My Lords, from the moment we started our inquiry it was obvious to us that the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, known as NERC, has undoubtedly been overtaken by events during its 12 years of life. In our report, we start by looking at Brexit. In terms of the environment, the big difference here is going to be the disappearance of the threat of large fines from the European Commission, which I am told can have Ministers quaking in their boots. I read the other day about a 2014 EU fine against Italy under the waste directive. There was an immediate £40 million fine, followed by further £40 million fines for each six months of non-compliance. That does tend to make things happen.
Our Committee was totally on the side of the Secretary of State in his desire to create a new environmental watchdog that is truly capable of holding public bodies to account, and we wish him well in his efforts. The only nuance where we might disagree with him is that we would hope to see the new body financed by more than one department, preferably including the devolved Administrations, thus making it very clearly an independent non-departmental public body.
On Natural England, created by NERC, our main message was that, as well as a 44% budget cut over 11 years, which might be expected in the age of austerity, it became clear to us that Defra was controlling more than just the purse strings of this so-called NDPB. A non-departmental public body should exercise a degree of political impartiality and be independent from its funding department. But we heard how Natural England has been overcontrolled by Defra and finds it hard to act as that vital critical friend—to speak truth to power or even, in some instances, to decide on its own priorities. This is not satisfactory. As we emerge from the EU, with all the land management challenges that that involves, and as the Government try to bed down their 25-year environment plan, Natural England will have a vital role and will need more funding and more independence to properly fulfil it.
In its response, Defra acknowledges that Natural England should,
“operate independently and … have a distinct voice”, but it seems blind to the fact that it is currently overcontrolling it. I believe that the problem lies not with the Ministers but rather in Defra’s so-called integrated communications team. All PR departments hate mixed messages, which is why this team feels that it must control the output from Natural England. That is why, although a separate PR department for Natural England seems like a small issue, it is crucial for a truly non-departmental public body. It will not be high on Ministers’ radar but it is something that they alone can grip.
When I chaired the Countryside Agency, I had an agreement with my Secretary of State that—with the crucial condition of no surprises—I could speak up for the countryside, and if she disagreed with me, she could respond in public by saying, “Well, of course he would say that. It’s his job. But we have a wider agenda to work to”. Of course, the department did not like this, but I was free to speak up for the countryside in the same way that Natural England should be free to speak up for natural England.
Turning to Natural England’s planning advice, it seemed to us that this was a question of managing expectations. At a time when both Natural England and local authorities were suffering big cutbacks, both sides had assumed that the other would fill the gap. Even now, with the problem exposed but with hundreds of thousands of planning applications per annum nationwide and the small resources available to both camps, no solution is likely to be perfect. But we felt that, with updated written advice from Natural England and mutual understanding of the resources available to both sides, the situation could be greatly improved. Incidentally, we generally approved of the proposals concerning net gain and natural capital, although we recognised that both policies have limitations and need further work.
Turning to Section 40 of the NERC Act—the duty of all public authorities to have regard to conserving biodiversity—there is no doubt that this is currently ineffective. Hardly anyone seems to even know it exists. But it will be important for the delivery of the 25-year plan. Personally, I do not think that changing the wording will have as much effect as introducing a reporting system. For instance, if local authorities had to report annually, they and others would become aware of the existence of Section 40, and a simple naming and shaming would, in my view, make a big difference, even before penalties for poor performance. It is to be hoped that the new environmental watchdog could take on this responsibility.
Having cantered briefly through the first half of our report, I come to the meat of our concerns: namely, rural communities. Rural communities are in the title of the Act and rural affairs are in the title of the department, but in both cases it is now all smoke and mirrors. I say first that the current Minister and rural ambassador really does understand the problems and has been brilliant at reaching out to rural communities, but he no longer has the back-up of independent research or even, with the abolition of the rural communities policy unit, a designated team within Defra.
Regarding research, in its response to our report, Defra states that it collects,
“a wide range of official statistics on the economic, demographic and social characteristics of rural areas to inform national level policy formulation across government departments”.
Frankly, that is flannel. That is not the same thing as doing research into specific issues and asking what the problems are and how they can be solved. In its last years, for instance, the Commission for Rural Communities looked into issues such as: how rural interests are being recognised within LEPs; the social isolation experienced by older people in rural areas—I remember that one being very revealing; barriers to employment and training for young people in rural areas, which is of huge importance to our rural young; variations in access to social care—something that is seriously exercising rural local authorities, which have no real help from central government; or, again, rural housing at a time of economic change. I just wish that the Government had a greater understanding of that problem. It may be that the answers to those and similar problems would prove uncomfortable for Defra—or perhaps for the Government—and it may be that that is why the relatively inexpensive CRC got abolished: it did speak truth to power.
The only recent independent research done in this area has been by the Social Mobility Commission, which in its last report at the end of 2017 stated that some of the worst deprivation and poverty is now in rural rather than urban England. Are we surprised? As a department, Defra has always been a reluctant bride to its rural affairs remit. It inherited the Countryside Agency with a budget of £110 million; it soon wound that down and abolished it. The Commission for Rural Communities, which replaced it in the 2006 Act, also had its budget of £10 million wound down; then it, too, was abolished in favour of the in-house Rural Communities Policy Unit. The RCPU, too, was then abolished. This is a disgraceful abandonment of responsibilities.
Defra has never really understood that some 93% of the rural population have nothing to do with the land or fisheries. Thus their needs and their deprivation have, in the last decade or so, been largely ignored by government as a whole. All the evidence we received, without exception, emphasised this, but it was also obvious to us that Defra, with its current workload, was never going to be able to start a whole new area of work. Right now it is overwhelmed: it has to organise wholly new agriculture and fisheries policy, and it has to implement a new 25-year environment plan. I believe that, of the Government’s 325 Brexit work streams, Defra is managing 64. Statutory instruments are going to be flying like snowflakes. It is doubtful that Defra can cope with this workload, let alone reinstate a whole new rural policy. So I am afraid we took the view that it was simply not going to happen, even if the will was there.
This was why we decided to revert to plan A and ask the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to once again play a greater role in this agenda, as it always did with great enthusiasm in the past. After all, housing is one of rural England’s most serious problems. Communities—villages and market towns—are where most of the solutions lie, and local government is the key delivery agent for the services needed: social welfare, transport and housing. So the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government seemed to us to be an absolute shoo-in.
In a similar vein, but separate, there is rural-proofing. Rural-proofing is based on the fact that Defra’s work has little effect on the lives of the 93% of the rural population not involved in the land. The quality of life for those 93% is dependent on the way that government services are delivered to rural areas by: the Department of Health, as a prime department; DWP through jobcentres; the Home Office, through the police; DCMS through broadband; the Department for Transport, which is crucial; and BEIS, since there are actually more manufacturing businesses in the countryside than the towns, et cetera. Every department is crucial. Thus, rural-proofing within each and every department is really important, and it depends on training in all departments to take account of a whole range of rural problems which currently they do not understand. Why should they? They do not understand how population sparsity adds costs, nor the very real poverty that exists in our countryside, nor the lack of opportunity for the young and the growing cost of delivering social care to the elderly, nor the real problems of rural transport for all these groups.
Just last weekend, I was speaking to someone who lived in Hampshire. He did not have a car at a time when he was looking for a job. He went to the jobcentre and was told that there was a job in Salisbury, so he said to the lady who had apparently just come down from London, “Well, how do I get to Salisbury?”. She said, “Take a bus”. He said, “Well, which bus do I take?”, and she said, “Well, the bus to Salisbury, of course”. He said, “Yes, yes, I know that, but do I take the one on Tuesday afternoon or the one on Thursday afternoon?”. Why should London-based civil servants understand these issues? There needs to be a dedicated team continuously training each and every department.
In any case, it is difficult for one department to tell another how to run its affairs, and because Defra no longer has a dedicated team, we were again forced to rethink what was necessary. All the evidence we received indicated that rural proofing has to come from the centre of government, for the authority that that gives and the co-ordination that might be possible. That means a well-resourced team within the Cabinet Office, with enough clout to embed the principles and training for proper rural-proofing within every department.
I realise that it is a hard pill for Defra to swallow to shed responsibilities, even if it does not have the resources to fulfil them, but I will say only this: I have dedicated most of my political life to defending the interests of those who live and work in our countryside. I have tried to highlight the obstacles that prevent the entrepreneurial spirit of my fellow countrymen flourishing. I have consistently drawn attention to the depressing, yet special, problems of the rural young, the rural poor, the unhoused and the rural elderly, of whom there are now more and more. However, in spite of the efforts the Minister, I believe that rarely have rural communities and their problems been more ignored by their Government than now. Rural local authorities are at their wits’ end. I was at a meeting with the LGA just a couple of weeks ago. Local authorities can see the problems, and they struggle to deliver much-needed social services for both young and old, but they remain largely ignored by central government and, with funding in some areas per head of population often as little as 60% of that of their urban counterparts, they can do little.
“Rural? Oh, that’s a matter for Defra”, say the other departments—but they do not realise that Defra has closed down its rural communities policy unit. They do not realise that no one is doing the independent research any more. I think that I have said enough. I beg to move.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. In a way, he has nearly said it all. He was a wonderful chairman of our committee. We had a very short time to look at a very wide topic. Noble Lords will have gathered that his many years’ experience of the rural agencies, and as a rural advocate when he worked very closely with Defra and other departments, gives him a true base to express his views and reflect those that the committee heard when taking evidence.
I also thank and congratulate our team, our clerk and our special advisers, who helped us with this wide-ranging report. I should register my family’s farming interests, which indirectly have a bearing on the discussions, and that I was shadow Minister when we took the NERC Bill through in 2006. I was able to reflect on that.
