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%.
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."
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 createdone for each
region of England, excluding London.
The authorities in question were given "a modest budget"
and encouraged to take forward local initiatives.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
It has a duty to focus on people suffering from social
disadvantage and areas suffering from economic underperformance.
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.
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."
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.