Michael Gove says Whitehall focus on rural interests is getting better

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has said he cannot recall a time when past governments championed rural issues effectively as he defended the current administration’s ability to “rural proof” policies.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has defended the Government's focus on rural proofing Whitehall policy. Picture by Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire.

And while he said that Whitehall must get better at ensuring policies properly assess the impact on rural communities, he questioned whether the introduction of a rural strategy would help.

The Minister gave evidence to the House of Lord’s Rural Economy Committee earlier today and was told by peers that it had been repeatedly relayed to them at earlier hearings that the rural voice had been lost in government policy development. Mr Gove responded: “To say that it’s been lost implies that it was once strong. My view is that it hasn’t been as strong as it should be for some time and it needs to be stronger.”

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He added: “The difficulty is pointing to a time when rural interests were really effectively championed in government in the way that all of us would want.

“We can and should be better but I can’t think of a particular point, looking back at past governments, when one can say those were the moments and those were the institutions that really understood and ensured an appropriate weight for the interests of the countryside.

“Things are changing now and we need to do more,” he said, explaining that there was now a senior Whitehall official at 14 different government departments who is responsible for liaising directly with his own department, Defra.

In drawing up planned policies for agriculture post-Brexit, some in farming have criticised Mr Gove over a perceived emphasis on an environmental agenda over profitable food production.

At today’s hearing, Mr Gove praised the “passion” shown by lobbyists of varying view points, including wildlife campaigners Chris Packham and Sir David Attenborough, and Countryside Alliance chief Tim Bonner.

Mr Gove said: “One of the things I think we need to do is to recognise that there are a multiplicity of organisations that speak for different parts of rural life.

“They don’t always coincide. We have to balance them all.”

Mr Gove said there are reasons to be optimistic about the rural economy, pointing out that just 13 per cent of people work in rural Britain but they generate 16 per cent of the nation’s GVA.

The Minister also acknowledged that the provision of affordable housing, transport and broadband were ongoing challenges for the Government to help address.

Other priorities are improving skills among the rural population and driving up levels of ambition in some rural schools, he said.

The committee asked Mr Gove if he would support a rural strategy to be drawn up to focus policy makers across government.

On the potential value of any such strategy, Mr Gove said: “I think it’s an open question.”

He went on to question whether a single strategy would do justice to the diverse nature of the rural economy and said that the needs of some rural areas are not the same as in others.

On his vision for rural Britain in 20 years’ time, Mr Gove said the countryside must retain its “leading position” in food production and that people who live in rural areas should be helped to maintain the “ties that bind” them.