The countryside at a crossroads: Is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 still fit for purpose? Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Chapter Two: Brexit and the natural environment

1.The departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union will result in a governance gap for environmental protection in the UK. Potentially, this could diminish the extent to which the Government can be held accountable for its environmental promises and commitments. (Paragraph 67)

2.We welcome, therefore, the Government’s decision to create a new environmental body to hold both it and other public bodies to account, and the anticipated consultation on filling the ‘governance gap’. We recommend that the new body should be independent, accountable to Parliament, financed by more than one Government department and tasked with providing environmental oversight and scrutiny. (Paragraph 68)

3.The new body must be able to deal with issues raised by individuals in complaints, and should have the power and capacity to take the Government and other public bodies to court when appropriate to do so. Where as a result of such actions, the courts determine faults or breaches to have occurred, appropriate sanctions—including but not limited to fines—should be available. (Paragraph 69)

4.The Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive require EU member states to report on the measures they have taken to implement the provisions of the Directive, including on the conservation status of habitats and species. Although the fine detail of policies may be subject to future change it will be important, following Brexit, to retain similar reporting requirements on the conservation status of protected species and habitats. (Paragraph 77)

5.We therefore recommend that Defra and its agencies be required to report on the implementation of their legal obligations in respect of nature conservation, including specific requirements with respect to the conservation status of protected species and habitats. These reports must be made to the new environmental body proposed by the Government, which should then scrutinise the reports and publish informed commentary, analysis, and recommendations for action by the Government. (Paragraph 78)

Chapter Three: The role of Natural England

6.Non-departmental public bodies, while playing a part in the processes of national government, should operate at arm’s length from Ministers and departments. We share the concerns of witnesses who have told us that Natural England no longer has a distinctive voice. We urge the Government to recognise these concerns, and to take steps to enable Natural England to operate with the appropriate degree of independence. (Paragraph 94)

7.As a minimum requirement, we recommend that the Government should allow Natural England to re-establish its own, independent, press and communications function. (Paragraph 95)

8.Natural England should champion England’s natural environment, and must have the authority, resources and capacity to deliver its general purpose, while working alongside farmers, landowners and NGOs. Successive reductions to its budget, however, have limited its ability to perform key functions, and reduced its wider influence. (Paragraph 104)

9.All of the objectives contained within the general purpose of Natural England are important; these functions were also important elements of the work of predecessor bodies to Natural England. Funding limitations have led to an increased focus on core regulatory functions and will, ultimately, lead to Natural England becoming unable to fulfil its general purpose. The Government must take steps to resolve this situation, particularly in light of the changes to environmental protection and management that will be brought about as a result of our departure from the European Union. We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities. This situation should be addressed as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 105)

10.We note that the recently published 25-year environment plan promises the development of a Nature Recovery Network to deliver on recommendations from the Lawton Review. The Government must ensure that appropriate resources are devoted to this work. (Paragraph 106)

11.The development of partnerships and new, collaborative ways of working will be essential to delivering the strategy set out in Conservation 21. Natural England should continue to work effectively with stakeholders, incentivising and inspiring them towards positive action that will enhance our natural environment. This should complement, rather than diminish, the important regulatory backdrop that underpins the work of Natural England. (Paragraph 117)

12.We recommend that in reviewing its strategy and operations, Natural England should consider how to maintain an effective balance between its core functions of regulation and collaboration, and that the latter continues to be effectively backed up by the former when necessary. (Paragraph 118)

13.We are persuaded by the evidence that the quality of planning advice issued by Natural England has declined, largely as a result of resource constraints. While application response rates continue to be impressive, there appears to be an increasing reliance on standard advice which in some cases may itself not be up to date. (Paragraph 135)

14.The reduction of Natural England’s role has left a vacuum which in many cases local authorities have been required to fill, without the adequate resources or expertise to do so. As Natural England has withdrawn, there has been little clarity as to the changing scope of its role or the expectations on local authorities. In the light of mutual resource pressures, Natural England should be clearer as to when it will play an active part in planning policy and decision-making, and when it will refer to other bodies. There should also be a renewed dialogue between Natural England, the Local Government Association and local authorities more generally as to the most effective role that NE can play in the planning process. (Paragraph 136)

15.We recommend that Natural England reviews its standard advice to planning authorities to ensure that it is up to date, and reviews it more regularly in future. We also recommend that Natural England reviews the extent of its reference to standard advice when considering planning applications. (Paragraph 137)

16.We also noted the evidence that Natural England has insufficient regard for landscapes when offering planning advice, though we accept its evidence that the issue may be one of resource constraints rather than of losing a focus on landscape specifically. Nevertheless, with local government facing similar constraints, there is clearly a need for a body such as Natural England to retain and review its focus. (Paragraph 138)

