Giving rural communities more control over local funding and decision making is key to levelling up
Giving rural communities more control over local funding is key to levelling up rural areas (Alamy)
The British countryside has always proved a great lure to families seeking a home surrounded by green space, fresh air and a tight-knit community. Whilst all of these are key benefits of rural life, the reality is that there are far too many left behind rural and coastal communities, often overlooked by government policies.
Life in rural Britain means long distances to amenities, and poor infrastructure (both digital and physical) to connect you with the same opportunities as the rest of the country.
Distances and lack of connectivity impacts on all parts of everyday life. Whether it is waiting for the circle of doom before being able to connect to the internet, or living miles away from shops, school or healthcare. The effects of these daily challenges drive down rural productivity and impacts the whole country. The excellent report, Levelling Up the Rural Economy, produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse, estimates that the rural economy is 18 per cent less productive than the national average and closing the gap could be worth up to £43bn in England alone.
When I was elected in 2019, after getting Brexit done, getting broadband done was the next priority on the doorstep. For the last three years I have been working to connect more of my North Devon constituency and rural areas across the country. Despite significant government investment, and much improvement in connectivity, the road map for rolling out broadband simply does not work as well in a rural environment and our policies need a rurality check before being released into the countryside.
Schemes such as Community Fibre Partnerships have helped rural rollout but are time consuming and can be complex when they meet the government, direct funded, rollout. I am delighted that more rural communities can now grab the opportunities of digital connectivity, whether as a boost to their online business or giving students access to the same resources as their peers in towns and cities.
Rural folk rely on their cars more than in other regions of the United Kingdom. Public transport is sparse and active travel distances too great for most. Decisions on amenities such as public transport, libraries and other key elements of our communities are often based on usage. But it is unrealistic to hold a village of 800 people to the same criteria as a town or city of over 100,000. We need decision makers to think creatively about what works in rural communities, rather than directly transposing urban plans.
Rurality should be a key part of decision-making in Westminster; unlike the Levelling Up Fund and Active Travel Fund, which to date have relied on population density as deciding factors. Funds which cater for rural areas have been great successes: the Coastal Community Fund brought some fantastic facilities to North Devon such as Ilfracombe’s Water Sports Centre, whilst the Rural England Prosperity Fund is targeted at supporting rural businesses and invigorating our rural economies.
Giving rural communities more control over local funding and decision making is key to levelling up rural areas. If we want truly locally led bespoke solutions, I would like to see fewer layers of councils and decisions taken by those who understand rurality. The hearts of our rural communities are our parish councils and they need support to grow and build up local accountability and their community. If we can find better ways to share best practice between rural communities then we could achieve so much more.
The economic challenges of rural communities are immense and wide ranging. I believe that with more consideration of rurality when considering policies and funding decisions we can level up rural areas and give all communities equal access to the opportunities of 21st century Britain.
Selaine Saxby is the Conservative MP for North Devon
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