The Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 concludes that the Government has diminished the resources given to departments and bodies which protect the UK's natural environment and promote the needs of rural communities. The Committee argues that this has had a profound, negative impact on England's biodiversity, environment and the social and economic welfare of rural areas, and must be addressed.
Chairman of the Committee, Lord Cameron of Dillington said:
"It is clear that the Government are failing to take proper account of the needs of rural communities. Departmental decisions and policies continue to demonstrate a lack of rural understanding among Whitehall policymakers. Each and every Government department should be required to think about the ways in which their policies affect rural people, and the Government must take action to ensure that this 'rural-proofing' of policy happens.
"The Committee also heard concerning evidence of the ongoing decline of biodiversity, species and habitats. The 2006 Act, which created Natural England and introduced a new biodiversity duty, was supposed to address this, but has failed to do so. The biodiversity duty suffers from weak wording and poor enforceability, whilst Natural England's status has been diluted and weakened over recent years, so that it now struggles to perform all of its key functions. The Government needs to act now, before our natural environment, protected species and cherished landscapes suffer further damage.
"The Committee's overall vision is for balanced protection and promotion of the natural environment and a reversal of the biodiversity decline. This must be coupled with better recognition of the potential of rural communities and the rural economy, and a greater effort from the Government to ensure that policy changes do not work to the detriment of rural areas."
Recommendations included in the report
- We recommend that responsibility for rural affairs should be transferred from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. This change would ensure that responsibility for rural communities sits within the central Government department that is responsible for communities as a whole as, indeed, it did prior to the creation of Defra.
- We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities. We share the concerns of witnesses who have told us that Natural England no longer has a distinctive voice, and urge the Government to take action in recognition of these concerns.
- We recommend that responsibility for promoting and embedding rural proofing across Government departments should be assigned to the Cabinet Office, within a single purpose unit with the necessary resources and experience required to exert influence on all departments.
- We recommend that the NERC Act should be amended in order to add a reporting requirement to the biodiversity duty; the Government should also consider strengthening the wording of the duty.