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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Let's take an example. Number 8 on the list is land-based industries and you say in the rural proofing check-list: "Land-based industries, eg agriculture, forestry, fishing and extraction/mining, have an important impact on the rural landscape, environment, bio-diversity and remain significant employers in certain rural areas". In the last Finance Bill the Government introduced the Aggregates Tax. A number of people in that industry, whilst acknowledging their environmental obligations and responsibilities, have pointed out that the tax could significantly disadvantage UK sources for aggregates compared with alternative sources of supply. Were you brought in by the Chancellor to discuss this as part of the rural proofing or did you get any feedback from the Chancellor in the course of the discussions on the Aggregates Tax? Were you involved in any of this?
  (Mr Cameron) Not as far as I am aware.

  61. So the Treasury is a no-go area for rural proofing?
  (Mr Cameron) No, and in fact in this particular spending review I am pleased to say we have got a commitment from the Treasury to rural proof all the departments.

  62. Let's go through this. You have got this tick box system. Do the departments send back a copy when they have rurally proofed something so that you can see their assessment?
  (Mr Cameron) No, I do not think they do. The idea was to help them rural proof their own areas.

  63. What happens if a policy emerges and you think,"My God, they cannot possibly have rurally proofed this"?
  (Mr Cameron) Exactly and in that case if discussions between our officials and their officials have not resolved the problem, I would go and see the Minister.

  64. But if you did not know about this degree of proofing (and quite often government has a habit of announcing things as a fait accompli) it may well be that a policy arrives without an opportunity for consultation. How robust is this mechanism?
  (Mr Cameron) They would have fingers pointed at them in the annual rural proofing report. Let me give you an example of an area where I am not particularly satisfied, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the closure of rural magistrates' courts—

Mr Todd

  65. You will win some friends on this one I think!
  (Mr Cameron) I think the criteria that are being applied are inadequate. There is far too much consideration of the cost of delivery rather than on the cost of being able to access the justice.


  66. In that specific example would your representation be directed at the Lord Chancellor insofar as this is a government policy or would you join people locally who were trying to defend the existence of the magistrates' courts? Would you be part of the lobby locally trying to defend a particular court? At what point do you apply your influence?
  (Mr Cameron) I do not think it is my role to start siding with local lobby groups. I would hope that local lobby groups would inform me of the case they are trying to make which would add to the general case that I would be trying to make to the Lord Chancellor's Department

Mr Jack

  67. Is it not all a bit late in the day?
  (Mr Cameron) I agree. It was late in the day when I was appointed rural advocate in terms of that particular issue, but it is one I had started taking up as Chairman of the Countryside Agency before.

  68. Correct me if I have got the picture wrong but there is a Cabinet Sub-Committee that deals with rural affairs. The Secretary of State told us about this great body last week when she appeared before us. Who do you turn to if you get a whiff that something is not being proofed in accordance with your objectives? Who wields the big stick in government on your behalf? Have you an example to show that your alerting a Secretary of State like Margaret Beckett to a rural deficiency has resulted in that deficiency being corrected?
  (Mr Cameron) No, I turn to the Minister in the department itself and there is the rural proofing report and ultimately I have the ability to go to the Prime Minister and to say, "I do not think this is right."

  69. So have you been?
  (Mr Cameron) No.

  70. So there has been nothing wrong that has caused you to think, "I have got to do something".
  (Mr Cameron) As I was trying to explain to the earlier question on rural proofing, I do not want to go along all the time wagging a finger and saying, "You are not doing your work right." The idea is to go in and say, "Look, there are 20 per cent of the population who live in the countryside. I am here to make certain that your initiatives and the services you are delivering actually reach those people." That is what I would like to do. It is not all about saying, "You are not doing this right". It is about making them think how to do it right, and in a positive way. I am trying very hard to get results rather than cause unnecessary confrontation.


  71. Coming back to my specific question, we all know the Government is going to produce quite shortly its proposals on local government finance. We all know, equally, that there is quite a strong lobby which says that rurality, sparsity, those indicators are important ones that do not receive sufficient weight in the various coefficients and formulae. Can you tell us, without sharing conversations, what role you are playing in the debate about the final shape that will take?
  (Mr Cameron) I seem to remember coming to see you about this, Chairman, at some point in an earlier existence for both of us. We are inputting into the government thinking on this. I personally have been to see a Government Minister in the then DETR and this item was on the agenda, but I have not personally applied myself to this particular issue as rural advocate. I realise it is an important one though.

Mr Jack

  72. Just one last question about this. Lord Haskins produced a pithy report on rural recovery in Cumbria and he talked about the rural economy in general requiring £40 million to recover. The Secretary of State eventually announced £24 million. What was your reaction as an Agency to such a misfit between those two numbers against a background of the Rural Task Force Report and indeed Lord Haskins' Report which seemed to say a lot of the same things about rural recovery generally and policies in particular to achieve that. When you saw that did you pick up the phone to speak to somebody and say ,"Hang on a minute, we are under-resourced, I have got to fight the rural corner", or did you lie back and say, "£24 million is quite a big number so thank you very much." What did you do?
  (Mr Cameron) Having been involved with the Rural Task Force, as you will be aware, there was an earlier £50 million that was granted as the first part of the Rural Recovery Fund and there has therefore now been a total of £74 million given. It is a problem with all new schemes in the countryside, it is very difficult trying to get people to apply for them. I gather that, in fact, a mere £30 million has been allocated, it may be 31 or 32, already. There is a problem with ensuring that rural businesses take up this funding, so there is quite a lot of funding slack still in that pot to go out for rural business recovery. In terms of the countryside, I am much more concerned with relaunching the countryside this spring. Hopefully there will not be too many businesses with that sort of money available that go bankrupt over the winter period. That is a problem with many small businesses, particularly tourist-related businesses. If they do fail to have a good summer, they do not have the fat to live off over in the winter. I hope that particular fund will help businesses through that period. Then, if we can relaunch the countryside, improve its brand image, get people to go out into countryside in the spring, then more funding will not be necessary.

