Ask what we can do for our countryside

Jim Knight

Jim Knight takes the public temperature (via Storify) on rural unemployment

As the Westminster bubble was fizzing with comment about the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, I used Lords question time to raise the issue of rural jobs.

A search of Lord Heseltine’s report on growth finds only one significant mention of rural growth. He talks about the £15m announcement of funding for five Rural Growth Network pilots.  Compare that average of £3m to £130m for just one of eight city deals and no wonder rural areas feel hard done by.

I tested opinion on Twitter and Facebook (see my Storify). Alice Adcock was one of many that responded, summing up the challenge: “Is there any help for people over age of 25 (I'm 26), to get a job? Applied for 96 since middle Oct this year throughout Wilts!”

Others talk of the higher cost of living via housing, transport, fuel and food in more remote locations, where lack of competition and higher costs of supply drive up prices.  Add to that the relatively low level of pay and the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Boards and it is no wonder that other respondents on my Storify, such as Isobel Waby, want a rural living wage.

The challenge is clear. As is the anger at the government’s inaction – summed up by FOIKid wanting me to bluntly ask the minister “when he plans to create any”, Mat Roberts who says “a great fanfare in spring but Rural Growth Network pilots have yet to go beyond a photo op. why?” and Frances Thackway’s tweet “When will LEPs get real firepower? Dorset LEP has no real resources. Can borrow £9m.”

And what do people want done?

Many agree with the Countryside Alliance, which has provided a briefing for this question that focuses on the need for high bandwidth broadband in rural areas to enable business to start and grow whilst at the same time enjoying the quality of life of the countryside. Others like Stephen Heppell go further: “in a world where there are so many high quality professional jobs that can be done on-line from home, why are there no digital apprenticeships to train people for those jobs available in rural areas? Why would you have to go elsewhere to learn to work from home!”

Not surprisingly the usual rural refrain about transport is present; as it the growing call for help with child minding too. Some want to create jobs by building more affordable housing or more small business incentives.

What all are agreed on is that leaving it to the market in rural areas doesn’t work.  The sparse population means the dynamic of the market doesn’t really deliver. That is what the last Labour government set up Regional Development Agencies to help with; and what the Coalition’s Local Enterprise Partnerships are now struggling with. 

As we saw again today with the Chancellor offering nothing specific on rural employment, there is still no sign that he’s ready to listen and act.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords

Published 5th December 2012

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