The Levelling Up white paper was unveiled on Wednesday following an extensive briefing in the previous weekend’s newspapers. It is intended to be the cornerstone policy directive of Johnson’s premiership, to “level up” areas that have been left behind and grow the overall productivity of the country. At 332 pages, it is a mammoth report that covers a diverse range of subjects from crime rates and culture recovery to food policy. There was a glaring omission from the report, however – rural areas.
As I eagerly sat down to read the report (someone has to), I first searched for how often rural is mentioned, and it was only a scant number of times across such a large-scale report. The main achievement for rural areas is the commitment to full fibre broadband and 4G mobile connectivity by 2030, which would be a major achievement and could boost the rural economy by up £52bn. This however, is not a new announcement, with the original target from the government within the Conservative Party’s manifesto in 2019 committing to full connectivity by 2025 with a £5bn pot of money accessible for rural connectivity. Many thought this original target was unattainable without immediate investment. Out of this £5bn fund, only £1.2bn is to be allocated until 2025. The CLA is working with other rural groups to push the government and operators to be transparent about when the improvements to rural connectivity will be delivered.
While not focusing on rural, the levelling up report sets forward a vision for more devolution, with nine parts of the country invited to assess becoming a county area. These places include Suffolk, Durham and Devon. Becoming a devolved area would allow the option of a Mayoral Combined Authority - creating a mayor for the region with similar powers over transport and infrastructure similar to places like Manchester and London. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) will also be given greater powers to distribute funding. This could be perceived as a positive move as they are based more within their local economy, but LEPs, which are both rural and urban-facing, have previously failed to step up to rural challenges.
The report also hints at policy directions to come by stating that the second rural proofing report is due, the government’s response to the National Food Strategy is also imminent and that a planning white paper will be delivered to the House of Commons in the spring.
However, the prevailing feeling from the Levelling Up white paper is that it is a missed opportunity for the government to address the 18% productivity gap between rural and urban Britain, and shows the miscomprehension from the government that rural areas are places where innovation and growth can occur. The CLA is putting forward this case to politicians and the Levelling Up department directly, and we are hosting roundtables for peers and MPs to underline the needs of the rural economy.
We also urge our members to write to your local MP regarding levelling up, detailing how you run businesses and want to live in a thriving rural economy. We have a template available as a starting point, but please feel free to tailor and adapt it to your own experience and feelings on the matter.