Change your culture, DEFRA tells agency

The environment department (DEFRA) has told the Environment Agency and Natural England to cease lobbying and making policy. DEFRA has also abolished many quangos

The environment department (DEFRA) has told the Environment Agency and Natural England to “stop policymaking and lobbying activities” and “activity that government does not need to do”.

It expects them to work with each other and DEFRA’s other arm’s length bodies to eliminate duplication of activities.

And the department demands they “implement demonstrable culture change and lead on innovative new ways of working which embrace localism, big society and an improved customer focus.”

The message came in a mid-October news release as the government gave decisions following its ‘quango cull’ review. DEFRA is abolishing 53 of its 85 arm’s length bodies under scrutiny, one of the heaviest departmental culls.

Both the agency and Natural England will undergo massive change and shed thousands of staff – probably more than a quarter – as rapid and deep funding cuts  are implemented out to 2015 (see pp 5-7).

“A radical and comprehensive package of measures… will transform them into leaner, more efficient front line delivery bodies,” says DEFRA.

No one at the agency, from chairman Lord Smith downwards, would talk about the ban on policymaking and lobbying. But a spokesman said it was still discussing what this meant with DEFRA.

DEFRA minister Lord Henley said Natural England had previously campaigned against established government policy. “That’s not the job of bodies like that.”

The department announced:

  • The agency’s 14 regional advisory committees in England will be abolished. They will be replaced by “direct stake­holder engagement and partnership working at a more local level”.
  • The Environment Agency in Wales could become part of a new body being consulted on by the Welsh Assembly Government. This would also encompass the Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission in Wales.
  • A 30% cut in staff in the agency’s environment and business directorate. This was to be expected given similar cuts in its science and communications departments, which were announced back in June (ENDS Report 425, p 7).
  • The agency would lose its duties for navigation on major rivers to a new waterways charity. This, says DEFRA, will be formed from British Waterways, which will no longer be a state-owned body.
  • Changes to the agency’s responsibilities over internal drainage boards.
  • The agency’s laboratories, alongside other DEFRA laboratories, are under review.

The agency is also to merge its southern and Thames regions.

Despite months of talks between DEFRA and its arm’s length bodies, there is still a way to go in deciding how big society, localism and culture change – key ministerial ‘buzz words’ – will change things.

A letter sent by DEFRA to the agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission, outlines eight areas for increased joint working. These include joint environmental evidence programmes, more collaboration on climate adaptation, and joined up work on land management.

DEFRA has also been looking at options around transferring management of national nature reserves, either to a new stand-alone body or existing organisations such as the RSPB. Lord Henley said this was still possible, although NGOs have shown little enthusiasm.

To supplement cuts-affected income, Natural England has been looking at charging for some discretionary and statutory services. Charging for discretionary training, advice or information would be “less controversial” the body says.

DEFRA’s quango cull may be less drastic than the headline numbers of arm’s length bodies (ALBs) being abolished suggests.

Its expert advisory committees on hazardous substances, packaging and pesticides will move into DEFRA. So too will the Air Quality Expert Group, the Darwin Advisory Committee and the Pesticide Residues Committee. Similarly, Advisory Committees on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants and the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment will move inside the Department of Health.

DEFRA said this change would “improve transparency and accountability”. It would not make the advice these former ALBs gave to ministers any less public than before.

DEFRA’s Advisory Committee on Organic Standards and the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards are abolished.

The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, covering GMOs, and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee retain their ALB status. Among other survivors are the new Marine Management Organisation, the National Forest Company and all nine national parks authorities plus the Broads Authority and DEFRA’s Science Advisory Council. The Consumer Council for Water is still under review.

Over at the energy and climate department (DECC) the Renewables Advisory Board is abolished. And at transport (DfT) the Renewable Fuels Agency, the Commission for Integrated Transport and Cycling England face the same fate.