Published:

Mark Tufnell, President of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA)

If the Government was looking for a yardstick to assess support levels in its ‘heartland’ rural areas, the frankly humiliating loss of North Shropshire last December certainly should have done the trick.

But the publication of the highly-anticipated ‘Levelling Up’ whitepaper this month confirmed that they have failed to take any meaningful lessons from the defeat, risking compounding the narrative that this Government simply does not understand the countryside, its people, or their aspirations.

This was, after all, meant to be a seminal moment, where growth and prosperity would finally come to all those left behind places. In the end, it was little more than a compendium of rehashed money, more devolution, and vague aspirations.

What is so frustrating is that the need for a robust, ambitious and detailed plan for sharing economic prosperity is desperately needed – yes for the red wall, but also for the countryside too.  Rural jobs are paid less while rural homes are more expensive. That is a recipe for social decline.

The rural economy is 18 per cent less productive than the national average. But instead of bemoaning the fact, we should rejoice in the idea that with the right policies, there is significant economic potential to the countryside.

The lazy stereotype is that rural communities are wealthy and ‘quaint’ with little need of investment or support. However, the reality is that many of the UK’s poorest regions are predominantly rural – Cornwall, West Wales and North Lincolnshire to name a few. As Conservatives focus on keeping hold of former Labour strongholds, promises made to long standing ‘blue’ rural communities, such as fast broadband and an improved planning system, have failed to materialise.

Nearly half a million homes and around 125,000 businesses in rural areas have poor or slow broadband, and Ofcom figures show 4G data coverage at 86 per cent in urban areas vs 46 per cent in rural areas. Without strong connectivity, full access to an increasingly digital economy has remained out of reach for discontented voters.

Meanwhile, across the country, the planning regime feels almost designed to hold the rural economy back.  Farmers wishing to convert disused old buildings into modern office space for small local businesses are often prevented from doing so.  Small scale housing developments of a dozen or so houses, that would actively strengthen small communities without changing their character, are routinely rejected.

These issues help to create a vast productivity gap. But closing this gap through targeted and often low-cost policy interventions would add an estimated £43bn to the national economy, creating thousands of good, skilled jobs in areas often blighted by underemployment and low wages.

We urgently need the Government to show some ambition for economic development in rural areas. And at the heart of that ambition should be encouraging entrepreneurship.

Allowing farmers who wish to diversify to operate multiple businesses as a single entity for tax purposes would encourage local investment, reducing bureaucracy without reducing tax take. Pubs that have closed due to a lack of viability should be given permitted development rights, allowing the buildings to be used as rural business hubs for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Government should unlock the investment required to deliver the much-talked about improvements to internet access now, not in four years’ time.

Meanwhile, encouraging private investment in ‘natural capital’ and carbon sequestration would put the UK at the forefront of delivering environmental land management.

Much of the Government’s rural focus is on farming. This is necessary given the immense changes taking in post-Brexit agriculture. DEFRA’s replacement for the old EU farm subsidies is beginning to take shape, and while farmers continue to have concerns about the transition towards a new agricultural policy, at least we can see the direction of travel.

But the rural economy is so much more than farming. Indeed, 85 per cent of businesses in rural England are not engaged with farming, fisheries or forestry. Country Land and Business Association members run upwards of 250 different types of business, including renewable energy production, manufacturing, tourism and wedding venues.

They have the potential and the willingness to create jobs, spread prosperity and opportunity.  They just need a government to match their ambition – or their votes will go elsewhere.

Indeed, that is already happening, and not just in Shropshire. A recent poll found that farmers’ support for the Conservatives has slipped from 72 percent to 57 percent.  Alarm bells should be ringing in Number 10.

The message should be clear to Government: ‘Levelling Up’ is a good agenda, a noble one even; but it must apply to the countryside too – and that means taking the White Paper back to the drawing board.