Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Rural areas can help to drive the economic recovery - if government will give them a chance

RICS Policy Manager Tamara Hooper urges decision makers at every level to recognise the potential of our rural areas to boost economic recovery in this latest Landbridge blog.

The potential of Rural England, economically and environmentally, is a long rumbling debate. In August 2015 the current government released a plan for rural productivity, having earlier announced DEFRA would develop two 25 year strategies on food and farming and on biodiversity, whilst the Conservative manifesto promised a renewal of the Natural Capital Committee in the Cabinet Office. Discussion however is not leading to action.

RICS recognised the pressure that land is under from competing use priorities, environmental pressures and a lack of appropriate evaluation of its full potential, releasing a rural policy paper at the beginning of 2016, containing 37 recommendations across a broad range of themes and priorities. These included soil management, flooding, productivity, property in the rural economy, the land based industries, energy production and use – and finally the emergence of natural capital markets. The flooding across Northern Britain in late 2015, highlighted the need to recognise the potential multi-functionality of our land. Proper planning, precision farming and land capability assessments can help increase the productivity of land within the UK and appease the competing narratives in land use and farming.

The UK’s land is finite but the demands on it are increasing. The existing land classification system is outdated and not reflective of land's true potential, beyond agriculture. A new Agricultural Land Classification is required; retaining the well understood basis of the ALC, but adapt it to a more European style index system, that recognises the new breadth of land use rather than purely its productive ability. There is a need to know not just what land can produce but what it is capable of. Typical uplands grazing land is not high quality agricultural land but in addition to grazing could be additionally capable of carbon storage, wind energy or improvements in biodiversity amongst other uses, which land classification doesn’t capture.

Water retention in the uplands is another good example. Often during times of flooding farm land is not seen with the same priority as the built environment despite flooding being one of the greatest factors affecting soil quality and retention, potentially disturbing food security through the loss of the land.

There is also a growing need to recognise land's potential in flood defence, which can lessen the damage done to towns as well as protect and enhance good agricultural land. Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) as an approach to flood management through the entire catchment can help to mitigate flooding and allow land to recover from flooding more quickly. ICM cannot prevent all flooding or avert the damage done such as that done in December’s floods but it is more cost effective than building re-enforcements and walls, and should be used as part of a greater flood defence strategy that recognises the importance of protecting agricultural land and the place ICM plays in this. ICM should be incentivised by agri-environment schemes and taxation, practical work in the uplands can complement sustainable hill farming such as tree planting and measures to slow water has been shown to be successful in the prevention of flooding downstream.

With devolution of powers, the onus of funding and revenue raising is increasingly being imposed on local authorities. Rural authorities are smaller and their opportunities to increase growth limited, looking at land differently through its capability will help drive growth, however; 22% of the English population live in small and market towns. RICS urges government to extend the current devolution agenda to market towns, as well as Local Enterprise Partnerships thinking creatively about how market towns – and not just cities – can be enabled through funding, powers and mechanisms

Before its closure the Commission for Rural England reported that Rural England had the economic potential of the eight core cities minus London, and that its businesses had survived the recession better than urban based businesses. To continue the thriving nature of rural towns and boost new business start-ups, the Government must deliver on its broadband commitment, whether through established rollout methods or less conventional but cost effective methods. Local plans must also incorporate growth opportunities, including prioritising town centre rejuvenation and creating landscape or catchment scale zones with the right incentives to benefit land based industries in their enterprise zones.

The UK rural economy already contributes some £211bn, equivalent to 19% of GVA. It can do far more to bolster our economic recovery and help the rebalancing of growth across the regions. This requires a joined up approach, not just in Whitehall, but also at LEP level – and perhaps most importantly – at landscape scale too.  To continue and increase this productivity, and ensure sustainability of rural industries, the UK must start looking at rural in terms of what it is actually capable of not just what it can produce.