Defra performance in 2014–15 Contents

5Delivering rural priorities

44.Many of Defra’s responsibilities can be effectively discharged only if the Department can spur other government departments to act. The levers for delivering policies on issues from broadband services to food safety lie outside Defra, including within other government departments, local authorities, devolved administrations and the voluntary sector. The Department has a vital role in communicating its policies to those working across government and wider society and in ensuring that Defra’s priorities become their priorities so as to deliver appropriate outcomes for farmers, the rural economy and the environment.

Rural proofing

45.Rural proofing became embedded in government policy-making as a result of the 2000 Rural White Paper, with responsibility coming in-house to Defra’s Rural Communities Policy Unit in 2011 following abolition of the independent Rural Communities Commission. Lord Cameron’s review of Rural Proofing Implementation published in January 2015 recommended a shift in Defra’s role from advising government departments to supporting them in mainstreaming rural evidence within their policy-making processes. The report notes that, across government, over half of Departmental Impact Assessments failed to address rural issues as required—and only 11% did so in any robust manner.55 Defra’s Annual Report notes that the Government is considering the report but cites a range of specific initiatives already in train such as the work by its Rural Communities Policy Unit with the Department for Transport to provide hundreds of minibuses for rural communities.56

46.Defra still has work to do to ensure that rural issues are addressed robustly by a number of other government departments. A small department such as Defra cannot attempt to monitor across Whitehall all of the actions that affect rural communities. Instead, it must put in place the right mechanisms to ensure that individual departments to take account of rural issues.

47.Defra must champion rural communities more vigorously by ensuring that all government departments embed rural evidence effectively into their policy-making processes. We recommend that the Department respond in full to Lord Cameron’s review of Rural Proofing Implementation within three months explaining how it will achieve this.

48.The roll-out of fast broadband services for rural areas is an example of where the potential for action lies in departments other than Defra. High-speed, reliable broadband connectivity is a key issue for rural businesses and wider communities, since it is vital for rural economic growth. The Government is committed to delivering 2Mbps internet to all users in England by 2016 and has provided some funding to hard-to-reach areas with limited access to high-speed broadband.57 Our predecessor Committee heard evidence that sufficient coverage was not being obtained in some rural areas, despite a target of 95% of premises receiving superfast broadband by 2017.58 The Secretary of State has told us that improving both broadband and mobile coverage is critical to closing the productivity gap between rural and urban communities.59 Subsequently, the Government has announced it will consult on a new Universal Service Obligation on the sector to provide fast broadband to all those who want it.60

49.Absence of effective internet and mobile phone connectivity hampers economic growth in some rural areas. The Government must support timely and efficient roll-out of fast broadband to all communities if rural areas are not to languish in the broadband slow-lane. It should aim for 100% coverage as near as is practically possible for all communities. We recommend that Defra communicate strongly to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport the need for rural areas to take a central place in broadband and mobile telephony coverage plans, including in the development of Universal Service Obligations on the sector. Any new Universal Service Obligation must in practice deliver affordable connections at sufficient speeds to all areas of the country.

55 Lord Cameron of Dillington, Independent rural proofing Implementation Review, January 2015, para 5.1

56 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Annual Report and Accounts 2014-15, HC 30

57 £20 million Rural Community Broadband Fund programme was launched in 2014 for areas that would otherwise get standard broadband only by 2016. This is a joint Defra/Broadband Delivery UK programme projected to enable 3,268 premises to connect to superfast broadband by 2014-15.More recently the £24 million Rural Growth Programme launched in July 2015 has committed to £6.3 million for boosting rural productivity with grants offered through Local Enterprise Partnerships

58 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Work of the Committee; 2010-15, HC 942

59 Q131

60 “PM promises 10 mbps broadband to every home that wants it”, webpage, 7 November 2015

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Prepared 14 December 2015