The question in the title of the report, Is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 Still Fit for Purpose?, can, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, be answered in one word: no. Things have totally changed in the past 12 years. When the Commission for Rural Communities was established on
So I reflected on what we were suggesting was happening in the rural areas in those days and on the crises, or severe points, that we were looking at: the early closure of post offices; restrictions on bus services; pressure on the viability of local primary schools; affordable housing; tourism and local businesses, particularly following foot and mouth; access to the countryside; jobs and access to them; and, indeed, the future of countryside sports. Today those are still challenges, but in addition we now have broadband or, in some areas, the lack of it; diversity and planning; diversity of farms and farm buildings and the planning goes with that; the internet, which has grown so rapidly, and changes in how people shop; the extended roles now played by GPs and pharmacists; and, as the noble Lord said, 50% of small and medium-sized enterprises being based in rural areas.
Add to all that farming, the environment, wildlife and biodiversity, and you realise what a huge range Defra covers with rural affairs. So it is perhaps not surprising that since the other department was closed down, Defra took up this area and then was squeezed again, it has been an enormous challenge to cover everything that the department is supposed to. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, I pay tribute to the Minister, who is the rural ambassador, for the work he does, but what is most important is not just his work but that all departments respond to all the calls, either by the Government or by Defra, to look at this vast range of things that need to be considered when planning for the future. Local government and the Cabinet’s rural-proofing are key. As I say, it is not surprising that it has been a struggle.
I turn to Natural England. Andrew Sells, its chairman, has sent us very good briefing papers, one of which says that a core aim of Natural England is,
“ensure that the natural environment is considered, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations”.
That briefing paper raised about seven issues, and I have picked on five. The first is funding. As with everyone else, the squeeze on funding has affected Natural England and its ability to perform across the board on some of its brief. The independence of its press, which has now been linked to the Defra body, is being looked at again. I gather that discussions are going on at the moment and that a protocol will be arranged shortly.
I support the powers of Natural England to charge for some of the services it provides. Not everyone supports it, but I think it is right because it enables Natural England to do more work than it otherwise could. Could the Minister update me on what is happening? I understand that a spending review is coming up in 2019. That is a long way off, but what progress is being made to ensure that Natural England is allowed to charge for more of its services? On planning, in the evidence that we took, too many people’s response was “No comment”, which was of some concern to us.
The complexity of some countryside stewardship schemes has resulted in a lower take-up than originally hoped for. How many farmers have entered the new schemes since January 2017 and what progress has been made? I heard recently from a farmer that progress on payments was slow. If that is so, it is worrying. In addition, forestry—properly managed forests and greater public access—was a topic that came up for consideration.
We have had an amazing time looking through what one would hope to see in the countryside and what is readily available. I am not as gloomy as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, because I believe there are great opportunities out there, but we need the Government to be on side and well aware—lack of awareness was the frustration that came through from the evidence we took. Some of the things that we are not allowed to do make it more difficult for businesses to start and grow, which is surely a disaster. The question was: is the Act fit for purpose? My answer at that stage was no, but I believe it offers great opportunities and I look forward to them being developed, but it needs more than just Defra to play its part.
My Lords, I declare my interests as listed in the register, particularly emphasising my chairmanship of the Woodland Trust, my membership of the RSA’s Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside and my delight now to be sitting on the Select Committee on the Rural Economy in your Lordships’ House.
I got up this morning rather worried about the Minister. If you read the Government’s response to the excellent report from the Select Committee—I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, on his incredibly knowledgeable chairmanship of the committee and on the report—you will see that practically every proposal could not be commented on definitively because it either was being or would be consulted on. A number of consultations are out at the moment —on the National Planning Policy Framework, on environmental principles and on the new environmental body—much of what we want for the natural environment and rural communities depends on what happens to agriculture post the common agricultural policy, and we have not yet seen an agriculture Bill. That in itself depends on what comes out of trade agreements as a result of Brexit discussions, the shape of the Trade Bill and the marine Bill to cover the marine environment, all of which are still in a fluid state.
I am worried how the Minister will be able to respond at all, other than by saying that consultation and work is in progress, so I thought I would offer him a few things that he ought to say. First, I should declare my past. I was chairman of English Nature, which was the predecessor body to Natural England, and I was also chief executive of the Environment Agency, so I suppose I have the scars from being in an arm’s-length body relating to Ministers and government. I was also the founder chairman of the Care Quality Commission, and I definitely have the scars from being in an arm’s-length body reporting to Ministers from that, but let us leave health out of this debate.
To me, the two issues for Natural England are resources and voice. The squeeze on Natural England as a result of austerity measures has had some benefits. There is no doubt that financial stringency produces a much closer focus on priorities and how to use resources wisely, but we are now at the pips’ squeaking point. It is important that we listen to what the witnesses said, one after the other, to the Select Committee. I believe that as a result of Natural England being unable to do some of the tasks it should as a result of the financial squeeze, it is less well respected than it needs to be. It needs to work with partners and harness coalitions and it needs to be believed by government departments. If it is running on empty and loses its respect, that will not come to pass.
My second point is one that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, admirably made, the issue of voice. I must admit, when I was chairman of English Nature and when I was chief executive of the Environment Agency—and even these days, although I am very old—I was a bit lippy and rather fond of telling the Government in public that they had got it wrong. But I think that there are benefits from that. The issue of standing in the public mind, in terms of giving a position of authority to Natural England, would no doubt be greatly enhanced if it was able, in the politest possible way but very publicly, to say to the Government that they had got it wrong. It is about the ability to criticise government if that is necessary. Clearly, if it becomes a hugely campaigning organisation that is constantly telling the Minister that he is rubbish, it will not work. But I am sure that there are occasions—I am sure that every Government will admit—when they perhaps lose sight of an issue, to put in the nicest possible way, and do not quite land it properly. It is a very important for Natural England to have that ability, to instil public confidence. In my mind, it is the mark of a sophisticated democracy if we can set up watchdogs and not act surprised when they bark.
The third thing that Natural England is not able to do at the moment is this work that will be required on a landscape scale if we are really going to harness all the tools to improve the natural world. All the principles in the Lawton report are absolutely vital and, although some of them can be pressed forward by changing the way in which grants and incentives for land management are delivered in a post-CAP world, the reality is that many of them are simply a product of boots on the ground. They are about how many people you can deploy out in the field to talk to partners around landscapes, to get the collaboration that is important if you can do this in the most effective and, certainly, the most cost-effective way. At the moment, Natural England, alas, does not have these boots on the ground.
We should learn some principles from the way in which Natural England has developed over the last few years and bear them very much in the front of our mind when we look at the new environmental body that is subject to current consultation. The consultation does not do that; it needs considerable strengthening beyond the principles and proposals consulted on. It envisages that the new body has very weak powers with no power to initiate legal proceedings, which I believe would severely constrain its ability to ensure compliance with environmental law, which will now be our law rather than Europe’s law. It does not give legal status to the environmental principles and proposes only a weak duty in relation to the environmental principles policy statement. It proposes that only central government will be under duties with respect to the environmental principles and subject to the new environmental body’s powers. I believe that all public authorities, as well as government departments, need to be caught and held accountable by the new environmental body.
Although the consultation recognises that the new watchdog needs to be not only independent but seen to be independent of government and capable of holding it to account, it does not actually outline how that is going to happen. That is not going to be easy. I cannot think of a single government-established regulator or watchdog that can hold Governments accountable, prosecute Governments and really enforce legislation, when that organisation has been appointed by the very Minister that it might be kicking around the block. I speak from bitter experience of the Care Quality Commission—having your boss as the person you regulate is not a happy place. But we need to deliver that independence and toughness, so we need novel and robust legislation, developed and tested with the full involvement of Parliament, the NGOs, civil society and other stakeholders in the countryside, if we are going to deliver an effective role.
I turn to biodiversity. We have endlessly wrung our hands about biodiversity in the last few years. Sites of special scientific interest—those jewels in the crown—have improved, and rare species, for which particular programmes have been put in place, have improved. But generally speaking, for the species and habitats in the wider countryside, we are losing the game. The results are not good. Agricultural land management policy for the future will be hugely important. But we know that the NERC Act duty to have regard to biodiversity is not enough. We know that the focus on good practice is good, but not enough, because the figures are telling us that it is not enough. Therefore, I support the committee’s recommendation that there should be a reporting requirement in future on ongoing losses of biodiversity.
We have new tools in the tool bag, of course, such as natural capital and the principle of net gain. We must remember that some habitats are totally unsubstitutable—my example is always ancient woodland, which we are delighted will receive better protection in the National Planning Policy Framework, and I hope that will be extended to ancient trees as well. However, we still see over 600 cases of threat in England to our ancient woodlands.
We do not yet know how natural capital will really work. We can demonstrate huge benefits from our natural capital in terms of the services that it provides for society as a whole, but those often happen in different timescales and different parts of the economy. We therefore need some really innovative financial instruments, developed with the help of the Treasury, to try to get those benefits, and the value chain of those benefits, delivered and to provide the money up front to do the things for the natural capital that then produce these economic and other benefits for society.
I propose that the new northern forest—of which, alas, an area of 3 square miles is currently ablaze, near Bolton, which is very sad—be used as a test bed for financial instruments. A northern forest bond could be a vehicle for getting up-front investment in a proposal to create woodland stretching from Liverpool to Hull that would deliver huge economic and other social benefits.
I shall finish on rural communities. The countryside is different from the town—the countryside is not just towns with fewer people—but we are in danger of losing sight of that difference, as the dash for housing is making local authorities terrified of their own shadows. We are seeing sustainability and biodiversity requirements in the planning system, including in areas of the country that should be regarded as of pre-eminent landscape quality, taking second place to the dash for housing. Garden villages are popping up as proposals all over the place. Many of them are excellent, but very many of them have a lack of facilities and transport infrastructure and are really just bringing an urban setting to a rural place.
My local proposal, in relation to which I should declare an interest as joint leader of the action group, impacts on 18 ancient woodlands and buggers up—if you will pardon the expression; it is a technical term —the last bit of open-countryside character in north Bedfordshire. However, local authorities are now so terrified of the constraints laid upon them as a result of the housing targets that that is the sort of thing that they are desperate to hang on to because it helps them meet their targets. I personally question the basis of the 10 million population growth over the next 25 years. I thought that Brexit was supposed to give us control over our own borders, but 5 million of that population growth is due to net immigration. It does not work for me; it does not add up.
