I would like to thank Defra’s Civil Society Advisory Board for organising this event and the RSA for hosting it.
As many of you know, I have four key priorities for Defra. Growing the rural economy. Improving the environment. Safeguarding both plant and animal health. Civil society has a vital role to play in helping to design and deliver the policies to achieve these goals.
As part of civil society, you have a huge geographical reach. You have a vast amount of expertise. You understand local issues and people trust you to take action. You are potentially the most powerful ally we have to deliver growth while improving the environment. I want us to work together to achieve this.
Our partnership needs to be built on openness, trust and goodwill. There are times when we could have done this better. We are paying attention. We are improving the way we work.
For example on our proposals for the nation’s forests, it was said that we did not listen or explain ourselves properly.
There will be times when we will have differing views on the best way to make progress. For these issues it’s even more important that we talk to each other. We need to understand the range of concerns so that we can make the most robust decisions.
That’s why I now insist that for all major new policies we start working with interested parties as early as possible.
On forestry, last autumn I made sure that in developing our policy we sought the expert advice of civil society. We did this through a large Forestry Summit and by involving local people in discussions about the future of their local woodlands.
The government’s Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement recognised the need to reconnect communities with their woodlands. The Forestry Commission has been working on this with civil society. This has led directly to the formation of the Woodland Social Enterprise Network, which is now taking forward development of the pilot project.
There are many other examples. On my return from Australia and New Zealand earlier in the year, I was clear that we needed to look seriously at biodiversity offsetting. To gather evidence and views we had a series of informal meetings with NGOs on both sides of the debate. I’ve also been to see pilots in the UK for myself – like Ryton Pools Country Park in Warwickshire.
As a result, we’ve just launched a green paper that is a genuine consultation. I really want to hear from a wide range of individuals and organisations. I want to get as much evidence as possible before taking a decision.
There are many examples of Defra and its network working innovatively and successfully in partnership with you. Sometimes the most effective way for government to empower you is for us to get out of your hair.
The best example of Defra employing this approach is the establishment of the Canal and River Trust in July 2012. We transferred the functions, assets and liabilities of British Waterways in England and Wales to a charitable body - the Canal & River Trust.
This gives users and communities a much greater involvement in managing their waterways, while improving their long term financial sustainability. The Trust has had a successful first year, which included the recruitment of more than 450 volunteer lock keepers, 17 community canal adoptions and over 29,000 volunteer days.
In my own constituency, I’ve seen the incredible impact that this can have. The Montgomery canal is being improved by volunteers who travel from all over the West Midlands at the weekends to restore this historic waterway.
Sometimes the focus will be on improving communication and raising awareness. An excellent example of this is the If They’re Gone campaign, which I launched in March this year. The campaign highlights the threats posed to four iconic endangered species - rhinos, elephants, orang-utans and tigers.
It involves more than 20 wildlife organisations, zoos and safari parks. It will provide the public with information on the plight of these species and give practical advice on how people’s decisions can help save these majestic animals from extinction.
Sometimes a successful partnership depends on civil society mobilising resources at the local level, for example in The Big Tree Plant. This is supporting communities to plant a million new trees, often in areas of urban deprivation.
Working with local organisations has been fundamental to the on-going success of the project. The Tree Council and others have raised significant amounts of match funding, almost double the £4 million made available from government. They have provided routes to a huge range of community groups. They have helped to ensure the grant application process remains fair and robustly monitored. Without this extensive partnership working, The Big Tree Plant simply could not have happened.
I’m particularly pleased with the way we’re working together on tackling irresponsible dog ownership. Defra funding helped the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and Battersea Cats and Dogs home to run community projects on encouraging responsible ownership. And on microchipping, these organisations are making our policy a reality by not only providing free microchipping but also using their networks to explain its value.
Last autumn the public’s contribution to the ash dieback survey was crucial to identifying diseased trees and monitoring its spread. There was an innovative use of technology to make this possible – the Chalara mobile phone app.
We want to build on this through the Observatree project. Civil society will be helping to safeguard the health of our plants. The project starts this autumn. It aims to develop an early warning system for pest and disease threats to the United Kingdom’s trees. This is a partnership between the Forestry Commission and other organisations. The Woodland Trust and National Trust will use their experience to recruit and train a network of volunteers.
Volunteers will support scientists by acting as a first line of response to reports of tree pests and diseases sent in by the public. They will screen and filter reported incidents, enabling scientists to focus on those reports of greatest significance.
This is a brilliant example of how civil society can mobilise people in an area of policy which would normally be considered the preserve of specialists.
We are building local partnerships in a variety of areas – Local Nature Partnerships, Nature Improvement Areas, and the Catchment Based Approach. This is the best way of directly involving communities in the management of their local environment.
Many of the Nature Improvement Area partnerships are led by civil society organisations, with the aim of creating an environment that is better for wildlife and people. Earlier this month I went to see this approach for myself in the Nene Valley, Northamptonshire, where 25 different organisations are working together to improve the local environment.
The catchment-based approach is being rolled out across all of England’s 89 river catchments. It will form the principle mechanism to deliver our national water quality targets. Interested parties from the local area will take part in the decision making.
Looking ahead, I want to build on our success by developing even better and more extensive partnerships. We need to change the culture of both Defra and civil society. On both sides I believe the change will be for the better, but the demands and impacts of the change need to be recognised and managed.
Our mindset should be that partnership with civil society is critical to the successful delivery of our policies. The department should consider the use of partnerships when developing new policies and programmes. They will not be applicable in all cases, but the range of delivery options should always include working with you.
This will require us to embed the spirit of the Compact, the agreement re-launched in 2010 between central government and civil society, more systematically within the department.
So, every Defra official will be sent the text of this speech with a message from Bronwyn Hill, Defra’s Permanent Secretary, underlining the importance of partnership working. Guidance on effective cooperation is being prepared by Defra’s Civil Society Advisory Board and will be shared with staff.
The Civil Society Advisory Board has been our active link with civil society since it was established in 2009. I am very grateful to the Board for the support and advice it has generously provided. In line with Cabinet Office regulations on advisory bodies the Board’s lifespan is time limited and it will be wound up in March 2014.
However, I am determined to build on the Board’s legacy. The Board is currently advising us about the form its successor body should take. I very much hope that many of you will be involved.
My aim is that Defra sets an example across Whitehall in the way it works with you. I want us to be open, innovative and efficient. The design and delivery of our policies should be transformed through partnership working at national and local levels. I want Defra to be the benchmark in government of how to work constructively with civil society.
I want us all to work together to boost the rural economy while improving the environment. This partnership working can also help safeguard our plants and animals.
Ultimately, what I want to achieve is a thriving network at local and national levels.
I am confident that by pooling our collective goodwill and creativity we can, and will, succeed.
I look forward to continuing to work with you.