Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (RWP16)

RURAL WHITE PAPER

  1.  The prepartion of a Rural White Paper establishing a clear sense of direction and a policy framework for the future of rural England is greatly welcomed by CPRE. The Committee's early investigation of the priorities for the Rural White Paper is also welcome and provides an important opportunity to focus attention on the most important issues which need to be addressed.

  2.  CRPE's interest in the Rural White Paper is extensive and our aspirations are high. In this submission we focus attention on two key issues:

    —  the role of the White Paper in bringing a wider consensus about the importance of the countryside to the nation; and

    —  the failure to value and appreciate the benefits its beauty and diversity brings.

  3.  We also provide a very brief summary of more detailed issues which need to be addressed and a checklist of legislative requirements. Copies of CPRE's summary submissions to the Rural White Paper process so far are also enclosed.

  4.  Our submission opens with a brief analysis of the economic, social and environmental trends in rural England which should inform the Rural White Paper.

RURAL REALITIES

  5.  The economy of rural areas is generally buoyant and out-performing urban areas:

    —  rates of new firm formation are higher and levels of unemployment lower than in urban areas;

    —  the economy of rural areas is as diverse as that of urban areas and it is not possible to distinguish a separate "rural economy" in terms of the mix of economic sectors;

    —  people of working age are more economically active in rural areas;

    —  proportionately fewer people are on low incomes in rural areas.

  6.  But not everyone is benefitting from the success and the pockets of unemployment, low wages and social exclusion risk being hidden from view:

    —  absolute wage levels are lowest in some of the most rural counties

    —  severe economic difficulties and social hardship are being experienced in some sectors of farming

    —  over 40 per cent of parishes have no shop or Post Office and 75 per cent have no daily bus service.

  7.  And the special qualities of the countryside are being eroded by inappropriate development, damaging land management practices, traffic growth and the urban exodus:

    —  England has lost an area of rural tranquility almost the size of Wales since the 1960s

    —  traffic levels on country lanes could treble in some rural areas by 2030 and are rising faster than in urban areas

    —  an area of countryside the size of London has been urbanised every decade since 1945

    —  more than half of England's hedgerows have been lost since 1947 and an area of permanent grassland the size of Bedfordshire has been lost since 1992

    —  many farmland birds are in steep decline.

  8.  The Rural White Paper needs, therefore, to recognise the realities of these trends and develop a much more sensitive and fine-grained policy response. This should address the specific social and economic needs of the countryside without undermining the environmental resource on which so much else depends or encouraging further outmigration from our towns and cities or the relocation of footloose development.

A "MODERN" VISION OF RURAL ENGLAND

  9.  The Government has appeared to lack confidence when dealing with rural issues and in recent times the countryside has become a source of highly charged and polarised views about its future and its role in national life. Despite the obvious importance of the countryside to the quality of life of people living in both urban and rural areas it is far from clear where rural England fits into the Government's vision for a modern Britain. Yet, a beautiful and prosperous countryside is essential to any well rounded Government strategy for tackling social exclusion, promoting economic competitiveness and protecting and enhancing the environment.

  10.  The lack of an effective rural dimension to three key areas of policy development is apparent:

    social exclusion—rural interests have been extremely poorly represented in the Social Exclusion Unit's action teams and its "discovery" of food deserts in towns has failed to draw on the experience of isolation and lack of accessibility in rural areas in developing solutions;

    competitiveness—the Government's Competitiveness White Paper and its strategy for small businesses are virtually blind to their rural implications despite the importance of environmental quality to rural products and entrepreneurs and the relatively greater importance of small businesses in the countryside;

    community—an Urban Task Force was established to help drive forward new thinking on the Urban White Paper and the New Deal for Communities applies exclusively to urban areas. The process of policy development for urban areas has a strength and commitment which is lacking from the Rural White Paper.

