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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. Do you agree it is not as bad as being impoverished in a high-rise flat in the middle of South London?
  (Mr Cameron) I would not like to comment on that.
  (Ms Warhurst) All that I know is there are three million people living in poverty in rural areas. This is not a competition about poverty.

  41. What I was asking is, are you dealing with the problems being created by people moving out from the towns and creating affluent villages and altering the social mix of those villages?
  (Mr Cameron) We do not mind the affluence. People bringing money into rural communities on the whole bring benefits. But there is clearly a problem that society has to deal with with for those who are suffering as a result, and affordable housing is one glaring example of that. Planners, not unnaturally, do not want to cover our countryside in houses. There is a limit therefore. Most people in this nation actually seem to want to live in the countryside and therefore there are market forces at work and houses are more expensive in the countryside than in towns. I believe that society for far too long has ignored this particular problem. It has gone back over several decades now, there is a huge shortage of affordable housing in rural villages.


  42. If you compare the influence you have on affordable housing in rural areas and the influence the Housing Corporation has through its EDP, out of a scale of 100 how much do the housing corporation have and how much do you have?
  (Mr Cameron) The Housing Corporation obviously has an overall view and looks at all the problems throughout the nation.

  43. It provides the money.
  (Mr Cameron) It provides money. Again, it is a question of who influences who. I believe we were responsible for getting their rural budget doubled in the Rural White Paper. I have been very strong about the question of affordable housing ever since I took on this job and I have spoken to various ministers over the time on the question. I believe it is something that is a glaring omission, and has been for some time, from the responsibility of government.
  (Mr Wakeford) Can I add on that point, it is not just about money. Having the money to invest in rural affordable housing is important, as is having money to invest in urban housing projects to ensure that there is a reasonable slice of affordable housing. There is a double difficulty in the countryside because of the way in which the planning system is not operating in a way that makes it easy to deliver affordable rural housing. We, therefore, have a series of rural housing enablers who we have appointed throughout rural England. We are building up a programme now that will cover all of rural England following a very successful start which has been evaluated. These are people at a local level who are devilling out the sites that are needed if the Housing Corporation is going to be able to deliver and turn the commitment that it has made in terms of funds into practical projects on the ground. Unless we do that, unless we ensure that as communities develop they develop affordable housing as well as market housing, they will become the sort of communities that are not the balanced communities which it is the government's policy to secure.

David Taylor

  44. Can I follow up this point, you described very well at the start your lobbying role of moving and shaking people in near gothic ivory towers like this, do you not think you also have a role on the ground in terms of encouraging those people to move out of urban areas and perhaps to use the services on whose patronage they so significantly depend, the post offices and the schools. A lot of people in rural areas choose to send their kids into urban schools, what is your role there in influencing their behaviour, because that can be as helpful as spending your time here?
  (Mr Cameron) I accept that. What we have tried to do is epitomised in our schemes of village design statements, which sound like NIMBYs charter village appraisals, is call a meeting together. It is usually the NIMBYs, for want of a better word, who turn up. They think they are coming to talk about pantiles and stone walls and the first question you ask them is, what do you want your village to be like in 20 years time? Do you want your pubs still to be there? Do you want your village shop and your primary school, and so on? You start them to think about actually how the fabric of their community is going to be unless they have an integrated community. Hopefully in that way, if they then agree to a particular specification for a design statement, you also get them to agree to the fact that they do need some affordable housing within the village. They do need to have a mixed community. If they can also add their design criteria to the planning statement, as supplementary planning guidance, they feel secure. So that when affordable housing units, two or three units or five or six units, not very big, come along there is not a knee-jerk reaction, shock, horror. They actually accept it is a sort of process of trying to bring them along and facilitating the thinking process. We do involve ourselves in that activity.

  45. I am grateful for that reply. I cannot speak for David Drew but I know we are two parish councillors, it is just a comment, I would encourage you to work more closely and more vigorously with parish and town councils, particularly in their renewed form as envisaged in the government. There is an awful lot that can be done using that mechanism
  (Mr Cameron) I agree with that. Certainly within the Rural White Paper we have been given the remit of encouraging better parish governance and we have a community service grant scheme and our Local Heritage Initiative also encourages communities to get together to preserve something. It is all about encouraging and integrating communities and making them think about what they want and how they want to take that community forward.

Mr Drew

  46. Can I make a point which was referred to several times already, which is the number of organisations you work with, what should you be doing to reduce the number of organisations that exist in rural Britain? That is one of the problems, there are a raft of organisations out there, all fighting for funding this year to keep themselves going again. If we can rationalise who speaks for rural Britain it could only help. That must be one of your key roles.

  (Mr Cameron) It is quite difficult. Some of the organisations are voluntary, some of them are charitable organisations and some of them represent particular interests. I dare say it is not really for us to say yea or nay as to whether they should exist or not. Some of them are government or local government organisations. All we can do is try to make certain that people cooperate on the ground and work together and especially, as far as we are concerned, involve the local people so they feel they have a stake in what is happening within their community. I am afraid we do not think we can take on a role in trying to reduce the number of organisations.

