Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. You give us the examples of projects and pilots working to empower the people to get the services that they identify that they want, all good stuff. As you say, you are going to influence those who make the decisions because you are going to do the research, demonstrate through projects good practice and that then influences those that make the policy. Is the problem though that with the best will in the world you are an agency that is doing this research and doing these little projects, how much real influence do you have on local authorities and their local planning, which is so important for the development of local areas, the Regional Development Agencies, central government, the bank, the big four banks, Consignia, the police organisations within any shire? In fairness, it would be nice to be the advocate to say, please can we do this, but in reality surely you are just a little campaigning voice, you are no more than a lobbying group, you do not really influence the people that are making the big decisions which are going to make a difference, which is local authorities, both at shire and district, government and the private sector. How much influence do you really have?
  (Mr Wakeford) How do you measure influence? This is the big challenge. We believe that we do have a big influence. I get a lot and the Chairman and Deputy Chairman and my team do get a lot of feedback from partners, which include local authorities, which include Consignia and some of the other service deliverers in the countryside that do very much draw on the results of the projects that we use to demonstrate how things can be better in the countryside. In the area of transport earlier this year we published a good practice guide, called Great Ways To Go. Ewen was telling me that he was reading a proof of it on the train before we published it and the person sitting next to him was also reading it and saying, "this is a really great document, where can I get one?" It contains a whole series of case studies about how to improve rural transport for those who are increasingly isolated in the countryside because more people have access to a car and those who do not have access to a car are finding it more difficult to get to places. We need innovations in public transport. We have been involved in a whole series of innovative experiments and demonstration. We are spreading the news about those and I have no reason to believe that we are wasting our time here. What I am getting is very good and very positive feedback.


  21. Can I interrupt you, when did any of you last meet the Chairman of Consignia?
  (Mr Cameron) I have not met him but I wrote to him last month. I have yet to receive a reply I have to admit.
  (Mr Wakeford) My Director, Margaret Clarke, has had several meetings with Consignia.

  22. With who in Consignia?
  (Mr Wakeford) Stewart Sweetman mainly.

  23. What we are trying to get at is, you are clearly an enormous information collecting organisation and you lobby. You said there are little schemes here and there on a local level, you have not made clear to me, in which you have a role to play, what we are trying to get at is, what do you actually do?
  (Mr Cameron) We also had the director of Consignia speaking at a conference of delivering services to rural areas last month, which I chaired. We obviously use our influence with government departments in terms of trying to influence Consignia, particularly with the Universal Bank and their adoption of that within their post office. Influence is very difficult. I come from a lobbying background. Most of my life I have been lobbying for the countryside. It is very difficult to say where you influenced a decision and where you have not. You have your view, you put it in and if it comes out right it is sometimes hard to say. In terms of the countryside our biggest influencing act was influencing the Rural White Paper and the outcomes are there. We are also going to make certain that we follow up and make certain they are implemented and are going to be hugely beneficial over the next few years for the countryside. There are large sums of money involved.

Diana Organ

  24. If we take it up on the Rural White Paper, the Rural White Paper is now the model of Government White Paper for where DEFRA is going to go. It is quite clear that up until the set up of DEFRA we did not really have a government department that would be an umbrella for the environment and rural affairs. We now have that and last week when the secretary of state was in front of this Committee she made it quite clear her department was going to influence other departments, that she was taking the lead on rural affairs, she would be working with other departments in government. Now we have that, we have the Rural White Paper, we have DEFRA set up, why do we need you guys?
  (Mr Wakeford) She also made it clear how important she felt the partnership was with the Countryside Agency in doing that.

  25. It is a partnership working and that is it.
  (Mr Wakeford) I wanted to emphasise that we are working in an influencing role with government. With others, and actually your Chairman's view is correct, we probably do not do enough with others, like the chairmen of large organisations whose operations influence the countryside, there is always more that one can do there. The influence that we are able to have though depends on activities on the ground, on actually having practical experience in partnership with particular projects. We are involved a great deal with rural communities in implementing some of the initiatives that are settled in this Rural White Paper. We have an action plan. We are showing that we are are doing that. If I can take an example like the Vital Villages Initiative, where we are investing something like £48 million over a three year period in small grants to small communities to help those communities to develop facilities for themselves but at the same time learn how they can have community leadership within themselves. What we will be doing as a national agency is setting up a learning network so that parishes can learn from each other. There will be a single place where they can go to see where these grants have been paid, what sort of facilities have been provided as a result and whether the community feels that they have gained or not from that. Sometimes when you invest money you do not get the results that you expect and it is important that we learn from that as well as from the great successes. What we will be able to do and what we will add is the ability to network information about what works and what does not work. That will enable all parish councils and communities who have a mind to improve the quality of life and help them learn from each other.

