Rural communities ‘marginalised’

Rural communities are being marginalised by the same government department set up to support them, MPs have found.

In a report published this morning, the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee argued Defra must now concentrate on rural communities, given that its climate change brief has been shifted over to the new Department of Energy and Climate Change.

“People in rural areas are often good at taking the initiative to help their communities and businesses, but do not always get the support they need from public bodies,” the report said.

“The committee found a strong perception that rural affairs are being marginalised in Defra.”

In a damning assessment of Defra’s approach to rural communities, MPs said the department’s strategic objective of ‘strong rural communities’ was “confusing and not easily understood”.

It called for the focus to shift from just under-performing areas to improving the economic growth of rural areas as a whole.

It also objected to the lack of coordination with transport, communication, planning and further education authorities in trying to attain those objectives.

The committee’s chairman, Michael Jack, reinforced those points this morning.

“With climate change gone from Hilary Benn’s [environment, food and rural affairs secretary] in-tray, his department must spend more time banging heads together across Whitehall to really make thorough ‘rural proofing’ of government policy a reality,” he said.

The report was not entirely negative. MPs did state that rural communities “punch above their weight” when it comes to economic performance.

The Campaign to Protect Rural Communities (CPRE) welcomed some of the report’s findings but urged MPs not to disassociate rural economic performance from the intrinsic characteristics of the countryside.

“MPs are right to identify the importance of rural communities in contributing to the nation’s success, but they’re making a mistake not to acknowledge that beautiful and characterful surroundings are an integral part of that success,’ said Tom Oliver, head of rural policy at CPRE.

The Campaign for National Parks (CNP) also questioned some of the MPs’ assumptions.
“The committee has fallen into the trap of thinking that the high environmental quality of our national parks has been maintained at the expense of businesses within them,” said Ruth Chambers, acting chief executive of CNP.

“On the contrary, research shows that national parks help businesses to prosper, locally and regionally, and that a healthy natural environment and a healthy rural economy go hand in hand.”