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 functionsRural
Proofing Government policies, enabling rural economic growth,
broadband and mobile phone infrastructure delivery, stakeholder
engagement and building the Rural Evidence Base.
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.
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".
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.
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 influencesuch
as in seeking changes to the NPPF and working with the Department
for Transport on Community Transportand 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
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.
Indeed, the Rural Statement includes a commitment by Defra to
commission an external review of rural proofing to be undertaken
in autumn 2013.
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.
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.
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.
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".
However, "little on-the-ground promotion of the Rural and
Farming Networks other than launch"
and lack of funding for these partnerships limited "the extent
to which they could speak for the constituents they represent".
232. It is perhaps not surprising that those
organisations not part of the RCPU's structured engagement felt
the RCPU could do better.
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."
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 levelone 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.
234. The RCPU has a particular policy focus on
Ministers' stated rural prioritieshousing, 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".
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
Transparency, accessibility and
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
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".
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."
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",
"many in rural areas have little, if any, knowledge of the
"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"
and "shown considerable willingness to field officials to
speak at local meetings and conferences".
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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. 
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."
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."
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
Q 472 Back
Q 472 and Ev 98 [Rural Services Network] Back
Ev w34 [ACRE]; Ev w10 [Shropshire Council]; Ev w44 [Rural Coalition] Back
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
See Ev 115 [Defra] for further details on Defra's engagement with
these bodies. Back
Q 385 Back
Q 387 Back
Ev 110 [NFU] Back
Ev w21 [ALA] Back
Ev w12 [Commission for Rural Communities] Back
For example, Ev 110 [NFU] and Ev 104 [CLA] Back
Q 72 Back
Ev w44 [Rural Coalition] Back
HC Deb, 1 April 2011, col 41WS Back
EV w34 [ACRE] Back
Ev 96 [CPRE] Back
Ev w21 [ALA] Back
Ev 104 [CLA] Back
Ev 111 [NFU], Ev 101 [Calor Gas] and Ev w7 [Quantera Ltd] Back
Ev w7 [Quantera Ltd] Back
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
Ev w34 [ACRE] Back
For example the RSPB, Cumbria Council, and CPRE Back
Defra press release, New 'contract' to give rural communities
power to hold Government to account on rural growth, 12 September
Q 288 Back
Q 384 Back