The Bill states that the commission must
“(a) represent...rural needs”— that is fairly reasonable—
“(b) provide...information and advice about issues connected with rural needs or ways of meeting them, and
(c) monitor...the way...policies...are implemented and the extent to which” they
I do not think that any of those three things could not be undertaken by local authorities. They have been doing most of that for the past I do not know how many years. Whether the Government take any notice is another matter. This is pure duplication. We do not need the CRC to have those as its three primary objectives, as that is what can and has been done by local authorities for some time.
Citizens Advice—no doubt the Minister has also received its briefing—says that it is concerned by the absence of any clear responsibilities for the CRC, other than for advice, information and monitoring. Having looked through the Bill, I cannot see that there are clear responsibilities other than those three aspects either. As I have said, those tasks can quite easily be done by existing local authorities. If the Government really want a watchdog with an independent approach, that independent watchdog must have some teeth. It must have statutory powers to act. The CRC does not. It is totally toothless, and will be nothing more than an advisory, information or monitoring body, without any real powers to ensure that its view is acceded to.
If the CRC is truly to match the ambitions for rural communities as set out in the Government’s rural strategy, it requires independence as well as capacity, expertise and resources to champion and engage effectively in rural policy proofing, development and delivery at both national and regional levels. I cannot understand why a properly funded and resourced local authority, which already has significant experience, expertise and knowledge, cannot do the work that the Minister intends the CRC to undertake.
That is not what is on offer, however. What will happen will in many respects be a bit like what has happened over the last few years, with people having the intention to address rural issues. What is proposed will be just another disappointment, another missed opportunity and a further example of the fact that the Government seem unable to understand rural issues and to tackle them seriously.
The confusion has already started; for example, I received a letter from Dr. Stuart Burgess, whose name appears on the letterhead as chairman of the Countryside Agency—whether or not he is chairman, or is likely to be—and one from the acting chief executive, on Commission for Rural Communities paper, both letters dated 21 June.