Report reveals how government is failing to adequately address rural needs

Jeremy Leggett, ACRE’s Policy Adviser blogs about the publication of the 2020 Rural Proofing Report and how policy making must move beyond lip service to rural communities.

The UK Government believes, perfectly reasonably, that giving consideration to people who live in rural places should be the responsibility of all public service organisations. It must be part of the mainstream; not budgeted for and arranged separately . After all, 17% of the population is 17% of the population, they pay their taxes like everyone else and, arguably, there is actually even more vigorous entrepreneurism in rural areas from which those taxes can come .

To achieve this, all public service organisations are required to ‘rural-proof’ their plans, policies and delivery arrangements. Although there is a Rural Affairs Dept. within Whitehall, Government does not believe in giving a ‘policing’ responsibility to DEFRA. It does, however, give it the task of preparing a Rural Proofing Report each year, and nudging other departments, as required, to say what they have done. This is mainstreaming -how ‘rural proofing’ is supposed to work.

But this brings us to the Rumsfeldian Paradox. In our experience officials across Whitehall, throughout many government agencies and local authorities, do not grasp ‘rural proofing’. They do not see that the inconvenient and expensive needs of 17% of the population are important or distinct and, crucially, they don’t know, what they don’t know.

If you have no instinct for how life in rural areas works for the woman on the non-existent Little Clapham-in-the-Marsh omnibus, you cannot hope to spot when a piece of policy or service planning needs to be ‘rural-proofed’. If you cannot see the need, you will not even start, let alone know how, to carry it through. Even more importantly, if every pronouncement from Government suggests that the only important difference between urban and rural areas is that rural ones are beautiful natural places in need of re-wilding, you could be forgiven for thinking that the people who live there can be left as an afterthought. Are they not privileged enough, just to live in such a wonderful place?

So, how do we break the Rumsfeldian circle? How do we help officials and politicians to come to know what they currently do not know about the impact of their actions on rural people?

The concept of mainstreaming is clearly a laudable one, so is the publication of an annual Rural Proofing Report. But these alone will not catch the unintended consequences of policy that has only been thought through from an urban perspective. It will not prevent a consultation on access to broadband for the very hardest to reach places being carried out exclusively online! Or every small hospital that serves rural populations ending up in ‘special measures ’ simply because a sparse population limits the resources available to them. Or transport policy being guided exclusively by ‘urban mobility principles’ lifted directly from an urban strategy and with limited relevance to rural areas.

The 2020 Rural Proofing Report does its best to find something optimistic to say. It tries, but ultimately it has little material with which to work. Little public policy has genuinely been rural-proofed over the last few years, and it is clear that rural people and communities are not at the heart of Government decision making. It is time for a different approach.

We need a small unit, close to the heart of Government, with a clear and powerful remit to examine policy as it is developed, and to find ways of bringing rural access to public services in from the cold. This is required if Government’s efforts to ‘rural proof’ and ‘mainstream’ all departments, agencies and local authorities are to be effective. We must ensure that rural people are not unreasonably disadvantaged by where they live.