In a sense, market towns can be viewed as the strongest stitches in Yorkshire’s vibrant quilt by connecting and holding together all its constituent parts.
And make no mistake, rural businesses represent far more than Cinderella industries and cover everything from farming to tourism, housing to energy production and associated businesses in the food supply chain – the rural economy in England alone contributes nearly £261bn to the national economy.
Based on VisitBritain figures, domestic tourism spend, of which 80 per cent is in rural areas, accounted for £73bn in 2019. So anything but a ‘tea room’ economy, yet, frequently not recognised for its vast untapped potential compared to our cities in the region and beyond.
The CLA’s Rural Powerhouse campaign aims to transform the lives of millions of people who live and work in the countryside by closing the rural productivity gap with urban areas. The campaign is based on the idea that the rural economy has incredible potential to create jobs, grow businesses, build successful communities, and crucially, to unlock the untapped contribution it can make to the regional economy and beyond. But this requires a supportive policy base to achieve this aim.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the immediate government support measures were welcomed. In May, the CLA published its own proposals and, after intense CLA lobbying, I was delighted that the Government cut VAT to help our tourism sector get back on its feet. In this paper’s Country Week, I recently pointed out the inequity with lower VAT regimes for tourism businesses in France and Spain. We will put the case for extending the temporary reduction in VAT to be made permanent.
Rural areas have an in-built advantage of space. It is not only about shopping local, but also about having holidays in rural areas as they offer an optimum combination of limited travelling time, and a smaller carbon footprint than a holiday abroad. Not to mention the health benefits of fresh air and outdoor activities, beautiful landscapes and biodiversity.
Infrastructure in rural areas need, to use political speak, ‘levelling up’ to that of urban areas. Prior to a full resumption of ‘business as usual’, local authorities can undertake much needed rural projects such as pot-hole filling and road re-surfacing, thus causing less disruption as would otherwise be the case.
Roads are important, but what this pandemic highlighted is the importance of digital connectivity in the countryside, and bringing it up to the same level as in urban areas. That is why the CLA supports the Government’s announcement of an accelerated rollout of fibre broadband and mobile connectivity. A lot of that work is done outdoors, so, no reason for delaying deployment.
A simplified planning system will also assist recovery, as it is currently complex, lengthy and costly. This could be a relatively cheap way of boosting economic development in rural areas and help the recovery, especially since rural office locations may become more attractive in future.
In the short-term, local planning authorities may want to explore opportunities in market towns for residential and particularly affordable housing. It is essential to encourage younger people to stay in rural areas, along with a stimulus to create jobs. This is where market towns play a critical role as an employment and services hub, not only for residents, but for the surrounding countryside.
Our calls for support are not limited to government and, more locally, we are encouraging Local Enterprise Partnerships to help find solutions to the pressing realities experienced by rural enterprises to bring them on par with those in urban areas.
Within Yorkshire, the CLA is working with farming and rural organisations as part of the Grow Yorkshire partnership in championing a resilient and prosperous countryside.
It is imperative that our agricultural, tourism and aligned businesses are not edged towards a cliff-edge of economic calamity. With the right support in place, there is no reason why Yorkshire’s countryside can’t contribute to our wider economy.
Dorothy Fairburn is regional director of CLA North.
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