Elizabeth Truss is Conservative MP for South West Norfolk and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
As well as having some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, rural Britain is an entrepreneurial powerhouse. It is home to 26 per cent of English businesses, despite having only 18 per cent of the population. There are proportionately more start-ups in the countryside than there are in towns and cities outside London. Industries like IT and consultancy are among the fastest-growing. Technology is also transforming farming, the most traditional rural business. Our farmers and food businesses are now among the most competitive in the world. Today new government analysis shows an even brighter future. Productivity could grow faster in rural areas than in cities over the next decade thanks to expanding superfast broadband and transport links. This could bring an extra 300,000 jobs, as well as higher wages.
It’s time the countryside got the attention it deserves. Under Labour, rural areas were ignored, with funding skewed towards urban centres. Connectivity was poor. Important road projects were cancelled. Cool Britannia didn’t recognise the economic value of the countryside or its vital national role. Time was called on thousands of village pubs, cherished rural Post Offices were closed and fox hunting was banned. Labour did not act over the spread of Bovine TB, resulting in the highest levels of the disease in Europe – threatening the future of our dairy and beef industries.
Under this Government rural Britain is getting its fair share. Schools funding for 2015-16 includes an additional £390 million for the least fairly funded areas in England. Cambridgeshire and Northumberland will receive an additional £311 and £307 per pupil respectively. Rural businesses have benefited from the cutting of income tax for 27 million taxpayers since 2010 and giving every company and charity a £2,000 employment allowance, benefiting over 1.25 million employers, more than 90 per cent of them in small businesses. We have supported small pubs by scrapping Labour’s unfair cider tax; cutting beer duty and scrapping the duty escalator; giving local residents a community right to buy their local pubs; and allowing flexibility for agricultural buildings to be used as home businesses.
We are also ensuring the countryside gets the most modern infrastructure. This month’s Autumn statement included £2 billion to dual the whole A303 and A358 between Cornwall and London. On December 12th, we opened the fully dualled A11, which is vital for growth and jobs in Norfolk and Suffolk. In the Victorian era, it was new railway lines binding once-remote places together. These days, it is fibre-optic cables. In 2010, superfast broadband was available to just 45 per cent of properties. That has now gone up to 73 per cent and will hit 95 per cent by the end of 2017. We are working on connecting the final 5 per cent. We are also investing to get rid of mobile phone not-spots in the countryside. It is also cheaper and easier to get around in rural areas. Our cancellation of Labour’s planned fuel duty increases has saved drivers about £9 every time they fill up.
This all means that increasingly people do not need to migrate to the city to run a successful business, indeed more than 40,000 a year net move in the opposite direction. Around 2 million work from home in the countryside either full- or part-time. Cornwall, one of the most wired counties, shows the advances broadband can spark. Headforwards, a company which develops software for the telecoms industry, attracts staff to its Redruth base, it says, by offering “a quality of life that is enviable”.
These new jobs are not being created at the expense of the beauty of the countryside. The British landscape has always been shaped by economic activity, since the building of stone field boundaries in the Land’s End peninsula, believed to be the oldest manmade structures in the world still in use. Today, 70 per cent of our land is farmland and agriculture still shapes the landscape. A healthy economy goes hand in hand with a healthy environment. It is because of a growing economy that landscape improvements can be funded. For example growing numbers of electricity cables are being dug underground rather than put on pylons. We are also building a tunnel for the section of the A303 past Stonehenge.
Food and farming is a core part of the rural economy, worth £100 billion and employing 1 in 8 people. Farmers in some sectors face low prices but global demand for food will grow strongly in the longer term and Britain is well positioned to take advantage. We have opened up more than 600 new markets leading to food and drink exports of £18.9 billion. Dairy exports have grown by 60 per cent since 2009 and we are selling tea to China and beer to Belgium. The unique character of foods like Wensleydale cheese, Cornish clotted cream and Melton Mowbray pork pies are a worldwide hit, particularly when backed up with the Union Flag, a mark of quality. Take Ilkley Brewery in West Yorkshire, for example: set up only five years ago by Chris Ives, it has grown to making 50,000 pints a week, selling to the bars of Tennessee and Georgia and around the world. Technology means that producers of local food and drink can sell online to customers anywhere, worldwide, taking their place in world export markets with our established global brands.
Agricultural businesses are developing exciting spin-offs. Herbert Engineering, based in the Norfolk Fens, took the technology they devised for sorting potatoes and turnips and developed it into airport scanning machines. Next time you see the scanner tray holding your coat being returned automatically along the conveyor belt, think Norfolk spuds.
All this stacks up to a fantastic future for the countryside, whether you are in Yorkshire, Somerset, Herefordshire or Sussex. Connected into the national and international economy, with some of the most beauty countryside in the world and part of a way of life that is integral to Britain – it’s not surprising more people want to be a part of it.