  11.  This is not to suggest that there has been no progress on rural policy. The problem has been a lack of any coherent strategy or a political routemap by which to navigate. As a result new planning policies for housing; recognition of the need for stronger legislation to protect wildlife and enable better public access to the countryside; introduction of the rate relief scheme for village shops; a commitment to new National Parks and imaginative proposals to implement the Rural Development Regulation have been developed along with a host of other initiatives virtually in isolation from each other. The Government's action on rural issues lacks coherence and a senses of shared direction. It also feels out of the political mainstream. The Cabinet Office's study of rural economic issues, the England Forestry Strategy and the establishment of the Countryside Agency stand out as welcome exceptions to the lack of strategic thinking but their benefits are, as yet, unproven.

  12.  Against this background of conflict in public attitudes and a lack of coherent policy or political leadership, the Rural White Paper becomes even more significant. It is the single most important opportunity to define the role of the countryside for the nation as a whole and develop a shared vision of its future. The Rural White Paper cannot provide a blueprint or prescribe what should happen in the countryside.

  13.  The central objectives of the Rural White Paper should be to:

    —  champion the importance of the countryside for the nation as a whole; and

    —  mainstream rural policy into the Government' priorities.

  14.  To achieve these objectives it should:

    —  establish a vision for the countryside based on the primacy of a clean, healthy, diverse, attractive and locally distinctive rural environment;

    —  establish a set of principles which recognise the countryside as a living and working place as well as a valuable environmental resource:

    environment-led—environmental quality underpinning other objectives;

    sustainable development—better integration of social, economic and environmental objectives, and improved management of natural resources;

    mutually dependent—recognising that environmental quality helps support economic and social activity and vice versa and that the countryside is important to both urban and rural dwellers;

    partnership—improved working relations between stakeholders backed by firmer regulation;

    subsidiarity and public participation—to reflect rural diversity and the need for local solutions guided by a national framework;

    —  develop pragmatic approaches to achieving the Government's objectives for the countryside which are led by these principles, including through changes to the machinery of Government and better rural-proofing of decisions.

APPRECIATING THE BENEFITS

  15.  The countryside matters—to people, to business, and to the environment. Over 90 per cent of people think we have a moral duty to protect it (Countryside Commission 1996). Rural areas outperform towns and cities economically (see CPRE Change for the Better 1998). Business leaders cite environmental quality as a key influence on where they locate (see CPRE Continuity and Change 1995). 1.3 billion day visits (equivalent to everyone visiting the countryside once a fortnight) are made to the countryside each year (Countryside Agency The state of the countryside 1999). The countryside is our richest source of biodiversity and landscape.

  16.  Despite this, the contribution of the countryside to the economic, social and environmental health of the nation and our quality of life is fundamentally undervalued. The Rural White Paper provides a means to address this.

  17. We would highlight two areas for the Committee where progress most needs to be made:

(1)  Appreciating beauty

  18.  Articulating and addressing the importance of the rural landscape beyond the designated areas is one of the biggest challenges for the Rural White Paper. This was recognised by the 1995 Rural White Paper which identified "how much we value the features which make places distinctive" and the need to learn from 50 years of experience with National Parks and other designations "by finding new ways to enrich the quality of the wider countryside". Progress has been painfully slow and policy debates remain obsessed by designations and scientific evaluation. This is despite progress in developing an approach based on countryside character. There is a palpable failure to recognise the value of the local and the common as well as the designated and the rare. In the meantime the statistics of damage and loss to the wider countryside from the Government (eg Countryside Survey 1990), statutory advisers (eg New Agricultural Landscapes, Monuments at Risk Survey) and ngos (eg Tranquil Area maps) record relentless decline.

  19.  Some of the reasons for this difficulty in valuing the landscape are clear but they are not insurmountable. Landscape issues lend themselves less easily to conventional methodologies or scientific techniques for assessing their importance. Their value lies as much in the emotions and feelings that people have for an area as in any independent assessment of landscape importance. As we increasingly come to recognise the limitations of science as a basis for environmental policy decisions (see, for example, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's The basis of environmental standards 1998) so it is important that we respond not by continuing to refine conventional methodologies but by introducing new values and a new approach.

  20.  This is not an argument to fossilise the countryside or to pickle it in aspic. It is an argument for recognising and addressing growing public anxiety about what we are losing and the pace of change. Oliver Rackham memorably said that "much of England in 1945 would have been instantly recognisable by Sir Thomas More, and some areas would have been recognised by Emperor Claudius" (The History of the Countryside 1986). The countryside described by Rackham has been changed beyond recognition within the living memory of a generation. The values which people attach to these changes can be characterised in different ways, including continuity, community, wildlife, local distinctiveness, beauty.

