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Natural England: countryside terrier - or rural lapdog?

Friday 20 May 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard casts a wary eye over this week's decision to create a massive new super-quango for the countryside. He hopes it will work - but feels the past record does not bode well for the future

LET'S get rid of the jargon first, namely the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill, which was announced with a flourish in the Queen's Speech to Parliament on Tuesday and which is planned to be New Labour's lasting monument to its rural policies (if, in effect, that is not an oxymoron)

If it gets past Parliament, and there seems to reason to say it won't, it will in January, 2007, create Natural England, a new, super-quango which will gobble up many of the duties now performed by the Country Agency, English Nature and the Rural Development Service.

Now it is true that, in the past, some of the duties of these bodies have overlapped, creating more red tape with which to bind county people - and particular, country business owners - in a few more loops of red tape. Often, a single issue could mean visits to a farmer of perhaps three different officials to discuss, say, the creation of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (a nature reserve, to you and I).

On the horizon: a new rural super-quango.

Galling as this might have been from time to time, the system tended to work. The front line troops of English Nature and the Countryside Agency tended to know their stuff and were dead keen to protect rural England.

However, all the signs are that Natural England will be run by Whitehall bureaucrats who live in Sussex or Surrey and think you fall over the edge of the world at Watford. Whether they will even be able to understand the needs of the wild uplands of the Yorkshire Dales and other similar areas is hard to predict.

The success of Government, left or right, in setting up efficient new service agencies is, frankly, dismal. In the past 20 years or so, dozens of new agencies have been created in total chaos and have never escaped from it, including the Crown Prosecution Service, the Child Support Agency, Air Traffic Control, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Rural Payments Agency and many more.

The Government has spent billions of pounds on brand new computer systems which never seem to work or, as has happened with police forces across the country, cannot communicate with each other.

Worse still, in the past eight years many good working organisations have been scrapped. The Rural Development Council, which supported small business in the countryside, was the first to be axed by Labour. Then the National Rivers Agency was destroyed, possibly because it had made too many waves in prosecuting polluters (Yorkshire Water being one of its primary victims).

Now the Countryside Agency is being led to the block and that doesn't surprise me at all because that has been led by independently-minded country people - not civil servants - and has a record of speaking its mind.

It probably committed suicide when it decided to oppose Government-backed plans for the giant windfarm at Whinash, between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales national parks.

Now I would sincerely love to believe that Natural England will a great watchdog for our countryside and its people, rather than a politician's poodle, but I have great doubts. It will be led, after all, by Defra secretary Margaret Beckett, who visits the countryside from time to time in her caravan - not what you would actually call a deeply informative rural experience.

But perhaps I am being overly pessimistic. Perhaps Defra will find some top-level chief executive for Natural England who knows what he or she is at. Perhaps the Yorkshire Dales in ten years' time will be awash with milk and honey. Our cows might fly, of course...

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