………………………………………………………………………………… This blog follows our recent book of the same title published by Routledge. Rurality is interpreted in many ways depending on individual encounters with rural space. Debate should not be restricted to the pages of the book so please join in here.

Rural Policy 3.0 from the OECD

This week the OECD is hosting a rural policy conference in Edinburgh on rural innovation. In part, this event will be examining its policy note “Rural Policy 3.0 – A framework from Rural Development”

The Policy Note includes a number of very welcome points about the diversity of rural areas and the differences between regions within Functional Urban Areas (FUAs), those close to FUAs and those that are more remote. This is particularly important when we see that rural regions within 1 hour of a major urban centre are performing significantly better in terms of productivity and proved to be more resilient to the economic turmoil of the past decade.  Aligned to this, the policy also recognises that “the fundamental economic structure of a low-density economy and its growth opportunities follow a considerably different logic than is the case in urbanised regions” (p22).  In other words, to capture the true potential of rural places policy must do more than just “rural proofing”.

Translating this into recommendations for action is more challenging and, according to the OECD, “requires new ways of thinking about: rural areas, their opportunities and challenges, and the role of national governments in supporting their development efforts” (p22). Moving away from the presumption that all rural regions are alike demands a more nuanced set of policies and objectives that can deliver a “broader well-being agenda” based not solely on competitiveness but on enhancing the social, economic and environmental well-being of rural areas.  The assumption is that delivering against these objectives locally and regionally will in turn increase the contribution of rural regions to national performance.

However, while this is a welcome contribution to debates on rural futures, there is still considerable work to do to translate the ideas in Rural Policy 3.0 into practical tools and actions. I would also argue that the Policy Note overlooks one or two salient developments in rural areas and retains too much of a negative stance, exemplified by a summary of the differences between urban and rural economies that once again portrays the disadvantages associated with distance to markets, weaker competitiveness and more constrained economic structures.

Written throughout the document is the assumption that rural population ageing is bad for rural areas based primarily on the resultant labour market thinness (the Policy Note appears to assume that older people are less talented – p5) and increasing demands for costly public services – which could be translated into increasing business opportunities. There is no recognition of the economic contribution of older people which a number of researchers have identifies in terms of increased consumption power, participation in social enterprises and new venture creation.  Furthermore, the trend of counterurbanisation among the “younger-old” and “middle-aged” groups in society is enhancing economic well-being in a number of rural areas and more should be done to understand these population dynamics and their rural economy impacts.

The second key omission revolves around the rapid advances in digital technologies and ICT. While there are a few passing references, there is seemingly no realisation of the extent to which the new technological revolution could dramatically change rural lives.  From robotic agriculture to home-based healthcare and from driverless cars to drone-delivery retail systems, the future is full of technological uncertainties but advocates for rural areas such as the authors of this Policy Note need to be championing rural areas as the test-beds for many of these innovations.

A final concern with the Policy Note revolves around the assumption that “rural regions will need to continue to specialise and focus on core area of advantage to compete in the global economy” (p5). On p19, the Policy Note suggests that the emphasis should not be on predetermined “Strategic Sectors” but on understanding the strengths and assets of rural areas that can foster the emergence of new activities – apparently contradicting the earlier quotation.

I fear that too much specialisation can be a liability for a region without the critical mass of more urban regions that can absorb a negative shock to the dominant sector. Furthermore, this assumption raises the ever-present question in rural economies “are we focuses on the workers or the workplaces?”  Those successful rural regions closer to bigger cities are exporters of high quality labour employed in a multitude of skilled professions.  The scope for new enterprise in these regions is often linked to growing urban-rural interdependencies and networks and is therefore highly unlikely to focus around one or two specialised sectors.  I would like to see more weight given to the view that adding value to unique “immobile assets” (p19) in rural areas can be the basis for differentiated rural development.  These immobile assets are increasingly the social and cultural capitals that attract skilled people to live in rural places, not just natural resources.  Such an approach captures population dynamics and multiple representations of rural places as well as physical and infrastructural factors and, most importantly, begins to turn the conversation towards what rural regions HAVE and not what they lack.

For additional reading on how rural areas can capture economic potential from dynamic interactions with urban regions, see Bosworth & Venhorst (2018) “Economic linkages between urban and rural regions what’s in it for the Rural?” Regional Studies; https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00343404.2017.1339868.




