Escape To The Country: How Can Rural Areas Recover From Covid?
Crayke in North Yorkshire | Emily Carey
A spotlight on a stunning part of North Yorkshire highlights what rural communities might need to thrive after Covid-19. Kate Proctor reports.
The MP for Thirsk and Malton, Kevin Hollinrake, is all too aware he represents one of England’s most beautiful constituencies. It stretches more than 50 miles, taking in the country’s finest Georgian market towns, the Howardian Hills and North York Moors and the sweeping sands of Filey beach.
He’d recommend rural life – and in Covid times many are considering it – in a heartbeat. But behind the picture-perfect views, it’s clear the components required to keep a vast rural area thriving are under pressure, and even more so since the arrival of the virus.
Like much of the country the region has been in and out of lockdowns and tiered rules, meaning businesses have had to close and high-street footfall has at times vanished as shopping habits change, and jobs shift online.
“Levelling up” is the Tories’ current mantra and an enormous £600bn was pledged at the March 2020 budget by neighbouring MP and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, to be spent on infrastructure across the UK. It’s the biggest investment since the 1950s and £4bn comes in the form of the Levelling Up Fund, which will go on hundreds of micro-projects across the country – a new train station, perhaps a roundabout to ease town centre congestion.
There is huge potential with this level of investment, Hollinrake says, and of course he welcomes it, but infrastructure projects are only part of the story if you want to support rural communities.
Levelling up isn’t just about a “shiny new train station” (though he admits he’d like one for Malton, Yorkshire’s self-styled food capital), but Hollinrake says “people have got to see a tangible difference in their bank balance, in their back pocket and that’s going to be tough to deliver… quickly.”
For rural Britain to thrive, it’s got to be about “access to really good, better jobs,” he says, and for this to be visible by the next election in 2024. Currently, the average wage in the constituency is £24,000 a year and although there are pockets of significant wealth, hospitality, tourism and farming pay low wages.
“[Jobs are] definitely the biggest issue I think in Thirsk and Malton. If I’m a young person who does well at school in Easingwold, Malton or Thirsk, where am I going to work? Traditionally that’s meant moving to cities, York, London or Manchester or wherever.
“So we’ve got a real opportunity now with levelling up, and with the acceleration of existing trends – the move to online shopping and the move to online working - which have been hugely accelerated by the Covid crisis.
“Some things are going to go against my local area. People are shopping online more which puts high street businesses even more in peril. But also it means people can work remotely more which is also an opportunity for high street businesses, and it’s an opportunity for people not to have to go into cities as long as we can have good digital connectivity. There’s no reason why I couldn’t still live in Filey and work for PricewaterhouseCoopers for example.”
We have worked really hard every single day, and we’re not going to let something like this take the business away from us
But local businesses need more than an economic blueprint to thrive in the future. Covid has shown how flexible they need to be, and those that have prospered are the ones that have a good understanding of where they fit in the community’s ecosystem.
For Elaine Chapman, who runs the Wentworth Arms in Old Malton with her husband Steve, Covid hammered home how important businesses like hers are to keeping a community functioning.
After realising they weren’t going to be able to see one of their daily regulars, a vulnerable man who needs support, they have made sure that he has been fed every single day since March. They also did meal deliveries for other people who couldn’t leave their homes and set up to provide a takeaway menu for their customers.
She said: “There were so many [businesses] who just rolled over and died. It was so easy to do that. And I thought, we’re not going to do that. We have worked, we’ve worked really hard every single day, and we’re not going to let something like this take the business away from us.
“I think the customers all the time knew we were trying our hardest for them.”
Near Easingwold a local butcher kitted out a van and did deliveries, the local garden centre bought two shipping containers and created a fruit and veg shop and also set up deliveries, and the milkman has apparently never been busier.
Michael Ibbotson, who has run The Durham Ox pub in the village of Crayke for 20 years, said there were scary times and he had to plan for every financial scenario, but he used the Chancellor’s schemes, was able to get a local authority discretionary payment and used a Bounce Back loan.