Therefore, I am not sure that I share the wish of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, to see rural community issues and responsibilities going over to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. At the moment, with their pre-eminent focus on housing, local authorities are in danger of losing the plot as to what the countryside is actually about.
However, much of this is subject to consultation in some part of government, and I await the Minister’s comments with bated breath—I have sympathy for him.
My Lords, I join in the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who chaired our committee with great diligence and hard work and also a certain amount of tolerance, because there were some quite significant areas of disagreement within the committee on some of our recommendations.
There is always a debate about what to call these reports. In this case, I personally believe that the countryside is at a crossroads. As we know, British farming has been shaped by the common agricultural policy for 40 years now, as has pretty much every aspect of our environment. Depending on the decisions that we make in the next few years, our countryside could be very different in 20 years’ time. It is about much more than Brexit. Our overall rural policy is not, and never has been, driven by Brussels. The shortcomings in this area are entirely home grown and can be laid at the door of successive Governments. Although I have some serious reservations about rural policy-making, I want to place on record my admiration and support for the Minister, who fulfils his role as rural advocate with enthusiasm, commitment and great knowledge. Nor do I take issue with the civil servants who work for Defra.
However, pretty much all the evidence the committee took demonstrated that something is seriously wrong with rural policy-making, and that these problems are widespread and deep rooted. This has led me to believe that they are less about policy and more about culture, leadership and structure. The committee spent some time discussing the issues of rural policy-making and rural proofing. Indeed, many of our witnesses used those terms interchangeably. This did not help debate, and there is a clear distinction. Rural policy-making is about proposals aimed specifically at rural areas—housing, transport and broadband provision, for example. Rural proofing, on the other hand, is about looking at all legislation and policy through the prism of the countryside to see whether different interventions need to be made to make something better in the countryside.
I will give two examples. Last year, I was involved with the Bus Services Bill as it went through this House. It was heralded as a great breakthrough in the provision of public transport, yet it made not one mention of rural services. When it came, the draft guidance contained just a few lines. After pressure from this House, that was somewhat improved. If rural proofing is as effective as Defra claim in its response to the committee, how on earth did we get a Bus Services Bill which simply ignored rural areas?
My second example is the National Citizens Service, created by the Government last year. During the summer I went to Ipswich to have a look at how the scheme was working. It was an inspiring experience and I am confident that it was very positive for the young people involved. There is a “but” coming: the take-up from the south-west of Suffolk was very poor. Why was that? Because the whole programme has been set up to be delivered on county lines. People who live in the south-west of Suffolk cannot get to Ipswich. Cambridge is only just over the border, but they cannot use it. It is not the policy that is the problem here: it is simply that nobody thought about rural public transport when they set it up.
For rural proofing to be effective, it needs to be embedded in every department. It also needs central oversight and leadership from one department which can reach right across government activity—from health to highways and pensions to potholes. For that reason, I support the recommendation that this activity be carried out by the Cabinet Office, where a small team could build up real expertise in spotting rurality issues and work with the sponsoring departments to put them right. Rural policy making, on the other hand, probably needs to sit within one department. I have never understood why the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government does not include rural communities. Instead, rural policy sits with Defra, alongside farming and the environment, and it is not well served by that, particularly at a time when the department’s focus has to be increasingly on Brexit-related agriculture, fishing, and post-CAP and environmental frameworks.
I live in a very small village and like to look at the census. About 100 years ago, the village was about the same size as it is now. However, virtually everyone in the village worked on the land in some capacity. Now, there is not really anyone who works on the land. Important as the successor to the CAP is, its direct impact on rural communities will actually be pretty modest. Housing, social care, health, public transport and broadband are what matter to rural communities. Not a single one of those is delivered in any way by Defra. It would therefore make sense to move rural communities to HCLG, where it would sit with local government, which is responsible for delivering so much in the way of rural services. It would also be helpful to see rural areas in the context of their neighbouring towns and cities, where the jobs and services are often provided, as well as to see urban areas in the context of their rural hinterlands.
I am not surprised that the Government have rejected this recommendation, but the committee was right to make it. Who knows? It may even happen one day. But for now it puts down a marker that all is far from well. No matter how much the Government protest, if they look at the vast amount of evidence our committee received, they should admit, in private at the very least, that they have much to do if they are to restore the confidence of their key stakeholders.
As I was rereading the Government’s response over the weekend, it struck me that it is pretty much all framed in terms of inputs: how much money is going in, how many people are here, and what mechanisms exist. However, I did not see any focus on the outcomes. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has already pointed out, the Social Mobility Commission has highlighted how the limited social and economic opportunities in rural areas mean that the worst-performing areas are now rural, which we would never have believed.
The Suffolk Community Foundation has done some ground-breaking work in gathering evidence about rural poverty and inequality and the failure to get services. It has produced two reports, called Hidden Needs. I commend them, not so much out of interest in Suffolk, which I recognise is not for everyone, but because it is a good example of how getting into the nitty-gritty of communities can identify some of the problems they now face and, crucially, how you can improve them.
As we have heard, the successive reorganisations have left a gap in evidence and analysis, which is operating to the detriment of rural areas. One of the most telling pieces of evidence was from Hastoe Housing Association, which told us that communities of under 3,000 are no longer monitored for delivery of affordable housing. In other words, there is no data available for rural communities in one of the areas which is most important to their sustainability: affordable housing.
Last week there was another example. The consumer group Which? reported that cash machines are being closed at a rate of 300 per month, and rural areas are particularly badly affected. LINK, which oversees the provision of cash machines, disputes both the number of closures and the impact, but how can we know what is going on if the Government have moved away from ensuring independent analysis and evidence-gathering?
In any event, across the piece, from a wide range of stakeholders, our evidence suggests that community rural stakeholders are far from content with Defra’s performance, and government should listen.
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. I also express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and his Select Committee for their excellent and timely report, The Countryside at a Crossroads. Not surprisingly, many of the points that I wanted to make have already been made, so I will cut out a number of things. I will not detain your Lordships for too long but will just underline one or two points.
First, I will pick up on a subject that has already been raised by every speaker: research and data, which is then used for the formulation of policy. As someone who has been following the research and what has been going on in the countryside and in agriculture over many years, I would say that we really have gone backwards in terms of our grasp of what is happening on the ground. There was a period when I used to look forward to the annual reports that came out, when you could see consistent trends and how they were developing, and it was a crucial and essential basis for the making of policy and, indeed, for our laws.
Recommendations 35 and 36 of the report addressed the abolition of the CRC, the loss of that independent research capability on rural communities, and the impact on policy-making of a lack of detailed data for rural areas. We have already noted that Her Majesty’s Government point out that they engage actively with research. They cite the quarterly Statistical Digest of Rural England and various projects they have commissioned, as well as collaborations with academics working in this area. However, as we made clear in the response that I signed off on behalf of the Church of England, the work done on the provision of affordable housing in rural areas, for example, could not have been based on research that was really rooted in objective data. While government-funded research is recognised, it needs to move beyond the quantitative to the qualitative, listening to the most local and excluded voices, and we need to take a more open, proactive approach to partnerships with a whole range of academics, who have an extraordinary grasp of what is going on in these areas. We need to address this firm basis of research if we are to be able to produce good laws.
That leads directly on to recommendation 37, which calls for a statement of priorities for rural research. In their response, Her Majesty’s Government have agreed to produce and consult on a “detailed statement of priorities” for rural research, and this needs to involve other government departments. Can the Minister tell us a little more about the process and timetable for doing this? Unless we can put some clothes on this proposal, there is a danger that absolutely nothing will happen—it will get lost in the huge amount of work that Defra is already being asked to deliver. I do not in any way want to disparage those working in Defra. My experience of meeting people who work in the department is that they are always very helpful. Indeed, the Minister himself has been a remarkably helpful colleague with any questions that I have asked or anything that I have wanted to do, and I have been very grateful for his help. Actually, it seems to me that he is being asked to do a totally impossible job. One issue therefore is whether he will get the help that he needs, but perhaps he could comment on these priorities.
I was pleased to hear that Her Majesty’s Government are retaining the rural affairs policy team, despite the closure of the Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra. The crucial question here is whether the team will have the staffing and funding to deliver the needs of rural policy across government. Some of us felt that the lack of integration of rural community policy in, for example, the recent Health and Harmony consultation on the future of agriculture post Brexit raised significant questions about whether there is sufficient capacity to deliver. I wonder whether the Minister might be tempted to comment on that.
Recommendation 39 in the Select Committee report suggests that responsibility for rural affairs needs to be transferred to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Her Majesty’s Government have already indicated in their response that they do not intend to change the departmental responsibilities for rural affairs. The reasons given are that the policy needs of environment, agriculture and rural communities are highly interconnected and dependent on each other, and that makes good sense. However, if that is the case, it would be good to see it reflected in the work of Defra, where currently the three elements can often feel very separate.
It seems to me that if the responsibilities are not to be transferred, a way of working more closely between at least three major departments needs to be established. First, for example, in relationships with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, particularly around housing and planning policy, rural proofing has been absent from many of the recent policy announcements. Some decisions that have been taken are, I believe, detrimental, particularly to the provision of affordable housing in rural communities. Secondly, we need to think about how connections will be made with the Department for Education, as schools are a key part of many rural communities and fundamental to rural sustainability. Thirdly, with regard to the Department of Health and Social Care, there is a need to ensure that there is sufficient funding for hard-to-reach rural areas, where GP recruitment is challenging and all services cost more to deliver than the budget accounts for. There probably also need to be informal links between other departments, such as the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but let us just start with the big ones.
The response to recommendation 40, regarding the fact that services cost more to deliver in rural areas, is to be welcomed. I know that Her Majesty’s Government have recently consulted on Fair Funding Review: A Review of Relative Needs and Resources, which proposed that rurality should be included as a common cost driver for delivery of public services. I understand that Her Majesty’s Government are currently analysing responses to the consultation, but I hope that the Minister can give us some indication, and some assurance, that rurality will indeed be identified as an additional cost factor as soon as possible.
