Lord Foster: Rural economies are being severely undermined by the apathy of governments
Rural policy lacks direction and rural priorities are too often side-lined. Ministers must pursue a comprehensive national-level strategy to ensure communities are not left behind, writes Lord Foster
Many rural areas in England are great places to live and work and make a huge contribution to national wellbeing. Underpinning this is an often-vibrant rural economy, with agriculture still at its heart but now hosting an increasingly diverse range of businesses and industries. Around 17 per cent of the population live in rural areas which contribute 20 per cent of England’s total economic activity and provide the locations for 25 per cent of all registered businesses. So, helping the rural economy thrive is crucial.
It is often imagined that the rural economy is dominated by agriculture. But while farming provides the backbone, the rural economy is as diverse as its urban counterpart – and becoming ever more so, as traditional industries diversify, patterns of employment change and modern sectors grow. Manufacturing accounts for the same proportion of the economy in rural as in urban areas and there is also major rural employment in the service sector.
But the potential of rural economies is being severely undermined by the inattention and apathy of successive governments and a funding regime which disadvantages rural areas. There is a serious risk that without action the countryside will fall behind, and its economies will be stifled, with knock on effects for rural dwellers and the country as a whole. Doing nothing is not an option.
Over the last year I have chaired the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy, which has undertaken a wide-ranging inquiry into this vast subject.
We took evidence from a huge number of rural groups across the country – and visited rural areas ourselves to understand better how their economies function and what action is needed to help ensure their growth and sustainability. Our final report has now been published.
A key message we heard was that Government rural policy lacks direction and that rural priorities are too often side-lined nationally. So, our report calls for a comprehensive national-level rural strategy, to be delivered locally with the full involvement of local communities, councils and businesses, and with a particular focus on the character of each rural place. Community action is particularly important for the success of rural economies and so we recommend measures to help support community ownership of shops and other critical rural amenities, as well as for community-run services and enterprises.
This rural strategy should aim to deliver better outcomes across the spectrum of issues faced by rural economies. We heard in particular that action is needed to improve digital connectivity. The opportunities afforded by 5G rollout and full fibre broadband must not be passed up, and the broadband Universal Service Obligation should be reviewed to ensure rural areas are not left behind. Rural affordable housing is also a key challenge and we heard there was a need for planning reforms to ensure the right homes are provided in the right places with proper sensitivity to their local context, and that sufficient business workspaces are made available.
We also recommend other measures to improve support for rural businesses, recognising their distinct challenges such as the availability of skills and training. Public transport and healthcare provision are also areas of concern, particularly in light of the ageing rural population and increasing isolation and loneliness. We call for better coordination and fairer allocation of funding for service delivery to ensure that rural dwellers can access the services they are entitled to.
We hope that our report acts as a wake-up call to Government and as a rallying point for rural communities. The rural economy will always play a major role in rural prosperity, and we are highly optimistic that with the right interventions this prosperity will be secured for the future.
Lord Foster of Bath is a Lib Dem peer and Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy