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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-168)



  160. No, we are talking about regional assemblies, when the decision-making moves elsewhere; at the moment, the decision-making is still in the middle?
  (Mr Burton) But the decisions that DEFRA are trying to influence, they are not just within Government at the moment, DEFRA is there trying to change the decisions of thousands of farmers; you could say, well, you cannot directly control those, but, clearly, what it does is it sets the policy framework, provides funding arrangements, provides leadership, within which a whole myriad of people, whether they are regional assemblies, farmers, the National Trust, other organisations, are making decisions. So I do not see that the regional assemblies, essentially, are different from the vast number of organisations and individuals that DEFRA is trying to shape.

  Mrs Shephard: Thank you. Clearly you do not see that; so, thank you very much.

Mr Jack

  161. I just wanted to ask, really, for my own information, in case I have missed it, because the word "rural" obviously keeps cropping up. I received an answer to a Parliamentary Question some time ago, indicating that the work was beginning on trying to establish a common definition across Government as to what they mean by the word "rural". Have you any idea what has happened to that exercise?
  (Mr Burton) As I understand it, it is not felt to be a particularly useful exercise; the Countryside Agency is working on seeking to help respond to a very specific question. But I think we would question the value of finding a simple distinction between urban and rural, not least because rural is itself, the diversity of what you mean by rural is enormously complicated. And, certainly, in the process of drawing up the Rural White Paper, it was very clear that that would not be a helpful, one size fits all definition to which you could apply policies. The countryside of mid Berkshire is very different from the countryside of north Cumbria.

  Mr Jack: And I would not disagree with that. The only reason I ask this is that, in terms of the way in which resources are disposed of, disposal policies usually require some definition of who the recipients are, and things like sparsity measures have, up to now, perhaps helped to inform what has been defined as rural. I have sympathy with what you are saying, because, as far as I am concerned, rural, in my constituency of the Fylde, begins roughly where urban ends, because the people a mile away from an urban community think that they are in the countryside, because that is where they are, and yet, by the official measures, they are not, they are in some kind of sort of no-man's land, they are not rural and they are not urban, they are sort of in-between. We do not have a definition for in-between.

  Mrs Shephard: Sub-urban.

Mr Jack

  162. Sub-urban; well, no, suburban is sort of, I will take you and show you what I mean. I think I know what the definition in my own mind is of suburban, but it is quite interesting that there is this sort of, sometimes, cliff-edge view, where there is a field in-between one settlement and another, as to whether, in fact, one is countryside and one is urban; it does actually affect a lot of the policy areas that DEFRA operates in?
  (Mr Burton) It does, and it is not just a physical distinction either, because it is as much about how the dynamics of how the place works, where people work, how the economies interact, is going to be as important to those judgements as whether or not it is physically developed, or looks nice.

  163. I wanted really to ask you a question about research and development and DEFRA. Can I just ask how you, as the National Trust, monitor what DEFRA is doing, in terms of its R&D activities?
  (Mr Burton) It is very ad hoc, and we do not have a clear picture of DEFRA's research or its research priorities. We will tend to bump up against it when DEFRA is wanting information, wanting advice, wanting us to get engaged, but we do not have a strategic sense of how it is deploying those resources, although we recognise those resources are very considerable and could be a very important way of helping drive the kind of changes that we have been talking about.

  164. The reason I asked that question was because, as you rightly allude to, in paragraph 13 of your evidence, you say the Department "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." And I thought that that phrase might have been founded on some kind of assessment of the way that the current resources were deployed; but I think, if I have understood you correctly, it is an aspiration on your part, as opposed to an outcome of a piece of detailed analysis?
  (Mr Burton) It is an aspiration, but I would say that we do not see particularly visible the research that is not just about collecting information and facts and the science of a lot of the policy debates which were involved; we would like to see more visible research on how to go about an engaging in policy development, how to go out and bring other values into the process. Because DEFRA is a Department with responsibilities which are going to be political judgements, based on an assessment of a range of different factors, and we do not see that approach to policy development in the way in which the research is coming forward.

