Political Promise

Ju Shardlow On… DEFRA

In Ju Shardlow on July 19, 2010 at 3:00 pm

We saw them coming. Cameron’s manifesto promise to “cut the quangos” was judged by many to be a sensible crackdown on bureaucracy. But Caroline Spelman’s announcement yesterday that Environment bodies will be scrapped as part of coalition spending reductions fly directly in the face of Defra’s long-term structural reform plans.

“Defra’s Structural Reform Plan (SRP) lays down three departmental priorities to support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production; help to enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life; and support a strong and sustainable green economy, which is resilient to climate change.” It was unveiled by Spelman and the PM on Friday. The announced cuts make a mockery of these supposedly protected areas.

However, the government’s planned 40% slash in Whitehall budgets means that Defra will have to “make savings without actually compromising… frontline services.” However, Spelmans own admission in The Times that “Defra is the government’s emergency service” for flooding, pollution outbreaks etc hints to a department which is not quite ready to give up its operations. “That’s a very strong reason to fight my corner on this issue with the Treasury, but equally to accept as a cabinet member with corporate responsibility that we have got to clean up the mess that Labour has just left” she added.

The government doesn’t want to be accused of reneging on the Green economy. The reform plan was pushed by the coalition to show how economic recovery and environmental protection are inextricably linked. However it will be difficult for the department to now find funds to support British farms and help develop sustainable methods if there is to be such a drastic cut. The report pledge that “Businesses, communities, and individuals” are to be invested in appears a little empty considering the number of rural development projects that are to be closed down.

There are some defensible pledges in the report, such as promoting the use of green spaces and protecting small-scale fisheries. It is also reasonable to make it a criminal offence to allow illegal timber to enter the UK market. However, pushing such a clear view of a zero-waste economy may come at the expense of small farmers, as reducing regulation on domestic food production is bound to benefit bigger businesses and reduce the ideological stranglehold from the EU.

There appears to be a lot in the report about “supporting” and “promoting” certain businesses, with little designation of funds. Sure, post foot-and-mouth, Labour panic-made many environmental affairs quangos. Chief amounts these useless ones would be the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which never got round to implementing its fuzzy plans for motorway construction and housing plans in green spaces. But there are some causalities. The reports defense of wildlife seems suspect when it had recently merged the Animal Health and Vetinary Laboratories Agencies.

Perhaps this is part of a wider ideological development to release the rural from the bureaucratic. However, many cuts are going to be made to the rural way of life, so the Countryside Alliance shouldn’t be cheering yet.

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