I am delighted to have been asked by Deputy Minister Alun Davies to chair the advisory panel for the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 – a programme which will have a key role in ensuring a sustainable future for our rural communities.
We have had the first meeting of the advisory panel to agree terms of reference, but the Wales Rural Network really set the ball rolling with a conference, attended by representatives from all 18 local authority areas that run the current RDP. The Deputy Minister was very clear to both the advisory panel and the conference in setting the priorities and issues which he feels the new programme will need to address.
For those involved in the RDP process a major change will be the removal of the Axes structure replaced by 6 EU wide priorities - knowledge transfer and innovation, agricultural competitiveness, the food supply chain, ecosystem management, resource efficiency and low carbon economy, social inclusion, poverty reduction and economic development. These 6 priorities will form the focus for 3 working groups that will report through to the RDP advisory panel.
The Deputy Minister has been clear that while there is much that we can build on from current programmes, we cannot simply do more of the same in the next RDP. We certainly need to identify what has worked but also we need to be creative with greater focus on impacting on the key issues facing rural Wales. Key areas would include the agri-food sector, SME support, skills and training, small scale community energy, community led developments and support for local services and infrastructure. He is clearly prepared to reduce the focus on agri environment measures to allow greater investment in priorities which are identified from these areas.
We are operating in tougher times that will require hard choices on where investments are made, and the Deputy Minister expects better concentration of funding in fewer geographical areas, with all interventions designed to have a transformational impact on the economy. The current structure of 18 groups operating separately has led to a wide divergence of application and focus in terms of the RDP spend, signalling a clear need for different LAG structures, which can also deliver better value reducing spend on administration associated with the current structure with its lead bodies, partnerships and action groups.
These changes need to be allied to retaining the strengths of the LEADER model which has been central to RDP, but again the Deputy Minister has been clear that he wants to see this model working in a more strategic and integrated fashion. The EU strategic framework underlines the importance of a local community based approach with the concept of Community Led Local Development, providing the opportunity for local community action to be funded through all four structural funds and not just the RDP, so there is no danger of losing this dimension, but it must be set in a wider strategic context.
The Rural Network conference took place on the same day as the announcement by Welsh Government and BT - a £425 million deal that can transform the economy of rural Wales. The previous day saw the launch of the Powys Growth Zone report, while the previous week a review of the Cambrian Mountains Initiative was presented to key stakeholders – just 3 examples of developments that need to be considered when shaping the new programme.
While we need to plan for the future programme, there is still much that needs to be confirmed in the draft proposals on CAP reform and the Rural Network conference expressed clear concerns over the transition between programmes, fearing slippage and a funding gap arising from delays in approving the next RDP. These are real fears and every effort will need to be made to avoid loss of expertise and momentum, as we close on the delivery of one programme and transition to a new delivery model for 2014-2020.
There is no doubting the challenge for the advisory panel in delivering advice to the Minister on making the step change. We will need to draw on the experience of the businesses and communities of rural Wales, recognising the integral relationship with urban centres. Personally experiences such as working with PLANED on community led development and chairing the Cambrian Mountains Initiative will provide important direct learning, but I look forward to having the opportunity to drawing on the personal experiences of people across Wales to shape the future rural development programme – starting in the Royal Welsh Show on Monday.