So who WILL speak for the Countryside?

Following the demise of the Commission for Rural Communities in England, Geoffrey Lean, Daily Telegraph writes: Its death notice, like Eleanor Rigby's, passed virtually unnoticed, achieving just one sentence in a single national newspaper. And yet this week's abolition of the little-known Commission for Rural Communities by the new Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, is likely to make a big difference to some of the poorest, most deserving people in the country. Think about poverty in Britain, and the mind jumps to grim inner-city estates. But deprivation can be just as great amid some of the loveliest landscapes. About one in five rural families live beneath the poverty line, a rate increasing three times as fast as in the cities. It is worst in the remotest areas – let's call them the outer countryside. The average annual income of upland livestock farms, run by some of the hardest working of all Britons, fell from £17,400 to £10,400 over recent years. People earn less in Cornwall than in Merseyside or South Yorkshire. Redundancies are higher; services, from schools to supermarkets, are sparser; and homes – typically costing nearly ten times household incomes – are even further out of reach. The digital revolution is set to make things worse still. Ultrafast broadband is being rolled out almost entirely in towns and cities. Business and jobs will inevitably follow bandwidth, leaving the slow-speed countryside behind. The commission's job was to tackle this. It could, perhaps, have done so more dynamically – and it could have sol itself better – but it did make a difference, partly because, as the government's designated Rural Advocate, its chairman had direct access to the prime minister. It produced regular State of the Countryside reports – the last, as it happens, comes out next week – keeping a focus on rural poverty. And it persuaded the last government to stump up £180 million to maintain village post offices and enable them to provide banking services, and to propose a 50p tax on all phone bills to finance rural broadband. Now a coalition of two parties that traditionally represented the countryside is betraying it. First to go was the broadband tax, scrapped in George Osborne's Budget. And now 
Ms Spelman has killed off the commission, centralising some of its work within her Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This will save money – but not a great deal. The £3.5 million a year won't help much towards the £750 million reduction in the department's budget demanded by the Chancellor, and seems outweighed by the cost to the countryside. So Ms Spelman is busily, if unconvincingly, trotting out other justifications. Abolition will, she says; enable policy to be "driven from the centre" by "ministers from within my department". But policy-making has never been part of the commission's remit. Bringing the job into the department, she adds, "will give rural communities and interest groups a direct link to central policy-makers". Yes, but the commission gave them a link, through its chairman, straight to the prime minister. Ms Spelman says that she is applying three tests to judge all quangos: "Does it perform a technical function? Does it need to be politically impartial? Does it act independently to establish facts?" Fair enough – but officials admit the commission passes all of them. Never mind, we are told, Cabinet member know the countryside from their own constituencies. Many do represent rural areas, but usually relatively well-heeled ones like Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), Tatton (George Osborne) or Witney (David Cameron). Only William Hague (Richmond) represents the English outer countryside – and he was born and bred in far-from-rural Rotherham – while Cheryl Gillan, the Welsh Secretary, represents Runnymede and Weybridge. Scotland does better with Danny Alexander and Michael Moore in deeply rural seats, but the commission did not operate there. So who will speak for the countryside? The Conservative and Lib Dem backbenches, perhaps? But many of the Tory knights of the shire have retired behind their moats, leaving the party more Bullingdon than bucolic, while their coalition partners seem cowed by power. The NFU, an the Country Land and Business Association, are effective, but represent sectional interests, as, in a different way, does the Countryside Alliance. And the much diminished Campaign to Protect Rural England has disbanded its rural policy team. "The role of somebody outside government to look at rural policy and decisions taken by all departments is very, very important," says a senior Lib Dem MP, Tim Farron, playing Father McKenzie to the friendless commission. Indeed, all quangos should speak truth to power, though they were largely bullied out of it by Labour. Both coalition partners are, in theory, committed to decentralising power and advice. But Whitehall, naturally, abhors this. And that may be the real reason why the commission has been buried along with its name.

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Comment by Gary Craig on July 20, 2010 at 8:56
The CRC did a limited job in its limited life. But it did at least give a point of reference for those of us concerned with the countryside, with rural poverty and regeneration. It profiled, for example, the fact that the lack of affordable housing was the single major factor driving young people from rural villages. This government is slashing and burning through the countryside: I am on the national DEFRA race equality and scrutiny group and was told last week that I couldn't attend an improtant strategic meeting because it would cost too much to pay my fare to London as a result of the requirement to cut 25% from the department's budget. I hope those who voted Liberal last time around realise what they have done.............................................................
Comment by James Derounian on July 11, 2010 at 11:55
Like you Kate, I am saddened by the axing of the Government's Commission for Rural
Communities CRC. And the fate of its dedicated staff......

I always said that the Government's Haskins Review was a disaster in 2004....with a disastrous legacy -
[Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ]

and here would appear to be the final blow - who now will look after the
interests of people in the English countryside; and where does this leave any
sort of unified approach to rural sustainability? We shall see.....

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