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Is DEFRA up to the job? asks committee of MPs

Last week, in a stinging report entitled “The Potential of England’s Rural Economy”, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee (Efra) concluded that “there is, at the very least, a strong perception amongst those involved that rural affairs are being marginalised in Defra”. The committee highlighted shortcomings in the department in particular to its understanding of the way in which the rural economy operates and stated that Defra has focused heavily on its environment role at the expense of its rural affairs remit.

Michael Jack MP, the Efra committee chairman noted that the recent cabinet reshuffle should provide an opportunity for Defra to “raise its game on rural affairs”. He was forthright in his recommendations, saying: “With climate change gone from Hilary Benn’s in-tray, his department must spend more time banging heads together across Whitehall really to make thorough ‘rural-proofing’ of Government policy a reality.”

Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, told Shooting Times that the report’s conclusion that rural communities felt marginalised by the Government would not comes as a surprise to anyone in the countryside, however he noted “What will raise an eyebrow or two is the suggestion that Defra could be the answer to the problem, rather than the problem itself. Defra has in fact achieved something quite remarkable. It is held in lower regard than MAFF which had previously set the benchmark.

“Defra has developed a culture of insulating itself from the rural people it is meant to serve. That is why Defra, and the Government more widely, have come to be seen as the problem rather than the solution on many rural issues. The breadth of issues contained within the Defra portfolio have not helped, but more damaging has been the attitude that the concerns of those who live and work in the countryside are secondary to those who want to use it. This culture is despite the efforts of some good ministers, Lord Rooker and Huw Irranca-Davies to name but two, who recognise that a balance needs to be struck between those who live in the countryside and those who use or visit it. One need look no further than the current attempt to force a ‘coastal access corridor’ on farmers rather than agree the sort of coastal path network that the public desire.

“In the longer term the question has to be not whether Defra can ‘raise its game’ but whether it can play the game at all.”