OPINION: Fyson on ... the importance of safeguarding individual views

The government's urge to amalgamate the agencies and organisations that it controls, and to gather into umbrella groups those it does not, may make for administrative efficiency or even cut costs but it neither preserves nor strengthens the influence of independent advisory bodies.

It is disingenuous of rural affairs secretary Margaret Becket to claim that she recognises the benefits of agencies that provide an independent voice on important countryside matters while reportedly endorsing proposals to form a single land management body from the currently separate Countryside Agency, English Nature and Forestry Commission.

These organisations have distinct areas of expertise and should be free to speak directly to the public as well as to ministers. Open discussion is a crucial part of the process of establishing the "shared understanding" that Beckett purports to want. She may protest that she wishes to hear all sides of the argument, but argument, like justice, needs to be seen to be done. It is the general public that foots the bill and takes the environmental and social consequences.

If the underlying reason for the merger is that government believes environmental factors are being given too much weight, for example by English Nature in its resistance to development, the answer must lie in effective countervailing lobbies and agencies. It is not very long ago that the Rural Development Commission was taken over by the Countryside Agency, and while that body now conscientiously represents social and economic interests as well as its traditional landscape responsibilities, the sharp promotional edge of a more focused organisation is inevitably absent.

The proper way to deal with any extreme manifestations of single-issue lobbying is to confront them openly rather than to suppress or otherwise absorb their source. The era of public involvement in government is not well served by consolidated bureaucracies working out the necessary compromises behind closed doors. Such arrangements may be comfortable for the ministers who have to make the decisions, and help to keep the Treasury off their backs, but they are exclusive rather than inclusive.

Organisational distractions apart, Beckett can point to much progress in the three years since the publication of the rural white paper. She is also right to emphasise that rural areas are not a homogeneous, sparsely-populated mass. Some 14 million people live in rural England, many in substantial country towns. But there are unacceptable variations in the quality of rural life, especially regarding access to public services.

Renewed emphasis on the social dimension in the "refreshed rural strategy" to be published next year will be most welcome.


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