Tag Archives: Government

Devolution doesn’t always mean taking back control

Since Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, successive UK governments have fiddled around with ways of devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall.  The most radical has been Scottish devolution, which continues to evolve.  The least coherent has been the patchwork of schemes developed across England, ranging from a well-thought out arrangement for London, with a directly elected mayor and assembly, to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along “devolution deals” for the rest.

The coalition government of 2010-15 abolished – wisely – the regional governance bureaucracies.  The first big replacement idea was Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), intended as “business-led” mechanisms for spending public money.  The areas covered by LEPs were in some cases obvious, based for example on established city regions or former metropolitan counties.  In others the rationale was less clear, perhaps nowhere more so than the Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEP, covering a massive area from Plymouth to the south of Bristol [1].  It’s tempting to think that after Cornwall decided to go their own way and Bristol wasn’t having any truck with its Somerset neighbours, that HotSW was the “bit left over”.

The performance of these fundamentally secretive and undemocratic bodies is not the focus of this post [2].  They are relevant because the LEP areas have in some cases – including HotSW – formed the basis of the subsequent devolution proposals in England.

The government has been inviting groups of local authorities to submit proposals for devolving decision-making in certain functions, particularly infrastructure and economic development, but not limited to these.  The rationale behind this approach is that increasing productivity, a key goal of government policy, is best achieved by local targeting of support measures through local authorities and business interests working together.  The government has made it clear that access to some central funding is dependent on devolution deals being agreed.  Invariably, local authorities across the area commit to setting up a “combined authority” to take the decisions.  Unlike London, this would not be directly elected but would be made up of the leaders of the constituent councils plus non-elected representatives of the NHS and the LEP.  Initially, agreement to a having directly-elected mayor was a condition of a devolution deal but the government now seems to be less rigid on this.

One of the problems with this approach is that it was designed for large urban areas.  Greater Manchester, for example, has operated as a partnership of councils across a coherent area since the 1960s when Passenger Transport Authorities were set up.  Manchester is the trail-blazer in the current devolution game, and it clearly works for them.

What is less clear is that the combined authority structure will work well in those areas of England that aren’t part of a conurbation.  A pretentious-sounding body called The Independent Commission on Economic Growth and the Future of Public Services in Non-Metropolitan England produced a report last year arguing for devolution deals for the rest of England [3].  It does make the useful point that LEP areas do not in most cases coincide with functional economic areas (a conclusion which should be enough to discredit the whole idea of LEPs), but is otherwise a typical product of this debate in that it focusses on structures and “partnerships” from which communities are largely excluded.

The councils within the HotSW area have submitted a devolution bid to the government [4].  The bid identifies 6 challenges for the area (low productivity growth, limited labour market, patchy performance in innovation and enterprise, an ageing population, health and care integration, infrastructure and connectivity) and 6 “Golden Opportunities” for improving growth and productivity (marine, nuclear, aerospace and advanced engineering, data analytics, rural productivity, health and care).  The bid has a wholly economic focus: other than in references to care, the word “social” does not appear in the document, and there is no acknowledgement of the impacts of the plans on the natural environment.

If the bid succeeds – and at least some of the councils are treating the whole exercise with a degree of caution – decision-making on the plans and services covered by the bid will be sucked upwards from the councils and the people they represent.  How the combined authority will balance the interests of, say, Plymouth with those of people in the Mendips will be discussed in officer-led groups behind closed doors – because that is the only way “partnership” working can be made to operate in practice.  The need to prepare for joint meetings gives authority officers huge influence over agendas and decisions because of the need to coordinate positions and identify common solutions in advance of meetings.

The combined authority itself will be made up of leaders of the constituent councils and others.  It will not be directly elected.  Trying to influence its decisions will be next to impossible for individuals and community groups.  The bid’s economic focus ignores environmental and community questions completely, so being able to provide a counter-balance is hugely important.  As it is, the bid’s environmental credentials are defined by the partnership’s LEP-led role as a cheerleader for the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

Other devolution bids across England generate similar challenges.  At a time when disillusion with our politics is at an all-time high, it is puzzling – to put it mildly – that decision-making is to move even further away from the people most affected

 

NOTES:

[1]  The map of LEP areas at www.lepnetwork.net/the-network-of-leps/ shows just how large the area is.

