In 2019, the CLA unveiled its Rural Powerhouse campaign, which highlighted the 18% disparity in productivity between rural and urban areas and sought to demonstrate the economic and social potential in closing this gap. Recognising the potential of the rural economy in creating jobs, growing businesses, building successful communities, as well as solving challenges – mitigating climate change and building more houses – was at the core of the campaign.
The Rural Powerhouse campaign identified a series of policies – many of which only required small tweaks to existing legislation – that would bring the countryside onto a level playing field. This included a roadmap to fully connect the countryside, a planning system designed for rural communities, investment in skills and innovation, and a simpler tax regime. This campaign received backing from a large number of parliamentarians, and it soon became clear that there was an appetite to delve a little deeper and apply parliamentary scrutiny.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse, a cross-party group of MPs and peers who all share a common interest in promoting and safeguarding the rural economy - and which the CLA supports - launched an inquiry into rural productivity last spring. Chaired by former CLA President Lord Cameron of Dillington and APPG Chair Julian Sturdy MP, the aim was to examine existing barriers facing rural areas in improving productivity and identify meaningful solutions. The report will be published this month.
The inquiry was extensive, focusing on six themes: planning, taxation, connectivity, farming, skills and the processes by which rural objectives are delivered. A call for evidence was put out, and evidence was received by more than 50 industry bodies, charities, campaign groups, companies, academics and business leaders. This took place alongside six oral sessions, where a panel of parliamentarians – members of the APPG – invited witnesses from each of the corresponding fields for a closer examination of what impedes rural productivity and how it can be addressed.
The focus on planning, taxation, connectivity, farming and skills continued the work that the Rural Powerhouse campaign began. Processes, meanwhile, took a slightly different approach. Processes refer to how rural objectives are delivered, such as rural proofing and how government departments communicate with each other. This was a look at the overarching strategy behind the policies to see if there was a holistic approach to policymaking and why it was so important. This is not to say that rural people have different needs or wants to their urban counterparts – they don’t. But meeting these needs is frequently more challenging in rural areas, which is why a coherent approach is important.
The overwhelming consensus was that no government in recent memory has had a programme to unlock the economic and social potential of the countryside. This might seem remarkable for this green and pleasant land but will no doubt ring true to Land & Business readers. Too often, issues affecting the rural economy fall through the cracks of Whitehall departments.
The chronic under-appreciation of the countryside, which the report identifies, is reinforced by the recent levelling up white paper, which made scant reference to rural areas. It should have been an opportune moment: the need to level up the countryside is as urgent as it is obvious. Rural jobs pay less than urban jobs, rural homes are typically less affordable than urban homes, poverty is more dispersed. And so on. However, the almost complete absence of rural in the recent white paper – of the need to create prosperity and economic growth in rural communities – doesn’t diminish the narrative that the government has no clue about the countryside.
This view is as dangerous as it is outdated. In not recognising or appreciating the strengths and capabilities of the rural economy, economic growth is stifled through an unsupportive planning system or a tax regime that discourages innovation. Rural areas are shunted to the back of the queue for connectivity improvements, and little thought is given to the logistical barriers affecting upskilling in rural areas. The report will find all these things to be true. These all have an impact on the daily lives of people, young and old, living in rural communities.
An urgent change in attitude from the government is necessary. Rural Britain is not a museum but an economic powerhouse. The diversity of the rural economy must be recognised. The pandemic has shown there is scope to change a collective mindset in how we live and work. There must be a joined-up approach throughout government to improve productivity across all parts of the rural economy. You can’t level up without levelling out.
The recommendations in the report, which will be published later this month, make up a comprehensive plan to grow the rural economy. It will level out the countryside, spreading opportunity and strengthening small towns, villages and hamlets across the country. Many of the
‘An urgent recommendations will be low-cost and change in attitude from easy to implement. The organisations and individuals who the government is necessary. gave evidence to the inquiry are ambitious for the countryside. Rural Britain is not a museum The report is the first step in helping the government match but an economic powerhouse’ this ambition, and finally unlocking the potential of the countryside. It is important to get this message out far and wide. The APPG co-chairs will write to the prime minister to bring the report to his attention, and the CLA will call for the government to convene an industry-wide roundtable to talk through practical solutions for rural businesses. Parliamentary briefings will take place after the Easter recess when the report is formally launched, alongside a raft of parliamentary questions and debates. Keeping the momentum going is key. With a general election in the not-too-distant future, it’s time to weaponise the rural economy so that our politicians sit up and deliver long-overdue results.