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

Memorandum Submitted by English Heritage (G 24)


  1.  English Heritage welcomes the opportunity to offer evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee on the role of DEFRA.

  2.  English Heritage is the Government's principal adviser on all aspects of the historic environment in England—including historic buildings and areas, archaeology and the historic landscape—with a remit that extends to both the urban and rural environments. As well as conservation, our statutory duties include promoting the public's enjoyment of the historic environment and their knowledge of it. As part of this function we manage an estate of over 400 historic properties—attracting in excess of 11,000,000 visitors annually—the majority of which are in the countryside. We are, therefore, significant participants in the UK tourism business and, for example, have been a partner in the recent "Your Countryside: You're Welcome" campaign to revitalise rural tourism.

  3.  Our role in heritage and landscape conservation issues give us a significant interest in the implications of environmental, agricultural and land-use policy. We also have a close interest in rural development and the contribution the historic environment can make to the regeneration of rural communities. We are pleased to be closely involved in the England Rural Development Programme (ERDP), sitting alongside the other environmental agencies on the National Strategy Group for the Programme and on its Regional Programming Groups. We are also members of the national and regional ERDP Consultation Groups.

  4.  In December last year, the Government issues a major statement on the historic environment of England1. This confirmed that the historic environment contributes to a wide range of government policies and should not be seen as the preserve of any single department. It underlined the need for good cross-departmental links if the historic environment was to be managed effectively. DEFRA and DTLR (as it then was) were both involved in drafting the statement, and were identified as having a particularly important role to play in managing the historic environment by virtue of their involvement in planning, regeneration, [1]land-use and environmental policy.

  5.  Our evidence to the Committee therefore focuses on DEFRA's own involvement with—and contribution towards—the historic environment. In this context it should be noted that the ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had a statutory duty under Section 17 of the 1986 Agriculture Act to achieve "a reasonable balance" between "(a) the promotion and maintenance of a stable and efficient agricultural industry; (b) the economic and social interests of rural areas; the conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside (including its flora and fauna and geological and physiographical features) and of any features of archaeological interest there; and (d) the promotion of the enjoyment of the countryside by the public"

  6.  This duty has now passed to DEFRA, which is better placed than MAFF to achieve this difficult balance. With its enhanced emphasis on environmental protection and rural development and its interest in rural tourism, the new department has the potential to be a major force in the promotion of the historic environment in England.

  7.  Unlike the other leading conservation agencies (English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Environment Agency), which are sponsored by DEFRA, English Heritage is sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We therefore have a close interest in ensuring that inter-departmental and inter-agency links with the DEFRA "family" are as effective as possible. These links were examined as part of our own recent quinquennial Review. The review acknowledged that effective operational links have already been forged between DEFRA and English Heritage, but noted that effective joint working has been hampered by "the lack of any formal constitutional relationship and high-level influencing capacity"[2]. We would like to see these problems rectified as soon as possible and have already taken steps to achieve this, which we hope will be reflected in action on DEFRA's part.

  8.  Our operational links with DEFRA are focussed particularly on the Land Use and Rural Affairs Directorate and the Rural Development Service, reflecting their leading role in delivering environmental conservation and rural development. We are also beginning to develop effective links with other areas of the new Department, such as the Environmental Protection Directorate, although these are less well developed.


  9.  English Heritage commends the speed with which DEFRA has sought to establish its new ministerial vision statement, its underpinning statement of Aim and Objectives and its new prospectus "Working for the Essentials of Life". We also greatly welcome the open and consultative manner in which DEFRA developed these statements. We are particularly pleased to note that, as a result of the consultation process, the final version of the statement lays far greater emphasis than the consultation draft on the holistic character of the environment and on the global, marine and urban responsibilities of the new Department. As a result, we believe that the vision statement is wholly appropriate for DEFRA.

  10.  We were, however, disappointed that "Working for the Essentials of Life" pays comparatively little regard to the Department's role in maintaining the quality of the countryside, and makes no specific reference to its work in conserving the historic environment. This is particularly disappointing given the Department's parallel involvement in producing "The Historic Environment: A Force for our Future" and the increased general awareness—following the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak—of the close links between farming, landscape quality, heritage, tourism and the rural economy.

The weight accorded to departmental functions and whether the Department is engineered to deliver its objectives

  11.  English Heritage believes that the creation of DEFRA has marked a very important step forward in terms of the administration of rural affairs. We particularly welcome the increased emphasis that the new Department lays on environmental protection, conservation, rural development and food safety. This increased emphasis on issues other than agricultural policy represents a long-overdue correction to the imbalance apparent within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We believe that the weight accorded to agricultural policy within the new Department now reflects far more accurately the comparative contribution of farming to national GDP, while at the same time recognising its key role in delivering landscape quality and biodiversity as well as food.

  12.  It is too early to take a view on the Department's internal organisation. This is still settling down and will need time to bed in before its effectiveness can be fully assessed. The Department was preoccupied with the Foot and Mouth outbreak and its aftermath for several months after its creation, which meant that its initial focus on agricultural and rural policy issues tended to be at the expense of its profile in environmental protection, urban affairs and international relations. As a result, an erroneous perception has arisen that DEFRA are the department for the countryside and DTLR (and now, presumably, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) the lead department for urban affairs. In recent months we have detected moves within DEFRA to counteract this perception, not least through the Minister's vision statement.

