'Lack of interest' in return of West Yorkshire rural forum from local leaders, claims councillor

A call to re-establish a rural forum for West Yorkshire to ensure the county's countryside areas are not left behind in terms of levelling up and measures to tackle climate change have been ignored by local council leaders, the Liberal Democrat leader on Leeds Council has claimed.

A farmer using an agriculture tractor ploughing a field near Garforth, West Yorkshire. Picture: James Hardisty

Councillor Stewart Golton, who represents the Rothwell ward and was his party’s candidate to be West Yorkshire Mayor, has written to local council leaders on the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) to make the case for the new group. The letter is jointly signed by fellow Liberal Democrat John Lawson, who sits on the WYCA board.

Their letter notes that West Yorkshire had a Rural Partnership group which was disbanded in 2009 due to stretched budgets and added the success of similar organisations in other parts of Yorkshire show the value of bringing it back in a new form.

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The letter was sent to WYCA board members in August and Coun Golton had hoped it would be discussed at this week’s board meeting but he said he had been sent no response about the matter.

Stewart Golton wants a new West Yorkshire Rural Forum to be established.

Coun Golton said the only positive response he has had to date is from Conservative WYCA opposition member Matthew Robinson and he was disappointed not to have heard back from local Labour council leaders about the idea.

“The lack of interest from West Yorkshire council leaders on the Combined Authority is alarming,” he said.

“West Yorkshire leaders are in danger of continuing to put all its economic eggs in one basket by relying on urban, city centre focussed growth.

“Rural communities and businesses are at a historically sensitive moment, with Brexit related trade pressures and staff shortages, alongside uncertainty about future incomes and the delivery of public services like transport.

“On the other hand, the rural economy is well placed to do some of the heavy lifting in tackling our climate change targets, creating green jobs, and delivering local food security.

“West Yorkshire has more rural territory than urban, and our towns are intrinsically linked to it economically and culturally.

“Yorkshire as a brand is priceless, and West Yorkshire should be replicating the partnerships and support other parts of the region are setting up so our rural businesses are enabled to thrive at the same rate, and take up the opportunities that are just over the horizon, such as the Sovereign Growth Fund changes.”

A spokesperson for WYCA, which is now led by West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin, said "the issues raised in the letter will be discussed" when the board considers its plans for post-Covid economic recovery.

The spokesperson said: "When the mayor chaired her first Combined Authority meeting recently, priorities for the coming year were laid out. We outlined how we intend to help our region recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic with good jobs, skills and how we can deliver inclusive growth for all.

"The mayor’s pledges to the electorate include the creation of 1,000 well paid, skilled jobs and tackling the climate emergency, protecting the environment, and bringing buses back under public control. These focuses will without doubt impact positively on rural communities.

"The needs and interests of rural communities are vitally important to the Combined Authority and the issues raised in the letter will be discussed when it considers its plans for economic recovery from the pandemic.”

The letter states that a rural forum would be particularly important as West Yorkshire aims to become carbon neutral in the next two decades.

“In the same way that the UK economy underperforms by too much focus being given to the needs of London-centred economy, with regions having their potential left untapped, so does the West Yorkshire economy risk not achieving its utmost economic potential without engaging its entire geography.

“West Yorkshire, and its component local authorities have committed to achieving carbon neutrality within eight to 16 years. This will involve immense changes to how we live, work, travel and eat, whilst still maintaining a robust economy, that has learned to mitigate and withstand disruption events like Brexit and Covid in the future.

“All business sectors and communities will require significant support and enablement to adapt and respond to this challenge. The rural economy, and the communities within it, arguably face the greatest vulnerability in achieving the necessary rate of change, yet also present the greatest potential for delivering significant progression in achieving a sustainable future for West Yorkshire.

“The agricultural sector is in a significant period of transition: The ending of the European Union subsidy framework; the development of alternative UK financial support that rewards environmental activity for public good; the consequences on food production as a result of trade deals and tariffs; the lessons from Covid on non-agricultural diversification; and the opportunities offered by online connectivity. All of these drivers point to a re-evaluation of business models and land use going forward.

“With the prospect of the upcoming United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund being less focussed on urban deprivation - potentially focussing on ‘levelling up’ rural and urban income & productivity gaps, as well as regional inequality - we should be preparing for this and meaningfully understand the needs of our rural areas.

“A West Yorkshire Rural Forum could make a real impact in preparing our area to fully connect our urban and rural communities with a cooperative and co-dependent strategy that achieves inclusive and sustainable growth for mutual benefit.

"Significant green jobs growth can be achieved in rural and rural fringe areas through enablement of renewable energy production, horticulture, viticulture, fringe farming, agri-forestry and tourism & leisure investments.

“Current business sustainability and growth could be enhanced through asset-based investment, including 5G accessibility. Inclusive growth outcomes could be achieved through greater retention of the working age population through enablement of sustainable affordable accommodation and connectivity. Food security and seasonal labour pressures could be addressed by locally curated partnerships and strategies.”

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