Rural Communities - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

9  Rural Communities Policy Unit

223.  The Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU) is the lead rural policy function within Government. Based in the Rural Development, Sustainable Communities & Crops Directorate within Defra, the RCPU's role includes the following functions—Rural Proofing Government policies, enabling rural economic growth, broadband and mobile phone infrastructure delivery, stakeholder engagement and building the Rural Evidence Base.[318]

224.  In our inquiry we sought to scrutinise the RCPU on the exercise of its functions. We considered the effectiveness with which the RCPU engaged with rural stakeholders, its success in rural proofing government policy, whether it was transparent and accessible, its level of expertise, and whether it had the appropriate policy focus.

Rural proofing

225.  Rural proofing requires policy-makers to consider the rural impacts of their policies and, where necessary, make adjustments to ensure they apply fairly to rural areas. The RCPU supports rural proofing by providing advice, guidance and support to policy officials across Government, including through published rural proofing guidance materials and toolkits. Defra told us that they aim to produce "a cluster of different toolkits, depending on the profession, because there are some specifics where people like to see some examples of practice".[319] To date, Defra has produced a local government level toolkit, and a health toolkit, and will shortly publish National Rural Proofing Guidelines. Defra's intention to refresh its approach to rural proofing and run workshops for officials across government is to be welcomed.[320]

226.  Throughout this Report we have assessed the RCPU's success in ensuring the work of Government is rural proofed. We have noted examples where the RCPU has had influence—such as in seeking changes to the NPPF and working with the Department for Transport on Community Transport—and occasions, such as the local government funding settlement, where its influence was less apparent. Professor Shucksmith considered that the RCPU had established strong working relationships with colleagues in some government departments but that links with some policy areas such as schools and youth unemployment appeared less strong. Certainly, the evidence we heard suggested that Defra were not aware that changes to education funding policy might disadvantage small rural schools.

227.  For Defra to ensure Government rural proofs policy effectively it needs to have strong relationships with other departments to make sure they are attuned to rural aspects at an early stage in policy formation. It is much harder to change a policy once it has been drafted and announced. As much of the development of policy is done within Government it is difficult to assess the extent to which rural proofing has both taken place and had an influence on the final policy. If done early enough in the policy process the impact can be difficult to see. We recommend that all policies be subject to rural proofing, unless a case can be made that it does not apply. Action taken to ensure fair rural outcomes must be reflected in a policy's Impact Assessment so that rural stake-holders can see that their needs have been accounted for. Where applicable, the impact assessment process must include consideration of the rural premium that exists in delivering services in rural areas.

228.  Defra does not necessarily need to act as rural proofer itself. First and foremost rural proofing must be built into the process of policy creation within departments. Secondly, there are many rural organisations able to represent rural interests and support Defra in its rural proofing role.

229.  Several organisations suggested to us that Defra produce 'an annual report' on rural proofing.[321] Indeed, the Rural Statement includes a commitment by Defra to commission an external review of rural proofing to be undertaken in autumn 2013.[322] In our Report, Farming in the Uplands, we also recommended that the Government should publish an assessment of the work of the RCPU. We agree that Defra should review rural proofing annually. The review must acknowledge where it has failed to secure rural fairness as well as the successes it has achieved. It seems sensible to us for that review to be included in Defra's Annual Report and Accounts in line with the guidance for other government departments.


230.  The RCPU has made engaging with representatives of rural communities and businesses a key priority. It maintains a structured engagement with RCAN, ACRE, Rural and Farming Networks, the Rural Coalition, the Rural Services Network, Local Enterprise Partnerships, and Local Action Groups.[323] The Plunkett Foundation considered this too small a number of rural stakeholders and Professor Shucksmith asked whether the RCPU's engagement with these bodies, while valuable, simply represented the 'usual suspects':

If one is really trying to reach all parts of rural communities, particularly in the way that the Commission for Rural Communities was statutorily obliged to reach disadvantaged groups in rural communities, one has to go further. I do not mean that as a criticism of RCPU, because it is extraordinarily difficult for a central Government unit within a ministry to reach out in that sort of way, particularly with the relatively few members of staff that they have.[324]

