The Government's rural productivity plan fails to recognise the interrelationship between urban and rural areas.
England’s green and pleasant land is pleasant indeed. The majority of England and Wales – some 88 per cent – is rural, consisting of open fields, farms, villages and market towns, and is home to 44 per cent of the total population. And some people are seeing the benefits of rural living, with net internal migration still tipped out of cities and into rural areas. This was picked up in the Government’s announcement last week of their 10-point plan for boosting productivity in rural areas.
To the party of rural Britain, there’s a political boon in this statistic. Investing in the rural economy looks, on the face of it, like a commitment to support those who choose to locate in rural areas. But actually, it indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of Britain’s economic geography.
The importance of rural areas should not be underestimated. As the map below illustrates, while cities themselves only make up 12 per cent of the total land mass of England and Wales, they stretch to 61 per cent when their rural hinterlands are included. And as our ongoing research on urban demographics demonstrates, people choose to live in rural areas for many reasons; access to green spaces, bigger homes, or to be close to friends and family. Some of these people do work in rural areas, in agriculture, tourism, or in small businesses. But many work in cities, and all are connected in some way to the economic activity of cities.
The interrelationship between cities and their rural hinterlands works in two ways: firstly, cities rely on rural areas for their labour force. Of all those who work in cities in England and Wales, 12 per cent live in a rural hinterland. In some cities, it’s much more – in Cambridge, 43 per cent of all its workers live in its hinterland.
And on the other hand, rural residents rely on cities for jobs. Nearly one in five residents of rural areas across England and Wales work in a city, and as the map below illustrates, in some places – particularly isolated cities, such as Norwich, Hull and Newcastle, where there aren’t other cities nearby – rural residents of the hinterland are very dependent indeed on the jobs offered in these places. Nearly 29 per cent of working residents of the rural hinterland of Hull travel to work in the city.
Source: Nomis (2015) Census 2011
Some of the announcements (or re-announcements) set out in last week’s plan will help people who do work in rural areas – better broadband, for example, can help small businesses setting up rurally (although it’s no silver bullet). But by proposing that rural areas require a different policy response to cities, the plan fails to recognise the close interrelationship between urban and rural areas. While the plan is right to emphasise the need for investment in housing and transport in rural areas, this is likely to have most transformative effect in and around cities – particularly strong performing ones. Cambridge, for example, has the third least affordable housing in the UK, with 43 per cent of its workers living in its rural hinterland. If planning policy and investment was able to support the building of more homes both in and around the city – strategically planned, while still preserving some of the most valuable parts of its countryside – this would help to overcome some of the major constraints on the city’s growth, and to improve the lives of people living in both urban and in rural areas.
Ultimately, there is no rural or urban economy. And using “rural Britain” as a political football obscures the fact that actually, we live in a national economy, driven by jobs in cities, and supported by those who choose to live in rural areas. A better understanding of where people live and work, and why, is the key to supporting more effective and joined-up planning for growth and productivity.
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