Cash hopes for pilot rural business scheme in Norfolk and Suffolk

Hopes are high that Norfolk and Suffolk could be chosen as the trailblazers for a new rural growth network, using government money to rejuvenate village economies.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman yesterday announced a �165m funding package aimed at helping rural businesses and communities to grow.

It includes �15m to create up to six pilot rural growth networks (RGNs) which could overcome a lack of local infrastructure, boost skills and cut red tape to address the scarcity of business premises.

The New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), has been negotiating with Defra for the last two months on the development of the concept, and is 'optimistic' of becoming one of the chosen pilots.

If successful, the scheme could bring preferential access to a �100m fund distributed by the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) to help small businesses improve their skills, facilities and competitiveness.

Other measures announced in the Rural Economy Growth Review include:

?�20m in grants to extend superfast broadband to the remotest areas

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?�25m to promote rural tourism

?�20m in loans for community-owned renewable energy schemes

?Action to cut red tape on the re-use of farm buildings

Chris Starkie, lead of the New Anglia LEP, said the partnership had already submitted its RGN bid, and hopes to be in pole position when the pilot schemes are announced in March.

'The rural economy is utterly critical to Norfolk and Suffolk,' he said. 'We have been working with colleagues at Defra over the last couple of months on creating a number of incentives to support business in rural areas, and one of those is the RGN concept which we hope to introduce.

'It is a good concept in its own right to help stimulate job opportunities in market towns and villages, but by becoming a RGN we could also open up access to funding.'

It is expected that each RGN would typically consist of between five and 20 small 'enterprise hubs' each suitable for between ten and 20 micro or small enterprises. The hubs could be based around disused business parks, on brownfield sites or in areas which already have outline planning permission for commercial development.

'In areas where a big employer or factory used to be based, but those areas are now in decline, we need to turn them into an asset,' said Mr Starkie. 'If you free up planning and put some intensive support around an area, it could become a focus for growth rather than a symbol of decline.'

The �100m in RDPE funding consists of a �60m grant scheme to support growth of small and medium-sized rural businesses working in farming, agri-food, tourism, forestry or renewable energy. From next summer, another �20m will be available to further develop the skills of those rural sectors. An additional �20m pot for farmers, foresters and horticulturalists was also launched in November.

The �20m rural broadband fund will be aimed at reaching the 'final 10pc' of the population not covered by commercial super-fast upgrades or the county council-led initiatives.

Jon Clemo, chief executive of the Norfolk Rural Community Council, encouraged people to seek advice on how to apply, but warned they would have to meet some tough criteria.

'It will be a very competitive process and any application will have to be consistent with what's already in the county's broadband plan,' he said.

'Any investment in rural areas must be welcomed. It is important to see emphasis placed on rural economic growth and not just urban areas. It is not just about getting the support, it is about making sure it is sustainable and that the benefits reach right down into that community.'