Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. As you know, the Committee does like to look at what government agencies are doing and how they are spending public money, what they are managing to deliver, and whether there is continued reason for their existence, to put it bluntly. We have often found in these investigations that part of the problem has been that the organisation has been waiting for some sort of change in its rule, perhaps primary legislation, which has inhibited it from doing what it wanted to do. That in itself has been quite a useful exercise to identify where that is taking place. You are obviously going to play a central part in the broader rural development programmes, it is more immediate to the foot and mouth recovery programme, so we thought it would be appropriate for you if you were our first witnesses in the new session in this rolling programme of investigating quangos. We are grateful for this pocket edition of your booklet, I thought this was my first Christmas calendar, until I opened it.
  (Mr Cameron) I apologise. It is not easy to travel on a train with it[1] but at least the maps are of a decent size.

  2. The only trouble is that the scale is different for each map. Just as you are getting yourself accustomed to finding out what a particular map is telling you instantaneously you find that the scale is different to the next map and you have to start thinking all over again. Can I begin by asking you, Mr Cameron, if in one minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation you can tell us what the Countryside Agency actually does?

  (Mr Cameron) Our role is to conserve and enhance rural England. It is to promote economic opportunity and social equity in rural England and it is to do those things, ie to look after the countryside, for the benefit of all of the population, wherever they might live. We do this through the principles of sustainable development, economic, social and environmental and we try to merge all three agendas. We achieve this, firstly, by looking at problems and researching solutions, carrying out research generally. Then by implementing demonstration projects and pilot schemes almost always in partnership with others so that when we withdraw the scheme carries on. Using that understanding and knowledge we influence government, but from a position of independence and taking very much a cross departmental approach. We are truly a nondepartmental public body. In terms of this year I think we are delivering our programme of work. We have clearly been hampered by the foot and mouth disease this year and we are not, as at the end of September, on schedule, but I would hope that we will be by the end of the financial year.

  3. If I can just take this compilation, there is an interesting chart of the geographical availability of supermarkets, what conclusions do we draw from that? The question is, so what?
  (Ms Warhurst) Can I just refer the Committee back to the reason we drew up the survey in the first place. It is a fact that one in five of the population live in rural England. If we are really going to try and understand the needs and aspirations and deal with quality of life issues for that percentage of the population then we have to really understand what services they have, what their situation is, and so on. We know, for example, that disadvantage in rural areas can often be hidden because it is, perhaps, not as concentrated as in urban areas and perhaps those that are more disadvantaged are living next door to quite wealthy people, and so on. Because there have been so many calls on the public purse at times there has not been an appropriate recognition of the needs of people living in rural areas. Therefore the State of the Countryside Report and particularly the Rural Services Report, along with the indicators we have worked on for disadvantage in rural areas, allow those that would take action and policy decisions relating to the rural population to understand where the needs arise. Therefore, in that particular area it shows that throughout England 46 per cent of the population do not have access to a post office. It shows that there are still concerns in other parts of the service provision. It also shows that where there has been concentration of public spend, in transport and in the development of village halls, things have improved. We conclude that where there is a focus on spend in terms of service provision things can be turned round. It is very much about us understanding the issues so that those who look for an alternative service provision in rural areas can do so, again with another arm of the Countryside Agency by working with communities on pilots to look at innovative ways of making sure you have got suitable shopping facilities in rural areas, and so on.

  4. Do you regard supermarkets as being a good thing or a bad thing for the rural economy?
  (Ms Warhurst) From our perspective there have been mixed blessings in terms of supermarket provision. That is not really at the heart of what we as an agency are trying to do. What we are trying to do is draw the attention of policy makers to areas of concern that perhaps they need to re-think. On occasions, for example, in market towns it may be very appropriate for there to be supermarket provision. In other areas where there will never be a supermarket we need to make sure that those that cannot access it, because they do not have the transport to get to the supermarket nevertheless are not cut off from society and from life in general but do have alternative provision.

