The All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse has published a new report, warning that the rural economy is being held back by the lack of affordable housing, substandard public transport and poor broadband connection.
The cross-party group found the rural economy to be 18% less productive than the national average, and that a reduction in this gap could add £43 billion to the UK economy. Commenting on the findings of the report, the co-Chairman of the APPG, Lord Cameron of Dillington said, “It is vital that government understands that rural Britain is not a museum, but deserves the chance to succeed.”
The wide-ranging report called for reforms in areas including planning, tax, connectivity, farming and skills, calling for the Government to “establish a ministerial-led, cross-departmental working group with a specific remit to create and deliver policies designed to improve productivity across the rural economy.”
The inquiry found systemic issues in government’s approach to designing policy for rural areas:
“matters affecting the rural economy often fell between the cracks of Whitehall and departments. Many ministers and officials simply assume that Defra is responsible for the countryside and ignore it as a result. But Defra simply does not have the policy levers at its disposal to implement many of the ideas necessary to grow the economy in rural areas.”
One of the key findings of the report was around the poor digital infrastructure in rural areas, which was putting off businesses from moving to or indeed setting up in the countryside. The report estimates the value of UK-wide fibre connectivity to be £59 billion, meaning that, in any attempts to close the productivity gap between rural and urban areas, reducing the digital divide is an essential place to start.
In response to the publishing of the report, Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Benyon said:
“We welcome this report and its recommendations. Rural areas are at the heart of our vision for levelling up; I want businesses and people in remote areas to do as well as those in inner cities. We are providing funding to put in place the infrastructure that rural areas need, and the public services and opportunities that they deserve. We have already announced over £2.6 billion via the UK shared Prosperity Fund, and we will be saying more about rural funding shortly.”
If the Levelling Up agenda is to deliver what the Government hopes, then rural communities cannot be forgotten. While Levelling Up is often thought of in terms of developing urban centres beyond just London, many in rural communities lack basic infrastructure that urban areas take for granted, including strong public transport networks, local hospitals and broadband connectivity.
The findings of this report highlight not just the benefits that a concerted effort on developing the rural economy can bring to rural areas, but also to the wider UK economy. As the Government moves forward in the delivery of the Levelling Up agenda, this must be a key area of focus if regional inequalities are to be effectively addressed.