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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)



  140. So what has the Department got against the National Trust then?
  (Mr Burton) There were opportunities; probably we were not able to make the one seminar date which was presented to us in the Green Alliance co-ordinated event. So, although it was welcome that there was some debate, and we were aware of a process, and if we had chosen we could have become more involved, our resources and attentions were focused more on Curry and the farming agenda at the time. It was not the most robust of processes, but it was a process which was there, we recognised and one we welcomed. In terms of the document, it is not a major step forward really, it is a sort of representation of the Sustainable Development Strategy for Government as a whole, in relation to the Department, and some useful few new sentences, explaining the relevance of some of the key principles, as the Government see it, of sustainable development in relation to DEFRA; and not much of an update, frankly, of the indicators. And you have heard previously from CPRE about the lack of progress on that, and that further development has been under programme on quite a lot of those indicators for quite a lot of the time. But we should not underestimate the importance of having this in one set of covers, and the use that we and others outside Government can make of documents like this in asking pertinent questions at pertinent points in the development of policy or in response to decisions that are being made.

  141. So the process could have been improved, the product is alright but could sit on a shelf, and it is a useful tool to hit people with, is it not?
  (Mr Burton) It is not a living document yet, it is not an active document; the reporting, the enforcement, the sort of carry forward, the implementation, is as it is with the aims and objectives, all a bit unclear, and we will be interested to see what the second Annual Report is able to say on that kind of monitoring and evaluation of progress.

  142. And your evidence is pretty hard about land planning issues and the fact that the Department now has very little role and responsibility in this. Tell me about who is driving sustainability forward across Government now; if I were trying to identify the real driver for sustainability across the Government, where would I look?
  (Mr Burton) The conscious drive for sustainable development across Government does not lie within Government, it lies within the NGOs, there is no question in my mind, the NGOs are much more joined up in bringing that to Government's attention in all sorts of places than Government is itself, and more effective in using Government's own documents to drive policy and change within Government. There are examples where we have seen progress, and I think the most helpful in recent months has been the approach that Treasury has taken to sustainable development, in relation to the Spending Review, where there is genuine progress, and we have yet clearly to see the results, to judge those. And the results, as we understand it, will not be as transparent as perhaps we might wish them to be, but we are confident, from the conversations and the discussions that we have had, that Ministers have genuinely been asked searching questions around sustainable development, for the first time, in their bids and proposals. So that is the major step forward, from the last wave of activity around environmental appraisal and Green Government and Green Ministers networks. And the Sustainable Development Unit still has this aspiration, but a lack of clout, to take that more proactively to Government as a whole. So if you wanted a single point where you would want to chew the cud about the difficulties, that is where we would go and whom we would talk to.

  143. But the Department itself, in its Annual Report, says that "sustainability is our prime concern"; are you telling me they have got a lot to do to achieve this then?
  (Mr Burton) There are many organisations who say that, and you will know, as well as anyone, the sort of various conceptions of what sustainability is, what sustainable development means, it is a journey, not a destination, it is something which actually everyone quite easily can say they are doing, but what matters is, what is different as a result of those kinds of changes. And there is progress, but it is, as you would expect us to say, slower progress than is necessary, and what it needs is searching scrutiny, review and examination, constantly, asking the questions at the right time, as policies are made and decisions are taken.

  144. By the Department, or elsewhere?
  (Mr Burton) By people such as yourselves, by the Environmental Audit Committee, by the Department, but the Department should not be seen as the enforcer, it should be the policing of this system, it needs to be owned and bought into by Departments, so it is a natural part of their thinking, just as other Government priorities are a natural part of Government thinking. So the Department is not there to police it or to enforce it but it is there to help, to assist and to identify shortcomings and to provide mechanisms for raising the game across Government as a whole.

Mr Breed

  145. The Trust have been quite critical of DEFRA's involvement in key policy areas. What impacts do you think that it has made, bearing in mind DEFRA has only been in existence a year, on Government decisions and policy-making areas, and, in particular, do you think that it has got more or less muscle in respect of its predecessors, in order to try to drive that agenda?
  (Mr Burton) On the first part of the question, if you are talking about decisions which are outside DEFRA's direct responsibility, pretty limited, beyond the debate to add energy and climate change, to a certain extent resource productivity, and some of the sort of better equipping of the Spending Review in relation to sustainable development, I would see there being some purchase. But, particularly on the land use issues, around planning, around transport, around the historic environment, we really do not see DEFRA as visible in the way that we wish to see them visible, and where they become visible it tends to be end of pipe, it tends to be when the decision is just about to be made to allow, or not allow, the Hastings bypass, for example; that is not the place where we would want DEFRA to be making itself visible, it needs to be much earlier in the process. And the changes that are going on, in response to the debate the Planning Green Paper has triggered, to the debate about transport, to the forthcoming debate around aviation, the changes that Government is making, in response to that debate, are not ones that really we see DEFRA in the lead on, it is responding to other forces, largely forces outside Government, and NGOs, business and others have been actually much more important in helping Government rethink itself. In terms of whether it is more effective, or not, I think I will have to say it is too early to judge; give them a chance.

  146. Given what you have just said, in a sense, how do you think that they can improve their influence over decision-making and policy-making?
  (Mr Burton) By giving it the strategic capacity and attention resources that it needs; there is not that strategic approach to what the role of DEFRA is, in relation to other Departments, it tends to be a bit of people's jobs, the sort of check it out elsewhere, but it tends to be more how does DEFRA's policies impact on Government, not how does the rest of Government impact on DEFRA's policies. And some clarity about, essentially, the protocols and the working arrangements between different Departments, and there will be a particular challenge there, I think, with the new Office for the Deputy Prime Minister, which is potentially a very infrastructure and development, has significant infrastructure and development responsibilities, which DEFRA will want a very careful eye on.

