Rural ambition is thwarted in Westminster but there are six ways to set it free - CLA's Lucinda Douglas

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) launched its Rural Powerhouse campaign at the last General Election in 2019 to ensure that the rural economy was not forgotten during and beyond the election.

The aim of this campaign is firmly rooted in the belief that the countryside has an exciting future and we all have a role in shaping it.

Shortly after the last election, the CLA helped to set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Business, a cross-party initiative of MPs and peers to work together to promote rural businesses.

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Led by York Outer MP Julian Sturdy and Lord Cameron of Dilllington, the group recently published perhaps one of the largest ever enquiries into rural productivity at the end of April.

CLA Director North, Lucinda Douglas.

It took evidence from more than 50 trade bodies, business leaders, campaign groups and academics to explore how we could grow the rural economy.

A key finding in this report highlights the rural economy as being 18 per cent less productive than its urban counterpart, but realising this untapped potential could grow the rural economy by an estimated £43bn each year.

Given the current ‘cost of living’ crisis in the context of 40-year high inflation, I am sure that the Exchequer would welcome any additional tax revenue.

The report, Levelling up the rural economy: an enquiry into rural productivity, highlighted key policy reforms to boost rural productivity with 27 detailed recommendations around the following main areas:

Planning – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) must prioritise small-scale, incremental development in rural areas, particularly those with populations under 3,000, with a focus on affordable housing.

Whitehall – a ministerial-led, cross-departmental working group with the specific mission of developing and implementing measures to boost rural productivity must be established, the rural proofing policy must be reformed and strengthened, and Defra’s objectives must be re-examined, with rural productivity now included in its remit.

Farming – to alleviate labour shortages, the Seasonal Workers Pilot should be extended and the number of visas available increased from 30,000 to 80,000, and address low pricing in supply chains by implementing the Agriculture Act 2020’s regulations to limit the influence of major supermarkets.

Tax – simplify the tax system for diversified businesses through the Rural Business Unit (RBU), which would allow rural businesses to make their own decisions, reduce bureaucracy, increase tax collection for the Exchequer, and would remove hurdles to the growth of new business ventures.

Connectivity – DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)and the industry must produce an accessible roadmap for the 15 per cent hardest-to-reach houses, with tangible targets for those left behind.

Skills – the government must provide vouchers for rural enterprises to stimulate demand for business, technical, and environmental training, and build a natural capital skills strategy to identify skills shortages and how to close them.

The overwhelming consensus of this cross-party political group was that no government has had a programme with which to unlock the economic and social potential of the countryside.

It is an encouraging admission, and provides impetus for greater action in future.

The report recognises the reality of the pandemic’s impact on the UK’s finances, and the majority of the recommendations made are low cost, only requiring only a change in policy, and in some cases, simply how government thinks about the countryside.

When government published its Levelling Up White Paper earlier this year, it was hoped that the UK Government would register its ambition to deliver growth across the whole country, including the countryside.

Sadly, the paper failed this most basic of tests.

This White Paper was billed as a programme for economic growth in left behind areas – but it is nothing of the sort. Rural communities desperately needed an ambitious and robust plan to create jobs, share prosperity and strengthen communities.

Rural voters put their faith in this government, but the White Paper suggested that government doesn’t understand them, their needs or their aspirations.

Prior to the recent local elections, the CLA in partnership with polling and market research agency Survation, polled 1,000 individuals across five of the UK’s most rural counties which included North Yorkshire.

It revealed a major shift in political allegiances of rural voters with data showing a the Conservative lead on Labour slashed since 2019, representing a 7.5 percentage point swing in the countryside.

The 12 million voters who live and work in the countryside have shown that they should not be taken for granted by any political party.

I am not a political analyst, so will not delve into the most recent local election results.

However, any party that comes up with a genuinely ambitious plan to grow the economy in rural areas would, I suspect, win a great deal of support at the next general election.

-Lucinda Douglas is CLA Director North.