Do countryside planning issues need a greater level of support?

Did you know that rural areas in England have recently been redefined for statistical purposes? asks Adrian Parker.

There is much innovative rural policy and practice in the UK, but finding out about it and comparing ideas can be a challenge. Rural planners, at least by such a job title, are a rare breed. But those working for the countryside must make new links.

Do we have scope for a mix of professionals to be a team tackling the obstacles across several rural districts or in a region? Or are we all specialists who happen to work for a while on a rural-focused topic? How are we to increase contact and knowledge transfers among those who are the country planners in the institute?

Regeneration by urban extensions and brownfield redevelopment has dominated recent years, whereas social and physical deprivation has less obvious targets in rural areas. The rural white paper in 2000 took longer to write than the urban one. The big political personalities and the highest-profile professionals have come out of the urban agenda and left rural planning in a lay-by - too diverse, too dispersed, "leave it to the Countryside Agency to think up a programme".

Margaret Beckett's DEFRA announcements at the end of July on the future of the rural service agencies in 2005-07, and the publication of Rural Strategy 2004 for England have put rural areas on the national political agenda. At the same time came PPS7 with its catchy title Sustainable Development in Rural Areas, throwing away some well-worn phrases and flexibilities.

We must now review how we will contribute to this updated context.

The countryside and natural environment panel has been a sounding board, responding to consultations by others and offering good practice publications on biodiversity and on integrated rural strategies. The primary focus has been on PPS7, PPS9 and planners' relationships with the Countryside Agency and English Nature. They certainly hoped or assumed that our resources and skills in county and district planning offices were greater than we actually have available.

Then local authorities saw that community plans and local strategic partnerships might be the way to create a rural strategy. Councils could avoid the extended timescale of a local plan and public involvement because the strategies rarely impact on private property. In addition, after some false starts and hopes, the various development agencies have been picking up the rural brief in the English regions and much more quickly in the devolved governments.

Planning aid has appointed community planners to work for disadvantaged urban and rural areas. But these are rare subjects for an RTPI branch meeting, so how are we going to learn, secure funding and stay relevant?

The rural strategy has three priorities and will surely encourage regions to use different approaches:

- Economic and social regeneration in rural England, targeting resources.

- Social justice - access to services and opportunities for rural residents.

- Enhancing the value of the countryside - protecting the natural environment.

There is already much that Scotland and Wales can teach about good practice and we need to share these ideas and debate their relevance to the regions in England.

The government's response to the Haskins review of rural service delivery by government agencies is also in detail in the rural strategy. It is crystal clear that an effective and useful local authority partner must adopt these economic and social priorities. Alongside this, PPS7 has been rewritten and many long-standing policy phrases are gone.

Placing jobs in rural areas contrasts with an ambiguous sustainable view about housing, since the reformed regime demands affordability and proven need to allow anything outside a service centre. PPS7 also demands that local planning authorities survey their areas and consult on criteria for development in detail never achieved before but within the vaguer, shorter, local development frameworks.

The RTPI has established networks, where appropriate and requested, to support a more active membership. For example, the regeneration network has been in action for the past two years and other networks also aim to support members at a grass roots level. They often focus on areas where expertise is spread thinly in the public sector and the leading practitioners may be in agencies and business.

But to restate my earlier question, are those members with rural awareness and interests going to be determined to express themselves about looking at villages and countryside coherently or are country planners just a broad geographical interest prepared to be a subsumed minority in each specialist group?

Would some kind of organised network be helpful? The panel feels that it has very little contact with members, but an e-mail bulletin board is not the answer either. What is suggested or wanted by those who work in this area? You may feel that it is sufficient to be in some regional forum in which planning for the countryside and villages is discussed.

If you work in a national park or area of outstanding natural beauty, you may feel an existing association expresses all your viewpoints.

But in both cases I would suggest that this is not enough. Rural community services and rural housing provide obvious current topics where voices need to be heard and experiences shared across regions among the institute's members and on behalf of planners to other interest groups.

- If you have interests in planning for rural communities and the countryside, please talk to panel members and e-mail your comments and ideas to

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