  21.  Running through all these concerns is a common thread that we are allowing things to be lost which should be protected for today's and future generations and that we are failing to deal with change in a manner which is sensitive to the needs of the landscape. In survey after survey the public express their strong feelings for the countryside only to find a seemingly uncrossable gulf between the things they care about and those which are recognised by policy makers and decision takers.

  22.  Two practical ways in which the Rural White Paper can begin effectively to address the landscape are by:

    —  developing a new countryside indicator—this is a glaring omission from the Government's Sustainable Development Indicators and is urgently needed to capture the importance of these values. CPRE has proposed an indicator based on rural tranquillity.

    —  addressing the things that people care about—by strengthening the Countryside Agency's Countryside Character Programme and giving legitimacy to policy measures which address rural tranquillity, prevent clutter, and protect the night sky from light pollution.

  23.  Making these changes will not be easy but they are achievable and could be one of the most important legacies of the White Paper. In some cases the methodologies need further development and the Government needs to act as a catalyst for improving our understanding. In others, we lack the information on which to make informed decisions and the Government will need to help pilot new forms of environmental auditing. The acid test will be a change of priorities so that expressions of the values attached to the landscape have more of an impact on decisions.

(2)  Appreciating that beauty brings prosperity

  24.  The benefits of a beautiful countryside for business are also fundamentally undervalued. As a result protection of the environment is frequently seen as an obstacle to economic progress rather than an asset. The economic value of a beautiful and diverse countryside can be identified in a number of ways:

    direct employer—a significant number of people are directly or indirectly employed in managing and enhancing landscapes and habitats. Shifts in EU and domestic policy for rural areas are expected to see these numbers increase. It is estimated that nature conservation is responsible for 10,000 full time jobs in Britain (RSPB 1997) and an active programme of extending agri-environment schemes and organic farming could create over 60,000 new jobs (SAFE Alliance Double Yield 1997). The potential for expanding employment in this way is evident in the level of oversubscription for agri-environment schemes, the inadequacy of resources to encourage organic farming and the high level of imports of organic food (80 per cent).

    raw material—the countryside is a direct source for much economic activity which relies on the food, resources and attraction that it produces. It is estimated that 354,000 jobs are supported by visitor activity (Countryside Agency 1999) and the FoodFen agri-food cluster in eastern England has a turnover of £1 billion. In the South West, the National Trust estimate 43 per cent of tourist related jobs are supported by conserved landscapes and these attract £2,354 million from holiday trips.

    source of competitive advantage—an attractive rural environment provides a powerful means of branding produce and strengthening local identity. The FellBred sheep mark in Cumbria and the Tastes of Anglia initiative which provides marketing support to local producers are two examples among many of how economic benefits accrue from environmental quality.

    economic driver—business leaders in some of the key growth sectors of the economy (eg knowledge based industries) repeatedly identify environmental quality as a major influence on locational decisions. Department of the Environment research in 1992 found that a quarter of businesses in "remote" and almost a third of those in "accessible" countryside considered the attractiveness of the living and working environment to be a factor in the success of that business. This compared with 1.7 per cent of urban businesses.

    natural health service—the beauty and tranquility of the countryside provides a source of almost spiritual refreshment and the opportunity to "get away from it all" which adds immeasurably to the quality of life, reduces stress and enhances the economic productivity of the labour force. Department of the Environment research in 1992 identified "significant positive advantages of rural locations centred upon the personal, psychological and productivity benefits of an attractive living environment. . ." (Business Success in the Countryside DoE 1992). There are further benefits for those working in urban areas from the quality of life benefits which the countryside can bring, especially at weekends and on holiday.

  25.  The economic value of environmental quality is also being recognised by the Regional Development Agencies which were set up to provide new thinking on economic policy. The environment is recognised as a central economic asset, for example, in the South West and the South East Economic Development Agency's draft economic strategy states that "The countryside of the South East is one of its major economic assets. Its conservation is integral to the region's competitiveness" (SEEDA 1999).

