Rural economies are not just like urban ones but with less people and more cows, they are distinctive, providing not just livelihoods for rural dwellers but increasingly locations for business start-ups, often digitally enabled. The countryside and its landscapes and wildlife is one of England’s greatest assets and many people choose to live in rural areas as great places to live and work.
But there is a real crisis in rural economies. Successive governments have underrated the contribution rural economies can make to the nation’s prosperity and wellbeing. They have applied policies which were largely devised for urban and suburban economies and which take insufficient account of the distinctiveness of rural people, businesses and the environment. Rural England faces both new challenges and opportunities from climate change and Brexit, including the fundamental changes in agriculture that will result from each. But inappropriate policies in the past mean that the impact of an ageing population, development pressure especially driven by housing targets, and an often piecemeal approach to planning represent threats rather than opportunities for rural economies. Rural areas lack affordable housing, public transport and access to healthcare services so young people are forced to leave and older people are increasingly isolated and poorly served. The digital revolution has the potential to revolutionise rural areas as great places to do business, but so far connectivity has been a joke compared with the broadband and mobile telephone speeds and coverage available in urban areas.
The urgent challenge is to reverse the crisis and encourage the new opportunities, release the potential and enhance the contribution that rural England can make to the nation without jeopardising its distinct character. The Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy recent report – Time for a Strategy for the Rural Economy – outlines how rural policy needs in future to be informed by a comprehensive national level rural strategy, to be adapted for local circumstances and delivered locally with the full involvement of local communities, councils and businesses, taking a place based approach.
Implementation of the strategy should be subject to annual reporting by government and rural proofing of national and local policies should be required. Rural proofing of policy is already a government policy but is patchy at best. To get rural proofing effectively embedded, support and training should be provided to policy makers, including at local government level and in the Local Enterprise Partnerships, the majority of which continue to be criticised for their focus on urban issues to the exclusion of rural economies. The LEPs will be the guardians of the Shared Prosperity Fund whose predecessor schemes such as the LEADER programme were so important for rural economies. Current signs are that, as far as rural areas are concerned, the SPF will be neither Shared nor Prosperous!
Digital connectivity can both revolutionise opportunities for businesses and services in rural areas or be a drag on economic potential. The report urges OFCOM to upgrade the Universal Service Offering which is simply inadequate for rural business and services, to review options for roaming in rural areas and to reinstate its abandoned commitment to giving rural areas (where 4G has been a challenge) absolute priority in the roll out of 5G. Farmers, to mention but one rural business sector, depend on mobile connectivity to enable modern farming productivity. All the smart technologies in the world are worthless if the signal in the middle of the field is simply not there.
Thriving rural economies are dependent on good and affordable housing and good transport. Too many rural kids have to leave their rural areas to get accommodation or to live somewhere they can access education. But the dash for housing, driven by government targets, mostly doesn’t deliver affordability or supporting infrastructure, including transport and health services. The Report presses for the current exemption of small sites from the requirement to provide a proportion of affordable housing to be reversed and the right to buy, which results in loss of local affordable housing, to be suspended in rural areas. In many places housing development is currently threatening the open countryside and areas of landscape value that make the English countryside what it is and is part of why people want to live and work there. The Committee calls for a Land Use Strategy for England at this time when competing pressures on land for agriculture, housing, development, open space, biodiversity conservation and to mitigate climate change all need to be balanced and resolved. There should be single rural investment fund for the development of rural transport using the best practice of schemes that have succeeded across the country. Transport services need a co-ordinated approach across school buses, patient collection schemes, community transport schemes and draw upon the successful examples of “Total Transport” pilots. It would help too if rural potholes got filled!
Community action is important for the rural economy. The Select Committee heard about successful examples of bottom up schemes for support to rural communities across the country, often delivered by the communities themselves. There needs to be more effective ways of spreading good practice. And where local community leadership has not yet emerged spontaneously, funding for community development workers is essential to provide and initial boost to local activism.
Urban areas in 2017/18 received 45% more per head of population for local government services than their rural counterparts. The same was the case for the NHS. Urban areas (excluding London) spent £31.93 per resident to subsidise bus services compared with £6.72 per resident in predominantly rural areas. The report calls for fairer allocation of funding for rural economies to correct the urban bias in the current indices of multiple deprivation and reflect the higher cost of service delivery and help ensure rural dwellers can access the services they are entitled to.
The new opportunities can ensure our rural economies can be vibrant and rural communities great places to live, work and do business, but a strategic and co-ordinated approach from national to very local must be grasped firmly and grasped now.