On Tuesday 13th November, Anna Price, on behalf of the Rural Business Group, gave evidence before the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy.
Anna was a witness alongside Ruby Peacock of the Federation of Small Businesses, and James Alcock of the Plunkett Foundation.
The focus of the session was, of course, rural business, and the challenges the rural economy faces.
The Chairman of the committee, Lord Foster of Bath, began the proceedings by acknowledging that in rural areas approximately 10% of the rural economy comes from agriculture, with other forms of rural enterprise making up the rest.
Per head of the population, numbers of businesses in rural areas are equivalent to those in urban members, but tend, on average, to be significantly smaller.
He mentioned that some people argue that despite all of those facts, it is still agriculture that makes up the backbone of the rural economy due to its impact on the landscape, shaping rural life. Lord Foster then opened a discussion on the importance of rural business.
Committee members posed questions on a variety of issues including connectivity and infrastructure, skills within the workforce, and relationships with central and local government.
One challenge for rural business that all three witnesses were concerned about was the accessibility of funding. The availability of funding decreases dramatically outside of London and the South East, and varies wildly between different areas of the country. Additionally, the witnesses criticised the amount of red tape that small business owners and community organisations are forced to wade through, calling on the government to streamline the process.
Later in the session, Anna suggested that a common issue running through many of the issues faced by rural businesses is the lack of a central place from which to reach help.
She gave the following example: if you are one of the many rural businesses across the country with insufficient broadband speeds, is there anything you can do? How would you even begin to resolve this obstacle to the growth of your business?
Anna argued that there needs to be adequate signposting through which rural businesses can access truly helpful advice, tailored to their situation, rather than generic information aimed at an urban audience. This is where the Rural Business Group comes in – connecting members to our partners means connecting people with problems to those with the expertise to resolve them.
At the end of the session, the chairman asked the panel for their suggestions of recommendations for the committee to make to the government.
James Alcock suggested rebalancing the already available funding so that a larger proportion is allocated to smaller and/or rural businesses, increased support for infrastructure bodies such as ACRE, and altering the Localism Act so that in particular cases it is possible to arrange an extension of the six months currently allowed to purchase a community asset.
Ruby Peacock introduced the idea of providing funding support for the transport of 16 to 18 year old apprentices, which must go hand in hand with improvements to local public transport. She also suggested that the government give greater attention to local road funding, and set ambitious upload speed targets for broadband across the country.
Anna concluded this section by echoing Ruby’s call improving transport for young apprentices. She also argued that the current industrial strategy contains no specific mention of rural business, and if this was corrected the legislation and changes suggested in this session would grow from there. She hopes to see ‘rural’ being given the prominence it deserves across the board.
Of her experience, Anna said: ‘It was a privilege to be asked to attend the select committee session to give evidence alongside the Plunkett Foundation and the FSB. Our anecdotal evidence backed up the statistics which were presented to the committee by James and Ruby. I was pleased to be able to make representation from a number of our members – continuing our promise to give our members a voice wherever we are able.’
Overall, it was an informative session, which will hopefully influence the findings of the committee.
If you would like to watch Anna in action, follow this link.
Or, if you would like to read the written evidence submitted to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy, click here.
To learn more about the Rural Business Group, head to: www.ruralbusinessgroup.co.uk
The Rural Business Group is passionate about making the voices of its members heard. If you would like to share your experiences of any of the issues raised in this article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org