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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates
Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

Column Number: 85

Standing Committee A

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


†Mr. Eric Forth, Janet Anderson

†Atkinson, Mr. Peter (Hexham) (Con)
Baldry, Tony (Banbury) (Con)
†Breed, Mr. Colin (South-East Cornwall) (LD)
†Chaytor, Mr. David (Bury, North) (Lab)
†Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
†Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
†Herbert, Mr. Nick (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
†Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
†Knight, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
†Mann, John (Bassetlaw) (Lab)
†Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
†Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
†Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
†Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)
†Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
†Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Alan Sandall, Libby Davidson, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Column Number: 87

Thursday 23 June 2005

[Mr. Eric Forth in the Chair]

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

Clause 17

Commission for Rural Communities

9 am

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 16, in clause 26, page 9, leave out line 11.

No. 17, in clause 27, page 9, line 25, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 18, in clause 27, page 9, line 26, leave out ‘and the Commission’.

No. 19, in clause 27, page 9, line 29, leave out from ‘England’ to end of line 30.

No. 20, in clause 29, page 10, line 7, leave out from ‘England’ to end of line 8.

No. 21, in clause 30, page 10, leave out line 12.

No. 23, in schedule 7, page 62, leave out line 35.

No. 24, in schedule 11, page 68, leave out lines 37 and 38.

No. 25, in schedule 11, page 73, line 16, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.

No. 26, in schedule 11, page 73, leave out line 17.

No. 27, in schedule 11, page 73, line 35, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.

No. 28, in schedule 11, page 73, leave out line 36.

No. 29, in schedule 11, page 77, line 29, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.

No. 30, in schedule 11, page 77, leave out line 30.

No. 31, in schedule 11, page 78, line 17, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.

No. 32, in schedule 11, page 78, leave out line 18.

No. 33, in schedule 11, page 78, line 25, leave out sub-paragraph (2).

No. 34, in schedule 11, page 78, line 28, leave out ‘that Part’ and insert ‘Part 2’.

No. 35, in schedule 11, page 85, leave out line 21.

No. 36, in schedule 11, page 91, line 24, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.

No. 37, in schedule 11, page 91, leave out line 25.

No. 22, in clause 97, page 39, line 14, leave out

    ‘and the Commission for Rural Communities’.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): Thank you, and good morning, Mr. Forth.

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The clause establishes the Commission for Rural Communities as an independent non-departmental body. Its general purpose and functions are set out in subsequent clauses. Statutory status will enable it to perform its role independently and impartially, and I suspect that during the debate on this clause we will return to the importance of independence and impartiality.

The clause also introduces schedule 2, which sets out the constitution of the commission, including provisions about its status, membership, chief executive and other employees, pay and pensions, procedure, accounts and annual reports. The arrangements are almost identical to those for Natural England as set out in schedule 1.

The commission will be a strong independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog to help to ensure that the Government’s policies make a real difference to people in rural areas. It will pay special attention to tackling social disadvantage and the problems of areas economic underperformance. Rural-proofing will be at the heart of the commission’s role and it will help the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government in general to ensure that policies at all levels of government—I think that we will return to this as well—are rural-proofed.

The commission was established on 9 March 2005 as a separate division within the Countryside Agency. Assuming that it will come into force, the Bill will turn it into an independent, free-standing non-departmental public body. We have said that it will not be based in London, and I can announce today that Natural England will locate its modest headquarters in Sheffield. A decision will be made at the end of the year about where the commission will be based, but it will be in a lagging rural area outside south-east England.

The combined effect of amendments Nos. 6 to 15 would be to remove from the Bill all the clauses that establish and empower the Commission for Rural Communities and the schedule setting out its constitution, which would prevent the commission from being established as a statutory body. Hon. Members will not be surprised to know that I resist strongly those amendments, and I will ask the Committee to reject them. Amendments Nos. 16 to 21, 23 to 37 and 22 are a consequence of amendments Nos. 6 to 15 and would remove all references to the commission from the Bill. Given the catastrophic effect that the amendments would have, it is important that I give a more detailed justification of the need for the commission.

