Spotlight on a rural proofed policy framework

The RSN is calling on government to produce a fully funded, comprehensive rural strategy. In this strategy there are a number of areas which we believe are linked, and need to be addressed to produce a vibrant rural community. One of these is a rural proofed policy framework.
Mainstream policies, such as those on housing, health, education, planning and economic growth, must be workable in rural areas, where there can be distinct challenges delivering to small and scattered settlements or where economies of scale are harder to achieve.

  • Policies that work in an urban context will not necessarily work in a rural context.
  • Rural areas have specific needs and circumstances which need to be taken into account.
  • Rural proofing is the policy making process intended to achieve that end. Unfortunately, various reviews have found that its implementation is patchy – including, most recently, the Independent Rural Proofing Implementation Review led by Lord Cameron.
  • The review by Lord Cameron concluded that Defra has insufficient staff resources working on rural affairs. It questioned the ability of Defra, as lead department on this topic, to engage sufficiently with other Whitehall departments and to support rural proofing
  • Various commentators have cited other factors that, when in place, make rural proofing more likely to succeed. They include having buy-in from departmental Ministers, policy makers consulting with rural interest groups and making rural proofing a more transparent process.
  • That rural proofing can work well seems clear. A recent example of good practice is the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review issued by DCMS. This seeks to address market failure in rural areas, proposing an approach to ensure rural communities are not left behind.
  • Rural proofing can add just as much value at the local level, where services and policy initiatives are typically delivered. Its application can be especially beneficial in administrative areas that are mostly urban in character, yet which also contain rural localities.

Whilst the application of rural proofing has a mixed record, it has nonetheless proved a useful lever for seeking to have rural needs and circumstances taken into account. To improve its effectiveness a Rural Strategy should address certain points. They are:

    • Reaffirming the rural proofing commitment and placing it on a firmer footing;
    • Providing sufficient staff and resources to carry out the rural proofing function;
    • Making it clearer what rural proofing actions policy makers are taking; and
    • Ensuring that rural proofing filters down more consistently to the local level.

→ A proper legal basis for rural proofing: there is now a real case for placing rural proofing on a stronger legal footing, in the way that it has been in Northern Ireland. The centrepiece of a Rural Strategy should be to place a responsibility on all public bodies, to have regard for rural needs whenever they develop or revise policies, strategies and plans. This duty would be the best way to ensure rural proofing is more consistently and adequately applied. It would also send a welcome, visible signal that the Government of the day reaffirms its commitment to the wellbeing of rural communities and the success of rural economies.

→ A more transparent proofing process: it is frequently unclear the extent to which Whitehall departments have considered rural needs and circumstances when developing policies or initiatives. Three actions could help. First, policy making teams could more often consult rural interest groups who have relevant subject expertise. Second, departments could report annually and publically on their rural proofing activities. Third, the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Select Committee could hold a short, regular (say, biennial) inquiry to review progress.

→ A better resourced team within Defra: the dedicated rural affairs team within Defra has a key role to engage with policy making teams across Whitehall, helping them to understand rural issues, to undertake rural proofing and to apply rural evidence. This is an ongoing function: rural proofing activity quickly withers if it is not supported. Whilst Defra staff will never be able to engage with every policy development that takes place, there nevertheless needs to be sufficient resources to cover a broad sweep of topics which impact significantly on rural communities and economies.

→ An effective approach to local policy delivery: the principle of rural proofing should also apply at the local level where policies are delivered. A legal basis for rural proofing would cover statutory bodies. It should be good practice for private and civil society sector organisations too. Local practice can include adopting rural strategies, assessing rural impacts, holding rural scrutiny sessions, testing initiatives with rural pilots, appointing rural champions to key groups or committees and monitoring rural outcomes. It will help if there are opportunities and resources that enable the sharing and learning from existing rural practice. Organisations such as the Rural Services Network, ACRE and Rural Coalition stand ready to play their part.


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