Closing rural-urban divide can deliver huge gains, says report

A cross-party parliamentary group has slammed current rural policy, and urged the government to close the multibillion-pound gap between town and country economies.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Rural Powerhouse claims levelling up town and country policy could generate an extra £43bn/year in England alone. 

See also: Johnson losing support in rural heartlands, poll shows

A report on the issue, Levelling up the Rural Economy, written by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) for the APPG, canvassed 50 bodies for their views.

The overwhelming consensus was that no government in recent memory had devised policies to unlock rural economic and social potential.

Instead, successive administrations have overlooked rural issues and focused on urban policy, the report said.

The report compared rural and urban areas and found:

  • Rural jobs pay less
  • Rural homes cost more
  • Poverty is dispersed, making it difficult to target
  • Depth of fuel poverty is more extreme
  • Only 46% in rural areas have 4G mobile signals
  • Skills training and public services are harder to access
  • Rural economy is 18% less productive than the national average
  • Gap worth up to £43bn in England alone
  • Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic make the need to grow the rural economy more important.

A section on farming within the report highlighted post-Brexit policy, including the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme and immigration laws that had left businesses without labour.

It concluded that the government had created agricultural policies that failed to support farm businesses and exposed them to competition under foreign trade deals.

It added that Defra’s departmental remit needed revamping because it lacked policy powers to effect change.

More widely for the rural population, the report pointed to an unsupportive planning system and a tax regime that disincentivised business investment and diversification.

Key policy reforms to boost rural productivity

  • Planning Small-scale development in areas with populations of less than 3,000 people with affordable housing prioritised under the National Planning Policy Framework
  • Whitehall Ministerial-led, cross-departmental working group to implement measures that boost rural productivity. Defra’s objectives should be re-examined to include rural productivity
  • Farming The Seasonal Workers Scheme should be extended with visas available for 80,000 workers. Low pricing in supply chains tackled by implementing the Agriculture Act 2020’s regulations. Ensure the Future Farming Resilience Fund means farmers can access high-quality advice. Appoint a team of specialist agricultural attachés to every UK delegation negotiating a free-trade agreement
  • Tax Simplifying the tax system for diversified businesses through the Rural Business Unit would reduce bureaucracy and remove hurdles to new business growth
  • Connectivity Create a plan for the 15% hardest-to-reach houses, with tangible targets for those left behind
  • Skills The government must provide vouchers for rural enterprises to stimulate demand for business, technical, and environmental training, and build a natural capital skills strategy to identify skills shortages and how to close them

CLA president Mark Tufnell said the country could no longer afford to ignore the potential of the rural economy and the prospects of the millions of people who live within it.

“Rural businesses are ready to expand, creating good jobs and opportunities for people from all walks of life – but a lack of interest from government is holding them back,” Mr Tufnell said.

“Homes are often unaffordable for local families. Well-paid jobs can be scarce. And broadband can be painfully slow. All this leads to an exodus of talented people, who are too often forced to move to more urban areas,” he stressed.

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