Recommendations 41, 42 and 43 deal with rural proofing. I see from their response that Her Majesty’s Government do not intend for that to be transferred to the Cabinet Office, as the Select Committee report proposes, arguing that it should be mainstreamed into all departmental policy-making. But that is only arguing for what is presently supposed to be the case. How will that be different, when it is proving so difficult now? What is going to change? How can we get that change?
I suspect that one of the main issues is the provision of sufficient resources to do the job properly, particularly early enough in policy cycles for it to have sufficient impact to make the changes necessary. Frequently, it appears that the implications of policy decisions have not taken the needs of rural communities into account; for example, the recent changes to the schools funding formula.
Finally, I have a comment on recommendation 43. Is the Minister able to give us any more details on how Defra will have the resources and indeed the clout to request that other departments make sure that rural issues are considered as part of their annual departmental plans, so that truly effective rural proofing is in place?
My Lords, it was a great pleasure to serve on the committee and I declare my interest in that I am also on the Rural Economy Committee, which meets in this current Session. Many of the points just made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans will I know be picked up by that committee, which has a very wide brief and will cover areas such as transport and schools. I believe that the right reverend Prelate will give evidence to our committee, and we look forward to that.
I thank the clerk of our committee and the committee staff. We are very lucky to have such good quality staff to enable us to produce the reports that we do. Of course, they were backed up by Professor Maria Lee and Professor Mark Shucksmith, both of whom helped the committee in our deliberations. I also thank our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market said, was very tolerant. I was a lone voice on many issues and at least he gave me the chance to air my views, even though he did not necessarily agree with them.
It was a strange time to undertake a committee of this nature because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said, many of the recommendations to which we should have got a firm answer are still in the pending box because of the changes that are going on. However, that had the advantage of allowing many members of the committee to put their views to the Government on what is happening. All of our committee proceedings were dominated by Brexit. Of course, the 25-year plan was not announced until
Chapter 2 of the report refers to Brexit and the natural environment, and of course we do not yet know what is going to happen. However, to my mind there are two overriding objectives that cover recommendations 2 and 3 which concern the new environmental body. The first is that the legislation should underpin the promised policy statement on environmental principles in two ways. It should require all public bodies, not just the Government, to act in accordance with, rather than simply have regard to, the policy statement on environment principles. The second is that the legislation should set up a new environmental body with the necessary independence, expertise and resources, including powers to hold both of the public bodies to account for the implementation of environmental law.
When I refer to the word “independent”, I do not mean the pseudo-independence of Natural England and which we make a lot of in chapter 3. Our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, mentioned it quite often in his speech. I turn to the recommendation made in paragraph 105:
“We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities. This situation should be addressed as a matter of urgency”.
We were careful not to specify how much we thought Natural England should be allowed, and I know that my noble friend the Minister will say that what it is getting is absolutely right, but I should like him to ponder on the fact that when Sir John Lawton produced his report entitled Making Space for Nature in 2010, he suggested that in order to create a resilient network, between £600 million and £1.1 billion would be needed, whereas Natural England’s budget on a like-for-like basis has fallen from £177 million 10 years ago to £112 million now.
I believe that Natural England has changed significantly, and for the better. The present chairman has woken up the organisation and it is now working much more on an area basis, and that is to be welcomed. We suggest in paragraph 181 of the report that the role of Natural England will have to change again in the future, and indeed my noble friend Lady Byford spoke about that. I think that she raised this issue the most in our committee because where Natural England ends up will probably not be anything like Natural England today, if it exists at all.
However, I was alarmed by the Government’s response to that recommendation. In it the Government talk about the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and the Environmental Stewardship Scheme. The role of Natural England is going to be lost and transferred to the Rural Payments Agency. My noble friend Lady Byford also mentioned the Countryside Stewardship scheme but I would be a little firmer than she was. The scheme is a mess. It is thoroughly overcomplex. The start date for new applications has already had to be put back by a month because the papers are not ready, which means that applications will now have to be in by the end of July. Harvest will begin on some farms in the south of England in the next couple of weeks or so, and once the combine harvesters start rolling, farmers do not have time to fiddle around on their computers filling in forms that should have been completed a couple of months ago because of the inadequacies of Defra and the Rural Payments Agency.
The Rural Payments Agency is not liked by farmers and the fact that Natural England is losing its influence on this issue is a serious worry. I hope that my noble friend will take this on board. He knows that over the next three years or so, some 5,000 existing schemes will come to an end. The environment will not be as well protected because I know that many upland farmers have no interest in the new scheme. It is too complicated, it requires too much verification and there is too much bureaucracy. The slightest change in, for example, the area of a field causes the whole scheme to have to be thought through again. It means more work for the RPA, which gave the wrong figures to Natural England in the first place. I hope that the Minister will take back the message that the Countryside Stewardship Scheme needs to be thought through again and brought forward on a much simpler and more farmer-friendly basis.
I move on to chapter 4 on the biodiversity duty. It was not a recommendation of your Lordships, but I draw the House’s attention to paragraph 184 in particular, which is a quote from Dr Nick Fox in Charlie Pye-Smith’s booklet, The Facts of Rural Life. I was glad that the committee took this on board; I hope that the Minister will confirm that, as far as he is concerned, the statement is right:
“Conservation should be about maintaining high levels of biodiversity, which is the sign of a healthy habitat. Biodiversity is not just about species diversity, but the structural diversity of habitats and the range of trophic levels. It’s not about encouraging the biggest population of any one species, but ensuring that each is in balance with the habitat and the resources”.
If Defra worked on that basis, there is a good chance that our habitat would improve.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, is absolutely right that planning is fundamental to the environment. We would like to know more about natural capital, which I hope will emerge in due course. I want to stress the benefit that one can get from net gain. I believe that every planning application should have net gain built into it. It does not need to be net gain related specifically to the application; it could come from elsewhere. One needs a fairly loose approach. If the Mayor of London pursues his policy of trying to build on gardens in London, we will lose a huge environmental benefit. If that policy is allowed to go through, which I hope it will not be, I hope that there will be considerable net gain elsewhere to create the green lines that our migratory birds need when they pass through London, which will be denied to them in the future.
Like others, I want to say a little bit about research. I will say less than I was planning to because it has already been well covered. I say to the Minister that we had only one, short evidence session with the Rural Economy Committee, but the one message that came loud and clear from everybody was that we lack proper statistics, based on good research. We will come back to this point and labour it, so my noble friend had better get a better brief than he has now.
Where should rural policy sit in government? This is where I was at odds with the rest of the committee. Despite a strong, powerful speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, I remain of the opinion—contrary to what to the committee said and what I signed up to—that it should remain with Defra. I believe that it would get thoroughly lost if it moved to MHCLG. Rural affairs would become a tertiary issue. One might say, as the noble Baroness said, that it is a tertiary issue with Defra now. I do not believe that my noble friend will allow it to be so for very much longer. I went back to the days when I was the Minister for the Countryside in the Department of the Environment. I lamented the fact then that I did not have the responsibility for the agricultural side of things, which handicapped my work enormously. When I mentioned this to the committee, I was told that I was about 30 years out of date. That is true, but it does not mean that I was wrong then or wrong now.
We moved on to the challenges of delivering services for rural communities through rural proofing. Enough has been said on this by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, so I shall not add anything more.
I turn finally to a subject that none of us has mentioned. Chapter 6 deals with the eternal problem of what to do with green lanes. In Her Majesty’s Government’s reply to our recommendation about traffic regulation orders they said that the motor vehicle stakeholder working group would produce a report. What is the up-to-date situation on that? From what I have been able to garner from the internet, the two sides are as far apart as the Brexiteers and the remainers. There does not seem to be any common ground for the Government to work on. If there is no common ground, will my noble friend take matters into his own hands and come forward with the recommendation we suggested?
I hope that we will soon be able to give a big thank you to the Government for what they are doing on the environment and agriculture, but at the moment I am afraid that the applause is slightly half-hearted.
My Lords, the committee has produced an excellent report; I found it a fascinating read. The 2006 Act that it looked at was virtually finished by the time I returned to the department in 2006, having had a spell in Northern Ireland. I was not involved in the legislation, but certainly the issues raised were sometimes on my watch, as far as a Lords Minister is concerned, between 2006 and 2008.
I will concern myself with a very small part of the report concerning recommendations 1, 2 and 3, set out in paragraphs 67, 68 and 69. These relate to a matter that has already been raised: environmental governance. The governance gap if the UK leaves the European Union has been identified by several Select Committees in both Houses. There is a serious issue to be dealt with. I fully accept that the Secretary of State was clearly aware of the governance gap last autumn when he came to the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee of your Lordships’ House, on which I have the privilege of serving. He had clearly been listening to many green groups. Indeed, several told us how accessible he was. That was all to the good.
The Secretary of State made a very bold statement on
“mechanisms which … developed during our time in the EU which helpfully scrutinise the achievement of environmental targets and standards by Government will no longer exist in the same way”.
Note that he did not use the word “enforcement”. He continued:
“Without further action, there will be a governance gap. The environment won’t be protected as it should be from the unscrupulous, unprincipled”, or from carelessness. He promised early next year—that is, this year—a consultation on the new environmental body. It opened on
Think about this: under both parties, the Government opposed going to court. If it had been up to them, we would not have had the benefits; they did not want to be taken to court. They opposed the Commission; the Commission won 90% of the cases. For that, our population has a much better environment than if it was left to the Governments of both parties. Being taken to court in this case meant the Government would not comply with what was required by law. However, I know from my own experience that the Government move not just due to court cases but sometimes due to the threat of court cases. Infraction is something that Ministers and accounting officers do not enjoy dealing with because it is a complete and utter waste of money paying fines to the Commission when all you need is a few pennies to deliver what is required.
The Government response to the Select Committee is too clever by far, because it refers specifically only to last November’s statement, which they must know is undermined by the consultation that they have now published. Quite clearly, these things are going on at the same time; they are not disconnected. The consultation does not deliver on the aims of the statement and the response takes your Lordships’ House for fools.
