The problem is simple: all sorts of policies that might seem sensible from an urban perspective can have a very different impact on rural communities – and also coastal towns. From public transport to broadband, from postal services to petrol prices, decisions Ministers make across government departments can have a radically different effect on rural areas than on urban ones.
The reality is that a high proportion of the UK’s population lives in towns and cities and that proportion is only growing. The needs of rural communities are, therefore, not the first priority of many politicians.
Tony Blair’s government became sensitive to this when a broad coalition of rural interests became concerned about the Labour Party’s obsession with hunting, whilst showing little interest in the concerns of rural people themselves.
Large scale demonstrations in London, which saw much of rural Yorkshire head to the capital, reinforced the message that all was not well in the relationship between the Government and rural communities.
The response, in 2000, was a formal commitment for the Government to undertake systematic procedures to ensure that all of its policies, programmes and initiatives, nationally and regionally, take account of rural circumstances and needs.
This became known as ‘rural proofing’. The theory was that policy makers should consider whether their policy was likely to have a different impact in rural areas, make a proper assessment of those impacts, and adjust the policy, where necessary, with solutions.
Like all government commitments, however, the key is delivery and the history of ‘rural proofing’ proves again that the best ideas will be strangled by bureaucracy if they are not applied consistently and with authority.
Since 2000 three different bodies have had responsibility for delivering rural proofing: the Countryside Agency, the Commission for Rural Communities and now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The first two no longer exist and the latter, with the best will in the world, has little impact on the development of policy in other government departments.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, government has continued to implement policies that have a partial and damaging impact on rural communities. A classic example is the drive to move government services, from tax returns to farm payments, online. From the warmth of the Treasury, with its superfast broadband, it may seem ridiculous that anyone would not want to do their self-assessment online. It is a very different story, however, if you live in one of the many rural or coastal areas where fibre is still a foodstuff and broadband speeds are glacial.
Last year a House of Lords Committee considered rural proofing as part of a review of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act. The Countryside Alliance argued that the current model was not working and that the only place anyone can have a proper view of policy development across all departments is in the Cabinet Office which is essentially the hub of government.
If rural proofing is to have any chance of working, the responsibility for delivering it must sit in the Cabinet Office with a full view of policy development across government and with the ability to influence all departments that are developing policies which may have a differential impact on rural communities.
In our view, this is something that Ministers should welcome. If rural proofing works properly, it will head off potential clashes ensuring the interests of people in the countryside are properly understood and avoid any last minute policy U-turns.
It seems obvious to us that giving rural communities an independent champion in the place where policy is being developed would be of benefit to the countryside and the Government. With the best will in the world, those who have had responsibility for trying to implement rural proofing in the past have simply not been in a position to deliver it. When the Committee published its report recently, it recommended “that responsibility for promoting and embedding rural proofing across all Government departments should be clearly assigned to the Cabinet Office, within a single purpose unit with the necessary resources and breadth of experience required to exert influence on all departments”.
The Committee also recommends that responsibility for rural affairs should be transferred from Defra to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. It argues that Defra is predominantly focused upon the important environment, agriculture and food elements of its remit and that the interests of rural communities would be better served by the government department that is responsible for communities as a whole.
We do not believe, however, that wherever responsibility for rural communities lies the attitude of the Government as a whole will fundamentally change until there is a strong voice for rural people at the heart of policy making. Shuffling deckchairs will not suffice. We need someone at the wheel capable of steering around the icebergs.
Tim Bonner is chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.