural areas.
Lord Haskins had a clear vision that much of what was needed involved the devolution of power and service delivery to regional and local areas. Rightly, he saw local councils at the sharp end of delivering services because they are the elected, publicly accountable bodiesnot the quangos in their offices in places such as Birmingham, but the local councils elected every four years. He thought that they would be much more in the driving seat under the new system for the delivery of services, but I am not sure that we have yet seen the devolution of power to them and the accountability from them that we should have.
I think that there are two places in the Bill where local authorities are mentioned: the extension of the biodiversity duty to councils and the possibility that new organisations such as natural England and the commission may enter agreements with local councils to deliver services on their behalf. The Government's response to the Select Committee included the example that licensing functions could be carried out by local councils on behalf of natural England. That is not a great response to Lord Haskins's call for democratically accountable, elected local government to take a leading role. I want to prod the Government by reminding them of some of their promises, especially during the recent election campaign, to encourage them to look further at that matter.