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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 169-179)




  169. Mr West, you are the Director of Conservation Management at English Heritage, and Mr Trow, you are the Head of Countryside Policy. We do not often see English Heritage, but we thought we would have a little bit of a change of scenery and have a slightly different perspective on this, so that is why you are here. And what we are anxious to find out is whether DEFRA really has established a clear identity and a clear sense of purpose and knows what it is about and whether it is able to deliver it. You are quite complimentary about the establishment of the sort of new persona of DEFRA, but you enter a sort of quibble, as it were, or qualm, when you talk about the conservation of the historic environment, and you think that really that does not seem, that has sort of fallen through the hole, or has not really been given the sort of importance it merits. Would you just like to tell me what your concerns are, in that regard?
  (Mr West) I think the main point we want to make here is, first, that MAFF was already taking a much more positive point of view, from our point of view, even before DEFRA was set up, and that, since it has been set up, it has been able to build on that, and we have found a lot of very useful doors have been opening, in parts of Whitehall that had previously been closed to us. It is terribly important that they do open, of course, because the historic environment exists every bit as much in the countryside as it does in the towns, and the sorts of policies that DEFRA are responsible for can be absolutely critical in affecting the future of the historic environment in England. We were very pleased, incidentally, that DEFRA was involved in and associated itself with the Government's statement on the future of the historic environment, that was published last December, "A Force for our Future", and I think there are some very encouraging early indications that DEFRA is going to take this seriously. But there is a long way to go, on that side.

  170. But there are some intentions, are there not, there, because, if we take the planning area, we are told that the fundamental Spending Review is going to contain serious liberalisation of the planning rules in the countryside, that was the voices on the grapevine; and we have also been told, earlier on, that DEFRA had practically no input at all into the Government's review of planning, which has just been commented on by one of our fellow Committees. So, in the sense of getting the rural activity and economy going, people always say, "These planning rules are a real pain, they can't do anything, they're rigid, very difficult to convert, change of use is difficult, business rates chip in, and we're absolutely frozen." But, from the point of view of wanting to make sure that the historic environment is maintained it does require planning rules to be used sensibly. When you have objectives which may be in conflict within the Department, how are they resolved?
  (Mr West) It is certainly true that, in order to manage change in the historic environment intelligently, you do need a sensitive and effective planning system, and, indeed, to achieve DEFRA's own objectives on the rural agenda and on the environmental agenda, they too will need an effective and sensitive planning system. Sensitive and intelligent does not mean necessarily lots of controls, it means an intelligent system that actually attempts to reconcile all the different competing interests, which are obviously involved in managing change. Nobody, least of all English Heritage, imagines that change can or should be stopped, we are not in the business of fossilising the countryside, any more than we are in the business of fossilising individual historic buildings, we are interested in the business of identifying what is significant about the historic environment and making sure that what is significant, the things people value about it, is sustained effectively for the future. Which is, incidentally, one reason why the historic environment is a key part of delivering sustainable development, or sustainability, the ideas in the whole concept of sustainable development, in which DEFRA is obviously in the lead, are very much the ideas that we wish to see applied in managing change to the historic environment, namely, the long-term view actually taking into account the need to sustain for the future the things that people actually value.

Mr Borrow

  171. As the Chairman said, you are quite complimentary on the changes that were being made when DEFRA was established. I wonder to what extent you feel that the establishment of DEFRA was important, in terms of changing the culture that existed in the old MAFF and the parts of DETR that came across when it was established?
  (Mr Trow) Yes, I think we felt that the problems with MAFF were that it was very fixated on the farming industry, and that the environmental and rural development aspects of its work, they were there but they were very much a sort of "bolt-on". We have heard about silos a lot today, and essentially they were in very deep, very well-protected silos within MAFF. I think the creation of DEFRA has gone a long way towards breaking down those silos, certainly in terms of the senior management structure, it is very clear that there is a lot of team working and joint vision going on at the senior level; it does not mean that there is not an element of silo still left within the new Department, but we think certainly the mechanisms for breaking that down are already in train. And, of course, it is very early days, in terms of DEFRA as a new Department, they have not had very long, particularly with foot and mouth on the agenda last year, to implement this work. So we see encouraging first signs.

  172. You refer to the comments I made before, when you sat at the back of the hall, about silo thinking, which I think was a phrase that was used by the RSPB last week, but if I could just read a short quote from evidence they gave last week, and see if you want to react to that, because they did make a comment that, "Despite the progressive rhetoric of the Ministerial and Management Board, there is worrying evidence that the inertia and narrow world view towards agriculture shown by the former MAFF is still pervasive at a lower level within the Department." I think you have touched slightly on that, that you feel that is still there, but I get the impression that you feel some progress is being made?
  (Mr Trow) I think it is important, that we should say that most of our relationship with DEFRA tends to be into the Rural Development Service and the Land Use and Rural Affairs Land Use Directorate. Within those areas, I think, we really are seeing quite a lot of culture change, increasingly. We have less well-developed links to the Agriculture and Farming Directorate, and perhaps that is an indication of the fact that those silos still exist, to a certain extent; and we have not got such well developed links to the Environment Protection Directorate, they are increasingly improving. So it may well be that there is a different culture within different Directorates at DEFRA, I do not think necessarily we are the best people to comment on all of the Directorates.

