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"The Countryside at a Crossroads" report

View profile for Emma Coke FALA
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Since the Brexit referendum, political attention has been almost entirely focussed on the future of farming and, in particular, the subsidy regime. In that context, the recent report by the Lords Select Committee – “The Countryside at a Crossroads” – makes refreshing reading, urging fundamental changes in the government’s approach to help to address the needs of rural communities as a whole. 

Perhaps the most scathing criticisms are aimed at DEFRA, which is also the subject of the most radical proposals for reform. The Committee accuses the Department of a “consistent failure, over a number of years, to prioritise the ‘rural affairs’ element of the departmental remit”, focussing instead on agriculture and the environment (though it acknowledges the importance of both). The needs of rural communities, and the impact of policy decisions on them, are not being considered effectively by the government. It proposes that responsibility for rural policy should be transferred to the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The Committee is also concerned about the chronic under-funding of Natural England, whose broad remit covers biodiversity, nature and landscape conservation and the promotion of public access to the countryside. The report raises particular concerns about the ongoing loss of biodiversity, which it in part attributes to failures by Natural England and to the inadequacy of existing duties on public authorities.  

These are goals which the DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, has promoted as “public goods” in recent speeches and identified as possible objectives of future subsidy regimes, so the Committee might feel that these criticisms at least will find a receptive audience. One suspects that he will not greet the prospect of losing part of his departmental remit with the same enthusiasm. 

It is encouraging to see the countryside and the needs of rural communities coming back into focus, particularly as we approach a generational opportunity to re-shape rural policy when Common Agricultural Policy comes to an end. There is merit in the suggestion that DEFRA has neglected part of its brief, but the government will doubtless approach any reorganisation with caution, given that the department has built up considerable rural specialism in its 17-year history and is already facing an extremely disruptive period. 

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