Launched with a flurry of grand statements, the ‘Levelling up the UK’ White Paper promised to ‘break the link between geography and destiny, so that no matter where you live you have access to the same opportunities’.
Rural areas in England have long suffered from historical underfunding by successive governments. Rural councils will receive some 37 per cent (£105) per head less in Settlement Funding Assessment than their urban counterparts in 2022/23.
As a result, council tax in rural areas has increased steadily to help balance budgets, with rural residents paying, on average, 21 per cent (£104) per head more than those in urban areas.
Everyone can support the White Paper’s four headline aims: to boost productivity, spread opportunity, restore a sense of pride and belonging, and empower local leaders and communities. It’s how these will be delivered and monitored in a rural context that is missing.
Productivity in rural areas is 83 per cent of that for England as a whole, with predominantly rural areas accounting for 22 per cent of the population, but contributing around 15 per cent economically.
The high cost of housing in rural areas, combined with lower average wages and the significantly higher fuel-poverty gap in which many rural households find themselves, has created a perfect storm for the current cost-of-living crisis.
“Funding to meet change on the scale envisaged is not set out clearly”
Funds available as part of the levelling up agenda should assess the standards of living achievable in different locations given local labour market conditions, to distribute funding to those areas in need.
The measures and metrics in the White Paper need to be available at a suitably micro level to enable the pockets of deprivation in rural areas to be acknowledged with support targeted appropriately.
Using county or regional averages often masks smaller clusters, which are either ignored or left behind in any policy interventions. The Government must acknowledge the differentials within rural areas that need to be addressed.
The White Paper is light on details regarding which bodies will be charged with delivery. Local government will clearly have a key role to play, but additional funding to meet change on the scale envisaged is not set out clearly, nor is the current funding gap addressed.
While we welcome the focus on digital connectivity and improved mobile connectivity, this is almost the only place in the whole document that makes substantive reference to rural areas.
Unfortunately, there is a long history of broken promises in relation to access to high-quality broadband for rural areas.
There is real concern that the Government could achieve many of its 12 missions set out in the White Paper without addressing the pressing challenges that rural communities face around the increased cost of service delivery, productivity, wage levels, the ageing demographic, access to skills, training and transport, and a social care sector on its knees.
Can the White Paper deliver levelling up for rural areas? It can, but it needs to measure the current status quo at the right level, and introduce targeted interventions, delivered locally, that meet rural challenges and enable our rural areas to achieve their full potential. Unless such efforts are made, the verdict on the levelling up White Paper from the rural perspective will be ‘could do better’. This would be a serious lost opportunity to transform rural services.