Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Eleventh Report


4 Delivering Results

Defra Resources

43.  Several submissions expressed concern about the number of people in Defra working on rural affairs. The RDAs referred to Defra reducing its rural team resources by half.[77] The NFU stated that it understood that "the staff level in the Rural Division of Defra is now 17 strong, down from a figure of over 50 in mid to late 2007."[78] When we asked the Minister how many people in Defra were currently involved in undertaking rural policy work, he told us that it was important to consider the political context: "At the last election […] the Labour Party and the Conservative Party said that they would reduce the number of civil servants […] to ensure the delivery and the priority of public services."[79] Under the Renew Defra programme, which began in 2007, the Department has been restructured with an emphasis on a more flexible workforce. Mr Mortimer, Defra's Director of Rural, Land Use and Adaptation, stated: "Working directly in my team there are 17 posts in the rural policy division, but we organise ourselves not just in divisions, we organise on programmes, and […] around 30 work directly on the rural programme."[80]

44.  We asked Defra how many people had been working on rural policy before the Renew Defra programme, but we did not get a direct answer. Mr Mortimer told us that it was a "genuinely difficult question" and that the former Rural Policy Directorate "included people who were not working on rural policy" so it would not be a like-for-like comparison.[81] The Minister told us that "through this number-crunching exercise you will get to a lower figure than what was," but that the issue was about "deliverability of services."[82] He stated that people in rural areas were not worried about the number of civil servants.[83] The NFU commented:

Whilst we would accept that the value of the end product is not just a function of staff numbers, when the nature and scope of the rural agenda in which Defra is involved is considered, the question of just how far effective involvement is possible with such a small number of personnel inevitably arises.[84]

We accept that the reduction in the number of people working on rural affairs in defra should be viewed in the context of a paring back across the civil service. We also agree that defra should be judged on outputs not inputs. However, there must be some link between the two. Defra should acknowledge that there are concerns about its capacity to deliver on its rural affairs commitments. If it believes that these concerns are unfounded, it should explain why. Its delivery plan for its dso should indicate how it will make best use of the resources at its disposal. In the light of these observations, defra should publish in the six months a detailed commentary on its current rural affairs work. This would provide greater insight into its rural development role than that afforded by the limited commentary in its departmental annual report.

Key Delivery Bodies

45.  Whatever the final form of Defra's rural affairs DSO, it is clear that its delivery will be dependent not only on Defra, but on a significant number of other bodies. As well as other departments, whose role we have already considered, Defra will be particularly reliant on RDAs and local authorities. The RDAs themselves commented that Defra would need to adopt "quite a different sophistication of engagement sub-nationally with RDAs, local authorities and other partners" to make the most of its opportunities,[85] as well as influencing other parts of Government "at quite a sophisticated persuasive level."[86] Defra is in a difficult, although hardly unique, position: it has a dso that cannot be achieved without significant assistance from other departments and bodies. Its success in achieving its rural affairs target will depend heavily on its ability to influence these key players. To this end, it should produce a strategy for working with rdas, local authorities and rural community councils to ensure that it achieves the best possible outcomes for rural areas. The strategy should set out what assistance defra requires from these bodies, how it will communicate these needs, when it will require feedback and how this will be provided.

REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCIES

46.  The nine RDAs, established in 1999, are the leaders of rural economic delivery at the regional level and are responsible for producing Regional Economic Strategies. Following the recommendations of the Review of Sub-national Economic Development and Regeneration, RDAs will also take over the role of regional planning body from Regional Assemblies. In addition, RDAs deliver 20% of the European Union funding that is available through the Rural Development Programme for England.[87] Each RDA has a board member with responsibility for rural affairs. The East of England Development Agency is the lead RDA on rural matters and brings all the board members together once a year. [88] There is an important role for those RDA board members designated as champions for the rural economy but in order to improve their effectiveness they should meet more often to exchange experiences and establish good practice.

