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Government is failing East Anglia’s rural communities, says Lords report

PUBLISHED: 11:47 22 March 2018 | UPDATED: 11:59 22 March 2018

Farm fields around Harleston. Photo: Mike Page

Farm fields around Harleston. Photo: Mike Page

Mike Page

Norfolk’s rural communities are being failed by a government which has cut budgets for the departments and agencies looking after the countryside, peers have warned.

Countryside groups in East Anglia endorsed calls for a greater focus on the rural economy following the report by a House of Lords committee which highlights a “lack of rural understanding among Whitehall policymakers”.

The report by the Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 says a lack of resources at Natural England and a failure by Defra to prioritise the “rural affairs” part of its remit had left people living in the countryside “neglected”.

It says Natural England had lost its independence and influence as “severe budget cuts” left the body unable to deliver key tasks such as promoting public access to the countryside and protecting wildlife and landscapes.

The report calls for Natural England to be properly resourced and for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to take over control of rural policy from Defra.

Chris Dady, Norfolk chairman of the CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), said the way funding for the rural economy is treated by the government is “of great concern”, and called for a “properly-funded” agency to oversee a raft of rural priorities.

“When we look at rural communities themselves we find a wealth of issues around deprivation in areas such as in transport, education, housing and social care,” he said. “For instance when the local shop and post office disappear, often the support network for many more vulnerable people in that community is lost as well.

“Transport can be irregular, making life very difficult for those without access to a car. Whilst it may not be a right to be able to live in an affordable house in the community of your choosing, there is a large and unaddressed issue around affordable housing and smaller properties for retired people downsizing to something manageable.

“The need for a properly-funded agency within the government that works to support and improve these elements for rural communities is clear.

“Norfolk has many rural communities, and without the change in approach being called for in this report, rural deprivation and the erosion of our natural environment will continue to be a real issue.”

Tim Woodward, East regional surveyor for the Country Land and Business Association, which represents thousands of rural employers, said there should be a dedicated minister for rural issues.

“The committee is right to highlight the impact of the loss of key agencies and the focus central government puts on rural economic and community issues,” he said. “Where the responsibility sits within Whitehall departments is less important than there being a dedicated minister to focus on championing rural affairs across government. The CLA is committed to working with the ministerial team to improve decision making on key issues that impact our region - from housing, to business growth and delivering rural connectivity.”

RURAL PRIORITIES

Community Action Norfolk (CAN) says 53pc of the county’s population lives in rural areas, where the key priorities include affordable housing, access to services, social isolation and issues around poverty and cost of living.

Jonathan Clemo, chief executive of CAN, said: “It is these issues that we need effective policy and investment in addressing. However, government policy crafted in central London can often feel very out of touch with our local experience here in Norfolk – we therefore need both strong local powers and a strong collective voice in Westminster.”

Mr Clemo, who said he found the report’s findings “deeply troubling”, welcomed the idea of separating responsibilities for rural affairs from Defra, which also deals with agriculture and the environment.

“Only around 3pc of the rural population work in the land-based sector,” he said. “Therefore the amalgamation of rural community issues with food and farming is not an easy fit. We therefore welcome the suggestion that the two should be more clearly separated.

“However, we have concerns that just as rural community issues have often taken lower priority to agriculture and the environment in the past, without strong safeguards being put in place, simply moving responsibility to another department will simply see them be a lower priority elsewhere.”

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

Committee chairman Lord Cameron of Dillington said: “It is clear that the government are failing to take proper account of the needs of rural communities. Departmental decisions and policies continue to demonstrate a lack of rural understanding among Whitehall policymakers.”

A government spokesman responded by saying: “Whether it is developing a new agricultural system outside the EU or safeguarding our countryside, the needs of our rural communities sit at the heart of everything we do.

“We are continuing to champion rural affairs across government – driving forward high-speed broadband in the most hard to reach areas, increasing housing availability and supporting the creation of more than 6,000 jobs through our dedicated fund for rural businesses.”


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