New vision laid out for future of Norfolk’s rural economy

A tractor ploughing a field near Bawsey Ruin.

A tractor ploughing a field near Bawsey Ruin. - Credit: Matthew Usher

An ambitious vision of the future of Norfolk's rural communities is laid out today.

The Rural Development Strategy, published by Norfolk County Council, outlines how rural communities can be supported, entrepreneurship encouraged and a new skilled workforce developed outside of the county's major urban centres.

Drawing together the views of more than 200 people, businesses, charities and groups, the report asks how the rural economy can continue to grow, complement urban development yet preserve Norfolk's natural richness – and includes a list of 10 priority issues for that progress to be achieved (right).

New bodies will be set up to allow business groups to team up and bid for EU funding, benefiting from the county council's expertise, with plans for supported rural enterprise zones, community and educational links with businesses, and villages to volunteer to trial ways to make themselves more sustainable.

The strategy also aims to improve Norfolk's communications infrastructure, echoing the priorities of the EDP-back Better Broadband for Norfolk and Let's Get Connected mobile phone coverage campaigns.

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It identifies existing and emerging sectors for long-term growth, including agri-tech, energy, manufacturing, engineering and the knowledge economy to grow each of them.

The strategy will be formally launched today at a business forum in Barnham Broom, where speakers will include council leader George Nobbs and Richard Powell, the chair of the independent steering group behind the strategy.

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Mr Nobbs, also the cabinet member for economic development, said the strategy would help rural areas to play a role in the county's economic future equal to that of Norwich and major towns.

'Too many people when they say they love Norfolk talk about the pretty villages, the Broads and the big skies, but they don't say anything about the people living there,' he said.

'Villages will die unless they are allowed to grow. Villages die when people move out because they can't afford to live, there's no one there to go to the local school and shops close. This report shows how we can develop the rural economy which, after all, covers more than half of Norfolk.'

The county council will found a Norfolk Rural Bid Consortium, which will see business organisations teaming up to share knowledge and take advantage of County Hall knowledge in funding applications.

With a new tranche of European funding made available next year, the council hopes that a coordinated approach will see cash flowing into Norfolk, possibly through grants match-funded by County Hall's existing economic development budget.

'We are better when we work together, and it's what we should be doing all the time,' said Mr Nobbs. 'People running businesses don't necessarily know about EU grants – but our officers are here and can do it standing on their heads. It's about using their skills more effectively.'

Eliska Cheeseman, partnership and delivery manager at the council's economic development team, said the county was 'on the cusp of change'.

'We must recognise that we must attempt to change and develop or we will fall further and further behind the rest of the country,' she said.

'If we get consensus around what the priorities are for growth and the changes we need to make, we can still catch up. We can become a world leader in sectors like agri-tech and take it forward.'

But she stressed the council would be relying on external input to formulate an action plan which will lay out the strategy's detail.

'Norfolk County Council can't do this alone. We have to do this with public sector colleagues and private sector colleagues.

'In that sense, the action plan is more important than the strategy, because that is how we will be held to account.'

Key to the strategy is bringing businesses together to work with schools to address the issue of skills, and the shortage of workers equipped to take on high-level jobs.

The strategy will build upon work already being done to improve the quality of the county's schools, under the council's Norfolk to Good and Great scheme.

James Joyce, cabinet member for safeguarding, said: 'Low attainment is a curse, in every single form. We have got to change a mindset.

'If our children aren't equipped then it's a vicious circle. They have to be able to attain levels which make them citizens we are proud of.'

The problem of low aspiration and opportunities being overlooked in rural areas will also be tackled.

'People still think that farming involves driving a tractor,' said Mrs Cheeseman.

'But these days that is done by satellite navigation – it's a high-tech process and they need to be owners of that technology.'

Rural enterprise zones could also be established where businesses would be incentivised to set up in exchange for benefits for local communities – offering mentoring or work experience placements, for example.

The independent steering group will work with Norfolk County Council, the private sector and other organisations to identify the action plan which will take the strategy forward.

Other speakers at today's event at the Barnham Broom Hotel, Honingham Road, include Susie Emmett or, Simon Coward of Hethel Engineering Centre and George Freeman, MP for Mid-Norfolk.

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