‘Lack of rural voice harming communities’
WHITEHALL MUST address its lack of a strong voice to communicate the challenging reality of life in the country and “rural-proof ” policy across government departments, leaders say.
Ever since the Commission for Rural Communities was abolished four years ago, communities have lacked a central-funded body to raise the profile of rural issues within government, a House of Lords committee heard.
Countryside charity chiefs warned that their organisations’ expertise was being drawn upon too late to influence the formulation of policies that had gone on to negatively affect communities, citing the right-to-buy scheme which does not exempt community-led rural exception sites consisting of small housing developments and all schools providing meals to pupils, which is “impractical” for many in a rural setting.
The Yorkshire Post reported yesterday how building just a handful of homes could help turn around some villages that struggle to attract young families because of austerity-stripped services.
The Lords committee was told that rural communities had disproportionately suffered from local council budget cuts because levels of public services were already at a low base. Margaret Clark, chairwoman of the Rural Coalition, said a major concern was a lack of co-ordinated research around rural issues, and the Industrial Strategy green paper was a missed opportunity.
Ruing the fragmented voice that currently represents the countryside, Ms Clark said: “There’s no one body now that you can turn to as the lead... and I think that’s led, probably, to the rural voice being diminished and overlooked, and often undervalued.
“The role of a rural watchdog has disappeared. There is nobody holding, not just government, but other bodies to account.”
She called for rural-proofing of government policy to be “more transparent, more real and across government” and said it should happen early on in policy-making at all levels.
Jeremy Leggett, a trustee of Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), said there had never been enough political will behind rural-proofing.
“If you don’t do that early enough in the process of developing policy and then the mechanisms for delivering policy, you will always be blind to the rural dimension,” he said.
Mr Leggett added that Local Enterprise Partnerships seemed to be focused on urban outcomes because they seek “major economic interventions”.
The ACRE trustee called for “a comprehensive across-government policy towards rural communities, established and policed from within the heart of government somehow but with the aim that no one is seriously disadvantaged by the geography of where they live”.