Since the late 1990s several countries, including Canada, England, New Zealand and a number of EU Member States, have sought to introduce and embed a process of rural proofing across their national and/or regional administrations. As described in the OECD Principles on Rural Policy, rural proofing involves assessing the impact of key sectoral policies (e.g., transportation, health, education) on rural areas and diagnosing where adaptations for rural areas are required.
Despite modest success in some jurisdictions, no country is considered to have been fully successful in embedding an effective and enduring rural proofing model in their administrative systems to date. Implementing rural proofing has proven to be a complex issue which faces a number of challenges. These include:
- Defining what is meant by “rural”.
- A lack of required knowledge amongst officials across different sectoral Ministries to enable them to carry out rural proofing effectively.
- The extent to which the process is obligatory or not.
- Ineffective mechanisms for the oversight, monitoring and delivery of rural proofing; and
- The lack of significant consequences, if any, if rural proofing is not carried out adequately.
These, and other factors, have led to rural proofing becoming a “box-ticking” exercise in many instances. Moreover, approaches to rural proofing up to now have largely been based on a perception of rural areas as places of inequality and disadvantage, with little regard to the positive contribution rural areas make to national and regional development.
After many attempts at rural proofing over the last two decades, the objective now should be to design a more effective process for rural proofing which is consistent with the objectives of contemporaneous rural development policy, more meaningful in terms of outcomes for rural communities, and practical for officials to implement.
Contribution of rural areas to policy objectives
In recent years, there has been a re-emergence of interest in rural proofing at both institutional level (e.g. EU and OECD) and individual country level. In its 2021 Communication on A Long-term vision for rural areas, the European Commission committed to putting in place a rural proofing mechanism to assess the anticipated impact of major EU legislative initiatives on rural areas. The Commission also invited Member States to consider implementing the rural proofing principle at national, regional and local levels. In 2022, the European Network for Rural Development published a Framework of Rural Proofing Actions which was developed by a Thematic Group on Rural Proofing.
In parallel, Ireland’s 2021-2025 rural development policy, Our Rural Future, includes a renewed commitment to develop an effective rural proofing model to ensure that the needs of rural communities are considered in the development of government policies. The Irish Government has recently published an independent report which it commissioned to help progress this commitment. The report, Proposals for an effective Rural Proofing model for Ireland, summarises the main challenges which have arisen across different jurisdictions (including Ireland) in relation to implementing rural proofing in the past and suggests some fresh perspectives which could be incorporated into the process.
The objectives for an Irish rural proofing model which are set out in the report reflect a move away from the perception of rural areas as solely “disadvantaged”, to a recognition of rural areas as places of resource and opportunity which can contribute to many sectoral objectives in areas including, but limited to, renewable energy generation, climate action, regional development and employment creation. This perspective is consistent with the OECD’s framework for rural development, Rural Well-being: Geography of Opportunities, and the Long-term vision for rural areas.
The proposals for an effective rural proofing model for Ireland argue that rural proofing is not a substitute for specific policies and programmes to support rural areas. However, rural proofing can complement those policies and programmes by increasing awareness amongst policy makers of how their wider sectoral policies can impact differently on rural areas (positively or negatively) compared to urban areas and encouraging them to adjust their policies as appropriate.
Designing for the end-user
While a strong commitment to rural proofing at political level is an important prerequisite for the process to succeed, the quality and outcome of rural proofing will ultimately depend greatly on the capacity and understanding of the officials actually conducting the process. If a rural proofing model is to be successfully implemented across a broad range of sectoral Ministries or other public bodies, it must be designed with the end-users in mind. The reality is that outside of the Ministry with primary responsibility for rural development, most of the officials and organisations required to conduct rural proofing do not deal with rural issues on a day-to-day basis. The end-users are likely to be middle managers who, through no fault of their own, have no particular expertise in rural issues.
To compound matters, the term “rural” itself is defined in a variety of ways between (and even within) different jurisdictions. Amongst other parameters, the definition has relied heavily on factors such as topography, population density, land-use, and distance from large urban settlements.
Most academics and policy makers agree that there is no single definition of “rural” and that many different types of rural exist, each with their own set of challenges and opportunities. If rural experts sometimes struggle to define “rural”, how much more difficult must it be for officials who are not dealing with rural issues on a day-to-day basis to understand and apply a territorial or spatial concept of “rural” when they are asked to rural proof their policies?
Therefore, rather than trying to rely on a territorial definition of “rural” when it comes to rural proofing, a more effective approach might be to place a stronger emphasis on helping officials to understand the characteristics of rural areas in the first instance. This approach may be easier for policy makers to relate to and may help them to better understand why and how their proposals can impact differently on rural areas and communities. With this understanding in place, other statistical data which may be important to support a particular policy development can be applied and will be more meaningful.
Relative to urban areas, rural areas are generally characterised by issues such as:
- Less availability of public and private services locally, including in areas such as healthcare, education, financial services and cultural and recreational activities.
- Less frequency of public transport services and further distance to travel to access everyday facilities and services, including supermarkets and post offices.
- Lower diversification of economic activity and more restricted employment and career opportunities.
- Lower household incomes.
- Poorer quality of infrastructure, including telecommunications connectivity, along with lower levels of per capita public expenditure and investment.
- Declining population in many areas.
- Risk of social isolation.
- Poor quality of housing stock, with low energy efficiency.
- Greater reliance on fossil fuelsfor heating, energy and transport.
These characteristics are generally influenced by some locational elements (such as distance from a large settlements) and some socio-economic aspects (such as older population, greater costs of service delivery, unviable commercial markets) and are usually more pronounced in the most remote rural areas. However, the proposed emphasis on rural characteristics advocates a shift from seeing “rural” purely through a territorial lens and will help to highlight the impact of policy proposals on people rather than on geographic areas. It is recognised that for certain localised programmes or policies at regional or municipal level, a more specific territorial approach may still be relevant.
Training and support needs to be provided to officials across the administrative system by the Ministry responsible for rural development if any rural proofing model is to be successfully implemented.
In summary, rural proofing should be seen across national, regional and local administrations as an aid to support good policy-making and programme development. As well as avoiding unintended negative impacts on rural areas, it can help policy makers to identify how rural areas can contribute to the achievement of national and regional policy objectives in a diverse range of sectors.
Rural proofing mechanisms must be easy to understand, straightforward to apply and avoid placing an onerous administrative burden on those conducting the exercise. At the same time, the process must be meaningful and robust, with support available to those who require it.
Rural proofing should focus on creating a better understanding amongst policy makers of the characteristics of rural areas and on achieving better outcomes for rural communities. Embedding rural proofing across national or local government administrations will not be achieved instantaneously. But through a phased and piloted approach in terms of the range of organisations it covers and the breadth of issues it seeks to address, it can result in more positive outcomes for rural communities. Robust monitoring and oversight mechanisms must also be put in place to ensure transparency and accountability in the interests of all stakeholders.
William Parnell is a freelance Policy Analyst and co-author of Proposals for an effective Rural Proofing model for Ireland, an independent report commissioned by the Irish Government to support the development of an effective rural proofing model for Ireland. William is a former senior civil servant and was head of Rural Development policy at the Department of Rural and Community Development, Ireland, from 2016-2021. He participated on the ENRD Thematic Group on Rural Proofing. The opinions expressed in this article reflect the author’s own views and do not represent the views of the Department of Rural and Community Development or any other organisation.
- Publication date
- 21 February 2023
- William Parnell