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Levelling Up in Rural Areas

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Fay Jones

MP for Brecon and Radnorshire and Assistant Government Whip

MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, Fay Jones writes exclusively for Chamber on the unique challenges facing rural communities when it comes to levelling up. This article will feature in Chamber’s upcoming December journal, alongside exclusive op-eds on levelling up from the Prime Minister and the Shadow Levelling Up Secretary. To register to receive your free copy, sign up here.

The Conservative Party was elected on the promise of delivering for all corners of the country. The 2019 election showed that areas left behind by Labour wanted a new vision for the future. The Levelling Up Bill is a landmark piece of legislation that guarantees the same economic opportunities for individuals living all over the country. Levelling up is ambitious and thorough. It is an economic and social mission that will ensure that the United Kingdom unlocks its full potential and provides an equitable foundation for future generations and emboldens areas of the country that are at risk of being left behind by Labour.

The UK is made up of different areas with different priorities and so, diversity of thought in implementing the levelling up agenda is needed. I represent one of the most rural constituencies in the UK, and levelling up here looks and acts differently. Brecon and Radnorshire is predominantly an agricultural constituency, its priorities are significantly different from more urban areas.

rural area brecon and radnorshire
Brecon and Radnorshire

Barriers to productivity in rural areas

The rural economy has benefitted from direct government investment via the Levelling Up Bill. This has been fantastic for rural areas that are seeing much-needed investment in their local infrastructure projects. However, there are significant barriers to productivity in rural areas. The lack of housing for both domestic and commercial use is an example of one such bottleneck.

Planning policy needs to frequently evolve and adapt to meet modern needs. The UK Government planning policy remains rooted in the Town and Country Planning Act (1990) evolving over the years via the Planning Act (2008) and later, the Localism Act (2011) yet the planning system presents challenges for those living and working in rural areas. This is an additionally complicated picture in Wales, where, despite Wales sitting underneath several national planning laws, elements are devolved to the Welsh Government. A local lens does lend itself positively to any proposed building, however, Wales’ planning system is overly centralised in the Welsh Government. Their lack of engagement with local councils limits their understanding of community needs. This presents obstacles to building, and further, coupled with their ability to override community objections, does not lend itself to growth. We want to avoid an overly centralised system and instead hear residents’ concerns, carrying them with us from conception to development.

This muddled picture threatens to limit economic productivity. We do need to build, but more importantly, to build mindfully.

Ending the ‘brain drain’

One of the greatest challenges facing my constituency is that young people move away for a myriad of reasons. Colloquially known as the ‘brain drain’, young people leave rural areas due to a lack of overall infrastructure. This phenomenon is difficult to prevent, however, some levers can be pulled to retain talent whilst bolstering economic productivity. Revising our planning policy is an example of such a lever. Bolstering our housing stock encourages individuals to stay and put roots down, all the while contributing to local communities economically and socially. Despite the simplicity of the statement ‘build more houses’, this does not transfer well in practice.

The Government is right to recognise that local areas need to have autonomy of their own planning needs, and so, understands that planning policy must be considered as a learned opportunity. There are many examples across the country of councils retaining planning autonomy and implementing it effectively. The needs of Essex and Cornwall are different and their localised planning bodies reflect this. The success of Beaulieu Park in Chelmsford, Essex, is an example of the success of building in keeping with the area’s needs, all while considering local residents’ opinions.

Tees Valley is another fantastic example of levelling up in action. This Government awarded the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and the Tees Valley combined authorities £30 million in funding to regenerate brownfield sites across the three regions and create 2,500 new homes. The success of Tees Valley highlights this Government’s commitment to practical levelling up. Increasing home ownership, bolstering local economies and investing in local communities is a priority of this Government. The Government has a robust record of protecting green belt land and balancing environmental standards with planning reform a commitment that I welcome.

Naturally, brownfield sites are not common in Brecon and Radnorshire, and so, the hesitancy to build is centred more on the availability of land and environmental protection. Constituents’ concerns must be considered in order for the whole community to support the redevelopment. The Welsh Government would be wise to recognise the benefit of a council-led approach to the planning. Rather than overriding local authority interests, it is vital that levelling up considers the local expertise of those who live there.

Our Prime Minister has stated that planning policy will be rightfully reviewed, and I look forward to the Government’s plan on this. He is right that developers should build on unused land before they are granted planning permission for any more plots, and that we should establish an “infrastructure first guarantee” to ensure that all new homes are supported by enough local GP capacity, schools and road networks.

Find out more about Curia’s Levelling Up Commission here.

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