The House of Lords Rural Economy Select Committee report published over the weekend is to be welcomed. The extent to which rural economies have been run down by years of urban-focused policies, overseen by governments of all colours, is well exposed by the report and the Government must pay attention to its findings.
It says rural communities have been ignored and underrated, and that the “clear inequalities” between towns and the countryside can no longer continue unchecked. The report by Lord Foster wants ministers to agree to a new system of “rural-proofing” which would require every future policy to be assessed for the impact it would have on rural areas.
Importantly the report extends the definition of rural areas to include larger “hub towns” with populations of between 10,000 and 30,000, and isolated villages in former industrial areas. Such areas account for 90 per cent of the country’s land mass and house around 17 per cent of the population – some 9.5m people. They contribute about 16 per cent of the country’s Gross Value Added measure of goods and services it produces.
So the rural input into the UK economy is currently below that of urban areas. That does not have to continue.
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents around 30,000 rural landowners and businesses in England and Wales, responded to the publication intelligently, speaking for the whole countryside. CLA President Tim Breitmeyer said: “We are pleased that the unique circumstances of the rural economy have been recognised by the Lords’ report which advocates for a dedicated rural strategy. The report clearly highlights how the ‘one size fits all’ policy approach of successive governments has left the countryside lacking in terms of housing, employment and skills, broadband and mobile connectivity, as well as access to key services such as banks, healthcare, schools and shops. These are all issues which have fuelled a growing urban/rural divide and which can only be solved through planning and funding systems that proactively deliver on the three objectives of sustainable development – economy, community and the environment. More specifically, the report proposes to ring fence part of the shared prosperity fund for rural communities, critical for a fair deal for the countryside. In addition, it says that Ofcom should introduce rural roaming, encourage operators to share masts, and support sustainable development in rural villages through the planning rules. These are all issues which the CLA has proactively campaigned on and which will be key to unlocking a thriving rural economy. Only a holistic strategy embedded across government will be able to tackle these issues head on and unleash the potential of a thriving sustainable rural economy enabling people to access better quality jobs and housing in the countryside.”
Let’s hope the Government pays attention. Rural areas should be given the opportunity to punch above their weight – they will not disappoint. The Lords’ report is to be commended.