In a scathing report published today, peers call for the rural affairs brief to be stripped from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and given to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for communities as a whole.
The move has been recommended because of the “consistent failure” to prioritise rural affairs in Defra’s remit, as peers claimed that Defra’s focus is consumed by its work on agriculture and the environment, which will only intensify as a result of Brexit.
The Committee also accuses Defra of being ineffective at ensuring policies formulated across government are “rural proofed” and suggests this work would be better led by the Cabinet Office.
The report goes on to claim that Whitehall understanding of rural society has “significantly weakened” due to the abolition of independent bodies such as the Commission for Rural Communities in 2013 and the loss of its research. As a result, policies fail to account for negative impacts on rural communities, the report by the Lords Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 found.
The report adds that the Commission’s loss and, later, the loss of its replacement unit at Defra, plus the closure of regional development agencies, had diminished government focus on rural England’s economic potential.
Baron Ewen Cameron of Dillington, the report committee’s chairman, said: “The Government is failing to take proper account of the needs of rural communities. Departmental decisions and policies continue to demonstrate a lack of rural understanding among Whitehall policy makers.”
Rather than a departmental restructure, Baroness Anne McIntosh of Pickering called for the appointment of a rural champion to work across government.
She said: “In a way, where the rural affairs remit sits is irrelevant. What is missing is a rural champion for rural areas. Government of various persuasions don’t seem to understand the barriers or the value of providing services in rural areas.”
Dorothy Fairburn, director of the Country Land and Business Association in the North, agreed that communities would benefit from a rural champion at government level.
She said: “The Committee is right to highlight the impact of the loss of key agencies and the focus central government puts on rural economic and community issues. More can be done and the restructuring that Brexit requires is an opportunity to achieve this.
“Where the responsibility sits within Whitehall departments is less important than there being a dedicated Minister to focus on championing rural affairs across government. We are committed to working with the Ministerial team to improve decision making on key issues from housing, to business growth and delivering rural connectivity.”
Jules Marley, spokesperson for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) in North Yorkshire, added: “CPRE North Yorkshire welcomes the Committee’s report into the needs of rural areas – more must and has to be done to ensure that the needs of rural communities are championed.
“The focus should be on positive solutions – and while there is definitely a need to raise the profile of rural issues, we do not think it would be helpful for ‘rural affairs’ to become part of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. We really must focus on how Government can ensure that Defra can be a stronger champion for the countryside.”
A spokesperson for the Government said: “Whether it is developing a new agricultural system outside the EU or safeguarding our countryside, the needs of our rural communities sit at the heart of everything we do.
“We are continuing to champion rural affairs across government, driving forward high-speed broadband in the most hard to reach areas, increasing housing availability and supporting the creation of more than 6,000 jobs through our dedicated fund for rural businesses.”
The government will be setting out a formal response to the House of Lords report in due course, the spokesperson added.
WILDLIFE ROLE ‘UNDERMINED’
The Lords’ report calls for Natural England to be properly funded, saying it has lost its independence and influence, and that severe budget cuts mean its work is now limited.
In taking evidence for their report, peers heard that 56 percent of UK wildlife species had declined between 1970 and 2013.
Lord Cameron of Dillington said: “Natural England’s status has been diluted and weakened over recent years, so that it now struggles to perform all of its key functions.
“The Government needs to act now, before our natural environment, protected species and cherished landscapes suffer further damage.”
CPRE’s Mrs Marley added: “It is vital that Natural England can be a strong voice to promote access to the countryside and to enhance our precious landscapes. The Government’s new 25-year Environment Plan has many commitments whose success relies on a well-resourced Natural England.”
And Baroness McIntosh said she would support Natural England having powers to advise farmers and others on how to improve biodiversity through countryside stewardship schemes and other means.
“Farmers frequently say to me there is no-one there to advise them but the Rural Payments Agency is very quick to say when they have made a mistake,” she said.