RURAL businesses are struggling against a catalogue of handicaps and the Government needs to do more to help, according to the Federation of Small Businesses.
Poor transport and communications infrastructure, the purchasing power of big business and the closure of key services are just some of the challenges making life more difficult for firms outside the urban areas.
Simon Williams, North Yorkshire regional chairman at the FSB, said that small rural businesses were the driving force behind viable communities in the countryside, but that the odds were stacked against them.
“Rural businesses face challenges not encountered by their urban counterparts,” he said.
“They struggle against the odds of poor communications, unreliable broadband services, and patchy, un-integrated transport services.
“Market towns and village centres have declined, with the onslaught of supermarkets and closure of anchor businesses such as the village pub and post office.”
The answer, he said, was better Government support.
“Government needs to put in place policies that ensure rural firms are served by their local authorities.
“This includes local authorities being innovative and flexible in their use of business rates, creative and forward-thinking in their approach to parking and market town regeneration and delivering a planning system that is responsive to small businesses’ needs – allowing them to play their part in creating vibrant rural communities.”
David Cutter, chief executive of Skipton Building Society, lists yet more challenges, and agrees that Government has a role to play in helping the rural economy stay afloat.
“New start-ups in particular face additional challenges such as the cost of premises, technical isolation – including access to vital high-speed broadband connections – and physical isolation, as they don’t have access to the same vital networking opportunities as those in cities,” he said.
“Many rural business communities are doing as much as possible to help overcome these issues themselves, and the Skipton and Ripon Enterprise Group, of which Skipton Building Society is a founder member, garners a range of established businesses to offer vital mentoring support to those just starting out.
“However, it would be great if the Government could earmark a proportion of its business support funding to help voluntary collaborations like SREG to provide even more tangible assistance to worthy fledgling enterprises.
“We’d also like to see it support our endeavours through steps such as incentivising telecoms companies to prioritise rural high-speed broadband rollout on an equal footing with urban conurbations.”
The broadband issue has been a hot potato for some years, but much headway has been made over the last three years. Not so long ago, there were abysmally slow connections across much of the region’s most rural county, North Yorkshire, but it now has the best rate of broadband coverage in the country.
Superfast North Yorkshire (SFNY) is the public-private partnership tasked with rolling out high-speed broadband to “commercially unviable” areas aims to achieve 100 per cent coverage by 2017 – a target that would have seemed foolishly ambitious just five years ago – and will hit the 90 per cent mark this October.
“We will do it,” said SFNY chief executive John Moore.
“People said we wouldn’t do what we’ve done, but we did. I am absolutely confident we’ll get to 100 per cent by 2017.”
The Institute of Directors sees the main challenge as recruiting and retaining the right talent.