‘Whitehall policies cast rural business as economic Cinderella’

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Government policy is failing to ensure countryside communities prosper, leaving rural business cast as the ‘Cinderella’ of the British economy, MPs are warned in a new report published today.

Realising the true potential of rural business continues to be overlooked, with current government policy effectively stifling economic growth in the countryside, the CLA says in the report.

Key barriers include digital connectivity, the planning system and a shortage of rural housing not being helped by a lack of completed Local Plans drawn up by local authorities; while rural areas risk being ignored as part of Whitehall devolution deals, the landowners’ group say.

Despite the government’s ongoing rollout of superfast broadband, which currently provides download speeds of over 24Mbps to more than 80 per cent of UK homes and businesses, not even half of all premises in rural areas can access speeds higher than 10Mbps.

Likewise, the government’s relaxation of planning rules to allow redundant farm buildings to be converted into much-needed homes is failing, with almost half of all applications rejected so far.

The CLA’s president Ross Murray said: “The countryside is buzzing with economic potential, but too often the 646,000 rural businesses in England and Wales are overlooked. We are the Cinderella of the UK economy.

“Our vision is that a person setting up or growing a rural business should have the same opportunities as anyone seeking to do so in towns and cities.

“Successful rural businesses – from food, farming and forestry to tourism, leisure and retail – are the heartbeat that sustains the countryside.”

Leah Swain, chief officer at regional charity Rural Action Yorkshire, said rural start-ups and existing businesses benefit from initiatives such as York, North Yorkshire and East Riding LEP’s pop-up business sessions in rural locations, but she believes more needs to be done.

“We need more support for young people to develop entrepreneurial skills and start businesses that allow them to remain living and working in rural areas,” Ms Swain said.

To press the government into action, the CLA’s ‘Standing Up for Rural Businesses’ report will be presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Business in the House of Commons today.

York Outer MP Julian Sturdy, the group’s chairman, said: “Rural businesses are the lifeblood of our countryside communities and they make a vital contribution to the national economy. It is essential that we champion the cause of our countryside which all too often has been overlooked by successive governments.”

Kevin Hollinrake, MP for Thirsk & Malton, said the 6,000 small rural businesses in his constituency alone demonstrated how the potential of rural areas was being unlocked, but he said he wants “a greater rural bias for investment” to meet challenges around broadband, mobile phone coverage and higher property and travel costs.

He said it is “crucial” a devolution deal is struck that covers the entire region of Greater Yorkshire, so that no-one gets left behind.

Sarah Lee, the Countryside Alliance’s head of policy, said rural businesses can only have the same opportunities as those based in towns and cities with better rural services, affordable housing, less planning ‘red-tape’ and by bringing the communications network into the 21st century.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Our rural areas have huge potential which is why we’re working hard to further unlock productivity in the countryside to boost our rural economies.

“Through the Rural Productivity plan we will create thriving towns and villages in rural areas. Already we’ve made huge progress so far which will see new homes built, rural businesses supported, and connectivity improved, making it as easy to run a business and start a family in the countryside as in urban areas.”