'Growing divide' fears for town and country

THE creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships could marginalise the countryside and lead to a growing divide between Britain's rural and urban economies, the Government's rural watchdog is warning.

New research suggests many potential LEPs fail to understand or acknowledge the needs of Britain's countryside in their planning with limited attention being paid to the "nature, needs and potential of their rural economies".

LEPs are designed to replace regional development agencies such as Yorkshire Forward which are being scrapped in favour of more localised business support. But a large number of the fledgling partnerships are failing to recognise the contribution rural firms and communities can make to the wider economy and it is warned they all could struggle to access funding crucial to the economies of villages and hamlets.

The research comes from the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), which is to be scrapped as part of Government austerity measures.

It warns many LEPs are prioritising urban needs and its research showed a "disappointing" lack of acknowledgement for rural areas when it came to access to the finance, education and training needed to compete on a national level, leading to fears of growing divide between the country's urban and rural economy.

There were however notes of encouragement for Yorkshire, partnerships in both Humberside and the so-called Leeds City Region being praised for their efforts to include rural life in their new set-ups.

One of the CRC directors who authored the report, Crispin Moor, said those looking to establish LEPs must speak to rural businesses and make sure they had a strong understanding of their needs when forming their plans.

The report said: "Despite the fact that they have significant rural areas within their boundaries, a large number of the LEP proposals did not recognise the potential contributions of their rural businesses and communities.

"Several proposals included their rural economies within the descriptions of their areas but failed to acknowledge them in their proposed priorities and activities or only focused on a limited number of rural issues and sectors such as broadband and tourism."

The CRC adds that Britain's rural economy has much to contribute in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship and growth, pointing to higher rates of business formation in the countryside than in most towns and cities.

The regional director of the Country Land and Business Association for Yorkshire, Dorothy Fairburn, has been working with prospective LEPs to ensure rural needs are included.

She said: "I share the concerns of the CRC From my conversations in Yorkshire it seems that LEPs will be doing the best they can.

"I am concerned about the lack of a Yorkshire-wide strategy approach to rural issues. The big concern at the moment is that the LEPs will be competing against each other. However the more localised approach may mean they know what is wanted – which is better for rural areas.

"The difficulty of all of this is that LEPs come with no money and will have to bid for any money from a Regional Growth Fund, So often it is the little projects hat make such a difference for rural areas and these could be the ones that are overlooked."

A Communities and Local Government spokesman said: "Local Enterprise Partnerships will mean that the people who know their area best and understand its unique opportunities and challenges will be calling the shots. This localised approach empowers local authorities and business, who understand the needs of their rural and urban communities."