ARE THE UPCOMING ELECTION MANIFESTOS FIT TO HELP RURAL BUSINESS?

SANDY FISHPOOL

ARE THE UPCOMING ELECTION MANIFESTOS FIT TO HELP RURAL BUSINESS?

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With the three main national political parties having published their manifestos, we’ve been looking at how far they’ll go in promoting a vibrant future for rural businesses and landowners, and whether enough is being done to support those living and working in the countryside.

Top of Rural Solutions’ asks are: planning policy that genuinely promotes sustainable economic development; certainty that we’ll get reliable, fast, affordable rural connectivity; and a commitment to rural housing, especially for people doing essential and important jobs in the countryside.

Joanne Halton, Head of Planning at Rural Solutions believes that rural areas are still blighted by poor connectivity in many places. “I’d like to see designated zones for siting network masts, taking off the table one of biggest hurdles facing providers”

All three main parties make manifesto pledges to improve broadband coverage in rural areas. The Conservative Party manifesto talks of gigabit services and promises greater mobile coverage across the UK, and the LibDems set their sights on superfast and high speed broadband, as well as mobile coverage.

But Joanne notes that none of the pledges would successfully address the problem of mobile 4G and 5G coverage in rural areas, for example: “We won’t get the connectivity levels political parties say they want without further relaxation of planning regulations. If any Government is serious about rural connectivity, it needs urgently to modify the regulation of mast locations and heights in designated scenic and historic areas, which encompass much of rural Britain.”

We’ve scoured all three manifestos hoping to see a bold vision to support sustainable economic growth in rural areas. It’s a missed opportunity all round: largely, the parties fall back on the countryside being about farming or environmental management. Rob Hindle, Executive Director at Rural Solutions commented: “At a time of economic uncertainty and climate action, we really hoped to see a commitment to the rural economy which goes beyond food production and environmental stewardship. Britain’s rural areas are important economic actors; they host a diverse range of enterprise and punch above their weight for new business start-ups. I’d have liked some acknowledgement of that, these businesses need workspace, good transport links, housing, facilities and services for workers as well as digital access to markets. That means a more enabling planning system (in policy and application), fair access to public services, and not assuming that support which helps urban business will work for their rural counterparts.”

We know that the rural communities are in desperate need of more affordable housing for carers, seasonal workers, people working in leisure and tourism, etc, and that rural areas can make a contribution to the wider national housing shortage. No manifesto identifies any specific rural approach on housing, and only the Conservatives recognise issues in the planning regime, with a commitment to simplify it for small builders and the public. 

Reading the manifestos, you could be forgiven for thinking that, at national political level, the rural economy really doesn’t register. We know that rural businesses are diverse and innovative, truly entrepreneurial. We’ll continue to press for more understanding of the realities, with evidence to show how smart government intervention could deliver a rural productivity boost and a valuable economic dividend. And we’re backing the CLA’s Rural Powerhouse campaign.

In the meantime, the enterprising estates and landowners we work with aren’t hanging about: they are seizing the moment to reshape and reposition, create their own solutions to infrastructure challenges, and when government catches up with them, we hope it acts to turbo charge their success.

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