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Natural England: another Whitehall countryside cock-up?

Friday 04 August 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, always sceptical about new Government initiatives on rural issues, fears that the new "super agency" Natural England bears all the signs of yet another Whitehall disaster

REGULAR readers of this column will know that I harbour deep suspicions about any new Government initiative to tackle so-called rural problems. One of the reasons is that many of those initiatives end up causing more problems than they cure. But I do not want them to fail: the slice of the national pie devoted to rural affairs is already so thin that country folk deserve any crumb that falls from the table.

So it is with heavy heart that I have spent two days reading the Whitehall entrails and fear that we are about to witness yet another countryside cock-up, the overdue birth of the latest Labour baby due on this planet in just two months time: Natural England.

This, readers might remember, is the latest "big idea" from the rural affairs department, Defra, to combine various rural bodies like English Nature, parts of the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service under one roof.

Natural England: disaster looms?

Quite why, no-one knows because these bodies had been functioning reasonably well for many years. But the decision to fix something that already worked was taken in the aftermath of the foot and mouth debacle five years ago, which had exposed the sheer incompetence of Whitehall in the face of a real disaster and the Government had to be seen as doing something. Anything!

Well, Natural England is/was due to come into being in exactly two months time. It is supposed to be based in Sheffield, in between the national parks of Yorkshire and the Peak District. I have spent hours trying to track down news of this important event on various Government websites and the result is … zilch.

What set me on this fruitless quest was a disturbing report in the Daily Telegraph that various vital sea defences in East Anglia have been abandoned. Reason: Gordon Brown has slashed tens of millions of pounds of the Defra budget as he desperately tries to recoup some of the billions he has wasted on reforms to the NHS, schools and lavish IT projects which have patently failed.

But hidden away in that report was the fact that a further £12 million has been axed from Natural England budget, which is strange state of affairs even by Treasury standards: you cut an organisation's budget before it has even come into existence. Will this be Brown's next stealth tax - on babies whilst still in the womb?

Now I fully realise that the Daily Telegraph is a strongly anti-government paper but it does have a very high reputation for accuracy (I wrote for it off and on for many years). And it reported a fairly hostile confrontation between the newly appointed chairman of Natural England, Sir Martin Doughty, and David Milliband, the new Defra secretary who is trying to sort out the mess left by Margaret Beckett.

Sir Martin is said to have told Milliband: "The scale of these cuts risks the wheels coming off even before it reaches the launching pad."

Now I have no way of knowing if this report is totally accurate but later a Defra spokesman issued a feeble reply saying that the Defra budget was under scrutiny because it had been forced to spend a lot of its money on another debacle, the cock up at the Rural Payments Agency which drove thousands of farmers to the edge of redundancy, and precautions against a possible outbreak of avian 'flu (God help us if that ever happens).

So I set about to search the Net to see if there had been any low-key announcements about the launch of Natural England which I had missed. In fact, the opposite seems to have happened: I stored Natural England on my Favourites list months ago. Today, my machine told me that it could no longer find it. And other Whitehall websites have become curiously mute on the subject.

I cannot swear that they have been deliberately "pulled" but the last time I researched the subject, they were brimming with government spin on the brave new world of Natural England. With just two months to go, all is quiet. I hope I am wrong, but I am beginning to fear that this Government's latest country baby will be, if not still-born, in for a very long gestation indeed.

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