The Northern Ireland Executive first made a commitment to rural proofing in 2002 with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) being the department with responsibility for rural proofing in Northern Ireland. The NI Executive’s policy on rural proofing only applied to government departments in Northern Ireland and did not extend to other public authorities although some public authorities did adopt rural proofing voluntarily during this period.
In 2009 DARD brought forward proposals to the NI Executive to reinvigorate rural proofing which resulted in the introduction of rural proofing training and the publishing of revised guidance ‘Thinking Rural: The Essential Guide to Rural Proofing’ in 2011. However despite this reinvigoration of rural proofing concerns continued to be raised around the implementation of rural proofing by Departments, particularly around how effectively rural proofing was being implemented by Departments and what was perceived as a lack of transparency on how rural proofing was being implemented across Departments.
Rural Needs Bill
In 2015 proposals were brought forward for a Rural Needs Bill which aimed to ensure that public authorities consider the needs of people in rural areas when undertaking certain activities and to provide greater transparency on how public authorities consider rural needs in respect of these activities. The Rural Needs Bill received Royal Assent in May 2016 and became the Rural Needs Act (NI) 2016.
Rural Needs Act
The aim of the Rural Needs Act (NI) 2016 is to improve outcomes for rural dwellers by ensuring that the social and economic needs of people in rural areas are given due regard to by public authorities in their decision making processes and to increase transparency on how public authorities consider rural needs when undertaking their functions.
The Act places a duty on departments, local councils and the other public authorities listed in the Schedule to the Act to have due regard to the social and economic needs of people in rural areas in the development, implementation, revision and adoption of policies, strategies and plans and in the design and delivery of public services. The Act came into operation for departments and district councils in June 2017 and for the other public authorities in June 2018.
The Act also requires public authorities to compile information on how they have exercised the due regard duty and to send that information to DAERA and for DAERA to publish the information sent to it in an annual report and to lay the report before the Assembly.
The policy implemented by the Rural Needs Act (NI) 2016 differs from the Executive’s previous policy on rural proofing in that the Act imposes a statutory obligation on public authorities to have due regard to rural needs rather than the non-statutory commitment to rural proof which departments were previously signed up to. The scope of the Act is also wider than the scope of the previous policy on rural proofing in that it applies to policies, strategies, plans and public services rather than just polices and strategies; it also applies to district councils and certain other public authorities rather than just government departments. The Rural Needs Act (NI) 2016 effectively superseded the Executive’s previous policy on rural proofing and therefore DAERA no longer uses the term ‘rural proofing’.