There is a real need for the commission. It will be the one national body to focus its attention on the economic and social issues in rural England, and it will act as an advocate, adviser and watchdog to keep the Government and other key delivery bodies, such as local councils and regional development agencies, on their toes. The commission needs to be independent of central, regional and local government, and it needs to be seen to be independent, so that it can act impartially, challenge all those bodies—public, private or voluntary—that deliver services in rural areas, and
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influence that delivery. That is best achieved by establishing the commission as a non-departmental public body under the Bill.

The commission will have a remit to raise awareness of the needs of rural England among public authorities and other bodies and to promote ways of meeting those needs that contribute to sustainable development. That is important, because, although the commission’s main focus will be on social and economic issues, it will recognise the crucial link between environmental and economic sustainability. A good environment is good for the rural economy, and vice versa.

The goal of putting sustainable development into practice by integrating environmental, social and economic objectives drives everything that DEFRA does, and that principle was restated in last year’s rural strategy. The Bill will give statutory underpinning to that agenda by requiring Natural England, the Commission for Rural Communities and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee all to seek to contribute to sustainable development through their functions. The regional development agencies have a similar duty under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998.

In the commission’s advocacy role, it will provide an independent voice for rural people, communities and businesses and, by virtue of clause 18(4), it will have particular regard for

    “persons suffering from social disadvantage”


    “areas suffering from economic under-performance.”

I find it surprising that the party that represents the most deprived county in England, Cornwall, should oppose giving those disadvantaged communities that it represents a powerful voice in Whitehall, in Bristol—where the South West of England Regional Development Agency is based—and in Cornwall itself.

Those remarks should address the points raised on the need to ensure the proper retention of viable local communities. The commission’s task will be to look thoroughly at the way all bodies connected with rural needs—public, private or voluntary—are developing and implementing policies to meet those needs. The commission will have a duty, under clause 19(c), to report on those.

I predict that hon. Members opposing the establishment of the commission will, in future—while still in opposition, their perennial place—not hesitate to quote back to Ministers in the House criticisms that will be voiced by the commission in its reports on the actions of government.

In its advisory role, the commission will provide independent information and advice to the Government and to other bodies with responsibility for policy development and service delivery on issues affecting people, communities and businesses in rural England. As part of that role, the commission will be able to undertake, commission or report research and evaluation. That will enable it to inform policy with robust evidence and objective advice and to promote innovative solutions to problems facing rural communities, including those in Cornwall.

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The difference with the former Countryside Agency’s role is that the commission will not be distracted by being a service deliverer itself. It will not have to criticise itself. Haskins set out that priority in his original report. The commission will concentrate on advice, information and evaluation and on ensuring that those that provide rural services do so efficiently. The Government believe that making the distinction between policy and delivery will be fruitful for all concerned. Again, the evidence and advice produced will make the job of representing rural constituencies in the House easier. The commission will offer the evidence that we so often lack to demonstrate wider need in rural areas.

In its monitoring role, the commission will have a duty to monitor and report on the way that rural policy at all levels is implemented, and on the way in which policy is meeting the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas. The point about the linkages between a high-quality environment and a strong rural economy bears repeating. The commission will play a key role, through its particular powers and duties, in contributing to sustainable development. The fact that the commission will be an advisory and not a delivery body will enable it to take an impartial and broad view of service delivery and to obtain evidence of what does and does not work at national, regional and local level. The commission can use its powers to publish information on policy implementation and to share lessons learned, challenging government and other organisations responsible for service delivery at all levels to improve performance and to entrench best practice.

Rural-proofing will be at the heart of the commission’s role; its role will be at the heart of the overall effort on rural-proofing. The commission will help DEFRA and Government generally to ensure that all Government policies are rural-proofed. It will be able to advise on the issues that really matter in rural areas. That will be especially important given the commission’s particular role in addressing rural disadvantage across the board.

