Rural communities across England are facing a “perfect storm” of threats to their future, fuelled by unfit-for-purpose network infrastructure, increasing property prices and an ageing population, which may be made much worse after Brexit, according to a Local Government Association report.
Even though rural areas voted by some of the biggest margins to leave the European Union (EU) during the June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership, multiple research projects conducted before and after the critical vote have repeatedly shown that rural areas will be hit much harder by any negative consequences of the leave vote than places such as London, which voted to remain by a large margin.
The LGA’s Post-Brexit England Commission was set up specifically to examine the challenges and opportunities faced by rural England after Brexit.
In its interim report, published at the LGA’s Annual Conference in Birmingham, the organisation said the combination of several problems are likely to be compounded by Brexit.
This includes a demographic timebomb, with there being 53 over 65s for every 100 rural residents of working age by 2039; unaffordable homes, with the average home in a rural area already costing 60% more than in cities outside of London; a workforce skills gap, which threatens to put at risk 4% of future economic growth, or £90bn of economic output; and patchy mobile and broadband connectivity limiting development and business opportunities.
“Rural areas face a perfect storm. It is increasingly difficult for people to buy a home in their local community, mobile and broadband connectivity can be patchy, and people living in rural and deeply rural communities face increasing isolation from health services,” said Gloucestershire councillor Mark Hawthorne, chair of the LGA’s People and Places Board.
“If Britain is to make the most of a successful future outside of the EU, it’s essential that our future success is not confined to our cities. Unless the government can give non-metropolitan England the powers and resources it needs, it will be left behind.
“This report outlines to government a firm offer from councils in non-metropolitan areas, to play a greater role in building thriving, connected and healthy communities. It represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for non-metropolitan England to not only improve public services, but deliver a resurgence in rural England’s economy as well.”
The LGA’s report referenced a March 2018 report compiled by Amazon, which found that investment in digital transformation for rural communities, including skills and broadband, could be worth more thanr £12bn and as much as £26bn to the economy.
The Amazon report said the concerns of rural business owners echoed those of larger businesses, with 67% of those polled for the report saying better access to cloud – and by inference, better broadband to support it – was the biggest driver for future growth.
The LGA called for Westminster to hand off more powers to local areas, which it said could potentially enable the government to get on with delivering a less harmful Brexit.
It proposed giving all councils the ability to borrow to build affordable homes, devolving funding and control over skills and employment schemes, and giving councils more legal powers to support broadband roll-out, such as ensuring all new homes are connected to full-fibre networks.
Viasat CEO of European broadband retail, Evan Dixon, said the problem of poor connectivity should be one of the easiest post-Brexit challenges to resolve.
However, he took issue with the idea of devolving control of broadband policy, and said: “The government needs to be much more ambitious in providing better connections, instead of passing the buck to local areas.
“Without this ambition, we risk further widening the divide highlighted in the report, creating a two-tiered nation of broadband haves and have-nots. This two-tier problem will have ongoing effects on education, opportunity and investment, creating a vicious circle where the gap between haves and have-nots keeps expanding.”