Lords: Take rural policy away from Defra

26 Mar 18

Rural policy should be taken away from the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, a House of Lords select committee has said.

The responsibility should be handed over to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Lords natural environment and rural affairs committee suggested, in a report out on Thursday last week.

Lord Cameron of Dillington, chairman of the committee, said: “It is clear that the government is failing to take proper account of the needs of rural communities.

“Departmental decisions and policies continue to demonstrate a lack of rural understanding among Whitehall policymakers.

“Each and every government department should be required to think about ways in which their policies affect rural people, and the government must take action to ensure that this ‘rural-proofing’ of policy happens.”

Over the past 12 years the government had reduced the funds given to departments and bodies to protect the UK’s natural environment and promote the needs of rural communities, the group of Lords concluded.

“This has had a profound, negative impact on England’s biodiversity and the social and economic welfare of rural areas, and must be reversed,” the committee concluded.

Defra had consistently failed “over a number of years to prioritise the ‘rural affairs’ element of the departmental remit of Defra”, it added.

The Lords suggested the MHCLG took over the responsibility as it already delivered many of the key services that support “rural vitality”.

The MHCLG is “the lead body for sustainable development and, as such, would be well placed to deliver for rural communities,” the group of Lords agreed.

Defra would then be able to focus solely on its priorities of sustainable food production and the environment, which are likely to come under greater pressure as a result of Brexit, the committee concluded. 

Defra previously came under fire for failure to issue subsidy payments for farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy.

The report also called for Natural England – created by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to protect and promote the natural environment - to be better resourced.  

It had been stripped of independence, influence and had been insufficiently resourced enough, which was “limiting its ability to fulfil its general purpose”, the report said.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Whether it is developing a new agricultural system outside of the EU or safeguarding our countryside, the needs of our rural communities sit at the heart of everything we do.

“We are continuing to champion rural affairs across government - driving forward high-speed broadband in the most hard to reach areas, increasing housing availability and supporting the creation of more than 6,000 jobs through our dedicated fund for rural businesses.”

Environment secretary Michael Gove recently committed to protecting EU farming subsidy levels until 2022.

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