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Attendance & Apologies Cllr Celia Motley (Chair) welcomed members to the meeting. Apologies and attendees were noted.
Graham Biggs invited nominations to the roles of Chairman. Cllr Robert Heseltine proposed Cllr Motley to continue as Chairman as stability is vital at this time. The nomination to re-elect the current Chair was seconded by Cllr Gwilym Butler and approved by colleagues without opposition.
Cllr Motley expressed her thanks for confidence in her and referred to the issues around not being able to hold events around the country. Despite this being impossible at the current time, she assured colleagues that work has continued at pace despite restrictions and that meetings had continued in a virtual environment. She informed the group that response has been excellent – contributions and participation has increased due to a better availability and without the need to travel to collaborate. The Chair thanked the whole RSN Team for continuing to achieve a lot despite current issues.
Cllr Motley asked Cllr Robert Heseltine whether he wished to continue as first vice chair to which he accepted. Cllr Motley then proposed that the Executive members be re-appointed en-bloc and that was agreed. If additional colleagues were interested in finding out more or in joining the Executive, they should put forward their details to Graham Biggs. MBE. Janet Duncton enquired whether a replacement for SE England had been found, (it has not) and members were invited to come forward if they were interested in taking the position.
The minutes from the last RSN AGM and Rural Assembly meeting were approved.
The minutes from the previous two meetings of the RSN Executive were noted.
Members received an update on changes made to enable new ways of working under current restrictions. These included:
Greater links with key roles in individual councils are being developed.Comments from members included a need for consideration of issues around national parks in the Defra meetings and that they must be included in any discussion around the planning white paper. Mr Biggs confirmed that initially, the focus was looking at data on impacts around COVID-19 but that other issues were being raised with Defra to feed into Govt departments. Members were informed that they are now starting to look at medium and long-term recovery and that many concerns are still the same as before the pandemic. Issues around rural housing and rural proofing still stand and are still being pursued.
Members referred to concerns in their own areas and Defra’s lack of knowledge where suggestions around farming etc. are being put forward. Mr Biggs agreed to discuss any individual problems further and invited any colleagues affected to speak to him separately so that these can be raised with Government. Members agreed that the planned individual meetings would be an opportunity to take forward work around these issues.
Mr David Inman referred to inequalities around market town establishments not being allowed to open despite supermarkets being able to. Other small businesses have also expressed concerns and he invited members to put forward suggestions.
The report was noted.
Members noted the dates of future meetings and that these would continue virtually for the foreseeable future.
Mr Biggs asked members to note the recommendations for an increase at the level of inflation provision (2.75%) next year, although future years would be a flat increase of 2% per annum. It was agreed that income via fees should match the level and the cost of work expected.
The costs were supported but members felt that the narrative needs to express the need to pay staff appropriately to take forward the work anticipated. They acknowledge the severe financial difficulties facing councils at this time and the need therefore to make clear that the increase is necessary if the work targets are to be met.
Members agreed unanimously.
Mr Biggs referred to the importance of member retention. Budgets have been drawn up with the caveat that nothing changes in terms of income. He said that unfortunately, payment of subscriptions from some authorities are still outstanding and chasing them continues to be an issue. The group noted the anticipated balance for next year and were reminded of their agreement to establish properly salaried posts for Senior Officers in coming years.
Members noted and agreed the budget report.
Cllr Motley referred to the Planning White Paper and invited Mr Biggs to update colleagues on recent consultations. Changes to the current planning system will have a detrimental impact on rural housing. The wider consultation had received several responses and members noted that RSN had also hosted a seminar in advance of contributing to fine-tune a response.
Colleagues also heard about recent meetings and discussions and Mr Biggs informed them that RSN are awaiting a response to the discussion on rural concerns around the white paper. Members who had contributed to the response will be updated as further information is received.
Kerry Booth updated colleagues on the recent National Rural Conference which was held online over five days. Members received a presentation on the agenda and heard that feedback had been very good.
Members noted the range of sessions offered and numbers attending. Feedback around the sessions has been sought and secretariat will look at and consider the results around ideas for next time. Overall, although it was different, it was felt to be a huge success. The number of attendees was impressive, and ideas will be built upon for next year.
