| Conclusions and recommendations
The potential benefits
- We recommend that Defra economists make an effort to quantify
the potential of the rural economy as this would assist in making
a case for the necessary use of resources to fully address the
challenges arising from the rural economy that this report and
others identify. (Paragraph 1)
The Burgess and Taylor Reviews
- The Burgess and Taylor reviews are an indication of the Government's willingness to consider what further measures could be taken to strengthen the rural economy and address the continuing problem of housing availability for those on low incomes. What are needed are innovative schemes such as Community Land Trusts to build upon the exceptions policy in local development frameworks and to kick start these initiatives. We urge the Government to publish detailed responses to both reviews, setting out whether it agrees with their findings, what specific actions it intends public bodies to take as a result, and an implementation timetable.
Understanding the Rural Economy
- Based on the concerns put to the Committee, we recommend that Defra carry out a review of whether planning decisions by National Park Authorities reflect the correct balance between protecting the natural environment and ensuring that communities located within national parks are sustainable and will survive.
- The differences between running a business in a market town and a smaller rural community seem to us at least as significant as the differences between running a business in a market town and a city. Defra should ensure that its rural affairs targets take this into account and that its data enables it to distinguish between different types of rural areas, so that its policies can be tailored accordingly.
The Marginalisation of Rural Affairs?
- 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 next 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"?
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- We are concerned about the level at which the indicators operate. We agree with Defra that, for some indicators, it is not meaningful to compare data at a very local level. However, for the majority of indicators, comparing data at a district level will not enable Defra or other agencies to identify specific problems and target interventions accordingly. Our experience suggests that remote rural communities and market towns are encountering different problems, but we cannot see how the majority of indicators would pick up on this, or any of the other location-specific problems we encountered. We recognise that Defra is dependent on other departments and the Office for National Statistics for much of its data. We recommend that it identify the indicators for which it would be useful to have more detailed results and set out how it intends to work with its data providers to obtain this level of information in future.
The Missing Pieces
- Although it is encouraging that rural areas are performing well according to the criteria and measures Defra has selected, we see little value in having a Departmental Strategic Objective until 2011 that Defra has already largely achieved. We recognise that maintaining success is important, but we question whether this should be the focus of Defra's only rural affairs DSO. We acknowledge that no target or set of performance indicators can be all-encompassing. However, we are concerned that there are significant gaps in what Defra is measuring in its rural communities DSO. We would like to see a DSO that is sufficiently flexible, and fine-grained, to enable the problems in different communities to be recognised and tackled. We recommend that Defra consult the Commission for Rural Communities on whether the indicators for the DSO represent the best practicable way of identifying the issues affecting rural communities. Defra should revise its indicators in the light of this advice.
- If Defra does decide to proceed with the current indicators, it should be careful to treat its indicators as no more than that: indicators of success. Defra must recognise that some important aspects of life in rural communities, such as transport, communications, planning and further education, are not covered by its mainstreaming indicators. It should also recognise that there may be problems that are not reflected by a simple comparison with the national average. It should set out how it intends to identify and tackle these problems.
- 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 next 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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 next 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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. (Paragraph 63)