Rural businesses are having to battle with a range of factors which are putting the brakes on the countryside economy, warn North East experts.
Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) is leading a debate at this week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on how to maximise the potential contribution that country areas can make to the nation’s economy.
But this is being hindered by a lack of recognition that the rural economy is about much more than farming and younger people facing issues like closing countryside schools and a lack of affordable housing,
Monday sees the the launch of a manifesto titled “What’s missing in UK rural policy”, based on research carried out by the centre’s director Guy Garrod and colleagues, at an event hosted by the CRE at the conference.
Northumberland-based Professor Mark Shucksmith, director of the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal and an expert in rural affairs, said: “While growth is a high priority for Government as we recover from the banking crisis, the potential contribution of rural areas tends to be overlooked.
“Our research offers a greater understanding of how the rural economy contributes to national growth, and how we can maximise its potential in the future.”
The manifesto calls for improvements in a number of specific areas to push rural growth policy beyond a focus on farming, forestry and food sectors.
Guy Garrod said: “Rural areas need integrated policy to address rural issues. They aren’t just the remit of Defra, and they aren’t just about farming.
“The rural economy is diverse and entrepreneurial. The Government is missing a trick in not capitalising on rural potential to help fuel economic recovery.”
The centre’s research shows that the rural economy is worth £400b and accounts for 20% of the UK working population and 28% of Britain’s firms, while 70% of workers in the rural economy are employed by small and micro-businesses, with only 15% employed in agriculture.
Mr Garrod said: “Those running businesses in rural areas are innovative and want to grow their businesses as much as their urban counterparts. They face any number of challenges that could be eased by proper acknowledgement from Government of how their circumstances differ from those in urban areas.”
The paper also highlights several significant areas of policymaking which have left rural communities disadvantaged due to a failure to “rural-proof” policy by taking account of the different circumstances outside of urban areas.
• Education: More small rural schools face eventual closure due to new funding rules which force councils to apply a standardised formula across all schools.
• Welfare: The so-called bedroom tax for those with spare rooms hits poorer households in rural areas especially hard because of the lack of smaller accommodation.
• Housing: The proposal to end the provision of affordable housing on sites of less than ten houses ignores the fact that the majority of rural housing is provided on small, private developer-led sites.
Mr Garrod said: “Young people in rural areas are facing the closure of their local schools, then being priced out of the housing market. it’s time that rural communities across the UK got a better deal from Westminster.
“We’ve published this paper as a call for Government to give greater weight to rural issues when making policy.”
The CRE also recommends that policymakers ensure regional growth bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities have a strong rural remit to reflect the diversity of rural businesses.