Much has been made in recent days of how Labour’s red wall continues to crumble. Eleven years into a Tory Government and the Conservatives are winning by-elections in Labour heartlands. It is extraordinary stuff.
But Boris Johnson, and the government he leads, should be keeping a much closer eye on their rural heartlands, where many are wondering if the ‘levelling up agenda’ applies to them. Indeed, if rural communities are once again forgotten the Prime Minister risks undermining his own ‘Blue Wall’ for years to come.
The lazy stereotype is that rural communities are wealthy and ‘quaint’ with little need of investment or support. However, the reality is that many of the UK’s poorest regions are predominantly rural – Cornwall, West Wales and North Lincolnshire to name a few. Many promises made to the rural community, such as fast broadband, improved planning system and green grants, are failing to materialise. The longer these large swathes of the country are ignored, the more likely it is that people will cast their votes elsewhere.
Due to lack of investment, the rural economy is now 18% less productive than the national average. As a result, hundreds of thousands of jobs have not been created, and the opportunity for prosperity missed entirely. Indeed, righting this productivity imbalance would add £43bn to the national economy. The fact that the government has no coherent policy to grow the rural economy simply isn’t good enough.
Nearly half a million homes and around 125,000 businesses in rural areas have poor or slow broadband, and Ofcom figures show 4G data coverage at 86% in urban areas vs 46% in rural areas. Without strong connectivity, full access to an increasingly digital economy will remain out of reach for those who need it most.
Planning permission for much-needed development has entered ridiculous territory, held back by an outdated system virtually designed to prevent economic growth. Time and again we hear of farmers wanting to convert the old dairy, or those old stables, into modern offices fit for 21st century businesses, only to be stymied by oppressive upfront costs and a huge time lag in actually getting the work done.
Political ill will must be growing too, at the disconnect between what ministers say about boosting the country’s green credentials, and the action taken to help rural communities play their part. A succession of tree-planting photo ops will do little to provide the incentive needed to power a green revolution. Investment in farming and forestry to drive environmental recovery will support job creation. There is scope to manage land targeting environmental outcomes - improved soil, grasslands, woods and water courses, that provide us with clean water and thriving wildlife, could also sequester and store carbon to help us reach net zero.
If the Government does not give the rural economy the attention it desperately needs then the blue wall might crumble for the Conservatives just as the red wall did for Labour.
We desperately need the Government to show some ambition for economic development in rural areas. And at the heart of that ambition should be encouraging entrepreneurship. For example, pubs that have closed due to a lack of viability should be given permitted development rights, allowing the buildings to be used as rural business hubs for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Government should lean on network operators to deliver the much-talked about improved coverage now, not in 4 years’ time. Meanwhile, encouraging private investment in ‘natural capital’ and carbon sequestration would put the UK at the forefront of delivering environmental land management.
With the worst of the pandemic hopefully behind us, the Prime Minister needs to make good on his promise to build back better. His desire to level up the country is the right one, but this must work for the countryside as well as industrial centres. There are jobs to be created, businesses to support and – as far as the Prime Minister is concerned – rural votes still to be earned.