No Time For a Rural Strategy
by Felicity Humphrey,

Two months after receiving the report of the House of Lords Rural Economy Committee, entitled “Time for a strategy for the rural economy”, the Government has published its response.

It is disappointing that Government has not responded positively to many of the carefully considered and well-reasoned recommendations, especially the central one that Government needs a comprehensive Rural Strategy to which all Departments of Government are committed. 9.3 million people live in rural areas and it’s easy to conclude from this response that little political attention is paid to them.

In giving evidence to the Committee’s inquiry the DEFRA Secretary of State, Michael Gove, frequently said he had not made up his mind on some issues that fall into the ‘rural affairs’ part of his Department’s remit. It is clear from the response that DEFRA’s reliance on other departments to deliver its responsibilities beyond its food, farming and environmental brief continues to give difficulty. Indeed, despite the Committee calling for a response from the whole of Government, the reply to the Committee’s Chair Lord Foster, has been provided primarily by DEFRA. Where there are contributions from other Departments they often seem limited in how they address rural-specific questions.

Nonetheless, there are some positive proposals and ACRE welcomes Government’s commitment to preparing a new vision for rural England. The report proposes a new Rural Affairs Board which we look forward to hearing more about.

ACRE’s Chair, David Emerson CBE said: “Although we are encouraged by the Government’s recognition of the need to refresh our nation’s vision for its rural areas, we remain disappointed that it has not yet committed to a Rural Strategy. Although it is clear from this response that the necessary vision does not yet exist, we see hope in the Government’s implicit acceptance of that. We look forward to working with Government to define a better way forward for rural communities, including establishing its proposed Rural Affairs Board. It will be essential that this new body is independently minded if it is to be effective in supporting Government to develop a practical new vision for rural communities.”

The ACRE Network’s main aim is to help communities meet the needs of those at most risk of disadvantage through living in rural areas. The response to the House of Lords’ Committee Report is largely silent on the Report’s other main theme:

‘… that nobody should be unreasonably disadvantaged by where they live’.

It is to be hoped that the frequent references to ‘rural proofing’ in the Government’s response will result in all Government Departments taking much more seriously their responsibility to ensure greater equity in how services are delivered to rural people.