Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
1. As you know, the Committee does like to look
at what government agencies are doing and how they are spending
public money, what they are managing to deliver, and whether there
is continued reason for their existence, to put it bluntly. We
have often found in these investigations that part of the problem
has been that the organisation has been waiting for some sort
of change in its rule, perhaps primary legislation, which has
inhibited it from doing what it wanted to do. That in itself has
been quite a useful exercise to identify where that is taking
place. You are obviously going to play a central part in the broader
rural development programmes, it is more immediate to the foot
and mouth recovery programme, so we thought it would be appropriate
for you if you were our first witnesses in the new session in
this rolling programme of investigating quangos. We are grateful
for this pocket edition of your booklet, I thought this was my
first Christmas calendar, until I opened it.
(Mr Cameron) I apologise. It is not easy to travel
on a train with it
but at least the maps are of a decent size.
2. The only trouble is that the scale is different
for each map. Just as you are getting yourself accustomed to finding
out what a particular map is telling you instantaneously you find
that the scale is different to the next map and you have to start
thinking all over again. Can I begin by asking you, Mr Cameron,
if in one minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation you
can tell us what the Countryside Agency actually does?
(Mr Cameron) Our role is to conserve
and enhance rural England. It is to promote economic opportunity
and social equity in rural England and it is to do those things,
ie to look after the countryside, for the benefit of all of the
population, wherever they might live. We do this through the principles
of sustainable development, economic, social and environmental
and we try to merge all three agendas. We achieve this, firstly,
by looking at problems and researching solutions, carrying out
research generally. Then by implementing demonstration projects
and pilot schemes almost always in partnership with others so
that when we withdraw the scheme carries on. Using that understanding
and knowledge we influence government, but from a position of
independence and taking very much a cross departmental approach.
We are truly a nondepartmental public body. In terms of this year
I think we are delivering our programme of work. We have clearly
been hampered by the foot and mouth disease this year and we are
not, as at the end of September, on schedule, but I would hope
that we will be by the end of the financial year.
3. If I can just take this compilation, there
is an interesting chart of the geographical availability of supermarkets,
what conclusions do we draw from that? The question is, so what?
(Ms Warhurst) Can I just refer the Committee back
to the reason we drew up the survey in the first place. It is
a fact that one in five of the population live in rural England.
If we are really going to try and understand the needs and aspirations
and deal with quality of life issues for that percentage of the
population then we have to really understand what services they
have, what their situation is, and so on. We know, for example,
that disadvantage in rural areas can often be hidden because it
is, perhaps, not as concentrated as in urban areas and perhaps
those that are more disadvantaged are living next door to quite
wealthy people, and so on. Because there have been so many calls
on the public purse at times there has not been an appropriate
recognition of the needs of people living in rural areas. Therefore
the State of the Countryside Report and particularly the Rural
Services Report, along with the indicators we have worked on for
disadvantage in rural areas, allow those that would take action
and policy decisions relating to the rural population to understand
where the needs arise. Therefore, in that particular area it shows
that throughout England 46 per cent of the population do not have
access to a post office. It shows that there are still concerns
in other parts of the service provision. It also shows that where
there has been concentration of public spend, in transport and
in the development of village halls, things have improved. We
conclude that where there is a focus on spend in terms of service
provision things can be turned round. It is very much about us
understanding the issues so that those who look for an alternative
service provision in rural areas can do so, again with another
arm of the Countryside Agency by working with communities on pilots
to look at innovative ways of making sure you have got suitable
shopping facilities in rural areas, and so on.
4. Do you regard supermarkets as being a good
thing or a bad thing for the rural economy?
(Ms Warhurst) From our perspective there have been
mixed blessings in terms of supermarket provision. That is not
really at the heart of what we as an agency are trying to do.
What we are trying to do is draw the attention of policy makers
to areas of concern that perhaps they need to re-think. On occasions,
for example, in market towns it may be very appropriate for there
to be supermarket provision. In other areas where there will never
be a supermarket we need to make sure that those that cannot access
it, because they do not have the transport to get to the supermarket
nevertheless are not cut off from society and from life in general
but do have alternative provision.
5. In terms of translating this into policy,
a government minister just listens to what you said, reads that,
so what policy then does that minister deduce? Are you suggesting
that the government should have a policy for the fair distribution
of supermarkets? What is the policy implication?