[2]  An excellent House of Commons briefing note (July 2016) provides a concise guide to LEPs including reviews of their performance – see www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn05651.pdf

[3]  See www.local.gov.uk/non-met-commission

[4]  The bid document is at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/files/2016/01/Heart-of-the-South-West-Devolution-Prospectus.pdf

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It’s not just the infrastructure, stupid!

Making better use of what transport services we have already will provide quicker and cheaper solutions.

Down here in Devon discussions about transport invariably end up talking about improving the resilience of transport infrastructure on the peninsula. Whether it’s dualling the A303 to provide an alternative to the M4/M5 or building another railway between Plymouth and Exeter, there is a real head of diesel fuel behind the campaign to give Cornwall and Devon better physical transport connections to the rest of the country.

The collapsed railway on the Dawlish sea-front in February 2014 has become the icon for what’s wrong with the peninsula’s rail services. The fact that Cross-Country Voyager trains still regularly break down on the sea-front because the waves chuck seawater into their diesel engines is presented as another reason for “doing something about Dawlish”. Commentators generally ignored the quicker and cheaper solution of replacing those trains with ones that can withstand a bit of sea water, such as Great Western Railway’s ageing 125s.

Every so often, a body called the Peninsula Rail Task Force pops up with yet another report aimed at persuading central government to find a lot of money to provide a new railway line across Devon. This body, which is made up of local authorities and the two Local Enterprise Partnerships (aka the Plymouth business lobby), focusses almost entirely on improving resilience through capital expenditure. Leading local politicians and MPs read from the same song book, though since all but one of the MPs are Tories their demands for more public spending are inevitably unconvincing.

So we have a campaigning mindset focussed on infrastructure. That’s not wrong but it’s not the whole story. The problems with our transport network extend well beyond the this. One of the greatest disincentives to using public transport is the lack of good local connections between rail services to or from the rest of the country and those communities without a railway station.

Much of the problem is due to the lack of evening bus services. Someone living in the South Devon town of Kingsbridge who needs to do a day’s work in London will get the first bus to Totnes station, wait over an hour and then a train to Paddington arriving at 11.24am. Several meetings later, the same person just manages to catch the 5.03pm from Paddington arriving at Totnes at 7.55pm. Sadly, the last bus from Totnes to Kingsbridge left at 7.05pm. The well-off will have no problem summoning a taxi, but not everyone is well-off. So our traveller drives from Kingsbridge to Totnes and back again, because there is no public transport option at the end of the day.

These examples are replicated all over the Westcountry, and beyond. What they show is, despite the endless rhetoric of politicians about “integrated” transport, nothing changes. There was a publicly-funded Commission on Integrated Transport which lasted from 1998 until its abolition in 2010, presumably on the grounds that it hadn’t actually integrated anything. When I mentioned the importance of better connections at a meeting where train and bus operators were present, their representatives looked at the ceiling and shook their heads.

In our system of public transport which depends on private sector operators, the needs of passengers regularly come second to the needs of the companies’ owners to make a profit. So if it’s not profitable to run a bus from Totnes to Kingsbridge in the late evening, and Devon County Council has insufficient money to subsidise one, it won’t run.

Is there a solution?   There is, and the government already has the statutory powers to achieve it.

The Railways Act 1993, which privatised the railway network, contains the relevant powers.  They just haven’t been used to their full potential.

The key point is that the Secretary of State for Transport is under a general duty “to contribute to the development of an integrated system of transport of passengers and goods” (section 4 of the Act). So far so good, but general duties need to be put into practice. Again, the Act provides the power and the rail franchising system provides the mechanism.

Almost all rail passenger services in the Westcountry are provided by Great Western Railway (GWR) under a franchise agreement. This is a legal contract between the government and the company. The revised GWR franchise agreement runs to 581 pages, plus three more substantial documents about levels of services to be provided. There are only two references to bus services in the entire franchise agreement, both relating to the conditions in which bus services may be substituted for rail. Nothing in the agreement compels GWR to coordinate its services with buses.

However the Act empowers the Secretary of State to set conditions in a franchise agreement (section 29(5)) which give effect to the general duty to develop an integrated system and, specifically, which may require the franchisee as a condition of its operating licence to enter into an agreement with other bodies to achieve the requirement to achieve integration (section 9).