Before concluding, let me clarify what the commission is not. Some have suggested that if Natural England is the environmental lead and the regional development agencies the economic lead, then the Commission for Rural Communities must be the social lead. That is not so. The commission is not a delivery body and is not being resourced or empowered to perform that function. The function of a social lead is often best carried out by local authorities, as discussed on Tuesday.

To conclude, the commission will fulfil a role that no other single organisation can, as an influential advocate and watchdog for all rural people, businesses and communities, putting a particular focus on those suffering disadvantage and on rural areas that are underperforming economically. That includes a good part of my region and of regions represented by several hon. Members in this Committee. Are they really saying that that is not needed? Are they really saying that the urban majority in the House and many local authorities should be trusted consistently to make
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decisions that work for rural areas? Do they agree with me that rural England needs a champion, independent and resourced, to win battles for the countryside?

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): One of the great complaints that rural local authorities have is that they are underfunded in comparison with urban ones. A group of 40 of them have been campaigning for years for better funding so that they are able to deliver the type of service that people expect in urban areas. What power will the commission have to change that situation?

Jim Knight: The commission will have the power to produce robust evidence to demonstrate whether it is a direct function of rurality that leads to underfunding, whether such underfunding is genuine and whether the element that allows for rural sparsity in the formula that dictates local government funding is sufficient. With that evidence, Members such as the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) will be able to come to the House to argue that a watchdog set up by this Government points out the strength of his argument—if the commission produces evidence to support it.

I have argued for the clause on a slightly more impassioned basis than previously and I trust that when the commission is set up it will be even more passionate as a champion of rural England than I was as a champion of its establishment today. I trust that, on this basis, hon. Members will not press their amendments.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I thank the Minister for his impassioned plea. During the first part of our discussions of the Bill in relation to setting up Natural England, we broadly welcomed the bringing together of different bodies and look forward to that new body working well for the interests of people in rural areas, although we would have preferred some changes.

I hope, however, that the Minister will forgive me for thinking that, in many respects, there is a certain amount of déjà vu in what he has just said for those of us who sat through the setting up of the Countryside Agency. I was just wondering whether some of his speech was a dusting down of one of the speeches made by Ministers during that process—the impassioned plea about rural-proofing and such. Of course, we have experienced the Countryside Agency, and Lord Haskins has said that it ought to be abolished. In concert with many other voices, I hope to explain why we believe that the setting up of yet another unelected quango is the last thing that rural communities need.

I would like to indulge the Committee’s time by going back in history a little—not too far—to when we had really strong local authorities, the Rural Development Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They were not perfect in many ways, and this is not a nostalgic look back to buses trundling through country lanes, cottage hospitals and chocolate-box views of village life.
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However, for all its faults and despite a significant amount of underfunding, that arrangement worked tolerably well.

Since then, the Countryside Agency has been set up, and it has not lasted too many years. It was set up in an effort to address some of the rural issues that were coming to the fore and where the strain was beginning to show. It was set up with all the right aims—they were laudable—and was headed by someone who understood rural issues and who was given the specific task of being the rural advocate. It would be true to say that when he finally stepped down, those of us who were there when we gave his farewell speech detected a certain amount of disappointment in his ability really to be the advocate that he had hoped to be. The Government’s intentions were laudable, but there was a difference between their words and the actions that they took to ensure that rural-proofing and rural advocacy took place.

9.15 am

So, under pressure following problems relating to MAFF and particularly foot and mouth disease, the Government decided after the 2001 election not to introduce a department for rural affairs, which was advocated by my party and me, as a discrete operation. Much to the surprise of many people in the civil service, they decided to create the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is a large Department and it took quite some time to settle down to all the aspects—the environment, food and rural affairs—of its role. However, when it started to get into its stride, it became clear that it was stepping on the toes of the Countryside Agency. The Minister will recall the Select Committee’s report on the roles and responsibilities of the Countryside Agency and DEFRA. It became increasingly clear that there was duplication. Rural advocacy seems to have been sidelined and the real issues, relating to what was happening in rural life, were not being adequately addressed. It became clear that, in some respects, there was even a competitive situation.

