the Govt's new Rural Strategy?

landisours landisours at
Tue Jan 25 15:46:15 GMT 2005

In the Govt's new Rural Strategy, seemingly, new government policy is 
isolated to institutional arrangements around the agriculture and 
environment (i.e. for the benefit of large landwoners) and exclude 
detailed "policy" on a much wider ranging set of priorities of what 
constiutues "rural Britain" (eg. rural services, transport, the 
voluntary sector and rural housing) despite the detials of the Rural 
white Paper from a few years ago. 

Rural dilemmas remain

Taken from the December 2004 edition of "Town & Country Planning" – 
the journal of the Town and Country Planning Association (Vol. 73, 
No. 12).

The Government's Rural Strategy is ambitious in its aim to reform 
institutions and delivery structures, but there remain unresolved 
dilemmas and some major gaps that need to be addressed if its 
ambitions are to be realised, say Neil Ward, Philip Lowe and Terry 

In July, during the final week of the parliamentary session, the 
Government published its long awaited Rural Strategy 2004. The 
strategy is the result of a prolonged process of evidence gathering, 
analysis and deliberation which began with Lord Haskins being charged 
with a review of Rural Delivery in November 2002. Just two years 
earlier, the Government had completed a major review of rural policy 
which culminated in the Rural White Paper, published in November 2000.

In agreeing the new Rural Strategy, the government has taken several 
difficult decisions, and this partly explains the extended timetable 
for the Strategy's production. Indeed, the process has echoes of the 
prolonged preparation of the Rural White Paper, which began with the 
Performance and Innovation Unit's review of rural policies in 
December 1998. The Government's difficulties in formulating and 
sustaining a strategic approach to rural policies and their delivery 
reflect the complexity of institutional arrangements and the 
intractability of some of the key issues. Nevertheless, the Rural 
Strategy is ambitious in it's declared intentions to reform 
institutions and delivery structures. However, it contains a set of 
unresolved dilemmas and some major gaps that still need to be 
addressed if its ambitions are to be successfully realised.

>From Haskins review to Rural Strategy
Lord Haskins' review took a year to produce and contained a set of 
reform proposals that included abolishing the Countryside Agency and 
establishing a new `Integrated Agency' through the merging of the 
Countryside Agency's landscape protections and access promotion 
functions with the nature conservation role of English Nature. Rather 
than announce its intentions there and then, the government instead 
recast Haskins' proposals as a contribution to a wider process – 
labelled the `Modernising Delivery Review' – which also encompassed a 
review of rural funding streams.

Running through the Haskins Review were several ambiguities, and 
these have had to be accommodated, or side-stepped, in the 
Government's Rural Strategy. The first is that although the review 
was presented as covering `rural delivery', it was preoccupied with 
agriculture. This reflected the potential of upcoming Common 
Agricultural Policy reforms as a driver of institutional change, as 
well as Lord Haskin's farming and food sector background. The review 
showed a pronounced antipathy towards the wider rural policy agenda, 
with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' 
(DEFRA's) rural Public service Agreement target, agreed with the 
Treasury in 2002 – to improve the relative productivity of poorly 
performing rural areas and improve the accessibility of services for 
rural people – dismissed as `aspirational and woolly' (p.35).

The Rural Strategy's response to the Haskin's Review is, likewise, 
more coherent in its treatment of farming and land management than of 
the socio-economic dimensions to rural policy and rural development, 
where objectives and mechanisms remain ambiguous. The Rural Strategy 
stands more strongly as a strategy for the administration of farming 
and land management  support than as any broader `rural' 
policy/delivery framework.

A second ambiguity centres on the approach to decentralisation and 
devolution. Lord Haskins had argued for rural social and economic 
programmes to be devolved to the regional and local levels, `where 
services can most effectively address public need and where 
deliverers can be held more clearly to account' (p.8). However, the 
fixation of the Haskins Review on national agencies and Whitehall 
structures meant a lack of critical attention on the regional and 
local level. The Rural Strategy in turn has failed to provide any 
clarity and coherence over how decentralisation might work. There is 
nothing on the role of local authorities, very little in the way of 
specific decentralising reforms, and many platitudes about 
decentralisation and public involvement that do not instil confidence.

Thirdly, the Haskins Review made great play of the need to separate 
policy from delivery. This simplistic dichotomy implied that policy 
development should be the responsibility of the centre, while 
delivery is the proper realm of the regional and lower levels. That 
is hardly a helpful formula to counter what all agree is an over-
centralisation in agricultural and rural policy. It certainly does 
little for the growing appetite for discretion in developing new and 
distinctive policies in the regions. On the contrary, in the 
aftermath of the Haskin's Review and the Rural Strategy, we still 
lack clear models of local delivery – i.e. what works best where.

