The CLA, in partnership with the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), hosted a fringe event entitled Taken for granted? Rural areas and the Conservative agenda which sought to look at the party’s record on delivering for rural communities and how to close the 18% productivity gap that exists between urban and rural areas.
The event was chaired by CPS Chief Operating Officer Emily Duncan, and featured CLA President Mark Bridgeman, Rural Affairs Minister Lord Benyon and Efra Select Committee Chair Neil Parish MP on the panel. The session was well attended by parliamentarians, local councillors, trade organisations and the party faithful, with useful discussions about what levelling up meant substantively, the machinery of government and where reform is needed most.
Mark Bridgeman highlighted the party’s electoral dominance of rural areas – that of 180 seats classified to some degree of rural, the Conservatives currently hold 173 – but warned that rural policy, (or policies that work for rural areas), was too often an afterthought. This was echoed by Neil Parish who noted that government needed to deliver improvements at a faster rate than currently, with some constituents beginning to question the party’s commitment. Lord Benyon spoke about how rurality could exacerbate the negatives in life – loneliness, mental health, job losses – and that as well as levelling up the party should make sure to level out.
There was consensus on the panel that we should be optimistic about the opportunities in rural areas post-Covid, but that infrastructure investment was vital. Mr Bridgeman cited electric and digital connectivity, planning reform, and changes to land use and taxation as key to unlocking productivity, all part of the CLA’s new publication Levelling up: Unleashing the potential of the rural economy which was launched at the event.
The scale of the changes required was well understood by Lord Benyon who, having been a Defra minister when previously an MP, understood the challenges that exist in government about achieving rural proofing, and is able to use that knowledge going forward to ensure that rural thinking is at the forefront of government. One of the biggest challenges across Whitehall is effective cross-departmental working - which goes against the vertical structure of government ministries - but is vital for policy-making because a one-size-fits-all approach does not work.
There was a discussion on what levelling up means for rural communities. Mark Bridgeman answered that getting more affordable houses into rural areas so that people can stay and work there is crucial, as is the speed of the rollout of Project Gigabit (which government recently rowed back on their commitment to). Neil Parish mentioned how the planning system must be faster, with more opportunities to build on brownfield sites.
As the government seeks to identify just what it means by levelling up, it was reassuring to know that, in terms of the rural agenda, Lord Benyon understands what is needed and supports the CLA’s vision.