  5. In terms of translating this into policy, a government minister just listens to what you said, reads that, so what policy then does that minister deduce? Are you suggesting that the government should have a policy for the fair distribution of supermarkets? What is the policy implication?
  (Ms Warhurst) The policy implication is that if we are to understand the needs of the 20 per cent that live in rural areas and if we also turn to what we have done to indicate to policy makers that disadvantage does happen in rural areas, that people do not always have access to public transport, to a car, that incomes can be very low, which we have seen particularly exacerbated in recent times in rural areas, then the question of, is a supermarket good or bad is not quite the real one that policy makers need to be looking at.

  6. What are the local people asking for?
  (Ms Warhurst) What the local people need, we gather from our surveys, are appropriate transport so they can have a choice of going to the supermarket or shopping locally. They also need to make sure that situations such as low income, part-time work or seasonal work or the things that affect people's ability to shop in the first place are also addressed. It is a very complex picture of needs in rural areas, of which supermarket provision is just one. From our perspective we want to make sure that access to services such as health, education and transport, the basics of life, are properly dealt with and understood by government. That is why we work to research and also towards a partnership on the ground so that people can look to alternative ways of meeting those needs.

  Chairman: The entire Committee wish to come in at this stage.

Mr Mitchell

  7. I live in one area of bucolic happeniness and simplicity, a lot of people who have drifted into the countryside in the last three or four decades have gone there out of choice. They have gone there because they have a higher standard of living and they want to convert a farm house or have a big house, they have a car, they might well work. There are areas of deprivation in all these maps, round Grimsby and in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but a lot of people now work in Grimsby and work in Hull and work in York, so it is not one picture of deprivation. They are not youngsters, they do not need supermarkets.
  (Ms Warhurst) The point is, we are coming more and more to the view of society and we are trying to inform that debate that the interdependence between rural and urban areas is very significant. The old idea that this is rural and this is urban and that things are done separately is starting to go more and more out the door. What is really important is to understand that yes, of course, people move to the countryside because it is a fabulous asset, it is a wonderful place to live and people would like to enjoy that. We say that is not the total picture, there are needs in rural areas that have not been addressed and we need to look at them. We as an agency try to provide the evidence to look at those needs for that 20 per cent of the population, and we as an agency try to work in partnership with those people that are experiencing those difficulties to say to government, this is a difficult issue, that is why it has not been solved to date, and let us look at alternative ways of dealing with it. It is very much a mixed picture, we are not, by any means, saying that deprivation is the order of the day in the countryside, but nevertheless it is significant for a significant number of people and should not be forgotten. That is our message.

Phil Sawford

  8. Looking at page 38, I assume that is a copy of a reproduction of the survey that went out? What percentage of returns do you have from some parish and town councils that you base all of the maps on? The other thing is, do you intend to update this annually, so one assumes that the new one is out now?
  (Ms Warhurst) No.
  (Mr Wakeford) Can I just say for clarification, the information in this volume comes from different surveys. Some of the information is based on questionnaires from parishes which will continue to operate and that is what provides us with the old figures that the Rural Development Commission used to provide. The last set of those was in 1997. We are at a transition. The majority of data in this Report comes from post coded data sources. They are, effectively, 100 per cent surveys. We now know and can plot where every post office is. We do not need to ask a parish council whether there is a post office there or not and then only get a 50 per cent or 60 per cent return. The bulk of the data is post coded data which makes it much easier in future years to do an annual update when there ae more data available. What we will not be doing is sending this survey[2] out each year. It itself has certain shortcomings. There are certain things we can only find out by doing a survey of this style.

  9. None of the information from the survey is included in the data you produced?
  (Mr Wakeford) Some of it is, in particular the trend data.

  10. That takes me on to trend, how you track this and I am interested in the use of post codes, and technology is helpful on that. We track the growth and demise of youth clubs and pubs and post offices in rural areas over time and that presumably then is used to inform government policy makers. How do you see that contributing to that debate? Presumably you get statisticical data and you can present it and hopefully that will produce some response in terms of promoting post offices or more funding through village youth clubs?
  (Mr Wakeford) What it can also do is provide an evaluation, it is not only influencing of government policy, which Pam Warhurst covered before, it is also evaluation. One of the things we were able to say when we published this survey was that there seem to be some areas of improvement in surveys since 1997. There now seem to be more communities that have access to public or community transport than before. The Government has actually been investing substantial amounts in rural public transport, so I imagine that the government is reassured that this is starting to show through in availability on the ground. We have also shown that the rate of closures of village primary schools is now more or less stable. The position on community halls and community meeting rooms seems to have improved. That may coincide with a period where there has been a good deal of lottery money going into village hall programmes. It is not only about the future. It is also looking to see what the impact of activities of other bodies has been over the period since the last review.

