The Case for a Rural Strategy | Graham Biggs, Rural Services Network

I have spent decades arguing the case for better investment by the government into our rural areas. Here are my thoughts on this subject in the current climate.

I readily accept that there is significant inter-dependence between urban and rural areas and that the City of London, and Northern Powerhouse are obviously major contributors to the engine room of the country’s economy. But so are rural areas and for the benefit of both the national and rural economies they need long-term, coordinated action and investment too. That is why the Rural Services Network is campaigning for the Government to produce a cross department funded Rural Strategy to address the challenges and optimise the opportunities

Recent research by Rural England CIC for Amazon found that greater digital adoption in rural areas could add between £12-£26 bn to the UK economy annually. Studies for the County Councils Network have demonstrated the huge value of investing in Shire areas.

24% of all the registered business in England with an annual turnover of £434bn are based in rural areas. But a consistent flow of investment and fair funding deals are needed in our rural areas to strengthen resilience and enable the rural contribution to our national economy to grow.

Some of the specific and significant challenges faced by rural areas and the business and communities that live in and operate from them over and above those relating to Brexit and the moves to a zero carbon:

  • Average workplace – based earnings in rural areas – circa 8% lower than urban areas.
  • Rural residents suffer higher costs of living and – due to an unfair funding regime for central government support -pay on average £98 more council tax per head than urban residents. Rural areas receive some £121 per head less government grant than their urban counterparts despite higher service delivery costs.
  • Property prices in rural areas are typically 8.6 times average annual earnings (6.5 in urban areas).
  • Rural families struggle to find affordable housing to remain in their local communities.
  • Access to health services is becoming increasingly challenging for rural residents.
  • Older people make up a significantly higher percentage of the total population in rural areas (29%) than in urban areas (21%). Projections indicate a doubling of the rural population aged 85+ over the next 20 years.

It is not all gloom and doom. Rural areas are finding innovative ways to improve care in the community through working with digital technology and health and social care providers. Broadband speeds and mobile connectivity, however, remain issues in many rural areas There is huge potential for sustainable growth within rural areas. Tech start-ups present an important opportunity to bring new vitality and dynamism to complement existing rural sectors, particularly food and drink production.

A Rural Strategy is needed to help support rural areas – energising the rural economy will not succeed without adequate services, housing, transport, connectivity, access to education, health and social care and support services.

The House of Lords Select Committee in its Report on the Rural Economy supported the need for a Rural Strategy. It said

“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 are often inappropriate for rural England. This must change. With rural England at a point of major transition, a different approach is urgently needed”

Graham Biggs, Chief Executive of the Rural Services Network.

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