17.Natural England should review its approach to considering landscapes when offering planning advice and considering planning applications, and consider if there is more it can do in this respect, particularly in light of the wider loss of expertise in landscape matters across the public sector. (Paragraph 139)

18.Additionally, the Government’s review of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, anticipated in the 25-year environment plan, should give due emphasis to the importance of the planning system in protecting landscapes. (Paragraph 140)

19.We welcome the forthcoming consultation on strengthening requirements for biodiversity net gain in the planning system, as well as the forthcoming industry guidance. We would encourage the Government and Natural England to consider other measures in policy and guidance which would support net gain and associated environmental protection measures, taking into account the need for such measures to be practically deliverable and the fact that some environmental goods are not substitutable. (Paragraph 149)

20.We welcome the fact that Natural England has found means to generate income by the provision of planning advice, though its focus must continue to be on improving the process rather than generating revenue as a first priority. While Natural England discloses its income from discretionary advice in its national accounts, we believe further transparency would be welcome with regard to the uses it makes of its commercial income, perhaps through a separate declaration. (Paragraph 155)

21.Additionally, the NERC Act itself appears to limit the scope of Natural England’s discretionary charging services. The Government should consider how these rules are applied to Natural England and whether they may unnecessarily limit the scope and potential of its discretionary activities. (Paragraph 156)

22.Natural England should consider carefully how it balances its resources between statutory, advisory and chargeable activities, and how it ensures avoidance of conflict of interest between its roles as paid advisor and statutory consultee. (Paragraph 157)

23.We note the concerns that have been expressed regarding the long-term funding and sustainability of the National Trails network. We recommend that Natural England and Defra work with the Ramblers, representatives of the tourism industry, and other appropriate interest groups, to develop proposals for long-term management and maintenance funding. This work should give due consideration to the potential for sponsorship of the Trails and, more widely, should consider the role that active partnerships of different interests could play in maintaining national and local routes. (Paragraph 163)

24.The Government is consulting upon a new system of farm and environmental payments to be applied following the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and the cessation of Common Agricultural Policy payments. We recommend that the Government should include payments for maintenance and enhancement of public access within this new system of public funding, although we note that this could have implications for food production and the natural environment. (Paragraph 167)

25.The general purpose of Natural England, set out in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, includes responsibility for promoting access to the countryside. This element of the general purpose is not, at present, being delivered effectively. We believe that Natural England should have sufficient resources to deliver against all elements of its general purpose. It must also have the capacity to undertake effective promotional work and awareness raising activity. (Paragraph 174)

26.Our earlier recommendations seek to increase the funding, independence and capacity of Natural England. Public access to the countryside would benefit from enactment of these recommendations, and should be appropriately prioritised by Natural England following their implementation, with due regard for the protection and management of sensitive wildlife sites. (Paragraph 175)

27.As part of this proactive, balanced and responsible approach to promoting public access we also recommend that Natural England should revise and relaunch the Countryside Code. (Paragraph 176)

28.Natural England’s role will change following the departure of the UK from the European Union. These changes will also have an impact upon the work of the Environment Agency and the Rural Payments Agency as, indeed, will the implementation of the 25-year environment plan. Accordingly, we recommend that Defra should commit to a longer-term review of the distinct functions, responsibilities and purposes of these bodies, and an examination of the case for any restructuring or rearrangement to deliver against new priorities. (Paragraph 181)

Chapter Four: The biodiversity duty

29.It is clear from the evidence we have heard that the biodiversity duty is ineffective as it stands, for a range of reasons including poor awareness, poor understanding, the weakness of the wording of the duty, the lack of a reporting requirement or enforceability, and the lack of biodiversity knowledge and resources. It may not be possible to correct all of these weaknesses in short order, but some action must be taken. (Paragraph 206)

30.The Government should consider changes to the wording of the duty, as the requirement to “have regard” for biodiversity is weak, unenforceable and lacks clear meaning. The stronger wording used in Scotland and Wales should be considered as alternatives if the evidence becomes clear that they have had a positive effect. (Paragraph 207)

31.The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 should also be amended in order to introduce an obligation to report to the new environmental body on the implementation of the Section 40 biodiversity duty. Such a duty could apply either to all public bodies, or a smaller number of bodies with biodiversity responsibilities, to be listed by the Secretary of State. (Paragraph 208)

32.We further recommend that, following implementation of these changes, the Government should publish, and promote effectively, new guidance on implementation of the biodiversity duty. (Paragraph 209)

33.Natural capital is an important tool for environmental sustainability and for the support and enhancement of biodiversity. It is not yet, however, a fully comprehensive concept, and in particular may not yet be advanced enough to offer a framework for investment in land management. We believe, however, that as the concept expands it has strong potential to be applied more widely as a tool of environmental policy, and we welcome the provisions to take account of natural capital in the draft revised National Planning Policy Framework. (Paragraph 222)

