The study by the South West Rural Commission found huge potential for economic growth – so long as key opportunities are seized and challenges addressed.
It was commissioned by four south-west Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Dorset, Heart of the South West and Swindon and Wiltshire.
Launched on Friday (20 October), the study coincided with a South West Growth Summit seeking to raise the profile of the regional economy.
Evidence was collected over three months, April to June, followed by five formal evidence hearings across the four LEP areas.
Digital connectivity presents a game changing opportunity for rural areas, says the study.
But without further urgent action, businesses and communities will become left behind, it warns.
Smart technologies have the potential to create solutions to many of the challenges faced by rural areas, the report says.
The development of an innovation platform on a regional scale has the ability to create higher value jobs, it adds.
But it voices genuine concerns that rural communities are spiralling downwards towards ‘fossilised retirement villages’ unless government and local leaders take prompt action.
Commission chairman David Fursdon said: "The Rural economy is integral to raising the productivity of the south west."
"This report highlights how rural prosperity can be tackled alongside urban growth, to bring about prosperity for all in very part of the economy."
The commission looked at opportunities for growth – and what barriers are faced – including issues around housing, jobs, transport, skills and demographics.
“If we are looking at the need for vital infrastructure to underpin growth, we need to look no further than digital connectivity, which must be the priority for all parts of our rural areas," said Mr Fursdon.
“We explored what the implications of Brexit might be, as well as the potential for developing innovative clusters to harness any opportunities for the future, including the potential for companies “scaling up”.
Local and national policy must move away from the ‘one size fits all’ approach that fail to recognise that rural areas are different, says the report.
Brexit has the potential to shake the foundations of the rural economy, it adds – providing either a much needed boost or sudden economic shock.
Steve Hindley, chairmain of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, said a vibrant rural economy was crucial to the region.
"We need to build on our distinctive assets to create a sustainable economy," he added.
The full report is available here.
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