Seven key omissions in the consultation are identified by the Green Alliance—I shall mention just three. The first is an enforcement gap, on which it states:
“There will be a serious enforcement gap—the consultation envisages the new body would have very weak powers, with no power to initiate legal proceedings; this would severely constrain its ability to ensure compliance with environmental law”.
The second is:
“People’s complaints mechanism is at risk—the consultation does not strongly back a complaints process for citizens, ignoring the vital role civil society has played in the implementation and enforcement of environmental law”.
Thirdly—this has already been referred to—it states:
“The nature of the body is not discussed—more clarity is needed on how the Government intends to ensure that the new body will be independent, robust and equipped with the necessary expertise”.
I shall not read the rest of it.
Defra is in charge of this. Defra is basically MAFF; it is the same department, badged differently, with slightly different functions—some added, some removed. The culture is the point I want to raise: it loves control; we have heard some examples of that from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. When MAFF was being dissected in 1998 for the Food Standards Agency to be set up and right before publication of the Bill—we had had a White Paper—there was a failed attempt at the highest level in the department to create the Food Standards Agency as an executive agency of MAFF. I was just in the engine room, by the way; I was only the Minister of State—it was not discussed with me. I went straight round to the Cabinet Office and No. 10 and that was squashed. It was set up, as planned, as a non-ministerial department.
Currently, the Defra board has the chairs of the Environment Agency and Natural England as members. If that does not lock them into Defra sufficiently for control, the chief executive officer of the Environment Agency is a member of the executive board. Come on, let us get serious about this: it loves control, and it has built in mechanisms for it. There is no plan to deal with governance and the enforcement gap left by the UK leaving the European Union. It has closed ranks and snuffed out external pressures previously provided by the Commission. In fact, the new strap line for Defra would be, “Take it all back in house”.
Am I going too far? Defra cannot really be like old MAFF, can it? I invite noble Lords to come and judge for themselves this Wednesday
“Many national surveys reveal that the public has lost confidence in the safety of British food. Secrecy characterises decision-making and inappropriate political and industrial interests are perceived to determine decisions on food safety to the detriment of public health and consumer interests”.
He said of the proposed Food Standards Agency:
“The culture must be open and transparent in all its work … interests of public health and consumers’ interests must clearly dominate whilst proper account is taken of economic and business interests”.
Ordinary government departments do not work in an open and transparent way. Nutrition, taken from the Food Standards Agency by the coalition Government in 2010, is now dealt with behind closed doors, not in open meetings as the FSA works. So Defra would be old MAFF reborn—it is still at it. It wants more control than it had before and, by heaven, it is seeking to get more control as issues come back from the Commission and Europe as we leave. It is a chance to turn the clock back. It is as though, while I accept that the officials at senior level are new compared to 20 years ago, the corporate desire for control has just been waiting to be reborn, and leaving the EU is the opportunity for it.
Defra fingerprints on environmental governance and food safety should not be allowed by Parliament. There is too much vested economic interest. What is more, we know what happened in the past. We thought we had solved the problem of trying to get separation in the public interest, consumer interest and the interest of public health. The evidence is abundant and the public will know who to blame if the clock is turned back.
My Lords, like other members of the Select Committee, I add my thanks for the skills of our chairman: we are indeed fortunate to have his expertise, his passion and his good-natured chairmanship. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, both alluded to, it is not always the easiest job to chair Members of this House, and I thank him for it. I will also say how appropriate the title of the report is: indeed, the countryside is at a crossroads and it is important that in this House we learn the lessons of the past as we look to the future. I will be brief because I wish to cover an issue that has been very ably addressed by others, including the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I assure the House that I will not repeat the points he made; I have a number of additional points on the issue of the governance gap to pick up.
As noble Lords can see, the report recognises that a governance gap will be in place when we leave the European Union and very strongly supports the creation of the new environmental body that the Government have consulted on. As other members have said, that consultation is weak in a number of areas. There has been some tightening of commitments and Members in both this House and the other place should take credit for the fact there has been some tightening through the process of the EU withdrawal Bill, with the body now being given the power to initiate legal proceedings and to list the environmental principles in legislation. But I will highlight four areas where I think there are still weaknesses and where the committee’s report shows what I think is the correct way forward.
The first is an issue that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, did address and which I, as a former chief executive of the CPRE, feel particularly strongly about: the consultation on the environmental body does not guarantee a complaints process for the general public on the future of environmental protection. We have seen in the past how important citizens’ rights to seek environmental justice have been in improving the quality of our environment, in particular air quality. If we are going to have this environmental body, we need the public to see what is being undertaken and to feel that they have a stake in their environment. It is so important to them and if there is not a complaints process for the general public, it will undermine any commitments the Government might make. The Government’s consultation does not strongly back a complaints process—that is a fundamental flaw.
My second point concerns an issue that has not been raised so far by other noble Lords: the scope of the new environmental body. The consultation limits who is subject to the enforcement and commitments therein. Our committee decided that it should be not only central government but all public authorities. We took advice from a number of individuals. I will quote just one, who said that the new body should,
“certainly … hold public bodies other than Government to account”.
That evidence was from Secretary of State Michael Gove to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in November 2017. So clearly the government consultation is stepping back from the Secretary of State’s own commitments, quoted in our report and made in another place late last year. Might the Minister be tempted to say whether he stands by the wording in the government consultation or agrees with his own Secretary of State?
Thirdly, there is no commitment in the consultation to set out the environmental goals and objectives in legislation, yet all Members of this House, of whatever political party, have all seen how important it was to set out goals in the Climate Change Act to ensure that there was cross-party support as the issue moved forward. That is a singular failing. The committee felt that it was really important to set targets for nature in legislation. It is something that the Liberal Democrats feel very strongly about and had as a manifesto commitment in 2017.
Fourthly, I strongly echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, on the need for independence and sufficient resources for the new body. Our committee saw from so many examples, particularly when looking at Natural England, that there is a real need for clarity on independence, as well as sufficient resources. Frankly, it is a load of old guff that the Government did not feel able to set out in the consultation some clarity on the two key issues of how the new body will be independent and sufficiently resourced. We know that the Government do this. Let us not forget, when the Water Bill was going through this House and the Government committed to undertake a consultation on the very tricky and controversial issue of water abstraction, they then produced an extremely good consultation document, setting out at great length two alternative proposals for the route they might go down. It was a very controversial issue and the Government set out the ways forward in their consultation document with a great deal of clarity. One can assume only that the Government have not set out the key issues of how the body will be independent and sufficiently resourced because they think that people will not be particularly happy about where they might end up.
Finally, another issue which has not been touched on by other committee Members—so I hope your Lordships will allow me a little time to address it—is the strength of the duty that all public authorities should be under when they take account of environmental principles. In our report, as our chairman rightly highlighted, we talk about the biodiversity duty and how successful it has—or has not—been. On page 55 we say that,
“the requirement to ‘have regard’ for biodiversity is weak, unenforceable and lacks clear meaning”.
Yet the Government are proposing that public authorities should only “have regard” in future as they undertake their environmental principles. That will clearly not be sufficient.
While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that changing the wording on its own will not be enough, it is still important that the wording is tight and can form a bedrock so that when this body holds public authorities to account, the public authorities know what they have to do. If we do not have that, we will not be replicating the current status of environmental protection that we have in all EU treaties, and if the wording is not strengthened it will be far too easy for environmental protections to be subjugated to other competing calls such as those for economic growth.
The House may well wish to reflect on the problems caused for rural housing by the viability test. That has basically run a coach and horses through the requirements for rural housing—and that is exactly what will happen if the wording is so weak that public bodies have only to “have regard” for environmental protection. Without stronger wording and if we do not get it right, I am afraid that all the laudable words, particularly from this Minister—I echo the comments of others—about this Government’s intention to leave the environment in a better place will not be deliverable.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and commend the report of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and his committee and the attention the report brings to the needs of our rural communities. This is rural housing week and this debate is a great opportunity to recognise that our countryside faces huge challenges. It is at a crossroads and we will not set out on the right path unless we recognise the vital role of genuinely affordable housing in creating thriving rural communities. An understanding of this, together with the report’s recommendation for adequate rural proofing of our housing and planning policies, is critical to the future survival of rural communities. I declare an interest as the chair of the National Housing Federation, the trade body representing England’s housing associations.
I concur with the committee’s report that current government policy does not take enough account of either the specific needs of rural communities or the challenges facing them. For too long, these issues have been sidelined and not considered in the context of wider policy-making. We can feel this perhaps most bitterly in the housing crisis, which is too often focused on and dealt with as a solely urban issue. Our rural towns and villages are home to 9 million people. Rural life offers a sense of community and the opportunity to live surrounded by some of our most beautiful scenery, but the housing crisis is damaging our rural areas and threatening this way of life. People are not always familiar with this picture of the countryside but our rural communities are feeling the pressures of the broken housing market as much as the cities are.
A quality, affordable home feels out of reach for many. The most affordable homes cost 8.3 times average wages in rural areas. As local people struggle to remain in their communities, we are seeing the loss of vital services. Schools in rural areas are closing at an average rate of 11 per year and we are losing post offices in rural communities at an average of three per month. It must be a real concern that the average minimum travel time to a hospital in rural areas is 60 minutes, nearly double that in urban areas. The services that people need are not where they need them. It would be very easy to be disheartened but this can be fixed.
The report is exactly right that rural affairs should be linked more closely to the work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, recognising the close link between the survival of our rural communities and access to housing. The National Housing Federation and housing associations believe that genuinely affordable homes are the key to supporting rural communities to thrive. The federation’s Rural Life Monitor showed in 2017 that when housing associations work in partnership with local people, including local government, to build even a small number of affordable homes, vital community services stay open.
By building just four affordable homes on Holy Island, Bernicia Homes was able to help keep the island’s sole primary school open. The local post office in Toller Porcorum in West Dorset would have closed when it reached the end of its lease without the intervention of Aster Group and a team of residents living in the village. The community and the housing association worked together to build six affordable homes and a new building for the post office. These are services that add value to rural life, offer opportunities and often employment for families and young people and can really make the difference between a community being viable or not.