  26.  The Rural White Paper needs to recognise and value the contribution of the countryside and the rural environment to the prosperity, well-being and quality of life of the nation as a whole. This will also require a broader approach to "development" which emphasises social, economic and environmental progress and an improved quality of life rather than bricks and mortar. This will have significant implications for:

    competitiveness policy—which needs to recognise the importance of environmental quality to the health and well-being of the labour force and its particular significance for key growth sectors such as the knowledge-based industries which rely heavily on the well-being of their employees. A stronger sense of geography also needs to run through economic policy and greater attention needs to be paid to economic paths which draw more on indigenous resources than external solutions.

    addressing social exclusion—the priority for addressing social needs in the countryside is to remove the barriers to opportunity rather than increasing the amount of physical development which is taking place. Critical issues include addressing access to childcare, training, transport and healthcare to allow rural people to take advantage of and participate in the emerging opportunities in the countryside.

    agricultural policy—marketing and sustainably using the rural environment needs to be more central to the farm business strategies of the future than "big is better" strategies which seek to compete in the global marketplace with basic agricultural commodities. The Rural White Paper needs to champion multi-purpose farming which reflects contemporary social values and trends and not the productionist philosophy of the 1950s. Better educated consumers with more disposable income are becoming more demanding in both the products they buy and the environments in which they live. This approach is the best long term strategy to respond to the "farming crisis". It will provide a more certain future than one driven by fluctuations in the global market or dependence on agricultural subsidies and it is one which better reflects the important position played by farming in the countryside. This will require a greater priority to be attached to the Rural Development Regulation as a means of facilitating this change and finding new markets. It will also need enhanced funding, including thorough modulation.

    planning policy—the planning system needs to be improved so it can help stimulate more sustainable economic development, filter out development which brings no rural benefits and has an alternative location, and better protect the character and distictiveness of the countryside which underpins so much economic activity. This requires a more "discerning" approach to development in which the particular social and economic needs of rural areas are identified as a precursor to preparing development plans and making planning decisions. New development could then be managed, including through the use of planning conditions and obligations, so that it better meets the identified needs in ways which protect and enhance the environment and avoid the relocation of footloose industry into the countryside. A review of PPG7 The Countryside is the best way to achieve this.

OTHER ISSUES

(a)    Machinery of Government

  27.  The countryside crosscuts virutally every Government department and the remit of a wide range of Government Agencies. Rural policy has sufferred from being dealt with through vertically organised Government departments. This has marginalised rural concerns, created policy contradictions and lost opportunities for synergy in policy development and implementation.

  28.  CPRE does not believe the solution lies in creating a separate Ministry for Rural Affairs which combines the rural functions of DETR with MAFF. This would risk further marginalising rural policy and undermine the effectiveness of the DETR when so much rural policy is dependent on transport, land use planning, housing, local government and regeneration for its delivery. The danger is that the new Ministry would become little more than a pressure group in Whitehall. The key advantage of a new Ministry would be to accelerate the glacial progress in reshaping the priorities of MAFF. It would be the worst of all worlds if any re-organisation resulted in MAFF's responsiblities for trade and production being absorbed by the DTI and its environmental functions were separated off into a Ministry for Rural Affairs.

  29.  We would advocate an alternative route which combines:

    —  real progress on better working between MAFF and DETR through a Rural Public Service Agreement;

    —  a requirement for all Government policy initiatives to be screened for their rural implications and the results reported;

    —  an annual reporting process by Government on the achievement of rural policy objectives, complemented by an independent State of the Countryside report prepared by the Countryside Agency. The annual report should be debated in the House of Commons.

    —  positive support for the involvement of the Countryside Agency in policy development and advice to all Government departments and agencies.

    —  integration of cross-cutting rural policy objectives into the Expenditure Review in 2000.

  30.  There is also a need to re-engineer existing sources of regeneration funding in rural areas. This is a key area where Government action can have a major impact without imposing national solutions on local circumstances. The countryside should benefit from the innovatory approaches now being developed in urban areas, such as New Deal for Communities, with their emphasis on capacity building and the production of social capital as much as on other more conventional outputs.

