Government gets smart about rural growth

This week saw the launch of the Government’s Rural Economy Growth Review, as part of the package of measures in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. And it was actually pretty good.

The focus on supporting enterprise that will work with the grain and character of rural areas is very welcome. This sort of approach is at the heart of a smart growth agenda for rural areas.

There are real opportunities for nurturing clusters of like-minded entrepreneurs and businesses, located locally and trading on the fundamental assets of a rural area (their landscapes, heritage, produce, skills).

The Government’s plans, if delivered in a way that respects and enhances local assets and character properly, can help to breathe life back into rural economies.

Growing local opportunities

There’s a real opportunity with the pilot Rural Growth Networks (PDF 60kb) to walk the walk and focus on showing how real ‘green growth’ can be delivered. We’ll be watching out for opportunities to play a part in the schemes if they can demonstrate these characteristics.

We’re delighted to see funding of £60 million from Rural Development Programme for England on Growth (PDF 67kb) being targeted at areas such as rural tourism, renewable energy and micro-businesses in the agri-food and forestry sectors.

There are huge opportunities to make this complementary to the funds being invested in environmental improvements under existing and new agri-environment schemes funded through CAP and there’s a need for this ‘twin track’ to be coherent.

We’re also pleased to see this money aimed at upland areas, where marginal farming enterprises need this kind of specific help to diversify and build on their own special qualities e.g. like our Yew Tree Farm in Borrowdale tenanted by John and Caroline Watson.

Boost for rural tourism 

The additional £25 million for rural tourism (PDF 70kb) is also a welcome injection. The focus on developing tourism opportunities based on some of our most special areas of countryside (AONBs) is sensible, given their contribution to the overall character of the landscape.

We’re keen to help develop these initiatives and to prove just how powerful they can be in not only stimulating local ‘green growth’ but also in promoting local health initiatives and growing support for and appreciation of the countryside on people’s doorsteps.

Community renewables

The new £15 million fund to encourage community renewables schemes is welcome. We’ve been disappointed by the negative signals sent by the recent retreat on Feed in Tariffs. A burgeoning renewables sector and growing public enthusiasm for switching to non-fossil fuels have both suffered significant knocks as a result.

This measure goes a small way to recapturing some of the impetus behind the commitments we need to make in switching to renewables. But it could go further and we hope that the relatively limited ambition of only up to 150 schemes being delivered over 4 years can be revised upwards as demand increases.

Reviewing the risks

The measures in the Rural Economy Growth Review are a good start, even if they’re not a panacea for all ills. The focus on deregulation, as seen in the loosening of rules around farm building conversions, only works if there are robust, well-informed local plans to underpin the quality of local rural landscapes.

There’s a danger that ‘green growth’ could be seen as simply promoting economic activity focussed around renewables technologies and associated industries.

From green growth to smart growth

Smart growth means much more than this. It means thinking about growth in social and environmental, as well as economic, terms, and meeting multiple needs while being true to an area’s special character and distinctiveness.

But the fact that the Review was published on the same day as the Chancellor’s gloomy economic statement surely offers some comfort for rural areas that their particular needs are being considered.

Patrick Begg, National Trust Rural Enterprises Director

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