  47. But surely you could, by devolving down through the parish and town councils, really make that the delivering body? They could choose to use other organisations but the problem is—and this is where rural Britain is different from urban Britain—we have got so many intermediaries in the process, all supposedly helping with the allocation of funds, advice and strategies. All that happens and by the time it gets down to the level that should be doing the work, there is not a lot left.
  (Mr Wakeford) As well as being Chief Executive of the Countryside Agency I am also a trustee of a major charitable trust in Gloucestershire where I sit as a trustee and we contribute to local causes as a result of the generosity of Ron Summerfield who set it up. When we sit there that is a picture that we have, too. How do we know that we are making a difference. There is a vast range of charitable trusts out there which people have set up for distinct purposes. It occurred to us that it would be much better if we either carved it up so that certain charitable trusts focused on particular things or sought to merge, which is almost impossible in the charity trust sector. We have to live in a fragmented free market of charitable trusts. The difficulty about trying to stitch it up into silos is that then you do not get the joined-up approach. It seems to me one has to try and forge partnerships. Perhaps in an ideal world there would not be as many bodies as there are. Whether they are charitable trusts, rural community councils or parish groups who are pursuing a parish plan because the parish council in that particular area will not do it, it is quite hard to set up a body and a great deal of energy has gone into that and there was a need for that. The goal at local government level through local strategic partnerships, and at the regional level through the kind of regional arrangements that are emerging more strongly in some regions than others, through those sorts of partnerships between bodies one can assure that the resources that are delivered are delivered in the most effective way.

Phil Sawford

  48. Can I briefly touch on the point Eric made earlier. I saw a book on Saturday produced in the village where I was born and grew up and looking at the old school photographs, of the 54 children on there, seven of them now live in the village. One of the measures we probably do need to look at is the proportion of young people who grow up in a village environment who then have to move away. That does hinge on planning issues, the NIMBY problem. Coming to your point as Chairman, can I ask what are your major achievements to date? What benefits has your appointment brought? I know it is a relatively short time.
  (Mr Cameron) What have I brought personally through my appointment as Chairman of the Countryside Agency?

  Phil Sawford: As the rural advocate, what are you most proud of thus far?

Diana Organ

  49. Surviving!
  (Mr Cameron) Czars do not have a long life-span, I agree. Let's go back to basic principles. The role of the rural advocate, as I see it, is enlarging and underlining my role as Chairman of the Countryside Agency. The Countryside Agency has a role given to it in the Rural White Paper of rural proofing the Government agenda across all departments and it has made contact with all the departments across government and it has found out what is on their agenda, what they are doing and produced a rural proofing check-list which highlights some of the problems of bringing policies and initiatives into the countryside, such as sparsity of population, lack of training facilities, lack of transport and so on. You would know them as well as I do. The rural advocate's role is to check with Ministers. For instance, let me give you an example. I do not think I am talking out of school. Last night I went to see Nick Brown in the Department of Work and Pensions. We talked about the roll out of Job Centre Plus and how they are going to make certain that the merger of the Benefits Agency and the old job centres is going to service rural areas. We spoke about the Universal Bank. We spoke about how they are going to roll out the pension service, the New Deal, and how they could have an employment zone in rural areas. All these areas were discussed and the main thing was actually having the Minister asking officials "What are you doing about the countryside? How are you getting this and that to work in the countryside?" It was a very good example of the role of the rural advocate. In terms of a major achievement, it may be that when foot and mouth disease started, there was obviously, not unnaturally, a clear focus of attention on the agricultural problems that foot and mouth was causing. I spoke to the Prime Minister and went to see the Prime Minister to tell him that it was a really serious across-the-board rural problem. It was affecting a whole lot of tourist businesses and other businesses in (our statistics have proved) a far greater way than agriculture has been affected by foot and mouth. The day of the meeting the Rural Task Force was set up. I feel having the Rural Task Force has brought in all the different parties of the countryside and ensured that the Government paid attention to these other businesses. The Business Recovery Fund and the rates relief and delay in payments of VAT and income tax all stemmed from the Rural Task Force. That is an example of the rural advocate at work.

  50. So your role is very much to ensure that rural issues are on the agenda and presumably to push them up the agenda?
  (Mr Cameron) Absolutely, to make certain that the various departments are carrying out their responsibilities for the countryside in everything they do. Sometimes it is what you might call old initiatives which come along. For instance, there is Sure Start, which is an initiative trying to help pre-school children particularly from poor backgrounds prepare themselves for school. The first two rounds of Sure Start, because of the criteria, were almost entirely focused on urban populations. We went and spoke to them and the third round was half-and-half and the fourth round, I am pleased to say, is almost entirely rural because we got the criteria changed and we got them to make certain that it applied to rural areas. However, most of the work (like yesterday) is dealing with developing policy and making sure that developing policy takes into account the rural element.

