Government ‘chocolate box image of countryside’ is failing rural areas – report
The Government is failing rural communities due to a lack of knowledge about the problems they face, a new report says.
Lord Cameron of Dillington, chairman of a House of Lords select committee on rural affairs, told the Shropshire Star that too many in Government still have a "chocolate box" image of the countryside, and do not understand the issues of poverty, poor infrastructure and housing.
The committee today called for the break-up of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), created by the Blair government in 2001.
Lord Cameron says responsibility for countryside matters should be transferred to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
He said matters of agriculture and the natural environment had dominated the Defra's work since it was formed, and Brexit meant that they were likely to be in even greater focus in future.
Lord Cameron said this meant problems affecting people living in the countryside were often overlooked.
He said independent bodies such as the Commission for Rural Communities, which had provided a voice for the countryside within government, had been abolished.
Funding cuts meant that their replacements have not been effective in providing ministers with an understanding of rural matters, he said.
"Defra never really got the fact that 90 per cent of the rural population really has little to do with land and land management," said Lord Cameron.
He said a lack of understanding about rural life meant issues such as poor mobile and broadband connections, reduced public services and weak transport links were not given enough priority.
"A Commission for Social Mobility report found that in terms of deprivation indices, poverty in rural England was as bad, if not worse, than it was in the inner cities.
"People have this image of the countryside as being about chocolate box villages, without recognising the pockets of deprivation that exist."
Lord Cameron also said the negotiations over Brexit would mean that agriculture and environmental matters would play an even more dominant role in Defra’s work. But he said this meant there was a real danger that the problems facing people living in the countryside would continue to be overlooked.
He also said that funding cuts to bodies that represented the interests of rural England had weakened government’s understanding of rural society.
“Natural England, the organisation created by the Act and charged with protecting, enhancing and promoting the natural environment, has lost its independence and influence, and has insufficient resources to deliver its full range of environmental objectives,” he said.
'Persistent funding cuts'
“This is due to persistent funding cuts and increasing central control, which are limiting its ability to fulfil its general purpose.
“Key tasks, such as the promotion of public access to the countryside and the protection of important landscapes, are being diminished as a result.”
Defra never really understood the fact that 90 per cent of the rural population really has little to do with land and land management, he said.
Lord Cameron said the countryside had suffered greatly from the closure of amenities such as job centres and medical centres.
Rural poverty, poor bus services and patchy broadband and mobile phone services were also a major issue, he added.
Lord Cameron said he believed that many decision makers did not understand the extent of deprivation in rural areas.
He said: “Back in the 1990s, there was a study in a village in Wiltshire which found that 30 per cent of all households had an income of £55,000, then there was a middle third, and then the bottom third had a household income of less than £9,000.
“Obviously you have to adjust for inflation, but people saw the £55,000 figure and thought this was just a chocolate-box village.”
Lord Cameron also called for the Cabinet Office to take charge of ensuring that all government departments gave consideration to the specific problems faced by people living in the countryside.
“If you take the Department of Health as an example, closures of doctors’ surgeries affect people in rural areas far more than they do in the inner cities.
“I think about 25 per cent of households don’t have a car, and I know of cases where people have to stay overnight at hospitals because there is not a bus back until the next day.
“It is clear that the Government is failing to take proper account of the needs of rural communities.”
He also said that laws introduced in 2006 to strengthen biodiversity were failing to halt the decline of species.
“The biodiversity duty suffers from weak wording and poor enforceability, whilst Natural England’s status has been diluted and weakened over recent years, so that it now struggles to perform all of its key functions,” he said.
“The Government needs to act now, before our natural environment, protected species and cherished landscapes suffer further damage.”
Ludlow MP Philip Dunne said he disagreed that restructuring government departments was the answer to the problems faced in the countryside.
"That would be like moving the deckchairs," he said.
"The focus of Defra is about much more than agriculture, at the moment it is drawing up a 25-year environmental plan which is much more wide-ranging than that.
"The issue of broadband is being handled by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is very much focused on rural areas."