The marginalisation of rural affairs?
15. It is worrying that several of our witnesses
saw Defra's "Strong Rural Communities" DSO as further
evidence of a long-term marginalisation of rural affairs within
the Department. The CRE's written evidence referred to "the
eclipse of rural affairs in Defra".
There was always a danger that, as national and global interest
in the environmental aspects of Defra's brief increased in proportion
to the political significance of climate change, so there would
be a decrease in the political priority and resources accorded
to rural affairs. According to the Local Government Association,
this was exactly what happened:
Since the other parts of Defra's agenda, climate
change and the environment, have risen up the national agenda
we have seen the decline of the rural affairs part of Defra [
and the lessening of interest in what local government is doing
[...] in rural areas, with a great deal of sadness.
Defra's new target framework, arising from the 2007
Comprehensive Spending Review, prompted this view from the National
Farmers Union (NFU):
Although Defra's list of Strategic Objectives includes
Strong Rural Communities, the NFU has many reservations about
where this sits in the overall list of Defra's policy priorities.
Its two PSAs are almost totally environmentally focused and that
priority is reflected in the Departmental Strategic Objectives,
most of which have a strong climate change/sustainable development/environmental
land management emphasis.
16. We put these concerns to the Parliamentary
Under-Secretary of State (Marine Landscape and Rural Affairs),
Jonathan Shaw MP when he gave evidence to us in July 2008. When
he was asked to name Defra's top priorities, he replied without
hesitation: climate change and the natural environment.
When asked where rural affairs sat in the list of policy priorities,
his answer was slightly less direct: "We have eight DSOs
and two PSAs and the PSAs are the Government's priority."
When pressed, he said that, after the PSAs, all eight DSOs were
of equal priority.
Defra's website maintains that DSOs "are no less important
than PSAs", but our evidence clearly indicates that they
are in terms of the political priority attached to them.
Professor Ward of the CRE cited a discussion of the distinction
between PSAs and DSOs in evidence given to the Treasury Select
Committee during its inquiry into the 2007 Comprehensive Spending
Review. He stated:
My conclusion from reading this evidence is that
a DSO is clearly a reduction in the level of priority attached
by the government as a whole, compared to a PSA. Therefore shifting
from the old rural productivity PSA (PSA4) to the new 'strong
rural communities' DSO seems to me to be a 'reprioritisation'
(downwards) of rural socio-economic issues.
17. The shift from a PSA to a DSO is all the
more worrying in the context of what the Chief Economic Development
Officers Society (CEDOS) described as a growing national and regional
focus on core cities and city regions.
Professor Ward commented that there had been no corresponding
political focus on the rural economy:
The city-region movement is essentially a political
movement that has arisen largely out of the loss of political
momentum behind regional devolution in England. Its advocates
have been opportunistic in seeking to refocus economic development
strategy and delivery on city regions. There has been no equivalent
political leadership or advocacy of the economic governance of
rural areas. On the contrary, Defra has been preoccupied with
dismantling the national infrastructure for rural policy and devolving
its responsibilities, but with little or no interest in sub-regional
structures of delivery.
Again, the perceived downgrading of the rural affairs
target from a PSA to a DSO is not going to help to redress the
18. We are concerned
that the decision to have a rural affairs target that is a departmental
strategic objective, rather than a cross-government public service
agreement, means that less attention will be focused on realising
the potential of the rural economy, both across government and
within defra. The environment has clearly been defra's number
one priority, and rightly so. However, this should not mean that
rural affairs struggle to attract the attention they deserve.
We urge that, in the comprehensive spending review, consideration
be given to making the rural affairs target a cross-government
public service agreement. In the meantime, there is, at the very
least, a strong perception amongst those involved that rural affairs
are being marginalised in defra and the department should set
out how it intends to address this concern.
What is a "strong rural community"?
19. The title of Defra's new rural affairs targetStrong
Rural Communitiessounds good, but its meaning has been
difficult to determine. This could be seen in some ways as an
advantage. The CRC told us that the definition of a strong rural
community needed to be allowed to "vary from place to place".
Other witnesses, though, wanted the meaning to be tied down: the
Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) commented that it would be
helpful if the DSO were accompanied by Defra's definition of a
strong rural community.
Defra supplied us with the following explanation:
Strong Rural Communities are places where people
want to live and work, now and in the future. They meet the diverse
needs of existing and future residents, are sensitive to their
environment and contribute to a high quality of life. A strong
rural community is created by the people who live in it and is
reinforced by its diversity and the extent to which all its members
share a sense of place. 
It is hard to see how including this particular definition
alongside the DSO would help anybody to become clearer about what
a strong rural community actually is. Nor is the meaning of "Strong
Rural Communities" greatly clarified by the comments made
on the subject by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food
and Affairs, Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, who said in a letter to the
Rural Advocate that Strong Rural Communities were "about
enhancing the good things about living, working and enjoying rural
England and addressing the challenges posed by change."
