The recent wave of elections in the United States and Europe exposed the flaws in our advanced economies: cities thrive while the rural economy falters.
In 2014, for the first time in human history, a majority (54%) of the world’s population lived in cities, and by 2050, UN estimates put that number at 66%. The most urbanized continent is North America, with 82% of the population residing in cities (Source: United Nations). In the UK, 83% of the population lives in urban areas, while only 17% live in rural areas. In the UK there is also a generational divide: less than 50% of the rural population is under 45 (and around just over 30% of these are of working age) compared to almost 60 % in urban areas (Source: DEFRA).
Examining the economic performance of rural areas, a study commissioned by Defra found differences between rural areas within urban areas and those outside. In the first case, productivity was 8% higher and income 18% higher (Source: Defra). This means that rural areas function when they have a relationship with a city and suffer when they are economically self-generated.
In the United States, the numbers are even more striking. Vishaan Chakrabarti, in his book A country of cities, cites data from the 2012 US Conference of Mayors which stated that 3% of the US landmass generates 85% of its GDP. It’s the cities.
So how do we achieve a thriving rural economy, and is it even worth a try? Crispin Truman, Managing Director of the Campaign to protect rural England, states that “it is imperative to dispel the myth that villages are only good for people to live their ramble on… we need to make our towns and villages more attractive places to live and work for younger people.
But can rural areas become more economically sustainable and prosper? A report from the Rural Economy Center notes that the total income from agriculture is £ 5 billion, but “it is a minor component of the contemporary rural economy”. SMEs and micro-enterprises which employ 70% of workers in rural England are also important and the report also notes that the gross value added of rural areas is £ 400bn. This is 40% of the UK’s total GAV. The remaining 60% come from London and other cities in the UK (Source: Town center). This is not a negligible amount of GAV, so there is something to grow in rural areas (especially those with links to urban centers, as the Defra report shows).
The numbers suggest that the rural economy is more complicated than we thought, a point confirmed by Truman: “Small businesses, including small farms, are a big part of the mix… Small local businesses can be a part of the mix. key to the growth of a rural community, providing local jobs and often playing a key role in rural life. There is nothing more sterile than a subdivision or a downtown area where no small business survives.
The problem with rural areas is that they suffer from a series of interrelated problems, argues Truman, which hamper the local economy. These include poor public transport links, uneven broadband coverage – absolutely critical for the dispersal of populations while advancing small and microenterprises, affordable housing, centralization and monopolization of agriculture, the failure of the main streets of small towns and villages and austerity. This suggests that the problem is infrastructure, which does not facilitate the potential of the rural economy. This is largely the mandate of the government.
And this is where the problem lies. The central dilemma, says Truman, is that the government is working on a national agenda rather than looking at the context of rural life:
“Rural areas have a crucial role in themselves, with open land performing multiple functions: food production, carbon sequestration, water treatment, habitat provision and recreational value — all of which are fulfilled jointly by virtually everyone. the open fields of the country. “
“Despite this, government policies do not take into account the realities of rural life, applying comprehensive policies that are often more suited to urban areas. Policies must be rural proof.
It highlights the failures of the housing policy which fails to provide affordable options while exacerbating the problems facing rural areas. “The housing debate,” he says, “is perhaps the most acute example, where large-scale top-down developments are imposed on totally inappropriate sites, increasingly ignoring very constructive locally developed solutions. such as those found in neighborhood maps. “
“These large new estates do not provide the affordable housing that rural communities need, their quality and durability can be poor, making them unpopular and unfriendly to the local style, and they needlessly destroy the countryside when good wasteland sites industrial plants are available. “
The involvement of local populations is at the heart of the development of a bottom-up rural policy. “CPRE members in rural areas,” he says, “feel really helpless… we need rural areas and small towns where local people have a say in how they are developed and managed ”.
A UK government spokesperson said:
“With nearly a fifth of us living in a countryside generating nearly £ 250 billion for our economy, it is important that the needs of rural communities are heard loud and clear. “
“That’s why we continue to champion rural business – by advancing broadband in the most difficult to reach areas, increasing the availability of affordable housing and supporting the creation of more than 6,000 jobs through our fund dedicated to rural businesses. . “
Defra says it is committed to supporting rural jobs and businesses through its Rural Development Program for England, the extension of broadband coverage, policies to protect rural areas and improve public transport in rural areas. He says he encouraged communities to take the lead in developing neighborhood plans. But is it enough?
I would say cities are the most crucial part of our economy. They can and should be given priority. And governments, if they could solve the infrastructure problems of cities – transport, housing, broadband, commercial space – could make a big difference to our economy. However, there is a fundamental question of choice.
The option should be available, for those who wish to adopt it, to relocate to rural areas while remaining connected to a thriving community and economy – hence the need for better infrastructure. In addition, the rural provides much needed agriculture and agricultural innovation (this is where small farms are important). Truman is right. Rural development should not be an afterthought, and rural people are in the best position to determine how to shape their local economies. It is time for the government to listen and let go.
Deborah Talbot is a freelance journalist and researcher specializing in urban and rural economies, development and culture. You can follow her on Twitter @DeborahHTalbot.