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Tackling the rural-urban divide

Julian Whittle leads on policy issues for Cumbria Chamber of Commerce and sits on Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership’s Rural Sector Panel.

We hear a lot about the North-South divide and how Boris Johnson’s new government will attempt to bridge it.

But what about the rural-urban divide?

It’s just as real, arguably more so.

Rural areas across the country face similar problems. They have more in common with each other than they have with their urban neighbours.

Housing for a start. Rural areas often struggle to meet demand for affordable homes for young people.

The idyll of country living appears to wealthy retirees and affluent commuters. Demand for a limited supply of property pushes prices beyond the reach of young people who are forced to move away.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes data for median house prices expressed as a multiple of median household earnings. The higher the multiple, the less affordable the housing.

The national average is 7.8, inflated by much higher multiples in London, but many rural areas exceed the average, even in the North, and double-digit multiples are common in the Home Counties.

This wouldn’t be so serious if there was a ready supply of social housing to rent. But right-to-buy policies pursued since the 1980s have meant that many former council houses in rural areas have been lost to the rented sector and are now beyond the reach of local purchasers.

The problem is particularly acute in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty where demand for second homes and holiday lets exerts further pressure on the limited supply of housing.

Why would a landlord offer a long-term let to a working family when they can earn three times as much letting their property to holidaymakers?

The exodus of young people from rural areas leaves a host of problems in its wake, undermining the viability of village schools, for example, and creating a headache for businesses that cannot recruit staff.

Turning to ONS data again, it’s no surprise to find that the areas with ultra-low unemployment, which we’ll define as 2.5% or below, are almost all rural. They are spread well and truly across the country from Shetland and Orkney to parts of Devon and Dorset.

These pockets of ultra-low levels of unemployment aren’t the product of a booming economy, they’re caused by a shortage of people of working age.

Cumbria, an area I know well, contains Eden and South Lakeland, which have the lowest unemployment rate in the UK – 1.8%.

Cumbria’s working-age population is projected to fall by 17,000 by 2033. This poses a real challenge to the county’s tourism and hospitality sector, which has become dependent on EU migrant workers.

Research by Cumbria Chamber of Commerce found hotels in the Lake District that say they may have to close if the supply of migrants dries up after Brexit.

I know of a hotel operator that spends £120,000 a year on transport to bring in staff from up to 40 miles away because it cannot recruit locally.

Lack of affordable housing isn’t the only factor driving young people away from rural areas. Declining services is a contributor with the loss of schools, pubs, village shops and rural bus services – in much of rural Britain, a car is a must.

It strikes me as bizarre that buses in London receive an annual subsidy of £722m while buses in Cumbria get nothing. Common sense dictates that the need to subsidise public transport is greater in a rural area.

As a result, rural bus services in Cumbria have all but disappeared outside the tourist hotspots and, where they do exist, they’re relatively expensive. A ticket for the four-mile journey from Ambleside to Grasmere costs £4.90 while a bus journey of equivalent length in London costs £1.50.

That subsidy imbalance in favour of London is a stark illustration of the way policy makers have neglected rural Britain.

Much of the emphasis in recent years has been on driving growth through cities to the detriment of rural areas.

It’s time we reversed that trend. If we don’t, rural communities will be hollowed out, surviving only as bolt holes for commuters, retirees, holidaymakers and second-home owners.

Julian Whittle leads on policy issues for Cumbria Chamber of Commerce and sits on Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership’s Rural Sector Panel.

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