Twelve years have passed since the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act received Royal Assent in March 2006. This legislation built upon institutional changes that began with the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2001. The Act introduced major structural changes, abolishing the Countryside Agency and English Nature and transferring many of their functions to a new body, Natural England, which was charged with conserving, enhancing and managing the natural environment. The Act also sought to promote the interests of rural areas by establishing an independent Commission for Rural Communities, charged with raising awareness of rural needs, and passed responsibility for some elements of rural delivery to the Regional Development Agencies.
Since 2006 many of these provisions have been hollowed out. Natural England has been subjected to severe budget cuts, leading to concerns regarding its ongoing ability to perform core regulatory functions. The Commission for Rural Communities has been abolished, and was replaced by a unit within Defra—the Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU)—which has itself subsequently been abolished. Rural society, the rural economy and our natural environment have not been well served by these changes.
The Act gave Natural England a broad remit, including the promotion of nature conservation, protection of biodiversity, conservation of the landscape and promotion of public access to the countryside. To deliver against this remit requires adequate resources and—within the recognised procedures applied to non-departmental public bodies—a good degree of independence from Government. Natural England currently enjoys neither of these essential prerequisites.
The Government must address this situation urgently. We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities. We share the concerns of witnesses who have told us that Natural England no longer has a distinctive voice, and urge the Government to take action in recognition of these concerns. We also make specific recommendations that seek to improve Natural England’s performance of its planning obligations, particularly with regard to conserving the landscape.
The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) performed an important role as an advocate for rural England. Abolition of the Commission has left a number of gaps in the Government’s understanding of the needs of rural areas; of particular concern is the loss of the CRC’s independent research capacity. More broadly the closure of the CRC and the RCPU, combined with the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies, means that most of the NERC Act’s provisions pertaining to rural communities have now been annulled. This has had a profound negative impact upon the way in which the Government handles rural needs, and has diminished focus on the economic potential of rural areas, to the cost of us all.
This has been compounded still further by the consistent failure, over a number of years, to prioritise the ‘rural affairs’ element of the departmental remit of Defra. The current Minister and Rural Ambassador has been working hard to address this but the focus of the department has been consumed by its important work on agriculture and the environment, with a lack of emphasis placed upon the needs of rural communities as a whole and the wider, non-land based, rural economy. Brexit will result in fundamental changes to the way in which agriculture and environment policy is developed and implemented, placing additional demands upon Defra. We therefore recommend that responsibility for rural policy should be transferred from Defra to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Local authorities deliver many of the key services that support rural vitality and, given the evidence, we think it is more logical that responsibility for rural communities should rest within the central Government department that is responsible for communities as a whole.
At present rural proofing—considering the likely impact of policy decisions on rural areas and, where necessary, adjusting the policy to take into account rural needs—is not being practised effectively. Defra seeks to promote rural proofing within Government, and to provide support to other departments, but we believe that this work would be better led from the Cabinet Office, with its cross-Government focus. We therefore recommend that responsibility for promoting and embedding rural proofing across Government departments should be assigned to the Cabinet Office, within a single purpose unit with the necessary resources and experience required to exert influence on all departments.
The NERC Act introduced a new duty requiring public authorities to “have regard” to biodiversity when exercising their functions. We believe that the duty is ineffective as it stands, as a result of limited awareness and understanding among public bodies, weak wording and the lack of clear reporting requirements and enforcement measures. We recommend that the NERC Act should be amended in order to add a reporting requirement to the duty; the Government should also consider strengthening the wording.
The ongoing loss of biodiversity is one concerning trend that has not changed since 2006, which is in part a reflection of the failure of the biodiversity duty, and of Natural England. The Government recently published a 25 year environment plan—A Green Future—which seeks to address this, placing an emphasis on natural capital. We welcome the prospect of further work to explore the role that the natural capital approach can play in supporting our natural environment and biodiversity. We also welcome the recently published revised draft of the National Planning Policy Framework.
Natural capital represents just one part of a wider set of changes that will profoundly alter the way in which we understand, approach and seek to manage our natural environment. The context that shaped the NERC Act 2006 no longer applies, and Brexit will bring further significant changes. We welcome the Government’s decision to create a new environmental body to hold it to account following Brexit, taking on some of the roles currently performed by the European Commission. This body must be independent from the Government; this independence should be safeguarded by making the body accountable to Parliament and providing finance from more than one Government department.
Our overall vision is for balanced protection and promotion of the natural environment and a reversal of the biodiversity decline. This must be coupled with better recognition of the potential of rural communities and the rural economy, and a greater effort from the Government to ensure that policy changes do not work to the detriment of rural areas. Taken together, we believe that our recommendations would help to ensure that the structures, provisions and priorities set out in the NERC Act were brought up-to-date and made fit for purpose for the significant challenges that lie ahead.