Access to affordable homes can enable generations to stay in close proximity, keeping families together and tackling the other scourge of rural living, isolation and loneliness. These homes provide critical support for the rural economy, including the farming and food economy. DAMHA, the Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association, an extraordinary and historic association, owns and manages 1,700 properties on 130 sites in 80 villages in the former County Durham coalfield, one of the most challenging areas in the north-east with huge regeneration challenges. Part of its mission is to assist in the regeneration of coalfield communities.
These housing associations are anchor organisations in their communities. They act as both landlord and employer and provide a whole host of lifeline services for local people. They are already building the quality homes our rural communities need, but they want to go even further. They have an ambition to deliver, but how can they, when current planning and land policy is not adequately rural proofed? The revised national policy planning framework gives us an immediate opportunity to do just that and to implement the report’s recommendation to rural proof policy. Many of the draft proposals for the revised NPPF should be welcomed for their ambition to make real change to deliver bigger and better.
Will the Minister say whether the impact of these policies on rural communities has been measured at all? There are instances where proposals have clearly not considered the specific complexities facing rural communities. I shall give one example. The proposed entry level exception sites policy risks undermining the existing and successful rural exception sites model. The proposed model does not involve the community, the homes are not solely for local people and it does not safeguard the affordability of homes for the future. These less stringent criteria are, very unhelpfully, likely to raise land values and could damage the provision of affordable rented homes in rural areas. Unless they are revised, there are potentially very damaging implications for a model that has been successful in delivering for those most in housing need. The proposed standardised approach for measuring housing need is another example. It will not work in a rural setting where population projections are low and housing stock is less flexible. If the revised NPPF is going to meet the needs of rural communities, it must go further. It must emphasise the importance of implementing proper local plans, and it must encourage affordable housing contributions on sites smaller than 10.
As the Government consider the consultation responses for the draft NPPF, can the Minister assure us that they will listen to the concerns of rural housing associations and follow the recommendation of the committee’s report to rural proof this critical policy to ensure it does not leave rural communities behind? During this rural housing week, housing associations will be setting out the sector’s manifesto for rural housing. It states what they will do to boost rural housing supply through working in partnership with local communities, but it is also a call to action for parliamentarians. We need policies in place that can unlock the potential of rural housing associations to build the genuinely affordable rural homes we need. As we stand at a crossroads, the survival of our rural communities depends on it.
My Lords, I wish to touch on a point covered in the report of the Select Committee that has already been touched on by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. After the NERC Act became law, there was an expectation that there would be progress in sorting the widespread problems created by off-road vehicles—motorcycles or 4x4s. Unfortunately, this problem has got worse rather than improved. The NERC Act had an exemption, Section 67(2)(b), that left over 5,000 miles of green lanes open to use by motor vehicles, comprising 2,800 miles of byways open to all traffic and over 3,000 miles of green lanes on which the rights of way were simply unknown.
The Select Committee, while recognising that green lanes are being destroyed by off-road bikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles, made recommendations that are feeble when compared to the scale and extent of the damage being done. The committee suggests that it should be cheaper and easier for highway authorities and national parks to make traffic regulation orders. Such orders are made one by one and the process will last for decades. The obvious solution is to do for the 3,000 miles of green lanes on which there are no established motor vehicle rights what the NERC Act did for footpaths and bridleways: to extinguish any latent motor vehicle rights that might exist. That would halve the scale of the problem at a stroke, leaving the highway authorities to concentrate their traffic regulation order powers on routes where vehicle rights do exist—that is, the byways open to all traffic—and it would give relief to the countless rural communities badly affected by off-roading. That is what the committee should have recommended and what the Government should be doing. It is worth remembering that the only reason why motor vehicle rights might exist on any green lanes is that they were used in the past by horses and carts. It is absurd that we are still allowing powerful modern motor vehicles to use and damage precious remote parts of the countryside because of the ancient legal rights of horses and carts.
The Government have responded to the Select Committee recommendations by looking to the motor vehicle stakeholder group to produce a consensus report on off-roading. I suggest to the Minister that Defra knows that this group is deadlocked; its members’ views are diametrically opposed to one another and they will not reach consensus. Every step in implementing a traffic regulation order can be delayed by those who are opposed to change. That process is expensive, and local authorities simply do not have the resources to follow an arduous procedure. I recognise that legislative time is scarce—it always is—but I ask the Minister to put an end to this farce of a stakeholder group and to ask officials to address how the harm being done to rural areas may be addressed and come forward with a practical solution. That would mean taking on some well-funded pressure groups but I suggest that we have to put an end to this running sore. Another possible measure would be a blanket ban on all off-road vehicles during the winter months.
My Lords, I make a couple of declarations of interest: I am a director of Anchorwood Developments Limited and a board member of the Marine Management Organisation. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, on his chairmanship of the committee, on the report and on the excellent work that he has done over the years in this area. It is very good that he took on the role of chairman of the committee, and I thank him.
I had almost forgotten about the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, but it was a landmark piece of legislation 12 years ago, followed by the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Marine and Coastal Access Act, which I think was passed the year after that. This trilogy of legislation has been very important for our environment and now is absolutely the right time to consider it again. It is not so much that it is deficient but, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, time has moved on.
I live in rural Cornwall. We do not feel sorry for ourselves. We are not there as a charity part of the country. We are proud of being rural and believe that we contribute a great deal not just to the national economy but the social fabric of the nation. I was on a Local Government Association working party on the rural economy. A statistic that struck me was that non-metropolitan England had a greater proportion of GDP than metropolitan areas. Clearly, not all of that is rural, but we should be aware that this is not an economic backwater or hinterland.
Some really important messages came from the report. One, as other noble Lords have said, is that government intervention in this area—whether we think that that is good or bad—has declined. The Commission for Rural Communities and the rural advocate disappeared—during the coalition Government, I must say. I dealt regularly with the rural communities policy unit as the predecessor to the right reverend Prelate on the Rural Coalition. They were very committed people in that unit and it was quite effective—perhaps not as effective as the CRC; it did not have the independence, power and research ability—but even that disappeared.
I remember the role of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, looking at rural proofing some years ago. He brought a number of noble Lords with him to departments—I think it was a Cabinet Office or a No. 10 exercise—to find out what was happening. I was staggered. He managed to keep a straight face, but when he was in front of non-Defra departments, so often there was the response, “What’s rural proofing”, or, “Yes, I’m sure we do something in that area”, but it was very diluted and unfocused. I was very pleased that the committee came up with recommendations about that.
Rural Britain—rural England—has suffered many pressures recently, and several of them have been recognised. On the subject of rural buses and roads, I was out this morning cycling. I left at 5.46 am. I noticed that all down my very rural road, yellow markings had appeared. I am delighted to say, as a compliment to local government and the Government, that they were to replace potholes with actual surface, which is starting to happen, but only just in time before those roads get even worse.
I was really pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned housing, because rural housing is so important. We have had a crisis, which continues, because of the broadening right-to-buy legislation passed when the Conservative Government took effect post 2010. There is still suspicion by landowners that if they donate land at agricultural value to housing associations, other people will benefit financially in the long term as they come out of affordable housing services.
And, of course, there are Defra budgets. We know that Defra, along with the former DCLG, is always the department hit first in terms of budget cuts. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, about protecting the Defra family, but when your budgets are cut by some 18% to 20%, you have to streamline your overheads. That, too, leads to a slight undermining of the independence of non-departmental public bodies within that area.
Biodiversity is such an important part of the report. We know that in Britain biodiversity is getting more difficult. We have increasing challenges from climate change. I know that the Minister is very concerned about invasive species—these are all threats to the fabric to our rural communities.
One thing that noble Lords have not mentioned, which I was very pleased to see in the report, was national trails and their funding. These are a fantastic means of access to the countryside, used by so many for tourism and exercise. That access through those national trails is crucial. Are there ways in which, as the report suggests, maybe through sponsorship or other means, we can make sure that what is truly a national treasure—our national trails—are kept?
The report says that certain areas are getting better. We now have a 25-year environmental plan, which is an important strategy, primarily for England. I hope that Scotland and the other devolved authorities will be able to go along with that in a parallel fashion. It is key that that plan has a statutory basis to it as it is developed. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what the next concrete step is to make many of those important aspirations take effect, as that affects rural communities so much.
We have moved on to the concept of natural capital. Dieter Helm, whom I would describe as the Government’s favourite guru, has moved out of energy into natural capital—and they are still digesting his energy report, because he has some big asks there. On the rural side and natural capital, it is excellent, and we all applaud it; but we have to remember, as other noble Lords have said, that those concepts have not really been tested to destruction in any way, and putting values on a number of the areas of the natural environment is very difficult. But we look at that with optimism and hope that it happens.
We have a Secretary of State who champions the environment very strongly—let us be clear about that—and all the areas of biodiversity. I also benefit from having broadband fibre right to my house, which is increasingly permeating rural communities, although I suspect that a number of Members of this House do not have that yet, and probably not in urban areas either. But that is improving.
What we welcome from these Benches is the report’s suggested removal of rural affairs from Defra. As noble Lords have said, the challenges for Defra over the next few years are huge, in terms particularly of Brexit, fisheries legislation, farming and agriculture, along with the environmental area and all those other streams. Some 3,000 pieces of legislation will have to be brought on to the UK statute book. I am sad to say that the track record, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, shows Defra having not performed and having retreated from this function. It naturally fits within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and clearly needs to go there.
The issue in the report that is most important for our future, on the environmental side, is—as my noble friend Lady Parminter and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, have said—the need for tough environmental enforcement post Brexit. That is a key challenge. There is zero doubt that government departments take notice of European Commission threats of infraction proceedings in the European Court of Justice, and that has made a very significant difference in terms of our enforcing environmental legislation in the past. We are starting to see that on the clean air side and in other areas as well. We also need to strengthen the biodiversity duty, as has been said.