This lacuna, and the rash of top-down institutional change, is 
symptomatic of a process that has been dominated by the perspective 
of the centre, with a lack of interest in what works locally, on the 

The main pillars of the Rural Strategy
Under the Rural Strategy, responsibility and funding for economic 
regeneration in rural areas will be devolved to the Regional 
Development Agencies (RDAs). The present myriad of funding streams 
will be streamlined into a new Agriculture and Food Industry 
Regeneration Funding Programme. Defra's role will be to set broad 
outcomes and targets and hold delivery agencies to account. There is 
an expectation that tangible progress will be made towards achieving 
the Government's objectives set out in the Sustainable Food and 
Farming Strategy and that economic productivity in the marginal rural 
districts will be demonstrably improved.

The RDAs will take over the Countrysdie Agency's socio-economic 
programmes. The Agency itself has been saved from the chop by 
ministers and, as a much smaller body, shorn of its executive 
responsibilities, will be retained as a rural advocate and watchdog. 
It remains uncertain whether it will be granted the resources and 
independence to fulfil this role effectively. On the question of 
public and stakeholder engagement, the strategy places great store by 
the regional rural affairs forums, while quietly letting the Rural 
Affairs Forum for England fade away. However, for regional forums to 
help provide accountability, their current functions and ways of 
working will need careful consideration. To date, they have been 
rather ineffective `talking shops' , and sometimes are not as open 
and inclusive as they should be.

Responsibility for the management of environmental assets will be 
assumed by the new Integrated Agency. It is described as `a new 
large, powerful and independent statutory public body for protecting 
and enhancing the natural environment, biodiversity and landscape 
while realising the benefits for people, through improving access and 
recreation'(Defra factsheet). It will have a staff of around 2,300, 
the bulk of them being Defra's agency staff who deliver agri-
environmental schemes to farmers. A propelling rational behind the 
strategy has been to create a streamlined structure for public-good 
payments to farmers, with the funds available expanding to offset 
cuts in farm production subsidies. The present range of agri-
environment schemes will be rationalised into a single programme for 
natural resource protection.

The new agency will transcend the divide between landscape and nature 
conservation that has been a peculiar feature of English policy. By 
powerfully combining protective and regulatory functions with 
management incentives, the promise of the new organisation is to be 
able to turn around the relentless decline in biodiversity and 
countryside character of the past half-century. Its ability to work 
with and influence other organisations, as well as farmers, will be 
crucial to its effectiveness.

For example, it will need to have a strong influence on local and 
regional planning if it is to avoid simply providing a pale green 
wash to a pattern of land development that remains fundamentally 
unsustainable. It will also need to cooperate closely with the RDAs 
to inform their economic strategies and to ensure co-ordination 
across some fractured responsibilities (for example, the RDAs will 
promote tourism and support farm diversification, while the new 
agency will promote countryside recreation and support farm 

There is one particular relationship which is imperative to get 
right – that with the Environment Agency. The Inetgrated Agency is 
handicapped in not integrating land and water use. There is also the 
risk of an institutionalised divide between one organisation that 
finances environmental `public goods' and another that has to  
regulate environmental `bads'. Tackling diffuse pollution from 
agriculture – an area of chronic policy failure – will be a real test 
of whether the twon can effectively collaborate. Certainly, the Water 
Framework Directive, which mandates a preventative approach to the 
management of rural catchments, will necessitate increasing 
engagement of the Environment Agency in the design of incentive 
schemes for environmentally-beneficial land management.

In the development of the Rural Strategy certain political cross-
currents can be discerned. First, when set up in 2001, Defra subsumed 
the old Ministry of Agriculture, and now in its Rural Strategy there 
is the establishment of organisational structures to facilitate the 
switch from an agricultural production policy to an environmental 

However, the creation of Defra also established a national profile 
for rural affairs, which at the time was a new policy remit for a 
central government department. Three years later, ministerial 
enthusiasm for `rural affairs', at least as a national area of 
concern, seems to be ebbing. The strategy indeed is uncomfortable 
with any national conception of rurality, declaring roundly 
that `there is no homogenous rural England' (P.5). Rural social and 
economic problems are to be understood and handled as sub-regional 
problems, rather than as expressions of some national rural 
condition. In consequence, there is no longer the need for the 
national Rural Affairs Forum for England, and the nation-wide 
functioning of the Countryside Agency is to be curtailed. The 
strategy thus strives to re-establish rural policy as a sub-category 
of regional policy.

At the regional level, however, there appears little real 
simplification or rationalisation in the Strategy. Responsibilities 
for rural development and the rural environment will be vested with 
separate organisations. Partnership working, brokered by government 
regional offices and coordinated via regional rural affairs forums, 
is meant to provide the necessary co-ordination for sustainable 

A political current missing from the Rural Strategy is the new 
localism (as embodied in public service reforms and the Office of the 
Deputy Primes Minister's approach to local governance and urban 
policy). The strategy is weak in its treatment of topics such as 
local government, rural services, transport, the voluntary sector and 
rural housing. These are major rural issues in localities and raise 
crucial questions about delivery. Such shortcomings reflect Defra's 
limited experience in the non-land management aspects of rural 
development, and illustrate how far removed from local priorities the 
concerns of the centre have become.

Neil Ward, Philip Lowe and Terry Carroll are with the Centre for 
Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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