Rural Economy Committee - RSN Summary of the Final Evidence Session
The House of Lords Rural Economy Committee met for a final evidence session on the Government’s vision for the rural economy on Tuesday 22 January. The committee heard evidence from:
Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs
Michael Gove opened by saying that worries that the rural economy is being left behind are fair. He referenced a number of factors that are holding back further development, principally: broadband and digital connectivity and transport. It was a good natured evidence session, with the Environment Secretary Michael Gove pressed for a straight answer by members on a few occasions.
Please find a detailed summary of the session below. The full session is available to watch here.
The need for a rural strategy
- The Committee asked if the rural economy would do better with a dedicated rural strategy.
- Both Gove and Kimble said it was an open-ended question.
- Gove noted that the challenge is that the rural areas of the UK are so diverse. He questioned whether a rural strategy would duplicate existing efforts and create more bureaucracy or effectively join up the valuable work of many departments.
- Kimble questioned whether the Government would not serve rural communities better if they were incorporated into the wider plan for the UK. He said he thought rural areas are best served by all government departments working to support them as part of their existing remits.
- The Committee questioned whether treating rural and urban areas in the same way, would lead to the distinctiveness of rural areas being lost.
- Gove confirmed that all departments that affect rural life have an official whose job it is to liaise with Defra to ensure rural proofing.
Future rural economy
- The witnesses were asked if they had a vision for a rural economy in 20 years time.
- Gove said that we need to make sure that Britain retains a leading position in food and agriculture. Beyond this, his department is thinking about activities such as sports and tourism and making sure people who choose to live in rural areas are well-served. For example, the department has secured a small fund to support village halls from the Treasury.
- He continued to say that under this Prime Minister, the importance of the countryside, food and farming has a higher profile than ever before because of her leadership.
- Gove pointed out that Defra has announced that Henry Dimbleby, the founder of Leon restaurants, will be leading the food strategy to ensure that all policy areas are united. He said food and farming is not the only driver in rural areas, but it is essential.
- The Committee levelled the accusation from the chair of the Defra Select Committee that the Agriculture Bill had not been rural proofed.
- Both witnesses said the Agriculture Bill, to replace the Common Agriculture Policy after Brexit, was rural proofed.
- When pressed to provide evidence of a rural proofing framework Gove said that a checklist was inappropriate in this context. He explained that Defra was in constant contact with stakeholders to ensure the bill was appropriate. By definition, he continued, an Agriculture Bill was rural through and through.
- Kimble accepted that Defra need to look at the rural proofing guidance to ensure it is better for other departments to use. Defra is making progress, he said, but it is not good enough, it should be more practical and usable.
Agriculture at the expense of rural affairs
- The Committee explained that some have criticised Defra for focusing too much on agriculture and not enough on rural affairs and asked how the witnesses would respond.
- Gove said the increased focus on agriculture and food production is a reflection of concern that the single biggest employer in rural areas is future proofed. He pointed to the decrease in the farming workforce over our lifetime while the overall food industry has grown. He added that The Countryside Alliance has championed local butchers and local gastropubs and said hospitality and high quality foods are a growing industry.
- The Committee asked how Defra balances the way we use land in the future, considering we are an island.
- Gove said that climate change and housing provision are at the forefront of policy making and that the Council for Sustainable Business is thinking about future land use, for example how transport links and housing combined with environmental consideration.
- He emphasised that Defra is working with DiT, MHCLG and the Treasury, and pointed out that Julian Glover is leading a review to consider the protection that National Parks and AONB currently have.
- The Committee asked about how Defra is going to take aesthetics into account when planning, for example, will new developments blend in with what is already there and will roads and services be user friendly.
- Gove said that he completely agreed that this was very important and Defra was looking at precisely that issue. Professor Roger Scruton and Kim Wilkie are two experts part of the recently announced Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to advise.
- The Committee asked if Defra would consider reforms to land valuation to ensure rural communities benefit from the uplift in land value created by the granting of planning permission.
- Gove said he was open minded and believed that if developers have a degree of certainty in the planning process it helps to ensure that it is shared with the community.
- Kimble said that he had met with the NFU recently to discuss how the redevelopment of farming buildings affects communities. He said Defra is looking at affordable housing in rural areas and emphasised he worked to ensure there was a strong rural voice in the Housing White Paper so that housing is an asset to the area, not a detractor.
Loss of the rural voice
- The Committee asked if the rural voice has been lost in influencing policy, and if so, what can be done to reverse this.
- Gove said that there are a range of rural voices that speak for the rural way of life – like members of the National Trust, the Rural Coalition, The Association of Local Councils – they are all essential to the dynamic of rural communities.
- Kimble said that the rural economy works if the infrastructure works well. Villages need the hub in the community – the pub, the shop, the school, post office.
- Gove pointed out that to say that a rural voice is lost means that it was once strong, but he does not think it has been strong enough for much of the twentieth century.
Skills and training
- The Committee asked if the Government would consider sponsoring upskilling the rural workforce to protect the rural economy.
- Gove said the Prince’s Countryside Fund does a brilliant job of spreading business and knowledge challenges around the farming community.
- When pressed to answer, the witnesses pointed to the Shared Prosperity Fund and said more jobs are being sponsored by this new funding than the previous LEADER funding project. They said it had been a great success in terms of job creation and strengthening communities.
- The Committee asked how Defra is working with DCMS to ensure the full roll-out of connectivity and broadband.
Gove said he worked closely with Matt Hancock and Jeremy Wright, and that there is a full Digital Ministerial Task Force in place.
- He continued to say that the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, published in July, sets out plans and Defra is also using the Outside-In Principle, whereby the hardest to reach 10 per cent of premises in the country are prioritised for government funding. Gove also highlighted that the last Budget announced £200 million funding for the Rural Gigabit Programme and that there is a cross-government 5G network council. The aim is to provide 5G to almost the entire population by 2027.
- The Committee cited alarming recent NFU figures that show the cost of rural crime has increased by £5 million in 2016-2017 and asked how Defra was working to tackle the problem.
- Gove said he had commissioned a team to look at fly tipping, and made a series of recommendations so the Home Office can tackle this effectively. He said that we need to resource the police and make sure the public understand the issues and their responsibility.
- The Committee asked if Gove thought the funding for policing per head in predominantly urban areas should be the same as in predominantly rural areas.
- Gove said his constituency has both rural and urban areas but the local authority is one, Surrey. He said it is difficult with police funding to have a one size fits all approach, we need to recognise specific rural challenges and these need to factored in.
- When pressed, Gove said he was going to dodge the question so as not to get in trouble with the Home Secretary.
- Gove acknowledged that county lines crime is an example of activity where it originates from urban areas but the impact is felt in rural areas.
- Gove suggested that there should be a joint Defra and Treasury Minister who can ensure that Defra’s asks are heard at the heart of the Treasury.
- Kimble said that rural proofing needs to be entrenched in the mainstream.