Rural areas denied ‘crucial’ voice

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TROUBLED rural communities risk being neglected if they are stripped of an independent voice in Whitehall, according to the countryside champion the Government wants to axe.

The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) has warned Ministers that under their plans the needs of the countryside face being “disregarded”.

A newly strengthened rural policy unit within Whitehall will not be independent enough to challenge Government policies and the need to tackle long-standing problems could fall down the agenda as Ministers respond to more urgent political issues, the commission added.

Ministers insist their plans to scrap the commission and rely on Ministers’ rural backgrounds and the expertise of the policy unit are more cost-effective and will ensure rural issues remain at the top of the agenda, but there has been cross-party support to maintain an independent voice.

The commission, chaired by Stuart Burgess, who also held the title of Rural Advocate until it was abolished by the coalition, made its comments in a formal consultation by the Government into its closure.

Established by Tony Blair to speak up on rural issues, it has already been reduced to a skeleton staff since the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced its plans to scrap it, but officials have suggested the Government could keep a streamlined body for just £300,000 a year.

“The CRC is doubtful that civil servants, reporting directly to Ministers, will feel confident in advising Ministers of issues at odds with existing Government thinking, and we fear that the needs of disadvantaged rural communities could be disregarded by certain policies,” its submission said.

It added that it believes there is still a role for a “small, independent body to provide an objective ‘watchdog’ view of developing policy across Government relating to rural communities”, with the ability to watch out for emerging issues and make recommendations to Ministers.

“Such an advisory body could access external expertise and advice as necessary and, importantly, being external to Government it could enable different perspectives to be brought into the open, including from differing parts of the country,” it said. “That is harder to replicate within government.”

During its existence, the commission has produced a string of important reports and championed the need for affordable housing to keep rural communities alive as well as the crucial need for broadband.

During the recession, it produced regular reports for then-Environment Secretary Hilary Benn on the impact of the downturn on rural areas.

Labour unsuccessfully sought to save the commission in a Commons vote, while Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Andrew George has also backed the need for an independent voice on rural issues.

While it may be unsurprising that a body planned for abolition has defended its record, the strength of some of its comments about the impact of its intended abolition are striking.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We want to make rural areas even better places to live and work and are delivering initiatives worth £165m to boost the rural economy.

“Defra is best placed to champion the interests of rural communities across government.

“Ministers receive expert advice from the Rural Communities Policy Unit and have invited rural community and business leaders to share their local priorities, issues and concerns, through new Rural and Farming Networks.”

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