How can the government properly identify areas in need of levelling up if its metrics don’t provide a full enough picture? That’s the question at the heart of a recent report from the Rural Services Network.
Titled Rural as a region: The hidden challenge for levelling up, the report argues that the government’s comparative, regional approach to place-based improvement fails to acknowledge that differences within regions can be far greater than those that exist between them.
Indeed, it says, metrics outlined in the Levelling Up White Paper to flag up candidate areas for rejuvenation are too urban-focused – glossing over the disadvantages that impede the progress of rural economies inside regional borders.
Such hardships, it notes, are often linked to limited local employment prospects, poor transport networks and weak digital connectivity. To bolster its argument, the report frames rural UK as a collective entity: ‘rural as a region.’
In a statement, Rebecca Munro, a consultant at Pragmatix Advisory, which produced the report on Rural Services Network’s behalf, said: “Our research found that ‘rural as a region’ would be most in need when it comes to digital and physical connectivity, and public transport connectivity is worse in rural [areas] than any of the regional averages.”
Munro added that rural is also the third-most in-need region for boosting productivity, pay and employment – behind only the North East and Yorkshire, and the Humber.
The report points out that White Paper metrics such as gross disposable household income “are partial, and disguise the true income levels of those working in rural areas”. As such, it says: “The inclusion of additional metrics would help to identify those areas most in need of levelling up at a local level, both for rural communities and the wider population.”
With that in mind, the report proposes a set of further metrics for highlighting locations to level up – including frequency of public transport connections to access key public services, proportion of households in fuel poverty, distance to further education providers, and percentage of premises with super-fast broadband.
So, to what extent does the reality of rural life match the picture of deprivation sketched out in the report?
“It’s a bit more nuanced,” says David Missen, founding member and Past Chair of ICAEW’s Farming & Rural Business Community – and a farmer himself, based near the Norfolk town of Dereham.
“Some people are happy to live in places that don’t have all the features and facilities that urban areas take for granted,” Missen adds. “The countryside has certain inbuilt advantages alongside its disadvantages. Air and food quality are generally higher. There’s more space – gardens tend to be bigger.”
In Missen’s view, one problem outlined in the report that would be particularly challenging to resolve is the public transport riddle. “In the countryside,” he says, “car use is essential – so rural public transport provision is practically nil.
“If we look at the potential to rely upon public transport to access public services, I can say that in my area, we used to have one bus per month. Now that that service has been withdrawn, if I used public transport to visit the nearest hospital, I’d have had to walk four miles to my local stop, then change buses once I got to Norwich. It would take all day.”
Public transport, Missen says, “is not always available at the moment you need it – and, in a rural setting, has to travel over long routes that a car could cover, or even shortcut, in a fraction of the time.”
A different angle
For Missen, fuel poverty metrics based on gas and electricity use are not necessarily reliable, “because lots of people in rural areas burn firewood, which doesn’t show up on the grid.”
On a related note, he says: “It’s certainly true that there are relatively low wages in rural communities – although I wouldn’t rule out total household income as an inequality gauge. Using that lens may tell you a different story than what you would get from purely wage-based data, because quite a few people who come to settle in rural areas are retired, or independently wealthy. They may not have wages, but will have other types of income.”
Indeed, Missen points out: “If you look at property prices relative to total income, you may also get a different picture. But that doesn’t alter the fact that if you are on wages, they will probably be quite low and your property multiplier will be quite high.”
On the issue of distance from further education, he says: “It’s more a question of distance from any education. Larger numbers of children are having to be driven to primary school now, because lots of the smaller primaries have shut. And no one is ever going to have a college on their doorstep.”
On the subject of broadband, he says good progress is being made: “Not many locations don’t have an acceptable level of broadband. I’m on 20mbps, which isn’t as fast as you would find in urban areas – but it’s quite adequate. I can still stream movies.”
Despite those caveats, Missen considers the report a “perfectly valid contribution that encourages people to think about levelling up in a different way”.
And with the government intending to end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, Missen says it will be interesting to see how rural areas adopt electric cars, bearing in mind that many still have a limited range, which isn’t helpful for longer commutes. “However, houses have more space for plugging them in and charging them, so they may be better for the countryside in the long run.
“I’m also eager to see how working from home develops,” Missen adds. “It’s likely we will see larger numbers of professionals moving to the countryside who won’t be making their money from rural activities, or using their cars for work. So that will have an influence on the rural economy.”
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