Cllr Kevin Beaty is the Leader of Eden Council.
It is great to see farming and the environment become a hot topic in the Brexit debate. Given that Whitehall ceded almost all responsibility for these areas of government to the EU over the past few decades, it’s hardly surprising they are important in the discussions around ‘taking back control’.
Michael Gove, as Environment Secretary, has placed some aspects of rural life at the centre of debate with some radical and broadly well received policy changes.
The real question here is what do we want from the countryside and rural areas? And perhaps fundamentally, what is the countryside for?
A playground for everyone? A carbon sink to placate our guilt at pumping out pollution? If these are the answers then go ahead – pay farmers to plant trees. But, that is not what rural life really is.
London is one of the world’s growing number of mega-cities – and provincial cities are also growing or even merging. Take the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge area; the wider area is largely rural, yet the area as a whole is recognised as a world beating intellectual and economic region.
I am the Leader of the most rural local authority in England, Eden District Council. We sit between the Tees Valley combined authority to the east, the nuclear developments on the industrial coast of Cumbria to the west , the ‘string of pearls’ of Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool to the south and the new ‘Borderlands’ cross border initiative and the Scottish central belt to the north. All these areas are around one and a half to two hours travel time from each other. A true hinterland wedged between two National Parks, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales.
I spend a good deal of my time fighting for better funding for our local services, consistently underfunded compared to our urban neighbours. I struggle with an outdated local government structure which is paralysed in a groundhog day of debate on whether to be unitary, combined or devolved. It sometimes feels like a battle between rural areas and our new metropolitan city regions which are often first in the queue for funding.
Government (of all different party colours) sometimes seems to have forgotten that people live and work and thrive in our rural areas, and we have so much to offer by way of our people, our resources (water and power), lifestyle and housing delivery. I don’t blame them, as part of the EU it was Brussels who set the rural agenda for the past thirty years.
Many of you will pass through my council area as you travel to Scotland or visit the Lakes or Dales via the west coast rail-line or the M6 motorway. We have amongst the lowest average wages in the UK, yet were reported as one of the happiest areas in the country – both of these from ONS surveys, so it’s true that money isn’t everything.
But, I return to my previous question: what is the countryside for?
For a start, its not just farming and the environment, although these interdependent things shape what you see and provide 60 per cent of the nations’ food. Agriculture and food are a larger industry than aerospace and car manufacturing combined so it’s encouraging to see a Government agri-tech strategy, but where is the ‘Rural Industrial Strategy’? In Eden we believe we have a big part to play in the Northern Powerhouse. We are strategically placed on the M6 trans-Pennine crossroads with the upgrade of the A66 trans-Pennine route makes us a great place to live and do business, especially if that business is logistics focused.
We believe the emerging technology of autonomous freight and increased broadband speeds will lead to our area being ever closer to the marketplace. In an era of flexible working why would you not want to live within minutes of the Lake District fells and Yorkshire Dales, work for the world beating nuclear tech industry or a high powered city firm, but be able to be in London for 9.15am by catching the 6am train?
The countryside delivers hugely for our urban areas – it negates pollution and can be a flood defence or a source of power and water. These aspects of natural capital are provided by and from the countryside so maybe we should be compensated for these to pay for our dilapidated infrastructure and support our services. Local government funding is based on population within an area, as is the funding for roads and crucially, more recently, the size of funding in devolution deals. Rural areas cover 85 per cent of the land mass with only 20 per cent of the population to pay for rural local government services like roads. Forty-four per cent of all road journeys are on rural roads (Source: Dept of Transport, excludes motorways), so you can see the potential for underfunding.
As well as providing natural capital, rural areas could solve the housing crisis by being a place where people live and work and connect with our cities, providing weekend respite and leisure in abundance.
Rural and urban in the UK should be one; not competing. We should be working together in a sense of common fellowship. Rural areas should be linked to their metropolitan neighbours to share the burden of health and infrastructure costs. If the ‘One Yorkshire Devo-Deal’ comes off it will be interesting to see if the rural and urban areas within it can work as one authority to do just that.
I am setting up a think tank to bring together the brightest and the best to discuss how, as our city regions grow, we can use the countryside as part of the wider economy to link together with the metropolitan cities, to be a part of a united country interlinked by technology, sharing a common history and source of governance. Urban and rural together.