Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Should rural policy beyond Brexit look beyond farming?

Sally Shortall is Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy at Newcastle University.  In our latest Landbridge blog she explains why she would welcome a more holistic approach to rural policy in a post Brexit world.


I grew up on a farm, in a farming family, and my brothers still farm.  My own academic career has included extensive research on farming households, and particularly women’s work on farms.  I know how fundamental farming is for the countryside, for our landscapes, our food production and our rural economy.  And I also know that farming is not an industry that operates in isolation.   Agriculture may be the weft of a rural community but it is woven through with many other industries and businesses, from the micro to the multinational level.


As the UK prepares to exit the European community, we have a unique opportunity to take a completely fresh look at a wide range of issues, including how we think about the rural economy.  For the past 40 years the Common Agricultural Policy has structured all the support provided.  Policymakers have attempted to draw environmental protection and rural development into the picture and programmes such as LEADER can demonstrate some successes.  But has this approach really reflected the tightknit linkages between businesses in the countryside?  Many farming households include individuals working in professions and skilled occupations outside the industry, or who are running their own businesses from home.  We know that rural residents are a particularly entrepreneurial bunch, with more business start-ups per head of population than in many urban areas.   Household income is often coming from a range of sources within and beyond agriculture.  I know from my own research that the role of women is often a key element in this pattern.


The farm and its associated businesses are, in their turn, linked into the local economy.  They call upon the wide range services needed from vets, agronomists, land agents, ecologists or financial advisers, they are buying their bread from the local bakery, they are interacting at every level.


So maybe policymakers should be thinking much more about support for this system of rural development and entrepreneurship, rather than focusing only on one part of it?    That is the approach we have taken in the Centre for Rural Economy “After Brexit: 10 key questions for rural policy”.  At this stage we are not trying to tell policymakers what they need to do.  It feels too early for that and we do not yet have enough information.  Rather we want to help define the questions.  We know that predominantly rural areas in England alone contribute at least £237 billion a year directly to the economy and the UK countryside has the potential to contribute even more.  But policy in the past, has often failed to meet the specific needs of rural communities.  We have urged the government to take more account of these when moving into a post Brexit era.


Our 10 key questions cover issues from skills needs of the rural workforce, to housing and infrastructure and the need to ensure communities are well connected.  We also aim to point up the opportunities, for example, in maintaining the supply of public and environmental goods.


We want to launch our paper with policymakers over the next few weeks and we would welcome any thoughts from Landbridge members, particularly those working and living in rural communities.  What do you think? Please get in touch at