Our rural economy is being undermined by government 'inattention and apathy', says Norfolk's General the Lord Dannatt

Norfolk peer Lord Dannatt is a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norfolk peer Lord Dannatt is a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

As a House of Lords committee publishes a major report on the rural economy, Norfolk peer and former army chief GENERAL THE LORD DANNATT explains why we urgently need a new strategy tailored to the specific needs of countryside communities.

A major House of Lords committee report has called for a new government strategy for rural economies. Picture: Ian BurtA major House of Lords committee report has called for a new government strategy for rural economies. Picture: Ian Burt

As all of us who live in Norfolk know well, the countryside offers an exceptional quality of life, with a unique appeal to residents, visitors and workers alike.

Underpinning this should be a vibrant rural economy, with agriculture still at its heart but now hosting an increasingly diverse range of businesses and industries.

Sadly, the full potential of the rural economy has been severely undermined for too long by the inattention and apathy of successive governments. There is a serious risk that without action the countryside will fall further behind and its varied economies will be stifled, with knock on effects not only for rural dwellers but also for the country as a whole. Doing nothing is not an option.

Over the last year I have been a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy, which has undertaken a wide-ranging inquiry into this vast subject. We took evidence from a huge number of rural groups across the country, including a range of Norfolk organisations and local authorities, and visited rural areas ourselves to understand better how their economies function and what action is needed to help ensure their growth and sustainability. Our final report has now been published.

A key message we heard was that government rural policy lacks direction and that rural priorities are too often side-lined nationally. So, our report calls for a comprehensive national-level rural strategy, but one that is to be delivered locally with the full involvement of local communities, councils and businesses, and with a particular focus on the character of each rural place. Community action is particularly important for the success of rural economies and so we recommend measures to help support community ownership of shops and other critical rural amenities, as well as for community-run services and enterprises.

This rural strategy should aim to deliver better outcomes across the spectrum of issues faced by rural economies. We heard in particular that action is needed to improve digital connectivity. The opportunities afforded by 5G rollout and full fibre broadband must not be passed up, and the broadband Universal Service Obligation should be reviewed to ensure rural areas are not left behind. Rural affordable housing is also a key challenge and we heard there was a need for planning reforms to ensure the right homes are provided in the right places with proper sensitivity to their local context, and that sufficient business workspaces are made available.

We also recommend other measures to improve support for rural businesses, recognising their distinct challenges such as the availability of skills and training. Public transport and healthcare provision are also areas of concern, particularly in light of the ageing rural population and increasing isolation and loneliness. In our report we call for better coordination of funding and service delivery to ensure that rural dwellers can access the services they are entitled to.

We hope that our report acts as a wake-up call to government and as a rallying point for rural communities. The rural economy will always play a major role in rural prosperity, and we are highly optimistic that with the right interventions this prosperity will be secured for the future.

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The House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy's report says a radical re-think of rural policy is needed to realise the full potential of countryside economies, and ensure fairness for isolated communities.

The 233-page document, published today, says rural economies are growing fast and becoming increasingly diverse, dynamic and vibrant – but successive governments have underrated this sector and applied policies “largely devised for urban and suburban economies which are often inappropriate for rural England”.

It says this has led to challenges including:

• Housing – lack of affordable and suitable housing stock.

• Transport – reduced public transport services exacerbating unemployment, crime and isolation.

• Skills shortages – mismatch of business opportunities and available labour.

• Commercial challenges – from inadequate IT infrastructure to inadequate access to finance and support.

• Decline of accessible services including banks, healthcare, school social service and shops.

The committee says a new rural economy strategy is urgently needed to correct these shortfalls, to ensure rural communities are treated fairly, and to transform the way national and local governments think about rural policy-making.

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