Reimagining the rural economy

Rural Britain generates a popular and much loved image for many Brits, whether they live in the countryside or in towns and cities. The ‘rural idyll’ conjures images of the good life, wide open space, clean air, abundant wildlife and a slower pace of life. When you scratch under the surface, the rural environment and economy have just as many challenges as the urban space, but on the positive side it also has numerous opportunities. The traditional image perhaps holds this back. However, the covid pandemic and the move towards ‘working from home’ has kick started a revolution of the way we imagine working and living in the countryside. As connection improves (there is a long way to go but it is improving gradually for many) these opportunities will grow alongside. It provides a chance to reimagine the rural economy that is diversified, exciting and forward thinking, at the same time as conservationist in outlook, caring for the natural environment and understanding of the importance of food and forestry security and sustainability.

Around 80% of the UK is classified as ‘rural’ and about 15% of the population lives in a rural area (that’s around 10 million people).

This has been declining in recent years, partly as the country continues to urbanise parts of its landmass and partly as people leave rural areas to pursue personal opportunities in towns and cities. However, there are an increasing number of rural entrepreneurs and established businesses who are looking to grow their rural base. Agri-tech and digital is also stepping into the space and the arts and culture space also looking to grow.

Farming remains a strong element of the economy and community, and it shapes the landscape, but it is certainly not exclusive in terms of opportunities available for people in the rural economy.

Rural areas support around 500,000 businesses, many of which are unrelated to agriculture. Around 70% of rural people are employed within these as small or micro businesses. Just 15-20% of rural people are actually employed in agriculture, forestry or fishing. People living in rural areas face the challenge of generally lower pay versus a higher cost of living. Transport is a regular challenge with on average 13% of income being spent on it, compared to 11% for people living in urban areas.

So, what could a future rural economy look like?

Farming and forestry have a key role to play and many associated jobs are reliant on a strong farming base in order to develop themselves. The consequences of Brexit, the wider economy and political decisions have led to the biggest change in UK agricultural policy in a generation, and we are currently seeing the impact of this as direct payments change. Farms are likely to fall in two camps in future. We will have large units with people and machinery spread across multiple acres and then we will have small specialist farm businesses perhaps adding value in some way and selling direct to their local community. Those in the middle will struggle. Associated industries including agri-tech will grow and develop and there will be a greater number of high skill jobs in this area in particular.

Rural growth needs to be place based and context specific. Local rural economies will have their own specialisms that need to be fostered. They will also have their own distinct challenges in terms of location and geography that need to be taken into account when planning for sustainable growth. Critically we need to invest in affordable housing, local services and business infrastructure, especially broadband and mobile phone coverage to encourage rural entrepreneurs to invest in their local communities and encourage a broader range of age groups to settle in the countryside. The rural population continues to age faster than towns and cities and this places greater pressure on support services. These challenges need to be taken into account. On the positive side, an older population provides the capacity for a greater amount of volunteer work and much needed experience in planning for a future that is better for all.

There are further opportunities in community energy, community owned retail and hospitality ventures and even community food and farming projects. All of these should be encouraged and fostered to get off the ground.

The future for rural and the rural economy could be bright, but it is reliant on facing the challenges head on, planning for a future and remaining focussed on this future, and fostering and encouraging talented entrepreneurs as they rise to build their ventures.

Ben Eagle, Founder and Head of Podcasts, RuralPod Media.

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