The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has called on the Government to stand up to the ‘powerful interests’ in the broadband and mobile industries to ensure it delivers on its commitments to ‘connect the countryside’
The CLA has today (Wednesday, January 20) launched a new report urging politicians to unlock the potential of the rural economy by ‘Standing Up for Rural Businesses’.
Describing the 646,000 rural businesses in England and Wales as the ‘Cinderella of the UK economy’, the report set out a vision for equality that would those see rural business receive the same opportunities as their urban counterparts.
The report highlighted digital connectivity, housing and planning regulation as key areas where rural businesses need help from politicians.
Poor digital connections was described as the ‘single biggest barrier to rural businesses achieving their potential’.
The CLA welcomed Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment, in response to lobbying by CLA and others, to a Universal Service Obligation of at least 10Mbps by 2020.
But it said it would push to ensure this means ‘every home and business has a legal right to be connected’ and would be entitled to compensation if this was not met.
The association expressed concern that progress towards connecting the countryside was being hampered by the big telecommunications companies, which have ‘missed targets time and time again’, despite posting large profits while receiving big sums of taxpayers’ money.
“Government must stand up to the powerful interests in the broadband and mobile industry,” the report said.
“Too frequently they offer excuses rather than action in connecting our countryside. It is time to deliver.”
CLA president Ross Murray, who was due to present the report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Business in the House of Commons, urged the Government to empower communities to take the initiative to invest in their own connections with access to match funding or other incentives.
These schemes, which often drive forward the innovation required should be ‘embraced and accommodated’ – not penalised as is sometimes the case, he said.
It also called for ’innovative solutions to delivering affordable housing’ and more pressure on local planning authorities to say ’yes’ to development.
This includes greater flexibility for rural businesses to manage their own housing and a planning framework that embraces the potential for disused buildings and small scale housing development.
Mr Murray said: “Almost half of the applications made to convert redundant farm buildings in England into much-needed rural homes, are being refused.
"It is more important than ever to unlock the potential of private investment for housing delivery, along with a more positive approach to planning.”
The report highlighted continuing ’resistance to change’ among planning authorities despite the introduction in 2012 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) enshrining the ’principle of the presumption in favour of sustainable development’
Too many areas still do not have up to date Local Plans, the ’key to unlocking investment’ and as a result proposed developments, such as the conversion of agricultural buildings, still face opposition from the authorities.
Mr Murray said: "We have reached the point that where a local planning authority has not yet delivered a Local Plan, they must be forced to do so.”
Where there is no plan, planners must be pro-growth, the report said.
It also called for steps to be taken to ensure devolution deals giving greater powers to, for example, Wales, the northern powerhouse and Cornwall, do not ignore the potential for growth within the rural economy, nor the needs of rural businesses and communities.
The report focused specifically on three Bills - the Housing and Planning Bill, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, and the anticipated Digital Economy Bill.
Mr Murray said: “The countryside is buzzing with economic potential, but too often the 646,000 rural businesses in England and Wales are overlooked.
“We are the Cinderella of the UK economy. Our vision is that a person setting up or growing a rural business should have the same opportunities as anyone seeking to do so in towns and cities.”