  26. You talk about the projects and, of course, I know about one that we are doing in the Forest of Dean, I think I am right in saying, you want to take this model, the integrated rural development, the £1 million project in that area you see as something new. You are a new agency, are you not? You have to say, "we are different from the Rural Development Commission of before, it is a different way of working, it is a different way of delivery", so we have to prove we have the Integrated Rural Development Project in the Forest of Dean. On that, who is influencing who? The original reason for the setting up of that was a commitment before the election of 1997 that we would have a special status for planning in the Forest of Dean. That has not been delivered. What is being done is that government has now said the Countryside Agency can look at the development of this, you now have the Integrated Rural Development Programme going on but there is no move on what was the original idea, the original demand for it, so who is influencing who on this?
  (Mr Cameron) The point is that you raised your eyebrows at a previous point and you said we are in partnership with DEFRA.

  27. Yes.
  (Mr Cameron) We are also independent. If a government minister comes along and makes promises we actually take an independent line as to the advice we give to government and how we set about doing things. Our view was that the Forest of Dean was better served by an Integrated Rural Development Project. Admittedly it has been severely hampered with the foot and mouth this year in terms of progress. We believe it is going to be more beneficial for the Forest of Dean to put the money into that rather than creating an AONB with knobs on, which I think is what was promised.

  28. It is contradictory in its aims, is it not, which I think a lot of your statements are, it is about environmental enhancement and protection but it is also about economic success. How do you marry those two together?
  (Mr Wakeford) The Forest of Dean is a very good example. We started with the feeling that the Forest of Dean needed to be an area of outstanding natural beauty. But actually when we listened hard to what local people were saying, and believe me we have listened hard to what local people are saying, it is partly that the environment of the Forest of Dean is a tremendous asset which is not being capitalised on for local business advantage, in terms of the Forest as a recreational place where people might come and stay, in terms of the products of the countryside being available locally. I remember being with the local head of Forest Enterprise in his first Christmas. He said we wanted to buy something from the Forest to take home to his family for Christams and there was nothing that he could take home that was from that landscape. The environment is actually something which can be harnessed for economic gain. The other thing that people told us was that they were fed up with all of these different bodies coming into the Forest from elsewhere with their own type of programmes without looking to see how they joined up. The point about integrated rural development is you bring the bodies together who have funds to tackle the sorts of problems that there are in that particular area, and you join them up in a way that they invest in a complementary way because the sum will then be greater than the parts individually. The problem that we found in the Forest of Dean was that there were certainly needs there. Some of them were being addressed by different agencies and in different ways and they were not being joined up. The Integrated Rural Development Project that we have under way, which Ewen said has been somewhat hampered by the foot and mouth disease, which hit the Forest of Dean very hard, is designed to ensure that the different investments made by different elements of government, central and local government, can actually be joined up in a way which together will benefit the Forest of Dean.

Mrs Shephard

  29. Your total budget is something like £53 million, have you been able to analyse the other 66 agencies, institutions, quangos and other organisations that are currently pouring over the future of rural Britain to compare yourself in terms of size of budget and influence them and work out a plan as to how to interact with them? I see no sign of it in this or that, (indicating).
  (Mr Wakeford) I would need to know who the 66 were.

  30. You should know, should you not? You are the Countryside Agency, you should know who you are working with.
  (Mr Wakeford) We work with a very large number of partners, both regional and national, and as a relatively small agency we obviously need to prioritise and identify the main bodies.

  31. I am amazed that you do not know.
  (Mr Wakeford) I do not know who your list of 66 are.

  32. The Committee had been given this list two meetings ago, so I am sure we can be at your service. I am astounded to know you are not aware of who you are working with.
  (Mr Wakeford) We are. I do not know who the 66 are on your list and I would be very grateful if you could let me have that.

  33. We will give you that.
  (Mr Wakeford) I would certainly start with the regional development agencies, where we have a series of partnerships. We meet the rural members of the regional development agencies twice a year in order to ensure that we are working together in a collaborative way. As the accounting officer I actually need to be aware of the way in which we are using the funds, the grant in aid which the government gives us. I am accountable to Parliament for that, and the last thing I want to do is spend it on something that somebody is already spending money on.

