The success of the five point action plan to revitalise England’s rural areas will depend to a large extent on how well public services meet expectations. The Plan, set out in a White Paper ‘A Fair Deal for Rural England’ was unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.The White Paper, which has taken two years to prepare, contains new initiatives and also pulls together measures and spending plans already announced. New elements include proposals for improving access to health in rural areas. There will be one hundred projects piloting video and telelinks between patients in primary health centres with specialists at remote locations. The new health centres will include mobile units. The National Health Plan, announced in July 2000, already provides for additional resources to support more local intermediate care, including cottage hospitals, quicker ambulance response times and dentistry.
The most far reaching effect of the White Paper on public services will be the plans for improving governance and performance management. Parish and town councils that perform well will be given an enhanced role which will include the management of more local facilities such as car parks and markets. There will also be a new programme, administered by the Countryside Commission, providing greater recognition of community views in the strategies of County and District councils.
In a move to improve governance at the centre a Rural Sounding Board, chaired by Ministers, will bring together a wide range of rural organisations and individuals to provide a direct voice from rural areas. Regional Rural Sounding Boards will inform and monitor the regional and local delivery of policy. The Countryside Agency Chairman will also be given a new role of Rural Advocate, with direct access to the Prime Minister and attendance at the Cabinet Committee on Rural Affairs.
The White Paper also includes a greater emphasis on managing the performance of the 21 services providers serving rural communities. A new set of 15 national rural indicators setting out standards of performance will be published. The standards will include a commitment to improvement. The achievements of the service providers will be subject to independent audit.