231.  However, both Mike Perry from the Plunkett Foundation and Professor Shucksmith agreed that given the size of the RCPU team and its limited resources, the expectation that they would be able to reach out to all communities, including the hard-to-reach, was unrealistic, particularly given the current Government freeze on marketing budgets.[325] Other witnesses praised the Rural and Farming Networks and considered that the RCPU "has gone out of its way to ensure the RFN has broad representation".[326] However, "little on-the-ground promotion of the Rural and Farming Networks other than launch"[327] and lack of funding for these partnerships limited "the extent to which they could speak for the constituents they represent".[328]

232.  It is perhaps not surprising that those organisations not part of the RCPU's structured engagement felt the RCPU could do better.[329] Helen Wright told us "we have a dedicated rural team. We are not part of any LEP situation directly, so we are not around a LEP round table. We feel quite bereft, really, that we cannot get more direct contact. I do not think there is direct contact with individual local authorities."[330]

233.  It is unrealistic for the RCPU to engage directly with a wide range of rural communities. It should not try. Instead those rural bodies who represent Defra's stakeholder engagement should be routinely challenged to demonstrate that they have the appropriate reach at a local level—one that includes the 'hard-to-reach' members of rural society. While we consider that the network of bodies with which the RCPU maintains a structured relationship constitutes a comprehensive engagement framework, we believe that including rural practitioners in local authorities in that structure would be mutually beneficial.

RCPU's priorities

234.  The RCPU has a particular policy focus on Ministers' stated rural priorities—housing, broadband, services, transport and fuel. In addition, Defra is responsible for driving rural economic growth through delivery of the socio-economic elements of the RDPE, and the package of measures announced in the Rural Economy Growth Review.

235.  Throughout our inquiry we asked whether the RCPU's policy focus was correct. The Rural Coalition considered that "given the changes in national policy, new local implementation models and general funding shortages, we also believe that the health agenda needs formal recognition as a distinct rural priority".[331] The demographics of our rural communities are changing. Rural communities are ageing, this makes supporting people to live independent lives and providing services for those who are vulnerable an increasing challenge for local authorities. Against this, the growing rate of out migration of young people is a major issue for the sustainability of many rural communities.

236.  We have highlighted how lack of affordable housing, greater distances from economic centres, higher fuel prices and limited local services and amenities can make rural living a challenge. Together they can make the experience faced by those living in poverty in rural areas more intense. While deprivation may be more directly aligned with other Departments such as DWP we believe that because of the different rural experience of deprivation and disadvantage, which Defra is most likely to better understand, rural deprivation should be a policy focus for the RCPU. In addition, the implications of an ageing rural population mean that if healthcare is not already included within the services priority then the RCPU should add it as an additional policy focus.

Transparency, accessibility and expertise

237.  With the demise of the Commission for Rural Communities, an independent critical voice has been lost. One of the roles set out for the RCPU is to "champion rural issues across government".[332] Inevitably perhaps for a body within government there is concern that the RCPU "may be starting to become an uncritical advocate of government manifesto commitments, and less a supporter of appropriate solutions for rural areas".[333] Neil Sinden, CPRE, told us the "Commission previously were able to investigate issues that they felt were significant and bring those issues to the attention of Government in a way that I do not think the unit is necessarily going to be easily able to do. Simply in terms of resourcing there are vastly fewer resources both in terms of staff and finance."[334]

238.  The lack of resource of the RCPU, compared with that enjoyed by the CRC, may explain what a number of our witnesses identified as a lack of visibility of the unit. Comments we received included "little printed coverage of RCPU work in traditional farming press",[335] "many in rural areas have little, if any, knowledge of the RCPU",[336] and "they do not have a clear programme of works ... information posted online is basic". The RCPU needs to improve its transparency to ensure more people are better aware of its existence, its priorities and its work programme. That is not to say the RCPU is being deliberately secretive or less open than it might be. People we spoke to were universal in praise of their dealings with staff of the unit and their expertise. They have "engaged openly with rural stakeholders", "been approachable, transparent and supportive"[337] and "shown considerable willingness to field officials to speak at local meetings and conferences".[338] Organisations also welcomed the presence of the unit within government as it allowed dialogue with a body that has the ear of Ministers.


239.  In its response to our Farming in the Uplands Report the Government stated that before summer 2011 it would publish a Rural Policy Statement which "will provide further information about its plans to address rural needs and interests over the rest of this Parliament."[339] The Statement was finally published over a year later in September 2012 after the Government prioritised producing the Rural Economy Growth Review. The Statement brought welcome attention to rural issues which were absent in Defra's overall departmental business plan.

