It’s time to rethink treatment of rural areas
The vital role of rural areas in supporting national and local economic growth has been highlighted in a new Select Committee report from the House of Lords.
It says rural economies are increasingly diverse, dynamic and vibrant, with a vast range of businesses in important sectors like the creative industries and tourism.
But the contribution rural economies make to the nation’s prosperity and wellbeing has been underrated by successive governments, and their potential is not being realised.
Instead, inappropriate urban and suburban polices have been applied to rural parts of England, widening the gulf between town and country.
The report says this has exacerbated many of the rural issues with which we are familiar, including a lack of affordable housing, poor transport, skills shortages, and services under threat.
The Lord’s Committee proposes a three-pronged approach to the problem, including a coherent rural strategy for the rural economy; re-energised ‘rural proofing’ of government policy, and a place-based approach which reflects the diversity of the countryside and the capabilities and knowledge of those who live and work there.
Key role for LEPs
It says Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP), which are business-led and help shape local economic priorities, should play a key role, drawing up their own Local Rural Strategies with the involvement of their communities and rural businesses.
These should be along similar lines to City Deals, providing LEPs and local authorities with funding and decision-making powers, and form part of individual LEPs’ Local Industrial Strategies – economic blueprints which all LEPs are expected to have in place in 2020.
At the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly LEP, we believe the Government should go further. Instead of rural-proofing policy – which usually involves retro-fitting something that has already been created through an urban-centric prism – there should be specific policy focused on Britain’s peripheral and rural areas with a recognition that those areas are not homogenous. Rural policy needs to be developed locally to meet the specific needs of local communities and businesses.
To achieve that means empowering rural areas to inform and influence that policy, but also to help them to help themselves. The Government is currently pondering the shape of its long-promised Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF), which is meant to replace EU funding post-Brexit and could – if designed correctly – drive that empowerment.
Lack of progress on new funding regime
The Lords Committee is highly critical of the lack of progress on the SPC, urging the Government to bring forward a consultation as soon as possible to give much more information on its proposed scope to enable rural businesses and communities to begin planning for the future.
We have been urging Ministers to do the same, especially when UK regions, including Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly, stand to lose out on £13 billion of EU investment after Brexit. Our view is that the SPF must, as a minimum, replace what we stand to lose and not erode hard-won devolved powers.
The Lords report endorses that view, saying that rural economies should not be materially disadvantaged by Brexit. The SPF, it says, “must incorporate a dedicated, ringfenced rural funding stream for supporting rural economies and communities” and reflect ambitions to increase the rural contribution to national and local economic growth.
Decisions must be made at local level
Peers want funding decisions and delivery of the SPF to be made at local level, and address wider social priorities in rural areas, recognising that not all rural challenges are reflected in economic statistics. This is a crucial point. We have seen too many examples where the rurality of our region works against us when it comes to national funding programmes.
The Lords also say the SPF must be designed to meet the needs of rural small businesses, including micro and family businesses which make up the majority of our economic landscape.
And it points to the work of LEPs and local authorities in the Westcountry as examples of best practice, from the delivery of affordable housing to tackling rural productivity.
I totally concur with the report when it says that no resident or business should be disadvantaged unreasonably by their rural location. We need to grow and develop the vibrant and diverse rural communities we have and tackle the issues they face.
To quote the Lords Committee Chairman, Lord Foster of Bath, if rural economies are to meet their full potential, doing nothing is not an option.
Clare Parnell is a farmer and agri-food specialist from North Cornwall and leads on rural issues on the Board of the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly LEP.