So it’s all there. What is now needed is the will to make it happen. As we saw above, part of the integration problem is that the bus operators will not run late evening services on some routes. Using the franchising system places the duty to secure integration on the rail operator rather than the bus company. This is inevitable because bus services are not regulated in the same way railways are.

Before the train operating companies dismiss the idea out of hand, they might reflect on their ownership. GWR is part of First Group which runs bus services in most of Somerset, much of Cornwall, and the Plymouth, Tavistock and South Devon area. Stagecoach buses – part of Stagecoach Group which runs the London–Salisbury–Exeter rail franchise as South West Trains – cover the rest of Devon. Instead of running their bus and rail divisions as if they were on separate planets, they should look for beneficial business opportunities arising from a more integrated approach.

More challenging is engaging the other Westcountry bus operators which are not owned by train and bus conglomerates. They may see market opportunities in providing services to connect with trains, and then publicising them – something the bus industry as a whole is lamentably poor at. The train operating companies make good profits from their rail businesses. Putting a little back into supporting connecting bus services could improve their public image as well as encouraging people to make better use of their own services.

Yet at the end of the day the experience of voluntary integration in this country outside the metropolitan areas has been poor. Big companies like First Group and Stagecoach are, at bottom, about making profits for their shareholders and will not provide commercially unviable services. Local authority funding for subsidising such services has been severely cut. Central government has the tools to put this right, and should be prepared to do so.

 

 

 

 

Policy-making in the dark


The government’s threat to cut funding to the rural community action network has graver consequences than the damage to the organisations involved.


First, some brief background for those unfamiliar with the rural policy world. Cognoscenti can skip this bit.

In 2010 the new coalition government announced it would abolish the Commission for Rural Communities, though the quango’s death throes were drawn out until 2013. Much of what the CRC did was of minimal value, but it did generate a significant evidence base which could inform ministers’ rural policy decisions. The government decided instead to rely on a new and small Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra. The lack of resources in the RCPU led to it receiving a critical review from the Commons Efra select committee in July 2013.

The RCPU presumably realised that evidence-gathering was not its strong point, which made life a bit difficult for a government and a civil service ostensibly committed to evidence-based policy making (though my own experience, and that of others, suggests that “evidence-backed” would be a better description). The RCPU entered into a funding contract with ACRE, the umbrella body for England’s rural community councils, aimed at filling the void.  Under the contract ACRE provides hard information, collected from the 38 county-based rural community councils, about the effects of government policies – or the lack of them – on rural communities. So the RCPU has been fed tailored intelligence collated and interpreted by ACRE to inform policy responses across government.

I ought at this point to declare an indirect interest. From 2011-14 I was a trustee of ACRE, elected by the RCCs in the south-west.  I was also a Defra civil servant, but that was in another life.

The Defra funding has not only supported intelligence gathering, although that is the focus of this blog. The most recent impact report shows what else is achieved by the ACRE Network with the funding: the executive summary explains all you need to know, including the fact that £2.25m of Defra investment has enabled a further £12.5m to be levered in from local and national sources, with consequent additional benefits to rural communities.

Now the bad news. As part of the endless cuts in government expenditure, Defra has threatened not to continue to provide funding to ACRE in 2015/16, the final year of the contract. This is entirely consistent with the government’s view that communities should take more responsibility for themselves, though it’s not clear how cutting funding to community development organisations will help communities do this.

ACRE has launched an e-petition with a view to getting the issue debated in Parliament or – perhaps more realistically – drawing public attention to the issue. The e-petition is carefully worded: it does not say there will be a catastrophe if the funding ceases but rather that the work of the RCCs and the network would be seriously weakened, with a knock-on effect on communities. What it doesn’t address – understandably – is the impact on government policy-making.

As part of its civil service reform programme the government is establishing a set of “What Works” evidence centres, outside the civil service, designed to review evidence of policy implementation and initiatives across six key policy themes. Unsurprisingly, rural policy does not figure directly, though one would expect a rural dimension to all of the themes, particularly Local Economic Growth. It follows that good rural intelligence will be needed to ensure that the evidence centres take account of the particular circumstances of rural communities and the changes they are undergoing. The ACRE intelligence collection programme is an obvious and proven source of such intelligence. Abolishing it can only lead to a much less informed civil service.