Challenges for delivering rural broadband

On Tuesday 23rd January, Dr Gary Bosworth is representing the University of Lincoln at the Scottish Affairs select committee where he will draw on a range of past research projects to offer advise on the best ways to deliver better broadband to more remote rural areas.  The initial submission of evidence is available here:  Rural Broadband Call for Evidence – University of Lincoln

In particular, we highlight the need for policymakers to help to bring together enough demand to build an attractive package for private sector providers.  This requires significant engagement to highlight the potent opportunities that better broadband can provide to communities and businesses in rural areas.  To enable businesses to take advantage of the technology, any roll-out of improved technology must also be accompanied by training programmes, effective communication and opportunities for firms to try out new technology before making significant investments.  We also warn against approaches that assume “digital is best” which can risk marginalising people who are less comfortable with new technology whilst promoting opportunities for universities as well as the public sector to act as key facilitators in delivering the skills needed for rural areas to take advantage of increased digital connectivity.

The progress of the Select Committee can be viewed here: Scottish Affairs Committee and the panel can be viewed at: http://parliamentlive.tv/

Tom Heap visits the University of Lincoln

Tom Heap with the School of Geography

Tom Heap, right, with the School of Geography

As part of a full day of activities with the Schools of Geography, Journalism and Life Sciences, Tom Heap spoke to us about some of the challenges of balancing rural development and the environment.  A key message was that we must be careful not to view rural affairs solely through the prism of the environment because rural places are homes and workplaces too.

From this basis, Tom shared a number of interesting ideas about how to reconcile the needs of food production with the needs to safeguard the environment.  He took an optimistic view with respect to the role that human innovation can continue to play in increasing food production and overcoming threats associated with diminishing natural resources. However, this was tempered by the fact that food consumption continues to “deify the natural” and view scientific or non-conventional farming practices with suspicion. One particular example was a salmon farmer in Scotland who is rearing salmon in tanks on the land.  Arguably this is better for the environment as it avoids polluting the seas and it also allows the producer to have complete control over inputs and outputs to the system, but, in a consumer world, this is only feasible if people will be happy to eat it.

Therefore, perhaps we need to think about whether there are ways to influence public opinion and demonstrate the safety and environmental benefits of scientific innovations or whether the agricultural sector should be looking for innovations that are more aligned to conventional views of “natural” food production.


What is Rural?

With thanks to Lincoln Minster School, The Kings School, Grantham, and Christ’s Hospital School for coming into University today.  Here are the results of your experiment…

Overall, there were some strong areas of agreement with the Mill Pond and its wild flowers being overwhelmingly viewed as the most natural (24), the village shop being the most traditional (14), the Ribblehead viaduct considered the most isolated (14). For the other quotations, the scores were closer with the timber-frame house (9) and the windfarm (8) being most “Unwelcoming”; the Land-rover in the street being the most desirable place to live (9) and “the most rural” being the cows at the edge of the river (10).

So what do we learn from this? There is no clear agreement on what makes rural places special, attractive or unappealing. However, some common trends emerge including the fact that people would like to live in places with evidence of community rather than in more isolated rural areas where nature dominates. Also, it is interesting that a Lincolnshire audience associates cows rather than combine harvesters with “rural” – and six people found the combine harvester image to be “unwelcoming”.

Only one person considered a windfarm as “natural” – perhaps echoing the public debate windfarms being undesirable in the landscape whilst also providing a renewable source of energy. The most “natural” image of the mill-pond was created as the result of the construction of a water-mill across the River Nene which might make us think more about the ways in which we can capture energy and resources from the landscape in ways that leave a positive legacy.

Picture I’d Like to Live here This is Traditional This is What I think of when I hear “rural” This looks most natural This looks isolated This looks unwelcoming
Farmyard & Church 5 1 6 0 2 0
Mill Pond 0 0 1 24 1 0
Churchyard 0 7 1 0 2 4
Cows in river 1 0 10 4 1 0
Maypole 6 3 3 1 0 0
Wind farm 2 0 2 1 7 8
Harvesting 0 1 4 1 4 6
Timber-frame house 1 0 0 0 1 9
Viaduct 2 1 3 0 14 2
Village Shop 6 14 2 0 0 0
Land-Rover in street 9 4 0 0 0 2

Whilst there really is too little data to draw firm conclusions, I hope that the exercise opens up some important questions about how we all perceive the places around us. In particular, I hope it will encourage us to be more aware of the fact that different parts of society will attach different values on the landscape, on nature, on community assets and on cultural traditions connected to places.


Rural Landscape Businesses

Hanne Bat Finke, from the Danish Centre for Rural Research at the University of Southern Denmark, Hanne talkgave a seminar to the University of Lincoln Rural Research Group as part of her visit this week.  Reporting the findings from her PhD, she gave a number of examples of new rural enterprises on the Danish island of Funen which used and enhanced local landscapes in a number of ways.  As rural places continue to change, this offers welcome optimism for the future of rural economies based around small-scale entrepreneurship and innovative enterprises.