It was clear to the Select Committee that the duplication and competition between the Countryside Agency and DEFRA could not continue, so Lord Haskins was invited to undertake his report, which makes it clear that the Countryside Agency should be abolished. He did not say that it should be partially abolished; he said that it should be completely abolished. He said that it was not necessary. DEFRA could undertake its responsibilities.

In rural areas, other unelected quangos may be given certain responsibilities, as the Minister has indicated. In fact, he has just outlined many of those responsibilities, which are apparently now going to the CRC: research, advice, help and information. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government offices, which were set up a considerable time ago, should now be abolished as well. They are also a duplicate, unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy and they add nothing to the progress that we could make in rural areas. They compete against regional development agencies, which were set up as unelected quangos to
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advise, support and give all this wonderful information to local authorities and to the Government.

We are proposing a combination of local government offices, regional development agencies and the CRC, all of which have a competing interest in pursuing the causes of rural life that affect those who live in rural communities, all of which have their own bureaucracies and agendas, and all of which compete to a certain extent for the ear of the Government and Government money to produce their pet projects. We now have a sufficient number of unelected quangos. DEFRA sits on the top of all that and local authorities have been relegated to the third or fourth division.

Despite all that the Minister has just said, even now it is not clear exactly how this body will succeed where the others, in particular the Countryside Agency, have lamentably failed. This body’s powers will be extremely limited and, as he pointed out, its resources will not be great. Its sanctions over Government policy are almost non-existent, yet he describes it as a strong, independent voice. I suspect that it will be a voice crying in the wilderness, as was the case with its predecessors.

I hope that we can look back on the statements from the CRC, and that this body will be strong and independent of the Government. What is quite clear is that our local authorities are strong and independent of the Government. I said earlier that Lord Haskins has made his position quite clear: when Natural England was established, there would remain no need for the Countryside Agency. We see no need for this rump of the Countryside Agency to be renamed the CRC, and thus it should be abolished and its funding and responsibilities directed to the already elected local authorities. As elected bodies, they will provide a far better, stronger and more independent voice, working closely with the rural communities that they already serve.

Jim Knight: Could the hon. Gentleman answer my question about who would be the watchdog and the advocate overseeing the work of those local authorities, particularly those local authorities with an urban majority that might drown out the voice of the rural minority?

Mr. Breed: The voice of the people, through their elected representatives, would drown out that of the Government. The people’s is the strong voice, and the voice that we are supposedly representing. The setting up of the rural advocate is rather strange, because we have a department of rural affairs. One might imagine that Ministers in the department of rural affairs might be advocates for rural communities and advocates in Government, recognising that they have the distinctive role of including that voice in Government policy. Apparently, they do not. They do not feel able to do that work, and they feel that it should be shunted to somebody else who is far more able to do the job for which the whole department was set up.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I was dwelling on the hon. Gentleman’s concept of the voice of the people, because the voice of the people in my rural
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constituency was hostile to my Government’s ridiculous ideas for regional government and more politicians. It was equally hostile to the concept that the people should have three councils governing them—a parish council, district council and county council. In his valiant call for the voice of the people to be heard, does he think that rural communities would benefit from getting rid of one of those tiers? Perhaps we should get rid of the district council and have some unitary authorities.

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be tempted into a digression about the structure of local government. Those matters can be touched on in the debate, but I hope that they will not become the substance or the thrust of it.