But perhaps evidence isn’t so important to the government after all. The foreword to the latest review of the progress in achieving civil service reform is distinctly confrontational in tone. Two statements stand out:

  • Discomfort over value for money and implementability should be handled by way of an open discussion and, if necessary, a Ministerial Direction.
  • In the event that the permanent head of a civil service organisation thinks that his/her organisation’s professional capability is being seriously eroded by current Ministerial priorities or decisions, then that Accounting Officer should seek a Ministerial Direction.

Of course this rarely used provision has always been in the small print of minister-civil service relations. Yet to give it such a degree of prominence in a public document might lead a sceptic to conclude that ministers are wedded to battles with a civil service that retains a commitment to evidence-based decisions rather than solely to political dogma or political short-term fixes.

Against that background a decision to axe the ACRE contract would be a small illustration of how, despite the fine words, ministers aren’t really interested in good government.

Atonement: why the baby boomers should vote Green

Exeter, January 2015

It was Winter 1972. The lights started going out, thanks to the miners’ strike running rings round the Central Electricity Generating Board. As a university undergraduate I recall groups of us studying the power cut rotas and arranging to visit each others’ houses to carry on studying (and making instant coffee).

The other memorable event that winter was the publication of a paper entitled A Blueprint for Survival. It made up a special January 1972 edition of what was then a new magazine entitled The Ecologist. It argued that the planet was on a disaster course, with human behaviour disrupting ecosystems, exhausting natural resources and food supplies, and leading ultimately to social breakdown. Economic growth as we knew it was not sustainable. Radical social change was urgent.

A Blueprint for Survival was obligatory reading for anyone of even mildly progressive bent. Although some of its proposed solutions lacked conviction, the analysis was compelling.

But the mainstream world moved on as if A Blueprint for Survival had never been, with only a handful of marginalised evangelists pressing the case. The generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s – my generation – failed to respond to Blueprint’s challenges. There was some tinkering at the margins, since most environmental thinking and policy developed firmly in the mainstream: pollution controls, land use planning policies, wildlife protection and modest incentives to behavioural change, such as payments to farmers for environmental services. All important, but nowhere near enough. Even today, climate change deniers ally with big business to resist the costs of adaptation and mitigation.

Why did most of us do so little? The answers would make a fat academic tome, but my own brief take is something like this. We started to make our careers in a period of extreme (for this country) social instability. Mrs Thatcher offered an alternative, and the majority opted for it – again and again and again. That alternative was based on the perceived superiority of markets and the private sector over public provision, and the belief that those markets should be unfettered. The print media – largely owned by the rich and powerful – encouraged belief in the Thatcher prescriptions. And then we started to think that there might be better ways. New Labour offered them – or so we thought. Apart from a tendency to squander public money, it was business as before. All the while, we carried on working, having families, finding houses to live in. If we got involved in environmental issues it was by joining the RSPB or CPRE or the National Trust. Those in Greenpeace were anarchists.

It doesn’t matter whether this analysis is agreed or not: it’s a personal view. What is clear is that at the start of 2015, we have:

  • A government-led obsession with the privatisation of public services, leading to taxpayers funding profits for the few while losing control over essential services and staff either losing their jobs or working for a pittance.  This obsession pervaded the last Labour government (remember PFI?) as well as the present coalition.
  • A widespread conditioning that economic growth should take priority over everything else and that the way to achieve such growth is to loosen controls over “the market” and keep taxation to the minimum.
  • A National Health Service which is fragmented, under-funded and being cherrypicked by private contractors.  No mainstream party is prepared to increase taxation to fund it, despite the obvious benefits of a healthy population.
  • A  banking system which not only operates on the basis that we must go into debt but also skews funding towards the interests of the financial services industry [1].
  • Discrimination against small businesses who cannot afford to employ experts to keep up with (and get round) employment legislation, health and safety requirements, tax rules.
  • Increasing inequality of wealth, where those living in poverty are denied chances to climb out of it because of cost-cutting by big business [2].
  • A requirement on higher education institutions to dance to the economic growth tune, replacing the freedom to think widely with functional training – and charging students unprecedented fees for the service.
  • A feeble response to climate change, particularly on educating the wider public about the need for action.
  • A housing crisis, despite a National Planning Policy Framework which stacks the odds firmly in favour of house-builders wanting to build where they want (rather than where is most sustainable).
  • A major decline in well-being: between 1991 and 2009 prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants increased by 334 per cent in England [3].
  • A system of government which focusses not only on the short-term but also the trivial (have a look at the government’s announcements website) at the expense of confronting the challenges facing society and the planet, eg the failure of successive governments to develop a coherent energy policy.
  • Proposals for “devolution” which would do no more than hand more power to mainstream politicians at the local level.
  • The reduction of politics to a game of tactical voting ….

