Plunkett’s Head of Policy and Communications, Chris Cowcher shares his views on Levelling Up as part of the launch of our new Strategy.

Last week Plunkett launched a new 5 year strategy, with an ambition to grow the rural community business sector by 20% by 2026. The strategy was shared with members as part of our Annual General Meeting, an event which had been due to take place in person, at St Martin in the Fields, London.

At the last minute it was decided that the event should be moved online, recognising that our members and supporters travelling to the AGM faced potential disruption in the crowds that had descended on London, to commemorate and pay their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Online meetings clearly need to be shorter and as a result our AGM was run using a much reduced agenda. This meant that my (first ever) key note speech was no longer required.

I am sharing my presentation now as I had a few things I wanted to say, both in terms of making the case for recognising rural need and also for community ownership as part of the solution.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts, on what I was going to say.

My presentation read as follows:

Whilst the future direction of the Levelling Up agenda is somewhat unknown at present, as we transition between governments, what is clear is that the conversation triggered by the phrase “levelling up” will remain a focus for us all regardless of what Liz Truss’s administration does next.

The central principle; that the UK needs to redress the balance of power, is now something that all political parties are debating and taking a view on – and quite rightly so. It is clear to see a commitment; from government departments, from funders, from infrastructure bodies in our own sector is needed to ensure that those communities and regions that were previously left behind receive targeted support to level up in future.

In terms of answering the question, have rural communities been forgotten? I would say that they cannot be forgotten. It is clear that if Levelling Up is to succeed then a result of this should be that no one is disadvantaged by where they live – and that includes those living in the countryside.

An added but long-standing battle facing those living rural areas, is the misrepresentation of the “rural idyll”. Too many people assume that living in the countryside is only for affluent people, and that the residents that live there aren’t facing the same kind of challenges as those living in more built up and urban areas.

Even in our world of work, the community-owned businesses supported by Plunkett Foundation are sometimes misrepresented by others as ‘hobby projects’ of a wealthy, middle class – completely ignoring the transformative impact these businesses are playing in their community. The ownership of an asset; be it a pub, shop, woodland, library, sports building or any other facility is not in itself the main ambition of the army of volunteers behind these community projects. It is what happens within the assets, or by using these assets for local benefit once they are in community-ownership where the real impact truly exists.

In answering the question about whether rural communities have been forgotten in this moment, I broke my presentation up in to four areas, as follows.

I have grown up, been educated and now, following a stint in Swansea whilst at University, live and work in rural areas. The countryside is in my blood. I have worked in village shops, been the licensee of a rural pub, played for village sports teams, volunteered for local projects and genuinely tried to get involved with the communities in which I have lived in. I know first-hand how important it is that local service centres remain open and available to all, in order to create the opportunities I have benefited from and to feel included in the places where have I lived.

However, I can also share personal experiences of how living in a rural area can be incredibly isolating and can exacerbate other challenges we face. I have lived with depression my entire adult life. When my mind is in good health, my depression is a mild annoyance but when it is bad I have in the past needed to access support. On one such occasion, having spoken to my doctor ‘talking therapies’ were offered as a way of helping me manage. I found these sessions incredibly helpful, but owing to where I lived I had an hour and half round trip to attend the meetings. This seemed a long way to go to get the help I needed and was completely reliant on me having a car. Given where my thoughts also were at that time, the commute meant the benefits of the sessions were not always felt immediately.

The reason I use my own mental health as an example of feeling isolated in a rural area is because this is often an unseen or “hidden” illness. This very much so resonates with the fact that the challenges and inequalities faced by many living in rural areas are also often hidden. Particularly so when reviewing statistical data, including the Indices of Multiple Deprivation that can lead to vulnerable rural residents missing out on interventions and support because they appear to live in a community with little need.

Plunkett Foundation is a member of the Rural Coalition, representing our members’ interests alongside 12 other organisations that subscribe to a vision of a living and working countryside in England. As a collective we have long championed the need to rural proof policy, funding allocations and the delivery of support and services to ensure that the needs of disadvantaged rural residents are considered. Recently, one of the members of the Coalition, the Rural Services Network commissioned a piece of research which was completed by Pragmatix consultancy. It considers whether government’s Levelling Up agenda, appropriately measures change in the countryside. The research highlighted that the proposed metrics; which will assess Levelling Up progress, do not in fact properly account for the pressures facing our smaller towns and villages and as a result effectively side-line 12 million people.

