A Modernised Defra – Liz Truss announces the departmental plan

By Jackie Caine, Policy Manager

Yesterday the Environment Secretary Liz Truss gave a speech at the Institute for Government on reforms to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), explaining plans to make the department ‘more integrated, more open, more modern and more local’.

The room was packed as many were keen to see how the Minister planned to deliver Defra’s vital work with a Department that has been hit by some of the largest budget cuts in this and the previous Parliament.


Defra works with 33 agencies and public bodies, including the Forestry Commission, Natural England, advisory bodies and National Park Authorities, and the crux of  Truss’ plan is to integrate the work of these agencies, structuring their work ‘around river catchments and  landscapes’. Plans and budgets will be created at this scale for each area of the environment, rather than according to the agency or organisation.

This will be welcome news for many who advocate the ecosystem approach in decision making, and is perhaps driven by the Ministers’ recent first-hand experience of the widespread flooding late last year.

Greater integrated working across Defra is central to the reforms, but Truss stated that Defra heavyweights Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) will maintain their legal independence, something she emphasised in later questioning. They will however share some back office functions, including IT, HR and communications.


Truss rightly identified that ‘Defra touches the lives of every individual and every business in the country’, and is keen to shape more local, people orientated services. She wants individuals to have more information and tools to be able to make local level decisions. She recognised that this means having more Defra staff on the ground who are able to make decisions and resolve local issues without passing them up the line.  Many environmental issues are the responsibility of local authorities, and linking these up with the Defra plan and NE and EA activities at the catchment area may be difficult. Truss recognised this issue and said that Defra’s plan should enable other organisations, such as local government authorities, to work with them more effectively.


Perhaps the most relevant announcement for ecologists is that of the new ‘Environment Analysis Unit’, which will bring soil, water, biodiversity, flooding and farming data together. The integration of soil health alongside other environmental factors in decision-making  was something the BES were keen to highlight in our recent Soil Health inquiry response, and we hope that the Environmental Analysis Unit will have real impact on the way the environment is incorporated into land use and planning decisions.

The Minister is keen on open data, stating Defra will release 8,000 datasets by June. They are also increasing capital investment by 12% resulting in a 30% increase in investment in IT, science and facilities.

Good news?

The Minister was optimistic and enthused about the work of Defra, and many will welcome the more joined up, landscape approach to Defra’s work. This is of course one way to do more with less money, but it also makes sense to join up Defra functions as much as possible.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, with Truss admitting that it will take years for many of these processes to be put in place, and that a department never really stops reforming if it is to keep up with the modern world.

The Minister’s plan is set against a background of boosting productivity, wanting to drive competitiveness and ‘minimis[e] the burdens of regulation’. She would not be led on questioning about the forthcoming EU referendum and what this may mean for environmental regulation in the UK.

And what about the 25 year plan?

We’ve welcomed Defra’s 25 year plan for the environment (and a separate one for food and farming), but information on this has been thin so far. Truss stated that Defra will launch a framework for the environment plan in the spring, with the final results expected at the end of the year. They will be using a platform called ‘Dialogue’, a live discussion app that enables contributors to have their say. The Minister has said that the area plans and budgets will be integrated with the framework for the 25 year plan for the environment, and the governance reforms will make it  easier ‘to bring in talents and finances from other organisations’. Truss didn’t mention integration of the 25 year plan for the environment with the plan for food and farming, but we hope with this renewed focus on joined up activity, that this will be on the cards.

Stay informed

The BES will be keeping a close eye on how Defra implements this reform, and we will be in touch with members to ensure that ecologists have a say in the 25 year plan for the environment. For the full speech text see the Defra website, follow tweets at  #truss and hear the Minister speak further about the work of Defra at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s recent inquiry.