Is the Rural Statement a 'new' contract to empower communities or re-presentation of 'old' initiatives? Jessica Sellick finds out.
Under the strap line 'new contract to give rural communities power to hold Government to account on rural growth', the Rural Statement 2012 was launched by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson on 12 September 2012. This eagerly awaited document is intended to reaffirm the Government's commitment to rural England. But what does the Statement say? And does it focus on issues of critical importance to rural communities? Jessica Sellick investigates.
In unveiling the Government's Rural Statement 2012, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson described how "for too long rural England was neglected by central Government and its businesses struggled to achieve their ambitions. We've already transformed the prospects of thousands of rural businesses and want to make sure that change is felt in every part of rural England. To do this, we've created the first 'rural contract' to give rural areas the power to hold us to account on our promise to grow the rural economy and support thriving rural communities." But what is this 'contract' and will it empower communities? What does the Statement actually mean for people who live, work in or visit rural England? I offer three points.
Firstly, the contents and presentation of the document. The Rural Statement can be traced back to April 2011, was officially announced in November 2011 and due for publication in spring 2012 (a previous article for the RSN sets out its trajectory). This time lapse has culminated in a 20-page document divided into three main sections: (1) economic growth, (2) rural engagement and (3) quality of life. Notwithstanding his department's logo on the cover, Owen Paterson – who was only appointed as Secretary of State on 4 September 2012 – has emphasised this is the 'Governments' Rural Statement, not 'Defras' Rural Statement.
The delay in its publication has undoubtedly been driven by inputs from Number 10 and other Government Departments (e.g. HM Treasury, Energy and Climate Change, Communities and Local Government). With the intention of building upon the Rural Economy Growth Review and Plan for Growth, much of what remains is a recap of existing initiatives: from the creation of five Rural Growth Networks (RGNs) to the Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF); from the Red Tape Challenge to Buying Standards for Food and Catering; and from the Rural and Farming Network (RFN) to the Farm and Forestry Improvement Scheme (FFIS). At the Local Government Association Annual Conference and Rural Commission, Mr Paterson described this recap as a "useful bible" for galvanising how Defra is working with others across government to make the rural economy more prosperous.
With this in mind, it is clear from reading the Statement that it describes existing projects: from disseminating the findings of the Green Food Project to the compilation of a Government-wide Rural Proofing Package. Interestingly, the Statement has brought to the fore some original commitments set out in 'Our Programme for Government', including Home on the Farm Schemes. Alongside the old and forgotten, there are some new initiatives: from the Skills and Knowledge Transfer Programme to GO ON UK (digital skills campaign); from funding a national Wheels to Work co-ordinator for the period 2012-2013 to finding innovative ways of delivering library services and training 5,000 community organisers. However, many of these ideas and Government commitment to digital access/broadband, transport and local services are well rehearsed.
The Statement perhaps has most utility in the way it signals themes that cut across Government - namely localism and the big society, economic growth, quality of life and the sharing of good practice. But this means its look and feel, overall, does not necessarily depict the countryside that RSN readers recognise– it is picture postcard in terms of the images it contains (the landscape scene on page 6, the village setting on page 12) and hollowed out in terms of its final content. All-too-often it touches upon initiatives already in place and how these will further open up rural business opportunities in the near future rather than enthusing the reader.
Secondly, the Statement has stimulated debates around the relationship between the natural environment and the economy. On the one hand, the Statement has been welcomed as meeting the needs of rural businesses. Harry Cotterell (President of the CLA), for example, praised the Government's recognition of the importance of broadband: "a fast and reliable internet connection is crucial for rural businesses to be able to compete with their urban-based counterparts. The process for rolling–out broadband to rural areas has been far too slow so I am pleased to see the Government has recognised this and is tackling this issue."
On the other hand, Kate Ashbrook (General Secretary at the Open Spaces Society) believes that green spaces have been overlooked: "it's time that government recognised the vital role of paths and access land, commons and green spaces, in boosting the rural economy." And under the heading 'it's not JUST the economy stupid', the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) also expressed disappointment at the sidelining of environmental issues. According to Neil Sinden, (Director of Policy and Campaigns at CPRE) "the Statement does not consider how...moves by the...Government to liberalise permitted development rights on agricultural buildings could irreversibly damage rural landscapes and tranquillity. Support for local food offers a great opportunity for the sustainable development of rural economies, but disappointingly is not covered by the Statement". From broadband and planning to recreation and food, growing an economy which invests in nature is vital. These themes run throughout the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP), which is not referenced in the Statement at all.
Thirdly, how binding is the rural contract? Will it enable rural dwellers to hold Government to account on their promise? Although it is encouraging to see that as a 'Government' Rural Statement all departments and not just Defra as the 'rural department' have responsibility for its delivery, the document is not written with a contract in mind. How are the contents within it, then, going to be implemented and monitored? Who is accountable and how? In the words of Meurig Raymond (NFU Deputy President) "we now need to see action matching the rhetoric".
How will the Statement fit into existing Defra processes such as the Capability Review, Business Plan Quarterly Data or on-the-ground activities such as the Rural and Farming Network and rural road shows Minsters will be participating in? Is such engagement robust enough to take up views from across rural England? How will the contract be adequately resourced? In this context, will the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee Inquiry into the work of Defra's Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU), (which is taking place this Autumn and which many RSN Members have responded to) combined with a new Ministerial team at Defra led by 'country man' Owen Paterson provide a new platform for all things rural?
Will the Rural Statement 2012 provide a positive 'new' agenda for change or fail to address the different barriers and priorities affecting rural communities?