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Landscape at risk if good intentions go sour

Friday 14 May 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard worries that moves to protect our landscape and wildlife might backfire if the bureaucrats take over

MANY of Britain's leading experts on landscape and wildlife conservation met at a conference in Oxford last weekend to discuss ways of streamlining a planning system which at present is clumsy, complicated and slow (see News: "Joined-up" landscape planning call ).

On the face of it, that is good news because sometimes the interests of the landscape, wildlife and essential rural development clash. The countryside is littered with SSIs (sites of special scientific interest), AONBs (areas of outstanding natural beauty), as well as planners in county councils, district councils and, in the Yorkshire Dales, a national park.

Should Whitehall look after this?

However, my bet is – although many of the experts at this conference would not admit it publicly – a good few of them were deeply worried that instead of making things better, any new organisation would make them a damned sight worse.

Because the bureaucrats would move in …

Governments love to meddle but are not very good at it. The policy seems to be, If it works, break it. Examine our transport system, schools, hospitals and the fight against crime and the causes of crime if you disagree.

Talks are already well underway in Westminster and Whitehall to merge various quite successful rural-based organisations like the Countryside Agency, English Nature, and possibly parts of the Environment Agency and DEFRA.

That, too, seems like a good idea unless you understand the bureaucratic mind. Civil servants love new organisations because it gives them a chance of build from the ground up new empires of nonsense.

Like nature abhorring a vacuum, the pen-pushers pour in torrents into any new area which hasn't had the time to set up its own jungle of red tape, petty restrictions and meaningless (but well paid) titles.

It has been going on for decades. Back in the 1950s, a clever writer invented the Peter Principal, which states that it you give a man an office and a blank piece of paper, he will eventually invent a job for himself – and burdens for others to carry.

And, this being a Government which insists on central control over everything, our landscape and wildlife would come under the control of Whitehall civil servants who think that Surrey is the countryside and that moorhens live on moors.

There are already examples of this: I have lamented several times on the demise of the short-lived National Rivers Authority, which did a magnificent job of prosecuting polluters until it was merged into the Environment Agency. I haven't heard a peep out of it since.

No, the present system for protecting our countryside is, indeed, flawed. But at least on our local councils – which John Prescott wants to scrap anyway – and on our national park committees, there are real country folk who understand the way the rural environment works.

Also, I have long been an admirer of the way the Countryside Agency, which despite being Government funded often speaks out (admittedly subtly) against Government policy.

English Nature, too, comes up with some brilliant ideas, like releasing hen harriers back into the Dales or paying farmers to protect rare plants high on the flanks of Ingleborough by fencing them off from grazing sheep.

These agencies are at present run by real experts who patently love our countryside. Place that expertise within the control of some paper clip counter and I fear for the worst. Country folk should look after the countryside – not Whitehall wonders and their political bosses.

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