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

Memorandum submitted by The National Trust (G5)

  1.  The National Trust welcomes this opportunity to contribute to the Committee's inquiry into the role of DEFRA. As the country's largest conservation body and farmer and as a major rural business we have extensive relationships with and a great interest in the Department and its operations.

  2.  The Trust welcomed the creation of the new Department in 2001 and recognised the new opportunities it provides for both rural areas and the environment in bringing a more integrated approach. We identified cultural change within the Department—to focus on delivery and integrate agriculture with other policy areas—as a priority and the need for DEFRA to be visibly different from MAFF in its style and approach. We also expressed particular concerns about the potential dislocation of urban and rural policy (especially in the wake of the Rural and Urban White Papers in late 2000) and the need for effective integration with key policy areas for implementation, notably planning, housing and transport, in other Departments.

  3.  Our initial assessment of the Department after the first 12 months is that it has:

    —  Moved quickly and effectively to establish internal structures, clear aims and objectives and strategic priorities.

    —  Made important progress towards integrating with other Government departments at a regional level.

    —  Much work to do to in integrating its own operations, especially on the environment and the links between farming and rural policy.

    —  Singularly failed to make any appreciable impact on key policy developments in land use planning and transport despite their environmental and rural significance.

    —  Been a major disappointment in making only slow progress in realising the opportunities for far reaching improvements to farming policy in the wake of foot and mouth and the Curry Commission. This could also be a catalyst for DEFRA's own internal development.

    —  Notably struggled to move from policy development to delivery on farming policy, been risk averse and underestimated the potential of those outside Government to help develop new approaches.

  4.  The rest of our submission expands on those areas of particular interest to the Committee:


  5.  DEFRA's vision is both wide-ranging and ambitious, setting an appropriate framework within which the Department can achieve its aims and objectives. The publication of Working for the essentials of life is very welcome, although lacking an implementation plan or key performance indicators through which to assess performance.

  6.  It is too soon properly to assess progress but the Department is noticeably more focused on farming and international environmental policy than other areas and has moved very slowly on wider rural issues (notably the Rural White Paper) and "modernising" the way it works. The Department also has significant progress to make in exercising its influence across Whitehall.


  7.  The establishment of DEFRA signalled a welcome change in focus, particularly on farming and food policy, which offered significant opportunities for better integration. These have not yet been realised. The Department's current focus appears to be on farming and international environmental policy and too little importance is currently being given to wider rural policy and internal change.

  8.  An important test of the new Department is that it is visibly different to MAFF and yet too much weight is still being given to the commodity divisions and their old MAFF role in distributing production subsidies. DEFRA's priority now is to work towards sustainable food and farming, and the way it develops and delivers policy should be redesigned to take account of its new objectives. Across important areas of its brief, such as farming, the challenge lies in taking forward the consensus for change and this requires both more effective policy integration and new ways of working that are focused more on delivery and implementation than policy development.

  9.  We are concerned, for example, that DEFRA's approach to the Curry Commission report has not been to identify it as marking a point of consensus from which to move forward and debate the how of policy, but to re-open debates on the policy questions already addressed by the Commission. This has been a major failing, for example, of the "regional roadshows" which could have been used to road test delivery models rather than revisit the fundamentals of policy direction. With important exceptions, such as on agri-environment policy, the Department also lacks confidence in working with others outside Government in developing models of policy delivery. This has not only slowed the momentum for change but also missed an opportunity for developing new internal ways of working focused on outputs rather than process.

  10.  The delivery of farming policy will require more flexibility at a local level, with different solutions needed for different parts of the country. DEFRA will need to take more risks to achieve change on the scale required, by piloting new initiatives, ring-fencing funding for policy development and testing, and ensuring it learns from the approach other Government departments take to delivery.

  11.  Implementation of the Water Framework Directive will provide a similar challenge, with the Water Quality Division being responsible for meeting the targets and the agri-environment programme and Rural Affairs Directorate having the funding to provide incentives and training for farmers.

  12.  DEFRA would also be better equipped to deliver its objectives if it were to think more widely about the links between its own work and that of other departments. For example, there is great potential for further exploration of the positive links between environment, food, rural and health policy, and the significance of DEFRA's work to the Government's quality of life agenda. DEFRA should also work with DfES to tackle the legacy of poor investment in skills in the land-based sector. Close working with DTI is needed to meet the needs of small business set up and financed by DEFRA given the importance of the small business sector in rural areas.

  13.  In boosting its performance and reshaping its forces around policy delivery, DEFRA should make use of two particularly important tools. It has a large research budget, which it should ensure is deployed to full effect so that it makes an innovative contribution to policy development and delivery. It also has a vast array of Non-Departmental Public Bodies and Executive Agencies to inform, guide and deliver its policies. Many of these reflect the needs of the past—such as boosting agricultural production—rather than those of the future. These bodies should be culled, reformed and retargeted to help deliver DEFRA's objectives. The recently announced review of science-based agencies should represent the start of a much wider process.


  14.  We are concerned that the transfer of these two directorates to DEFRA has not resulted in the kind of changes that were envisaged when the new Department was set up. There is a concern that the internationally regarded work of the Environmental Protection Group has been downgraded and there is too little evidence of integrated working across the Department. Surprisingly, DEFRA has not yet developed its own sustainable development strategy and the expected synergy between farming and environmental work has failed to materialise in a noticeably different way. The Department is missing important opportunities as a result.

  15.  Environmental Protection and Wildlife and Countryside also seem to have suffered through the dilution of some of the important working relationships that operated in the former DETR, especially on transport, planning and housing. These have major implications for rural and environmental policy and planning transport policies in particular have been going through a major period of review and development. DEFRA has been barely visible in key policy debates, including, for example, on the internal working groups which developed the Planning Green Paper without any DEFRA input. Where it has exercised a role, for example in relation to the Hasting bypasses it has too often been at the "end of pipe" when problems have emerged and controversy set in.


  16.  Rural policy has been a casualty of the Department's focus on farming policy and the Department still has much work to do in demonstrating its wider rural role beyond farming. The lack of progress on the Rural White Paper is a particular disappointment given the momentum that its preparation helped develop. The establishment of the national and regional Rural Affairs Forums is welcome but these need a much clearer brief and sharper focus if they are to be useful. The Department also needs to do more to track progress and invigorate the debate stimulated by the Rural White Paper. This would enable it to work more effectively on the front foot in relation to rural policy and the forthcoming national conference in the Autumn provides an opportunity to do so.

  17.  There is no doubt, however, that DEFRA's rural performance will be judged principally on its ability to implement the recommendations of the Curry Report. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity radically to reform the direction of farming policy with far reaching benefits.

May 2002

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