I could go on. There is a ferment of analysis at present of what’s wrong with our society and how we can put things right. Others explain it better than I do.

We, the baby-boomers, have had huge advantages. A world free from global conflicts; greater access to free education and knowledge; mass communications; a breaking down of deference and (almost) the old social barriers; opportunities undreamt of by our parents. We achieved much, but collectively lost sight of a moral compass. The legacy we leave to the next generations is not one we should be proud of. Just how bad it is is something I’ve only recently understood.

Putting things right must start now. The mainstream political parties and their allies (or bosses) in the media and big business have shown no interest in righting these wrongs. Only the Green Party has a progressive radical agenda – and policies to support it. That small number of people – more far-sighted than I’ve been – who have voted for them in the past have been prevented by our electoral system from making a proportionate impact.

It’s naïve to think that the 2015 General Election will see the scales fall from the eyes of enough people to elect a Green government. There’s strong evidence of substantial support among younger people for the Green Party, which is hugely encouraging.

But it’s not enough. Those of us who – by action or inaction – helped create the present mess have a moral duty to join in kick-starting change. We need to create a sustainable society – one in which there is no compromise on achieving social justice and on environmental salvation. The two are interlinked – if you feel society is giving you a bum deal, where’s the incentive to save the planet?

The Green Party stands for the common good. Now is the time.

Notes:

[1] See in particular the work of Positive Money at http://www.positivemoney.org/

[2] See for example the work of nef at http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/inequality-and-financialisation

The Equality Trust provides a vivid graphic at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/multimedia/infographic-income-inequality-uk

[3] Quoted in the ONS publication Social Trends 41, Health chapter, at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-41/health.pdf

A better way to cut government costs

A supporting document to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement includes the ritual undertaking to outsource more services to the private sector, despite the absence of hard evidence that such measures save money or improve service quality. But if George Osborne really does want to shrink the costs of the state, he needs to be tough on the causes of those costs.

The state does not grow, or even maintain itself, on its own.  Despite the decades-old practice of pointing the finger at self-serving bureaucrats being the cause of public sector aggrandisement – a charge that certainly used to have some truth – the real cause lies elsewhere. It is with those who at the end of the day provide legitimacy for the bureaucrats’ activity, in other words, Ministers.

The current government has just over 100 ministers with departmental responsibilities (ie not counting the Whips). Of these, 22 are Cabinet Ministers and a further 11 have “also attend Cabinet”. That leaves well over 60 junior ministers, almost all of whom are eyeing a place in the Cabinet.

Promotion up the ministerial ladder depends on many factors; bur key among them is being noticed. Junior ministers tend to get noticed by launching new initiatives which have some news value, however transient. Such initiatives can take many forms, including publicity campaigns, tiny pots of cash to bid for, making minor changes to the law or to a quango’s remit, launching a performance survey, publishing a new good practice guide, and so on.

However trivial, each initiative adds to the cost and scope of government. Officials need to work out the detail, consult inside (and perhaps outside) government, steer any necessary legislation if necessary, publicise and launch it, and then maintain whatever new process is the by-product.  And of course local government may be told to deliver it.

This practice – from which Cabinet Ministers themselves are not exempt – has led to the state getting involved in whole rafts of activity that it need not do. Why does the Foreign Office compile and publish a quarterly report on the Hong Kong economy? Why does government run a business support helpline? Why does the Department for Education publish a “step by step guide” on setting up a childminder agency, given that the information is available on the Ofsted website? Why does Defra produce annual reports on agricultural wages?

Ministers could put a stop to these and much more. But doing so reduces the opportunities for announcements and self-promotion. The Chancellor has his work cut out.

