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Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
12:04 PM 4th March 2021
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Government Urged To “Give People In Villages The Same Opportunity As Those Living In Bigger Towns And Cities”

Keswick - Pixabay
Keswick - Pixabay
MPs, peers and others joined forces to call for rural-urban parity at a conference this week,

Rural areas are poised to play a key role in building back better if the Government adopts an approach that sees “parity of investment in core public services and growth enhancing investment”, MPs, peers and other delegates told a conference earlier this week, while warning that Britain’s post-Covid recovery risked being weakened by poor connectivity and other challenges across key regions of the country.

Image: Welcome To Yorkshire
Image: Welcome To Yorkshire
The greater acceptance of remote working brought about by the pandemic has “shaken the faith that cities are the solitary engines of economic growth”, Professor Jeremy Phillipson, Director of the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise told the Rural Services Network (RSN) event earlier this week. Yet he and others warned that rural areas may be hamstrung from taking advantage of the reduced need for people to live in cities for work, because of poor investment in core services including transport, infrastructure and housing.

Professor Phillipson noted, poor rural connectivity has already “inhibited the ability of rural firms to reorient to online during the pandemic”.

Speakers at the select committee-style hearing included Parliamentarians, the chair of the Affordable Housing Commission, the former lead for rural housing at the National Housing Federation and BT Group’s Director of Policy and Public Affairs.

Speakers including Lord Foster of Bath, Chair of the former House of Lords Select Committee into the Rural Economy Committee, and Nigel Wilcock, Institute for Economic Development called for rural public services to be “fairly funded” to ensure that rural areas are not left behind in levelling-up post-pandemic. They warned that towns and villages are disadvantaged by public funding allocations for core services and economic growth, and stressed that to close the productivity gap between the rural and urban economy, support is needed to build an infrastructure that creates better paid and more secure jobs post-Covid.

The event came ahead of the Budget, in which the Chancellor did not specifically address rural issues, but announced measures to extend Covid support measures for business and individuals beyond the dates in the road map to recovery, along with the prospectus for the £4.8bm Levelling Up Fund, which will consider ‘need for economic recovery, regeneration and improved connectivity’. Without seeing the information on which decisions are made as to which areas will get support it is impossible to see if there has been any rural proofing. Other measures of relevance to rural areas include a new £150m fund to allow communities to take ownership of pubs, theatres, shops or sports clubs at risk of closure, and a National Infrastructure Commission Towns and Regeneration study looking at maximising ‘the benefits of infrastructure policy and investment for towns’.

Philip Dunne MP
Philip Dunne MP
Philip Dunne MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and the APPG for Rural Services, who chaired the event, said: "It has been a really fascinating launch, what has shone out for me is the need to keep banging the rural drum to make clear to all government departments and most notably the Treasury the need to ensure rural voices are taken into account when determining policy.

"Every aspect of life has a rural element, yet most policies are determined by civil servants thinking from the big picture, from the large impact on large populations which by definition are urban orientated. We can all think of examples about how challenging it is to make existing policy fit with the specific aspects of rural life. The Revitalising Rural Campaign is a live tool which adapts and changes and is regularly updated by the Rural Services Network and provides lots of ideas which many of us are already using and advocating at a national level”.

Image: Welcome To Yorkshire
Image: Welcome To Yorkshire
His comments come as RSN launched its Revitalising Rural: Realising the Vision campaign, which is urging the Government to give rural communities the consideration they deserve in post-pandemic policy making. With equitable funding and support, people living outside major cities in England will be empowered to fully contribute to the country’s socio-economic recovery in the months and years to come.

The campaign comes in the wake of the announcement of the final Local Government Finance Settlement for 2021-2022. Under this, urban areas in 2021-2022 will receive some 61% of (£107) more per head in Settlement Funding Assessment more than their rural counterparts who will, on average, pay £96 more per head in Council Tax than urban residents.
Panellists at the event raised a number of challenges, including that:

Travel times: According to the RSN, travel times for getting to GPs, workplaces and colleges are “typically double” in rural areas. Rob Butler MP said, “Not surprisingly, this is all a major concern for my constituents, and has been illustrated in recent weeks with the rollout of the Covid vaccine; while we have three excellent vaccination sites in Aylesbury, many of those at the top of the list to be vaccinated did not have their own means of getting to them. As ever, the local community rallied around, and a combination of community buses, cheap or free taxis and neighbours helping out ensured people received their potentially life-saving jabs.”

Moreover, Bill Freeman, CEO of Community Transport Association warned that services in rural areas can be more expensive with the breadth of provision required, compared to urban areas. RSN figures show that local authorities in rural areas have less money available for buses, with urban councils spending five times that of rural councils on supported bus routes. From 2009-2019, funding for rural bus services has fallen 43% in real terms.

Housing: The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the rural housing market on its head, as city-dwellers have flocked to the countryside in pursuit of more space and to take advantage of the stamp duty holiday, forcing property prices up, said Ed Buscall Chair of Hastoe Housing Association. Excluding London, the average house is £90,000 more expensive in rural areas than urban areas. Many rents are also unaffordable for those on local wages.

Economy and Connectivity:
Director for Strategy and Communication at Cornwall Council and from Britain’s Leading Edge called for a “place-based approach” to delivery taking to account the differences in economies, including the bringing forwards of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund consultation.

Richard Wainer, Director of Policy and Public Affairs, Networks at BT Group called on the Government to provide “clarity on the size and shape of the fibre funding programme and to remove deployment barriers” to address connectivity issues for rural residents and businesses in hard-to-reach areas where commercial investment won’t reach.

Image: Welcome To Yorkshire
Image: Welcome To Yorkshire
Jessie Hamshar, Director for Strategy and Communication at Cornwall Council and from Britain’s Leading Edge said: “The powerful role rural areas play in building back better in a greener economy, needs recognition backed by parity of investment for each person in terms of core public services and also in growth enhancing expenditure This must be managed by local control over how this is used, recognising that not all places are the same.”

She called for recognition that people in peripheral areas feel least well served by “our very centralised decision making” and actively want more decisions to be made locally over the issues that affect them most, so that investment can target unique local opportunities.

“Peripheral areas represent 11% of England’s total population and account for 8% of England’s GVA, which is equivalent to England’s core cities, which just goes to show the opportunity there is for unleashing the rural economy to power a green, decarbonised, decentralised future economy for the nation.”

Graham Biggs, Chief Executive of the Rural Services Network, said: "Over decades, Rural areas must be supported to level up. Many rural places have lost out, not least in terms of employment opportunities, key service provision, transport networks and affordable housing, and COVID-19 has exasperated this. Too often rural areas have been overlooked by policies which targeted large urban centres. On many policy agendas, rural areas are handicapped by public funding allocations that work against them.

Image: Welcome To Yorkshire
Image: Welcome To Yorkshire
“Moreover, rural communities across the country must be supported to contribute fully to the Government’s 2050 target for the country to become net zero for greenhouse gases, to shape ambitious policies for housing, transport and energy production in rural areas. To make rural communities sustainable, the Government must seize this opportunity to work with campaigners and stakeholders to ensure the rural economy is not forgotten but is revitalised.”

The Revitalising Rural document, entailing 14 policy areas the Government must address in order to Revitalise Rural communities in the UK, can now be accessed here: https://www.rsnonline.org.uk/revitalising-rural.