Cllr Motley praised the work done by Kerry and Marija in particular but also acknowledge input and commitment from colleagues, in order to make the conference such a success. She reiterated the great range of items covered and the excellent feedback received. She agreed that five days was a lot in terms of the amount of work generated and said that she would support re-consideration of the format for next time with regards to length.
Members expressed how impressed they were with the event and in particularly the quality of speakers participating. This may not have been possible in a physical environment and it was a fantastic first online effort.
Members received a presentation from Mr Biggs.
He provided background to the call to Government for a rural strategy and outlined the introduction of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy. A clip from Lord Foster opening the debate in the House of Lords was included for information which discussed inequalities between rural and urban economies and additional costs incurred by rural areas.
Members noted that although the government had refused the call, it had responded by saying that a range of measures was being put in place to ensure that rural areas continue to thrive and that it would ‘renew its vision for rural England’. Mr Biggs referred to mitigating circumstances which currently prevent this from happening. The RSN therefore decided to provide a document (Revitalising Rural) which reiterates and articulates how investing in rural areas can help the government and the national economy.
Members noted that the document was very high-level and that the planned seminars etc. would serve to underpin it with even more important detail. RSN were keen to raise its profile and had included an article within First Magazine for October and were seeking support and engagement with members of the House of Lords Select Committee, the APPG as well as other key organisations and decision makers in Parliament.
Mr Biggs outlined next steps and announced that a formal launch of the document was planned for February 2021. The intention is to demonstrate to government that it makes sense to engage and invest in rural areas to aid the economy. He stated that members would be consulted for case studies to inform the launch and asked members to consider highlighting the document (further to the launch) in their local media and by other available means to inform.
Cllr Cecilia Motley (Chair) agreed the importance of case studies as evidence and demonstration of the differences that can be made. The group was invited to comment.
The Chair thanked Graham Biggs MBE for an insightful presentation.
Cllr Motley took the opportunity to welcome Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP.
Mr Dunne expressed the importance of the secretariat in evidence sharing and thanked colleagues for their contribution to discussions. He outlined recent sessions where topical issues had been raised including those around rural transportation and connectivity. It was noted that Government has made a pledge to increase delivery of broadband. However, delays in getting supply to rural areas to replace copper wiring were disappointing and there were concerns about implications to rural users if no alternative is in place, in time.
Mr Dunne referred to recent discussions on progress around the spending review and the announcement by the Chancellor that this will now only be for one year.
There will be elements of long-term projects which will need some security that they will be able to progress. He spoke about levelling up for rural areas and consequences of COVID-19 on making assumptions around costs and uncertainties when contracting - with implications on planning.
Mr Dunne added that it was helpful to have a sense of issues that the network would like to raise in the future, and that he would be happy to engage further when the group wished. Cllr Cecilia Motley (Chair) invited questions from colleagues:
Cllr Cecilia Motley (Chair) thanked Mr Dunne for a wide-ranging discussion and for responding to so many questions. Members acknowledged the valued engagement in addressing rural issues with the RSN as well as other relevant bodies such as the APPG. They spoke briefly about rural bus services and the expectation that the rural bus strategy will be announced next year.
Graham Biggs MBE referred to the recent invitation to the RSN to provide evidence on a House of Lords COVID-19 enquiry around the impact of digitalisation. Members will be contacted with suggestions as to a response and a call to submit anything further. This will be released publicly in due course.
Cllr Peter Stevens raised concerns about the potential to reduce subscriptions due to savings from venue costs if online meetings continue. Graham Biggs MBE confirmed that feedback from members had shown a preference for virtual meetings, reminding him of the difficulties faced by colleagues in attending London meetings even when it is possible to do so. Evidence shows that both attendance and engagement has increased - which is an enormous benefit to the group. He further stated that reductions in expenditure were being applied to increase services to members.
Cllr Cecilia Motley (Chair) thanked colleagues for their attendance and contribution to the meeting and the meeting was closed.
The next Rural Assembly meeting is scheduled for Monday, 12th April 2021 and the next joint RSN AGM & Rural Assembly meeting is scheduled for Monday, 15th November 2021.
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