Is the North East countryside the new area for growth?

According to Environment Secretary Liz Truss, the rural economy is set to grow faster than the urban sector over the next decade. Robert Gibson talks to businesses, policy makers and campaigners about the potential for change in the North East countryside

Hugh Richardson, Lucinda Richardson and Tom Richardson of Wheelbirks
Hugh Richardson, Lucinda Richardson and Tom Richardson of Wheelbirks

To his friends, it must have seemed that Richard Shell had his career sorted.

Not long out of university, he was making good money as a banker. Yet it was to his family’s farm in Northumberland that his thoughts turned when he contemplated going into business on his own.

In a sense, it wasn’t all that unusual - Doxford Farm has a proud tradition of diversification - but, as Richard points out, you don’t often hear of 24-year-olds taking such a route.

“Looking at my age demographic, more people are moving to the urban areas to drive their careers,” he said.

“I have chosen to do the reverse, leaving my city job to invest into the rural economy, with the desire to offer something truly unique to the North East, while at the same time creating jobs and supporting local business where possible.”

According to the Government, Richard is one of a growing breed.

A recent analysis suggests entrepreneurs are now more likely to start a business in rural areas than in towns or cities - a change that could bolster output by a whopping £35bn by 2025.

Liz Truss, the environment secretary, has even suggested speedier broadband and better transport links could help the rural economy grow faster than the urban sector over the next decade.

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Liz Truss
Liz Truss
 

Naturally, she has had her political detractors, but, with the issue now on the political agenda, commentators are speculating over whether it is possible that we are about to witness a major change in the face of the rural North East.

Richard, who hopes to have Doxford Barn Weddings up and running by the summer, isn’t convinced: “Launching a rural business has been more challenging than first anticipated, particularly with satisfying planners and supporting the concerns of local residents and councillors.

“With regard to grants from local government, there are virtually none, whereas five years ago there were ample grants to support rural business development. I personally feel there is more to be done to help drive rural growth.”

Lucinda Richardson, who runs The Parlour at Wheelbirks, near Stocksfield, feels similarly.

While her ice cream and food business has gone from strength to strength since launching in 2010, she’s had to put up with a sluggish and temperamental internet connection, as well as dwindling public transport services in an already remote location.

“It’s three miles to the nearest train station and the service has been reduced,” she said. “There used to be buses running in the area, but they were stopped years ago. At the moment, we’re struggling to find a chef and I’m sure that’s because of our location.”

The picture, she added, was fairly bleak when it came to nearby businesses.

“I see lots of other places closing - local butchers, hairdressers, shops,” she said. “People just want to do one shop now and I don’t think we’ll ever get public support back for local amenities.”

As North East LEP economist Chris Milne points out, the medium-term priority for the region - which has the highest rate of unemployment in Great Britain - will likely be job creation in general, rather than a countryside-specific revival.

However, positive momentum was building the local economy and, with the Government committing to work on the A1 and looking into improvements on the A69, he added, greater physical connectivity would strengthen industries such as tourism and boost supply chain links generally.

On broadband, similarly, things seem to be looking up.

Between them, the Government and local authorities are investing £1.7bn in high speed internet in the countryside, with 95% of the UK set to be covered by 2017.

Here, the so-called iNorthumberland project has already passed the halfway mark, with more than 30,000 homes and businesses now able to connect to fast fibre-optic as a result. Even hard-to-reach areas are set to be catered for through innovative satellite and wireless solutions.

Dave Ledger, deputy leader of Northumberland County Council
Dave Ledger, deputy leader of Northumberland County Council
 

Deputy leader of Northumberland County Council Dave Ledger said: “The iNorthumberland programme is already having a huge impact on the area. Residents and businesses across the county keep telling us how much of a difference it is making to be able to access high-speed broadband.”

According to the CLA, which has been campaigning on the issue for years, though, there’s a need for a tighter focus.

Director of policy and public affairs for the North, Douglas Chalmers, argued that, before making fast broadband even faster in some areas, the initial drive should concentrate on securing an adequate connection for everyone.

The organisation, he added, would also be seeking clarity on some apparent discrepancies; by next year, before the broadband rollout is complete, for example, the Government is expecting all farmers to submit their forms online.

“There have been improvements in the North East,” Mr Chalmers said. “If you look at rural Northumberland, for example, you’ll see a migration of people to rural areas.

“But the most significant group leaving rural areas are those aged between 30 and 44 - those who should be in jobs, building homes and communities, and spending money. If you get faster broadband in, that helps create jobs and allows people to feel connected to the wider world.”

He added that farming and food were still core aspects of the rural economy and a major focus for the CLA.

The organisation, among other measures, is promoting so-called share farming to help get younger entrants into the industry, while facilitating a phased retirement for those who have spent their lives in it.

Similarly, it is pushing for councils to embrace changes to planning legislation that should it make it easier for farmers to convert old buildings sensitively.

According to Ms Truss, though, rural businesses are becoming increasingly varied, with knowledge-based industries like IT and consultancy being among the fastest-growing.

Rachel Fisher, who runs the online rural recruitment business, Work Rural, agreed.

“Typically, when people think about the rural economy, they think of agriculture and things like that, but we’re now seeing that it is much more vast,” she said. “There are lots of interesting jobs out there and people are moving to the countryside for a better quality of life. The rural economy is much more diverse than people think.”

Indeed, Work Rural, which has branches in Alnwick, Hexham and East Yorkshire, was established in November to provide a one-stop-shop to bring together the growing number of rural employers looking for staff with the growing number of jobseekers looking for rural employers.

“We operate throughout the whole of the UK,” Rachel said. “But we’ve had a number of interesting jobs in the North East, such as a park ranger post at the Chillingham Wild Cattle Centre. I do believe the rate of growth Liz Truss is talking about is possible - the feedback we’ve had so far has been really positive.”

Faster broadband could help the rural economy grow
Faster broadband could help the rural economy grow
 

 

n a more strategic level, the North East finally looks set to benefit from long-awaited funding and support from central government and elsewhere.

The North Pennine Dales LEADER programme - a bottom-up community-led approach to the delivery of Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) funds - aims to improve rural life through identifying and supporting projects that add value and sustainability to the areas in which they are based.

Through the Rural Growth Network and other mechanisms, similarly, the region has seen a growth in so-called rural enterprise hubs, now working together through an initiative known as Rural Connect.

Among those supporting the move has been Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy (CRE), the director of which, Guy Garrod, spoke enthusiastically of the potential benefits.

“In the North East, we are at some disadvantage in terms of geography in that we are located so far away from London,” he said. “However, we have some advantages in terms of environment, having large areas of high aesthetic quality.

“There is a phenomenon we call counter-urbanisation - when people move to rural areas for a better quality of life, and often those are people with lots of money and lots of experience.

“The problem, though, has been in finding premises and support for start-ups and that’s where the notion of the hubs comes in.”

The fact that the rural economy was being discussed at a national level was encouraging, he added, as the benefits could be even more wide-ranging than may be initially apparent.

“Around 20% of the population live in rural areas,” he said. “It’s a minority but it’s a substantial minority and the figures suggest there’s a high level of entrepreneurship there.

“If we ignore the rural economy, we are missing out on a lot of opportunities for growth.

“Places like the North East have a high quality rural environment and great resources. It would be a shame to neglect the potential they offer.”

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