Farming feature: Huge rural-urban cash divide comes under fire in new report
- Credit: Su Anderson
Rural communities in Suffolk, Essex and the rest of England are being short-changed by government and therefore failing to fulfil their huge economic potential, according to a hard-hitting report.
The House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy has published a report on England’s rural economy described by its Suffolk-based committee chair, Lord Foster of Bath, as “a wake-up call to government”.
Lord Foster, who lives in Westleton, near Leiston, hopes the document, which he has worked on with committee members over the past year, will provide a ‘rallying point’ for rural communities.
MORE – East Anglia’s farmers are ‘still dealing with effects of 2018 summer drought’“Certainly, my own knowledge of Suffolk, and particularly the area I live in, is exemplified by a lot of thinking in the report,” he said. “We are basically saying rural areas, including Suffolk, have really lost out because successive governments haven’t really understood rural areas, nor have they understood how rural economies can contribute to the national economy.”
As a rural Suffolk resident, he believes the countryside offers “an exceptional quality of life”, he said, underpinned by an often vibrant rural economy “with agriculture still at its heart but now hosting an increasingly diverse range of businesses and industries”.
“But the potential of rural economies is being severely undermined by the inattention and apathy of successive governments and a funding regime which disadvantages rural areas,” he said.
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“There is a serious risk that without action, the countryside will fall behind and its economies will be stifled, with knock-on effects for rural dwellers and the country as a whole. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Lord Foster, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, moved to Suffolk three years ago with his late wife to be nearer to their daughter and adopted it as his home.
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He pointed up the stark gap highlighted in the report between support for urban dwellers over their rural counterparts. Despite the higher costs involved in rural living due to distances from services and other disadvantages, rural people faced a huge deficit in support. Urban areas got 23% more funding per head for policing, 40% more for health, 45% more for local government services and a staggering 400% more in business subsidies. Meanwhile, rural dwellers paid about 17% more on average in council tax for those lesser services.
Governments had also failed to understand that while agriculture remained the backbone of the rural economy, there was a diverse array of businesses which contributed heavily too, he said.
But these faced bigger obstacles, including poorer services, such as the ‘digital divide’ in broadband and mobile infrastructure quality, poor public transport, skills shortages - and the high cost of homes and lack of affordable ones, which meant that the rural economy was effectively under-performing or not reaching its full potential.
“In Suffolk the average wages in rural areas are lower than in urban areas but the price of housing is higher than in urban areas,” said Lord Foster. “In many parts of Suffolk where there’s only one mobile phone operator if you are on a different operator you can’t get a signal.”
One area that could be looked at is mobile roaming for rural areas, he said.
The report calls for a new ‘rural strategy’ to mirror the government’s industrial strategy, and properly thought-out ‘rural proofing’ right at the start of policy-making so that rural areas aren’t disadvantaged by new measures.
While rural England makes up about 90% of the country’s land mass, and is home to about 17% of the population, its contribution to the national economy falls short at around 15 to 16%. “It’s under-delivering at the moment, and we believe it can deliver significantly momre if it’s given appropriate support,” said Lord Foster.
Government, councils, and bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships all needed to do their bit to address the imbalance, he said. A government intention to replace what will be lost through Brexit from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with a ‘shared prosperity fund’ had still to be clarified, he said. “Farmers in Suffolk and rural businesses in Suffolk are jumping up and down saying: ‘We need to know what that looks like,’” he said.
“A key message we heard was that government rural policy lacks direction and that rural priorities are too often sidelined nationally. So our report calls for a comprehensive national-level rural strategy, to be delivered locally with the full involvement of local communities, councils and businesses, and with a particular focus on the character of each rural place,” he said.
“The rural economy will always play a major role in rural prosperity, and we are highly optimistic that with the right interventions this prosperity will be secured for the future.”