(b)  Transport choice

  31.  A comprehensive and socially equitable solution to access in rural areas cannot be provided through cars alone. One in five households does not have a car and over 40 per cent of women do not have a driving licence. Yet, traffic is rising three times faster on rural than urban roads (see Annex for county breakdown). Over 70 per cent of fatal car deaths and 50 per cent of cycle deaths occur on rural roads and speeding traffic is the main cause in a third of accidents. Intimidation by traffic makes it harder for rural areas to function and has particular impacts on the lives of the elderly and children. These are the groups who also experience the highest levels of travel poverty. The creeping suburanisation and cumulative impact of "improvements" to country lanes erodes their character and destroys the distinctive identity of rural England. The effects of intimidation and speeding traffic also inhibit the Government's objectives to promote enjoyment of the countryside for all and to encourage more people to walk and cycle. With traffic forecast to increase fastest in rural areas these issues will become more prevalent.

  32.  The Rural White Paper needs to:

    —  maintain the fuel tax escalator to encourage more sustainable transport use while more actively promoting transport choice—through improved public transport, reductions in other forms of vehicle tax (such as vehicle excise duty) and better provision of rural services—to address travel poverty,

    —  ensure lower speeds on country lanes and reduce the default national speed limit of 60 miles per hour to a maximum of 40 miles per hour on C and unclassified roads, with 20 miles per hour limits through a village. More effective enforcement could be achieved through the judicious use of speed cameras, sensitive traffic calming, sustained national awareness campaigns highlighting the dangers of speed and greater prioritisation by the police (resourced in part by the fines raised as a result of wider use of speed cameras),

    —  announce legislation enabling a new category of "quiet lanes" to be designated where walkers, cyclists and riders would have legal priority over motorists, similar to proposals for "Home Zones" in urban areas,

    —  introduce a statutory requirement for Countryside Traffic Strategies as part of Local Transport Plans which reduce traffic and increase transport choice,

    —  support the development of strategic lorry routes backed by signing and effective enforcement and resist the introduction of 44 tonne lorries by making best use of the capacity provided by existing limits to 41 tonnes for six axle vehicles,

    —  reduce the need to travel through improvements to local service provision and a strengthening of planning guidance to ensure the location of new development maximises transport choice.

(c)  Rural services

  33.  The quality and availability of rural services has a significant impact on the quality of life in the countryside. Local service decline is along term and widespread trend but it has a particular resonance in the countryside because of the dispersed nature of service needs and the access issues involved. The impact of service decline is felt disproportionately by some sectors of the rural population such as the young, the elderly, those without access to a car, carers, those requiring specialist services and the homeless. Local shops can also be the mainstay of an intricate web of economic and social relationships which underpins the health and prosperity of a rural area (CPRE Food Webs 1998), particularly through support for local producers and wholesalers. CPRE has addressed thsee issues jointly with the Countryside Agency in a seminar and report which was recognised as part of the official Rural White Paper process (CPRE/Countryside Agency Rural Services: a framework for action 1999).

  34.  The Rural White Paper should:

    —  establish service targets for central and local government and minimum service standards with performance plans drawn up with the local community to ensure implementation;

    —  adopt a twin-track approach to improving the quality and level of rural service provision which influences both the geography of provision and service accessibility (including through new forms of delivery such as IT);

    —  link planning for transport and service delivery at a county level to produce a "Service Plan" which provides a spatial strategy based on market towns to support and enhance existing provision and is backed by action plans to increase accessibility and tackle areas of service shortage—the Service Plan could also provide a focus for the community to identify needs and devise innovative solutions;

    —  re-engineer existing sources of rural regeneration funding to be a catalyst for improved provision—eg by local capacity building, funding the preparation of Service Plans and supporting greater diversity in transport provision;

    —  progressively modernise the role of parish and town councils in service delivery and include them in moves to provide "best value".

