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


Memorandum submitted by the Local Government Association (G16)

  Our attention has been drawn to this new Inquiry and the Association has the following comments related to your terms of reference:

    —  It is undoubtedly too early (one year into the life of the new Department) to be able to say conclusively whether DEFRA, and its vision, are making a difference. We are aware that new working arrangements are still bedding in and that there has been a big staff turnover in some areas. We recognise the ambition of the Department and our comments—where they are critical—are intended to assist in achieving their objectives.

    —  The Department covers a huge span of subjects and the vision is inevitably wide-ranging and ambitious. It recognises the key issues that need to be addressed but, as with any vision statement, it is the reality in practice that is ultimately important.

    —  Our understanding of the new Department is that, in addition to its own departmental responsibilities (for farming, food processing, environmental and countryside issues), DEFRA is responsible for two policy areas which cut across the whole of Government:

—  sustainable development; and

—  rural affairs.

    —  The Association has yet to see any significant evidence of DEFRA influencing the plans and policy proposals of other government departments on either of these two important cross-cutting issues. Your Inquiry will, no doubt, wish to explore the influence that the new department has been able to exert across government.

    —  From the soundings we have been able to take on the matter, there would appear to be a perception within local government that the new Department is still weighted towards environmental issues and regulation. Rural affairs seems to have a Cinderella role and "sustainable development" appears to focus on environmental sustainability, rather than on an over-arching approach to integrate social, economic and environmental thinking into all decision-making across government.

    —  We are not convinced that there are strong links between DEFRA and other government departments which have important roles in common policy areas—especially DTI (eg for energy and waste policy) and the former DTLR (for environmental and urban affairs). The town and country differentiation (as in DTLR/DEFRA) still appears to fly in the face of statements made in the urban and rural white papers. Your inquiry may wish to probe the strength of these important connections.

    —  A number of local authorities have had some difficulty in dealing with the Department on their local Public Service Agreements, when they have sought to include targets on recycling waste. This is an area to which the Government appears to give priority but the LGA's impression is that the Department's capacity to negotiate with local authorities on waste recycling targets has been limited by a lack of resources being applied to this priority.

    —  Also on waste policy matters, it was unfortunate that the new Department should find itself, within its first year of operation, embroiled in a crisis surrounding the disposal of refrigerators. The LGA appreciates the recognition and involvement afforded to local government over recent months to attempt to address this issue (although mechanisms and funding arrangements have yet to be finalised). However, the big issue here is one of foresight and forward planning. It will be important for DEFRA to ensure that there are no unforeseen repetitions of the fridges crisis and your Inquiry may wish to explore the Department's forward planning arrangements with particular regard to future European regulations. The forthcoming Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive is likely to require careful planning to ensure that the "polluter pays" principles are carried through and that there is no additional financial burden on local authorities or council tax payers.

    —  With regard to Rural Affairs, the LGA is involved in the newly created Rural Affairs Forum for England (RAFE). It will be important for this mechanism (and the regional rural affairs fora which are also being established) to be more than "talking shops", for practitioners' views to be heard and for real action to result from the process—carried through to the development of future rural policy—across Government.

    —  On the issue of animal welfare/protection against animal diseases, your Inquiry will no doubt learn lessons from the series of Inquiries established following the Foot and Mouth outbreak. There are, however, concerns within local government that there have not yet been sufficient steps taken to protect the UK farming industry from the dangers of imported meat/animal products. Linked to this is a potential danger, in a rush to re-stock culled farms, of re-introducing bovine TB to previously "clean" areas.

    —  We detect a lack of clarity or, at least, some confusion about the boundaries between DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency regarding food issues. A very recent example concerns illegal imports of animal products. In January FSA wrote to local government heads of environmental health and trading standards asking them to report details of any seizures. In April DEFRA asked our sister organization, LACORS, to request the same people to supply the same information to them. This suggests a possible communication problem.

    —  Finally, your Inquiry may wish to explore the relationship between DEFRA and the Countryside Agency. There is sometimes a perception that both are independently active in some policy areas (eg rural transport) and your Inquiry may wish to consider the value that each adds to the other.

May 2002

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