Their work argued that the metrics are too urban-focused, and do not account for disadvantage in rural economies within regions, often linked to limited local employment prospects, poor transport networks and weak connectivity. The research called for the Government to rethink its choice of metrics and include more rural-relevant indicators such as work placed based incomes, fuel poverty levels, access to further education and house prices relative to local earnings. The case is strengthened further when considering the impact of the current cost of living, with rural areas being especially hard hit – for example, the ONS estimates that rural households pay £27 a week more on transport and £4 a week more on food than people in urban areas.

Interestingly the Pragmatix research findings actually highlighted the fact that if “rural” was a region, rather than a collective of communities dispersed across the country it would be the most deprived region (relative to population) in the country and in desperate need of ‘levelling up’. Therefore rural cannot be forgotten at this time.

Encouragingly key Government funding programmes, such as the Community Ownership Fund have to date supported a good number of rural projects. Nearly 46% of all successful applicants come from rural communities. However it is funds like this one that could be doing more, recognising how it could transform supported communities. There are well publicised flaws to the fund, particularly around match fund requirements which will prohibit some local areas from benefiting. The fact it is delivered centrally, cutting across agendas in the devolved nations is also not conducive with a programme which aims to support local, community power. Finally, the Community Ownership Fund would be deemed a success if a set number of local assets came in to community control as a result of the funding – this is a missed opportunity and does not fully consider the role the fund could play in creating “more than” just community-owned assets. It is what happens within these assets that matters most; from service provision, to positive environmental action, from creating inclusive spaces to raising funds for wider community benefit. These impacts should be the priority for the fund.

From our own experience, Plunkett recognises that a community-owned business can also play a significant role in the local commerce; through job creation, volunteering and training opportunities and also through working with an extensive network of suppliers. Given our new government has made the economy a clear priority, it is therefore important that we use this moment to champion the role of smaller businesses in rural areas and their contribution to productivity and growth.

Rural businesses in England account for around 16% of the nation’s economic output, in Scotland it is just under a third (31.8%), it is a similar figure for Wales and 25% in Northern Ireland. And whilst the assumption might be that many of these businesses are related to agriculture and farming this is not the case. A multi-industry rural economy is a key component to sustaining the countryside through job creation, retention of services and enriching people’s lives through social interaction. The small but growing network of community-owned businesses are therefore playing a key role.

Given that community businesses are owned by local residents, run by local residents for the benefits of local residents their operations are very much influenced by local priorities and address identified need. We need to use levelling up as a way of super charging community action and growing this hugely impactful sector. There are proposals included within the Government’s White Paper that will support change, including a review of the community rights legislation which supports community-ownership projects. But we need to do more and there is a clear role for infrastructure bodies to help build capacity and confidence within communities, to the lead the change in their area.

A clear priority for us all is supporting the next generation of rural residents because they are the future for a thriving countryside. In a survey of more than 1,000 young people living in rural areas carried out in 2021, CPRE, the Countryside Charity found that just 43% of them planned to remain there in the long term. Only 1 in 5 (18%) thought that the future looked bright.

The report demonstrated how rural depopulation is on the rise, with young people reporting that they felt driven out of rural areas by a lack of affordable housing, along with poor digital connectivity and public transport limiting their employment and social opportunities. Local residents can be empowered to address some of these challenges, including through them working with proactive developers building appropriate homes in the places they are needed most. The rural transport network also needs an overhaul to make that the journeys on offer connect up the services; including health, social, education, employment, retail etc. at the times people need them most. Most of all, it is young people that need to be supported to the lead the changes we need.

In conclusion, I do not think that rural communities have been forgotten in relation to levelling up but it is clear that the delivery of this key societal agenda will need to be mindful that a “one-cap-fits-all” approach does not work. I have made the case for rural communities in the broadest terms in my presentation, however I could equally have set out the differing definitions of rurality UK-wide and a provided a much longer list setting out the unique needs in different areas.

We have a hugely diverse nation and it is important that community empowerment is not something that is delivered centrally. Communities in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales need to be trusted and supported to deliver what their community needs. If levelling up is to succeed then I fully believe that a measure of its success will be a flourishing network of community-owned businesses, the length and breadth of the country.

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