The North-South divide is the trope most commonly used by policy-makers to highlight the problems of regional inequality in England, but it is by no means the country’s only socio-economic gulf. Since Boris Johnson first became Prime Minister in July 2019, Government Ministers and Conservative politicians have talked enthusiastically about the need to “level up” growth in towns in the Midlands and North of England. But hardly any commitments have been made to tackle the challenges of weak productivity and low social mobility in areas that are predominantly rural. The Government will only achieve their promised “decade of renewal” by investing greater policy attention and funding in struggling local economies throughout the country: whether they are Northern or Southern, coastal or inland, urban or rural.
NLGN’s new report, Land of Opportunity: England’s Rural Periphery, puts forward the case for a new national policy approach that targets economic growth funding and support more directly towards predominantly rural areas. The report also proposes ways in which Government and rural partners can work together more closely to set this new approach in motion, such as through devolution, a Rural Social Mobility Fund and the creation of a high-profile 21st Century Rural Commission.
In particular, we call for an end to the flawed practice of rural-proofing – the process by which DEFRA seeks to ensure that departments across Government assess the impact of their policies on rural areas. It is flawed for two key reasons:
- DEFRA’s rural proofing guidance is not consistently applied by departments to national strategies, and there are no sanctions or penalties for departments that overlook the guidance. For example, the 2018 Inclusive Transport Strategy recognises that people with disabilities who live in urban areas are more likely to have good access to a range of accessible modes of transport compared to those in rural areas, but the strategy offers no solutions for how the Government should address the specific challenges faced by disabled people in rural areas.
- Rural proofing guidance cannot be applied when, as in the case with many economic growth strategies, a policy has been designed specifically for an urban area. For example, the 2017 Industrial Strategy introduced a £1.7bn ‘Transforming Cities Fund’ to improve connections within city regions. There is no Industrial Strategy fund to boost productivity in predominantly rural areas by improving transport links, either within rural areas or to connect them with major urban centres, when the need is as great, if not greater.
Our report describes predominantly rural areas as England’s ‘land of opportunity’. Whispers from Whitehall corridors suggest that Ministers are looking for new ways to support local growth; taking approaches that are based less on value for money and more on reducing regional inequalities. In this way, they hope to boost productivity by championing the distinctive strengths of places, while promoting environmentally sustainable growth in response to rising public concern over climate change. The Government must work with rural partners from the outset to develop policy specifically tailored to the challenges and opportunities that exist in these areas, thereby rejecting the rural-proofing policy approach that treats them as an afterthought. Indeed, our proposals to Government in the report – such as further policy and fiscal devolution to England’s rural periphery and the creation of a 21st Century Rural Commission – are intended to enable rural local authorities and their partners, including rural communities, to take the lead in developing solutions to their own challenges and increasing social prosperity through sustainable economic growth. By harnessing the strengths, skills and energy that already exist within rural areas, the Government will be in a stronger position to fulfil Boris Johnson’s ambition to rebalance power, growth and productivity across the country over the next ten years.
With thanks to Cornwall Council for partnering with NLGN on the report.