47.  Defra helps to fund the RDAs' "single pot". In 2008-09, it contributed £53 million.[89] However, the RDAs told us that "a far greater percentage of RDA results are achieved in rural areas than would be suggested by the relatively small contribution to RDA budgets that is made by Defra."[90] Mr Marlow, the Chief Executive of the East of England Development Agency stated that Defra's funding amounted to about 3.5% of the single pot.[91] The RDAs told us that, annually about a third of their outputs were delivered in rural areas.[92] They commented: "This belies the historic perception that RDAs are focused primarily on urban areas."[93] Despite this, there was still concern among our witnesses about the RDAs' commitment to rural parts of the country.

48.  The Country Land and Business Association stated that there were instances of particular RDAs embracing the rural agenda, but commented that performance was not uniform.[94] The CRE said that the RDAs' work on rural issues had been hampered by three issues:

First, national co-ordination on rural affairs between the RDAs is weak. Second, nationally prescribed performance targets militate against large numbers of small investments, encouraging instead a "fewer-bigger" approach, with an emphasis on large-scale, urban-based flagship projects. Third, the increasing emphasis within the main central departments that sponsor the RDAs on core cities and so-called city regions as territorial foci of economic development has strongly directed policy attention and investment towards urban renaissance and infrastructure. [95]

These comments date from 2006, when we originally received evidence. However, the views expressed by witnesses during our oral evidence session in Hawes, in June 2008, suggest that there is still dissatisfaction with the performance of RDAs in small rural communities and a perception that RDAs are interested only in large-scale projects. Mrs Annison is working on a community project to restore the railway line between Northallerton, at the northern end of the Vale of York, and Garsdale, on the western slopes of the Pennines. So far, 17 miles of the 40 mile route has been restored, but Mrs Annison said that Yorkshire Forward did not regard the project as strategic because it was too small-scale: "Yorkshire Forward believes that 'strategic' means 'large'. As far as I am concerned 'strategic' means 'appropriate to the scale on which the decision is being implemented'."[96] When we asked Ms Berry, the Chair of the Wensleydale Business Association whether she knew the name of the director of rural affairs at Yorkshire Forward, and whether she had had any contact with them, she replied:

I do not have a clue. It [Yorkshire Forward] is hardly knocking on the door. In my other role I work for a rural community council which has a bit more contact with Yorkshire Forward, but at this level I am afraid we do not exist, to be honest.[97]

49.  To be fair to Yorkshire Forward, we saw a remarkable example of the work that it is doing in rural areas when we visited Richmond. Funding from Yorkshire Forward helped to convert the former Victorian station building into a conference centre, cinema, art gallery and restaurant.[98] Yorkshire Forward assured us that it supports the delivery of small as well as large-scale projects and gave as an example the Heritage Partnership Scheme, which aims to re-develop empty spaces in Richmond town centre into high-quality office accommodation or commercial premises.[99] Rdas are doing some good work in rural areas, but there is still a perception that they are urban-focused and uninterested in small-scale projects. The extent to which this view is justified is certainly debatable. However, the opinions that were expressed to us indicate that rdas are having difficulty communicating what they are doing in rural areas and we recommend that the east of england development agency, as the lead rda for rural affairs, set out what action it intends to take to address this.

50.  The RDAs told us that their relationship with Defra was "frank".[100] However, they also told us that Defra had not explicitly discussed the DSO with them and that they had not seen a delivery plan.[101] We believe that this indicates a lack of frankness. Given that the RDAs will play an important part in delivering the DSO, this is worrying and should be rectified. The RDAs were keen to stress that they "report through a single performance framework to government and […] there should be no additional feedback loops to report separately to Defra on activity which might contribute to this DSO."[102]

51.  The Minister told us that he meets the chairs of the RDAs on a quarterly basis.[103] When we asked how Defra monitors the use of the funds it contributes to the RDAs' single pot and the balance between the types of projects that the RDAs support, the Minister said that Defra was involved in signing off the Regional Economic Strategies and pointed out that RDAs had a statutory duty to take rural areas into account.[104] Mr Mortimer, Defra's Director of Rural, Land Use and Adaptation, drew attention to the RDA output data, showing the percentage of their work that was done in rural areas.[105] The Minister said that he also kept track of the balance between urban and rural projects "through conversations I have with people who are the recipients of RDA funds or not".[106]

52.  We do not want to add unnecessarily to the reporting burden of the rdas and agree that there should be no additional formal mechanism to report separately to defra on activity that may contribute to the dso. However, such information should form part of the single reporting framework, and defra and the rdas should discuss progress against the DSO informally at the quarterly meetings that take place between the minister and the chairs of the RDAS.. Defra should include in its departmental annual report an assessment of the rdas' success in delivering the rural aspects of their responsibilities.