We appreciate the difficulty of producing a single, meaningful
definition of "Strong Rural Communities", but, unless
this can be done, Defra should choose another title for its DSO.
20. Several of our witnesses suggested alternatives
to "Strong Rural Communities." Professor Ward of the
CRE commented: "I would have thought that something on addressing
rural disadvantage would have been an improvement on achieving
strong rural communities, which I see as a little bit motherhood
and apple pie."
Ms Rima Berry of the Wensleydale Business Association told the
I am not surprised that they [Defra] have trouble
defining it [Strong Rural Communities] or feeding back to anybody
what the definition is. I think 'strong' is the wrong word; it
should be 'sustainable'. When I talk about 'sustainable' I mean
not just development or environment but income and business life,
community capacity and inclusion issues.
21. When we asked the Minister about the title
of the DSO, he pointed us to the DSO's two intermediate outcomes,
arguing that, although the title could be seen as vague, the detail
that underpinned it was concrete and measurable. 
He said that he would be pleased to consider alternatives, but told
us that the outcomes of the DSO were more important than its title.
We agree. However, that does not make the title unimportant and,
indeed, it may have an impact on outcomes: an objective that is
readily comprehensible from its title has an inbuilt advantage.
We are unconvinced that "strong rural communities"
is the most appropriate title for defra's departmental strategic
objective and are encouraged by the minister's willingness to consider
alternatives. We recommend that defra adopt the term "socially
and economically sustainable rural communities".
Intermediate outcome no. 1: needs of rural people and
22. The DSO has two intermediate outcomes, the
first of which is as follows:
- The evidenced needs of rural
people and communities are addressed through mainstream public
policy and delivery.
Before proceeding any further, some definitions are
necessary. The term "mainstreaming" is often used interchangeably
with "rural proofing", which the CRC's annual rural
proofing report describes as: "the mechanism used by government,
at national and regional levels, to ensure that rural needs and
circumstances are taken into account in policy development and
as the CRC pointed out in its evidence, there is sometimes a subtle,
but important difference, between the two terms:
The term rural proofing has traditionally been used
to describe a process where the impact of a policy decision on
rural communities is considered after the policy has been developed.
This is only partly satisfactory. As we move to 'mainstreaming'
of rural needs into mainstream policy making, we want to see consideration
of rural impacts, needs and solutions embedded into policy development
during the process, rather than at the end or as an afterthought.
We also believe that rural proofing is an important component
of 'mainstreaming' rural needs into wider policy.
23. The RDAs commented that they had been promoting
the mainstream approach to Defra for a number of years and that
they were very pleased that it had been included in the rural
communities DSO. They stated that specific rural interventions
should be developed only where market failure could not be addressed
by mainstream provision. However, they were concerned about the
success with which mainstreaming had been implemented so far,
commenting that "there is still a substantive gap in the
explicit rural proofing coverage of key Whitehall departments."
The NFU's comments about Defra's rural affairs strategy sum up
Worryingly we [
] suspect that the strategy
is now driven by the rural proofing agenda with the expectation
that Defra's need for direct engagement is reduced because other
Departments should be factoring a rural dimension into their policy
and delivery mechanism. Sadly, however, even the Commission for
Rural Communities has seemed to accept that this is something
of a pious hope.
The Rural Advocate gave the work on rural schools
done by the Minister of State, Department for Children, Schools
and Families, Jim Knight MP, as an example of effective rural
proofing, but added: "There are other areas where it is extremely
difficult to actually make sure that government departments are
24. The Minister, Jonathan Shaw MP, supplied
us with several other examples of successful rural proofing, such
as Defra's work with the Department for Transport on a rural bus
fund. However, it is worrying that one of his examples of successful
rural proofing related to the education agenda for 14 to 19-year-olds.
The Minister told us that there had been discussions between Defra
and the relevant department to "ensure that youngsters in
rural areas were able to stay on at school and complete these
itself, this is to be praised. However, in focusing on this aspect
of the policy, Defra may have missed the bigger picture. During
our visit to North Yorkshire, the 14 to 19-year-old agenda itself
was specifically cited as a policy that was causing problems in
rural areas. We were told by staff at Craven College in Skiptonpart
of the new Yorkshire Rural Academythat the Government's
emphasis on education for 14 to 19-year-olds was making it difficult
for land-based businesses to recruit people with the appropriate
skills. They stated that land-based subjects such as horticulture
tended to be popular with more mature studentsperhaps people
undertaking a career change in their thirtiesthan with
16 year-olds, but that there was no longer the necessary funding
for post-19 further education, and that rural businesses were
suffering from skills shortages as a result. One of the interesting
reflections College representatives made to us was the difficulty
in attracting students from the nearby urban areas to the College.
