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A report by Fellows of the RSA has warned that instead of uniting the north, there are widespread concerns that the Northern Powerhouse will prove divisive and will widen the inequality gap by promoting city led growth at the expense of areas outside of the core cities. Maximising productivity is the greatest challenge for the Northern Powerhouse, but the city focus ignores the role and value of rural communities and the unprecedented changes in the way we live and work.

Published today, The Northern Powerhouse: Where do Market Towns fit in, details the findings of practical research in four communities across northern England.  The report argues that ignoring the role and value of rural communities will negatively impact on productivity, the core aim of the Northern Powerhouse agenda.  

The report concludes that the unprecedented changes in the way we live and work means that individually and collectively our urban and rural communities need to focus on smarter ways of combining resources (human, social, built, natural and financial) with technological changes and new business models to not only increase productivity but to redefine living well that embraces health, wealth and prosperity. 

RSA North West Chair, Rod Hyde FRSA said:

“The way we live and work has changed dramatically in the last decade and we need to find new ways of doing things”.

  • 76% of UK businesses do not employ anyone other than the owner
  • a quarter of these non-employing businesses make zero profits or operate at a loss
  • one in seven of the labour force now say they work for themselves
  • 30% of the increase in employment since 2010 has come from self employment
  • 20% of rural residents are self employed compared to 12% or urban residents
  • 75% of self employed workers earn £10,000 or less per annum
  • the number of commuters spending two or more hours travelling to and from work has increased by 72% over the last decade
  • net migration from urban to rural areas is increasing
  • rural poverty levels are increasing whilst urban poverty levels decrease, with inequality and earning potential gaps widening

Commenting on the report, author Kate Dodgson FRSA said:

“We are currently in a transitional period where industrial business models which demand physical presence at the place of work are not necessarily the most effective use of resources. Misalignment of skills and geographical and childcare barriers waste human talent and negatively impact on productivity and prosperity. Technological advances mean that work is something you do, not necessarily somewhere you go.  We have seen the detrimental impact of commuting not only on the individual but on the wider social and economic environment. The most productive companies are embracing new ideas, technological advances and adapting business models accordingly. They assess work and results, not presence and hours. We need a cultural change, to ensure more efficient, productive and fulfilling allocation of human talent.”

The report warns that national and regional strategies, designed centrally to overcome economic decline, are too generalised, overlook the specific challenges and opportunities of rural communities and ultimately fail to create impact at local level.  With rural poverty increasing, whilst urban poverty decreases, rural communities need to develop their own local solutions to address the widening inequality gap.  Centralised strategies miss the specific nuances that make rural communities special and unique. Community Capital, the report argues is the unique blend of human, social, built, natural and financial resources that define a town and attracts people to live, visit and work there. Weaknesses in one or more of the areas leads to decline and, if left unchecked impacts on future sustainability and ultimately productivity. 

Pam Warhurst FRSA, RSA Yorkshire Chair and co-founder of Incredible Edible added:

“We need opportunities for our young people to live well and prosper in a rural setting.  You don’t have to sit in the middle of Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool or anywhere else anymore in order to be a successful business person.  Let’s make sure the skills and infrastructure are there but we also need to redefine living well - health, wealth and prosperity, across the Northern Powerhouse”.

The report reveals a multitude of challenges facing rural communities in developing their own local solutions.  The main culprits being lack of trust, power, rivalry and a failure to collaborate resulting in ineffective peripheral or ‘pet’ projects.  Communities need to develop new skills the report argues, to enable them to identify core threats that impact on their sustainability and to develop local solutions that strengthen their Community Capital. 

The report recommends that to support and focus communities, Central Government should:

  • require local plans to consider the impact of the Northern Powerhouse on northern communities
  • consider the recommendations of NALC to implement some form of rural devolution. 

The Fellows of the RSA are launching two follow on projects.  The first focuses on skills shortage and misalignment and the role rural communities can play in developing relationships between businesses and education/training providers.  A second follow-up project will focus on hub working and business models that promote flexibility and optimise productivity.

The Incredible Edible team has also launched a project under the banner of the Northern Greenhouse to explore a new type of prosperity, one that embraces health, wealth and happiness. They want to identify people with the will to change, people who want to find a better way and to help them.    

Find out more

Download the Market Towns Initiative Report




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