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The countryside at a crossroads: Is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 still fit for purpose?

The House of Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 has published its report.

Twelve years have passed since the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act received Royal Assent in March 2006. The Act introduced major structural changes, abolishing the Countryside Agency and English Nature and transferring many of their functions to a new body, Natural England, which was charged with conserving, enhancing and managing the natural environment. The Act also sought to promote the interests of rural areas by establishing an independent Commission for Rural Communities (CRC).

Since 2006 many of these provisions have been hollowed out. The CRC, which performed an important role as an advocate for rural England, has been abolished, and was replaced by a unit within Defra—the Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU)—which has itself subsequently been abolished.

The loss of the CRC has diminished the Government's understanding of rural society, rural economies and rural communities. The loss of the CRC's independent research capacity is of particular concern.

Most of the NERC Act's provisions pertaining to rural communities have now been annulled. This has had a profound negative impact upon the way in which the Government handles rural needs, and has diminished focus on the economic potential of rural areas, to the cost of us all. This has been compounded further by the consistent failure to prioritise the 'rural affairs' element of the departmental remit of Defra.

The focus of the department has been consumed by its important work on agriculture and the environment, with a lack of emphasis placed upon the needs of rural communities as a whole and the wider, non-land based, rural economy.

The Act gave Natural England a broad remit, including the promotion of nature conservation, protection of biodiversity, conservation of the landscape and promotion of public access to the countryside. To deliver against this remit requires adequate resources and a good degree of independence from Government. Natural England currently enjoys neither of these essential prerequisites and has been subjected to severe budget cuts.

We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities.

The ongoing loss of biodiversity is one concerning trend that has not changed since 2006, which is in part a reflection of the failure of the biodiversity duty, and of Natural England. We believe that the duty is ineffective as it stands, as a result of limited awareness and understanding among public bodies, weak wording and the lack of clear reporting requirements and enforcement measures. We recommend that the NERC Act should be amended in order to add a reporting requirement to the duty; the Government should also consider strengthening the wording.

The Government recently published a 25 year environment plan—A Green Future—which places an emphasis on natural capital. We welcome the prospect of further work to explore the role that the natural capital approach can play in supporting our natural environment and biodiversity.

Natural capital represents just one part of a wider set of changes that will profoundly alter the way in which we understand, approach and seek to manage our natural environment. The context that shaped the NERC Act 2006 no longer applies, and Brexit will bring further significant changes. We welcome the Government's decision to create a new environmental body to hold it to account following Brexit, taking on some of the roles currently performed by the European Commission. This body must be independent from the Government; this independence should be safeguarded by making the body accountable to Parliament and providing finance from more than one Government department.

Our overall vision is for balanced protection and promotion of the natural environment and a reversal of the biodiversity decline. This must be coupled with better recognition of the potential of rural communities and the rural economy, and a greater effort from the Government to ensure that policy changes do not work to the detriment of rural areas.
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House of Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006
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