Government's Levelling Up agenda must apply to the rural economy

CLA President Mark Bridgeman calls for improved consideration of the rural economy in the government's Levelling Up agenda

Government has made us wait a long time to hear its response to the Planning White Paper consultation. With a new Secretary of State leading a now refocused Whitehall department, it seems we might be waiting a little longer still.

The reality is, though, that for the British countryside we cannot wait any longer.

The rural economy is already 18% less productive than the national average, meaning the countryside is missing out on the creation of good jobs and prosperity for no good reason. Government’s outdated, ill-funded and unambitious planning policy is not solely to blame, but it bears a significant proportion of it.

For many of the 28,000 rural businesses in England and Wales that the CLA represents, diversifying incomes is a financial necessity. For the wider economy though, diversification provides a huge opportunity.

It is therefore hugely frustrating that government appears to have such little ambition for the rural economy. There’s no escaping that planning applications have consistently hindered rural businesses with lengthy waiting times, high risk and staggering upfront costs.

Nobody, least of all us, wants to see rural areas concreted over, but the countryside is not a museum and shouldn’t be treated like one. In most cases there is no reason why that old dairy parlour cannot be turned into office space to support local businesses. Indeed, with many villages in desperate need of sensible development, there is often good reason to allow a landowner to build a small number of homes to keep the community going.

Yet our bureaucratic and outdated planning system seems almost designed to prevent economic growth and the strengthening of our communities.

One CLA member spent 20 years aiming to receive planning permission to convert listed farm buildings into the kind of commercial office spaces that would encourage entrepreneurs to find a home for their business in the countryside. One planning application for the redevelopment of a site in a market town required £1m in upfront costs for supporting evidence and was ultimately refused.

Additionally, a member of the CLA saw a planning application for a plant that converts biomass into energy incur £300,000 in upfront costs and be refused. If the government is committed to building better and meeting its own ‘Green’ agenda, we must support communities and projects that provide environmental benefits.

The rural economy must be given a higher priority in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and use of “permission in principle” rules should be encouraged.

But moreover, if government is serious about levelling up, it simply cannot afford to ignore the countryside. Michael Gove is a serious politician with many abilities. He needs to show rural communities that he recognises their potential, and that they have as much right as any other forgotten part of the country to greater opportunity.

*First published in Property Week