At midday on the day after the election, Jack Straw was still talking to officials in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) about his impending arrival as secretary of state. By midnight, the department no longer existed and Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary. With the swiftness possible only in the immediate aftermath of an election, Britain’s environment ministry had undergone the most radical reconfiguration in the 30 years since it was first created.
The surprise was complete. A version of the new arrangement had been canvassed prior to the election, but was mainly interpreted as Michael Meacher attempting to mark a cabinet seat for himself and was heavily sat upon by John Prescott, who wanted the DETR kept together. He was not consulted about the new plan. Thus the strange and sudden birth of the new Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Margaret Beckett, the secretary of state, will have to work hard to convince the world that the new department is something more than a rebadged Ministry of Agriculture. In effect, the police force has been sold to the Mafia, an odd thing to do when a government’s environmental credentials are already in some doubt.
Take the planning policy guidance notes, which were crucial to the old DETR’s environment and sustainable development objectives. They set out, in some detail, the matters to be considered by planning officers in determining planning applications. The Sustainable Development Unit will now be in Defra, while planning remains with transport and housing in the new Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. In the theory of joined-up government, this should make no difference. In practice, it will mean that the environmental and sustainable development input into planning guidance will come too late and be too weak.
Couple this with the leaked ambition of the new planning team to “streamline” the public inquiry process, and it is hard to avoid the impression that the government plans to unleash on the nation an avalanche of unchecked development.
The reason planning inquiries into major projects take so long is that the issues and interests involved are highly complex and hotly contested. There is a strong case for finding new and less time-consuming ways to involve and engage people in decisions that affect the quality of their lives. But the line between achieving this goal and depriving the public of a fair say is a thin one – and easily crossed by a government that has yet to acquire a reputation for persuasiveness.
A failure here has the potential to generate a whole series of Gothenburg-scale protests, led not so much by anarchists as by an outraged English middle class. If the opposition parties notice that rampant concrete-pouring in the south of the country is a product of decisions made by ministers who predominantly represent areas in Scotland and the north of England, the political consequences might be devastating.
Environmentalists had learnt to loathe the Ministry of Agriculture long before BSE and foot-and-mouth disease led the public at large to share their feelings. The ministry’s 50-year failure even to consider, let alone to protect, the environment is measured all too precisely in the still-falling numbers of farmland birds, the lost miles of hedgerows, and the huge increase in the pesticide and fertiliser burden on our rivers and estuaries.
The prospect of environment policy becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of such a deeply distrusted department has dismayed environmentalists both inside and outside Whitehall. To lose the political clout of having the Deputy Prime Minister as your spokesperson and the policy traction of being brigaded with transport, planning and local government is bad enough, but to be embedded in an alien and largely hostile department is to compound the insult. And whatever happened to the central lesson of BSE and foot-and-mouth: that the promoter and the regulator must be clearly separated?
Nevertheless, here is the chance for Beckett to make a difference. There are nearly 10,000 officials in the Ministry of Agriculture. Importing a few hundred environment officials may be the catalyst that transforms the ministry into a modern manager of our rural resources, but you do not have to be an expert on institutional culture change to feel that it is more likely that they will be swamped by the existing, discredited and demoralised majority. It will all depend on how well they are led.
Beckett starts with some advantages. Meacher, inherited from the DETR, has been a consistent and credible champion of the environment. Elliot Morley, the parliamentary secretary inherited from the Ministry of Agriculture, has shown a better grasp than any of his recent predecessors of the need to manage fisheries sustainably. The recently appointed permanent secretary is no hostage of the ministry’s former agenda.
If Beckett can keep the wider environmental picture in mind while coping with the endless rounds of Common Agricultural Policy negotiations, and if she can strike a better balance between production and protection, she will demonstrate that joined-up government really is possible – even if somewhat accidentally.
Tom Burke is a former special adviser at the Department of the Environment