"Third sector groups can get people to change their behaviour - that's their job"

Simon Berry, chief executive of Ruralnet, is helping Defra dish out £6m to charities with green initiatives.

Simon Berry, chief executive, Ruralnet
Simon Berry, chief executive, Ruralnet

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' new Greener Living Fund - a £6m pot that will be distributed over two years - will give grants to third sector groups for projects to persuade the public to be more environmentally friendly.

Simon Berry, chief executive and founder of rural regeneration charity Ruralnet, is on a six-month secondment to Defra, but he is eager to point out that there are safeguards in place to prevent a conflict of interest when he helps allocate the grants.

"Ruralnet won't get any special treatment," he says. "It might be able to find the relevant web page on the day it's published, when it might take others longer to find it, but that's the only kind of advantage it could have - there are rules."

The fund is part of Defra's new third sector strategy, which sets out ways in which the department will work with the sector. For now, 'concept papers' - two-page proposals from voluntary sector groups on how they can bring about what the department calls behaviour change - are invited. Ten or 15 will be chosen to receive £30,000 of initial funding in order to work up their full bids in the spring.

Berry will step down from Ruralnet at the end of his secondment. Defra pays his salary, but technically he is still employed by the charity. "This was a good way to leave Ruralnet gently," he says. "I'll always be supportive of it, but in a non- interfering way."

Another of Berry's tasks at Defra is to help appoint the department's own Third Sector Advisory Board. The board will help shape policy and have its own small budget so it can commission research if it wants to, he says.

This is not Berry's first taste of working in government. He spent 12 years working for the British Aid Programme - the precursor to the Department for International Development - after studying agriculture and becoming a livestock specialist. He says DfID has changed the way it organises itself - buying in expertise from consultants rather than having its own specialists - and agrees this is becoming standard practice.

So why the need for Defra's third sector strategy? "The Government is never going to get people to change their behaviour, but third sector groups can - that's their job," says Berry. "They're trusted. To move the environmental agenda forward, Defra needs the third sector - it can't do it by itself."

But with so many environmental groups criticising Defra's policies, is this an attempt to co-opt the sector? Berry says it is not, because the department can work with such groups.

"If Defra is prepared to pay you to carry out your mission because it meets its objectives, then that makes sense," he says. "But you don't have to engage with government if you don't want to."

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