As someone who has spent decades arguing the case for better investment by the government into our rural areas, I am setting out a few thoughts on this subject in the current climate.
I readily accept that there is significant inter-dependence between urban and rural areas and that the City of London, and Northern Powerhouse are obviously major contributors to the engine room of the country’s economy. But so are rural areas and for the benefit of both the national and rural economies they need long-term, coordinated action and investment too. That is why the Rural Services Network is campaigning for the Government to produce a cross department funded Rural Strategy to address the challenges and optimise the opportunities.
Recent research by Rural England CIC for Amazon found that greater digital adoption in rural areas could add between £12-£26 bn to the UK economy annually. Studies for the County Councils Network have demonstrated the huge value of investing in Shire areas.
24% of all the registered business in England with an annual turnover of £434bn are based in rural areas. But a consistent flow of investment and fair funding deals are needed in our rural areas to strengthen resilience and enable the rural contribution to our national economy to grow.
I set out below some of the specific and significant challenges faced by rural areas and the business and communities that live in and operate from them over and above those relating to Brexit and the moves to a zero carbon:
Rural residents suffer higher costs of living and – due to an unfair funding regime for central government support -pay on average £98 more council tax per head than urban residents. Rural residents weekly transport costs are some £38 (over 50%) more than their urban counterparts.
To demonstrate the unfair funding formula point I make above, some of the rural v urban government funding per head disparities are set out in the following table (much more detail can be found at www.rsnonline.org.uk). I think this is a very clear demonstration of the need for rural areas to receive a fair share of whatever resources the government makes available to support services
Property prices in rural areas are typically 8.6 times average annual earnings (6.5 in urban areas). “Affordable Rents” are not affordable.
Rural families struggle to find affordable housing to remain in their local communities. If they find housing, families can still face a ‘rural penalty’ in simply sending their children to school. School transport costs in rural areas are almost 10 times higher than in cities. Budget restrictions mean an estimated two thirds of councils no longer provide any free transport to post 16 students. Children must continue in education or training once they reach 16 but poor public transport links mean rural children struggle with choice, accessibility and affordability.
Access to health services is becoming increasingly challenging for rural residents. GP practices are often merging to become more sustainable which can put them at greater distance from vulnerable rural residents without access to car or public transport. More generally, there is more and more centralization of service access points which impact on accessibility
Older people make up a significantly higher percentage of the total population in rural areas (29%) than in urban areas (21%). Projections indicate a doubling of the rural population aged 85+ over the next 20 years. The cost implications of the present – let alone the projected – elderly population in rural areas are staggering. Meeting these statutory duties – and those relating to looked after children mean ever increasing reductions in other services including public transport.
Research by Rural England into issues facing providers of social care at home in rural England has highlighted several worrying factors. Lower population density in rural areas prevents economies of scale resulting in higher per unit costs. Distance from providers to users involves higher travel costs, lost opportunity costs and unproductive time for staff.
However, I do not wish to present everything as all gloom and doom. Ageing society is one of the four great challenges in the UK Industrial Strategy and rural areas are finding innovative ways to improve care in the community through working with digital technology and health and social care providers. Broadband speeds and mobile connectivity, however, remain issues in many rural areas There is huge potential for sustainable growth within rural areas. Tech start-ups present an important opportunity to bring new vitality and dynamism to complement existing rural sectors, particularly food and drink production, an area in which, post-Brexit, the government is showing increasing interest.
In addition to digital adoption government needs to think about how bespoke funding packages can support innovative business solutions (and business support tailored to the rural context, generally) in rural areas.
A comprehensive approach is needed to help support rural areas - energising the rural economy will not succeed without adequate services, housing, transport, connectivity, access to education, health and social care and support services.
The House of Lords Select Committee in its Report on the Rural Economy, which I was pleased to present evidence to, supported the need for a Rural Strategy and provided a huge amount of evidence to support its recommendations. In its Summary the Select Committee comments:
“Successive governments have underrated the contribution rural economies can make to the nation’s prosperity and wellbeing. They have applied policies which were largely devised for urban and suburban economies, and which are often inappropriate for rural England. This must change. With rural England at a point of major transition, a different approach is urgently needed”
It also said:
“Rural England faces new challenges arising from, among others, Brexit, declining farm profitability, an ageing population, climate change and the pressure from often piecemeal and inappropriate development. But there are also new opportunities. In particular, the digital revolution has the ability, properly managed, to transform the rural economy, reverse years of underperformance and improve the quality of life not just for those living in rural areas, but for the nation as a whole.
The urgent challenge is to encourage the new opportunities, release unfulfilled potential and enhance the contribution which rural England can make to the nation while retaining its distinct character”.
For me, these two quotes say it all. The new Prime Minister and his Ministers must treat these matters seriously and with urgency.
Rural Services Network
21st August, 2019