For too many policymakers, the countryside is a foreign country. Rural campaign groups from the UK to New Zealand complain that natural beauty makes it too easy to glance over rural deprivation, and failing services.
But this June, New Zealand launched a new “rural proofing policy”. When public servants in the country design new policies and services they will have to “take into account the unique factors that affect rural communities”.
Rural proofing is supposed to ensure that national policy can translate to rural areas which often face their own distinct problems. But does it work? The example of Northern Ireland, the only country where assessing rural needs has been formalised in legislation, suggests that just making public servants consider the countryside’s concerns won’t alone solve the problems facing rural communities.
Rural policy was once dominated by government support for agriculture and other primary industry. For example, from the 1960s on, the EU has provided payments to farmers, hoping to boost prosperity in rural communities.
But attitudes have shifted in recent decades. Support for farmers misses out a lot of people who also live and work in the countryside — agriculture actually employs relatively few workers.
As a result, in the 1990s the EU also began to fund rural economic development.
In 2000, the UK government introduced a new tactic: it announced that all its departments would have to consider and report on how their policies would affect the needs of rural communities in England. The approach has since spread. The EU backed a rural proofing policy for rural areas across the union in 2016.
But the Northern Ireland assembly went furthest of all, passing the Rural Needs Act into legislation that same year. This gave every public authority the duty to have due regard for rural needs when making and delivering policies or services, requiring that they complete a “rural needs impact assessment” as part of the process.
This new legal duty toughens up a process which has existed in the country in some form since 2002, when Northern Ireland adopted a similar but non-legally binding “rural proofing” policy.
A spokesperson from Northern Ireland’s Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) stated that this “is separate and distinct from the ‘rural proofing’ process which the Northern Ireland Executive was previously signed up to prior to the introduction of the Act” but said that “the policy objectives are similar.”
The road to law
Prior to the 2016 act, rural advocates in Northern Ireland questioned whether rural proofing worked.
“Although rural proofing was agreed as an executive commitment [before it was fixed in law], in practice, we weren’t seeing very much happening,” said Aidan Campbell, policy officer at the Rural Community Network (RCN), an advocacy body for rural communities in Northern Ireland.
The RCN was constantly responding to policy consultations asking whether departments had considered rural proofing, with no clear signs that they had been properly assessed, he said.
But it’s unclear whether the new law has improved matters. Shortly after the act was passed, government in Northern Ireland was suspended. Since 1998, the country has been ruled by a power-sharing coalition of loyalist and nationalist parties. An impasse between these led to the province’s regional government being frozen.
As a result, civil servants are unable to make major decisions, and there’s been little chance to assess whether government departments are taking rural needs into account.
“Who polices this stuff, who checks that they’re living up to the duty?”
Campbell has doubts even so. Although each department has to complete an assessment of a policy’s impact on rural areas, he said, there is no independent watchdog to enforce this.
Responding to questions about the workings of the act, a DAERA spokesperson confirmed that, “DAERA provides advice and support to all public authorities to help them understand and fulfil their obligations under the Act and although DAERA does not act as a watchdog it has supported the introduction of the Act by publishing guidance.”
Its powers are limited to this providing this guidance, and, despite the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly departments continue to be subject to the act’s duties.
DAERA will act as an advisory body, but doesn’t have the power to police the act. “Who polices this stuff, who checks that they’re living up to the duty?” Campbell said. Without a watchdog “it would be too easy to do a tick box exercise and not do anything meaningful — rural citizens need to see outcomes from the Rural Needs Act, better policy and service delivery adjusted to meet their needs.”
Others doubt whether rural proofing is the right approach to take at all.
In a review of rural proofing in Northern Ireland, Professor of Rural Economy at Newcastle University Sally Shortall and Dr Erin Sherry of Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, interviewed civil servants in the country.
Their responses suggested that few public servants are clear how to assess or define “rural needs”, few seeing any clear difference between urban and rural deprivation.
“That’s why I say, go back again to these communities and say, okay, well what are the needs? And they’re exactly the same as they are in east Belfast [the province’s capital city],” said one.
For Shortall, the problem stems from this blanket distinction based on geography alone. “Rural” as a category fails to account for the differences in experience and wealth within rural areas.
Instead, she recommends an evidence-based approach. Public servants should look to understand the problems particular rural areas have, and tailor solutions to them. “The difficulty is in the conception — if you’re going to address the problem, you have to identify the problem,” she said.
Recalling her research on public servants in Northern Ireland, Shortall said, it was critical that they distinguish between the “needs” and “desires” of rural people.
Rather than attempt to preserve services exactly as they are, policymakers should analyse the best way of ensuring that rural communities can easily access the things they need, but not obsess over the form these are provided in.
“People might wish to have a local school in their community, but that’s a desire,” she said. “What is essential, and what’s a need, is that kids get a really good education.” That may require better bus services, rather than more schools, but deciding what approach to take won’t emerge from defining this need as specifically rural.
Shortall points towards the Scottish government’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise as a better alternative. A body devoted to developing the economy of the remote communities in rural Scotland, it provides funding and support for local businesses and enterprises, delivers skills strategies in local schools and help find international partners for the region. In comparison to a general approach, it’s a devolved administration taking its own responsibility that works.
“It’s really problematic to pick a policy from a country, and decide you’re going to implement it,” she said. “Rural means different things in different contexts.” — Anoush Darabi
(Picture credit: Flickr/David McKelvey)