(d)  Planning land use and resources

  35.  The Rural White Paper needs to address the anomalous gap between land use planning and policies for managing the land and other natural resources. This has been most recently highlighted by the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development report Aspects of sustainable agriculture and rural policy (1998) and the current review by the Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution of the role of planning in resource management and its earlier review of soils. It requires action to:

    —  remove the privileged position of agriculture and forestry by withdrawing permitted development rights for agricultural and forestry development and the temporary use of land so that new farm buildings and other developments are brought under normal planning controls;

    —  address the omission of agriculture and forestry from the legal definition of "development" in the Planning Acts. Major agricultural operations (such as the ploughing up of moorland or ancient meadows) and major felling and planting operations should be brought under planning control. Extensive permitted development rights should be granted for other agricultural and forestry operations;

    —  integrate forward planning for land use and land management. The objectives and policies of Regional Planning Guidance, Structure Plans and Local Plans need to be shared with those of management plans (eg for AONBs), countryside strategies and the new regional chapters of the Rural Development Plan being set up to implement the Rural Development Regulation. This will allow for greater synergy between planning, land management and funding streams to achieve shared objectives;

    —  implement the EU's requirements for Environmental Impact Assessment for major agricultural activity that should have been implemented by 1988;

    —  extend the role of land use planning beyond a narrow definition of "land use consideration" to address the scope for reducing the demand for natural resources, such as water and minerals (eg through planning conditions requiring efficient use or the use of recycled materials and by encouraging more resource efficient development patterns);

    —  address the limitations of the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) system with its one dimensional emphasis on agricultural productivity. This is an important but inadequate mechanism for valuing soils and ensuring their importance is adequately reflected in planning, land management and policy decisions. Soils contribute to much more than the production of food and fibre and even on this measure the ALC is narrowly drawn. The character of the countryside stems from the diversity of soils and the ALC should be replaced by a more multi-functional approach while strengthening existing protection for the best and most versatile land.

  36.  The Rural White Paper should also recognise and enhance the role of the planning system in bringing public consensus over land use change and involving the public in the decisions which affect their surroundings. The Best Value regime has much to offer alongside some legislative changes put forward in the Annexe.

(e)  Landscape

  37.  The Rural White Paper needs to provide a new commitment to protecting and enhancing both our finest landscape and the wealth of landscape features in the countryside and bringing a new and more integrated approach to forestry.

  38.  The family of National Parks needs to be strengthened and extended. National Parks are under-resourced and their potential as testbeds for innovative approaches to the sustainable management and use of the wider countryside has not been realised. The South Downs and the New Forest should join the National Park family and a more coherent approach to the Forest of Dean should be taken. New legislation to improve the protection and management of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and provide them with independent management boards should be introduced. This should be supported by new planning guidance that recognises the quality of AONB landscapes is equivalent to that of National Parks and needs the same level of protection. The Rural White Paper should enhance recognition of the importance of the character and diversity of the whole countryside, especially through the Countryside Character Programme.

  39.  Field boundaries and other landscape features are an integral part of the English countryside which is under threat. Their protection, management and restoration requires an integrated approach which is ideally suited to the Rural White Paper. The Government has been slow to introduce new measures to strengthen protection for landscape features despite a commitment to doing so. The measures should combine:

    regulation—to protect landscape features from damage and loss. This could most effectively be achieved by strengthening and extending the Hedgerow Regulation through a combination of primary and secondary legislation.

  Primary legislation is needed to ensure the landscape value of the features can be recognised.

    planning policy—Regional Planning Guidance and development plans should provide a strategic framework for the protection of landscape features with a clear description of their importance and objectives for their protection and restoration. This should be supported in revised national planning guidance and linked to wider support for the Countryside Character approach.

    incentive—increased funding for the management and restoration of landscape features should be provided through the Rural Development Regulation and good management should be a condition of support payments.

    advice—farm advice and whole farm planning should be extended and address the management and protection of landscape features, linked to management grants.

  40.  In relation to trees and woodland, the England Forestry Strategy is a major and welcome step forward but it cannot deliver its vision without a Rural White Paper which integrates their role into wider rural policy. The links with agriculture and the economy of rural England are particularly important. CPRE identifies three key priorities for the Rural White Paper—establishing new economic values for public investment in trees and woods which recognise its wider benefits beyond timber production, extending public involvement in woodland planting and management, and integrating woodland policy with efforts to protect and enhance the landscape character of rural England.

September 1999


 
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