Both myself and my fellow Commissioners, all of them experts in rural affairs, were only too familiar with the long-standing challenges facing rural communities, especially those across the sparsely-populated expanse of North Yorkshire
The presenting issues of isolation, poor digital connectivity, threatened farm businesses, poor public transport provision, tiny schools, and a lack of affordable houses, not to mention the challenges and opportunities of climate change and the UK’s departure from the EU, were obvious to everyone before we began our work.
North Yorkshire County Council has to be commended for setting up the Commission as an independent body and for having the courage to accept that its findings would be challenging. The Council made it clear from the very start that the Commissioners should be led by their own investigation and that a wide-ranging, evidence-led enquiry was necessary to seek out fresh and innovative solutions to endemic issues.
It has been humbling and a privilege to chair the Commission on its journey through the past 20 months and now to share the distillation of our findings; insights, lessons and wisdom. These came from many hours of active listening to people who live and work in our rural communities, to experts in the seven topics we explored, from visits and from the written submission of evidence.
We are grateful too for the expansive and well-informed coverage given to our critical and seminal report in the pages of The Yorkshire Post over the last week.
Tragic though it has been, the Coronavirus pandemic has also proved instructive and enabled us to glimpse new possibilities for the County, not to mention the absolute necessity of broadband and mobile connectivity, even in the remotest of areas.
We Commissioners have not ignored the fact that North Yorkshire is in many ways a privileged and fortunate area of the country; it is certainly one of which its residents are rightly proud and in which they are delighted to live, despite the problems.
But far too easily the trials and deprivations of rural living and working can be underestimated by external, often distant, observers and decision-makers, simply because the setting is beautiful or there are too few people to make the case for change.
Our vision, and one we shared with stakeholders, including Government, at the Great Yorkshire Show yesterday, is for a county which safeguards its undeniable beauty, secures adequate connectivity, and confidently embraces the future.
A key challenge is to revitalise rural areas so they become attractive to the missing generations of young people who do not live and work in the region. This missing generation relates to all of the themes examined by the Commission; unaffordability of housing for many, school closures because of lack of demand, the people needed to drive a forward-looking green economy, depleting services because of declining population, and an imbalance in the demographic profile.
We are clear; devolution is a priority to achieving effective levelling up for rural and remote North Yorkshire. We need those additional powers and funding from central Government so the devolved authority has real capacity within the region for decision-making and control of significant funding.
Regional powers of decision-making and spending will need to be complemented with a shared vision and a strategic plan. The difficulties and opportunities which we Commissioners heard so much about cannot be dealt with in isolation. We offer our vision and recommendations in the sincere belief that they could prove transformational for the County.
Our report “Rural North Yorkshire: The Way Forward - Beautiful, connected, and embracing the future” explores seven key themes: rural economy; energy transition; digital connectivity; farming and land management; rural schools, education and training; rural housing; rural transport.
As we explored the evidence across these themes over the months, we realised increasingly that there is much to give hope. The potential of this county is huge. And that potential can be realised if we are able to discern a shared vision and are willing to unite in a common effort.
We have been realistic about both the challenges and the advantages of North Yorkshire, seeing that they combine, with the need to respond to climate change, to make the County a land of opportunity.
A sustainable, growing, green economy which benefits all within the County, and enables North Yorkshire to make a positive contribution to the rest of the country in return, is possible. As is being digitally connected, farming sustainably and having vibrant services.
The County can be a thriving rural community in which people of all ages and backgrounds can find a home and play a part in community life.
We now commend our report to those at national, regional and local levels who must respond to its vision and recommendations. We call for the creation of an advisory task force of experts to help take forward our recommendations, including civil servants; rural business, banking and industry; academic and scientific expertise; and community representatives.
This is a moment of opportunity for North Yorkshire, as we emerge from a pandemic, re-examine our priorities, respond to climate change and anticipate new unitary forms of government. Let us unite to take advantage of this opportunity with shared determination.
The Very Rev John Dobson DL is the Dean of Ripon and chair of the North Yorkshire Rural Commission.
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