Rural voices are not being listened to early enough when decisions are taken in Whitehall and this is compounding the pressure on communities as they grapple with changing times in the countryside, campaigners have told a parliamentary inquiry.
Peers were told that the ‘rural proofing’ of government policy was not accountable or transparent enough and that policy decisions often leave rural communities feeling ignored.
Countryside areas are also being neglected by too many “urban focussed” local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) at a time when innovative solutions are needed to make small rural communities more sustainable and ease the pressure on “fatigued” community volunteers, the panel of rural advocates said.
Dr Alan Smith, president of the Rural Coalition and the Bishop of St Albans, told the House of Lords Select Committee on the rural economy, that organisations like his would love to be involved in Whitehall policy formulation far earlier in the process.
“It feels like by the time we are having discussions, a huge amount of work has already been done,” he said.
Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, cited the Offensive Weapons Bill, currently going through Parliament, as an example of a lack of rural proofing.
He said the proposal to end postal delivery of knives will impact deer stalkers who use knives for their work, plus small manufacturers who rely on postal orders.
Mr Bonner added that the needs of rural communities are often an afterthought, saying: “We have to understand we are talking about one-fifth of the population, a quarter of all registered businesses, 16 per cent of the English economy based in rural areas and yet there is clearly a feeling among our own members that they are very much second, third, fourth in terms of the way government departments are thinking,” he said.
The Rural Coalition suggested that government departments and public bodies should report annually on their rural proofing activities so that the process is far more transparent.
Graham Biggs, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, labelled rural proofing “a busted flush” and criticised the Government’s planning policy for excluding the need for affordable housing as part of new developments of 10 houses or less.
As reported in The Yorkshire Post’s Dales in Crisis series earlier this year, younger families are being driven out of smaller rural communities due to a combination of a lack of affordable homes, patchy broadband and mobile phone coverage, dwindling services and low paid jobs.
Some rural communities have rallied against the closures of village high street shops and pubs by launching community takeovers, but Margaret Clark, the Rural Coalition’s chairwoman, suggested there was a growing sense of “volunteer fatigue”.
“Communities are taking control so I do think the rolling value of the community owned or run business is very important, but there needs to be an infrastructure to support that,” she said.
“There is volunteer fatigue frankly in a lot of rural communities, it is the same people running everything and I think they need some support. It’s not easy but there is money around for projects to fund the pub, the shop, those things – it’s about putting support networks in place so they can learn from good practice.”
Dr Smith suggested this support could come from the ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England) charity but that it may now have come to a point where some services are simply no longer sustainable.
He said: “We have to face the fact that in today’s world, that in some particularly remote areas, we have too much public infrastructure in terms of buildings that quite a limited number of people are trying to maintain, and I think we need to help local solutions for different places... we have got to start to getting people to rationalise.”
David Fursdon, a former president of the Country Land and Business Association, told the hearing that he foresees more rural districts adopting a “hub and spoke” model, whereby services are consolidated in the local market town.
“I probably see a hub and spoke development because no one is able to afford to provide the services in all the places they used to be,” he said.
Many LEPs, meanwhile, are not doing enough to channel financial support to rural areas, according to Ms Clark, who said: “On the whole they are too urban focussed, they focus on the big development projects where they can get a big hit.
“I think they should be required to demonstrate what they are doing in their rural parts and they should have rural board members, it shouldn’t be an add on.”
The committee’s inquiry continues and it is expected to report its findings to the Government in the spring.
Britain’s new agricultural policy needs to recognise the strong link between farming and rural communities, Tim Bonner said.
The Countryside Alliance chief called for the Agriculture Bill to include specific financial support for sustaining upland landscapes and communities.
Sarah Lee, the campaign group’s head of policy, added that more must be done to make land-based employment such as farming, forestry and shooting, attractive to young people.
The Government will respond to the Lords’ committee’s report when it is published in the new year.