As a rural resident, I know well that the countryside offers an exceptional quality of life, with a unique appeal to businesses, residents and visitors alike, writes Lord Foster of Bath.
Rural economies, however, are being severely undermined by the inattention and apathy of successive governments.
There is a serious risk that without action the countryside will fall behind and its economies will be stifled – not least in the farming sector, which continues to underpin rural life and generate many benefits for the country.
Doing nothing is not an option. Over the last year I have chaired the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy, which has undertaken a wide-ranging inquiry into this vast subject.
We took evidence from a huge number of rural organisations, including the NFU and the Tenant Farmers Association, as well as local farming groups.
We also visited rural areas to understand better how their economies function and what action is needed to help ensure their sustainability.
Our final report has now been published. A key message we heard was that Government rural policy lacked direction and that rural priorities were too often sidelined.
So, our report calls for a comprehensive national-level rural strategy, to be delivered locally with the full involvement of people in rural areas.
We recommend that this rural strategy should seek to deliver better outcomes across the spectrum of rural challenges, not least on issues such as digital connectivity.
Developments in technology have the potential to revolutionise agriculture, but only if farmers could be sure of fast broadband and mobile connectivity across their land.
Government must, therefore, ensure that rural areas and their businesses are prioritised as 5G and full fibre networks are rolled out.
We also argue that the Government needs to better understand the distinct challenges faced by businesses operating in rural areas, and recommend a range of measures to improve rural business support.
We heard, in particular, that diversification now forms a major part of farm income, but that complex tax arrangements and restrictive tenancy agreements can act as a barrier. So we call for the Government to investigate these issues to ensure they are properly tackled.
These are just a few of the issues we covered in the report, which we hope acts as a wake-up call to Government and as a rallying point for rural communities.
We are ptimistic that with the right interventions, rural prosperity will be secured for the future, and that the farming sector can continue to fulfil its vital role in rural life.