Lord Foster: Rural Britain has felt ignored for too long - we need a comprehensive rural strategy
Urban policy-makers must stop ignoring the voices of people living in rural communities and introduce a place-based rural strategy that recognises the diversity of rural economies with specific challenges and priorities, writes Lord Foster.
Those living in rural communities have for a long time felt ignored and disregarded by those in power compared to those living in our cities.
And the evidence behind this is stark. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural areas get less funding per head in grants to councils as well as less for services such as policing, public transport and health care.
Rural areas have also been left behind in the improvements to digital connectivity and face higher housing costs while having lower average wages.
However, despite this for many people rural England is a great place in which to live and work or to visit, with the countryside rightly regarded as one of our greatest assets.
With a vast range of rural businesses and initiatives and new sectors growing fast, some rural economies are increasingly diverse, dynamic and vibrant. But overall, they are not meeting their potential and contribute less per head to the national economy than do urban economies.
This was part of the reason that in May last year the House of Lords established a Select Committee to “consider the rural economy and make recommendations”.
During our year-long enquiry our deliberations were wide-ranging. After all a thriving rural economy depends on many factors; adequate and affordable housing and workplaces, decent broadband speeds, mobile coverage and access to finance, skills and training, as well as a fair share of funding for local services.
We discovered that in all of these areas there are special rural challenges; challenges that have not been helped by the policies, or lack thereof, of successive governments which have under-rated the contribution rural economies can make to the nation’s prosperity and well-being.
They have applied policies which were largely devised for urban and sub-urban economies, and which are often inappropriate for rural England.
To address this the committee made nearly 100 recommendations to Government, and in some cases to other bodies such as local councils and LEPs.
But our central recommendation stemmed from our clear belief that at present, rural policy is disjointed and badly prioritised by urban-oriented policy makers.
So, just as the Government saw the need for an Industrial Strategy, we argued that it now needs a comprehensive rural strategy. This would enhance the contribution rural England can make to the whole nation while – crucially – retaining its distinctive character.
But, in recognising the huge variety of rural economies, we stressed that the rural strategy must take these variations into account and ensure that local communities are fully engaged. Hence our call for a place-based approach involving local people and organisations.
A large number of rural organisations enthusiastically supported our call for a rural strategy. When, in July, the Government rejected it, they wrote a letter to the Times stating that “yet again the Government’s attitude towards rural communities has left people feeling frustrated and ignored.”
And they were right, for too long successive Governments have had a blind spot for rural economies.
Now whatever the outcome of the current political turmoil, we need all relevant departments, and government as a whole, to stop seeing rural areas as an adjunct to urban areas but to see them – and treat them - as separate and distinct, with specific challenges and priorities.
It is long overdue that the Government sat and actually listened to the voice of rural Britain.
Lord Foster of Bath is Liberal Democract Member of the House of Lords.