Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Eleventh Report


59.  When we asked the witnesses at our evidence session in Hawes whether they agreed with the Rural Advocate's positive assessment of the potential of the rural economy, Ms Berry, the Chair of the Wensleydale Business Association replied:

Although I do share the optimism [that] there is a lot of potential I cannot see it happening unless we get the basic maintenance issues solved first; that is, access to skills, life opportunities, transport solutions, technological infrastructure and innovation.[119]

We agree that the rural economy cannot reach its full potential unless these issues are addressed. However, we doubt whether Defra's rural communities DSO, in its present form, will make a significant contribution to solving these problems.

60.  In applying a target to the rural economy, Defra is attempting to systematise something that is very diverse. We recognise the need for targets, both as a way of highlighting the importance of particular policy areas and of measuring performance. We also accept that, by their very nature, targets cannot encompass all the complexities involved in a particular issue. However, we are concerned about the lack of fit between Defra's new rural communities DSO and some of the issues affecting the people who live and work in those communities.

61.  To improve its DSO, Defra should: first, focus on achieving economic growth across rural areas as a whole, rather than concentrating solely on areas with the lowest level of performance; secondly, consult the crc on whether the indicators represent the best possible way of identifying the problems being experienced in rural areas, and, if necessary, revise the indicators in the light of this advice; and thirdly, produce a delivery plan that sets out what assistance it needs from other departments, RDAS and local authorities, how it will communicate these needs to them, and what feedback it will seek from them.

62.  We heard many success stories during our visit to North Yorkshire, but, often, the principal drivers of change were the communities themselves. This is to be celebrated, but such communities would still benefit from Defra's support and from a more imaginative and less target driven approach to rural affairs. Sometimes, the rural economy seems to be flourishing in spite of the framework that has been provided by the Government, rather than because of it. The DSO should not be the sole focus of the Department's rural affairs work. The Rural Delivery Pathfinders project, albeit on a relatively small scale, demonstrated what could be achieved by an innovative approach to rural affairs. Defra's policies must recognise the diversity of both the challenges and the possibilities that exist throughout the communities of rural england. Realising this potential means putting more effort into translating the "big picture approach" into policy solutions which have the flexibility to deal with small-scale challenges.

63.  This report is not the final word on the challenges facing England's rural economy; in fact it has revealed that there are further specific problems needing investigation. Now that most climate change responsibilities have been removed from Defra, we will expect to see evidence of the department taking the opportunity to focus more closely on its important rural affairs responsibilities.

119   Q 156 Back

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