Given the higher unemployment in some of these centres and the
opportunities that exist for work in rural areas Government needs
to look into measures as to how it could encourage a better two-way
movement of students. The need to recognise the ethnic dimension
must also not be ignored.
25. Mrs Annison, who runs a small business in
the Yorkshire Dales manufacturing rope, gave an example of a policy
that she thought had not been successfully rural proofed: "The
new tax [
] which is intended to deal with urban Chelsea
tractors hits the people in this area who need these vehicles
because we still have some snow."
When we asked the Minister whether Defra had given the Treasury
any appraisal of the impact on the rural economy of the proposed
change in Vehicle Excise Duty for vehicles with larger engines,
he appeared baffled that we were even raising the question, describing
it as "strange" and saying that Vehicle Excise Duty
"was a matter for the Chancellor".
It is unclear how Defra is going to ensure that the needs of rural
people are met through mainstream public policy if there are some
policy areas or particular departments that it feels unable to
26. We asked departments what steps they took
to ensure that their policies were rural-proofed and what contact
they had with Defra to discuss rural proofing. The responses suggest
that most departments are aware of the need to assess whether
their policies are likely to have a different impact in rural
areas, and several departments supplied examples of specific policies
that reflected rural needs. None of the 10 departments that replied
had a formal routine for discussing rural proofing with Defra.
In most cases, discussion took place on an ad hoc basis. In some
cases, there did not seem to be much direct contact with Defra
at all. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory
Reform (BERR), for example, did not mention Defra and stated that
its contact was with the CRC.
The CRC's report, "Monitoring rural proofing 2007",
concluded that "the commitment to rural proof government
policy is not being delivered consistently; and that it is reliant
on the approach of individuals rather than built into the day
to day work of departments".
27. Action in Rural Sussex was concerned about
the contradiction between a commitment to mainstreaming and the
fact that the DSO applies only to Defra:
Not to make this objective for DEFRA into a PSA for
the whole of government fundamentally undermines the intention
of addressing the needs of rural areas through all departments'
mainstream activities. The result is that DEFRA's funding of rural
specific programmes will end but with limited commitment from
other departments to adjust their programme design in order to
We are concerned that having a mainstreaming target
that is part of a departmental strategic objective, rather than
a cross-government public service agreement, will mean that other
departments will be less engaged in trying to achieve it. We commend
the good examples of rural proofing that we encountered during
this inquiry. However, we are not convinced that the approach
to rural proofing adopted by the government and defra is sufficiently
rigorous or systematic. The crc already publishes an annual report
on rural proofing. To complement this, and to improve the mechanics
of rural proofing, we recommend defra set out in its annual report
what work it does, on a department by department basis, to ensure
that rural affairs are factored into policy development, how it
monitors progress, and what criteria it uses to judge whether
rural proofing has been successful. Defra should be proactive
about approaching other departments to offer advice and should
not simply wait for them to contact it.
Intermediate outcome no. 2: rural economic growth
28. The second of Defra's two intermediate outcomes
for its DSO is as follows:
- Economic growth is supported
in rural areas with the lowest levels of performance.
Several witnesses were concerned about that the intermediate
outcome focuses solely on low-performing areas. The RDAs told
us: "The economic outcome should seek to support economic
growth across wider rural areas. Targeting at areas of lower levels
of performance potentially ignores the complexities of the rural
economies, and in addition, their potential."
The CRC also wanted Defra to adopt a broader approach to economic
We believe this DSO focuses the economic ambition
of Defra and wider government too narrowly on 'areas' and on 'lowest
levels of performance', offering little transparent commitment
to either other rural economies with weaknesses in individual
drivers, nor to rural areas that, with support, can help to add
further to regional and national economic growth and to more sustainable
29. When we put these concerns to the Minister,
he replied: "We want to focus the priority on areas that
are performing at a low level because of all the social issues
that will accompany that." This in
itself is commendable, but there is no reason why Defra cannot try
to raise productivity in poorly performing rural areas and support
economic growth across the whole rural economy. To simply say that
"most rural areas are performing quite well," as Defra
does in its background note on the intermediate outcome, is short-sighted.
Why settle for "quite well"? Low-performing areas will
be categorised as areas that perform below the national average.
A rural area could be performing above the national average, but
still be underperforming in terms of what it was capable of achievingsomething
that the intermediate outcome fails to take into account. Mr Marlow,
the Chief Executive of the East of England Development Agency, commented:
"If the focus on rural economic development is solely on the
tackling deprivation issue, one misses a lot of opportunities for
growth and development in adjacent rural areas which may have national
or regional economic impact".
the economic intermediate outcome solely on low-performing areas
is a wasted opportunity. Although it is important to improve poor
economic performance, the dso should not ignore rural areas that
are performing well, but could perform even better with more support.
We urge defra to adopt a broader intermediate outcome to support
economic growth in all rural areas.