Like Elaine, he thinks Covid has also been a time in which a rural business’ reputation is won or lost. People will remember how you supported the community in times of crisis, and this in turn should see them flock back in person when it’s possible.
He doesn’t see Covid as having pushed the rural economy off a cliff, but it did disrupt social interactions, and he has been very conscious to try and restore that. One thing he wants to try to bring back when it’s safe is the pub’s regular Friendship Lunches, attended by older locals.
He said: “Someone told me at the beginning of this, ‘just remember in times of crisis, you are always remembered in business for how you behave.’
“We tried our best to do the best we could. We looked after all our staff, our staff are all local. We gave them hours when they were available and furloughed for the hours that weren’t available. Reputations could be destroyed by those that don’t take it seriously.
“I do think the pub will be full again in the future but I don’t take that for granted.”
Hollinrake says market town high streets in his patch like Malton, Thirsk or Easingwold, might not be full of shops selling goods in future, but could focus on food, hospitality, experiences, and community spaces. In some cases empty retail units might be turned back into accommodation. He thinks when Covid restrictions eventually end, there will be a huge desire to spend money and get back into town.
If prosperity was all about connectivity, why isn’t Doncaster more prosperous? It’s a brilliant line
However keeping towns and their satellite villages afloat for decades to come, rather than just the next 12 months, will require a detailed roadmap. Hollinrake’s (not exhaustive) list includes a better internet connection, but also private sector investment, super-enterprise zones, a passionate elected regional mayor, and a reconfiguration of council tax. Borrowing a quote from Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Hollinrake says: “If prosperity was all about connectivity, why isn’t Doncaster more prosperous? It’s a brilliant line.”
He goes on: “The reason is, Doncaster doesn’t get the private sector investment. So I would really like the government to look at super-enterprise zones.”
Of all the English regions that have devolution deals and regionally elected mayors, he wants the bottom ten areas ranked by gross value added to become super-enterprise zones with inbuilt tax advantages for businesses to relocate there. This would include his area – the York City Region.
“So you’d pay no business rates, you’ve got 100% capital allowances on your investment, you can write it all off against tax. They have enhanced planning rules so you can build more quickly. So it’s really attractive for businesses to be in those areas. And this is what Germany did. As well as putting in infrastructure, direct investment in the public sector, it also put in place incentives for companies to move to East Germany.”
Council tax changes in rural areas are also critical for immediate prosperity and growth, he said. The economic stimulus of that “shiny new railway station” could take decades, whereas changes to tax are always felt straightaway. He is on board with the think-tank Onward’s argument that council tax needs sweeping reform.
“The quickest way to change anything in terms of prosperity is through the tax system. That’s the instant switch. For instance council tax. Roughly people in the north pay twice as much of their income on council tax compared to people in London and the southeast, for example, so you can switch that very quickly if there was a political will to do that.”
Digital connectivity in the region has been improved vastly with most towns now having 4G, but he complains there are still blackspots in the North York Moors. One business, Inntravel near Castle Howard, which employs 60 people, relies on satellite broadband. The government’s promise of a full fibre broadband target by 2025 is crucial for areas like his, but on 8 January the Public Accounts Committee said the scheme was a “litany of failures” and would leave some rural areas behind.
A directly elected regional mayor for the York City Region is also important to establish as quickly as possible he thinks, looking to Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Teesside, and Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, as inspiring figures.
In the next few years they will need to be a strong enough figure to fend off competition from Leeds, which is in the West Yorkshire devolution deal and is often a lazy choice for Londoners considering ‘the north’. Making sure York and the North Yorkshire region gets a decent share of relocated civil service jobs from Whitehall, and jobs associated with the new National Infrastructure Bank would be one of their central tasks. They should come to York, Hollinrake says: “That’s the most obvious place.”
Photography by Emily Carey