Reasons why rural areas have grown or declined since the onset of the recession have been examined in research by Defra and other bodies. ‘Economic performance’ and ‘resilience’ have been attributed to a number of factors – from proximity to population and a market place to the availability/speed of broadband. How, then, can we support rural places to thrive? And what should be in the Government’s rural Productivity Plan? Jessica Sellick investigates.
The Chancellor made productivity the key theme in his Summer Budget – from investing in the road system to skill gaps, and from balancing economic activity across the UK to the introduction of a living wage. This was followed by HM Treasury publishing ‘fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation’. This sets out how the Government believes productivity can be raised by encouraging long term investment in economic capital (e.g. infrastructure, skills and knowledge); and encouraging innovation and helping resources flow to their most productive use.
The document contains a section on ‘supporting the rural economy’ which has ambitions to enable communities to allocate land for starter homes developments, encourage rural areas to work with Local Enterprise Partnerships to become Enterprise Zones, review the current threshold for agricultural buildings to convert to residential, extend permitted development rights to taller mobile masts and ensure 95% of the UK has superfast broadband by 2017. The Secretary of State at Defra, Liz Truss, is now preparing a ’10 point rural productivity plan’ which is expected after summer recess.
With the Chancellor now describing productivity as “the challenge of our time”, what can be done to support rural places to fulfil their economic potential?
In May 2015, the Commission for Underperforming Towns and Cities published its reBrighter Future for our Towns and Cities report. A collaborative project involving the Association of Town and City Management (ATCM), Institute of Economic Development (IED), Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), they looked at the characteristics of performing and underperforming towns and cities.
The Commission found successful local economies were driven by educated, skilled and talented people drawn from a relatively young demographic; whereas poorer performing locations appeared trapped in a cycle of youth out-migration and a lack of local educational and employment opportunities.
Many underperforming places were characterised by small populations meaning they lacked the critical mass needed to sustain private and public sector service provision. Indeed, many poorer performing towns and cities had previously served purposes that no longer pertained (e.g. having a coal mine, shipyard, manufacturing plant, or ‘market’ town).
Similar to the Defra funded research, the Commission found those places that fell farthest and fastest in the 2008 recession were experiencing recovery later and to a lesser degree than performing towns and cities. In the continuing era of austerity, the Commission argues the choice is not between expenditure and investment but between action and inertia.
For me, in a rural context, this signals the need for the forthcoming Productivity Plan to take a broader economic development agenda: one that helps people to find a job where they live (retaining rather than losing young people, provides local opportunities to undertake training and skills development); improves access to services (health, adult social care, transport, leisure and entertainment) and leads to 100% mobile and broadband connectivity.
More broadly, these discussions around growth and productivity illuminate three ongoing issues.
First, thinking devolutionary. In his Summer Budget, the Chancellor announced further agreement had been reached with Greater Manchester for more powers over fire services, land commission, children’s services and employment programmes to be devolved. The Government is also in dialogue with Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool on their own deals. While devolving more local tax raising powers in order to better engage local people and businesses in local decision making can be viewed as a good thing, amid the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, how can we ensure rural areas are not omitted from the debate and that devolution is not used by central Government to abdicate its responsibility for pursuing economic development across the UK?
Secondly, thinking connectivity. In July 2015 the Scottish Rural Parliament launched its first campaign on digital connectivity. Chair, John Hutchison, described how “broadband and mobile phone signal are now essential services for rural communities, without which our businesses and communities cannot thrive. This has been recognised by both the Scottish and UK Governments who have commissioned work to improve broadband and mobile signal availability respectively.
Unfortunately, there are serious concerns in both cases about the speed with which service improvements are being made. We are being left further and further behind urban areas and other countries in Europe the longer we have to wait”. In the Summer Budget the Chancellor announced £10 million to support connectivity in South West England from April 2016.
The Fund will be available for local projects to bid into, with priority given to delivering ultrafast speeds of 100mbps an above. In June 2015, there was a debate in parliament on Superfast Broadband, moved by Matt Warman MP for Boston and Skegness to highlight the importance of securing access to broadband. This raised issues around transparency (data and availability); cost and how broadband is a necessity not a luxury.
Thirdly and finally, thinking interventionally. There are opportunities for central Government to influence the funding and decision making of other organisations (e.g. Local Enterprise Partnerships, BT). This means, on the one hand, in the mission to accelerate growth or provide universal coverage that we do not overlook those rural places in which delivery is more difficult.
On the other hand, it means making a shift from sectoral fetishism in economic policy to taking a more spatial approach. Above all, it highlights a role for rural proofing to ensure the fairest solutions for rural areas.
Will the Rural Productivity Plan deliver all of the above? Watch this space…
Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential.
She is about to undertake a review of a Lottery funded project focusing on how to conserve and improve a town’s assets for future generations as well as completing a European project on ‘social value’. Jessica’s public services work includes research for Defra on alternative service delivery and local level rural proofing.
The RSN Annual Conference is taking place in Cheltenham 8-9 September. It includes sessions on devolution, funding, broadband and delivering services in new ways. More information can be found here.