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

Examination of Witness(Questions 168-179)




  168. Good morning, Ms Jacqui Cuff. You are the Rural and Community Development Consultant for Rural Horizons, which is a consultancy specialising in consultancy.
  (Ms Cuff) I am Rural Horizons.

  169. That makes it very easy. We can conceptualise you rather easier than we can conceptualise the Water Framework Directive at the moment. Can you tell me just to begin, there have been some slippages in the timetable in all of this, have there not? What are the implications?
  (Ms Cuff) On the participation front, which is really what I am going to focus on today, there is debate about whether or not we should have made more progress in the UK to date on public participation. I think the main message is that we should get started ASAP because, if you like, we are a bit behind on raising awareness. Bearing in mind the Environment Agency say that this is the biggest thing in town in terms of cleaning up of waterways then there are a lot of people out there, particularly general members of the public, who have no idea that this is on the horizon and what it might mean for them as an opportunity. I think we are behind. Technically the Water Framework Directive does not require anything to have to be done until 2006 but the widespread opinion, particularly from the EU, is that things cannot wait until then.

  170. Does public consultation mean in practice consulting all sorts of lobby groups and NGOs and that, or does the public actually mean your anonymous public?
  (Ms Cuff) The phrase that is generally used is "public participation", although that is not the phrase in the Water Framework Directive. Public participation encompasses three things: consultation, active involvement and information. The general concept is that through active involvement, which is the very first stage of getting people aware and interested, you touchstone as many members of the public and interest groups as possible. There is also the concept of stakeholders and it is probably useful to split them between organisational stakeholders, which means talking to people like the NFU and the CLA, but also community stakeholders and individuals. The experience I have of the Wise Use Project, which I have left some brochures behind about, and Guidance Note 2 is the one I would refer you to, that particularly dealt with how to get out and talk to the individual members of the community: shoppers in the street, parish councils, fishermen, tourist groups, the whole range of the general public who on a day-to-day basis will be affected by decisions about management of their rivers.

  171. So if you turn up at number 12 Acacia Avenue and knock at the door and say "could you just give me five minutes on the Water Framework Directive", do you do that?
  (Ms Cuff) That is one method. There is a whole range of methods and I would not rule out in some parts of some river basins doing a door to door survey.

  172. How long do you have to spend on telling them what it is all about before you get to the first question?
  (Ms Cuff) This is why we have to start now, because most people have not got a clue what the Water Framework Directive is and what it can do for them. I know it is early stages but disappointingly at the moment, and I know you are going to hear from Barbara Young, if you key in "Water Framework Directive" on the Environment Agency's website you get 92 entries which you then have to plough through. If this is really the flagship piece of legislation for water then at the very minimum there should be a button or something that says "Water Framework Directive" on the first page if people are interested to find out more. We have just had a consultation paper from DEFRA which seems that it is not going to really focus on going out to the general public, it is going to be more of the usual suspects and the usual consultation procedures which are oft quoted.

Mr Mitchell

  173. I am just a bit suspicious because any consultation surely is just going to be a massive grinding of sectional axes, it is not going to be asking ordinary Joe Bloggs what he thinks and giving a genuine expression of his opinion. You cannot really do that because they have not got enough information and never will have enough information. It is just interest groups that are going to be grinding axes to plant in each other's heads.
  (Ms Cuff) Why should that be? You are saying that as if it is a given. Just because consultation has been done in a particular way does not mean that it should be done in that way for the Water Framework Directive. The Water Framework Directive puts public participation at the very heart of the Directive. It says that it is essential to the delivery of its environmental objectives. It does not require but it encourages active involvement. Active involvement means talking to people. It does mean using the website, using leaflets, organising small focus groups, sampling opinion. You cannot get the opinion of every single member of the public other than perhaps through electronic means, but not face to face. You can sample opinion and we have got experience of that in the Wise Use Project where we sampled opinion in villages within a river basin district and used those as representative views. You can go into hot spots where perhaps you know there is controversy or there have been issues to do with flooding or water quality and sample opinion. This can be done, you do not just have to do the classic consultation. Last week, I do not know whether it was as a member of the public or as a consultant, I received the Environment Agency's Customer Charter through my front door and this is a classic piece of consultation, it asks what are my views on the Customer Charter and it is a tick box thing that you send back. I think we have to go further than that with the Water Framework Directive.

  Chairman: I just wondered if anybody around this table had received this particular piece of paper. No.

  Mr Mitchell: I still do not see it. It is going to be such a massive exercise. You are suggesting really that we should consult opinion in the same way that we formulate policy in the Labour Party, which is tell them what we are going to do and then—

  Mrs Shephard: Do not do it.

Mr Mitchell

  174. And then have a focus group on how best to present it. There is no framework and no precedent in this country for this kind of massive consultation on an environment issue. All our consultative processes are usually through Parliament and MPs. If we throw it open the interest groups are going to rush in there, feed in misinformation or information, and prejudice the whole case. It is a hypothetical concept, is it not?
  (Ms Cuff) No, it is not hypothetical at all. There are lots of precedents for very effective public participation exercises, perhaps not so much in the context of water but in the context of other issues, such as nuclear energy or the development of local democracy. There are lots of experts and consultants out there, believe me, who can tell the Environment Agency how to do it. The Environment Agency itself has lots of experience already, it has done Local Environmental Action Plans, it is not starting from scratch here. It knows how to talk to people at grass roots level, it has done it although maybe on a slightly smaller scale. It has just done a test case in the Ribble looking at cost-effectiveness and that has involved lots of stakeholder participation. Your concern about groups hijacking the process, that is all to do with how the process is managed. As I say, they can be segregated off so you have an organisational participation process and you have the more general public opinion process.

  175. I hope you are right and I am wrong but I am still cynical about it. Is DEFRA the appropriate body to take public participation forward?
  (Ms Cuff) DEFRA has to take a strong lead. Obviously they have now said that the Environment Agency is the competent authority and the Environment Agency has a pivotal role but DEFRA have to take a much stronger lead than they are doing currently. The recent second consultation paper chapter on public information and consultation is incredibly weak and suggests a minimalist approach to public participation. It starts off with a fantastic introductory paragraph which filled me full of hope and optimism and talked about having to "talk to people who live and work in areas where relevant, make sure they are actively involved, a participatory process that can be enriched by the aspirations and knowledge of all those who care about the water environment and the concerns of those affected by proposed action". That is a fantastic introductory paragraph. The second paragraph, which is 14.2, then refers to there being "much good practice and a UK Government Code on consultation". Where is the best practice? Let us have some examples. If we do not have enough in a water context let us pilot some. There is a DEFRA Sounding Board which is sitting there contemplating how to take this Framework Directive forward and it needs to pilot perhaps some participation exercises in some river basins and to see which work and which are useful.

  176. You do not think much of DEFRA's consultation document?
  (Ms Cuff) No, I do not. It is that sort of document that would go to the usual suspects, it is not the sort of thing you would put through Acacia Avenue. The content of it on participation is very weak.

  177. Do you see DEFRA as being equipped to lead this debate?
  (Ms Cuff) Equipped?

  178. Yes.
  (Ms Cuff) Financially or knowledge-wise?

  179. Or capable, shall we say.
  (Ms Cuff) They are the best thing we have got. They have to get their act together.

  David Taylor: Answer the question.

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