Following the general election, the Labour Party announced a complete overhaul of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), which has ceased to exist, and the creation of a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on 9 June, headed by veteran party stalwart and former Leader of the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett. The department will take on the DETR’s environment, rural development, countryside, wildlife and sustainable development briefs as well as taking over responsibility for agriculture and the food industry from the former Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which has been abolished, following widespread condemnation over handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

DEFRA will also take on responsibility for animal welfare and hunting from the Home Office and will sponsor the Environment Agency, the Countryside Agency, and English Nature. Michael Meacher keeps his DETR position as Environment Minister while Former Welsh First Minister Alun Michael becomes Minister for Rural Affairs.

“This new department will play a vital role in taking forward the Government’s agenda for its second term,” Beckett commented upon taking up her new role. “It will adopt a truly joined-up approach to all aspects of our environment to ensure a high quality of life, vibrant and sustainable rural communities and a food chain that works together to meet the changing demands of consumers.”

Almost a week after the announcement, however, further details were unavailable from DEFRA, although the changes mean that certain former DETR responsibilities, such as transport, special planning and waste and recycling are now the responsibility of a newly-created Department for Transport, Local Government & the Regions (DTLR), headed by former Trade and Industry Secretary, Stephen Byers. Although transport had only been linked departmentally to the environment since 1997, planning has traditionally housed in the same department.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has left his post as senior environment minister, though he has retained responsibility for the Kyoto Protocol, which he has championed since it was signed in 1997.

However, environmentalists have voiced concerns over the Whitehall changes. “This new structure raises vital questions about this Government’s approach to environmental issues,” said Friends of the Earth’s (FOE) UK Executive Director Charles Secrett. “How can planning decisions be green if they are no longer taken by the environment department? Will the new transport department blithely give the go ahead for damaging new road schemes and uncontrolled airport growth? Are we about to see a pro-nuclear U-turn over MOX?”

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