Championing the countryside

Will Defra's Priorities and Business Plans create thriving rural communities? Jessica Sellick investigates.

TWO years ago the Coalition Government set out a number of policy commitments over the next five years to 'rebuild the economy, unlock social mobility, mend the political system and give people the power to call the shots over the decisions that affect their lives'.

With aspirations to turn old thinking on its head and develop new approaches, many of the Government's commitments impact upon the countryside. What has happened since the initial Structural Reform fanfare? How is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) delivering the Government's (rural) priorities? What is sacred and what is being sacrificed in rural England? Jessica Sellick investigates.

The Government remains committed to a programme of reform that brings about a shift from government to people, taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of communities, replacing top down systems of targets and central micromanagement. When the Programme for Government was published in May 2010, under the strap line 'freedom, fairness, responsibility', it contained a plethora of proposals under headings such as communities and local government, environment food and rural affairs, deficit reduction and public health.

Ultimately this agreement aimed to find intelligent ways of encouraging, supporting and enabling people to make better choices for themselves. Subsequently, each central Government department was required to prepare a Structural Reform Plan (SRP) to demonstrate how it was going to implement the reforms.

In May 2011, Defra responded and published its Business Plan 2011-2015. This contained three Structural Reform Priorities: (1) to support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production; (2) to help to enhance the environment and biodiversity and improve quality of life; and (3) to support a strong and sustainable green economy resilient to climate change. This first Business Plan contained a series of actions (with timescales) setting out how it would support the reforms needed to make these things happen. Each department is required to update its SRP annually and on 31 May 2012, Defra published its refreshed Business Plan.

On the one hand, the 2011 Business Plan and 2012 Business Plan are almost identical in their organisation and layout. On the other hand, and crucially, the place of 'rural' within them has shifted. In the first Plan 'rural' was subsumed under the third Priority and in the very final line of the paragraph underneath which merely read: 'and enhance rural communities'. In the refreshed Business Plan, however, 'thriving rural communities' is now listed in the heading of the third Priority and Defra's role now becomes one of 'promoting rural communities'.

The Actions Defra is undertaking to 'support sustainable economic growth in rural areas' have subtly shifted to reflect this too – from fuel costs and delivering universal broadband (May 2011) to starting the Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), implementing Rural Growth Networks (RGNs), investing RDPE to help small businesses and establishing a Rural Community Renewable Energy Fund (May 2012).

This shift is partly accounted for by internal Defra timescales, legislative timings and parliamentary approval. For example, Defra's investigation of the options available to help those in remote rural areas with the cost of fuel finished in March 2012 and was not included as an action point in the refreshed May 2012 Plan (the final report can be found here). Similarly, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) published the findings of its consultation into accessing good and services in remote rural places.

The presence of 'rural' within the refreshed document is also related to where rural issues now sit within Defra itself. In February 2012, the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman described how she would: "champion the interests of rural communities within Government and find the best ways to support local businesses and boost the rural economy". In practice, there is now a Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU) within Defra which is working to engage and communicate with rural communities and their representative organisations through various forums including Rural and Farming Networks, Local Enterprise Partnerships and The Rural Business Finance Forum.

But how is Defra 'championing' rural here? How are rural communities engaging with policy-makers? What challenges does the Department face going forward?

In April 2012, Defra published its Capability Action Plan. The review was conducted by Defra's independent Non Executive Directors to consider the Department's capability in leadership, strategy and delivery. In the foreword, Bronwyn Hill (Defra's permanent secretary) describes how the Department has "put in place an ambitious Change Programme to enable us to face the tough challenges ahead. This will create a leaner, more agile department, with clear priorities, a joined-up approach to delivery and a business-like culture of high performance.

The vision for our change programme is to lead as one team with confidence, passion and innovation towards a sustainable future for all". The review sets out the challenges facing Defra: population growth, changing consumer preferences, increased demand for homes and infrastructure, greater pressure on water, energy and transport. The Change Programme is designed, therefore, to help Defra address these challenges. For example, by September 2012 Defra will complete the move to new teams across the core Department to reflect changing department priorities, break down silos and live within its means.

The Capability Review concludes that there is more to be done to embed new ways of working within Defra, that clarity is needed about where scarce resources should be targeted and a renewed focus on working with and influencing others (including using Defra's Civil Society Board and Evaluation Board) required.

The refreshed Business Plan and Capability Action Plan raise three issues.

Firstly, around scarcer resources. Defra employs 2080 full time equivalent staff in its core Department and 6,218 FTE in its arms lengths bodies – a reduction of 8.9% over a nine month period to 31 December 2011. Overall, Defra's budget will be reduced by 33% in real terms by 2014/2015 compared with 2010/2011. If the budget allocation between the May 2011 Business Plan are compared to those in the refreshed May 2012 Plan, there will be some winners and losers in the year ahead.

Resources for the Forestry Commission and Natural England will decline for example, funding for the Marine Management Organisation wills stay roughly the same and resources for the Environment Agency are set to increase. What will be the implications of these financial settlements for key programmes and activities affecting rural communities?

Secondly, around influencing others: what will be the impact of Defra's smaller, flatter structure? To what extent are these priorities and activities (e.g. RCPU, Rural and Farming Networks) providing a two-way communication between rural dwellers and the Government that Defra is now looking for? Is Defra working innovatively to deliver its programmes and activities and is it making the most of working as one team and through its delivery network?

Thirdly, all of these documents in some way speak to transparency –the Government want the public to assess the effects of policies and reforms on the cost and impact of public services. On the one hand, for Defra this includes the publication of an Open Data Strategy in summer 2012 to raise awareness of the data it publishes and encourage its reuse by citizens and businesses. On the other hand, Anne McIntosh (Chair of the EFRA Select Committee) has criticised the decision to reduce the amount of time MPs have to question Defra Ministers (the reduction explained by requests from MPs for more time to question the Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney General).

According to Ms McIntosh, there is "no lack of interest in Defra's work among MPs...Defra oral questions were always over-subscribed...The floor of the House of Commons is the right place to hold Ministers to account. Cutting down oral questions will only weaken scrutiny of the department...Defra's recent change of policy on forestry was not only prompted by the public outcry but also the intense questioning by MPs of all parties on the floor of the House of Commons."

The reform of the civil service and Government priorities means that Defra is not alone in relooking at how it uses its assets for the programmes and activities it needs to deliver. This will undoubtedly present opportunities and challenges for rural people and places: will these developments lead to rurally considered policies and championing or centralised policies imposed from Whitehall? What will be sacred and what will be sacrificed?

Perhaps the answers to some of these questions will become clearer when the Government produces its Rural Statement in summer 2012. For this much anticipated document is intended to underline the Government's commitment to promoting thriving rural communities.

Jessica is a rural practitioner at Rose Regeneration. She can be contacted by email, by phone on 01522 521211 or via


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