Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Session 2004-05

26 March 2005


NEW ENVIRONMENTAL AND RURAL AGENCIES MUST HAVE REAL INDEPENDENCE, SAY MPs

The Government's Rural Strategy and the draft Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

The Government must ensure that its new Rural Strategy creates genuinely independent and credible new Agencies to replace English Nature and the Countryside Agency, and show that the changes it proposes are worth the disruption they cause, says the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in a new report released today.

The MPs say that while overheads costs may be reduced by merging functions to create the new agencies, the consolidation must not be used as an excuse to cut the actual budgets for new and existing organisations to fulfill their tasks. Furthermore, the Government's approach to delivering rural services will only work if responsibility for delivery is genuinely devolved to a local level.

The MPs support the principle of simplifying the current range of rural funding streams but are not convinced that Defra will in fact be able to streamline the current hundred-plus rural schemes down to three, as it claims. Defra must ensure that effective, working IT systems are in place, on time, to support the changes contained in the Strategy.  Defra must show how changes introduced by the Rural Strategy will be worth the disruption they will inevitably cause.

The Committee also scrutinised the draft Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill and says that the independence of the Integrated Agency and the Commission for Rural Communities must be made clearer on the face of the Bill. The Integrated Agency's environmental role should have clear priority if a conflict with its socio-economic or other purposes arises. Defra must also provide more clarity about the draft Bill's provisions on flexible delivery arrangements as there are concerns about the range of bodies, public and private, that might be charged with carrying out Defra functions. Reform of the agricultural and horticultural levy boards proposed in the draft Bill should be accompanied by statutory consultation and enhanced Parliamentary scrutiny.

The Chairman of the sub-committee that carried out the inquiry, Paddy Tipping MP, said:

"The Government is right to reorganise those agencies operating in rural areas and their budgets. However, there is a cost to change. The long-term targets benefits must exceed the problems connected with changes.

The Integrated Agency and the Commission for Rural Communities must be truly independent. They should speak up for rural communities and the countryside with a strong voice. Our landscape and environment is important, so is the task of bringing new investment, new jobs and better facilities to rural areas. This is a difficult balance. The countryside will always change, the tasks is to manage the process in a thoughtful and sensitive way".

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NOTES FOR EDITORS

1. For more information or to arrange bids for the Chairman of the sub-committee, Paddy Tipping MP, please contact the Committee's media officer, Jessica Bridges Palmer, on 07841 737 349.

2. The Report, The Government's Rural Strategy and the draft Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill is published on 26 March 2005 at 00.01am.

3. The full report will be available on our website from around 3.30pm on 26 March. Website: http://www.parliament.uk/efracom. It is also available from the usual outlets, including the Stationery Office bookshops (reference: Fifth Report of the Committee, Session 2004-05, HC 408-I).