ANALYSIS: What next for rural policy?

Lord Haskins wants radical change, but fears persist over weakening the role of environmental bodies, reports David Dewar.

Just four years have passed since the creation of the Countryside Agency. But already it could be faced with major changes following a scathing report by Lord Haskins into the delivery of rural policy in England.

In a review unveiled last week (Planning, 14 November, p1), Haskins calls for the creation of an integrated agency "to promote sustainable use of land and the natural environment". This is necessary, he argues, to improve co-ordination and service delivery, currently blighted by too many organisations involved in formulating and delivering countryside policy.

The proposed agency, Haskins suggests, would be given a wide remit covering biodiversity, historic and natural landscape, natural resources, access and recreation. It would merge English Nature, DEFRA's rural development service and some functions of the Countryside Agency.

The Countryside Agency was created in 1999 through the merger of the Countryside Commission and large parts of the Rural Development Commission.

Its remit was to act as a rural areas champion in government and to take an overview of countryside issues, amid concerns that Whitehall departments were paying inadequate attention to the plight of rural areas.

But Haskins argues that the creation of DEFRA in 2001 means that Margaret Beckett's department represents the voice of the countryside within government.

He sees a substantial amount of duplication. "An estimated 75 per cent of DEFRA's rural policy development and research functions overlap with those of the agency," according to the review.

Mike Burchill, Planning Officers Society rural policy vice-chairman, says: "We welcome the radical approach to rural policy that Haskins is taking and we share his view about the need to streamline government agencies' work in this field. If that gives local authorities a stronger role, we would welcome it."

Burchill adds that there is an issue about whether the existing agencies are trying to do too much work on the ground that other local organisations would be in a better position to deliver. "It can end up with a plethora of initiatives that don't fit together very well," he contends.

Adrian Parker, convenor of the RTPI's countryside and natural environment panel, claims that the Countryside Agency has "clearly become overwhelmed by the money it has to spend". He also complains that the agency "hasn't treated planners as stakeholders" in drawing up policy. The criticism made in the report is unsurprising, he insists.

But others counter that the Countryside Agency and English Nature play a crucial role in speaking up for rural communities and environmental concerns respectively. Many would argue that it is important for such bodies to remain independent of government departments.

On this analysis, the agencies' size reflects the need to build up a critical mass of expertise in grappling with intractable rural policy issues. It is necessary to have such extensive organisations to carry out the joined-up thinking that is crucial to deliver a sustainable and successful countryside, they argue.

The Countryside Agency was saved from the gallows by Beckett's timely intervention last week. Alarmed by the disquiet generated by the possibility, the environment secretary moved quickly to reject the Haskins review recommendation that it should be abolished. But the agency will still be slimmed down and hundreds of jobs are likely to be lost.

Beckett says: "There will be a continued need for a much smaller organisation with a new, well-focused role providing independent policy advice to government from a national perspective on issues affecting people in rural communities and analysing and reporting on best practice in the delivery of the government's rural policies."

Campaigners are also alarmed by the prospect of English Nature's role being diluted. A body that has made its name through standing up to the government on issues such as housing in the South East and genetically modified foods will be greatly weakened if it loses its independence from Whitehall, the green lobby argues.

Tom Oliver, head of rural policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, stresses: "Strong leadership from an organisation that has the confidence and resources to challenge government constructively and drive forward the management of our precious landscape and wildlife is essential. Without it, the stature and integrity of English Nature will be lost. That would be a disaster for the countryside."

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) agrees with this stance. It argues that the government's international and domestic obligations to protect wildlife must not be compromised by an administrative reshuffle.

It believes that English Nature's record of protecting wild birds and promoting schemes that benefit the environment should be maintained.

"We need a fully independent watchdog that has the environment and the conservation of wildlife at its heart," says Phil Rothwell, the society's head of countryside policy. "Any new body must also foster sustainable rural development rather than forcing rural communities to seek economic quick fixes in order to make ends meet."

Haskins, meanwhile, calls for DEFRA to focus its role on policy-making and to take a back seat on the delivery side, which he maintains should fall much more to regional and local bodies. DEFRA's rural policy remit is "not widely understood", he claims, and rural policy and delivery functions are "confused and overlapping, blurring accountability".

But the RTPI remains "profoundly sceptical" as to whether the proposed reforms will benefit rural areas. The assumption that policy-making should be separated from implementation is a flawed one, insists director of policy and research Kelvin MacDonald. "This seems to go against the government's spatial planning system, which seeks to bring policy and action together," he claims.

The institute is also concerned about the extra responsibilities proposed for regional development agencies (RDAs). "It is potentially dangerous to give the RDAs an increased role at a time when there is still little evidence of co-ordination across regional agencies with their current responsibilities," says Macdonald. Burchill shares these doubts. "I don't think that the RDAs have got a very strong grasp of rural issues in many cases," he adds.

In the next few months, the government will announce how it will take the Haskins recommendations forward through its review of the rural white paper, a refreshed rural strategy and a practical implementation plan.

But institutional reorganisations such as this are seldom straightforward - and the stakes could not be higher for the countryside.

Rural Delivery Review can be viewed via

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