  51. Sooner or later we monitor this, which brings me to the next point really. You committed yourself, I believe, to producing an Annual Report on the progress of the Rural White Paper. When do we get that?
  (Mr Cameron) That will be coming out in the spring, February/March time. I will take it first of all to the new Rural Affairs Forum for England and also to the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Rural Affairs. It will be published. I hope it will be an independent report that will point the finger where necessary.

  52. Some of the figures we heard earlier on school closures and some of the other figures have stabilised, and presumably there will be some good news stories within that report as well as some problems and issues for the future?
  (Mr Cameron) I would hope so and I would hope the good news content will increase as we go on otherwise I might feel I am not doing my job properly.
  (Mr Wakeford) There are three reports here, the State of the Countryside Report where each year we are seeking to measure the state of the countryside against about 20 indicators, the Rural Services Survey, which is going to be annual from now on, and the report of the Countryside Agency's own work with government departments and others to check whether they are rural proofing and taking account of the rural dimension. Those three things are the core of our work.


  53. But if your purpose is to get involved at the local level in all sorts of schemes, and some of them are micro schemes, why have you got a staff sitting in Cheltenham? Why are your people not distributed around district council offices, small offices in the countryside. If somebody in Yorkshire wants to get hold of you they have to phone Cheltenham.
  (Mr Wakeford) No, we have 13 offices.

Mr Jack

  54. In your document Market Towns you say: "The Agency will help to revitalise declining market towns working in partnership with regional development agencies and other partners." When I look at the addresses of where you are, with possibly the exception of Penrith, you are firmly urban based, Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Cambridge, London, Maidstone. Why are you not making a contribution as an Agency to one of your objectives and, where appropriate, revitalising market towns with these regional offices? Are they so big that a market town could not accommodate them?
  (Mr Wakeford) Our East Midlands office is in a market town and plays an important part in developing the life of that market town. In the main, though, we have placed our offices where they can be most accessible for the whole of the region because they are regional offices and if you put them in the more remote market towns then it is much more difficult to serve the region efficiently. I would need more staff in order to do that.

  Mr Jack: Just give us a new hierarchy of market towns, we all know that there are less remote market towns and, bluntly, some of them for the types of people whom you serve would be a deal more accessible than some of the locations which are shown here. For example, I guess getting into Leeds from some of the areas that Mr Curry's constituency covers would be a two-day journey by pack horse for some people.


  55. Especially with Arriva Trains.
  (Mr Cameron) Would Skipton be any better?


  56. Much better, Ripon even better!
  (Mr Cameron) Mr Mitchell would then find it very difficult to get there.
  (Mr Wakeford) We cannot have offices everywhere because we have teams of people in the region so they are working together. They have to have a base. They have a base from which they can serve all the areas around that they get to. The professional people, the countryside officers spend time out of the offices. They tend to go out to the areas we are talking about. When we do our market town initiative in Malton, Yorkshire, David Gluck, who is my senior countryside officer who is dealing with that, will be going out from the Leeds office to get there. It is a fact of life that if you are in the centre of Leeds that is the easiest place to get in and out to from the whole region than if you have to go in and out of a market town.

  57. There has never been any attempt to locate some of your work outside these urban areas?
  (Mr Wakeford) Where our offices are based is not where we are doing the work.

  58. How are you going to persuade other people to follow your objective "the Agency will help to revitalise declining market towns . . ." You go on about the need to bring professional work into those areas. Surely it is a question of being seen to do things and creating an example that others can follow?
  (Mr Wakeford) Two of our offices at least are in market towns. Maidstone is probably a bit big to be a market town but Bingam and Penrith are very definitely market towns and we have two of our offices there. I also have to have an eye to the efficient operation of this organisation and that means that when my staff have a centre to come to it must be one that is pretty easily accessible. In most of the regions that we are talking about, the city is the place where you can get access from all parts of the region and using public transport wherever possible.

  59. We could go on about it but I want to look a bit more closely at this rural proofing activity which you were talking about to Mr Sawford a moment ago. How many government departments are you in regular dialogue with? How does it work? Do you have a feedback from the department who say to you "we have got this new policy, will you give us a comment?" Or do you proactively ring them up every week and say, "Hi guys, how are you doing?" How does it work?
  (Mr Cameron) We are in contact with all 11 government departments, including the Lord Chancellor's Department, and we have established a contact with them to ensure that they have someone who is responsible for rural proofing their policies. The rural proofing department in the Countryside Agency is in regular contact with them. The rural proofing in the end has to be carried out by the department themselves. What we are trying to do is make certain they do the rural proofing because we cannot know all the initiatives and all the activities that are going on in all the departments across the board. They have to do that and hopefully we can help them do that.

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