Monday, 25 November 2013

Rural businesses – central to the countryside or just an add-on?

As Defra and Local Enterprise Partnerships consult on future funds for economic growth and rural areas, will you be having your say, asks Roger Turner, Rural economies consultant and Honorary Fellow at the Centre for Rural Economy, Newcastle University.

Where does the future of our countryside lie? Understandably, some will argue that good land management remains at the heart of our rural economies and society, and requires continuing and adequate direct payments to farmers and other land managers.  Nobody would dispute that growing food is important.   At the same time, others will validly call on government to match the funds to today’s profile of rural economies, drawing on the myriad of evidence that many local rural economies have long since ceased to be dominated by land-dependent business, community and household activities, needs and outputs.   Both perspectives may be correct, distinguished as much by where you operate, advise or represent – spatially, sectorally or functionally – as by the evidence on which you draw to justify your point of view.  Whichever of these perspectives reflects your experience, we should avoid this debate amongst rural friends distracting us from the more important goal of gaining equitable recognition for rural economies, environment and communities from those  who are currently planning the  allocation of future funding, particularly from Europe.  A shift in rural funding towards rural growth from non-farming and  food industries could rescue hundreds of thousands of enterprises and employees from regular,  marginalising and devaluing phrases too often heard in speeches by rural leaders, including ministers, as “farming, food and other rural businesses”. (my emphasis)

A significant shift of rural funds and attention to rural growth and landscape- scale environmental management schemes for example, would also send a powerful signal to those who hold, target and distribute EU and national funds that are not labelled ‘agriculture’ or ‘rural’, that rural economies and societies are more than the land, are not marginal, not homogenous, not without potential.  They share diversity and opportunity, and deliver outputs and benefits, similar to and occasionally exceeding, urban economies, yet retain special and additional environmental and community qualities which society and governments need to steward.  As such, rural sustainable and inclusive growth is as much the responsibility of public and business bodies as those of our towns, cities and global linkages. 

Over the last couple of months a new approach of integration and devolution, arising from the EU’s Common Strategic Framework, has generated two rare opportunities for business and resident communities across urban, rural, coastal, remote and densely-populated areas to help set priorities, develop programmes and projects, and target funds for the next 6 years.  And the insight and voice of rural professionals is sorely needed.

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are providing the first of these opportunities, as they consult on their draft European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) Strategies.  Defra ministers launched the second as a consultation on recently-agreed CAP reforms.   Both have far reaching impacts on the future balance of growth between different types of territory, as well as between beneficiaries and activities within rural and other places.  The CAP Reform consultation is the most comprehensive and open consultation about the national allocation of EU’s rural funds that I can remember, since the government’s ALURE (Alternative Land Uses and Rural Economy) initiative in the mid-1980s.

LEPs’ ESIF Strategies give form to the EU’s Common Strategic Framework at a local level.  Responding to a plethora of advice from the UK Government over the summer, these Strategies will set priorities and share of EU funds from 2014-20.   These funds are worth several tens of billions of pounds, and rural needs deserve to be embedded within these commitments.

Draft Strategies were submitted to the UK Government in early October.  Their initial response has been made to all LEPs.  Whilst more work remains to be done, most LEPs have apparently avoided focusing on Protection of environment, Climate change and Transport Objectives, and rural development is often weakly addressed.  Some LEPs are matching the spirit of integration from the EU Framework, setting out priorities and proposals such that any group, community or business, working to deliver its strategic objectives should be eligible to bid for funds, irrespective of their location.  This seamless approach is far from universal.  Industries, functions, economic drivers chosen as the focus of some LEP Strategies, will marginalise or exclude some territories, businesses or communities including rural ones, by their design.  Sadly, others have continued weak practices and outdated perspectives of rural economies and environment, presuming them only to be farming and food-dependent or committing to invest in rural and environmental activities only if rural development funds (EAFRD) are allocated to them. Unless Defra and rural stakeholders overturn such outmoded perspectives in their responses to these strategies, rural economies, environment and communities will remain semi-detached from this integrating and rebalancing aspiration.

An opportunity and challenge no less substantial and critical to rural areas, was started by the Secretary of State for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs at the beginning of November.  By the time you read this Defra will have laid this out to farmers, business and community leaders in rural regions, as part of a country-wide effort to engage communities across England. The centrepiece of this consultation is nothing less than the balance between direct payments to farmers, and funds for growth and development from the wider, and in many cases more substantial, non-land based rural communities.  

Although we have been offered glimpses of the tense and prolonged EU negotiations over CAP in the last year, with hints of prospects and challenges for a substantial shift of funds from the first group into the rural development pillar, I suspect that few of us expected to be offered such a comprehensive and open opportunity to have our say on future directions for England’s countryside and rural areas, as that now underway.  The questions and supporting evidence, extend from principles that inform a strategic shift of up to 15% of England’s Pillar 1 Funds into Pillar 2, to detailed choices for investment, growth, environmental enhancement and climate adaptation in rural economies and places.  

As rural professionals our insight and expertise to bring together and balance competing demands and outcomes, is needed to ensure that ‘rural’ is an integral part of rebalanced economies at local, national and EU levels.  I hope we all grasp the opportunities offered in these two current consultations.   

Roger Turner, Advocates for Rural Enterprise,