July 14: Why the rural economy counts

IN many respects, it was regrettable that George Osborne’s post-Budget visit to the region preceded the Great Yorkshire Show, the largest celebration of its kind in England, by 24 hours.

For, if the Chancellor did visit the Harrogate showground that will welcome upwards of 130,000 visitors over the next three days, he might come to appreciate the importance of the rural economy to his wider attempt to get Britain’s finances back in the black by the end of the decade.

Despite Mr Osborne using his Budget to make a wide range of policy announcements, agriculture and related countryside industries did not feature – an omission that is even more short-sighted in the wake of new research by the Country Land and Business Association which reveals that 54,000 rural businesses in this country are responsible for £17bn worth of goods and services while employing over 400,000 people. These are numbers that the Chancellor cannot afford to ignore when he receives requests for schemes, like superfast broadband, that are essential to the success of such enterprises.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And it also explains why rural communities do have misgivings about the Government’s framework for devolving policy-making and spending powers to the English regions. While many welcome the decision to empower Leeds and Sheffield as economic powerhouses, they fear that the city-region template – Mr Osborne’s preferred way for delivering this new era of local government – will short-change those market towns and parishes whose challenges are very different to metropolitan cities.

As Bill Cowling, the outgoing Show Director, makes clear on the opposite page, the work ethic of farmers is second-to-none. It is also emblematic of Mr Osborne’s aspiration agenda, hence the need for the Conservatives – the traditional party of rural Britain – to put in place policies that will enable this sector to flourish. After all, the Government’s policy focus should extend beyond the marginal constituencies to the whole country, a point that Mr Osborne would be advised to heed if he wishes to be remembered as a One Nation Chancellor.

Excuse off the rails

Osborne losing ‘power’ argument

IF the Government is so committed to the electrification of the TransPennine Express rail route from Leeds to Manchester, why has the upgrade been “paused”? Like David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, George Osborne failed to provide convincing answers when pressed on the matter in Yorkshire. The Chancellor claimed to be “frustrated” by the delay, and gave a personal commitment to get the project “back on track”, but such assurances will not appease those travellers who believe that they were misled by the Tories prior to the election.

Even the Government’s defence – management shortcomings at Network Rail – does not stack up. This scheme was first announced by Mr Osborne in the 2011 Autumn Statement and was the precursor to further commitments to electrify other key railway lines. Effectively, it means Ministers have had four-and-a-half years to sort out the difficulties now being blamed for the hold-up.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Like those other Ministers who have been left on the defensive, Mr Osborne says the much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse is not just about transport. Yet, when he first launched the blueprint, he said improved road and rail links were critical to the region’s future prosperity. The Chancellor cannot have it both ways and needs to provide greater clarity as soon as possible.

Working Royals

Andrew’s new chance to inspire

ON the day that Prince William was, inevitably, at the centre of media attention as he began work as an air ambulance pilot, his uncle – the Duke of York – was preparing for his first day in a new role that is of critical importance to this region. As the new chancellor of the University of Huddersfield in succession to the acclaimed actor Sir Patrick Stewart, Prince Andrew – a former pilot himself – becomes the figurehead of an increasingly influential academic institution that is providing so many young people with those key skills which will be essential to their chosen careers.

Despite adverse criticism from some, the Duke is a quietly effective advocate for this region – much of this work has been undertaken away from the public limelight. However Prince Andrew continues to be unashamedly pro-business and pro-Yorkshire, two traits that will be essential if he is to follow Sir Patrick’s example and use his illustrious new position to inspire students.