Notes of Rural England Supporters Meeting held on Monday 20th July 2020

On-line via Zoom Monday 20th July 2020 11:00am – 12:30pm



Graham Biggs (Company Secretary) (GB)
Sheila Bowdery (South East Water) (SB)
Ian Cass (Forum of Private Business) (IC)
Dan Edwards (Scotia Gas Network) (DE)
Dr Jane Hart (RE Director) (Dr JH)
Jill Hendry (Electricity North West) (JH)
David Inman (RE Director) (DI)
Beth Kennedy (Anglian Water) (BK)
Emma Merritt (Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks, SSE) (EM)
Ash Roberts (Yorkshire Water) (AR)
Kati Sexton (Northern Gas Networks) (KS)
Brian Wilson (RE Director) (BW)
Bethan Aldridge (minute-taker) (BA)

1. Welcome and introduction

BW welcomed everyone to the annual meeting and quick introductions were given by those present.

2. Apologies for absence

Chris Cowcher (RE Director), Dr Steve Emery (RE Director), Liz Fretias (Affinity Water), Andy Griffiths (Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks, SSE), Vanessa Mallinson (Severn Trent Water),  Amanda Phillips (United Utilities), Kate Robbin (Wessex Water), Elizabeth Warwick (Wales & West Utilities), Nigel Winnan (Wales & West Utilities)

3. Minutes of previous meeting – 30.04.2019 (see below link)

Matters arising from the notes of 30.04.2019 regarding an annual dinner with MPs.
GB apologised for a late response to this action point, which has in part been due to the elections held in December 2019 (which made working on the costings difficult as Parliament was prorogued) and then the Covid-19 situation.  The costings are in the region of £10K-£11K to hold a silver service dinner for a maximum of 60 people.  We would need 5 supporters, willing to contribute approximately £2+K  each to hold the event.
We will need to get an up to date cost when the Commons opens up again for meetings and Supporters will then be consulted properly.

Action:  Rural England to write to all Supporters to see if there is support to move this on and, if there is, then to agree a date.  The invitations would be for Chief Executives and Senior Directors.

4. Rural England work in 2019/20

 – its supporters, stakeholders and research activity

BW started by recalling the background to the setting up of Rural England CIC. There had been a dearth of rural research, particularly in the areas of economic and social issues due to cuts in funding for DEFRA and the closure of the Commission for Rural Communities.  Rural issues were not well understood nor feeding into policy decision making and therefore policies were often ineffective in the rural context.  Rural England CIC’s main aim is to inform better policy making and it does this mainly through research in-house or with associates.
There is a Stakeholder Group made up of over 30 national organisations with local networks who may provide us with the opportunity to gather rural evidence.  They in turn support information exchange with a cross UK grouping (the UK Rural Policy and Practitioners’ Research Group) and we encourage informed debate between these groups and Parliamentarians. The Stakeholder Group provides a steer for the research activity and is a powerful network to disseminate evidence.
The CIC is managed by a group of 7 Directors and, with the Supporters’ continued financial support, has enabled us to continue providing research. Directors are very grateful for this support: without it there would be no rural research undertaken.
BW worked through a PowerPoint presentation based on current and planned research activity. (Download this presentation here)

a) Rural 16-18 year olds: access to education and work-based learning

Research work had been undertaken by Dr JH looking into issues of choice, cost, physical access from smaller and outlying settlements, which linked to the policy agenda on social mobility. 

b) Rural residents’ survey on housing and employment

This was undertaken jointly with CCRI based at the University of Gloucestershire. The survey showed that there is equally divided opinion re those who are cautious/anti-housing development in rural communities and those who are positive about housing development or see it as necessary to meet local housing need.  The differences were subtle in regard to age bands of those responding.  One clear message that came through was that affordable housing should be the  target for local housing need.

c) Rural Analysis for Electricity North West

This analysis of survey responses was regarding awareness of home energy efficiency advice and the take up of these measures.  The report is waiting to be signed off and therefore has not been made available yet.  JH to discuss with GB.

d) Rural Proofing for Health Toolkit
Discussed under Item 5

Also noted was the Rural Vulnerability Day held in March this year.
The focus for this year’s event was on issues facing young people.  The day was well received and the presentations from the youth representatives were particularly powerful.
GB reiterated that the only financial support the CIC has is from its Supporters.  Discussions had taken place at the end of last year to extend the membership offer that Supporters’ received.  This had been successful and to date several Supporters have agreed to the extended offer which includes attending their Vulnerability Panels.  5 further Supporters agreed to form a Vulnerability Research Panel and to resource this to enable specific research on rural, vulnerable customers.
On the whole, research undertaken is England wide.  Issues such as Covid-19 and lockdown all play out differently in a rural setting.  The Comprehensive Spending Review, the government levelling up agenda all have an impact too.

Action:  GB asked that if Supporters had any specific issues they would like raised to let him know.
Rural England CIC already has a bank of evidence it could call upon to discuss with Parliamentarians.

