Jane Dodds MSLeader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
I am lucky enough to represent one of the most beautiful regions within the UK in my role as Senedd Member for Mid and West Wales. My region encompasses a vast portion of Wales, ranging from the Brecon Beacons in the South to Snowdonia in the North, from the coast of West Wales to the rolling hills of the Welsh Marches on the border with England.
Rural Wales is full of surprises and at the turn of the industrial revolution, it was a powerhouse in its own right. From the slate industry of North Wales to the wool and textile industry of Mid Wales and the fishing and shipbuilding industry of West Wales.
With the exception of agriculture, much of this industry has now disappeared and rural Wales has struggled to attract investment. Rural Wales, as with the wider rural UK, is often taken for granted by both the Welsh and UK Governments.
What does ‘levelling up’ mean for rural areas?
Historically dominated by the Conservative Party, rural areas have rarely been at the front and centre of the political narrative, nor have the challenges they face been adequately covered by the media. Even now, as Labour and the Conservatives battle it out over the meaning of ‘levelling up’, neither party outlines what this would mean for rural areas.
One of the main problems facing rural Wales is rising poverty and a lack of opportunity. The issue of poverty in rural areas is often masked by a perceived image of affluence and a culture of self-reliance in rural communities.
Some of the key drivers of rural poverty are poor access to diverse employment opportunities, dispersed public services, low-quality housing, high fuel and petrol costs, and a lack of public transport.
All of the above have helped fuel a vicious cycle of depopulation, whereby young people leave rural areas in increasing numbers due to a lack of opportunity. This leads to cuts in public services (most often allocated by population), which eventually causes even more people to leave an area, further contributing to ever-increasing deprivation. The ageing population has led to an extremely high demand for social care in rural Wales, further weakening already delicate healthcare provisions.
Although immense, these challenges are not insurmountable. With the right energy and investment, rural Wales can be viewed as an economic force.
Economic opportunities in Wales
One of the most promising opportunities for an economic rival in rural Wales has been the rise in home working following the aftermath of the pandemic. With many people fed up with the intensity of city life, the rise of home working has allowed professionals in a variety of industries to return home to rural areas and continue with their careers.
An obstacle to this opportunity, however, has been the poor state of telecommunications infrastructure across Wales, with both broadband speeds and coverage and, to a lesser extent, phone coverage remaining dramatically behind urban counterparts.
Telecommunications in Wales remains a reserved matter, meaning it is still under the responsibility of Westminster. Sadly, we have seen the current UK Government roll back on its promise to deliver ultra-fast broadband to all the UK by 2025, meaning rural Wales may continue to lag behind in an area that could revitalise its economy.
Another stumbling block to the revitalisation of rural Wales is transportation. Rural Wales is still primarily dependent on cars to go about life. With petrol and diesel prices increasing and already higher than in urban areas, the cost has placed a higher burden on family finances. Unfortunately, many are left with no alternative, with rural public transport options being limited or indeed, non-existent in many areas.
This doesn’t just impact finances, it is also contributing to a crisis in loneliness and poor access to public services, such as GPs. To solve this, we need to seriously consider the way we structure and fund bus services across Wales in the future.
Something I have called on the Welsh Government to enact is free public transport for the under 25s. Our plans would revitalise routes with low usage in rural areas and help to stem the tide of young people leaving rural areas.
Tackling rural fuel poverty
One other leading cause of deprivation in rural areas is poor housing and high energy costs. Even before the war in Ukraine, rural fuel poverty levels in Wales were at epidemic levels. The number of households living in fuel poverty in large parts of my own Senedd region of Mid & West Wales was estimated to be over 20% before the energy crisis.
There is a clear solution to this problem and that is a robust insulation programme. Currently, the Welsh Government’s insulation programme is estimated to take up to 135 years to insulate every fuel-poor household in Wales, this isn’t acceptable. That’s why the Welsh Liberal Democrats have proposed a £1.75 billion, five-year emergency insulation programme.
While an undoubtedly expensive programme, it would dramatically help reduce poverty in rural Wales and have a range of other benefits, including saving families over £600 a year, generating £2.2 billion for the Welsh economy, creating 10,000 jobs, tackling climate change and reducing the £67 million per year that NHS Wales spends on cold-related illnesses such as pneumonia.
Protecting the Welsh language
Finally, agriculture¾an industry that underpins all rural Wales¾is also under threat. Botched trade deals with Australia and New Zealand risk undermining local producers, including Welsh lamb farmers. This not only threatens the farmers and the wider rural economy but also the Welsh language. 42% of our farmers speak Welsh, as opposed to some 19% of the general population. They are the guardians of our language, our traditions and our culture. Anything that impacts the viability of our farming communities will eventually impact our language.
Like I stated at the start of this piece, the challenges facing rural Wales are immense but not insurmountable and I am convinced that the Welsh Liberal Democrats, who have our roots in rural Welsh communities, are well placed to help unlock the vast potential of rural Wales.