Rural economies like East Devon have been ‘ignored’ and ‘under-rated’ for too long. Doing nothing is ‘not an option’, the House of Lords Select Committee for the Rural Economy has told the government.
It is calling for the gap between urban and rural areas to be closed with a bold new vision for the countryside. The committee wants to see a rural strategy developed to reverse the impact of years of neglect.
The committee has set out an action plan for the government to consider which, it says, will enable rural economies to realise their full potential.
One of the key clarion calls is for ministers to bring forward a consultation on the Shared Prosperity Fund “as soon as possible”. The committee says much more information is needed on its proposed scope to enable rural businesses and communities to begin planning for the future
Lord Foster of Bath, the committee’s chairman, said: “Rural communities and the economies in them have been ignored and underrated for too long. We must act now to reverse this trend, but we can no longer allow the clear inequalities between the urban and rural to continue unchecked.
“A rural strategy would address challenges and realise potential in struggling and under-performing areas, and allow vibrant and thriving areas to develop further. Doing nothing is not an option.”
The report states: “Rural economies are facing significant opportunities and challenges. Issues including the UK’s impending departure from the EU, cuts to local authorities’ budgets, digital connectivity, affordable housing, and an ageing rural population make this an ideal moment for the Government to develop a comprehensive rural strategy, to set out its ambition for rural areas.
“The Government needs to rethink and reform the rural proofing process to ensure that relevant policies and legislation are attuned to the needs of rural communities and rural economies.
“Local Government and other public bodies should develop their own local rural strategies consistent with the Government framework, and be responsible and accountable for their implementation.”
Place-based approach to rural economies
The committee says that, to be effective, it is crucial that new policies are delivered locally using a place-based approach. It should include effective partnership working from all relevant public, private and voluntary bodies, driven by the nature of each local area and with active community participation, breaking down the silos that too often characterise rural policy.
A Fair Funding Review must ensure that rural local authorities are properly compensated for the additional costs of service provision, and that rural areas are fairly treated in future funding settlements, says the report.
It is suggested that national and local government should review their procurement policies to ensure that small and local organisations have the genuine ability to bid for the delivery of services.
On the topic of digital connectivity, the report states: “Government should direct Ofcom to conduct a review of the Universal Services Obligation as soon as possible, focusing on what minimum commitment would be needed to sustain and support rural businesses and communities, especially in remoter areas, and including both download and upload speeds.
“Ofcom should also re-assess the £3,400 payment threshold so that rural homes and businesses are not excluded. This must include consideration of home workers and businesses operating from home in remote areas.
“We welcome the proposal that Ofcom should review the option of introducing roaming in rural areas to address partial not-spots and would urge them to begin this review as a matter of urgency. Government and Ofcom should also encourage mobile network operators to share transmission masts more often in appropriate rural locations.”
End to council house sales?
On housing and planning, the committee suggests the government should provide a full and comprehensive exemption for all rural areas from the policy to limit affordable housing contributions on small sites.
The report states: “Government should consider suspending the local authority Right to Buy or making it voluntary for local authorities in specific locations, to ensure that much-needed affordable housing is not lost where it would be difficult or impractical to replace it.
“Government should revisit the merits of a spatial plan for England, particularly as it relates to rural areas, to ensure that planning policy operates in a framework where land use priorities are properly considered above the local level.”
On the topic of skills and business support, Lords want a review to consider the impact that the revaluation and current multiplier levels for business rates are having on rural businesses.
Their report states: “There is also an urgent need to review the impact of small business and rural rate relief provisions on rural pubs, local shops and other businesses.
“The government should investigate whether the current tax system is putting off farmers and rural small businesses from investing in diversification. As part of its review into tenancy agreements, the Government should also address restrictions on tenant farmers that may prevent diversification.”
Rural transport and crime
Last but not least, public transport, rural crime and health services get a mention. The committee has called for a “full review of funding streams to rural public transport”.
It says: “The aspiration should be to develop a ‘single transport investment pot’ that could be used to better support rural transport using a place-based approach.
“More needs to be done by Government to better understand, track and respond to rural criminality.
government must ensure that the challenges and costs of providing health services in rural areas are properly reflected in funding allocations to Clinical Commissioning Groups.”