5. Rural England’s plans for 2020/21

Priorities and Next Steps

a)   Rural Proofing for Health Toolkit

BW explained that this is a core project for this year and is in conjun ion with the National Centre for Rural Health & Care (NCRHC). This is an online tool that can be used by health and care providers, NHS partners and Social Services Directorates etc when creating strategies, plans and initiatives  to think through the rural dimension.  Covering six themes, the  toolkit aims to help rural service users  and to create more effective policies in a rural context.  The first draft is nearly complete and a test run of the toolkit should be ready to launch in the Autumn.  There has already been a lot of interest and it should be a really useful tool for the health sector.

b)   Rural Net Zero Inquiry

The Government has set a target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050.  This project is a “think-piece” looking at current literature and speaking to experts on what are the rural challenges and opportunities for communities and businesses.  The project has been progressing well and virtual workshops are being set up to test emerging findings.  The report has been commissioned and funded predominantly by Calor with support from the National Housing Federation and English Rural Housing Association.

       The focus is on 3 topic areas:

       i) housing

       ii) transport

       iii) energy generation and distribution

c)   Rural Vulnerability Project

This project will look at the experiences of rural, vulnerable customers to identify and understand their issues.  It also looks at the carers of those vulnerable customers.  There has been a delay with the project due to current restrictions, as face-to-face meetings and fieldwork/workshops cannot be run.  It is hoped that the project will be started in the Autumn with an adjustment to the methodology and a move to on-line interviews etc.

d)   State of Rural Services 2021 (SORS)

Every 2-3 years, Rural England CIC produces a report looking at themes and trends and the last report focused on 8 service types.  Previous reports were well received and attracted a lot of national publicity.  The 2021 report will have a focus on the impact of Covid-19 on  service provision and recovery plans for rural areas.  Work will formally start on the report in January 2021.
BK expressed an interest in the results of the Rural Vulnerability Project.
BW hopes that a report can be published from this project, if those funding the work agree, as this should have wide interest in the Utility Field.
DI explained that the Supporters who funded this particular project are a water company and a gas and an electricity distributor. 

Action:  BW/DI/GB commented that they are hoping there will be follow-up research work on vulnerability. If others would like to join they should let Rural England know or indeed if they had in mind a unique piece of research as an individual organisation.
BK confirmed that Anglian Water would like to be involved in some follow-up research.

6. Roundtable session – Supporters to provide a brief update on research/developments and any rural service delivery messages not least as a result of operating during Covid-19 and the restrictions.

BW noted that if there are specific areas affecting Supporters’ businesses then this may also be fed into the SORS report.

Forum of Private Business – IC explained his members were feeding back that it was grim currently.  Rural businesses were seeing fewer customers in comparison to their urban counterparts.  He was receiving lots of calls regarding redundancy packages and closing down businesses.  There had been successes, though, for some of the food and drink businesses who diverted into home delivery, but it is still tough.  The pub sector has been badly hit as 75% are trading less than last year, but costs are higher in particular with regard to cleaning and PPE.  IC believes that many of the regulated pub companies will now try to maximise  return from pub sites by closing pubs and selling the land for housing development.  They are working with Plunkett to produce a community guide to protect pubs as a community asset.  CAMRA is writing to every rural planning authority to ask if they have a viability guide and whether they question the viability of a pub when there is a change of use application.
As a membership-based organisation, a number of clients had cancelled membership and direct debits so there was a financial implication for the FPB. They had more work currently, but with less income.
BW noted that the pub is one of the few remaining assets in many villages.
DI thought that pubs would be a great place to use for organisations to disseminate information to their communities. 

South East Water – SB discussed their push to inform parish councils of the Priority Services Register (PSR) with an information video.  She had been disappointed with the low response.
DI noted that some parish councils only meet 4 times a year, some only have a few councillors, and some are not very active, but that they do all represent their communities.  The challenge is to bring them together. 
BW recommended contacting the County Associations of Local Councils as a good conduit to get information out to that sector. 
GB thought it would be good to send out a reminder/follow up to those parishes because, due to the Covid situation, the role of parishes and their councillors had been reinforced.  Many had considered their local support to be outstanding and there might be a new dynamic now re the PSR.
Action:  SB to email the video link to BA.

Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks – EM said that SSE had taken a different approach with parish councils.  They had gone out to the parishes that had been more receptive to challenge and help.  SSE had also funded search and rescue vehicles.  They had also set up workshops for some councils.
BW agreed that parish councils generally have a good grasp on who the vulnerable people are in their communities.

Northern Gas Networks – KS agreed that they had found it useful working with parish councils.  NGN used Mapolitical to source and update any changes.

Scottish Gas Network – DE agreed and said that they had targeted people through Age UK connections.  They had found that not many people know about PSRs.  SGN also used Mapolitical and they found it a good resource to inform communities about planned works.  They can reach key political/council contacts to pass on information to the most vulnerable. It has been a good way to engage with communities, keep them informed and allow them to raise issues (so less likely to complain).

Anglian Water – BK commented that Anglian Water has its own dedicated PSR team to look after vulnerable customers.  They find out what works well from feedback.

7. Any Other Business

BW thanked everyone for taking part in today’s meeting and for sharing feedback. Also, for their continued support of Rural England CIC.

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