'Rural tsar' questions ministers' willingness to fight for rural communities

LEP chairman and former 'rural tsar' Lord Haskins
LEP chairman and former 'rural tsar' Lord Haskins
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Leading Yorkshire businessman and former "rural tsar" Lord Haskins has cast doubt on ministers' commitment to defending the interests of rural communities after Brexit.

Addressing a panel of his fellow peers, the Humber LEP chairman expressed concern that the department in charge of rural policy - Defra - will not compete as "vigorously" as its rivals for a replacement to EU funding.

This followed an earlier warning that rural areas have now become "entirely" dependent on EU grants for their economic and social development.

And with local funding cuts being compounded by the Government's focus on urban devolution deals, he suggested there is an increased risk of rural needs being "neglected" at the expense of cities.

The dire appraisal came during a House of Lords select committee inquiry to assess whether the UK's rural and environmental legislation is "fit for purpose".

Today's evidence session focused on the legacy of the 2006 Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, which paved the way for the creation of Natural England and the now-disbanded Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) .

Lord Haskins led the 2003 Rural Delivery Review which is credited with influencing key parts of the 2006 Act - earning him the title of "rural tsar" to Tony Blair's Labour government.

He was quizzed alongside the former CRC chairman Dr Stuart Burgess CBE, who led the commission until it fell victim to the Coalition governments’ “bonfire of the quangos” in 2013.

Responding to questions about the impact of disbanding this rural "watchdog", both experts expressed concern about the lack of an independent advocate for rural communities in the current government

Despite praising the work of organisations like Natural England and the Environment Agency, Lord Haskins warned that any emphasis on tackling economic and social disadvantage in the countryside has been lost.

He went on to claim that central government funding for rural development has been "decimated" in recent years, with communities now "entirely" dependent on EU funding programmes such as the European Agricultural Fund.

"The Treasury is going to have to find very substantial funding to replace what is coming at the moment, and I would be concerned that Defra will not defend its priorities as vigorously as BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] in that fight," he said.

The former Northern Foods chairman also criticised the long-running squeeze on local authority budgets.

He suggested that these funding cuts, combined with the focus on devolution of powers to city regions like Manchester and Liverpool, could see "rural needs...neglected at the expense of the metro need".

Meanwhile, Dr Burgess questioned Defra's decision to draw up two 25-year strategies to cover farming and environmental policy, with no mention of the rural economy and communities.

He called for the appointment of a new independent advocate to represent rural interests, to be placed in the Cabinet Office for maximum input in Government policy.

Responding to their comments, a Defra spokesperson said: “We are determined to secure a good Brexit deal for rural communities. That is why we are making sure the right infrastructure, from broadband to transport, is in place. Just last month we announced £200m to support rural businesses.

“As we leave the EU we will work closely with rural areas to consider the best options for future support.”