34.We would encourage the Government to take concrete steps to fulfil the intentions set out in the 25-year environment plan to incorporate natural capital approaches into its environmental strategy. In particular, the Government should consider how the biodiversity duty contained in the NERC Act 2006 might be expanded or combined with a natural capital approach to enhance its effectiveness. This consideration should take into account the fact that limits of resource and understanding could mean it is not yet possible to establish a formal natural capital duty in law. The Government should also ensure that the Natural Capital Committee receives satisfactory resources to continue developing the concept and exploring its potential. (Paragraph 223)

Chapter Five: Rural communities

35.The Commission for Rural Communities lacked the teeth and powers to perform a watchdog role on behalf of rural communities. The Commission did, however, play an important part in ensuring that the Government, other public authorities, and Parliament, had access to detailed and unbiased research on rural communities, informed opinion as to the potential impact of policies, and independent insight into their needs. The loss of the Commission has diminished the Government’s understanding of rural society, rural economies and rural communities, and the ability of Parliament and others to hold the Government to account. (Paragraph 247)

36.Of particular concern is the loss of the CRC’s independent research capacity. The State of the Countryside reports, and other CRC research, provided a level of granularity, detail and understanding which is not being matched currently. We have consistently heard that this lack of detailed data makes it harder for the Government to design and implement policies that work for rural areas. It also makes it particularly difficult to monitor the impact of any such policies. (Paragraph 248)

37.The Government should be setting the agenda for the undertaking of research and data collection that can support the development, implementation and evaluation of rural policy. This is not happening at present. We recommend that the Government should produce a statement of priorities for rural research and understanding, focused upon the social and economic needs of rural communities, and should then commission new research accordingly. The statement of priorities should be assessed and revised on a regular basis. (Paragraph 249)

38.While the name of the Act is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, most of the Act’s provisions pertaining to rural communities have been annulled with the dissolution of the Commission for Rural Communities, and the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies. This has had a profound negative impact upon the way in which the Government handles rural needs but, equally importantly, has diminished the focus on the economic potential of rural areas and the level of support available to deliver that potential. The closure of the Rural Communities Policy Unit compounds the situation. Our remaining recommendations on these matters will, we believe, help to address this unfortunate situation. (Paragraph 255)

39.Responsibility for rural policy and rural communities does not sit well within Defra, with the department being predominantly focused upon the important environment, agriculture and food elements of its remit. This focus will intensify as a result of Brexit. We therefore recommend that responsibility for rural affairs should be transferred from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. This change would ensure that responsibility for rural communities sits within the central Government department that is responsible for communities as a whole as, indeed, it did prior to the creation of Defra. It would also ensure that the responsibility rested in the department which oversees local authorities, who are the key delivery agents for most services to rural communities. (Paragraph 279)

40.The delivery of services can be challenging—and sometimes more expensive—in rural areas as a result of population sparsity and more limited infrastructure. Policy changes by Government departments that fail to account for these challenges can have negative impacts for rural people. (Paragraph 295)

41.Each and every Government department should be seeking to take account of the circumstances facing rural communities when developing policy. At present, the responsibility for promoting rural proofing across Government rests with Defra, but Defra does not have the cross-Government influence or capacity required to embed rural proofing more widely. (Paragraph 296)

42.Rural proofing should be driven and promoted from the centre of Government and, as such, it is vital that the Cabinet Office takes the lead. We therefore recommend that responsibility for promoting and embedding rural proofing across all Government departments should be clearly assigned to the Cabinet Office, within a single purpose unit with the necessary resources and breadth of experience required to exert influence on all departments. (Paragraph 297)

43.Additionally, we recommend that the Government should establish a mechanism by which departments report, to the Cabinet Office, on the actions that they have taken to ensure that rural proofing takes place. The Government should revise and strengthen its rural proofing guidance, in order to facilitate much earlier engagement with rural communities and their representatives. The revised guidance should then be promoted properly, with workshops used to raise awareness across and beyond Whitehall. (Paragraph 298)

Chapter Six: Green lanes and rights of way

44.We accept the evidence that the exemptions contained in the NERC Act 2006 may result in damage from motorised vehicles if green lanes are not sensitively managed. Unfortunately, local authority resource constraints mean that these routes are not always properly maintained, and the process of drawing up Traffic Regulation Orders can be slow and resource-consuming, and also creates the risk of legal action. Given that trail riders’ groups and protection groups alike welcomed the use of TROs in particular circumstances, we believe that improving these should be the first step in any new approach. (Paragraph 316)

45.The Government should take steps to simplify the process for—and thus reduce the costs of—establishing Traffic Regulation Orders, with the aim of securing better value, greater flexibility and applicability in the use of TROs to manage problems resulting from ‘green-laning’. This might include provision for more selective closures, reduction in bureaucracy in the application process and reduced, updated, advertising requirements. (Paragraph 317)

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