Twenty years ago today the Countryside Agency was born. It brought together the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission with the aim, in the words of the then deputy prime minister John Prescott, of ‘delivering the government’s vision of a thriving, sustainable countryside’.
Indeed, the Countryside Agency is the only government agency before and since to focus on all three elements of sustainability: environment, social and economic. It embraced landscape, national parks, public rights of way, green spaces, rural deprivation, public transport, village halls, shops and services, rural proofing—and much more.
Sadly, it lasted for only seven and a half years, from 1 April 1999 to 1 October 2006. Philip Lowe from Newcastle University and I were the only two board members who served for the agency’s entire existence, being reappointed twice. During that time we had some excellent companions on the board and a lot of fun too.
A unique attribute was that the agency could develop policy from its experience on the ground and its solid research; in those days the government listened to its advisers.
The agency did well from the government’s Rural White Paper in 2000 and was given funds to run programmes benefiting rural communities and the countryside. It was a challenge to respond quickly to this windfall, but being relatively small the agency was pretty agile.
Its Vital Villages grant programme encouraged the preparation of parish plans and improvements to community and transport services. The agency was influential in the outcome of Planning Policy Statement 3 on rural housing, enabling local authorities to designate small sites for affordable homes.
The agency’s chair, Ewen Cameron, was appointed the Rural Tsar, and for a time he was able to influence government and encourage it to ‘think rural’. The agency also established criteria for rural proofing.
It researched and funded projects to address rural disadvantage, social exclusion and rural affordable housing. It promoted market towns as hubs for the wider rural areas. It pushed the idea of ‘quality parish councils’ to secure better local governance.
Projects such as Millennium Greens and its successor Doorstep Greens, and the Local Heritage Initiative (LHI) put money into communities to create lasting assets, with staff in place to advise and encourage. For Doorstep Greens, with support from the Big Lottery, we provided grants of between £10,000 and £150,000 to help communities create and manage local open space. Nearly 200 were created. LHI was part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and hundreds of local projects were created, ranging from celebrating local industrial heritage to creating oral histories; the funds were readily accessible without too much form-filling.
I was the lead board member for these initiatives and cut the ribbon at a number of launches of Millennium and Doorstep Greens. I saw communities and individuals blossom from their involvement; some of those who led the projects won a new confidence in themselves.
Of course, the agency was created just after the government had announced it would legislate for a right of access. It influenced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and then, when it became law, devised the system for mapping access land (not its greatest success as the result was that a great deal of potentially eligible land was omitted). It also championed rights of way and carried out a nationwide condition survey.
It was responsible for designating two national parks, the New Forest and South Downs, detailed work which required board members to visit various contentious sites to advise on the boundary.
I particularly enjoyed being the lead board member for the Peak District National Park, I attended many meetings there often staying at the wonderful Losehill Hall, and chaired appointment panels for the secretary of state’s nominees on the park authority. I also took part in the two-day process for appointing the chief executive, Jim Dixon, in 2003.
We had to weather foot and mouth in 2001, and advised the government on how to respond. We did not cancel our board meeting in Shap, Cumbria, on 21 March 2001 at the height of the enforced countryside closure because we wanted to set an example by putting money into the rural economy and showing we cared.
We aimed to influence behaviour too. Our Eat the View scheme (the name invented by our board member Martin Doughty) explained the connection between food, its genesis and production, supporting sustainable land management, promoting a sense of place, and encouraging people to think before they buy.
The agency was abolished in 2006 following a review by Lord Haskins, who mistakenly believed that policy and delivery should be separated—but of course there was politics too, the treasury no doubt thought the agency was getting too much money and doing Defra’s job for it. From the agency’s ashes Natural England took on the land, access and recreation aspects but could never focus on or resource them as the agency did.
The work with communities went to the Commission for Rural Communities (launched in March 2005 as ‘the new voice for England’s rural people, businesses and communities’), This struggled from lack of funding and was taken inhouse in 2011 and finally buried completely in 2013 when its excellent programmes disappeared into a black hole.
It is important not to forget all that the Countryside Agency achieved, it made things better for the countryside and its people, with its ability to experiment and influence policy across the whole rural scene. Its story is summarised in The Life and Times of the Countryside Agency, a critical commentary by James Garo Deruonian, to which I and other members of the board and staff contributed.
There is a further reorganisation of the Defra agencies in the offing but the risk is that they will be ransacked to save money. We can only hope that a future government will recognise again the good sense of bringing together environmental, social and economic factors in one body and reinvent the Countryside Agency.