Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Session 2007-08

29 October 2008


HELPING RURAL AREAS REACH THEIR FULL POTENTIAL COULD MAKE A MAJOR DIFFERENCE TO THE PERFORMANCE OF ENGLAND’S ECONOMY, CONCLUDES SELECT COMMITTEE

In a report published today, The Potential of England’s Rural Economy, the Committee says rural areas already “punch above their weight” in economic terms but their contribution could be boosted further if more was done to tailor Government help to the diversity of specific needs in rural areas. 

A recent report by the Government’s Rural Advocate estimated the untapped potential from rural businesses to be between £236 billion and £347 billion per year. The Committee wants Defra to produce its own estimate to assist it in making a case for the resources to enable rural areas to meet this potential.

People in rural areas are often good at taking the initiative to help their communities and businesses, but do not always get the support they need from public bodies.  The Committee found a strong perception that rural affairs are being marginalised in Defra.  Now that most climate change responsibilities have been removed from Defra, the Committee expects to see evidence of the Department taking the opportunity to focus more closely on its important rural affairs responsibilities.

The Committee heard that poor understanding of rural economies was one of the most significant barriers to realising their potential and that 80 per cent of employment in rural districts was in four key sectors: distribution and retailing; business and financial services; public administration, education, training and health; and manufacturing.

The Committee agreed with witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry that Defra's Departmental Strategic Objective of “Strong Rural Communities” was confusing and not easily understood. The Committee considered that the focus should not just be on poorly performing areas, but that Defra should adopt a broader approach to support economic growth in all rural areas. Based on the evidence received, the Committee recommended that Defra adopt the term "Socially and Economically Sustainable Rural Communities" for its Departmental Strategic Objective.

The Committee was surprised that transport, communications, planning and further education-all issues that were raised repeatedly during its inquiry-were not adequately addressed in Defra’s new rural affairs objective. 

The delivery of Defra’s rural affairs objective will depend heavily on other departments, Regional Development Agencies and local authorities, the Committee concludes.

The Committee suggests Defra produce a delivery plan setting out what assistance it needs from these bodies, how it will communicate those needs to them and what feedback it will seek.

Among its other recommendations, the Committee would like to see Defra:

• publish in the next six months a detailed commentary on its current rural affairs work to provide a greater insight into its rural development role.

• take the initiative with other departments to ensure that rural England’s interests are taken into account.

Commenting on the report, Committee Chairman Rt Hon Michael Jack MP said: “DEFRA must raise its game on Rural Affairs if it is to unlock the billions of pounds of untapped economic potential in the countryside. With climate change gone from Hilary Benn's in-tray his Department must spend more time banging heads together across Whitehall to really make thorough ‘rural proofing’ of Government policy a reality.

Entrepreneurialism is ‘alive’ in the rural economy. But if it is to be ‘well’ Government must now find a lasting solution to the challenges of affordable housing, transport costs and the maintenance of a skilled labour force.

Defra should look again at its rural departmental objectives as few have any belief that the current ones really will build a successful and sustainable rural economy."

NOTES TO EDITORS:

1. Further details about this inquiry can be found at: http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environment__food_and_rural_affairs/efra_england_s_rural_economy.cfm

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