Mr. Breed: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Forth. All I would say is that I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s views. The independent voice of rural communities is found in strength when they do or do not support their local councils, be they parish, district or county councils.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): In my constituency, which is part of Sheffield city council, we have three parish councils. I repeatedly hear the voices of local people expressing the feeling that they are ignored by their urban authority and that they are missing out on the investment that they see going into the city centre.

Mr. Breed: That is certainly a similar subject, but perhaps my experience in Cornwall is somewhat different, as it now marks the closest thing to a one-party state that we have, since all five Members of Parliament are Liberal Democrats and we control the county council. The voices of the people there have made it clear what they are looking for and what they require, which perhaps are not the Government’s current policies.

At the beginning of the Countryside Agency’s operations, it really understood the idea of rural-proofing. Very early on, it made some very good cases about health services and the retention of our community hospitals. If we had lost those community hospitals, which was certainly a danger at one stage, our current services in rural areas would have been much poorer. So, at the initial stage, the Countryside Agency did some valuable work.

Do not get me wrong—there is a job for rural-proofing. I believe, however, that it is the responsibility of the Department. The Department is there, in Government, to try to put the case for rural communities. If it is unable to do that, it does not matter how many other people advise it on what is happening. If, at the end of the day, Ministers in DEFRA are unable effectively to ensure that Government policy reflects the needs of rural communities, all the advice and all the rural-proofing advocates in the world will not change the situation.

Jim Knight: As the Minister responsible for rural affairs, I regard it as my job within government to be the rural champion and seek to influence policy in
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respect of its effect on rural areas. At the same time, however, the country wants to see that someone independent of Government is able to say to the Department of Health that community hospitals are, or are not, working in rural areas. I do not think, with all due respect, that local authorities coming together, perhaps through the Local Government Association’s rural committee, are going to be a powerful enough voice—listened to and respected by everyone who is sufficiently resourced—to do that.

Mr. Breed: I am sure that the LGA will be delighted at the Minister’s words. I suspect it will not be too long before he gets a letter or two from it.

The Bill states that the commission must

      “(a) represent . . . rural needs”—

that is fairly reasonable—

      “(b) provide . . . information and advice about issues connected with rural needs or ways of meeting them, and

      (c) monitor . . . the way . . . policies . . . are implemented and the extent to which”


    “meet . . . rural needs.”

I do not think that any of those three things could not be undertaken by local authorities. They have been doing most of that for the past I do not know how many years. Whether the Government take any notice is another matter. This is pure duplication. We do not need the CRC to have those as its three primary objectives, as that is what can and has been done by local authorities for some time.

Citizens Advice—no doubt the Minister has also received its briefing—says that it is concerned by the absence of any clear responsibilities for the CRC, other than for advice, information and monitoring. Having looked through the Bill, I cannot see that there are clear responsibilities other than those three aspects either. As I have said, those tasks can quite easily be done by existing local authorities. If the Government really want a watchdog with an independent approach, that independent watchdog must have some teeth. It must have statutory powers to act. The CRC does not. It is totally toothless, and will be nothing more than an advisory, information or monitoring body, without any real powers to ensure that its view is acceded to.

If the CRC is truly to match the ambitions for rural communities as set out in the Government’s rural strategy, it requires independence as well as capacity, expertise and resources to champion and engage effectively in rural policy proofing, development and delivery at both national and regional levels. I cannot understand why a properly funded and resourced local authority, which already has significant experience, expertise and knowledge, cannot do the work that the Minister intends the CRC to undertake.

That is not what is on offer, however. What will happen will in many respects be a bit like what has happened over the last few years, with people having the intention to address rural issues. What is proposed will be just another disappointment, another missed
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opportunity and a further example of the fact that the Government seem unable to understand rural issues and to tackle them seriously.

9.30 am

The confusion has already started; for example, I received a letter from Dr. Stuart Burgess, whose name appears on the letterhead as chairman of the Countryside Agency—whether or not he is chairman, or is likely to be—and one from the acting chief executive, on Commission for Rural Communities paper, both letters dated 21 June.

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