Countryside Alliance Chief Executive, Tim Bonner, told members of a House of Lords Select Committee that the Government needs to do more to engage with rural communities and implement ‘rural proofing’ to ensure that policies are effective in all parts of the country, not just towns and cities.
Giving evidence on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which established Natural England and the Commission for Rural Communities, Tim said that the countryside was more than just an iconic asset but a place where people lived and worked.
Tim said that the Countryside Alliance had welcomed the creation of the Commission for Rural Communities but had raised concerns about the Commission’s commitment to represent rather than work with rural communities. Rural proofing had not been as successful as it might have been because the Commission had had no power to hold Government to account and no department had been obligated to consult it. He also said that the Commission had more often stood in the way of direct discussion with Defra.
The Commission was abolished in 2013 and since then the role of rural advocacy has been the responsibility of a ‘Rural Ambassador’ within Defra but Tim expressed concerns about the Department’s time to be able to prioritise this when there are so many other issues which Defra has to handle. Tim said it was of great concern that policies on housing, environment, broadband, and agriculture were being developed in isolation. He used the example of the Government’s 25 year plan for the environment, food and farming, and said he was concerned that there was nothing on the economic and social issues facing rural communities.
Tim suggested an annual report was needed on the rural proofing performance of government departments and the state of the countryside, which should be debated in Parliament to hold government departments that are failing rural communities to account. He also said he would like to see the role of Rural Ambassador being a non-political appointment where they can be a strong, objective voice for rural communities across government.
The evidence session also provided the opportunity to discuss some of the issues facing rural communities at present. Tim said that access to services remained a major problem and there was massive frustration about the inability to provide universal connectivity for broadband and mobile. He acknowledged that Brexit would be front and centre of the work of this Parliament and outlined some of the most important objectives for our new relationship with Europe, such as maintaining tariff-free trade and developing a better agricultural policy. He highlighted the lack of formal arrangements for consulting rural communities during the negotiations with the EU and the confusion about whether this was the responsibility of Defra or the Department for Exiting the EU, and said this was another reason for the Government to improve its rural advocacy arrangements.
Commenting on the evidence session, Tim Bonner said: “It was a good session, the Peers were very engaged and I look forward to seeing the final report which will hopefully contain some strong recommendations for the Government”.
To watch a video of Tim Bonner giving his summary of the inquiry please click here.