Whilst the application of rural proofing has a mixed record, it has nonetheless proved a useful lever for seeking to have rural needs and circumstances taken into account. To improve its effectiveness a Rural Strategy should address certain points. They are:
→ A proper legal basis for rural proofing: there is now a real case for placing rural proofing on a stronger legal footing, in the way that it has been in Northern Ireland. The centrepiece of a Rural Strategy should be to place a responsibility on all public bodies, to have regard for rural needs whenever they develop or revise policies, strategies and plans. This duty would be the best way to ensure rural proofing is more consistently and adequately applied. It would also send a welcome, visible signal that the Government of the day reaffirms its commitment to the wellbeing of rural communities and the success of rural economies.
→ A more transparent proofing process: it is frequently unclear the extent to which Whitehall departments have considered rural needs and circumstances when developing policies or initiatives. Three actions could help. First, policy making teams could more often consult rural interest groups who have relevant subject expertise. Second, departments could report annually and publically on their rural proofing activities. Third, the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Select Committee could hold a short, regular (say, biennial) inquiry to review progress.
→ A better resourced team within Defra: the dedicated rural affairs team within Defra has a key role to engage with policy making teams across Whitehall, helping them to understand rural issues, to undertake rural proofing and to apply rural evidence. This is an ongoing function: rural proofing activity quickly withers if it is not supported. Whilst Defra staff will never be able to engage with every policy development that takes place, there nevertheless needs to be sufficient resources to cover a broad sweep of topics which impact significantly on rural communities and economies.
→ An effective approach to local policy delivery: the principle of rural proofing should also apply at the local level where policies are delivered. A legal basis for rural proofing would cover statutory bodies. It should be good practice for private and civil society sector organisations too. Local practice can include adopting rural strategies, assessing rural impacts, holding rural scrutiny sessions, testing initiatives with rural pilots, appointing rural champions to key groups or committees and monitoring rural outcomes. It will help if there are opportunities and resources that enable the sharing and learning from existing rural practice. Organisations such as the Rural Services Network, ACRE and Rural Coalition stand ready to play their part.
Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and updates.