Reading through the excellent CIEEM monthly policy briefing email, I noticed that Natural England Chair Andrew Sells and Environment Agency chair Sir Phillip Dilley, had recently joined the Defra Board in ex-officio capacities. Defra Board, in case you were wondering, comprises Ministers, Executive Directors (senior staff such as the Permanent Secretary) and non-exec directors. The Board is Defra’s main decision-making Board and “provides collective strategic and corporate leadership”. Apparently it also “provides advice on issues such as strategy and the deliverability of policies and scrutinises the department’s performance”.
Whether this provision of advice is separate from providing collective strategic and corporate leadership or not is unclear. Curious to read more, I searched but was unable to find a copy of the Board’s Terms of Reference; perhaps it has been lodged deep within the arcane structure of the .gov website. If anyone can send me a copy I would be most grateful.
Looking through the minutes of the latest meeting (sept 15) casts little further light on the Board; other than that it discussed the forthcoming spending review, which we now know will lead to Defra’s budget (and therefore it’s Agencies such as EA and NE) being cut by over 30% in the next four years. Analysis by RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts suggests the cuts could be as high as 57% from 2010 t0 2020. It’s certainly unusual for me to underestimate the extent to which this Government is doing environmental damage.
What was also notable was the absence of the entire Defra ministerial team from the meeting. Non-exec Directors play an important role on corporate boards and one would expect them to provide challenge and scrutiny as part of their roles on the Defra board. It is undoubtedly more difficult to challenge a Defra minister on, say, decisions to reduce the departmental budget by over a half, when they are not at the meeting. Neither were Truss or Eustice (the main Ministers) at the previous Board meeting in March.
That the two new non execs are Andrew Sells (former treasurer of Policy Exchange) and Phillip Dilley (former chairman of engineering company and environmental consultants Arup) suggests that they are not likely to provide much challenge to the current orthodoxy. While Dilley is not part of the Tory machine in the way Sells is, he was invited to join David Cameron’s Business Advice Group in 2010. On his appointment Dilley said “I am very much looking forward to helping see that the priorities of our industry are recognised at the highest levels.” No evidence of a public service ethic there then.
To think that he was rewarded for his efforts by being given a £100,000 a year (for 3 days a week) job presiding over the dismantling of the Environment Agency (and contracting out of its engineering work to companies such as Arup?), would fly in the face of the Government’s reassurances that the selection of the new EA chair was subject to “open competition”.
It does seem a tad unlikely to me that these two are going to be making any challenges to the cuts being made to Defra and the Agencies they chair.
Still, what about those other non-execs? Perhaps they will be willing to make a stand, challenge the cuts, demand some consideration of the impacts of the cuts on the Government’s ability to maintain legally binding environmental protections?
Iain Ferguson is the lead non-exec Director on Defra’s board. Ferguson was chief executive of Tate and Lyle before joining the Defra board in 2010. As well as being the largest recipient of Agricultural Subsidies in Britain for a number of years, Tate and Lyle has been a prominent corporate supporter of the Conservative Party. And just to give you a flavour of how these things work, Hume Brophy is the PR agency that does public affairs (or lobbying as its more commonly known) for Tate and Lyle. Hume Brophy’s new managing director is Robert Condon. Robert Condon used to work for Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss at another lobbying firm called The Communication Group.
Paul Rew is another Defra board non-exec. He used to be a partner at Big Six accountancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC). Another Defra non-exec director is Catherine Doran, Chief Information Officer at the newly privatised Royal Mail. Finally, Sir Tony Hawkhead is another non-exec director and he at least has experience in the sector, having been chief exec of Groundwork for 18 years. Perhaps he is a lone voice challenging what is happening within Defra.
Still, I’m sure staff at Natural England and the Environment Agency, who have already seen their teams decimated (in the broadest sense), and will see what’s left cut by a third again over the next four years, can console themselves that their Chairs will now be standing up for them at the Defra Board, where they can now contribute to the collective strategic leadership already being so clearly demonstrated.