The decline of Defra

New Environment Secretary Liz Truss is leading a department with excellent officials but in need of a confidence boost, says Matthew Farrow.

A couple of years ago I was at a meeting with Caroline Spelman, then Secretary of State of the Environment.  She explained that the night before she had baked a cake to bring in as part of celebrations to mark the tenth anniversary of the formation of Defra.  To my mind though the now 13 years that Defra has been in existence has seen a slow but steady decline in the power and influence of the department, which for someone like me who is a strong believer in the need for environmental protection is a cause for concern.

Ironically, the birth of Defra which Caroline Spelman’s cake was celebrating was the result of previous failure.  The new Blair government had created a super department for Environment, Transport and the Regions in a well-intentioned attempt at joined up government (plus the need to give John Prescott a fiefdom befitting his status as Deputy Prime Minister).  The experiment wasn’t a success, (though it did mark the start of the current political enthusiasm with infrastructure in the form of Prescott’s Ten Year Transport Plan).

"Defra has seen a slow but steady decline in the power and influence of the department, which for someone like me who is a strong believer in the need for environmental protection is a cause for concern."

After the 2001 Election, DETR was broken up with the environment, agriculture and rural affairs part rebadged as Defra.  The high point of the Department was 2006-7, when the brief supremacy of climate change as a political issue and David Miliband’s drive in his first Secretary of State position gave it real power.  Defra officials drafted the Climate Change Act, a world-leading piece of legislation that set binding national carbon budgets and was voted into existence by one of the largest parliamentary majorities for a single Act of recent times.

Ever since though, Defra has been in decline.  The causes are many and varied.  The first blow was the removal of its climate change responsibilities in 2007 as these were combined with DTI’s energy section in the new Department for Energy and Climate Change.   

The change from Gordon Brown to David Cameron saw Spelman appointed as environment secretary.  She miscalculated in trying to build credit for Defra with the Treasury by offering significant spending cuts and settling early in the post Election spending round.  Unfortunately for Defra several other Departments whose Ministers dug their heels in got away with lighter cuts, while Defra staff cuts saw much of the department’s expertise disappear.

There followed the forestry debacle.  I was told at the time that this was the result of No 10 pushing Defra for an eye-catching initiative to be announced to fit in with Downing Street timescales, and the Department offering the forestry sell off when they had not finished working on the detail and looking at the implications.  The result was public outrage and an embarrassing u-turn which sealed Spelman’s fate.  This was followed by the badger cull controversy and the floods, leaving Defra ministers permanently in reactive mode.

Defra has also seen far much more ministerial change since 2010 than most departments. Liz Truss, appointed this week, is the third environment secretary in that time, while Dan Rogerson is the fourth waste minister since 2011.   The Ministers I’ve known I the department have been hard working and committed, but often come and go before they have really grappled with the complex issues the Department is responsible for.

The problem now is that these trends gather their own momentum.  If a department is seen as lacking influence, political heavy hitters are reluctant to be posted there, and businesses for whom it is their sponsoring department start to look enviously elsewhere (for example many of the waste and recycling firms in EIC membership see a strong case for waste management/resource efficiency to be under BIS control).

Can this decline be reversed?  Despite the staff cuts many of the officials that remain are excellent.  It should be possible to strike a balance between robustly defending environmental interests while working constructively across Whitehall, eg with Treasury on green taxes, with DCLG on planning and brownfield issues, with DfT on air quality, with BIS on the economic opportunities of better resource management.  And while Liz Truss has not shown previous interest in environmental issues as far as I know and may not retain the job post election, but she does offer the chance for a fresh start.  EIC will do what we can to support her.

Matthew Farrow is executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission. EIC is the leading trade body for the environmental industry.