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.
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.
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.