Rural development funding in England

In this blog CLA Senior Business and Economics Adviser Dr Charles Trotman reflects on presenting to a European Parliament Committee in Brussels

Presenting to a European Parliament Committee in Brussels is a surreal experience. The House of Commons is an institution wrapped up in hundreds of years of history and tradition. Not so the European Parliament (EP) where the layout is modern, conversation is brisk and the spoken word is translated into a multitude of different languages.

That’s where I found myself on Monday, presenting to the EP Committee on Budgetary Control in its inquiry into rural development programmes and the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). To give some background, the EU’s structural funds are intended to reduce the economic and social disparities in the most deprived areas of the EU. In England, the growth programme for rural areas allows for EU funds to be targeted towards the pursuance of genuine economic growth where, for every Euro spent, the economic return in terms of jobs and money flowing within the rural economy is multiplied. 

There are of course challenges with the growth programme which I summarised to parliamentarians as follows: the system agreed by the EU is very complex – it may lead to a single fund but the procedure to access money is certainly not simple. The rigidity of EU regulations does not allow for the flexibility that businesses often need to make quick decisions. There needs to be greater co-ordination as decisions made by the EU will have consequences for an individual business, unbeknown to the European Commission.

 

But my main concerns focus on the role of the Government. Targeting of these funds is crucial and a key element is clear and concise communication, not just within government but to those who are applying for the available funding. But, for whatever reason, we never seem to get this right. With the growth programme, there are numbers of rural businesses who want to apply but they fail to be properly informed by government.

Decisions are too often taken at a level which is divorced from the actual practicalities on the ground. That is why these funding decisions need to be taken at the local level through the local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). 

We need a culture change in Government. We need to get away from strictures from on high and for the government to actually engage with those who know what’s going on in the rural economy – those people who live in rural areas and make their living there.

But Brexit may actually provide the opportunity to make the changes we need to see.  With less edicts from Brussels and the opportunity for the UK to develop a model of rural development that can deliver genuine rural economic growth, best suited to the conditions of the country, it will be possible to build on the benefits that flow from EU funding and ensure a foundation for rural development in the future where rural business is recognised as playing a fundamental role in delivering a rural economy that is free from constraint and flexible enough to cater for all changes in circumstance. 

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