  173. On the Directorates that you are actually dealing with where you feel there is some movement, is that movement coming from within the officers level that you are actually dealing with, or is there a clear lead coming from above to change the culture?
  (Mr Trow) I think it is a mixture of both, I think there is evidence of a clear lead coming from above. I think, like any organisation, different officers are reacting differently and the pace of change possibly is variable. I think some of the moves that were made in the reorganisation have been very positive in stimulating a change of view. The reabsorption of the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency back into the Department, as the Rural Development Service, I think, has brought in a lot of fairly creative thinking individuals that are acting as a catalyst within the Department; so, certainly within that Department, I see it happening at a number of levels.

Diana Organ

  174. Talking about silos and things, it makes you wonder whether English Heritage are going to make them a listed building; we have been talking about silos all morning, and you feel that somehow they actually are physical structures, not sort of ways of people operating. You talked about how you tend to deal mostly with the Rural Development Service and the Rural Affairs Directorate, but do not have at present very good links with the Environment Protection Directorate. I wonder if you could tell me, if you are looking at something, a building or a structure that you have an interest in, and you are concerned about what is going to happen to it and how that would link in with DEFRA's work, is it easier for you to go to just one official, or do you have to do the runaround and talk to four or five, or do you find that it is not very organised to interface with you?
  (Mr Trow) Generally speaking, I find there is quite a lot of clarity in the new structure, the structure that was established, I think, by November 2001; and, indeed, DEFRA have gone out of their way to provide aids for the outside world to begin to understand their structure, clear organograms and aids in that way; so I find that we are fairly easily directed towards the right person. In some topics, there seem to be several fingers in a particular pie, and it is not necessarily always easy to look laterally and find out who the right people are.

  175. You are actually making it sound much easier than possibly members of the public find, when they are trying to talk to somebody in DEFRA; obviously, they have given you information that "them out there" do not have. You talked about having some aids, it is quite easy, and you think that they have actually thought about this, but in some areas they have not. I wonder if you could just give me some pointers as to where you have difficulty and why that might be so?
  (Mr Trow) A particular case where we were perhaps less pleased with outcomes was the recent discussions around the environmental impact assessment of uncultivated land and semi-natural areas,[3] where I think, there, we felt that the broader commitment and wider thinking about sustainability that is going on in the Department perhaps had not permeated into that particular area of discussion.

Mr Breed

  176. It is very nice to see English Heritage here. I represent a Cornish constituency; you will know there are a considerable number of people down there that do not recognise English Heritage and do their best to destroy all your signs, for which I apologise. To what extent did you used to relate to MAFF and DETR, did you used to have quite a lot of discussions and did you interface with them to any reasonable extent?
  (Mr West) I think it would be fair to say, we interfaced better with the old DETR than we did with MAFF, but I think it is true across Whitehall, in recent years, that the degree of interdepartmental consultation and, dare I say, joined-up thinking, even, across Whitehall, has actually been improving steadily over recent years, and our relations with MAFF, as I think I said at the beginning, were improving considerably, even before DEFRA was created. I do not know whether Steve wants to add anything to that.
  (Mr Trow) Certainly, to reiterate the point that there was a change already, not least as a result of foot and mouth. To a certain extent, we see the creation of DEFRA as the culmination of one process as well as the beginning of another.

  177. So you had more involvement with DETR than you did with MAFF?
  (Mr Trow) Certainly; because of the planning issues, we were . . .

  178. Bearing in mind that, and the last year, or so, of DEFRA, and everything else, and putting any Department together and all the sort of problems that it has got, overall, what is your impression of the way in which the Department has managed to keep its people, attract the right quality, keep all the people it wants, or do you get the impression that, over the last year, because of a number of difficulties, the mergers, and everything else, there has been a sort of drain away, on staff, that you are beginning to find not the people that you used to deal with in DETR, and such? What is your overall impression of the strengths of the Department, in staff terms, now, as opposed to what you used to deal with in DETR?
  (Mr Trow) In terms of the areas of the Department we deal with, I think there has been a remarkable amount of continuity, in terms of staff, to be quite honest. Certainly, the main changes at the senior, Board level are the main changes that we have been aware of, and we have certainly been very impressed by the calibre and the thinking of the staff that have come in there. At a lower level, there have been staff changes but they have been more rotations between different parts of the Department than rotations out of the Department, as far as we are aware.

  179. So, as far as your dealings are concerned anyway, you have been able to maintain good contact with the ones that you want to, and there has been no particular problem there, and whilst lower down there may have been some problems, in terms of retaining staff, it has not had any significant effect on your dealings with DEFRA, in any sense?
  (Mr Trow) No; we have tended to be able to find who we needed to talk to.

3   Note by Witness: The Environmental Impact Assessment (Uncultivated Land and Semi-natural Areas) (England) Regulations 2001. Back

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