Long-term government neglect of the UK’s countryside economy has eaten into rural productivity, stifling growth and leading to disillusionment with the Conservative party, MPs have warned.
Ministers’ failure to include specific policies for rural communities in their strategy for “levelling up” left-behind areas was the latest example, according to a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Rural Powerhouse.
The group said problems such as inadequate rural broadband, a lack of jobs and a “broken” planning system could be addressed with low-cost measures to help reduce what it said was an 18 per cent productivity gap between rural and urban areas.
These should include government curbs on the pricing power of supermarkets, 50,000 more visas annually for overseas harvest workers, training vouchers for rural enterprises and planning measures to prioritise small-scale developments in the countryside, the MPs said.
They said no government “in recent memory has had a programme to unlock the economic and social potential of the countryside”.
The crossbench peer Lord Ewen Cameron said: “It is vital that government understands that rural Britain is not a museum, but instead is an important part of the national economy that deserves the chance to succeed.”
Polling by Survation for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents landowners, said that in five of the UK’s most rural counties, voters were shifting allegiances.
Some 46 per cent of respondents had voted Conservative at the last general election but only 38 per cent now say they intend to do so in upcoming local elections, while 36 per cent plan to vote Labour.
Mark Tufnell, CLA president, said in rural areas “homes are often unaffordable for local families”.
He added: “Well-paid jobs can be scarce. And broadband can be painfully slow. All this leads to an exodus of talented people who are too often forced to move to more urban areas.”
The MPs also called for government to simplify the tax system for diversified businesses characteristic of the countryside and to produce a connectivity road map for the 15 per cent of houses that are hardest to reach, with “tangible targets for those left behind”.
Rural affairs minister Richard Benyon said: “We welcome this report and its recommendations. Rural areas are at the heart of our vision for levelling up; I want businesses and people in remote areas to do as well as those in inner cities.
“We have already announced over £2.6bn [of funding] via the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, and we will be saying more about rural funding shortly.”