The Government’s latest statement on all things rural was released today; within days of new ministers sweeping into Defra HQ and hours of the Monday morning staff dutifully setting out chairs in the Nobel House atrium for departmental teams to hear about ‘the way ahead’ from the new Secretary of State. At the time of writing, (Thursday morning), we in the world outside are still not fully in the picture as to which responsibilities have fallen to which of his team members.
The ministerial team is certainly in place, but as we approach the mid-point of Defra’s period of ‘conversations’ with the public and stakeholders about shaping the Government’s response to the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry, we are still unsure of who is picking up the reins, or who will front up the much promised (but not as yet scheduled) National Forestry Stakeholder Forum event(s).
But, back to yesterday’s Rural Statement. It addresses some important issues and opportunities but makes no real mention of the natural environment, other than in the penultimate paragraph; something along the lines of ‘yes, we know we left it out, but today we are focusing on the economy and communities’. This is an unfortunate and probably unhelpful distinction. It is the massive and diverse asset base that makes up the natural environment that underpins much of the economic and social structure of rural areas – and making the most of those assets is of interest across many parts of Whitehall, well beyond the defining lines drawn by Defra.
Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to the widely welcomed and well received recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry’s final report to Government – or at least the Government’s commitment to respond. The Panel’s report seemed to chime so well with the Government’s desire to see growth in green, sustainable, rural businesses and investment in our natural capital – safeguarding the vital soil, water and natural processes that underpin all of our rural fabric.
Welcome though it is that the Statement recognises rural affairs as the responsibility of all Government departments not just Defra, it’s not what the Statement says that is the problem; it’s what it fails to say. At this stage it’s difficult to know if this emphasis represents the considered view of the ‘new team’ or something that was simply waiting in the out tray and has been hurried out the door a little too promptly.
Austin Brady, Head of Conservation