Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Eleventh Report

2 Defra's
"Strong Rural Communities" Objective

Defra's Previous Rural Affairs Target

12.  Defra's previous rural affairs target was PSA 4, which required Defra to:

Reduce the gap in productivity between the least well performing quartile of rural areas and the English median by 2008, demonstrating progress by 2006, and improve the accessibility of services for people in rural areas.

PSA 4 was agreed as part of the 2002 Spending Review and attracted criticism almost from the start. In 2003, Lord Haskins's Rural Delivery Review described the target's weaknesses, stating "its aspirational and woolly nature undermines the complex and variable problems that exist in rural communities and economies."[18] One of the issues Lord Haskins highlighted was that Defra found it difficult to influence those who were in a position to deliver on the target, such as other departments and local authorities. The CRE told us:

Among Defra's civil servants there set in a fatalistic acceptance that the target would not survive the next CSR [Comprehensive Spending Review] in its current form. A key problem identified was that while Defra had ownership of the target, the Department did not have control over the main policy instruments and spending programmes that might be able to deliver improved performance against the indicators. It did not own the 'levers'.[19]

Defra itself told us, in our inquiry into its 2005 departmental annual report, that it did not have an agreed baseline or enough data to measure progress on PSA 4. We recommended that the Department should develop a more appropriate rural affairs target, and ensure that the baseline of, and progress made in achieving, any new target could be measured appropriately.[20]

Defra's New Departmental Strategic Objective

13.  PSA 4 was replaced as a result of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review. Under the 2002 Spending Review, there had been more than 100 PSAs spread across the different departments. Under the new Comprehensive Spending Review, there are 30 cross-Government PSAs. The Treasury describes these PSAs as "the key priority outcomes the Government wants to achieve in the next spending period (2008-2011)."[21] Each PSA has a delivery agreement and a lead department. Defra has been the lead department for two of these new PSAs:

  • Secure a healthy natural environment for today and the future
  • Lead the global effort to avoid dangerous climate change.

However the creation of the new Department of Energy and Climate Change in October 2008 will almost certainly mean that Defra is no longer the lead department for the second of these. Defra is also involved in the delivery of nine other PSAs—in six cases, as a formal "delivery partner".

14.  Following the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, departments also had to develop a set of Departmental Strategic Objectives (DSOs). Defra has eight DSOs, one of which—"Strong rural communities"—could be described as the replacement for PSA 4. The DSO is broken down as follows:

Strong rural communities Economic growth is supported in rural areas with the lowest levels of performance This measure focuses on GVA at the sub-regional level: an input measure (workplace based jobs at district level); and an output measure (Gross value added (GVA) at district level)
The evidenced needs of rural people and communities are addressed through mainstream public policy and delivery This IO has been designed to assess the performance of Government policies in rural areas by comparing a basket of socio-economic outcomes and trends in rural areas to the national picture. The proposed measures are: educational attainment; social capital/quality of life; health and social care; employment and economy; housing affordability; crime and antisocial behaviour


Until October 2008 Defra's other seven DSOs were:

  • Climate change tackled internationally and through domestic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (responsibility for this policy area now rests with the new Department of Energy and Climate Change)
  • A healthy, resilient, productive and diverse natural environment
  • Sustainable patterns of consumption and production
  • Economy and society resilient to environmental risk and adapted to the impacts of climate change (again, this will be affected by the transfer of responsibilities to the new Department of Energy and Climate Change)
  • A thriving farming and food sector with an improving net environmental impact
  • Sustainable development championed across government, across the UK, and internationally
  • A respected Department delivering efficient and high quality services and outcomes.

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".[22] 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.[23]

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.[24]

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.[25] 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."[26] When pressed, he said that, after the PSAs, all eight DSOs were of equal priority.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29]

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.[30] 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.[31]

Again, the perceived downgrading of the rural affairs target from a PSA to a DSO is not going to help to redress the balance.

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 target—Strong Rural Communities—sounds 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".[32] 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.[33] 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. [34]

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."[35] 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."[36] Ms Rima Berry of the Wensleydale Business Association told the Committee:

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.[37]

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. [38] 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.[39] 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 communities

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 delivery".[40] However, 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.[41]

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."[42] The NFU's comments about Defra's rural affairs strategy sum up its unease:

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.[43]

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 rural proofed."[44]

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 diplomas."[45] In 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 Skipton—part of the new Yorkshire Rural Academy—that 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 students—perhaps people undertaking a career change in their thirties—than 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."[46] 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".[47] 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 comment upon.

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.[48] 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".[49]

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 compensate.[50]

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."[51] The CRC also wanted Defra to adopt a broader approach to economic growth:

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 rural communities.

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."[52] 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.[53] Why settle for "quite well"? Low-performing areas will be categorised as areas that perform below the national average.[54] A rural area could be performing above the national average, but still be underperforming in terms of what it was capable of achieving—something 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".[55]

30.  Focusing 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.

18   Christopher Haskins, Rural Delivery Review, October 2003, p 39 Back

19   Ev 5, para 3.1 Back

20   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2005-06, The Departmental Annual Report 2005, HC 693-I, para 43-5 Back

21 Back

22   Ev 5, para 1.2 Back

23   Q 74 Back

24   Ev 196, para 10 Back

25   Q 209. Just after the creation of Defra, in 2001, the then Secretary of State told us that the Department's central goal was sustainable development. For further information, please see EFRA Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2001-02, The Role of Defra ,HC 991, para 6. As we commented at the time, sustainable development encompassed economic and social objectives, as well as concern for the environment.  Back

26   Q 213 Back

27   Q 214 Back

28 Back

29   Ev 16, para 3.2 Back

30   Ev 146 Back

31   Ev 3, para 5.2 Back

32   Q 52 Back

33   Ev 65, para 2.1 Back

34   Ev 104, para 2.1 Back

35   Letter from Hilary Benn to Dr Stuart Burgess, 8 May 2008 (published on Defra's website) Back

36   Q 27 Back

37   Q 161 Back

38   Qq 256-57 Back

39   Q 258 Back

40   Commission for Rural Communities, Monitoring Rural Proofing, 2007, p 4 Back

41   Ev 45 Back

42   Ev 66, para 3.3 Back

43   Ev 196, para 12 Back

44   Q 67 Back

45   Q 274 Back

46   Q 164 Back

47   Qq 289-295. Defra subsequently told us that "HM Treasury is aware that for some, especially those in rural areas, the use of car is a necessity and not a luxury." It pointed out that there is a Vehicle Excise Duty exemption for agricultural vehicles and working vehicles that are used on the public road only when passing between different areas of land occupied by the same person for a distance of no more than 1.5 km. It also commented that there are some models of 4 x 4 vehicles that are not in the highest band for Vehicle Excise Duty. Back

48   Ev 235. Defra, on the other hand, commented that it worked closely with BERR to ensure that rural areas were taken into account in the development of broadband and Information and Communications Technology policies (See Ev 126).  Back

49   CRC, "Monitoring rural proofing 2007", 2007, p 2 Back

50   Ev 219, para 6 Back

51   Ev 65, para 2.2 Back

52   Q 299 Back

53 Back

54   Qq 300-306 Back

55   Q 113 Back

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