(Ms Warhurst) The policy implication is that if we
are to understand the needs of the 20 per cent that live in rural
areas and if we also turn to what we have done to indicate to
policy makers that disadvantage does happen in rural areas, that
people do not always have access to public transport, to a car,
that incomes can be very low, which we have seen particularly
exacerbated in recent times in rural areas, then the question
of, is a supermarket good or bad is not quite the real one that
policy makers need to be looking at.
6. What are the local people asking for?
(Ms Warhurst) What the local people need, we gather
from our surveys, are appropriate transport so they can have a
choice of going to the supermarket or shopping locally. They also
need to make sure that situations such as low income, part-time
work or seasonal work or the things that affect people's ability
to shop in the first place are also addressed. It is a very complex
picture of needs in rural areas, of which supermarket provision
is just one. From our perspective we want to make sure that access
to services such as health, education and transport, the basics
of life, are properly dealt with and understood by government.
That is why we work to research and also towards a partnership
on the ground so that people can look to alternative ways of meeting
Chairman: The entire Committee wish to come
in at this stage.
7. I live in one area of bucolic happeniness
and simplicity, a lot of people who have drifted into the countryside
in the last three or four decades have gone there out of choice.
They have gone there because they have a higher standard of living
and they want to convert a farm house or have a big house, they
have a car, they might well work. There are areas of deprivation
in all these maps, round Grimsby and in the East Riding of Yorkshire,
but a lot of people now work in Grimsby and work in Hull and work
in York, so it is not one picture of deprivation. They are not
youngsters, they do not need supermarkets.
(Ms Warhurst) The point is, we are coming more and
more to the view of society and we are trying to inform that debate
that the interdependence between rural and urban areas is very
significant. The old idea that this is rural and this is urban
and that things are done separately is starting to go more and
more out the door. What is really important is to understand that
yes, of course, people move to the countryside because it is a
fabulous asset, it is a wonderful place to live and people would
like to enjoy that. We say that is not the total picture, there
are needs in rural areas that have not been addressed and we need
to look at them. We as an agency try to provide the evidence to
look at those needs for that 20 per cent of the population, and
we as an agency try to work in partnership with those people that
are experiencing those difficulties to say to government, this
is a difficult issue, that is why it has not been solved to date,
and let us look at alternative ways of dealing with it. It is
very much a mixed picture, we are not, by any means, saying that
deprivation is the order of the day in the countryside, but nevertheless
it is significant for a significant number of people and should
not be forgotten. That is our message.
8. Looking at page 38, I assume that is a copy
of a reproduction of the survey that went out? What percentage
of returns do you have from some parish and town councils that
you base all of the maps on? The other thing is, do you intend
to update this annually, so one assumes that the new one is out
(Ms Warhurst) No.
(Mr Wakeford) Can I just say for clarification, the
information in this volume comes from different surveys. Some
of the information is based on questionnaires from parishes which
will continue to operate and that is what provides us with the
old figures that the Rural Development Commission used to provide.
The last set of those was in 1997. We are at a transition. The
majority of data in this Report comes from post coded data sources.
They are, effectively, 100 per cent surveys. We now know and can
plot where every post office is. We do not need to ask a parish
council whether there is a post office there or not and then only
get a 50 per cent or 60 per cent return. The bulk of the data
is post coded data which makes it much easier in future years
to do an annual update when there ae more data available. What
we will not be doing is sending this survey
out each year. It itself has certain shortcomings. There are certain
things we can only find out by doing a survey of this style.
9. None of the information from the survey is
included in the data you produced?
(Mr Wakeford) Some of it is, in particular the trend
10. That takes me on to trend, how you track
this and I am interested in the use of post codes, and technology
is helpful on that. We track the growth and demise of youth clubs
and pubs and post offices in rural areas over time and that presumably
then is used to inform government policy makers. How do you see
that contributing to that debate? Presumably you get statisticical
data and you can present it and hopefully that will produce some
response in terms of promoting post offices or more funding through
village youth clubs?
(Mr Wakeford) What it can also do is provide an evaluation,
it is not only influencing of government policy, which Pam Warhurst
covered before, it is also evaluation. One of the things we were
able to say when we published this survey was that there seem
to be some areas of improvement in surveys since 1997. There now
seem to be more communities that have access to public or community
transport than before. The Government has actually been investing
substantial amounts in rural public transport, so I imagine that
the government is reassured that this is starting to show through
in availability on the ground. We have also shown that the rate
of closures of village primary schools is now more or less stable.
