Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Fifth Special Report



The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took evidence about the Countryside Agency as part of its on­going oversight of the associated public bodies of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The Select Committee Report was published on 13 February 2002. This is the Government and Countryside Agency response.

The Government and the Countryside Agency both welcome the measured and thoughtful views expressed within the Committee's latest report on the Agency's activities. We are particularly pleased that the Committee recognises the extensive range of tangible outputs the Agency has achieved since its inception nearly three years ago.

The Committee identifies two key issues for the Agency: the need for clarity in its remit in the light of the creation of DEFRA and the necessity for a robust and transparent definition of rural. As these issues directly concern both the Government and the Agency, this response is in the form of a joint memorandum from them both.

The Agency's remit


In order to forestall future conflicts between the Agency and the Department, and in order to allow the Agency to fulfill its objectives, its future role and position vis­à­vis the Department, and the ways in which the two will work together, should, as a matter of urgency, be clarified.


The Minister of State for Rural Affairs chairs a regular high­level meeting involving a DEFRA team headed by the Director General for Land Use and Rural Affairs, Anna Walker, and a Countryside Agency team including the Chair, Vice Chair and Chief Executive of the Agency. In July, the Minister of State and Anna Walker will attend a meeting with the whole of the Countryside Agency Board. This is part of the process of defining the respective roles of DEFRA and the Agency and of creating an effective and productive working relationship.

The starting point must be the statutory remit which governs the Agency's activities. This can be summed up as:

1. to keep under review and advise the Government on all matters relating to:

2. to carry out, or assist others to carry out, measures likely to further social and economic development.

3. to provide financial assistance towards expenditure in the public and private sector which helps achieve any of the conservation and recreational objectives.

4. to undertake or promote experimental schemes, developing or demonstrating new techniques in conservation and recreational management.

5. to designate National Parks, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONBs), country parks and long distance routes.

6. new powers and duties under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000.

7. to inform the public about their rights and responsibilities in the countryside (eg the Country Code).

In this context, leaving aside the Agency's specific statutory functions on National Parks, country parks, AONBs, long distance routes and those deriving from the CROW Act, we see the Agency as having a powerful role to play in:

  • work to inform rural policies and the provision of advice to DEFRA, and also to the Rural Affairs Forum for England, other Government departments, regional development agencies, local authorities, the voluntary sector and other public and private sector players in rural affairs. Examples are the State of the Countryside Report, the Rural Services Survey, the Rural Proofing Report, and other subject- based reports.

  • experimenting and piloting initiatives of potentially wider application such as the Vital Villages programmes where the Agency can take greater risks and be more entrepreneurial than would necessarily be appropriate for a central Government department.

In essence this means that the Agency is there to provide independent, joined­up advice across Government based on a robust evidence, and to use its know how to show what works through a number of innovative, relatively small scale projects. The latter is important to provide the credibility and evidence base for the Agency's advisory functions. The Agency is not directly responsible for delivering Government policy except where it has a specific statutory role (as on access to open country) or where the Department or another part of Government has specifically asked it to take on a particular scheme (as in the case for instance of the charities match funding scheme for the relief of hardship during the foot and mouth crisis).

Rural­proofing is perhaps the main area where there could be confusion over the respective roles. The Government's Rural White Paper, published in November 2000, gave a commitment that in future Government policies would take account of specific rural needs, and that each Government Department would rural­proof its policies and report annually on the outcome. The Department has the general responsibility within Government for ensuring that this commitment is honoured, and accordingly liaises at Ministerial and official level with other Government Departments who are responsible for delivery of their part of the commitment. The Government gave the Agency the job of helping Departments to do this, through the production of a rural­proofing checklist for policymakers and with advice, research and good practice.

The Agency was also given the important task of reporting annually on the rural aspects of the Government's policies, including the effectiveness of rural­proofing. As from this year, the reports are being published and considered by the Cabinet Sub­Committee on Rural Affairs and the Rural Affairs Forum for England. It is important that these reports should be independent from mainstream Government, and therefore this function needs to be performed by a body seen to have an arm's length remit, which the Agency has by virtue of its statutorily independent status.

In future years, as part of its rural assurance role the Agency proposes to focus on particularly important issues, including cross­cutting issues, rather in the mode of the Performance and Innovation Unit of the Cabinet Office.

The Agency's role and remit is distinctive and does not overlap with that of the Department. However, if the two roles are to complement each other in a way that strengthens the achievement of rural policy aims, there has to be contact and exchange of information at every level between the Department and the Agency. The corporate plan which sets out the Agency's programme of work is approved by the Minister for Rural Affairs, thus ensuring that its outputs are both complementary to those of the Department and transparent to the Department. There are also frequent discussions between the Minister for Rural Affairs and senior Agency and Departmental officials to ensure that we have a fully shared mutual understanding of how we are to work together. The Chairman of the Agency—exceptionally—also attends meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Rural Affairs in his capacity as "Rural Advocate".

Defining Rural


We therefore recommend that the Agency make its highest priority to define what is a "rural" area, and seek to ensure that other Departments and Agencies and other public bodies adopt the same definition. Within that overall definition the Agency should recognize the need to categorise different types of rural areas to reflect the different pressures they face. Final definitions should be available by Summer 2002.


In the Agency's last submission to the Committee it expressed frustration at the lack of progress in this area. Since then the Agency and DEFRA have secured agreement with the Office of National Statistics and Department of Transport Local Government and the Regions colleagues on the need for a revised interim definition, followed by a second phase of work to create a final set of definitions based on a more sophisticated approach.

The Agency has already produced and tested an interim approach which deals with the current well­known anomalies and now has agreement from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Office for National Statistics on its immediate adoption. Talks are also underway to initiate the second phase of work, which, due to the complexity of the task, has a planned completion date of early 2003.

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Prepared 14 May 2002