LOCAL AUTHORITIES

53.  Local authorities have an important part to play in the delivery of Defra's economic intermediate outcome. The Local Government Association told us that local authorities were "the most important agents in unlocking the economic potential of local economies." It stated that, of the key players involved in taking decisions about public expenditure on economic development below the national level, local authorities mobilise about 78% of total spending, Learning and Skills Councils 18%, and Regional Development Agencies 4%.[107]

54.  Local authorities will also play a significant role in Defra's "mainstreaming" intermediate outcome. Ms Christine Reid, the vice-chair of the LGA's Rural Commission, told us that indicators for this outcome tie in very specifically to the topics that appear in Local Area Agreements "so there is a follow through from the ideas of strong rural communities […] to the way in which local authorities are now encouraged to develop those communities."[108] The changing map of local government, with more unitary authorities, will have a profound effect upon rural areas. It is vital that defra works with the department for communities and local government to conduct research into the impact on the delivery of services in rural areas.

55.  The Rural Delivery Pathfinder project is an example of the kind of initiative that could help Defra to deliver some of the targeted, practical solutions that would make a real difference to rural communities. The project was set up jointly by Defra and local government in March 2005. It was intended to look at innovation in rural service delivery, test opportunities for more joined-up approaches, and to look at local priority setting. Eight Rural Delivery Pathfinders were created—one for each region of England, excluding London.[109] The authorities in question were given "a modest budget" and encouraged to take forward local initiatives.[110] The project ran for two years and, in February 2008, a report was published setting out what had been learnt. Among other things, it suggests that Defra should "consider the case for a more formal relationship with local authorities, through a Defra/local government rural policy group, or similar body."[111]

56.  Defra's website states that it is "drawing up an action plan to take forward the recommendations addressed to Defra and is working with the Pathfinder authorities on ways to take forward the recommendations at local level."[112] However, Mr Ivan Annibal, the Assistant Director of Economic Regeneration at Lincolnshire County Council, was worried about the follow-up to the Rural Delivery Pathfinders: "As a group they established quite a lot of best practice. The original idea was that Defra would have some funds to continue to sustain the dissemination of that best practice but unfortunately that money has not been forthcoming."[113] He said that the individual authorities involved were continuing to share their best practice, but commented: "Obviously when you do something on a voluntary basis and as a local government group rather than as part and parcel of a dialogue with the government department, it is less powerful."[114] Defra must ensure that the knowledge that was accumulated during the rural delivery pathfinders project does not go to waste. It should not be solely up to individual authorities involved to disseminate best practice; defra should provide support. We are particularly interested in the suggestion in the rural delivery pathfinder report that there should be a defra/local government rural policy group and we urge defra to consider whether such a group could be used to help it achieve its rural communities DSO.

The Commission For Rural Communities

57.  We hope that the CRC will also play an important role in the delivery of Defra's DSO: by monitoring the Department's progress and offering advice where necessary. The CRC was established under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to:

  • represent rural needs to public authorities and other relevant bodies;
  • provide public authorities and other bodies with information and advice about issues connected with rural needs or ways of meeting them; and
  • monitor, and report on, the way in which policies are developed, adopted and implemented (by rural proofing or otherwise) and the extent to which those policies are meeting rural needs.[115]

It has a duty to focus on people suffering from social disadvantage and areas suffering from economic underperformance.[116] The CRC replaced some of the functions of the Countryside Agency; other parts of the Countryside Agency merged with English Nature to form Natural England. We were pleased to see that the CRC has set about restoring good relations with representative bodies within rural areas and especially the rural community councils which felt previously that the Countryside Agency spent too much time on changing existing delivery mechanisms and not enough on establishing a clear strategy for rural areas.

