What images does the UK countryside conjure up in your mind? If you are a town dweller, you may think of thatched cottages and country pubs. You may even hope to move to some pretty little village when you retire. Some rural inhabitants might provide more pragmatic responses: high property prices, lack of employment opportunities and difficulties involved in accessing public services. The reality is that our countryside, and our ideas about it, are full of contradictions.
The UK, and England in particular, is unusual in that rural areas are seen as highly desirable places where many aspire to live. But the reality is much more complex and poses potential challenges for policymakers, particularly looking ahead to an uncertain future following our departure from the EU.
It is likely that anyone thinking about rurality will mainly focus on agriculture. Farming has shaped the UK landscape as we know it and we all expect to see crops (like wheat, or bright yellow oilseed rape), green fields grazed by cows and sheep and, perhaps, even some outdoor raised pigs or free range poultry. As soon as you venture beyond urban areas, agriculture is a highly visible industry. But it is only one part of a much larger rural economy.
Agriculture certainly helps to ensure our food security and contributes to our national exports, and it also maintains familiar landscapes and provides a range of public goods. In the post Brexit world we need to consider carefully the implications for farming, and that’s what our team working on the Brexit priority grant project “How might UK Agriculture Thrive or Survive?” is doing.
Equally important, however, are the other rural-based industries that are woven into the fabric of the rural economy. Many are directly or indirectly linked into farming. Ripping out agriculture would not only leave a gaping hole, it would also unravel other fundamental threads that maintain the economic life of the countryside. The vet, land agent, ecologist, legal and financial advisers who provide support to farmers, the agricultural suppliers, the small retailers who supply goods to farming families, and many more businesses, are all knitted into that same fabric.
We argue, therefore, that agriculture cannot be considered in isolation within the post Brexit policy landscape. Rural dwellers have always displayed a high degree of entrepreneurial spirit, with more new start-ups per head than towns and cities achieve. It would be not only inequitable, but wasteful for the UK economy, if post Brexit policymaking ignored this huge potential.
What does the countryside need in order to thrive in a post Brexit world? The Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) at Newcastle University has carried out research on rural issues for 25 years and although we don’t have all the answers, particularly at this time of uncertainty, we have at least pinned down some of the questions that policymakers should consider.
We argue that post Brexit policy has to build on what has worked effectively during our membership of the EU, as well as looking for new opportunities. Take, for example, the LEADER programme: it has been shown to be an effective means of encouraging and promoting rural enterprise. Leader is a French acronym (Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l’Économie Rurale) and refers to support for rural development to local communities through grassroots strategies.
Will Brexit mean an end to this valuable project, or can a UK-based successor continue its work? New and developing businesses need suitable premises, a skilled workforce, affordable places for them to live, appropriate infrastructure, including broadband access, in order to thrive. In the countryside basic requirements of this kind may be in short supply and policy attention in each of these areas would be helpful.
One particular area of enterprise – the creative industries – may merit new consideration. Ranging from IT and design companies, to architectural practices and individual arts and crafts practitioners, this sector grew by three times the national average from 2008 to 2012. Many such enterprises begin as micro businesses and the countryside seems to be an increasingly attractive location for creative start-ups.
In rural premises, of course, high speed broadband is essential, enabling such a firm to trade far beyond a local, or even a national, customer base. Some areas have created basic facilities, available at a low rent, which can be attractive to this type of small enterprise.
Policymakers have a challenging time ahead. Over the next few years, as Brexit unfolds, there will be a vast array of questions requiring their attention and these will affect the livelihood of millions of people both in urban and rural areas. The removal of the Common Agricultural Policy in the UK certainly does demand urgent consideration.
Should farm subsidies continue, in whatever form? Removal or serious reductions in subsidy could have implications for food prices and the viability of businesses. At the moment farmers are required to meet “good agricultural and environmental condition” standards if they are to qualify for subsidies. Removal of such obligations could have serious consequences for our soil and water, habitats and wildlife and our landscape features. Animal welfare could also suffer if farmers move to more intensive production systems and regulation is weakened.
There is also a whole range of public goods provided by farmers, beyond food. Should they be supported on the basis of their input to landscape management, ecology, clean water and carbon storage, and should that be via public subsidy or private investment or both? What part must regulation play? And, in the long term, would we have an agricultural budget at all? These are questions that require debate. But it’s also vital that they are considered in the wider context of rural development.
Agriculture is one element in a complex pattern. If the UK countryside is to fulfil its potential a holistic approach is needed that will nurture the full range of rural businesses – from the farm that helps to supply our supermarket chains, to the micro business that another member of the farming family, or an early retiree who has just moved to the countryside, or a young school leaver, may be launching on their kitchen table.
Anne Liddon is the Science Communications Manager at the Centre for Rural Economy, based at Newcastle University. After Brexit: 10 key questions for rural policy is available to download from the CRE website.