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Government failing rural communities, say Lords

Words: Laura Edgar
Rural / iStock-147989111

There has been a ‘consistent failure, over a number of years, to prioritise the ‘rural affairs’ element of the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra), according to a report by the Lords Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.

While the current minister and rural ambassador for the department have been working to address this, the report acknowledges, the focus of Defra has been “consumed by its important work on agriculture and the environment”. There has been a lack of emphasis on rural communities as a whole, as well as the rural economy.

Brexit will compound the issue, resulting in “fundamental changes” to the way in which agriculture and environment policy is developed and implemented.

To address this, the Lords committee recommends that responsibility for rural policy should be transferred to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

“Local authorities deliver many of the key services that support rural vitality and, given the evidence, we think it is more logical that responsibility for rural communities should rest within the central government department that is responsible for communities as a whole,” states the report.

The Lords note that Natural England has been on the end of “severe” budget cuts, leading to concerns about its ability to perform its core function. Its remit was widened when the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2016 brought about the abolition of the Countryside Agency and English Nature.

“We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities.  This situation should be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

The Lords committee also recommends:

  • Assigning responsibility for promoting and embedding rural proofing across government departments to the Cabinet Office, within a single purpose unit that has the necessary resources and experience required to exert influence on all departments.
  • The NERC Act should be amended so that it includes a reporting requirement to the biodiversity duty.
  • Natural England should review its standard advice to planning authorities to ensure that it is up to date. It should be reviewed more regularly in the future. Natural England should also review the extent of its reference to standard advice when considering planning applications, as well as reviewing its approach to considering landscapes when offering planning advice and considering planning applications.

Lord Cameron of Dillington, chairman of the committee said: “It is clear that the government are failing to take proper account of the needs of rural communities. Departmental decisions and policies continue to demonstrate a lack of rural understanding among Whitehall policymakers. Each and every government department should be required to think about the ways in which their policies affect rural people, and the government must take action to ensure that this ‘rural-proofing’ of policy happens.

"The committee's overall vision is for balanced protection and promotion of the natural environment and a reversal of the biodiversity decline. This must be coupled with better recognition of the potential of rural communities and the rural economy, and a greater effort from the government to ensure that policy changes do not work to the detriment of rural areas."

The Countryside at a Crossroads: Is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act Still Fit for Purpose can be found on the UK Parliament website (pdf).

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