Westminster has written off rural Wales – here’s how we can boost our countryside economy

Ceredigion’s new MP, Ben Lake

Ben Lake MP

The rural economy is a vital part of the Welsh economy, but one would be forgiven for believing that the responsibility of championing its future lies solely with those representing rural areas.

In fact, securing its long-term vitality is a national priority, or at least, it should be.

The development of the rural economy should form an integral part of an economic strategy for Wales if we are to avoid building a national economy that is unhealthily concentrated in a few areas – or in one corner – of the country.

We need look no further than the UK economy to appreciate the consequences of focusing attention and investment on one region at the expense of the rest.

If such an economic policy gives rise to such grotesque regional inequality, can one really consider it a success?

We must avoid adopting such a mentality in Wales, and instead pursue opportunities and prosperity for all parts of our country.

An economic policy that facilitates growth in both rural and urban areas, while also forging stronger links between them, is sorely needed.

Why should it be the case that the opportunities afforded to start-ups and small businesses are poorer in rural areas?

Or that essential utilities such as adequate broadband and mobile infrastructure are dismissed as luxuries if you live in the countryside?

Is it overly ambitious, let alone idealistic, to believe that individuals – especially the young – should have a realistic hope of being able to pursue a career, afford to settle down, and lead a prosperous life in any part of Wales?

We are a long way away from such a situation at present, and the immediate challenges facing urban and rural areas, as well as the prospects for their development, differ.

However, if ‘economic development’ or an ‘economic strategy’ are to have any value they must seek to address them with the same sense of endeavour and purpose.

No plan

Last week’s budget statement from the UK Chancellor shows that the importance of the rural economy is too easily forgotten at Westminster.

Sadly, the UK Government’s economic plan failed to offer much in the way of rural development.

One could infer from the few policies it did offer that its intentions for the rural economy (in England at least) amount to no more than improving existing connections between the countryside and the cities, so as to ensure that the prosperity of the economic ‘engines’ and ‘powerhouses’ trickles a little faster to the rural periphery.

If Westminster appreciated the value of the rural economy, would they be taking such a reckless approach to Brexit as that on which they have embarked?

Agriculture in Ceredigion alone directly employs more than 6,000 people, adding £40.8 million to the economy in goods and services purchased by farmers, which in turn contributes an additional spend of £96.9 million.

A staggering 90% of Welsh food and drink exports are exported easily, directly, and freely to the EU, and yet, the UK Government seems hell-bent on severing all ties with the Single Market and Customs Union, which would serve to completely undermine this trade.

The UK Government’s approach also throws our higher education sector into uncertainty.

Although seldom associated with the rural economy, the teaching and research conducted in our universities make a vital contribution – an annual economic impact of around £250 million to Ceredigion’s economy alone.

And in an age where research and development is receiving a modest increase in attention, they are prime candidates for greater funding.

That we have to prove to Westminster that we matter is in itself an argument for greater self-government, but it is deeply frustrating that the very real potential in rural Wales is not even recognised in last week’s Budget, let alone pursued.

No confidence

Buried in the Chancellor’s statement, however, we were told that: “We [the UK Government] will begin negotiations towards growth deals for North Wales and Mid-Wales.”

Given their track-record of delivering on their promises to Wales – in recent years we have seen the promise of electrified railway lines fizzle out, and a hesitancy to commit to a tidal lagoon – this, no doubt, carefully worded sentence does not fill me with confidence.

Nevertheless, I will certainly make sure the Chancellor is held to this announcement, and is not allowed to forget about it.

Although I am loath to celebrate an economic policy that gives prominence to an unnatural, and in many ways awkward, geographic region, I appreciate that a growth deal for “Mid-Wales” could be a real opportunity for some rural communities that have suffered chronic underinvestment and neglect by successive governments.

It is important, however, that if a growth deal is compiled, it cannot mindlessly replicate the model used for city deals.

One fundamental problem that could be addressed by a worthwhile growth deal is our poor digital connectivity.

Residents and businesses alike need access to adequate broadband and mobile data.

If we are to make Ceredigion, and other rural areas, a more practical place for businesses to locate and expand, or to ensure that communities and residents are able to fully benefit from the opportunities afforded by better connectivity, investing in broadband and mobile infrastructure is crucial.

Ceredigion is in the UK’s ten worst performing constituencies when it comes to broadband speed. In fact, seven of the ten slowest areas across all four UK countries are in Wales.

Yet despite the clear need for investment in Wales, the UK Government recently chose to only invest in improving broadband infrastructure in the other three UK countries.

They found £20 million for ultrafast broadband in Northern Ireland (for the time being, I am confident that many people in Ceredigion would settle quite happily for superfast!), and a further £10 million for ‘full-fibre’ broadband in six areas across England and Scotland.

According to Ministers, the decision on where to invest this money was based on how likely they believed the investment would stimulate economic growth.

It would appear that Westminster has written off rural Wales as an area without potential – an area that won’t be successful even if it had an effective infrastructure, an area that is simply not worth it.