  13.  Despite its important role in landscape conservation, and the implications of many of its strategic or operational decisions for the conservation or exploitation of the rural heritage, DEFRA has acquired only very limited "in-house" expertise in these areas. For example, its Rural Development Service employs over forty in-house ecologists, but less than a handful of professionally qualified staff dedicated to advising on archaeology and historic buildings. Indeed, the number of landscape architects employed by DEFRA in recent years has fallen from 11 to two. We therefore believe that the Department is poorly equipped to deal with the full range of environmental and landscape issues implied by the new span of its responsibilities.

  14.  We are particularly keen to see DEFRA establish effective relationships with other Departments with an interest in rural affairs and environmental protection, particularly with those responsible for planning and tourism. The planning system is critical in delivering environmental protection. This is not merely a matter of planning policy and casework, but also the research and development needed to enable planning policy to develop and improve. We would also like to see improved links between DEFRA and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with its lead responsibilities for tourism and the historic environment. These should include effective joint policy formulation and joint support for the research necessary to support policy development.

  15.  With an annual budget of £250 million, DEFRA's research and development programme is one of the most significant in Government. As it reviews its science base under its new Chief Scientist, we therefore hope it will carefully examine the fit between its research programme and its new Departmental vision. In the past, MAFF's scientific programme tended to focus on agricultural, food and coastal defence issues. Any environmental research tended to address issues relating solely to nature conservation, rather than adopting a more holistic approach to the environment.

  16.  English Heritage would like to see DEFRA undertake more social and economic research into tourism, the historic environment and landscape character, and the role they play in rural development. This should help address the poor understanding of the complex relationships between farming, the environment and the rural economy which was apparent in the Government's initial failure to anticipate the economic consequences of its response to the Foot and Mouth outbreak.

  17.  We would like to see research on the social and economic value of the historic environment feed through into more robust departmental indicators for landscape quality. Currently, the Department's Key Performance Indicators and Public Spending Agreement Indicators that relate to environmental conservation are almost exclusively biodiversity targets. Apart from basic indicators relating to field boundary survival, there are none which track the condition of other historic landscape features, historic farm buildings or general quality in the landscape—all areas for which DEFRA has some departmental responsibility. Similarly, the long-term Countryside Survey monitoring programme concerns itself with nature conservation and natural resource issues, but neglects the historic environment and more aesthetic considerations. This monitoring initiative and related indicators were developed by MAFF and DETR and inherited by DEFRA. We believe DEFRA should now review them and remedy their deficiencies.

The role and effectiveness of the Environmental Protection Group and the Wildlife and Countryside Directorate following their transfer from DTLR

  18.  English Heritage has comparatively limited involvement with DEFRA's Environmental Protection Directorate. We have, however, recently developed a productive relationship with its Waste Strategy section, having been invited to participate in the mitigation of the impacts of aggregate extraction through the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. We greatly welcome this recognition of the historic environment as part of the bigger environmental picture, and the willingness to create links to an agency not sponsored by DEFRA.

  19.  We are nevertheless disappointed that in its lead role for sustainable development, DEFRA has tended to neglect the contribution of the historic (as distinct from the natural) environment to the debate on sustainability. We hope that in the future we will be able to establish better dialogue and mutual understanding of the issues.

The Department's "rural affairs" agenda and cross-departmental links

  20.  English Heritage believes that DEFRA is making very positive steps to address the ``rural affairs'' agenda, although initial developments in this area were inevitably hampered by the pressing demands of the Foot and Mouth Disease recovery programme.

  21.  The creation of a directorate dedicated to Land Use and Rural Affairs has been a particularly important achievement. This directorate already appears to have effectively brought together the roles it inherited from MAFF and DETR and, in many respects, it can be considered to be at the centre of DEFRA's new departmental vision. The new directorate has already undertaken a great deal of basic groundwork on which future achievements can be founded. It displays a real commitment to partnership across government and with the NGO sector. It has inherited the consultative machinery that already surrounded the England Rural Development Programme and the Rural White Paper commitment to Rural Sounding Boards and has established and effective and coherent framework for consulting a wide range of partners. It also appears to have established an effective relationship with the Government Regional Offices and with other partner organisations with a regional presence. Successes include the England Rural Development Programme, delivered through the Rural Development Service and the Government Offices, and the Market Towns Initiative, delivered through the Countryside Agency and the Regional Development Agencies. We believe that new ERDP initiatives, such as Rural Enterprise Scheme and the Vocational Training Scheme, also have great potential to stimulate rural regeneration, provided that further rounds of CAP reform alleviate their current under-funding.

  22.  The re-casting of the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency as the Rural Development Service and its re-absorption within DEFRA is another potentially important step in carrying through the Department's rural affairs agenda. It will, however, need adequate funding and considerable staff development if it is to move beyond its current agriculture-centred focus.

English Heritage

June 2002

1   "The Historic Environment: A Force for Our Future", Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, December 2001, London. Back

2   "English Heritage Quinquennial Review: Stage One Report" Department for Culture, Medial and Sport, May 2002, London. Back

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