RURAL COMMUNITIES risk being left behind unless investment concerns are addressed, said former Yorkshire MP Anne McIntosh, who called for a ‘rural deal’ to rival those on offer from the government to cities.
Miss McIntosh believes not all options for driving prosperity in rural communities are being debated and fears rural areas could be sidelined by the Chancellor George Osborne’s vision to create a “northern powerhouse” by devolving powers to a belt of northern cities, running from Liverpool to Hull.
The former Conservative MP for Thirsk, Malton and Filey, Miss McIntosh, was involved in fresh talks to explore the issues hindering progress in rural parts of Yorkshire at Ripon Cathedral last week. The seminar followed a rural exodus summit held by The Yorkshire Post in Richmondshire in November.
Speaking yesterday, Miss McIntosh said the failure to deliver broadband to the hardest to reach areas was a crucial concern which was amplified recently following the abandonment of the Rural Payment Agency’s new online-only EU payments application process.
She said: “Until we improve broadband connectivity and telephone reception in rural areas we are not allowing our farms and rural businesses to prosper.”
The former chairman of the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee called for a rural deal similar to the ‘City Deals’, which aim to give cities more powers over how public money should be spent. A rural package could unlock investment in rural broadband connectivity and see better protection of bus services, she said.
As a predominantly rural county, North Yorkshire would stand to benefit.
“Eleven per cent of the population of Yorkshire live in North Yorkshire, so surely North Yorkshire should have an 11 per cent share of the budget (government funds given to Yorkshire). This would kickstart all sorts of infrastructure projects.
“There is a fear that transport funding will be focused on cities in the future as part of the Northern Powerhouse.”
A way of compensating for shrinking bus budgets could be the introduction of a charge to older people in exchange for free bus passes, she said, adding that community-run transport schemes run by volunteers in isolated rural areas were attractive but can be tricky to establish.
Leah Swain, chief officer at Rural Action Yorkshire, who also spoke at the meeting in Ripon, sounded a note of caution over the financial implications to rural areas over a British exit from the EU, with the government’s in-out referendum due by the end of 2017. She said: “The money ring-fenced by the EU for rural won’t necessarily be ring-fenced by the government if we exited the EU. We saw how few references there were to rural issues in the election manifestos.”
Miss McIntosh said a ‘Plan B’ should be properly explored ahead of the referendum, adding: “We would still have to meet EU rules on trade so we need to know what the Plan B would look like.”
Mrs Swain said debates such as those at Ripon Cathedral were important: “It means I have the views of rural residents that I can use in reports to Defra and other bodies, to add weight to our arguments on rural policies.”