Public lies and private greed

I’ve just finished reading Owen Jones’s polemic The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It.  Almost anyone reading it should come away angry.  Angry because if you’re part of the “Establishment” you won’t like the effective hatchet job done on your lack of social morality.  Or, if you’re like the rest of us outside the “Establishment”, you’ll be – or should be – angry because of the exposition of the various ways in which a small group of people are lying to us and screwing us.

The fact that Jones’s reasoning is at times specious, his selection of targets somewhat scattergun and his use of evidence all too obviously intended to support his thesis doesn’t detract from the impact of the book.  What he is saying – broadly – is that successive governments since 1979 have espoused the rhetoric of a “free market”, have deregulated and privatised, and in so doing have allowed big business – particularly the financial services sector – to exercise unaccountable power in society on an unprecedented scale.

And the irony, as Jones makes clear, is that big business in this “free market” is highly dependent on publicly-funded support, ranging from the provision of roads to the bailing out of the banks in 2008.  The lie of free market capitalism in the UK – supported by supine mass media whose proprietors and editors are themselves part of the “Establishment” – reaches its apogee in the handing-out of government contracts for public services, from weapons for the armed forces to cleaning services in hospitals.

It’s interesting that Jones doesn’t make more of privatisation in the utilities sector which is the clearest example of giving away state assets to private interests.  He tilts at the privatised railway, but train operator franchises can be revoked and much of the infrastructure is already back in public ownership by another name (Network Rail).

More worrying is the outright sale of the energy and telecoms sectors, where the infrastructure itself has been sold.  My local telephone network is old and has disrupted our phone and broadband service twice this year.  But it is owned by BT Openreach, an organisation seemingly beyond public influence.  BT Group as a whole has lashings of funds to promote sports and other optional digital services but clearly sees no profit in spending money to modernise the Openreach-owned cabling.

Similarly the failure of successive governments – yes, when the decisions are hard ones they’re for the government, not the private sector – to renew our energy infrastructure has led to panic measures such as the new nuclear generator in north Somerset to be built by the French in exchange for a guaranteed energy price of twice what would be expected in a “free market”.  Where is the investment risk in such a deal?

Of course with those corporations running what used to be public services, risk no longer plays a serious part. There will always be a demand for energy, transport and telecoms.  If the going gets tough, the company just walks away, as National Express did when it found it couldn’t make enough money out of the East Coast rail franchise.  Contracts are drawn up so that the private sector contractor is guaranteed a minimum level of income irrespective of the state of the “market”.  Ever wondered why there are so many unnecessary minor road schemes – a new traffic island here, a crossroads redesign there – even though your local council is cutting essential services?  Have a look (if you can) at the contract between the council and its highways consultants.

All these are profoundly serious issues.  But what is even worse is that the people running these risk-free companies have grown richer and the people who work for them have grown poorer. Recent studies have demonstrated this growing gulf beyond any reasonable doubt.  Yet instead of acting as a fair-minded distributor of wealth-generated public funds, government has become a means of channelling taxpayers’ money to its chosen “partners” in the private sector who retain it for their own bosses and shareholders rather than their workforce.

Much, much more could be said.  What is needed is action, to start rescuing this country from the moral sink it is drowning in. Jones comes up with some old die-hards such as a greater role for trade unions, or the Peoples’ Assembly movement that he is helping to set up.  The trouble with the unions is that when they did have power they abused it – remember the 1970s? – and the Peoples’ Assembly, however worthy, is destined to bring out the usual collection of lefty activists who fail to connect with the essentially conservative (small “c”) majority. In other words, with people like me.

So what to do?  A revolution, yes. But of what sort and how to achieve it?  I’ll post some ideas in a future blog. Meanwhile, read Jones’s book (and no, I don’t know him and this isn’t a plug) and get angry.  It helps.

Is rural policy a con trick?

Last week I listened to the writer Michael Morpurgo speak to a packed hall in Devon. His aim was not to talk about “War Horse”, nor to make crowd-pleasing attacks on the industrial-scale wind turbines now disfiguring the landscapes in our county. Instead, he set out his interpretation of what rural life really is and explained why the charity Farms for City Children – which he set up with his wife – is important. In doing so he made me revisit my own conception of rurality.

