Lords report: Rural committees ‘ignored and underrated for too long’

An influential House of Lords Committee report has called on the Government to develop a rural strategy and help realise the potential of rural economies.

Lord Foster of Bath, chairman of the Select Committee on the Rural Economy, said rural communities and their economies had been “ignored and underrated for too long”.

“We must act now to reverse this trend, but we can no longer allow the clear inequalities between the urban and rural to continue unchecked,” he said.

“A rural strategy would address challenges and realise the potential in struggling and under-performing areas and allow vibrant and thriving areas to develop further. Doing nothing is not an option.”

Key recommendations

The report sets out a range of recommendations across different policy areas to tackle the challenges facing the rural economy.

These include:

  • Putting together a comprehensive rural strategy, to set out its ambition for rural areas;
  • This strategy should be implemented at a local-level through ‘place-based’ approaches;
  • ‘Rural-proofing’ relevant policies and legislation to the needs of rural communities and rural economies;
  • A review of funding for rural transport;
  • A review of the tax system to consider whether the current system is putting off farmers and rural small businesses from investing in diversification;
  • As part of its review into tenancy agreements, the Government should also address restrictions on tenant farmers that may prevent diversification;
  • Local Government and other public bodies should develop their own local rural strategies consistent with the Government framework, and be responsible and accountable for their implementation.

The Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) was among those to welcome the report’s findings.

The TFA’s chief executive, George Dunn, who was among those who provided evidence to the committee, said:
“As we move more towards a policy around public payments from public goods and seeing a reduced focus on supporting agriculture per se, we need to make sure that farm tenants are not disenfranchised in the process.

The TFA was disappointed that the Agriculture Bill, currently awaiting report stage in the House of Commons, contained no provisions to improve the position of farm tenants.

“This was despite the recognition that change was necessary not least following the report of the Tenancy Reform Industry Group submitted to Government in autumn 2017.

“We are pleased that the Government has now come forward with a consultation on possible changes to tenancy legislation, which includes a suggested provision for allowing tenants greater flexibility to use their holdings for non-agricultural activities, such as diversification and involvement in environmental schemes.

“However, it is vital that we do not lose the opportunity within the current legislative window to get the necessary provisions in place. The TFA hopes that their Lordships will take the opportunity of supporting amendments to the Bill if it leaves the House of Commons without adequate amendment.”

CLA president Tim Breitmeyer added: “We are pleased that the unique circumstances of the rural economy have been recognised by the Lords which advocates for a dedicated rural strategy.

The report clearly highlights how the ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy approach of successive governments has left the countryside lacking in terms of housing, employment and skills, broadband and mobile connectivity, as well as access to key services such as banks, healthcare, schools and shops.

“These are all issues which have fuelled a growing urban/rural divide and which can only be solved through planning and funding systems that proactively deliver on the three objectives of sustainable development – economy, community and the environment.

“More specifically, the report proposes to ring-fence part of the shared prosperity fund for rural communities – critical for a fair deal for the countryside.

“Only a holistic strategy embedded across Government will be able to tackle these issues head-on and unleash the potential of a thriving sustainable rural economy enabling people to access better quality jobs and housing in the countryside.”