  11. One further point, we get all of this statistical information, which provides useful indicators, we all recognise that, and I think it gives us a firm basis. When we assess things like access and deprivation and all of the rest, where do we actually listen to people in the countryside, after we have got the statistical study, yes, there is a pub, there is a shop, there is a garage, and all of the rest of it, where do we get the voices of rural people saying what they feel their needs are as opposed to what we determine from the survey?
  (Mr Cameron) There are two aspects. One is we are encouraging more community activity in terms of getting rural governance to be more efficient and parish councils, in particular, to speak for their people and for their community. Secondly, in terms of the Countryside Agency, including myself as rural advocate, I try to go out and visit people on the ground and to hear what they are saying to me as to what they feel they want from government. In terms of social exclusion, if that is what you are talking about, we have a huge range of projects which are communicating with the needy, the young, the old and the impoverished in the countryside to try to get them to participate more in community life.

  12. Some of their concerns are things like mobile phone masts, breaches of planning regulation and over development. Some of their concerns are not necessarily reflected in pubs and post offices as an agenda?
  (Mr Cameron) I accept that.

Mr Jack

  13. One of the words that has been used a lot so far has been the word "rural". In your document the State of the Countryside 2000 you say, "most people have an image of what is meant by rural yet defining rural for consistent reporting is challenging". Then you tell us there are lots of different definitions and there is not one universal one because lots of people have different ways of defining rural, but for the time being until you can think of a better one you have settled on the former Rural Development Commission. There are a lot of people who live cheek by jowl with the urban areas in what we might call the countryside from an urban perspective who think of themselves just as much rural people as people who live in isolated communities in places like Cumbria. I am interested in this question of definition, because that obviously is the springboard to determining the objectives of your agency and, therefore, the measures of its success. Do you think there ought to be a universal definition of rural? Do you have one which is uniquely developed by your goodselves? How do we resolve this question of the border issues of people whose perception is strongly rural but who are five miles from the supermarket but say they live in the countryside?
  (Mr Wakeford) This is an issue which merits possibly more time than we have available. The traditional difficulty with defining rural has centred round how you collect your data. We have to collect data on the basis that we can actually go out and understand. So, for example, if you were collecting data on a district council basis which is information for the whole district council you then have to decide whether that district council is rural or not. One of the concerns that I have about these statistics and one of the reasons why going on to a post coded system is such an advance, I can illustrate by reference to Bognor Regis. Bognor Regis is part of the Arun District Council area. The Arun District Council area is predominantly rural. In most of the places you would feel that you were rural. But it would be wrong to summarise the position of that authority as being uniform throughout, because a big chunk of it is a substantial town with a set of quite urban challenges, the challenges of an elderly population and a declining seaside town, a very different issue but within the same local authority. One has to make a judgment. So what we have been doing in the past is doing the best we can with the sort of characterisations there have been and trying not to switch too much, because every time you switch a definition you remove the ability to do trend data comparisons and you have to explain it. That is why in this countryside report we have two sets of data. We have continued with the old RDC way of collecting data by parish. In some parts of the country parishes are very small and some are very large. I always remember John Gummer telling me about the different sizes of parishes in his constituency, where I think Felixstowe is strictly a parish with 25,000 people and down the road there is another one with 50 people. So, saying that X percentage of parishes do not have a village shop is a relatively meaningless thing to do. What we are therefore aiming to do with the new data is move on to a sound basis, to look to see how far people live from a facility or how close they are to a post office as distinct from how many parishes have post offices in them. I have to say, there are difficulties in measurement, but we are improving all of the time. As we move towards the post coded database (I missed out the explanation of ward based data, which we are also collecting), we get to the point where it is easier to say, in an ideal world where we are going to draw the boundary between urban and rural can now be aggregated from these data sets. The general line that we are taking at the moment is that market towns are very definitely a part of the countryside. Then somebody says, how do you define a market town? The general line that we are taking is that places of 10,000 population or less and the surrounding countryside, the green bits in between, are essentially rural and those towns which are not freestanding and in larger urban areas are urban.

