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Renewing DEFRA (again)

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IT's easy to read too much into these things but there was an air of plaintive surprise, if not quite shock, about a statement posted on defra's website on Friday last week after the Prime Minister had announced changes to his Cabinet. Under the heading ‘Gordon Brown announces changes to defra’, the statement read:

‘Gordon Brown has today made important changes to the responsibilities of defra, and to berr ]the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform[, in announcing the creation of a new Department of Energy and Climate Change [decc].

‘The new department bring [sic] together much of defra's existing climate change responsibilities with the energy component from berr, to focus on solving the challenges of climate change and energy supply.

‘Hilary Benn will continue as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while Ed Miliband has been appointed the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

‘More information about the changes is available on the No 10 website.’

The message was still there on Tuesday, with no more information added, which rather suggests that defra was still coming to terms with what was happening. There was little more to be learned from the berr website, other than that ‘the new department reflects the fact that energy policy and climate change are directly linked’, which suggests that defra might not be alone in coming to terms with the change, while the two very basic pages that made up the decc website indicated that the new department would ‘bring together much of the Climate Change Group previously housed within defra with the Energy Group from berr’. So far, so joined up.

Last week's events were not quite as dramatic as those in 2001 when, immediately after a General Election and at the height of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis, defra was born out of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (maff) and elements of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (detr). On that occasion, within 48 hours of the election, workmen were removing maff's nameplate from the entrance to its headquarters in Smith Square in London and replacing it with one that said defra while, around the corner at its offices in Page Street, they were scraping maff's logo off the windows. This time around it looks as if defra, unlike maff, will survive. However, climate change has formed an increasingly important part of defra's brief over the past couple of years and in quite what form it survives remains to be seen.

When defra was created in 2001, the Government made much of the interaction between agriculture and the environment, and the potential for synergy in merging maff with the detr. In reality, however, the marriage between the two departments has not been a comfortable one, and defra seems to have been in a state of flux ever since. Billed initially as ‘the department that deals with the essentials of life’, it subsequently adopted ‘one planet living’ as its driving theme. There are those who regret the omission of the word ‘agriculture’ from defra's title, arguing that this represented a downgrading of agriculture in the Government's list of priorities. Meanwhile, as climate change and the environment have moved up the agenda, others have argued that none of these issues can get the attention they need in a department with such a broad remit. Climate change can be linked to energy use, so there is a logic in moving it out of defra and lumping it with energy in the new department. However, it can also be expected to have a significant effect on food production and the environment. Given that climate change has become such a major part of defra's portfolio, what will be left once the decc is up and running?

defra recently ‘refreshed’ its strategy as part of an internal renewal programme and a glance through its Departmental Report for 2008* indicates just how central to its activities climate change has become. It forms the subject of one of the first main chapters of the report, and infuses many others, such as those on sustainable development, sustainable consumption and production, and securing a healthy natural environment, as well as the chapter on sustainable farming and food, of which animal health and welfare forms part. The new Secretary of State at the decc says he is ‘looking forward to … working with colleagues across government, including in particular Hilary Benn’ on climate change, so that much, too, appears to be joined up. However, a concern for defra and for those who depend on it for support must be that, now responsibility for climate change is being transferred to another department, how much of defra's budget will move with it.

The question of how best to ensure future food supplies seems to have moved back on to the Government's agenda of late, and it could be argued that the changes announced last week could bring benefits in allowing better focus on sustainable food production and related issues including animal health. So far, no-one seems to have suggested that defra should change its name to reflect these priorities, but the idea is worth considering. What seems clear is that, as climate change moves out, defra will need to rethink its strategy and start renewing itself all over again.

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