When I was asked to chair the North Yorkshire Rural Commission – the first of its kind in the country – myself and my fellow commissioners were only too familiar with the long-standing challenges facing rural communities, especially those across the sparsely-populated expanse of our county.
The presenting issues of isolation, poor digital connectivity, threatened farm businesses, poor public transport provision, tiny schools, and a lack of affordable houses, not to mention the challenges and opportunities of climate change and the UK’s departure from the EU, were obvious to everyone before we began our work.
North Yorkshire County Council must be commended for setting up the commission as an independent body, and for having the courage to accept that its findings would be challenging.
Our vision, and one we have shared with stakeholders including government, is for a county that safeguards its undeniable beauty, secures adequate connectivity, and confidently embraces the future.
A key challenge is to revitalise rural areas so they become attractive to the missing generations of young people who do not live and work in the region.
This missing generation relates to all of the themes examined by the commission: unaffordability of housing for this age group; school closures because of lack of demand; the people to drive a forward-looking green economy; depleting services because of a declining population; and a skewed older age group. We are clear: devolution is a priority to achieving effective levelling up for rural and remote North Yorkshire. We need those additional powers and funding from central government so the devolved authority has real capacity within the region for decision making and control of significant funding.
Our report, ‘Rural North Yorkshire: the way forward’, came from many hours of active listening to people who live and work in our rural communities – to experts in the seven topics we explored – from visits and from submitted written evidence.
The report explores seven key themes – rural economy, energy transition, digital connectivity, farming and land management, rural housing, rural transport, and rural schools, education and training.
The commission firmly supports the region’s ambition to become a ‘green lung’, and to lead on training and employment in the green economy and a revolutionary energy transition.
We now commend our report to those at national, regional and local levels who must respond to its vision and recommendations, and we have asked for a task force to be set up to take this vision and these recommendations forward.
There is much at stake for the future of our region. Our report is timely as we emerge from the pandemic and re-examine our priorities, and as North Yorkshire moves on into unitary forms of government, with all the possibilities for innovation and strong leadership that this affords.