The extent to which rural economies have been run down by years of urban-focused policies, overseen by governments of all colours, is laid bare in a report published today by an influential House of Lords committee.
It says rural communities have been ignored and underrated, and that the “clear inequalities” between towns and the countryside can no longer continue unchecked.
The report by Lord Foster, who as Don Foster was Liberal Democrat MP for Bath for 23 years, wants ministers to agree to a new system of “rural-proofing” which would require every future policy to be assessed for the impact it would have on rural areas.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Lord Foster said. “A rural strategy would address challenges, realise potential in struggling and under-performing areas, and allow vibrant and thriving areas to develop further.”
In a break from previous policy, the report dramatically extends the definition of rural areas to include larger “hub towns” with populations of between 10,000 and 30,000, and isolated villages in former industrial areas of West and South Yorkshire.
“One one of the real difficulties we had was even defining rural areas,” Lord Foster told The Yorkshire Post. “There are two different definitions used by different bits of government. One is any area within a settlement has fewer than 10,000 people, but another is based on predominantly rural areas, which can include within them larger hub towns.”
Such areas, along with deeply rural parts such as Yorkshire’s two National Parks, account for 90 per cent of the country’s land mass and house around 17 per cent of the population – some 9.5m people. They contribute about 16 per cent of the country’s Gross Value Added measure of goods and services it produces.
Lord Foster said: “It’s currently below the urban areas in terms of the contribution to the economy of the country at large.
“So in the same way that the Government has produced a well-received industrial strategy, with the work on it done at a local level, we have argued very strongly that there needs to be a rural strategy.”
He added: “What we don’t want to do is to recommend measures that will just turn rural England into suburban England – that would be a disaster.
“It’s about getting the balance right between developing the rural economy and providing support, housing and business space. Getting actual space to do business in while maintaining the beauty of the countryside is very important.
“Everything needs to reflect the diversity of the countryside and the capabilities of the people who live and work there.”
He said housing was at the heart of the economic disparity between urban and rural areas – especially in the National Parks, where government policy often disadvantaged landowners who tried to put up affordable properties. His report says that since 2012, only one in eight homes sold in rural areas has been replaced – an imbalance that could be corrected by suspending tenants’ right to buy their rented homes in such areas, Lord Foster said.
“If you’re a landowner and you want to make some land available, you can do it in such a way that it helps local communities by putting some affordable houses for rent into the mix,” he said.
“But a bit later on, the right to buy kicks in. Somebody buys the property, the price starts to rocket and it’s no longer an affordable home for rent – it suddenly become just another home that people are making money on.
“The government ought to be looking at not letting people have the right to buy in certain circumstances. Otherwise, landowners who think they’re doing something to be helpful just end up giving their land away at cheap prices for somebody else to profit from.”
The report identifies current policies which it says work against less well-off communities such as Goldthorpe, in the heart of the former mining area of the West Riding, which falls within its definition of “predominantly rural”.
“If the Government moves towards letting local councils retain a higher percentage of business rates, therefore getting less money from central government, an area that is struggling economically is going to be worse off than a successful urban economy, unless you have some compensating mechanism,” Lord Foster said.
The circumstances in Goldthorpe, say locals, have been dictated by an almost complete lack of investment since the pits closed a generation ago.
“We have got deprived areas, there’s no two ways about that,” said May Noble, who has for 13 years represented the area on Barnsley Council.
“But we’ve also got lots of countryside around us, and yet we’re not able to tap into the kind of funding that supports rural economies.”
She hopes the recommendations in today’s report will unlock more of that funding for communities like hers.
“In terms of commuting to work, we’re not as bad as rural villages, but we still don’t have the level of employment we need to keep the economy flowing in Goldthorpe,” she said. “A lot of that is down to lack of funding.”
The closure of vital services is another rural issue common to the old put villages, she added.
“We’ve got the same problem as rural communities in that there are no banks left – you have to go to Mexborough or Barnsley now – and that affects the economy because people who used to come here to use the services now go somewhere else.”
Goldthorpe has had its hopes raised before. Yorkshire Forward, one of the regional development agencies introduced by the Labour Government, produced an economic plan for the area, but it was scrapped after 2010.
The “urban bias” of the local enterprise partnerships that replaced it is criticised in today’s report, which recommends that in future they produce rural economic plans of their own, and appoint people to their boards who can represent rural interests.
The Select Committee accuses the Government’s environment department of having a “blind spot” on the link between agriculture and “rural vitality”.
It said Michael Gove’s office “needs to be wary of presuming that what is good for the environment or for agriculture is also beneficial for the wider rural economy”.
It added that Mr Gove was “not helped by the lack of a rural strategy”, and voiced concern that any junior minister appointed a “rural champion” would “lack clout” to ensure that rural issues were being brought into the mainstream of policy making across government.
The Lords’ report has been broadly welcomed within Yorkshire’s countryside communities.
The Country Land and Business Association, which represents rural landowners, said its recommendations reflected its own agenda over the years.
Dorothy Fairburn, the organisation’s director, said: “The Government’s industrial strategy focuses on the urban sectors of our economy with only passing reference to our rural economy.”
“The infrastructure in rural areas lag behind that of our urban areas, and this is especially true of the digital divide concerning broadband and mobile connectivity.”
She added that local authorities needed to “up their game” by taking a more flexible approach to planning, and that current policies which prevented affordable and market homes from being built, “limited the chances of solving the rural housing crisis”.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England also called for better funding for houses and public services.
Crispin Truman, its chief executive, said: “Shop and school closures, dwindling public transport and a shortage of affordable housing has left many people living in rural areas isolated and without access to vital services.”
David Kerfoot, chairman of the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership, said he shared the concern that rural communities were “caught in a double bind of digital disruption”.
He said: “Rural businesses and communities are left in the slow lane, unable to compete and often unable to benefit. This is the latest example in a litany of structural issues facing rural areas, such as the lack of affordable housing which means our businesses can’t recruit the workforce they need.”
He said the days of the “jack-of-all-trades LEP” were numbered and that some partnerships could merge to provide more specialist services in their regions.