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June 28, 2007

Let rural communities map their own future

The Carnegie Trust’s recommendations on rural communities are as complex, diverse, contrary, and sometimes as confusing, as rural Britain itself.

John Vidal

Let rural communities map their own future


John Vidal

The Guardian




Governments – central and local – hate consulting. They know what they want to do, they reluctantly ask people to comment, and then they ignore them. They mostly don’t care, don’t listen, and don’t want to know about other points of view.


So compare their consultation approach with that of the Carnegie Trust, a private foundation which, in 2004, set out to investigate what was going on in rural communities. Their idea was to help government, institutions, voluntary groups and funders to address a clearly worsening rural situation and to stimulate development.


Carnegie is more like a roving royal commission than a thinktank or government body. First, they appointed 20-odd politically independent commissioners – a mixed bag of industrialists, council and farm leaders, academics, regeneration and funding experts, even a bishop, an ecologist and a journalist. Then they sent them, with Carnegie staff, into hundreds of rural communities around Britain to listen and to take oral and written evidence from people in their own environments. Then they commissioned £3m of research and set up projects to find out what worked. Only then did they review best practices across the EU and consider the kind of international and ecological pressures that communities would be up against in future. In short, where political parties are mostly hasty, shallow and prejudiced, Carnegie tries to be listening, deliberative and long term.


But does the Carnegie approach come up with anything better than what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or many thinktanks have proposed? You bet. Last week, after nearly three years and a phenomenal amount of deliberation, they pronounced on the state of rural Britain and came up with 41 proposals for change – a “charter for rural communities”.


Their recommendations are as complex, diverse, contrary, and sometimes as confusing, as rural Britain itself. There is no one solution, they say, but a phenomenal number of choices. Carnegie’s three big ideas are for far more community ownership of rural assets, the strengthening of democracy at the grassroots level, and for all communities to be given the right to raise taxes – three things that run counter to the instincts of successive prime ministers and most local authority leaders, who like nothing better than to centralise power, accumulate resources and to control people.


Carnegie’s instinct is the opposite to government’s. It is to trust people, both to come up with their own ideas and to develop their own plans. Instead of telling people what to do, they say they should be helped to achieve what they want. They reject the top-down development models, which governments have mostly pursued and which have been shown to fail. Above all, they say that the contribution of local communities to rural development has gone unrecognised for too long.


This reflects well the mood in much of rural Britain these days, which swings between despair and frustration, and where libertarianism is growing. Carnegie wisely calls for much less red tape and bureaucracy and far less stifling caution to be applied by funders.


Carnegie celebrates many successful communities, but it comes close to saying that government has more or less failed and cannot now be trusted. Instead, it sees the future in partnerships and third sector agencies, trusts, social investment banks, lottery distributors and landowners.


It should be required reading and debate material for central and local authorities, opposition parties, funding agencies, landowners, planners, social workers and grassroots activists.


· John Vidal is the Guardian’s environment editor. Details of the Carnegie report at