  165. Given that this Committee has conducted inquiries into sensitive areas, such as nuclear waste disposal and genetically modified crops, and in both instances we have heard of a lot of work that has already been done on innovative ways in engaging the wider community, in many ways, in public debates on sensitive issues, do you really think there is any need for DEFRA to use money which already appears, again, from other inquiries, we have heard about, for example, shortages of resources for investigating bovine TB, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, and the whole raft of science-based activity which DEFRA is currently involved in? Do you think it is sensible, given the other work that has been done, to divert resources to the objective which you have just enunciated, given the problems they have, seemingly, in meeting the other science objectives that they are already struggling with?
  (Mr Burton) Providing DEFRA is using that research and using that information, there is always, as with many Departments, a sort of "not made here" mentality, it means that it does not necessarily attach the importance, or, indeed, the awareness levels are not as high as they need to be about the other research which is being done, and that research will tend to continue to feel associated with those discreet areas in which it has been developed, rather than being a more generic application.

  166. Do you have any examples of projects which you would like to see DEFRA doing, which they are not at the moment, which are not, if you like, described in the general terms that you introduced remarks in, but which are specific projects; if you could nominate three, what would they be, for example?
  (Ms Robinson) One is related to testing approaches and how they deliver; it has been said that understanding science is a key challenge, but equally how do you deliver is a very big one that they are working on at the moment. And one of the things that we really would like to see is how, at regional level in particular, they engage with a variety of stakeholders; taking farming as an example, I mentioned earlier about integrated business advice and information, and what would be really good is if they started testing how to bring together all the different players in the public, private, voluntary sectors who give advice, who are sources of expertise and information, and to model on one region how that could be much better integrated, tailored to meet the needs of businesses in that region. But it is that kind of thing. I do not know whether you are aware of the Bodmin and Bowland experiments in upland agriculture in integrated rural development; that is a different type of research budget that is yielding results over a three-year period, but it is really trying to break apart and understand much better how things work at local level, and it is ground-treating a lot of what their delivery models are going to have to cope with. So that is one of the areas we would like see some very practical work on.

  167. Have you done any analysis on, if you like, MAFF versus DEFRA, in terms of levels of expenditure in areas that you would like to see work undertaken in, comparing historically, say, five, ten, 15 years ago with now; have you done any work in that area?
  (Mr Burton) We have not, but it sounds like a worthy area of exploration.

  168. Your resources, no doubt, are as stretched as DEFRA's are, as far as that is concerned. You have touched on the subject earlier in your evidence, about the sort of non-departmental public bodies, of which there are a lot, that report to DEFRA; what are the ones that you do not think are relevant to their work in the future, or will the National Trust cull this?

  (Mr Burton) It is always invidious to sort of name names, and I am sure that if you went to any of these individual organisations there would be a very good reason why they were not the one that should be subject to change and to review. So it is a wider point we are making, rather than fingering individual organisations. But we do think that a fresh look at the executive NDPBs that report to DEFRA, and considering what DEFRA believes it to be about, would say that, if you were starting from a clean sheet of paper, which, of course, you are not, this is not what should be happening. Now one example of that, which there is already progress on and which we have strongly supported and welcomed, has been the repositioning of food from Britain, from being how can we market the UK's products overseas to how can we develop and deliver on the local food agenda. That is an example of, essentially, a repositioning of the presentation of those resources to deliver a different agenda. Now it could be in other areas, the sort of fragmentation between apples and potatoes and cereals and horticulture and meat and milk, and all these separate sections, into separate councils and separate bodies, does that feel right, given the kind of approach that DEFRA is now trying to introduce. So we would like to see a fresh look across the piece, rather than a piece-by-piece look at individual agencies and bodies.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

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