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Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act

The Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act received Royal Assent on 30 March 2006. The Act was first introduced as the NERC Bill in the House of Commons on 19 May and to the House of Lords on 12 October.

The Act will, among other measures, create a new integrated agency - Natural England - to act as a powerful champion for the natural environment, and formally establish a Commission for Rural Communities which will be a strong national rural adviser, advocate and watchdog charged with ensuring that Government policies are making a real difference on the ground in tackling rural disadvantage.


The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act is designed to help achieve a rich and diverse natural environment and thriving rural communities through modernised and simplified arrangements for delivering Government policy. The Act implements key elements of the Government’s Rural Strategy published in July 2004, and establishes flexible new structures with a strong customer focus.
The Act was published by Parliament and is accompanied by a set of explanatory notes, a Regulatory Impact Assessment and a policy statement.

The Government's response to the EFRA Committee's Report on the Rural Strategy and the draft NERC Act [Click to download Adobe Acrobat Reader] [248KB] was published on 26 May.

Hard copies of the Act and accompanying documents are available through TSO. You can order them online or via tel 0870 600 5522.

Key Elements of the Act

  • The establishment of Natural England will, for the first time ever, unite in a single organisation the responsibility for enhancing biodiversity and landscape – in rural, urban and coastal areas - with promoting access and recreation. It is about conserving and enhancing places and nature and helping people to enjoy them – taking a wider view, pursuing environmental management which encompasses access and recreation, and aiming where possible to achieve economic and social outcomes alongside conservation goals. People throughout the country will benefit from the more integrated approach offered by Natural England.
  • Formal establishment of the new Commission for Rural Communities to act as an independent advocate, adviser and watchdog for rural people, designed to ensure that the Government’s policies make a real and tangible difference to people in rural areas, especially in tackling social and economic exclusion and disadvantage.  It will be a powerful new rural advocate unhampered by delivery functions
  • The Act delivers our commitment to curtail the inappropriate use of byways by motor vehicles by putting an end to claims for motor vehicle access on the basis of historical use by horse-drawn vehicles.  Some of the worst damage is happening in our national parks, which is why we have given National Park Authorities the power to make traffic regulation orders
  • Powers for the Secretary of State to directly fund activities within Defra’s remit, as a tidying up measure following the creation of Defra and to provide maximum flexibility.
  • Powers to allow both the Secretary of State, and designated bodies, to delegate Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) functions to one another by mutual consent, to provide simple and more effective access to customers. These powers are limited so that regulatory and enforcement functions cannot be delegated to private bodies.
  • Powers to take forward the findings of a current review of levy bodies, due to report later this year.

Other Measures

The Act also contains a number of additional measures designed to help streamline delivery and simplify the legislative framework:

  • Changes to the competence, remit and constitution of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) to extend the remit of this GB body to the UK and to improve its governance arrangements.
  • Reconstitution of the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council as an independent body supported by Defra and the Scottish Executive, with a statutory remit to advise on the inland waterways generally.
  • Improving the governance arrangements for the National Parks, to implement the findings of recent reviews.
  • A small change to the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000 to define the meaning of “statutory undertaker”, currently undefined in this Act.
  • Provisions to address a small number of gaps and uncertainties which have been identified for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
  • Provisions to make eight amendments to Part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to improve wildlife protection, following a consultation exercise.
  • Extension of the CROW biodiversity duty to public bodies and statutory undertakers to ensure due regard to the conservation of biodiversity.
  • Provisions to amend the flood defence byelaw-making powers of the Environment Agency, Local Authority and Internal Drainage Board to allow them to take nature conservation into account when determining consent for flood defence works.
  • Provisions to clarify the use of mechanically propelled vehicles on public rights of way.
  • Repealing provisions for three Defra-sponsored statutory committees which have become defunct: the Hill Farming Advisory Committee and two Committees covering Food and Drink – the Consumer Committee for Great Britain and the Committee for Investigation.

Next Steps

  • Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities will also be formally established on 1 October 2006. English Nature and the Countryside Agency will be wound up on the same date.
  • Some of the Act’s provisions will be commenced before 1 October, which will allow Natural England to set up the organisation ahead of receiving its full powers when taking over from English Nature and the Countryside Agency; and to make three urgent amendments to existing legislation around National Park designation procedures, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Rights of Way.


The Government published the Rural Strategy in July 2004. This built on the evidence and recommendations in Lord Haskins’ Rural Delivery Review commissioned by the Secretary of State Margaret Beckett and published in October 2003.

The Rural Strategy set out measures to radically reform the structures and bodies needed to deliver the Government’s priorities for rural communities and the natural environment. A number of these measures require legislation.

The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill was published in draft on 10 February 2005 for scrutiny by the Environment Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee and for wider stakeholder comment. The overall response to the draft Bill was broadly favourable. The Committee’s Report (on both the Rural Strategy and the draft Bill) is available on the Parliament website.

The Bill had its Second Reading on 6 June 2005 and finished Standing Committee on 5 July. It had its Report and Third Reading on 11 October. The Bill was introduced (First Reading) in the House of Lords on 12 October and had its Second Reading on 07 November.  It completed Committee on the floor of the House on 28 February and Report on 15 March.  Third Reading was completed on 27 March and Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments on 29 March.

Further information

A set of frequently asked questions on the Act is available.
For further information please contact the Modernising Rural Delivery Communications Team:

Modernising Rural Delivery Programme
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Area 4A, Ergon House
Horseferry Road
London, SW1P 3JR
Tel: 0207 238 5899
Fax (+44) 020 7238 5865
  Page last modified: 28 April, 2006
Page published: 25 November, 2004
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