The key messages from last month’s annual National Rural Conference were loud and clear: the importance of rural areas to the national economy and ‘revitalising rural’.
As Chair of the Rural Services Network (RSN), which hosted the conference, I was delighted to see almost 400 delegates from across our membership take part.
The contributions of such a wide range of organisations from our local authority and extended membership across rural England reinforces the importance of rural debate and the rural voice.
The conference emphasised that rural issues cannot be considered in isolation. The rural economy is interdependent with the provision of affordable housing, rural connectivity, transport, and access to health and care services, which need to be fairly funded in rural areas.
The RSN is working to ensure that government incorporates rural needs in its plans for levelling up the country, post-pandemic. RSN’s Revitalising Rural campaign, to be launched this autumn, has a series of policy asks to ensure that rural areas have the same opportunities as urban ones to develop and realise their potential.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine and revitalise rural communities”
The conference focused on ‘revitalising rural’ and five key issues, which form part of the wider range of subjects in the Revitalising Rural campaign. Among the key asks for each policy area discussed in the conference were:
- Rural economy – the Government should create a dedicated rural funding stream of a proportionate size within the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
- Rural connectivity – the Government should formalise its commitment to bring forward the nationwide rollout of full-fibre broadband networks to 2025, and use its Better Bus Strategy to improve existing routes and restore valued routes between rural towns.
- Rural housing – the Government should rethink proposals that will decimate affordable housing provision in rural areas.
- Rural environment – the Government should incentivise homeowners to boost energy efficiency by creating a net-zero retrofit programme.
- Rural health and wellbeing – health hubs should be created in rural towns, providing treatments and tests that would otherwise require travel to a main hospital, and the NHS Workforce Plan should address severe NHS staff shortages in many rural areas.
Consultations on proposed changes to the current planning system and the ‘Planning for the future’ White Paper formed a key theme throughout the week. Delegates were treated to an erudite session, with Lord Best, Chair of the Affordable Housing Commission, sharing his insights on both contentious issues.
Martin Collett, of English Rural Housing, perhaps captured the mood of the conference best with his final thoughts, saying: “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine and revitalise rural communities.
“If we are creative, collaborative and, with the right policy framework, supported by all levels of government, we can together help rural communities to thrive. But to do this, the most fundamental ingredient is more affordable rural homes.”
In his summing up, Graham Biggs, Chief Executive of the RSN, said: “We know that progress cannot be made in rural areas until the Government delivers a fairer distribution of national resources to rural areas and more nuanced policy decisions to reflect the rural context.”