Agriculture and food and drink production serve as key pillars of the rural economy, but we should not forget that it has limitless potential for greater diversity.

Many would point to the Welsh tourism industry, and the array of independent, family-run businesses that bejewel old market towns across rural Wales – and rightly so.

Better connectivity would serve to boost the existing economy, while also enabling a whole host of other sectors to flourish in the countryside.

We hear a great deal about the creative industries and the importance of innovation; why not invest in the necessary infrastructure so that the industries of tomorrow are rooted in rural areas?

A growth deal for the Welsh Midlands, if done properly, could begin to address the issues currently plaguing today’s industries, and in so doing implement the conditions necessary to facilitate a more versatile future for the rural economy.

It could concentrate on improving connectivity, and offer greater support to higher education institutions such as Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) so that they can build on their expertise, and cement themselves as the centre for agri-technology.

We have to make rural Wales matter – both today and the future. It has always been important to us, but with Brexit on the horizon and seemingly no sign of imminent progress, it is now becoming a matter of urgency that we make ourselves heard.

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9 Comments

  1. Jonathan Edwards Sir Benfro

    Bnr.Lake, careful about falling into the Plaid-vanilla style of politics. But lets be positive
    With luck, when they redraw the constituency boundaries you will be MP for Cemaes ie N.Pembrokeshire. Good, it worked well when Cynog Dafis MP had these boundaries.
    Broadband in North Pembrokeshire. All credit, Dinas is getting fibre and the broadband is already better than Cardiff Bay.
    But yes, rural Wales needs an over all solution.
    Two points on West and North Wales.
    1. Cairns championing links with Manchester and Bristol means we will be neglected. Hold his feet to the fire.
    2. You don’t mention cutting VAT on tourism. Good. Waste of money. Do please try to get Plaid to change its policy. Your approach will be much better.

    • Robert Williams

      Jonathan, I agree wholeheartedly with your remarks about Alun Cairns. He acts as if he were secretary of state for Bristol/‘Severnside’.

  2. J Edwards says above :

    1. Cairns championing links with Manchester and Bristol means we will be neglected. Hold his feet to the fire.
    2. You don’t mention cutting VAT on tourism. Good. Waste of money. Do please try to get Plaid to change its policy. Your approach will be much better.

    On 1. you must challenge the London government repeatedly. Single one-off criticisms won’t cut it. These London-centric guys will just keep repeating the Severnside and Mersey-Dee lines until it gets accepted as mainstream with inevitable adoption if not discredited.
    On 2. By all means cut VAT on tourism, but as a general concession to all businesses regardless of sector they trade in. Then you will have to find new ways of raising revenue. Like charging market price and tax for water, power generated in Wales for cross border use. Tourism tax at modest level and mandatory council tax on 2nd homes could be useful sources of support to those local authorities where the tax was levied.

  3. Benjiman L. Angwin

    Arferwn i’r arf Arfor.

  4. Beth am adfer y rheilffordd o Gaerfyrddin i Aberystwyth i ddechrau?

  5. Moelwen Gwyndaf

    Felly, beth ydyn ni am wneud am hyn? Dyw chware gwleidyddiaeth ddim yn gweithio. Pam nad yw undebau’r ffermwyr yn gwneud dim? Ti’n sôn dim am y ffaith fod BT wedi methu ei gytundeb ond yn lle cael ei gosbi mae Llywodraeth Cymru am rhoi degau o filiynau o bunnau yn fwy iddyn nhw. Mae hyn yn wir ddifrifol.

  6. I agree with Moelwen, what we need in mid Wales is action on these issues, clearly our democratic institutions are not fit for purpose, if Westminster prioritises other areas above Wales as you have indicated in your article where does that leave us? I hate to say it but asking questions in parliament or leading a debate on the rural economy is not going to change a thing. There is of course a process to follow, and it is reasonable that you pursue these ends, but what is needed is an alternative approach, the part you could play is through leadership. I believe that we need to develop our own capacity and work collectively with the powers that we have and think in a creative way of how we can leverage what we have to improve the economic prospects of our communities. In Australia a town decided they needed a bypass, they worked together and built it, obviously this is an example, but why cant we as individuals come together and create a set of actions that we can take now. One idea I am researching at the moment is creating and alternative currency for Ceredigion, looking beyond examples such as the Bristol, Brixton pound and at the WIR in Switzerland. If the institutions that are meant to serve us in fact do not serve our interest we must look at alternatives.

  7. infrastructure: include building grid capacity to allow distributed generation. Reliable decarbonised energy will anchor industry. Growth: Decouple growth from resource consumption,or it’s a cancerous growth.
    Currency: We need ways to circulate our wealth internally, maybe a geographically bound bitcoin might be the key.. Above all planning. Land use is the key to wellbeing and wealth imo. We do have the tools on this one, we just have not found out how to use them.. Need some new land use classes to start with. Round my area (‘the independent republic of pembrokeshire’) there is a subterranean wealth of useful experience.

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