What does the government’s new rural policy mean for Norfolk and Suffolk?
08:32 12 September 2012
For months now, people in rural areas like Norfolk and Suffolk have been waiting for a document which, it was said, would show just how much this government cared for the countryside.
Ministers pledged that the Rural Statement, finally published today, would underline their commitment to economic development in rural areas, show how their existing policies already benefited the countryside and indicate what was to come in the future.
In political terms, the paper could not come soon enough. The government has been at loggerheads with rural campaign groups recently over several of its flagship policies.
After a public outcry, there were u-turns over selling off forest land and the culling of buzzards. There is also the on-going saga over what to do about bovine TB.
The plan to build a high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham has angered many in central England, while across the whole country there is renewed fear for green belt and greenfield areas after the chancellor recently reopened the debate over developing protected land.
It was no wonder the prime minister saw his recent cabinet reshuffle as an opportunity for a fresh start in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), sacking Caroline Spelman as secretary of state and installing Owen Paterson in her place.
So the Rural Statement today can be seen not only as Mr Paterson’s opening gambit to the rural community, but also as the wider government’s bid to get back in our good books.
Launching the statement, Mr Paterson said today: “Rural economic growth is vital for this country. The government’s role is to ensure that rural areas have all the infrastructure they need to grow.
“Businesses should then be free from the unnecessary government red tape that has got in the way of rural economic growth in the past.
“For too long, rural England was neglected by central government and its businesses struggled to achieve their ambitions. We’ve already transformed the prospects of thousands of rural businesses, and want to make sure that change is felt in every part of rural England.”
The 17-page document aims to focus on three priorities: boosting economic growth, improving quality of life and increasing rural engagement, which, roughly translated, means making sure the opinions of people living in the countryside are heard in Westminster.
On economic growth, the document highlights how it set up five Rural Growth Networks across the country, though not in the East of England.
Among other schemes it underlines are the £20m Farm and Forestry Improvement Scheme and the £60m Rural Economy Grant Scheme, launched in the last 12 months, to provide small grants to farm, forestry and other businesses, with two Wisbech firms successfully winning grants so far.
They include Watergull Orchards, given £31,000 for a new apple press and Newling Packhouse awarded £124,000 to upgrade its facilities, increasing productivity by 15pc and creating four new jobs.
Meanwhile the document highlights the coalition’s drive to improve rural broadband speeds.
The statement makes much of encouraging “rural proofing” – efforts to make sure all government departments think of the impact on the countryside when coming up with new policy.
It highlights the simplification of the development control system undertaken to produce the National Planning Policy Framework.
Then the document, available to view on the Defra website today, gives a nod to a string of other existing policies – everything from the new Police and Crime Commissioners to the New Homes Bonus – which ministers say will positively impact on rural life.
Chris Wade, the chief executive of rural group Action Market Towns, welcomed the statement saying it was a “fantastic summary” of what help was on offer and encouraged other groups to study it to see what support was available to them.
He said: “In our work at AMT, we find that successfully improving communities requires strong local leadership and joined-up, strategic support from government.
“The Rural Statement clearly states where communities can look for this support. It is a rural revival menu.”
The Campaign to Protect Rural England said it welcomed the statement’s pledge to see that all departments, not just Defra, would have to consider rural issues.
But it also argued that environmental issues had been sidelined in the document. In particular, the statement did not consider how measures to liberalise development rights could damage rural landscapes.
The director of policy and campaigns at the group, Neil Sinden, said: “As with much of current government thinking, the statement is limited by its assumption that economic development is unrelated to the natural environment.
“Only by putting the environment at the centre of measures to achieve social and economic progress will the government help to support a sustainable future for rural areas.”
Meanwhile shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh argued the government’s public spending cuts had disproportionately hit rural areas.
“People in rural areas are feeling the impact of this weak and incompetent government’s failed economic plan,” she said.
“The number of young people on the dole in rural areas is rising faster than in cities, and rural families have been hit hardest by cuts to tax credits.”
However one feels about the government’s record up to now though, there is no getting round the fact that there is little new policy in the Rural Statement.
With that in mind, it can only be considered as a bid from ministers to remind rural areas they have not been forgotten.