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Bishop speaks out on rural proofing

The Bishop of At Albans has warned that government decisions often fail to take into account the needs of rural communities.

Speaking in the House of Lords, Alan Smith said policymakers had “gone backwards in terms of our grasp of what is happening on the ground”.

Dr Smith, who is also chairman of the Rural Coalition, was speaking during a debate on the recent Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 committee report.

He said he was pleased that the government was retaining a rural affairs policy team within Defra, despite the closure of the Rural Communities Policy Unit.

“The crucial question here is whether the team will have the staffing and funding to deliver the needs of rural policy across government,” he said.

The government had already indicted that it did not intend to change the departmental responsibilities for rural affairs, said Dr Smith.

But if the responsibilities were not to be transferred, a way of working more closely between Defra and at least three major departments needed to be established.

These departments were the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, and the Department of Health and Social Care.

“Some decisions that have been taken are, I believe, detrimental, particularly to the provision of affordable housing in rural communities,” said Dr Smith.

Schools were also a key part of many rural communities and fundamental to rural sustainability, he added. The same could be said for 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.”

Dr Smith said there probably also needed to be informal links between other departments, such as the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

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,” said Dr Smith.

A transcript of the full debate can be read here.

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