The position on community halls and community meeting rooms seems
to have improved. That may coincide with a period where there
has been a good deal of lottery money going into village hall
programmes. It is not only about the future. It is also looking
to see what the impact of activities of other bodies has been
over the period since the last review.
11. One further point, we get all of this statistical
information, which provides useful indicators, we all recognise
that, and I think it gives us a firm basis. When we assess things
like access and deprivation and all of the rest, where do we actually
listen to people in the countryside, after we have got the statistical
study, yes, there is a pub, there is a shop, there is a garage,
and all of the rest of it, where do we get the voices of rural
people saying what they feel their needs are as opposed to what
we determine from the survey?
(Mr Cameron) There are two aspects. One is we are
encouraging more community activity in terms of getting rural
governance to be more efficient and parish councils, in particular,
to speak for their people and for their community. Secondly, in
terms of the Countryside Agency, including myself as rural advocate,
I try to go out and visit people on the ground and to hear what
they are saying to me as to what they feel they want from government.
In terms of social exclusion, if that is what you are talking
about, we have a huge range of projects which are communicating
with the needy, the young, the old and the impoverished in the
countryside to try to get them to participate more in community
12. Some of their concerns are things like mobile
phone masts, breaches of planning regulation and over development.
Some of their concerns are not necessarily reflected in pubs and
post offices as an agenda?
(Mr Cameron) I accept that.
13. One of the words that has been used a lot
so far has been the word "rural". In your document the
State of the Countryside 2000 you say, "most people
have an image of what is meant by rural yet defining rural for
consistent reporting is challenging". Then you tell us there
are lots of different definitions and there is not one universal
one because lots of people have different ways of defining rural,
but for the time being until you can think of a better one you
have settled on the former Rural Development Commission. There
are a lot of people who live cheek by jowl with the urban areas
in what we might call the countryside from an urban perspective
who think of themselves just as much rural people as people who
live in isolated communities in places like Cumbria. I am interested
in this question of definition, because that obviously is the
springboard to determining the objectives of your agency and,
therefore, the measures of its success. Do you think there ought
to be a universal definition of rural? Do you have one which is
uniquely developed by your goodselves? How do we resolve this
question of the border issues of people whose perception is strongly
rural but who are five miles from the supermarket but say they
live in the countryside?
(Mr Wakeford) This is an issue which merits possibly
more time than we have available. The traditional difficulty with
defining rural has centred round how you collect your data. We
have to collect data on the basis that we can actually go out
and understand. So, for example, if you were collecting data on
a district council basis which is information for the whole district
council you then have to decide whether that district council
is rural or not. One of the concerns that I have about these statistics
and one of the reasons why going on to a post coded system is
such an advance, I can illustrate by reference to Bognor Regis.
Bognor Regis is part of the Arun District Council area. The Arun
District Council area is predominantly rural. In most of the places
you would feel that you were rural. But it would be wrong to summarise
the position of that authority as being uniform throughout, because
a big chunk of it is a substantial town with a set of quite urban
challenges, the challenges of an elderly population and a declining
seaside town, a very different issue but within the same local
authority. One has to make a judgment. So what we have been doing
in the past is doing the best we can with the sort of characterisations
there have been and trying not to switch too much, because every
time you switch a definition you remove the ability to do trend
data comparisons and you have to explain it. That is why in this
countryside report we have two sets of data. We have continued
with the old RDC way of collecting data by parish. In some parts
of the country parishes are very small and some are very large.
I always remember John Gummer telling me about the different sizes
of parishes in his constituency, where I think Felixstowe is strictly
a parish with 25,000 people and down the road there is another
one with 50 people. So, saying that X percentage of parishes do
not have a village shop is a relatively meaningless thing to do.
What we are therefore aiming to do with the new data is move on
to a sound basis, to look to see how far people live from a facility
or how close they are to a post office as distinct from how many
parishes have post offices in them. I have to say, there are difficulties
in measurement, but we are improving all of the time. As we move
towards the post coded database (I missed out the explanation
of ward based data, which we are also collecting), we get to the
point where it is easier to say, in an ideal world where we are
going to draw the boundary between urban and rural can now be
aggregated from these data sets. The general line that we are
taking at the moment is that market towns are very definitely
a part of the countryside. Then somebody says, how do you define
a market town? The general line that we are taking is that places
of 10,000 population or less and the surrounding countryside,
the green bits in between, are essentially rural and those towns
which are not freestanding and in larger urban areas are urban.
