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An inclusive rural economy that works for local communities. Could the reality be closer than imagined?

Something great has just happened in a village near to the one I live in. A community bus has started running; apparently it has taken ten years to get going.

This 'decade in the making' service is not the only one of its type around here either - a few miles to the west is another, owned by people in four adjacent villages. That one was started perhaps fifteen years ago - in part with the awarding of an EU rural development grant, back when it was not uncommon for these funds to be used for such community-led collaborations.

Actually, those types of EU funds can still be used for such collaborative purposes, although you would not necessarily know this, given how they have been promoted in recent years in England. Sure, there has been money available for socio-economic purposes here, but it has been focused largely on grant aid to individual businesses.

Maybe this suggests there is an expectation that trickle-down economics will help address constraints on growth of the rural economy, such as immovable landscape features or inadequate transport infrastructure. Perhaps though, what constitutes sensible investment in the rural economy has not been thought about seriously. One 2017 study from Newcastle University stated that “assumptions are made about rural economies that focus too narrowly on agriculture and tourism”. It is also the case that public policy in England has funneled a significant portion of EU rural development funding towards individual businesses in these fields since 2015. Is this really where the greatest need is though?

So, here is a contentious thought. Do individual rurally-located businesses really need public funding, above and beyond enterprises seeking to make a profit elsewhere? Some applicants for funding under the current LEADER programme, an EU 'community-led' rural regeneration initiative, already sell to boutique West End stores or global sporting events. Whilst not wishing to underplay the economic and creative contributions these businesses make to wider society, do they provide a greater public good than, say, England’s 10,000 community-owned village halls?

There is no strategic and dedicated investment fund for village halls – yet, amongst other things, they function as workspaces, theatres, sports centres and venues for childcare. Village halls are infrastructure and research by ACRE, a charity focused on rural communities, suggests that 70,000 jobs operate from them each year . The way halls are funded, however, is akin to every village in the country raising funds through tolls, charitable trusts, Parish Council precept, donations and the like in order to build and maintain roads, whilst Government happily gives grants to luxury car manufacturers instead.

The story is very similar to those of the community transport schemes. Buses are bought with buttons and beans, acquired over the course of years.

It does not need to be like this though; HM Treasury has its ‘Green Book’, which sets out a framework for all manner of public investment. It actually contains a short section on 'rural proofing' - i.e. a requirement to consider how any policy can be delivered in a rural location. To my mind, this is about an economy that works for all; inclusive growth even! Yet failure to delivery on this suggests that the Treasury framework is not being respected.

In the summer of 2018 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its report Tackling Transport-related Barriers to Employment in Low-income Neighbourhoods. In this was a call for improved integration of employment and transport services. I work for a charity that understands this need all too well; our staff have taken people from villages to interviews, to training and even to work, simply because there is no public or community transport available - let alone countywide coverage from a 'wheels to work' scheme. We have helped 800 people into work in recent years, often using charitable funds to do so and therefore subsidising government programmes that have not been rural-proofed adequately in the process.

Moving forward there is, perhaps, hope. A new Agriculture Bill is up for consideration - although it seems light on the type of community-led rural regeneration espoused within the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) it seeks to replace.

There is the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) to shape as well. Although not specifically rural, might this be a true home for LEADER, something originally dreamt up in recognition of how a combination of agricultural and regional policy has failed rural areas and which also enabled the sharing of expertise between rural areas? If so, would this provide a renewed focus on the LEADER 'community-led' approach as a means of tackling deprivation in rural areas?

Radical change is not really necessary. We already have a policy framework, but it is simply not one that is being utilised in the most strategic manner. We have rural people and rural charities subsidising the state due to poorly thought-out policy - so we know we can innovate. We have endured rural funding programmes that have been a little too simplistic in application, rather than receiving investment in the wider infrastructure (both human and physical) that makes the economies of rural communities work, but there is opportunity to help design their successors.

We have the foundations for something good here. If our conversations - including through the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission - are both civil and engaging then maybe we will not need to wait ten years to see positive results which can help the economies of our rural communities run a little more smoothly.

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