‘Farewells after final Commission for Rural Communities meeting. Ends proud line going back to Lloyd George’s Development Commission in 1909.’
This was tweeted last Wednesday by Mark Shucksmith of Newcastle University, who has been a board member of the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) since its inception in 2005. The CRC ceases to exist today, 31 March 2013. There is nothing to take its place.
The CRC began as the Development Commission in 1909, founded by David Lloyd George to stop the drift of rural populations to the cities, help rural industries and support voluntary bodies providing services—like the rural community councils and Women’s Institutes. It survived for 90 years, changing its name to Rural Development Commission in 1988 when it amalgamated with the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas (CoSIRA); it did fine work in providing housing and services, helping businesses and supporting communities in rural Britain.
In 1999 the RDC was split in two. One part went to the Regional Development Agencies (the start of John Prescott’s big, abortive, plan for regional government), which took on rural economic delivery. The policy and community delivery element was combined with the old Countryside Commission to form the Countryside Agency. That was not a bad solution, and the Countryside Agency had the potential to do brilliant work for rural communities, combining socio-economic aspects with recreation and the environment, the only English body to have all three elements of the sustainability definition (environmental, social and economic).
For a short time the agency was active and effective on all fronts, with innovative schemes like Vital Villages which improved rural transport and services and encouraged communities to get involved in local planning; the local heritage initiative (celebrating the local culture) and doorstep greens (new green space for communities). ‘Eat the view’ matched local produce to local markets, and the agency promoted market towns as the hubs, providing services to dispersed settlements. The evaluation report of Vital Villages shows that the grants did reach deprived areas and made a difference.
As a member of the Countryside Agency’s board for its whole existence (1999-2006) I found the broader thinking refreshing and exciting. But we were not allowed to enjoy this for long. Chris Haskins (Tony Blair’s ‘rural tsar’) came along and produced a report which advocated splitting policy (for government only) and delivery (for its agencies). The strength of the RDC and Countryside Commission, and then the Countryside Agency, was in being able to combine policy with delivery, testing ideas then embedding them in policy. But the government didn’t like this, it wanted to retain control.
So once again there was turmoil. The Countryside Agency was split, and its work on landscape, recreation and access went with English Nature and the Rural Development Service to form Natural England. Meanwhile the agency’s economic and social elements were given to a new, small body, the CRC.
The commission’s three main functions were as rural advocate, expert adviser and independent watchdog. Its board and small staff carried out thematic studies and ran inquiries; they gave expert advice, published annual state of the countryside reports (continuing the practice of the Countryside Agency) on rural services, changes and trends; they undertook rural-proofing reports and evaluations.
A feature of the Countryside Agency had been the rural advocate, a role held by its first chairman Ewen Cameron, then his successor, Stuart Burgess. The advocate supposedly had the ear of Downing Street and direct access to the PM, to ensure that rural issues commanded the attention of those at the top. The post was abolished in 2010. CRC’s documents are now consigned to the National Archive and its website has been sucked into Defra’s.
In his final report of 2010, Stuart raises many rural issues which urgently need to be tackled: affordable housing, help for parents with young children, poor communications, lack of employment and transport, energy-inefficient housing, families on low incomes, lack of care for the elderly and infirm, isolation and exclusion. And, as ever, the failure of decision makers to take account of rural circumstances.
Reports and inquiries
The tiny CRC has produced countless reports and carried out countless inquiries. In 2007 its chief executive, Graham Garbutt, quoting research by CRC, spoke of the ‘lost city’ of 980,000 homes across rural England with incomes below 60 per cent of the national median, the equivalent of a city. Over and over again the CRC reminds us of the intense but hidden problem of rural disadvantage, which is caused not just by lack of financial resources, but by many factors which prevent people from participating fully in society—affordability of housing, availability of transport and access to services.
But now the CRC has been abolished, despite much protest. All that is left is a rural economies and communities unit in Defra. Hardly independent—and for how long will it last?
This is a sad and ignominious end to Lloyd George’s proud ambition. It is the first time there has been no rural watchdog since 1909. It says a lot about how this government sweeps the problems of rural England under the carpet and how it shrinks from robust challenge.
We must not forget the splendid history of the Rural Development Commission and its successor bodies, we must not forget that lost city.