58.  Given the CRC's statutory function to provide advice on rural needs and ways of meeting them, we would have expected it to be involved in the development of Defra's rural communities DSO as a matter of course. However, when we asked the CRC whether it had given Defra any particular advice on the DSO, Mr Graham Garbutt, the CRC's Chief Executive, replied:

Not specifically on the DSO; it is a continuous process. The PSA/DSO process was one conducted largely within the civil service and presented to us. Given its breadth and flexibility, frankly I would not have wanted to spend a lot of time discussing it because it is more important that we get on with managing CRC given our clear focus, fairly tight remit and limited resources. [117]

The CRC does have limited resources. Professor Ward of the CRE commented: "The Countryside Agency had a budget of about £100 million or so, the Commission for Rural Communities started off with a budget of about £14 million, down to £10 million and now down to £7.5 million."[118] However, providing advice to Defra about its only rural affairs objective seems to us to fall very much within the CRC's "clear focus" and "fairly tight remit". Although we accept that the psa/dso process was conducted largely within the civil service, we are both surprised and disappointed that the crc was not invited to provide defra with advice on the development of the rural communities dso, given that this target will be central to defra's approach to rural affairs until the comprehensive spending review. We recognise that the crc has limited resources, but we urge it to do all that it can to advise defra on how best to implement its DSO in the light of the concerns expressed by the witnesses in this inquiry. We seek its assurance that it will play a key part in monitoring defra's success in achieving the DSO. We are concerned that the crc's budget has almost halved since its creation in 2006. If the crc is to be an effective adviser, advocate and watchdog, the government must ensure that it has sufficient resources to carry out these tasks.


77   Ev 66, para 3.3 Back

78   Ev 196, para 11 Back

79   Q 198 Back

80   Qq 200-01 Back

81   Q 203 Back

82   Q 202 Back

83   Ibid. Back

84   Ev 196, para 11 Back

85   Q 122 Back

86   Q 105 Back

87   Ev 65, para 1.3 Back

88   Q 101 Back

89   Ev 124 Back

90   Ev 61, para 20 Back

91   Q 97 Back

92   Ev 65, para 1.3 Back

93   Ev 61, para 20 Back

94   Ev 132, paras 6-8 Back

95   Ev 3, para 5.1 Back

96   Q 137 Back

97   Q 174 [Ms Berry] Back

98   For further examples of projects carried out by RDAs, including Yorkshire Forward, in rural areas, please see Ev 72 [RE 17b]. Back

99   Ev 227, para 2 Back

100   Q 105 Back

101   Ev 66, para 3.1  Back

102   Ev 66, para 3.5 Back

103   Q 321 Back

104   Q 322. Section 4(2) of the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 states: "A regional development agency's purposes apply as much in relation to the rural parts of its area as in relation to the non-rural parts of its area." Back

105   Q 325 Back

106   Q 327 Back

107   Ev 47, para 9 Back

108   Q 78. Local area agreements set out the priorities for a local area agreed between Government, the local authority and other local partners. Back

109   The Pathfinders were: Shropshire County Council; Lancashire County Council; Fens (jointly Cambridgeshire and Norfolk County Councils); Humber (East Riding of Yorkshire County Council); Dorset County Council; Hampshire County Council; Peak District (Derbyshire Dales District Council); and West Durham (Durham County Council). Back

110   Q 89 Back

111   "Rural challenges, local solutions: Building on the Rural Delivery Pathfinders in England", February 2008, p 10 Back

112   www.defra.gov.uk/rural/ruraldelivery/pathfinders/default.htm Back

113   Q 89 Back

114   Q 89 Back

115   These functions are set out in section 19 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. Back

116   Under section 18 of the Act. The focus on underperformance is subtly but significantly different from Defra's focus on low performance, since an area could be performing well in comparison with the national average but still underperforming in terms of what it was capable of achieving.  Back

117   Q 47 Back

118   Q 13. Defra told us that, for 2008-09, the CRC has a budget of £6.4 million (Ev 124).  Back


 
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