INDEPENDENT experts will be invited to assess whether Government policies are hampering rural areas in an attempt to address criticism that Ministers are axing their countryside watchdog.
Environment Minister Richard Benyon promised a “robust” system would be put in place after the axing of the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) and the Government’s Rural Advocate which has led to complaints that there will be no independent voice to speak up for the countryside.
In an interview with the Yorkshire Post in response to our Give us a Fair Deal campaign, Mr Benyon said the Government wanted to make sure policies are properly “rural proofed” to ensure policies take account of rural circumstances and needs.
“When people sometimes ask me about an independent conscience, we think there’s a way forward on this,” said Mr Benyon.
“I’m in discussion with some people who will be able to give an independent analysis of rural proofing efforts across government and be able to get into departments, talk to politicians and senior officials and see what the understanding is.
“Rural proofing is a process people went through without any genuine belief it was going to make any difference whatsoever. We want it to be effective and want to be held to account.
“We won’t be creating a new quango or tsars but it will be a robust system of holding ourselves to account, but also using the expertise of a number of different people and organisations to assess how we go forwards.”
Both the CRC and the role of the Rural Advocate are being abolished as part of the Government’s drive to reduce the number of quangos and cut costs. A Rural Policy Unit has instead been created inside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), sparking criticism it will lack independence.
But Mr Benyon claimed that the fact that Defra Ministers represent rural constituencies meant rural needs would not be ignored, and also pointed to vocal campaign groups like the Countryside Alliance. A £165m drive to unleash the potential of the rural economy was launched as part of the Autumn Statement, including the creation of six rural growth networks which will act as mini Enterprise Zones in the countryside.
The Minister said rural areas had been “ignored at the heart of Government” for too long, adding: “ Those days are over.”
Give us a Fair Deal was launched earlier this year amid concern the Government is failing to live up to its pledge to tackle the North-South divide. The campaign presses the Government to address inequalities in funding and barriers to the region recovering from the economic crisis as well as urging councils and businesses in the region to rise up to the challenge.
One issue has been the lack of cash for rural areas which have often lost out to towns and cities, and next week Beverley and Holderness MP Graham Stuart will lead a group of MPs meeting David Cameron to call for him to address the issue.
“Over recent years public spending has been skewed so as to advantage urban areas and leave rural communities in the cold,” he said. “We can now make a start in putting this right.
“It is not enough for the Government to be sympathetic to rural life, it must act to change a system which is biased and unfair.
“Currently, people in rural areas earn less on average than those in cities, pay council tax which is £100 higher per head and then see government grants to urban areas 50 per cent higher than those in the countryside. The cost of delivering services in sparse, rural areas is higher than in cities and those on low incomes are peculiarly disadvantaged.”