  14. You have been very clear in this vast information gathering exercise, but if I look at the draft corporate plan, "our headline priorities, our main outputs", unless I have misread this, I do not see anything there that says, to produce a unified definition for what is the countryside. The reason I ask that is that it underpins, surely, all of what you are doing, that under the old RDC situations, for example, in North Lancashire qualified as countryside, so people could get help with the village halls, however two miles down the road it was not countryside for that definition. A lot of the schemes that are round are predicated on old definitions of what is rural. If you are going to be the agency that links this all together surely we should have a unified description with obvious imperfections but that says what is rural and what is urban.
  (Mr Wakeford) I think we are making progress towards it. We are doing it. I think it is in the corporate plan. It may be that I would need to—

  15. It is buried and we cannot find it.
  (Mr Wakeford) It is also in the Rural White Paper because we are doing it with government.

  16. I am looking at your draft corporate plan, the thing that says what you are doing.
  (Mr Wakeford) I am giving you an assurance that we are working on this

  17. When will it be done?
  (Mr Wakeford) We are working with the government in partnership on that and it is taking longer than I would like.

  18. When would you like it to be done?
  (Mr Wakeford ) I would like it to be the done as soon as possible. I will let you have a note about what we are doing in some detail because it is something that we need to do. I would like to come back to the point that Mr Mitchell made, where he was talking about the people who live in the small towns and villages round Grimsby and how they are driving somewhere else. Their economic activity is in Grimsby and where they shop is in Grimsby and where they live is in the countryside. That is an illustration of how difficult it is to define something like the rural economy. Is that person who lives in the small village round Grimsby actually measured as part of the rural economy, because they are certainly contributing some wealth to the community, or are they part of the urban economy? From surveys of where people work, we know that over 40 per cent of rural residents travel to jobs in cities, towns and suburbs. We are a very mobile society. The closer we are able to draw lines on a map and say this is rural and this is urban the less meaningful that becomes, because as a society we are becoming more and more mobile.

Diana Organ

  19. Does it really matter that we try to discriminate between rural and urban? Your piece of research—I attended the presentation and I have looked at it subsequently—is very good but some of it blindingly obvious, if you live in an area with not a very dense population you are not going to have a lot of supermarkets, cash points, petrol stations and other services. Does it really matter if you live on a big housing estate in the centre of an urban area and you have no shop or no post office, you are just as disadvantaged. What you are trying to do is somehow separate people into groups, why are we doing this? Your main aim, you say, is to have a countryside. We could ignore that word countryside, something that is environmentally healthy, economically more successful and socially stronger. Do we not want that for everywhere?
  (Ms Warhurst) May I pick up that point? People's needs and aspirations and desires for their family are the same wherever they are, decent health, decent education, and so on. We are saying that the other side to our influencing role is that many people suffer in rural areas where there are huge economic pressures to take out the shopping infrastructure, the transport infrastructure, to centralise health care, because we all need centres of excellence wherever it is, and that might be several, and so on. There are particular difficulties that pound for pound are more difficult to find solutions to in a rural area. What we are trying to say is, these are not exclusively rural solutions because much of the work we do, for example, is community forestry, and the lessons could be taken just as easily for urban parks and green spaces, so there needs to be more of a relationship and interplay between urban and rural. But in rural areas we have found that in order to meet those aspirations on a reasonable basis we are having to work with communities who themselves want to gain access to the sort of support that will help them find their own solution. For example, in Waters Upton, near Telford, a small community lost its shop, lost its post office. The parish council was really adamant it was going to work with the community to make a difference and with support from the Countryside Agency and others and with an agreement with a developer on a Section 106 it is now going to build a new building. This is parish council-led. That will have a post office, a shop, a community facility, an office for police and over the top will have a housing association flat for the shopkeeper or the postmaster to live in. That keeps within that community the sort of services that that community has deemed themselves that they need. These pilots, as it were working partnerships, are happening all over the place. This is not to say that there is something particular about the needs of rural human beings but there is something particular about finding some solution to some of those more difficult problems.

1   Note by Witness: Rural Services 2000, The Countryside Agency (November 2001). Back

2   Note by Witness: ie. the parish questionnaire. Back

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