240.  According to Defra the Statement "underlines our commitment to Rural England. It reflects our vision for successful rural businesses and thriving rural communities. The Statement paves the way for a refreshed and reinvigorated approach to rural proofing of Government policy." Much of the Rural Statement is a recap of existing policies. At the LGA annual conference the Secretary of State described it as a "'useful bible' for galvanising how Defra is working with others across government to make the rural economy more prosperous". ACRE considered it:

A simple rehearsal of government manifesto policies, regardless of their role and relevance to rural areas. [...] The widespread reaction of rural stakeholders was to express concern that RCPU were appearing to support, for instance, the advent of free schools and community organisers as potential positive solutions to rural community challenges, when they are likely to have a distinctly negative impact. We, and others, will be looking for a more discriminating approach to the work of the RCPU in practice.[340]

241.  A number of commentators also questioned the lack of emphasis on the natural environment, particularly its role in the sustainable economic recovery of the countryside and that of rural communities in maintaining and protecting it.[341] The theme of growing an economy by investing in nature that ran through the earlier Natural Environment White Paper, was absent from the Rural Statement.

242.   The Secretary of State described the Rural Statement as a "contract to give rural areas the power to hold us to account on our promise" but measurable targets are conspicuously absent. [342] Neil Sinden, CPRE, told us that it did not provide "an adequate basis upon which we can measure effectiveness or success of Government policy in relation to rural development and rural community issues."[343] While Professor Shucksmith suggested there was "a certain air of unreality about it because it presented all these initiatives without any recognition, any acknowledgement, of the changing context around them. For example, ... there are mentions of new pots of money for affordable rural housing and no mention of the collapse in house building."[344]

243.  We welcome the Rural Statement. Its publication brought much needed attention to rural issues. It is disappointing that it was principally a collection of existing measures and lacked the ambition to look toward possible future policies such as those discussed in the Natural Environment White Paper. We also question whether all of the policies referred to in the Statement were particularly relevant to rural life. The final sentence of the Statement described it as a "contract with rural areas, so they can hold us to account" yet it included no targets by which performance could be judged.

244.  In its response to our Uplands report the Government told us that it intends to publish regular updates of the Rural Policy Statement, including details of the work of the Rural Communities Policy Unit and, where appropriate, progress reports on the impact various government policies and programmes have had upon rural residents, communities and businesses. When it is next updated we expect to see a more ambitious Rural Statement that includes reference to the RCPU's policy plans for the future. The Statement must also include some key performance outcomes so that rural areas can hold the Government to account. Such indicators might include figures on rural GVA, rural deprivation, the numbers of rural pubs and shops, and feedback from rural stakeholders.

318   Ev 115 [Defra] Back

319   Q 472 Back

320   Q 472 and Ev 98 [Rural Services Network] Back

321   Ev w34 [ACRE]; Ev w10 [Shropshire Council]; Ev w44 [Rural Coalition] Back

322   Defra Ministers have invited Lord Cameron to undertake this review and are currently discussing terms of reference with him. In addition, guidance materials issued to Government Departments requires that they report on their rural proofing activities in their annual report and accounts. Back

323   See Ev 115 [Defra] for further details on Defra's engagement with these bodies. Back

324   Q 385 Back

325   Q 387 Back

326   Ev 110 [NFU] Back

327   Ev w21 [ALA] Back

328   Ev w12 [Commission for Rural Communities] Back

329   For example, Ev 110 [NFU] and Ev 104 [CLA] Back

330   Q 72 Back

331   Ev w44 [Rural Coalition] Back

332   HC Deb, 1 April 2011, col 41WS Back

333   EV w34 [ACRE] Back

334   Ev 96 [CPRE] Back

335   Ev w21 [ALA] Back

336   Ev 104 [CLA] Back

337   Ev 111 [NFU], Ev 101 [Calor Gas] and Ev w7 [Quantera Ltd] Back

338   Ev w7 [Quantera Ltd] Back

339   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Farming in the Uplands: Government Response to the Committee's Third Report of Session 2010-11, Fourth Special Report of Session 2010-12, HC 953 Back

340   Ev w34 [ACRE] Back

341   For example the RSPB, Cumbria Council, and CPRE Back

342   Defra press release, New 'contract' to give rural communities power to hold Government to account on rural growth, 12 September 2012 Back

343   Q 288 Back

344   Q 384 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 24 July 2013