Hamish McRae: Good idea, Prince Charles. Let's try it on towns as well as the country

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The Independent Online

'Finding ways of unlocking entrepreneurship is a universal need because entrepreneurs provide jobs'

Why stop with the countryside? The Prince of Wales's new action plan to help stop rural decline carries a kernel of truth about ways in which damaging economic changes can be reversed elsewhere.

The plan is intended to counter the risks of collapse in the rural way of life in the aftermath of the foot-and-mouth catastrophe. But in seeking ways to support rural lives it touches on ways in which people who rarely go to the countryside can enrich their lives. Indeed, understanding the problems of the rural economy is to understand why many people feel uncomfortable about the way economic forces seem to be creating new divisions in society.

The plan has been drawn up by Business in the Community, which up until now has focused its main efforts at tackling problems of the inner cities. The problems of deprived inner-city areas might seem a long way from those of the countryside but in fact there are many parallels. Some are surprising.

Take isolation: you might imagine that is a problem for the countryside, not the town. Yet thanks to the housing planners, people living on "bad" estates are almost as cut off from the city around about them as people living in the middle of the countryside. I recall visiting a west London estate (under the auspices of Business in the Community) and being told by a young West Indian that the only way he got his job was to give a false address. Admitting you lived on a troubled estate meant that no one would take you on. Yet this estate is a couple of miles from some of the most expensive homes in London.

The Business in the Community launched three initiatives and plans a fourth. One is to build local enterprise communities: getting businesses to help local entrepreneurs. The idea here is to help people who want to start businesses with the problems of coping with bureaucracy, preparing business plans and marketing. One specific thing that seems to have worked is making the "pub the hub" – using pubs as bases to replace local services that have disappeared: a post office and a store.

A second idea is to try to revitalise market towns: there is a pilot scheme in Yorkshire. And the third is to encourage people to buy produce locally. This goes for businesses as well as individuals – the idea being that companies like Sainsbury's and Spar source locally. Finally, Business in the Community is going to look at the need for affordable housing in rural areas.

Now apply all these ideas to the country as a whole. Finding ways of unlocking entrepreneurship is a universal need, for entrepreneurs provide the jobs of tomorrow. One of the reasons why the UK has been growing faster than most of continental Europe over the past two decades has been a higher rate of business start-ups. And the barriers to starting a business are just as great in the town and the suburbs as in the country.

The techniques used to try to revive market towns apply equally to cities. One of the most interesting features of market towns is how some are still flourishing while others are in trouble. The gap between failure and success is a narrow one, for once a town starts to head down the spiral becomes self-reinforcing. The loss of a local employer hits the trade in local shops; some shut, so people don't bother to come in because they know they need to drive a bit further to the rival town anyway. Then the petrol station closes so they have to drive over to fill up.

Much the same happens to suburbs and local shopping streets. Economic activity attracts more economic activity and vice versa. So a street or an area of town can be revitalised by a couple of successful businesses – or wrecked by an ill-conceived parking scheme. The problems of market towns are the problems of high streets almost everywhere.

As for buying locally, towns too have almost exactly the same problem as the countryside. No, I don't mean that Londoners should try and buy food grown locally: there are not many farms near Notting Hill Gate. What we can do is to buy food grown in Britain rather than abroad. We can buy food in season, for anything out of season almost inevitably will have been shipped in from another country. We can shop at local farmers' markets, butchers and greengrocers instead of supermarkets. (It is unkind to say it, because Sir Peter Davis, chairman of Business in the Community, is also chief executive of Sainsbury's, but the supermarkets have a lot to answer for in the killing of local shops and markets.)

Finally, affordable housing: arguably that is even more of a problem in the cities than in the countryside. The more successful a city becomes the more it prices out the people needed to keep it running. The solution of two generations ago was to build subsidised council housing but that has actually widened social divides rather than narrowing them. The solution will have to be driven by the private sector in association with the planners. The greatest problem is land cost rather than building cost and that requires a lot of rethinking about both land use and transport facilities.

The big point here is not just that success reinforces success and failure breeds failure. That is certainly true. It is also that the gap between success and failure is often a very narrow one. Take a common problem in both town and country: rising crime. In New York it was shown that during the 1970s and 1980s for every one additional crime one job would leave the city. Cutting crime does not of itself lead to economic growth but it creates a condition where economic regeneration can begin.

The authorities have an enormous role to play. A bad council can, over 20 years, wreck a city or a borough. Planning blight can wreck a district or a street for a generation. But ordinary citizens – in town as much as in country – are not powerless. Anyone who fills up the car at an out-of-town service station instead of paying a couple of pence a litre more at the little local one is saying: please shut the local station. But they bleat when it closes down. The same goes for village shops or the corner chemist. If we want diversity, we have to value it. Economic success is not just measured by being a bit richer: it is measured by variety, zest, self-confidence, fun.

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