  147. So, in a way, you are saying that, taking environment out of the DETR and putting it into DEFRA, the jury is still out as to whether that was a more effective way of projecting the environmental voice?
  (Mr Burton) That new machinery has swings and roundabouts. Clearly, there are benefits, in terms of the potential for integration of agriculture and land management and land use and environmental considerations, but it reopened the set of other debates about the rural connections and the impact of the environment on a whole range of other responsibilities, whether it be the work of Regional Development Agencies, whether it be the planning, the transport, the infrastructure debates which are going on.

  148. In your experience, bearing in mind that many other Departments have been in operation, in being, for quite some time, are there any Departments which seem particularly to work better than other Departments, or is there anything, in fact, that DEFRA might learn from other Departments and the way in which they work across departmental issues?
  (Ms Robinson) The Department for Education and Skills has been very proactive in looking across industry sectors, working with DTI, in trying to set a skills agenda for the future, and this is one area we are really hoping DEFRA will tackle, and see DfES as a really key Department to help them build the capacity of rural business, of the farming industry, to cope with change; that is one example. And the others are much more to do with cross-sectoral units that have got a defined point of project, and volunteering, to give an example of something being run out of the Cabinet Office, it has pulled together lots of different agencies and initiatives from different Departments. With DEFRA, they have got to see and have got to really push for other Departments to help them deliver some of their core objectives, and rural affairs is just so vast and so much of what they want to achieve is going to be controlled by others.

  149. So you seem to be saying that they need to be more proactive rather than reactive?
  (Ms Robinson) Certainly.
  (Mr Burton) Yes, and identify those areas where the, be very clear for itself and for the outside world of those areas which it would see as the most important relationships with the rest of Government, you know, has the mapping exercise been done, of the potential impacts of other departmental decisions on what DEFRA is trying to achieve, and have the resources then been put in to address that.

Mrs Shephard

  150. You have just said that DEFRA should have, I think, am I right in quoting you, a greater strategic capacity, or a phrase like that?
  (Mr Burton) Yes.

  151. And you have just been describing how you think that might work and how DEFRA could take a stronger lead with other Departments. Would you see that strategic capacity being strengthened or weakened by devolution to regional assemblies for a number of the areas of responsibility that concern you?
  (Mr Burton) I think it is needed, regardless of what happens with either regional assemblies or directly-elected regional assemblies, but there is—

  152. That was not my question. You have made clear you think it is needed; would it be weakened or strengthened by the devolution to regional assemblies, the capacity?
  (Mr Burton) It would need to address those issues where regional priorities were driving change; so, in a sense, the strategic capacity will not be just to look at other Government Departments, but it will also have to be looking at regional assemblies, and that would need to be a part of the process.

  153. Do you think it would be diffused, it would be weakened?
  (Mr Burton) It would have to cover more bases, it would have to bring coherence to regional decision-making, where there was a national interest at stake; but, equally, we are strongly supportive of the way in which, particularly on farming policy, that is actually getting closer to the ground, and the regional dimension to the England Rural Development Plan is a very important additional strength to the process of ensuring that we are putting in the finances and establishing priorities which were appropriate to particular areas, and not just being controlled from Whitehall, as was the case under the previous regime.

  154. Except that, of course, there were always regional arrangements in place for MAFF, with Regional Offices, from a very long time ago, and it seems to me that there is a difference between having administrative arrangements to look at the ways policies impact on different parts of England and also the way those services are delivered, and a transfer of strategic powers from the centre to the regions, which is the point of the regional policy?
  (Mr Burton) We would certainly support the need for more differentiation, at a regional or a sub-regional level, about what it is that farm spending, for example, is spent on, and previously many of the regional MAFF structures were administrative arrangements for ensuring that funds were made available on the ground.

  155. But, surely, since you have been arguing for a strategic approach from the centre, you must accept the implication of that argument, which is that to devolve that strategic capacity to the regions weakens the strategic power of the centre; you cannot have it both ways?
  (Mr Burton) I think you can.

  156. I would like to know how?
  (Mr Burton) It depends on the issues that you are dealing with; there are some issues which need a stronger national lead, there are other issues where we are strongly supportive of the need for greater regional diversity.

  157. Yes, quite so; but the regional devolution you can go to the Government to differentiate, especially if there is, as you say, no mapping exercise. What advice would you give DEFRA?
  (Mr Burton) We would certainly want DEFRA to be very conscious of the impact that any moves towards either stronger regional assemblies or directly-elected regional assemblies would have on its interests and its issues, on the farming but also on the environmental side, just as they are already having to do in relation to the growing influence of Regional Development Agencies, who are a key part of the delivery of the new rural agenda, as well as being economic drivers. So what you could be saying is that the strategic capacity needs to be that much stronger, to ensure it can deal with the fragmentation of policy, as well as more strategic coherence of policy at a national level; you need to look both ways.

  158. Well, yes; in which case, what you are saying is that you think that devolution to regional assemblies would weaken the strategic strength that you are looking for from the centre; that is the implication of what you have just said?
  (Mr Burton) That is not what we are saying, we are saying that there is a need for DEFRA to be clear about the impact of other people's decisions on its objectives; therefore, it needs to equip itself with the resources to ensure that it is aware of those implications and can influence those implications. The amount of resource that it needs to put into that clearly will depend on the number of decisions that are not within its control.

  159. But if the decision-making moves elsewhere, it is not where you are, you cannot influence it?
  (Mr Burton) I do not think that is true. One of the welcome things has been, DEFRA has become a more effective part of the Regional Office structure.

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