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Researchers raise concerns about new Rural Needs Act for Northern Ireland

Newcastle academics have concerns over new legislation that supports Northern Ireland's rural communities.

The new Rural Needs Act says Northern Ireland's public authorities should give "due regard to rural needs".

Our Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) researchers say the Act will fail to achieve its objectives. Their colleagues at the Belfast Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) agree.

Little clarity over definitions of rural need

They say there's little clarity among public bodies and residents about defining “rural”, “need” and “due regard”.

No single definition of “rural” is universally accepted.

Also, “need” would imply something vital. This may raise unreasonable expectations about services that are only desirable.

“Due regard” means public bodies should consider if policies hurt the social and economic wellbeing of rural residents. How they achieve this has not always been clear.

Concrete evidence

In future they will need concrete evidence in the form of relevant research. Under the Act, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) can undertake or commission it.

Professor Sally Shortall from CRE at Newcastle University welcomed that development.

She said: “The new Act intends to bring new rigour to the rural proofing process. To ensure that, policymakers need to define terms more closely.

"They need to use relevant research evidence to support policymaking.

"Councillors and members of the Legislative Assembly need to undertake training in implementation. That should assist in making it effective.”

Not every policy needs rural proofing

She added: “But this doesn’t mean every policy will need rural proofing. It doesn't mean every rural area needs particular consideration.

"It is true that some general policies need continuing attention. These include infrastructure and ensuring connectivity both via roads and via new technology.

"There are also areas of particular geographical and social need. These include the migrant workers in the Mid Ulster Council area.

"But here, a targeted response is appropriate. What is essential is to focus the ‘due regard’ where it is required.

“The aim of ensuring the best service for rural residents must be paramount.

"Closing an undersubscribed school may seem like bad news for rural communities. Small schools are often seen as superior.

Need for evidence in decision-making

"But there must be evidence for the decision. If amalgamating services ensures a better education, that should be the preferred outcome.”

The report researchers have produced aims to support implementation of the new Act. It aims to help to ensure it is effectively monitored by DAERA.

DAERA will also have responsibility for facilitating communication and cooperation across public bodies. They relate how public bodies have carried out their “due regard” duty for an annual report.

The Minister of Rural Affairs will make a statement to the legislative assembly. Revised guidance, utilising findings from the research report, was recently published.

DAERA's responsibility

Dr Erin Sherry, Senior Agricultural Economist at AFBI, said: “It is part of DAERA’s responsibility for implementing the Act. They need to report on its progress to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

"It is important that this doesn’t become a tick box exercise. It should concentrate on outcomes.

"It should show how the Act is addressing real disadvantage where that occurs among rural residents. It should also tell us how their needs are met.”

The rural community of Draperstown in Northern Ireland.
The rural community of Draperstown in Northern Ireland.

published on: 12 April 2018