9 June 2023
Future Countryside

Last Tuesday I joined over 200 people representing a wide cross section of organisations brought together to discuss the future of the countryside in the imposing setting of the Old Palace at Hatfield House.

The event has been organised amongst others by Julian Glover who wrote a Landscape Review for the Government as part of which he had visited Shropshire Hills AONB.

We were told it was the first time such an event had been held for 20 years. There were cross party contributions from Thérèse Coffey from Suffolk, Rory Stewart from Cumbria, the Labour rural affairs spokesman who represents Cambridge, and Lord Mandelson who formerly lived in Herefordshire.

There was a wide consensus that rural Britain has much to offer the population in terms of health and recreation as well as vital for food security. But important points were also made about how to engage urban dwellers, who make up 70% of the population, to engage with and access rural areas safely and affordably.

Thérèse Coffey pointed out that the vast majority of the Cabinet represent rural areas, including the Prime Minister, in contrast to the urban focussed opposition teams. Labour hold 17 out of 199 rural constituencies in England and Wales.

She highlighted some positive current initiatives, including the £110m Rural England Prosperity Fund currently open for capital grants for rural businesses and the £150m Community Ownership Fund to enable local communities to retain valued local assets.

She announced new initiatives to remove barriers to rural enterprise, including a consultation on extending permitted development rights for amending existing buildings in addition to recent changes to facilitate new farm shops. 

She also announced an acceleration of completing roll-out of Project Gigabit to reach remaining rural areas, including those parts of South Shropshire who still lack adequate connectivity to procure all remaining contracts by the end of 2024.

She recognised the importance of improving transport in rural areas and will soon be launching a Future of Transport Rural Strategy, for example to explore how demand responsive bus networks to link remote rural areas can be established.

She also emphasised the need to support more local housing in rural areas and is launching a scheme funded by DEFRA to enable each of 40 local authority areas to promote an affordable housing scheme working with local landowners and communities. There is £378m in grants ringfenced for rural areas for energy efficiency improvements, with 58% of all grants paid through the Boiler Upgrade Scheme having been installed in rural properties.

There will also be a Connections Action Plan published this summer with Ofgem to accelerate electricity network connections to help with decarbonising the rural economy.

The Prime Minister recently hosted a farm to fork Food Summit in No10 which was welcomed by the NFU at demonstrating the focus on food security and reducing food inflation while supporting farmers.

It is good for the future of the countryside that there is a real focus on coordinating ideas and policies to deal with the challenges we face in rural communities such as South Shropshire.