Bishop of St Albans responds to report on Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act

StAlbansRoMB1On 2nd July 2018 Lord Cameron of Dillington moved that ‘this House takes note of the Report from the Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 “The countryside at a crossroads: Is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 still fit for purpose?” The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith, spoke in the debate: 

The Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. I also express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and his Select Committee for their excellent and timely report, The Countryside at a Crossroads. Not surprisingly, many of the points that I wanted to make have already been made, so I will cut out a number of things. I will not detain your Lordships for too long but will just underline one or two points.

First, I will pick up on a subject that has already been raised by every speaker: research and data, which is then used for the formulation of policy. As someone who has been following the research and what has been going on in the countryside and in agriculture over many years, I would say that we really have gone backwards in terms of our grasp of what is happening on the ground. There was a period when I used to look forward to the annual reports that came out, when you could see consistent trends and how they were developing, and it was a crucial and essential basis for the making of policy and, indeed, for our laws.

Recommendations 35 and 36 of the report addressed the abolition of the CRC, the loss of that independent research capability on rural communities, and the ​impact on policy-making of a lack of detailed data for rural areas. We have already noted that Her Majesty’s Government point out that they engage actively with research. They cite the quarterly Statistical Digest of Rural England and various projects they have commissioned, as well as collaborations with academics working in this area. However, as we made clear in the response that I signed off on behalf of the Church of England, the work done on the provision of affordable housing in rural areas, for example, could not have been based on research that was really rooted in objective data. While government-funded research is recognised, it needs to move beyond the quantitative to the qualitative, listening to the most local and excluded voices, and we need to take a more open, proactive approach to partnerships with a whole range of academics, who have an extraordinary grasp of what is going on in these areas. We need to address this firm basis of research if we are to be able to produce good laws.

That leads directly on to recommendation 37, which calls for a statement of priorities for rural research. In their response, Her Majesty’s Government have agreed to produce and consult on a “detailed statement of priorities” for rural research, and this needs to involve other government departments. Can the Minister tell us a little more about the process and timetable for doing this? Unless we can put some clothes on this proposal, there is a danger that absolutely nothing will happen—it will get lost in the huge amount of work that Defra is already being asked to deliver. I do not in any way want to disparage those working in Defra. My experience of meeting people who work in the department is that they are always very helpful. Indeed, the Minister himself has been a remarkably helpful colleague with any questions that I have asked or anything that I have wanted to do, and I have been very grateful for his help. Actually, it seems to me that he is being asked to do a totally impossible job. One issue therefore is whether he will get the help that he needs, but perhaps he could comment on these priorities.

I was pleased to hear that Her Majesty’s Government are retaining the rural affairs policy team, despite the closure of the Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra. The crucial question here is whether the team will have the staffing and funding to deliver the needs of rural policy across government. Some of us felt that the lack of integration of rural community policy in, for example, the recent Health and Harmony consultation on the future of agriculture post Brexit raised significant questions about whether there is sufficient capacity to deliver. I wonder whether the Minister might be tempted to comment on that.

Recommendation 39 in the Select Committee report suggests that responsibility for rural affairs needs to be transferred to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Her Majesty’s Government have already indicated in their response that they do not intend to change the departmental responsibilities for rural affairs. The reasons given are that the policy needs of environment, agriculture and rural communities are highly interconnected and dependent on each other, and that makes good sense. However, if that is the ​case, it would be good to see it reflected in the work of Defra, where currently the three elements can often feel very separate.

It seems to me that if the responsibilities are not to be transferred, a way of working more closely between at least three major departments needs to be established. First, for example, in relationships with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, particularly around housing and planning policy, rural proofing has been absent from many of the recent policy announcements. Some decisions that have been taken are, I believe, detrimental, particularly to the provision of affordable housing in rural communities. Secondly, we need to think about how connections will be made with the Department for Education, as schools are a key part of many rural communities and fundamental to rural sustainability. Thirdly, with regard to the Department of Health and Social Care, there is a need to ensure that there is sufficient funding for hard-to-reach rural areas, where GP recruitment is challenging and all services cost more to deliver than the budget accounts for. There probably also need to be informal links between other departments, such as the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but let us just start with the big ones.

The response to recommendation 40, regarding the fact that services cost more to deliver in rural areas, is to be welcomed. I know that Her Majesty’s Government have recently consulted on Fair Funding Review: A Review of Relative Needs and Resources, which proposed that rurality should be included as a common cost driver for delivery of public services. I understand that Her Majesty’s Government are currently analysing responses to the consultation, but I hope that the Minister can give us some indication, and some assurance, that rurality will indeed be identified as an additional cost factor as soon as possible.

Recommendations 41, 42 and 43 deal with rural proofing. I see from their response that Her Majesty’s Government do not intend for that to be transferred to the Cabinet Office, as the Select Committee report proposes, arguing that it should be mainstreamed into all departmental policy-making. But that is only arguing for what is presently supposed to be the case. How will that be different, when it is proving so difficult now? What is going to change? How can we get that change?

I suspect that one of the main issues is the provision of sufficient resources to do the job properly, particularly early enough in policy cycles for it to have sufficient impact to make the changes necessary. Frequently, it appears that the implications of policy decisions have not taken the needs of rural communities into account; for example, the recent changes to the schools funding formula.

Finally, I have a comment on recommendation 43. Is the Minister able to give us any more details on how Defra will have the resources and indeed the clout to request that other departments make sure that rural issues are considered as part of their annual departmental plans, so that truly effective rural proofing is in place?​