On rural proofing, from my experience of having accompanied the noble Lord to departments on the issue, I think that that has to be done within the Cabinet Office. That is the natural way for it to go.
On the need for a long-term funding strategy for national trails, that is something that I really appreciate myself, and I know that visitors to the south-west do as well.
This is an excellent report. I hope that the Government will take forward its many and diverse recommendations, which over time, when the consultations finish, could be much strengthened. However, given the governance gap on environmental enforcement, we will need a robust, independent organisation, with teeth, post Brexit—that is absolutely clear.
My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and everyone on the committee for what I felt was a powerful and well-evidenced report. I was impressed with the depth of analysis in many of the witness statements, both written and oral, underpinned by their description of the reality of the journey that they had been on in trying to stay true to the principles of the Act.
I read the report with a growing sense of loss and frustration at what could have been if the political drive and the resources had been available to implement the Act in line with its original vision. It was, of course, a Labour Government who introduced what was considered at the time to be ground-breaking legislation, which rationalised rural and environmental bodies to create Natural England. It was also a Labour Government who created the Commission for Rural Communities and, indeed, the Sustainable Development Commission and a number of other environmental bodies, which were all doing extremely valuable work but were killed off by the coalition Government in what I would describe as an act of environmental vandalism—but enough about that.
What is clear from the contributions from noble Lords to this debate is that, while we should acknowledge our failures—and we all have them—we should also learn and resolve to build something better for the future, and I think that is what the committee’s report is about. That is why, like other noble Lords, I was so disappointed at the Government’s written response to the report. To say that it was defensive is an understatement. I would have liked to have seen much greater acknowledgement of the weight of verbal and written evidence that the committee had taken time to assemble, rather than the rather dismissive tone that the Government’s response adopted. As noble Lords have said, that is not the style of the noble Lord the Minister, and I hope that, when he responds to the debate, he is able to engage more constructively with the well-argued recommendations in the report.
Let me turn to the specific points in the report. First, as a number of noble Lords have said, the report addresses the impact of Brexit on how the Government can be held accountable for their environmental promises and policies. We debated that issue at length during the course of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and we were pleased that, eventually, the Government moved some way towards addressing our concerns—concerns which are echoed in this report. I hope that the Minister can now agree that it is vital that the new proposed watchdog is independent, accountable to Parliament, financed by more than one department, tasked with providing environmental scrutiny, able to deal with individual complaints and able to take the Government and other public bodies to court when rules are broken.
I raise this issue again because, as my noble friends Lady Young and Lord Rooker and other noble Lords have said, despite the progress on the EU Bill, the Government’s actual consultation document on the role of the green watchdog is woefully inadequate. In essence, its role is defined as advisory to government, with little room for independent intervention or action. So I hope the Minister can assure the House that the Government’s thinking has moved on since the consultation document was published. In addition, the habitats and birds directives require EU member states to report on the measures they have taken to implement the directives, including the conservation status of habitats and species. Does the Minister agree with this report’s recommendation that the Government should mirror those reporting requirements post Brexit?
Secondly, the report analysed in some detail how Natural England is performing its role. In particular, it raised concerns about the degree to which Natural England is independent from government and whether it has a distinctive voice. It was interesting to compare the oral witness statements from Andrew Sells, the chair of Natural England, and some of his senior staff, who were quite candid under questioning about their real concerns, with the rather anodyne written briefing that they subsequently sent to us all. It felt that, once again, they were under pressure to moderate and play down their concerns. What is clear, as they fully admit, is that they are facing significant funding challenges and are not able to operate at a scale that would enable them to reverse the decline in biodiversity.
This is a huge challenge for us all. As the report points out, between 1970 and 2013 56% of UK species declined, with 40% showing strong or moderate decline, and with our decline in the UK being greater than the global average. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what practical steps are being taken to intervene and reverse this decline, given that Natural England does not feel that it has the resources to do so. I know that the Government lay great expectations on the subsequent publication of the 25-year environment plan—I am sure the Minister will say that in his response—but it was produced in January of this year, and it is now July. Time is going on. That report has lots of ambition but few detailed plans, and we are still waiting for some measurable metrics. For example, the report talks about producing a biodiversity strategy by 2020. That is pretty much an indication of a lack of urgency, as is the aim to consider delivery options for the nature recovery network over the next two years. That obviously has to happen before that network can be implemented. All this time the clock is ticking and the decline in biodiversity continues. I hope the Minister is able to address the need for greater urgency on this issue in his response.
The report also provides substantial evidence that the current duty in the Act that public bodies must “have regard to” conserving biodiversity has proved to be ineffective. Of course, the phrase “have regard to” is a meaningless concept. It simply means that you have to prove that you have thought about it and you can then decide to ignore it. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and other noble Lords that the wording needs to be tightened. The report comes up with helpful suggestions on this. I was shocked to read how little consideration local authorities gave to this requirement or how little it was understood. The reform of the National Planning Policy Framework is a helpful start but the duties on biodiversity go further than this. I was sorry that the Government gave so little credit to the committee’s recommendations on this. They say that,
“the government does not accept that the duty lacks clear meaning”, and that they would like to see more evidence that changing the wording would lead to better outcomes. My challenge back to the Minister is to look again at the evidence that the current wording is being disregarded on a widespread scale, and to embrace the opportunity to take the simple steps for improvement that the committee proposed in its report.
Finally, on rural communities, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, spoke passionately and very convincingly about the current failings in both policy and independent research. The report goes into some detail about the institutional failure that has led to the interests of rural communities not being given the priority they once had. As noble Lords have said, there is a real danger that the department is simply being overwhelmed by other pressures. Obviously the abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities is part of that, but there has clearly been a wider neglect. The result of this, as noble Lords have said, is that the indices on rural poverty, education provision, healthcare, transport, rural housing and other public services, are all going in the wrong direction.
I can imagine how alarm bells must have rung in the department at the report’s recommendation that responsibility for rural policy should transfer to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and that the responsibility for rural proofing should transfer to the Cabinet Office. To be honest, I am not sure what I think about that. Historically, all too often we have snatched at organisational solutions to avoid addressing the more fundamental questions of policy priority and leadership. In the current climate there is indeed a danger that we will transfer that function from one department without the resources to deal with it to other departments that, similarly, do not have the resources to deal with it. While I have heard all the comments from around the Chamber on this issue, a great deal more thought needs to be given to it. However, I agree that the report was compelling about the failure of the current Defra response to these challenges. My noble friend Lord Rooker also made a powerful point about Defra’s desire for control at all costs, regardless of the public interest. These issues need to be addressed.
I say again to the Minister that I hope that in his response today he will be able to avoid the complacency of the Government’s written response, acknowledge that there is a problem, and convince us that the message of this report has been heard loud and clear and that genuine action will follow. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I declare my farming interests as stated in the register.
I thank the committee for its report, and I very much welcomed the opportunity to give evidence earlier this year. We took on board many of the report’s recommendations and, although we have not accepted them all, we are nevertheless grateful to the committee for its work and for the thoroughness with which it has approached its task. It has shone a welcome spotlight on our rural areas. As Minister for Rural Affairs, I place supreme importance on the well-being of rural communities. Therefore, in the words of a noble Lord today, I speak up for the countryside, and I also hope that I am constructive. I very much look forward to engaging with the recently established committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, which will take forward this work with its inquiry into the rural economy.
When I arrived at Defra we went to something called a town hall meeting—when my officials told me we had to go there, I thought that I had gone to the wrong department. In my speech I said: “I look to Defra being a helping hand and not a heavy one”. I therefore take very seriously indeed all the points made by your Lordships. It will not be possible for me to address them in the time I am allocated, but I promise that there will be a response to all the points that have been made.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, spoke so eloquently in his opening in praise of country people. I agree entirely. The Government are committed to bringing sustainable growth to our rural areas, so that people who live in the countryside have the same opportunities as those who live in urban areas, and without detriment to the environment and its heritage. Our rural areas contribute nearly £250 billion to England’s economy. Half a million businesses—one quarter of the total—are registered in rural areas. I entirely agree with the analysis given by my noble friend Lady Byford of the economic engine. In fact, proportionately more people are employed by small firms in rural areas than in urban areas. Employment in rural areas is higher than the UK average and unemployment is lower, and well-being is also higher. There is a very strong sense of community, which is typified by the spirit of volunteers around the country who help with transport for those less able or who run the village shop or hall as a hub for the community.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, that I recently had a meeting with Paula Vennells, the chief executive of the Post Office. My understanding is that the total number of post offices has risen by 16 to 11,659, and that is very much because of the collocation work that the Post Office is undertaking. My experience is that my local post office, which collocated to the convenience store, is now open many more hours than it was before. Therefore, it is an interesting picture and I am watching it very closely.
However, I acknowledge that, as all your Lordships know, there are challenges to rural life, many of which were highlighted during this inquiry and in this debate. Although the Government met their target for the provision of access to superfast broadband by 95% of premises by the end of 2017, and mobile phone operators reached their target for voice calls to cover 90% of the UK’s land-mass by the same date, I am acutely aware that the figures need to be improved. That is why we have legislated for a universal service obligation to act as a safety net for those without broadband connections, and Ofcom is looking at attaching obligations on mobile phone companies to improve 4G coverage. I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised the point about broadband, because we are seeing improvements but we want them to go much further.
I very much agree with the points about affordable housing. I should perhaps declare an interest. My maiden speech was in a debate on rural housing, and I facilitated a housing development on the farm. Because it is Rural Housing Week, I shall be visiting a scheme on Friday, and I am very much looking forward to that.
We need to ensure that the people working to look after Exmoor live in Exford and do not have to live in Exeter. We also need to ensure that rural communities can survive, with young people remaining in villages. Our recent changes to permitted development rights mean that up to five new homes can be created from existing agricultural buildings on a farm, rather than the current maximum of three. It is also why the housing White Paper has a strong rural narrative, and the draft National Planning Policy Framework has a rural chapter. I am very seized of the importance of rural housing schemes and ensuring that the school roll is vibrant, which again is a positive feature of a flourishing village—something that we all want.