Mr Todd

  73. You mentioned that you were unhappy about the Lord Chancellor's record on this. What have you actually done about it? I am unhappy about it but I have been equally ineffective. What have you done about it?
  (Mr Cameron) I have been to the Lord Chancellor's Department and had conversations which I have to say were not particularly satisfactory and we are following up hard. I have spoken to the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts. At the moment we are following up and pursuing the matter.

  74. When you say "pursuing the matter", what does that mean?
  (Mr Cameron) I have yet to get to the stage where I feel it is worth screaming and shouting a bit louder.

  75. You are not quite at that stage?
  (Mr Cameron) Not quite at that stage yet.

  76. You mentioned you had the right to knock on Number 10's door. How far away are you from doing that?
  (Mr Cameron) I would not like to comment at this stage. Let's say I am working on the problem.

  77. You will not be saving the rural magistrates' courts through your initiative from the sound of things. When you are rural proofing something, rural interests are not easy to pigeon-hole and quite often there is conflict. To take the example of planning, recent planning guidance has emphasised sustainability of communities, to focus development in communities which can, for example, be linked to a bus network, be linked to key services and so on. If that is applied rigorously what we will get is a lot of smaller communities frozen in aspic effectively, to mix the metaphors, which will then become steadily less and less sustainable over time. So that planning guidance has been issued, presumably it went somewhere near the Countryside Agency at some point. I see Richard nodding. What was the conclusion you reached as to the balance of rural interests that was affected by that judgment?
  (Mr Cameron) I just want to make quite clear that rural proofing is about ensuring that the countryside is taken into account in the policies of the departments. As to how those policies operate, eg planning, that is another role and I will now ask Richard to talk about our input into planning.
  (Mr Wakeford) Certainly the planning system has an important role to play which it is not playing particularly well at the moment. One of the rural influencing tasks we have in hand at the moment is to try and ensure that the Green Paper which the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions is producing actually starts to turn planning into what it should be, which is to visualise what communities will be like in ten years' time, to work out what all the different parties can bring to the delivery of that development, public sector funding as well as private sector funding, and to improve the mechanisms to ensure that you can look at the whole community and invest in that community by bringing in public and private funding.

  78. That is very aspirational but what—
  (Mr Wakeford) Part of that Green Paper must address the number of pages there are of planning policy guidance notes including those which apparently conflict. Planning Policy Guidance 7, which is now in a version long beyond the ones some of us here worked on in previous lives, is very definitely one about development in the countryside, and "countryside" as defined in the broadest sense, I would suggest. Planning Policy Guidance 13 then sets out to address the principles of sustainable development and the transport impacts of where we develop. We were involved and consulted on the draft of that planning policy guidance note and we were disappointed with the apparently rigid rule that was imposed there which seemed to focus development on key settlements, which seems to suggest you do not have development in other settlements. In a world where global warming is an increasing challenge and where you want to reduce the amount of travel, especially that which cannot be delivered through public transport, to give these choices you need to have development which is reasonably focused. You only need to go to New Jersey or places where there is much less land use planning to recognise the challenges there are if you have dispersed development rather than development in places like market towns. That guidance in PPG13 was too rigid. If I can illustrate it by reference to Chipping Campden where we went recently as part of a visit with the Minister for Rural Affairs. The cheapest housing that you can buy now is £120,000. For those growing up in that community—and there are some young households growing up in that community because it is not a dead community, it is a very lively market town, with jobs at a food processing plant and so on—they are having to leave Chipping Campden at the point when they want to buy a house. Ten miles away they can buy a house for £65,000, again in a market town. Both of these communities satisfy the PPG13 principles that you are talking about but what is happening is that the young households move to Evesham. They spend their mornings and evenings driving across the countryside between those two places, passing the executives who have moved into Chipping Camden who are driving out to Worcester and Birmingham in the other direction. That cannot have been the objective of Planning Policy Guidance note 13. I do not know whether there is too much or too little planning policy guidance but you cannot take snippets of it and expect that to solve the rural problems.

  79. We may have too much or too little planning policy guidance, but also too little common sense.
  (Mr Wakeford) The challenge for Chipping Campden and Cotswold District Council is to show how that can continue to be a balanced community so that young households who grow up there who want to live there have access to affordable housing. It is a sensitive environmental area but we do have to tackle that. There are things that can be done to improve that. For example, we believe that full council tax should be charged on those who keep their homes empty or have second homes. At the moment they are getting a 50 per cent discount so they are using up housing in areas where it is difficult to build and denying the local community the opportunity to use those houses during the week. There are still some things we believe could be done through measures other than planning but, ultimately, a reform of the planning system so that you envision the future of the community and say how you are going to get there, that positive forward planning, must be a major priority for this country.

  Chairman: The idea that someone who can afford to lash out £100,000 for a second home is going to be deterred by an extra 300 quid on the Council Tax is a dubious one, but Eric?

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