Why it's time to be ambitious for the rural economy

Julian Sturdy MP and Lord Cameron of Dillington explain how the UK Government can level up the rural economy

Today we launch a report following one of the most comprehensive inquiries ever to be conducted by a parliamentary body into the health of the rural economy.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on the Rural Powerhouse took evidence from upwards of 50 industry bodies, charities, campaign groups, companies, academics and business leaders. The overwhelming, perhaps unanimous consensus was that no government in recent memory has had a programme to unlock the economic and social potential of the countryside.

This view was further compounded by the launch of the present UK Government’s Levelling Up white paper, which made no mention of creating prosperity and economic growth in rural communities – let alone setting out specific policies to create it.

The need to ‘level up’ the countryside is as urgent as it is obvious. Rural jobs pay less than urban jobs. Rural homes are less affordable than urban homes. Poverty is more dispersed in rural areas making it harder to combat, while the depth of rural fuel poverty is more extreme than those facing similar circumstances in towns and cities. Skills training and public services are harder to access – as is good internet connectivity.

These problems make rural communities uniquely vulnerable to the economic impact of global events, and the direct financial impact of inflation.

A recent opinion poll by Survation found that 66% of people living in rural communities felt government was not doing enough to create opportunities for people in the countryside.

It is easy to see why the rural economy is 18% less productive than the national average. But closing this gap would be worth up to £43bn in England alone, implying the creation of hundreds of thousands of good jobs in areas so often blighted by underemployment.

Our report though is not intended to be unnecessarily critical of government. We recognise the enormity of the challenges created by COVID-19, the UK’s departure from the EU and now Russia’s barbarism in Ukraine. But these challenges make the need to grow the rural economy more, not less important. As a result, in this report we set out a comprehensive plan for growth, one that will create jobs, spread opportunity and strengthen small towns and villages across the country.

Recognising the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s finances, the majority of our recommendations are low cost, requiring only a change in policy – and in many cases a change in how government thinks about the countryside.

It is important that government understands that rural Britain is not a museum. It is an important part of the national economy that deserves the chance to succeed.

The urgency of improving infrastructure – particularly the delivery of fully fibre broadband, 4 and 5g, and electrical connectivity – cannot be understated, but so often the rural economy is held back by poor planning policy, a minimalist skills agenda and an overly complex tax regime. These are much easier problems to fix.

The planning regime at present feels almost designed to hold back economic development. Time and again our inquiry heard of businesses that hoped to expand but were unable to find suitable premises. Meanwhile landowners seeking to convert disused farm buildings into modern workspace were routinely rejected – or at least heavily delayed. This prevents opportunity being created not just for individuals, but for families and the wider community. To be frank, it is maddening.

One might ask why nothing has ever been done about this. A consistent theme throughout the evidence we received was that matters pertaining to the rural economy often fell between the cracks of Whitehall departments. Many Ministers and officials simply assume that the DEFRA is responsible for the countryside, and ignore it as a result. But DEFRA simply does not have the policy levers at its disposal to implement many of the ideas necessary to grow the rural economy. Efforts to ‘rural proof’ government policy have failed.

For this reason it is vital that a cross-departmental, Ministerial-led committee is formed to identify ‘quick win’ policy changes that will get the rural economy moving.

The organisations and individuals who gave evidence to our inquiry were ambitious for the countryside. We consider them to be motivated by a genuine desire to create prosperity for the betterment of their community, and the country as a whole. Our report is the first step to help the government match those ambitions, and finally unlock the potential of the countryside.

Julian Sturdy is Conservative MP for York Outer. Lord Cameron of Dillington is a crossbench peer and former CLA President. Together they have co-chaired an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Rural Powerhouse into the rural economy.

This article first appeared The Times