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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Forgotten opportunities: The dynamic role of the rural economy in post-Brexit Britain

This report presents a fresh, place-based approach to rural policy that addresses local, national and global issues effectively, and recommends the introduction of ‘rural devolution deals’ that would give local and combined authorities powers and obligations to improve food production and sustainability, the environment, industrial strategy and capital spending to support infrastructure and development.

Britain’s rural areas represent a forgotten opportunity. Their economic contribution – 16.6 per cent of GVA – derives from diverse activities; ‘traditional’ rural sectors such as agriculture and tourism operate alongside a growing presence of agri-tech, energy generation, and manufacturing. The latter accounts for the same proportion of the rural and the urban economy.

However, challenges arise from remoteness, lack of investment, mistaken or outdated assumptions about rurality, and the application of policies designed primarily for urban areas. Different elements of the rural economy are closely intertwined, relationships to urban neighbours are important, and rural places themselves are highly diverse. Policy for the rural economy in the 21st century needs to recognise this integration of issues and the importance of place.

For several decades the direction of rural policy has been substantially determined by tradition and by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Withdrawal from the EU brings the chance to take an innovative and transformative approach, updating agricultural policy and addressing new opportunities and challenges. A place-based approach to rural policy offers the best mechanism to deliver rural policy which both addresses national and global issues and responds effectively to local need and diversity.

We recommend ‘rural devolution deals’ in which central government sets ‘minimum obligations’ which local areas with a substantial rural component must meet. These should relate to food production and sustainability; environmental protection including flood prevention and decarbonisation; participation in the industrial strategy; and capital spending to support infrastructure and economic development. Local and combined authorities, working with local enterprise partnerships, should demonstrate how they will use devolved budgets to meet their obligations and add value.