Defra isn’t fit for pur­pose

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

SUC­CES­SIVE gov­ern­ments—labour, Coali­tion and Con­ser­va­tive—have so dec­i­mated the Ru­ral Af­fairs De­part­ment that it is no longer fit for pur­pose. No sin­gle area of its re­mit can be cov­ered prop­erly be­cause of the lack of money and hu­man re­sources. We are still wait­ing for the long-promised 25-year plan for the fu­ture of the coun­try­side; we don’t know what Defra plans to do on air pol­lu­tion and we have no idea what its post-brexit at­ti­tude to­wards agri­cul­ture and food pro­duc­tion will be. With­out any of this strate­gic work com­pleted, it’s dif­fi­cult for the de­part­ment to be held to ac­count on its dayto-day man­age­ment.

The House of Com­mons En­vi­ron­men­tal Au­dit Com­mit­tee has lam­basted Defra over one of the few strate­gic plans that it does have. As a re­sult of the hard-fought leg­is­la­tion achieved to set up Marine Con­ser­va­tion Zones, the Gov­ern­ment was sup­posed to des­ig­nate 127 sites around the coun­try—a com­mit­ment in its 2015 elec­tion man­i­festo. To date, how­ever, only 50 have been established and even th­ese are not be­ing prop­erly safe­guarded.

The com­mit­tee heard ev­i­dence from con­ser­va­tion­ists and marine sci­en­tists sug­gest­ing that the zones are largely ‘pa­per parks’. Defra has, so far, failed to face down mav­er­ick fish­er­men who are de­stroy­ing stocks with no re­gard even for their own fu­ture. Chief among the cul­prits are the scal­lop fish­ers, who use steel dredges to scrape the seabed. Their pow­er­ful trawlers can haul up to 40 of th­ese 2ft-wide dredges at a time; they leave dev­as­ta­tion be­hind them and yet Defra seems too fright­ened of the fish­ing lobby to take de­ci­sive ac­tion.

Of course, only de­ter­mined con­ser­va­tion will pro­tect the fu­ture of fish­ing. There should be hun­dreds of small boats pro­vid­ing in­come and em­ploy­ment around the coast of Bri­tain, but their fu­ture is be­ing jeop­ar­dised by the few who put im­me­di­ate profit ahead of a sus­tain­able catch. The re­ally valu­able catches of lan­goustines or scampi are in­creas­ingly threat­ened as catch­ing meth­ods de­stroy habi­tat. Some boats are even us­ing elec­tric pulses to kill Dover sole and oth­ers have dis­carded fish­ing nets, which de­stroy life on the seabed. With­out proper man­age­ment, we sim­ply can­not pro­tect and ex­tend the con­di­tions in which shell­fish thrive.

All this could change if only the zones were ef­fec­tively po­liced and strin­gent rules en­forced, but they need to be established first. If it weren’t for the dif­fi­cult des­ig­na­tion re­quire­ments cre­ated by Defra’s ex­ces­sively bu­reau­cratic de­mands, we could have all 127 zones in place by the end of this year. On cur­rent form, we’ll be well into 2019 be­fore they are com­plete and, even then, there’s not the equip­ment, staff or money nec­es­sary to man­age th­ese ar­eas prop­erly. They can only be mon­i­tored through mod­ern tech­nol­ogy: we must use drones and GPS if the pi­rates are to be de­feated. At the mo­ment, the Gov­ern­ment seems en­tirely un­will­ing to pro­vide the cash needed to ful­fil its own man­i­festo com­mit­ments.

The fail­ure to do this is par­tic­u­larly wor­ry­ing be­cause it casts doubt upon Defra’s abil­ity to take on the wider re­mit that Bri­tain’s exit from the EU will de­mand. If it can’t deal with ar­eas over which we have al­ways had ex­clu­sive con­trol, what hope is there that we will be able to have an ef­fec­tive, prop­erly po­liced re­place­ment for the Com­mon Fish­eries Pol­icy af­ter with­drawal? We’ve been com­plain­ing for years about this and it re­ally would be a tragedy if ‘tak­ing back con­trol’ made things worse. It’s cru­cial that Defra proves that it has the ca­pa­bil­ity to do its job and the Gov­ern­ment demon­strates its will­ing­ness to pay for it.

‘We must use drones and GPS if the pi­rates are to be de­feated

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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