14. You have been very clear in this vast information
gathering exercise, but if I look at the draft corporate plan,
"our headline priorities, our main outputs", unless
I have misread this, I do not see anything there that says, to
produce a unified definition for what is the countryside. The
reason I ask that is that it underpins, surely, all of what you
are doing, that under the old RDC situations, for example, in
North Lancashire qualified as countryside, so people could get
help with the village halls, however two miles down the road it
was not countryside for that definition. A lot of the schemes
that are round are predicated on old definitions of what is rural.
If you are going to be the agency that links this all together
surely we should have a unified description with obvious imperfections
but that says what is rural and what is urban.
(Mr Wakeford) I think we are making progress towards
it. We are doing it. I think it is in the corporate plan. It may
be that I would need to
15. It is buried and we cannot find it.
(Mr Wakeford) It is also in the Rural White Paper
because we are doing it with government.
16. I am looking at your draft corporate plan,
the thing that says what you are doing.
(Mr Wakeford) I am giving you an assurance that we
are working on this
17. When will it be done?
(Mr Wakeford) We are working with the government in
partnership on that and it is taking longer than I would like.
18. When would you like it to be done?
(Mr Wakeford ) I would like it to be the done as soon
as possible. I will let you have a note about what we are doing
in some detail because it is something that we need to do. I would
like to come back to the point that Mr Mitchell made, where he
was talking about the people who live in the small towns and villages
round Grimsby and how they are driving somewhere else. Their economic
activity is in Grimsby and where they shop is in Grimsby and where
they live is in the countryside. That is an illustration of how
difficult it is to define something like the rural economy. Is
that person who lives in the small village round Grimsby actually
measured as part of the rural economy, because they are certainly
contributing some wealth to the community, or are they part of
the urban economy? From surveys of where people work, we know
that over 40 per cent of rural residents travel to jobs in cities,
towns and suburbs. We are a very mobile society. The closer we
are able to draw lines on a map and say this is rural and this
is urban the less meaningful that becomes, because as a society
we are becoming more and more mobile.
19. Does it really matter that we try to discriminate
between rural and urban? Your piece of researchI attended
the presentation and I have looked at it subsequentlyis
very good but some of it blindingly obvious, if you live in an
area with not a very dense population you are not going to have
a lot of supermarkets, cash points, petrol stations and other
services. Does it really matter if you live on a big housing estate
in the centre of an urban area and you have no shop or no post
office, you are just as disadvantaged. What you are trying to
do is somehow separate people into groups, why are we doing this?
Your main aim, you say, is to have a countryside. We could ignore
that word countryside, something that is environmentally healthy,
economically more successful and socially stronger. Do we not
want that for everywhere?
(Ms Warhurst) May I pick up that point? People's needs
and aspirations and desires for their family are the same wherever
they are, decent health, decent education, and so on. We are saying
that the other side to our influencing role is that many people
suffer in rural areas where there are huge economic pressures
to take out the shopping infrastructure, the transport infrastructure,
to centralise health care, because we all need centres of excellence
wherever it is, and that might be several, and so on. There are
particular difficulties that pound for pound are more difficult
to find solutions to in a rural area. What we are trying to say
is, these are not exclusively rural solutions because much of
the work we do, for example, is community forestry, and the lessons
could be taken just as easily for urban parks and green spaces,
so there needs to be more of a relationship and interplay between
urban and rural. But in rural areas we have found that in order
to meet those aspirations on a reasonable basis we are having
to work with communities who themselves want to gain access to
the sort of support that will help them find their own solution.
For example, in Waters Upton, near Telford, a small community
lost its shop, lost its post office. The parish council was really
adamant it was going to work with the community to make a difference
and with support from the Countryside Agency and others and with
an agreement with a developer on a Section 106 it is now going
to build a new building. This is parish council-led. That will
have a post office, a shop, a community facility, an office for
police and over the top will have a housing association flat for
the shopkeeper or the postmaster to live in. That keeps within
that community the sort of services that that community has deemed
themselves that they need. These pilots, as it were working partnerships,
are happening all over the place. This is not to say that there
is something particular about the needs of rural human beings
but there is something particular about finding some solution
to some of those more difficult problems.
1 Note by Witness: Rural Services 2000, The
Countryside Agency (November 2001). Back
Note by Witness: ie. the parish questionnaire. Back