  34. Can I move to the make up of the Rural Development Agencies, have you formed a view as to whether the rural representation on the RDAs is satisfactory or not? In which RDAs there is adequate representation from a rural point of view, and in which there is not? What kind of policies are produced by RDAs that take account of rural problems or not? What influence, since we are talking about influence, you can exert on those RDAs that although they have large geographical representation of rural areas nevertheless in terms of policy and expenditure they never seem to reflect that very inadequately?
  (Ms Warhurst) I sit on the Yorkshire Regional Development Agency. In the first instance, why have the Regional Development Agencies not produced their regional economic strategies? We were in contact with them about the rural dimension, or lack of it, in terms of what we thought was appropriate and indeed offered that advice to DETR at the time in terms of the adequacy of their dealing with rural affairs. It is true to say that it is still relatively early days with the Regional Development Agencies to actually see the actions on the ground. They produce the strategies, the paperwork, the consultation and they are starting to make inroads into some of those areas of concern. In as far as they are making inroads we have regular meetings with the chairs of Regional Development Agencies on a regular basis, once a year. We ourselves meet up with the rural representatives of the Regional Development Agencies on a regular basis, about four times a year, so we can share with each other. We put joint items on the agenda of those areas of concern that we wish to pass comment on from their perspective and they would want to understand how we might work more effectively together. I think it is still the case that we need to work over a period of time with Regional Development Agencies so that everyone on their boards, not just the rural representatives, understand the rural dimension, the importance of the countryside to the economy at large within the region, understand the interrelationship between urban areas and rural areas, and so on. We do have a robust and continued dialogue with the rural representatives as well as the chair. At the moment I feel that in terms of the presentation of their rural agenda there are those Regional Development Agencies that have rural written throughout all of their chapters and there are those that wish to see a rural chapter attached to the regional economic strategy. Our concern is not how they choose to deliver that but in everything they do they do take into account the particular needs of those people that live in rural areas, that work in rural areas and take account of the potential, that Richard Wakeford spoke about earlier, of the economic gain that can be made from the environment, but also understand the significance of the countryside and those people that they would want to inwardly invest. It is a big dialogue, it is a complex set of discussions, but at the moment the jury is out, I have to say, in terms of whether Regional Development Agencies across the board will perform for rural areas. I do believe they are taking it very seriously. From a personal perspective I have no reason to believe or have undue concerns they are not.
  (Mr Cameron) Can I say, I started out with a fairly jaundiced view about the rural focus of the RDAs and I maintain that. Certainly from my meetings with the chairmen it is a question of rural proofing their work and making sure they are focused and getting the chairmen to ask their officials what they are doing about certain rural issues. I do think that the foot and mouth crisis has helped focus their attention on rural areas and all we have to do now is try and sustain that.

  35. Are you aware, for example, that in East Anglia it took ten months for the RDA to be able to facilitate payment for those who suffered from the swine fever outbreak the summer before last? Would you consider that adequate rural proofing?
  (Mr Cameron) No.

  Mrs Shephard: I wonder why!

Mr Martlew

  36. Am I right in thinking that in England we are not suffering from rural depopulation, the fact is the movement is the other way, there is substantial movement.
  (Mr Wakeford) Over a substantial period of time since about the 1950s.
  (Mr Cameron) The demographic make up of the population is that the young leave the countryside when they leave school and they come back when they are pensioners, that is generally speaking.

  37. I would actually disagree with that, they come back when they have children and they want a better quality of life very often.
  (Mr Cameron) Some of them do.

  38. Is it part of your job to tackle the problem? There is a village where I started to work 35 years ago, and I know that village very well, it is now part of my constituency, and it wants for nothing really, it has good schools, two pubs, a railway station, it has a bus service but what has changed in reality is the social fabric of that village. Some of families that lived there 35 years ago their children cannot afford to live there any more. The buses still run fairly empty because the people in those villages can all afford vehicles. Is that part of your remit?
  (Mr Cameron) Very definitely.

  39. Is that a problem that you recognise?
  (Mr Cameron) There are a whole series of issues there, delivery of services, affordable housing, and so on. There is a village in Wiltshire that has 30 per cent of its population with income of over £45,000, and would probably be an exact picture of the village you describe, and there is actually 30 per cent of that village with incomes of less than £7,000. Because everyone else is wealthy. There are no jobs being created. The side of the population who are most outspoken would not allow businesses to get started in that village. The bus services are inadequate and do not service the people. That is one of the problems. I actually believe it is worse to be impoverished in a wealthy, southeast of England village than it is to be impoverished in a fairly poor, ex-mining village in Cornwall, for instance.

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