We are clearly all united on the importance of effective rural proofing, and the Government are strongly committed to it. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, was a key contributor to the rural policy guidance document, which I and other Ministers from Defra took to the Cabinet Office Minister to discuss. The committee suggested that the Cabinet Office should take over responsibility for rural proofing. Indeed, it went further and proposed that responsibility for rural policy should move from Defra to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. That is clearly not a decision for me. However, although rural proofing should be the responsibility of all departments, I believe that there are strong reasons why Defra is best placed to lead on rural affairs. I do not see rural policy as operating in a silo separate from either agriculture or the environment. To me, they are absolutely interdependent.
I of course recognise that the range of businesses and interests in rural areas goes beyond farming, but farming is still a backbone, shaping the environment and landscape, which in turn is an economic beacon for rural tourism. In upland areas in England, where the challenges are often greatest, 41% of businesses and 23% of employment are in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors. In Health and Harmony—the biggest consultation on agriculture, with 44,000 responses—we asked explicitly about the challenges facing rural communities, particularly those in the remotest parts of the country. Of course, like many other departments, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has a strong interest in rural issues—and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned, it is clearly essential that Defra works closely with MHCLG on housing, local government finance and the proposed UK shared prosperity fund.
In her commentary on rural proofing, my noble friend Lady Byford said Defra acts as a champion for rural proofing across government and supports departments so that policies take account of specific challenges and opportunities for rural communities. This is not an academic exercise: it is about achieving real benefits for those who live and work in rural areas, and I will take up the practical point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, about the National Citizen Service. When decisions and policies are sent round for collective agreement, other departments know that we in Defra will be taking rural interests into account. It is not necessarily about delivering exactly the same outcomes for rural areas. The cost of providing basic services, as we acknowledge, is more expensive because of demography, sparsity and distance. We know that rural households are often further from hospitals, for example. But it is about showing that government departments have thought about how rural areas are different and how policies may need to be adapted.
For example, the new schools funding formula has reduced the gap between urban and rural schools. The Department for Education is testing out new work placement schemes in rural areas in the north-west and the south-west. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that the rural services delivery grant for the current financial year is £81 million—the highest level ever and an increase of £31 million on the original allocation.
So I assure noble Lords that all Ministers in Defra are banging the rural drum. I am backed by a superb team of officials and I assure noble Lords that they are very committed to rural interests being at the heart of our department. We are able to draw on the work of not only Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, but so many others who are active in rural areas. My own experience, as someone who has a deep personal commitment to the countryside, is that there is a deep recognition and understanding among many Ministers in other departments, many of whom have rural constituencies. So it is really important that Defra has these close and effective relationships across Whitehall. That is why I am on the ministerial task force on digital and on housing and am now a member of the of the new cross- government department team looking at loneliness. We are working with BEIS to bring about the rural dimension of the industrial strategy and making sure that we are involved in clean growth issues, and it is important to champion the UK’s food and drinks sector, which has its roots in rurality.
My officials and I have close engagement with organisations representing rural communities and businesses. Defra funds ACRE, with its network of 38 rural community councils across England. I have held a number of really outstanding meetings with a broad range of rural stakeholders on well-being, digital connectivity and the rural economy, and will soon hold two similar ones on loneliness and transport. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, that in the end it is the sharing of knowledge, experience and good practice that will develop the solutions that work on the ground in rural areas. That is exactly what we need to fine tune. We need to get the solutions that work. That is why I agree with all noble Lords—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, led the charge—about a strong evidence base being essential. Defra will continue to publish data to help a much wider appreciation of rural issues. We have set up a rural academic panel. As we stated in our response, we will also produce clarity on rural research requirements to which we hope academia and the research councils will be able to respond. To respond to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and my noble friend Lord Caithness, we intend to publish the statement of research priorities in the autumn.
A number of noble Lords rightly raised the natural environment. My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to the publication of the 25-year environment plan and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, quite rightly wants action—as I do. That is why the review has been launched of our national parks and other designated areas of natural beauty—the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, is on the advisory panel. We have appointed a tree champion. We will also be making 2019 a year of green action, putting children and young people at its heart. The noble Baroness is absolutely right: we need and will be setting out how that will be progressed so that all noble Lords can feel that this is an action plan that has results.
Almost all noble Lords raised the governance gap for environmental protection. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Young of Old Scone, made particular points. Since the committee published its report, we launched a consultation on a new environmental principles and governance Bill, which will make sure that environmental protections will not be weakened as we leave the EU. This will establish a world-leading body to hold the Government to account for environmental outcomes. Although it will be funded by the Government, it will be independent. I understand the frustration, but I cannot pre-empt the consultation and the consideration of all responses, but I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and noble Lords that I have heard all they have said on this particular matter.
The committee made a number of recommendations about the role of Natural England. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and my noble friend Lady Byford that I can confirm that a communications protocol is currently being agreed with Natural England, which will codify ways of working with the Defra group to protect the integrity and independence of Natural England’s voice and brand. Clearly, Natural England has transformed its approach so that it deploys its resources strategically for the greatest positive impact and to deliver its statutory functions. Natural England is a separate legal identity and may exercise its legal powers in pursuit of anything that falls within its general purpose. This independence is in line with Natural England’s statutory remit.
The committee expressed its concerns about the long-term sustainability of the national trails network, which the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised. We are committed to finding a long-term and secure future for our national trails. We will work with interested organisations to explore options such as sponsorship that the committee suggested. Natural England is also working hard to complete the English coast path by 2020 and I am looking forward to a visit in north Yorkshire later this month to see further stretches connected. On the question of charging from my noble friend Lady Byford, the Government will consider as part of our planning for the 2019 spending review what charges could assist Natural England’s charging strategy. That is under consideration.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and my noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned the vexed issue of green lanes. I appreciate that and have met the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, before on this matter. The motor vehicle stakeholder working group will meet in October. Obviously, we want there to be as much consensus as possible, because that is the way in the countryside that most of us find a way through. This is about trying to find those solutions. I am aware that it is a knotty challenge for some of the characters involved on all sides of this issue, but surely it must be right that having these quarterly meetings with the stakeholder working group helps us to try to find some consensus in the key areas on which there can be agreement so that we find a resolution. We want to ensure that green lanes are suitable for purpose and can be used by ever more people.
A number of noble Lords have raised the issue of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. I am well aware of some of the concerns that have been expressed and my ministerial colleagues and I are alive to the issues as we go around the country. I hope that many key stakeholders—indeed, I can be confident about the number—now recognise that the simplified offers for the 2018 countryside stewardship application have been welcomed by the NFU and by the industry. I am very clear that the work in countryside stewardship and environmental advancement is going to be hugely important. It is the way forward whether it be health and harmony, environment, land management—indeed, all the areas that we in this House will be considering later on. This is going to be very important work for us.
The committee raised the issue of biodiversity. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in particular mentioned the phrase “natural capital”. In areas such as flood resilience we are seeing a much greater understanding of the phrase and are attaching importance to it. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and my noble friend Lord Caithness, I should say first that through commitments to strengthen the duty on public bodies, we wish to embed a principle of net gain within the planning system. This will address many of the issues which have sometimes made housing and development a problem. This will lead to a net gain within the housing system.
Secondly, we will publish supplementary information to accompany our guidance on the biodiversity duty, setting out how public bodies can further the ambitions of the 25-year environment plan. We will continue to work in partnership to help public bodies take action and to protect and enhance the environment. I have to say to noble Lords that if I had more time, I could outline many examples of this. Addressing the decline in biodiversity is a priority for the Government.
In conclusion, I have spoken about landscapes, the environment, farming, the rural economy and services, but in the end it all comes down to people and the communities they create. We need to see proper recognition of the communities on whom we rely for so much. They should have the same opportunities as those in urban areas and their needs and challenges need to be taken properly into account. That is our ambition in government, and it is my ambition, given that I have the privilege of being the Minister for rural affairs and the rural ambassador. Given all the differences and challenges in your Lordships’ House, I believe that we are united in the purpose of seeking a very strong and vibrant future for the rural communities not only of England but of the whole of the United Kingdom. We owe them a great deal and it is our task to ensure that they have a buoyant future.
My Lords, I thank all the speakers for their views and indeed for their support of our committee’s views. I also thank the members of the committee for their hard work and for the sometimes quite strong arguments. I am grateful to the clerks and special advisers to the committee for their hard work, and I appreciate the particular wordsmithing skills of the clerks in implementing some of the various and divergent views that arose within the committee. They were very skilful in that particular respect. I also thank the Minister for his response to the debate and I support his positive views on the economic and social potential of our rural areas, in particular the potential of our rural young if only they are given the chances and support that they deserve. I am grateful to him for outlining the various changes that are being made or are going to be made.
In dealing with the various issues that arose, I am glad that the views of our committee on the environmental watchdog have been strongly supported around the House. We look forward to seeing what comes out of the consultation and the Bill on that issue that no doubt will eventually come to this House.
I turn to Natural England, and all the speakers, I think, took on the theme that this is a really important body and will probably become even more so in the future. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, it is also a respected body, which is very important. It needs more government support and the Government should give it more authority and independence—I underline that word. It was good to hear from the Minister about the new communications protocol with Natural England, although obviously that remains pretty vague. We hope that something firm and concrete comes out of that.
On rural communities, again a lot of support was expressed for our view that we need much better, more integrated and detailed research in order to produce solutions. Again, it was good to hear from the Minister about possible changes in that respect. I agree that our suggestion to move rural affairs to MHCLG was a bit controversial and I will not say any more about it. However, if it is not going to happen, I thought that the suggestion of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans to seek more focused work by Defra with the key departments is going to be extremely important.
Rural proofing, on the other hand, as mentioned in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, is different. There was no divergence within the committee on this issue. Without strong and proper rural proofing, in particular the importance of training, especially with the authority coming from the heart of government, the committee believes strongly that rural problems associated with all departments will continue to be swept out of site under the urban carpet. Rural proofing remains a bone of contention between us and it is an important area. Nevertheless, I beg to move.