Getting the green light

A less centralised approach to countryside issues will benefit rural economies
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The Independent Online

The decision in July by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to make RDAs decision-makers where rural economic and social policies are concerned, flowed from the review of rural economies conducted by Lord Haskins in the wake of the foot-and-mouth disaster.

The decision in July by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to make RDAs decision-makers where rural economic and social policies are concerned, flowed from the review of rural economies conducted by Lord Haskins in the wake of the foot-and-mouth disaster.

Haskins, the Government's rural adviser and Yorkshire Forward board member, concluded that the overlapping responsibilities and confused accountability between various public agencies involved in countryside support needed dealing with. To live up to their new responsibilities, RDAs will need to maintain good relationships with local authorities and other partners, including the new body which brings together and replaces the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Rural Development Service.

Richard Ellis, chair of the East of England Development Agency (EEDA), leads on rural issues for the RDAs. "We want to create a more transparent process," he says. "And by having a less centralised approach, the RDAs and our partners will be able to make decisions locally on how funding and resources are used, drawing on the expertise we have gained through the support programmes we have been running to regenerate countryside areas."

One message which Valerie Carter, head of rural development at South East England Development Agency, wants to stress is that the emphasis is not simply on the traditionally recognised poor rural areas - there are pockets of rural deprivation even in areas with high average wealth. This is true both of places with specific problems, such as Kent's former coalfield areas, and for many communities dependent on a changing agricultural industry. "Even in a more wealthy area you still have pockets of deprivation which are extremely difficult to address," she says.

RDAs have responded to the challenges by recognising that they have three roles: to influence, act as a catalyst and provide grants. Given the limited size of grant budgets, priority is given to generating other funds and this is particularly true in wealthier regions where budgets are smaller.

An example of how the three roles can work together can be seen in SEEDA's (the South East England Development Agency) intervention to support the South East Food Group Partnership. Historically, there had been nine separate local produce groups, based on smaller geographical areas, which each sought to promote locally grown food, but were in effect competing and diluting their efforts. SEEDA managed to bring these groups together to pool their marketing. This has led to a substantial grant from Defra for skills training and assists SEEDA in promoting tourism in the region through the link with local food produce.

The role of RDAs is becoming pivotal not just as a result of Defra's strategic review, but also because of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The shift in CAP support from production to environmental protection means that farmers need even greater assistance through economic diversification programmes. Among the strategies used by RDAs is the provision of grants for the redevelopment of farm buildings and business advice geared to helping farms move to non-food crops - for example by producing wood for energy and growing crops which are raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry.

Bryan Gray, chairman of the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA), says that an effective countryside strategy must begin with an analysis of the rural economy. "Farming represents just 5 per cent of GDP in the North-west and less than that nationally," he says. "But farming is critical to the tourism industry. So farming has a responsibility and role far beyond its size."

The significance of farming is even greater when its impact on the wider economy is considered, argues Gray. If more shops and shoppers can be persuaded to buy local produce, then this will assist not only directly with local economic development by retaining more locally generated wealth within the region, but also by reducing the congestion and pollution associated with long-distance food deliveries.

But in the North-west in particular, the countryside brings together a wider range of trade sectors than is immediately obvious. "There are 100,000 people working in the cultural industry [in the North-west], with a £1.7bn turnover, but these are not big name employers," says Gray. "In Cumbria, most towns in the Lake District have arts centres which help the 'tourism offering'." Theatres and sports organisations, whose role should not be underestimated, says Gray, are being supported by NWDA through grants, business advice and collective promotion.

Gray argues that it is as an influencer that RDAs can really make their mark. The Countryside Agency concentrated much of its effort on promoting transport links in the countryside in recognition of the problems of social isolation caused for people living in small villages - in particular, those of weak transport links and the challenge for school leavers and others in finding work if they have no car. This perspective is endorsed by RDAs and as the lead bodies promoting tourism they are aware of the importance to visitors of good transport links and the creation of attractive cycle networks.

As would be expected from the lead regeneration agencies, RDAs had already established themselves as playing a major role in providing a future for rural areas whose economic infrastructure is linked to the past - the pit villages of Kent, the Midlands and the North and the seaside towns which have been replaced as holiday destinations by the Mediterranean.

Information technology brings new opportunities to rural areas. Talking about One NorthEast's £10m scheme with BT to hook up every community in the North-east to broadband by February 2005, Alan Clarke, One NorthEast chief executive, says: "Expanding broadband access into rural areas brings real gains to rural businesses, allowing them to compete on an even-footing with urban competitors."

Michael Whitley, of Cambrai Aircraft, relocated to the East Yorkshire village of Langtoft but found his website so slow that important internet orders all but dried up. Yorkshire Forward's Business Insight programme connected him to satellite broadband, helping to secure international customers including the British Antarctic Survey team. Cambrai is now the biggest firm of its kind in Europe.

Richard Ellis, EEDA chair, stresses that this is just the beginning of the road for RDAs in providing a more coherent approach to rural economic development. Having been linked in the public mind in their first years very closely with urban regeneration, RDAs are determined to show that rural regeneration is equally important.

The Rural Business Centre

The Northwest Regional Development Agency has allocated £100m to reinvigorate and diversify its rural economy. An important element of this is a £1.1m rural business incubator, the Rural Business Centre, established at Myerscough College near Preston in Lancashire.

Enterprises which are initially based at the Rural Business Centre are given intensive support and encouragement, drawing on the wide range of technical expertise within the college. The intention is to fast-track companies until they reach a point where they can move back into rural areas, perhaps to occupy farm buildings refurbished through redundant buildings grants. It is hoped that they will grow to employ local labour in their new settings.

Early occupants have included a small business developing medical testing systems and another developing a low emissions city car. Only innovative enterprises are permitted to move into the units. The best ideas from the college's own 7,000 students will be rewarded with 12 months' free rental in the incubator.

Lorna Tyson, director of business development and enterprise at Myerscough College, says: "A lot of very good business concepts fail because people are unsure how to access relevant technical development sources, or simply because they cannot afford to rent the workspace they need. The incubator unit has outstanding facilities to encourage fast-track progress for committed entrepreneurs."

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