POLICY decisions frequently do not take the needs of rural communities into account, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said on Monday.
Speaking in a House of Lords debate on a Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act report on Monday, Dr Smith said that “we really have gone backwards in terms of our grasp of what is happening on the ground” in terms of the understanding of rural life.
“Frequently, it appears that the implications of policy decisions have not taken the needs of rural communities into account: for example, the recent changes to the schools funding formula.”
Dr Smith, who is also President of the Rural Coalition, said: “While government-funded research [on rural affairs] is recognised, it needs to move beyond the quantitative to the qualitative, listening to the most local and excluded voices; and we need to take a more open, proactive approach to partnerships with a whole range of academics, who have an extraordinary grasp of what is going on in these areas.”
He continued by expressing doubt about the ability of the Department for Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to carry out “a statement of priorities for rural research”, which the report recommends.
“Unless we can put some clothes on this proposal, there is a danger that absolutely nothing will happen — it will get lost in the huge amount of work that DEFRA is already being asked to deliver,” Dr Smith said.
The report recommends that responsibility for rural policy is transferred from DEFRA to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
It says: “We think it is more logical that responsibility for rural communities should rest within the central government department that is responsible for communities as a whole.”
Dr Smith said that the Government had indicated that it would not do this, because “the policy needs of environment, agriculture, and rural communities are highly interconnected and dependent on each other.” He urged that, “if that is the case, it would be good to see it reflected in the work of DEFRA, where currently the three elements can often feel very separate.”
Lord Cameron of Dillington, the crossbench peer who presented the report, told the Lords that more attention needed to be paid to rural affairs.
He said: “‘Rural? Oh, that’s a matter for DEFRA’, say the other departments — but they do not realise that DEFRA has closed down its rural communities policy unit. They do not realise that no one is doing the independent research any more.”
Read comment from Lorraine Cavanagh on the particular challenges of leading a rural church