For those who want to know what Morpurgo said, the estimable Martin Hesp of the Western Morning News wrote it up. But the key point for me – not emphasised in the article – was Morpurgo’s insistence on young people experiencing the true nature of rural life at first hand by taking part in the work of a farm, getting up at five in the morning for a 14-hour day, feeding livestock, harvesting crops, and so on.

His central thesis was that a true rural community has a direct connection to the land because most of its members make their livings from it. Hence the centrality of farming to rural life. He argued that people are best capable of absorbing the nature of working on the land if they participate in the real thing when young. And it has to be the real thing: patting a sheep at a county show is nowhere near the mark. This thesis about the nature of a rural community can be disputed, but it deserves consideration.

It is beyond argument that the proportion of people living in rural areas who are engaged in farming has declined in recent decades. Government policymakers – of whom I was once one – have therefore developed the construct of a rural community in which farming plays a marginal role. There is much talk and even analysis of the disconnect between farmers and their local communities. That disconnect exists, but it exists not just between farming and rural communities but between farming and society as a whole.

This prompts the thought: if farming, or living off the land, is the true essence of rurality (as I think Michael Morpurgo is arguing) and if farming is disconnected from communities both urban and rural, is there any meaning in the definitions of “rural” community as espoused by policymakers and their analysts? Are not urban and rural communities simply variations of a single entity – the community disconnected from the land?

The “rural policy industry” makes great play of the special nature of rural communities. It’s true that small and remote rural communities have population numbers and spatial characteristics that differentiate them from urban areas. But is what goes on in those communities all that different? People live in their homes, watch television, use computers, take holidays, walk dogs, travel to work, work from home, shop at supermarkets. There are clear differences within each of these exemplar activities – type of TV programmes watched, holiday destination – but does the evidence exist to show that these differences depend on whether people live in rural or urban settings? The Carnegie UK Trust’s Commission on Rural Development adopted a framework to describe the assets available to rural communities: financial, built, social, human, natural, cultural, political. With the partial exception of “natural” all these categories apply equally well to urban areas.

Much play is made of the strength of community cohesion in rural areas. Again, there are plentiful examples to support this, although much of this cohesion has traditionally relied on so-called incomers setting up community associations, getting funds for village halls, arranging new communal activities and so on. Is this really different from urban areas? The part of central Exeter where I live has a strong community association, operating from an old hut in the middle of a park, raising funds to replace it with a modern structure, arranging activities, and so on. Not everywhere in urban areas is so endowed, but those differences are not based on a rural/urban divide.

Access to services – or lack of it – is also a commonly claimed feature of rural distinctiveness. Yes, of course, it can take longer to get the supermarket, the GP surgery, the FE college. But this is not a problem unique to rural areas. Driving – or taking a bus – out of a central urban area to the supermarkets built in the urban/rural fringes can be just a time-consuming and a lot more harrowing. Living for 17 years in a Buckinghamshire village I found it a lot easier to get a non-urgent appointment with a GP than I do in urban Exeter. It’s not surprising that Rural Community Councils, for so long the main source of community development support in rural areas, are now finding a market for their services in urban areas.

So why do we have “rural policy”? At government level it entered its heyday in 2001 when a government department with the word “rural” in its title – Defra – was created out of the ashes of the Ministry of Agriculture, by then in terminal decline politically because of foot-and-mouth. A senior minister was assigned to focus solely on the rural affairs portfolio, against a background of seething but opportunistic discontent articulated through Countryside Alliance. To demonstrate the importance of the new rural policy (and so shoot itself in the foot), Defra’s Rural Strategy 2004 stated that one-fifth of England’s population lived in rural areas and that the make-up of rural and urban economies was converging. The same document committed the government to setting up what became the Commission for Rural Communities which spent its short life banging on that rural people were victims deprived of services by urban-driven policies and for which the only remedy was to spend more public money.

If Michael Morpurgo’s idea of a rural community is right – and I think, broadly, that it is – rural policy as we know it is predicated on a set of distinctions that either do not exist or are not important. What really distinguishes rural from urban is the land – to look at, to walk through, and to make use of its natural resources for food, water, energy, minerals. The socio-economic construct of public sector rural policy risks burying what is unique about rurality under a mound of prescriptions that could apply anywhere.