………………………………………………………………………………… 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 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.

SALFAR kicks off in Lincoln

SALFAR interreg logo

The University of Lincoln hosted delegates from 7 countries to launch a new European Union Interreg funded project to investigate potential developments in saline and salt-tolerant agricultural systems. The project, SalFar, sees Lincoln International Business School, Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT) and the University’s new School of Geography teaming up to provide economic and market analyses as well as to run a series of crop trials to explore new opportunities in coastal agricultural production.

The consortium will look at new ways of understanding flood risk and defence, and explore opportunities to grow new types of salt-tolerant crops to help farmers adapt to possible future climate change scenarios.

The SalFar project builds on preliminary research from the University of Lincoln, which combined novel satellite imagery analysis, economic modelling, and field sampling to place a value on the agricultural land in flood risk areas. Dr Iain Gould (LIAT) and Martin Collinson presented these findings to the international team.

During the conference, discussions centred around the likely demand for different types of crops (from growers as well as consumers), the potential to create niche brands and the potential for new entrepreneurs to capitalise on emerging economic opportunities.

Delegates also visited farmland around The Wash, which gave our European partners an insight into the landscape and agricultural systems in the south of the county.

Dr Iain Gould presents  preliminary research from a University funded study here in Lincolnshire

Dr Iain Gould presents preliminary research from a University funded study here in Lincolnshire

The project addresses one of the future challenges of agriculture in the North Sea Region – how we can adapt to an increased deposition of salts in our soils (salinization), a process caused by seawater flooding, rising saline groundwater and the use of brackish water for irrigation.

More details of the project and its progress can be followed here: http://northsearegion.eu/salfar/.

Commuting – potential rural growth strategy?

Based on a paper soon to be published in Regional Studies (Bosworth & Venhorst), my latest presentation for the Lincolnshire branch of the CPRE was potentially a little controversial.  Our paper considered the potential gains for a rural region which houses a lot of commuters who work in a neighbouring urban region experiencing economic growth.  On the downside, higher incomes and higher demand for housing from commuters push up house prices and potentially exclude local rural workers from the housing market.  Also, a large number of commuters also carry out a lot of their retail and leisure activities outside of their home community.

CPRE2017Rather than “blaming” commuters and demographic trends, I argued that perhaps rural entrepreneurs and rural policy makers need to think more about how they can capture more of commuters’ expenditure, expertise and networks to the benefit of their home community/region.

Commuting (both in- and out-commuting) is positively associated with economic competitiveness at the district level.  Rural entrepreneurs need to better understand the consumer demands of commuters and open their businesses at suitable hours, provide the right leisure options and distinguish themselves from the wider competition to which increased commuting exposes them.

Rural areas could also benefit more if commuters were able to spend more time working from home or in local serviced office space.  Not only could this be the first step towards the creation of a new business locally but if a commuter village could have a professional lawyer, accountant and graphic designer working in a shared office just 1 day a week, imagine how quickly the coffee shop in that building would become the place to go for informal advice?  Currently, I suspect many actors in rural economies are totally unaware of the range of high level skills on their doorsteps.

A commuter-oriented economic development strategy might appear to lack ambition – relying on other economic centres to be the engines of growth. But I suggest it takes a braver, but a wiser policy-maker to look at what his or her region does well, how it links into other regions and where it can best capture value. If that value is best captured by “exporting” skilled workers on a daily basis but then providing the facilities that they demand for recreation, home-improvements, retail etc… surely that can generate a multiplier effect not dissimilar to traditional theories of exporting?

The road to somewhere – in the Lake District!

shepherd and somewhereI have been reading 2 books that together tell a powerful story about changing communities, with particular reference to rural places. The Shepherd’s Life (James Rebanks) is an autobiography of a Lake District shepherd who continues a long family tradition despite prevailing social trends that see more and more people leaving the land, with sons and daughters encouraged to seek higher education, fame and fortune away from their home communities.

Meanwhile, The Road to Somewhere (David Goodhart) seeks to relate the politics of Brexit to underlying social change.  Two categories of “somewhere” and “anywhere” people are described.   The former are more rooted with their identities based on group belonging and particular places.  The latter tend to do well at school, move to a residential university and on to a professional career and have “portable ‘achieved’ identities”.  They can view the world from anywhere and they can achieve anywhere.  Describing the growth, and particularly the growing influence, of “Anywheres” in our society, the upshot is that “somewheres” are viewed as “left behind” and outdated. With reference to older white working class men in particular, their plight is linked with the declining respect for apprenticeships and working class or skilled manual employment.

This notion of being outdated and left behind chimes with a number of stereotypes of rural areas.  Indeed, the older age and predominantly white British composition of rural communities also suggests a dominance of “somewheres” in rural communities.  James Rebanks would be one of those “left behind” had he believed his school teachers who saw a life as a shepherd as lacking ambition and certainly not a “career”.  Instead, this affront to his family’s way of life (and from a teacher at a local school attended by generations of farmers and shepherds) was an indication that he would have to fight to continue the family farming tradition, not only against the annual challenges of weather and nature but also against a host of “outsiders” who felt that they had a stake in the Lake District – and therefore could affect his way of life.   Schooling was acclaimed as a “way out” but James didn’t want a “way out”.  He said “I never once wished I’d gone to University. The few people that I knew who had been didn’t seem to have come back any wiser. They seemed to have returned home full of nonsense. And they never really fitted in again.” These people had become anywhere people.    Despite passing none of his GCSEs, James did study for a degree at Oxford, combining studies with regular returns home to support the family farm. He now combines farming with writing, blogging and working as a consultant for UNESCO, demonstrating the need for even the most rooted people to look outwardly in today’s world.

Does this make James an “anywhere”?  No.  The Shepherd’s Life is full of references to family, to neighbours, to nature, to weather and above all to “place”.  It is the very connection to the Lake District, the farm, the fells and the local community combined with a keen-eyed self-reflexivity that allows him to be more than just a shepherd.  His school teacher would, I am sure, be proud and feel vindicated that education was the route to a more rounded and fulfilling career but I wonder what James himself feels about this? Is it an admission that shepherding alone can no longer sustain a family livelihood or is it a genuine passion to spread a positive message about farming, shepherding and traditional country values?  I sincerely hope it is the latter, but the challenges of hill farming are associated low incomes are well documented.

The reason for writing about these two books together is that James provides a snapshot of “somewhere-ness”, but written in a style that “anywheres” can understand.  It is not nostalgic for a better past, it is not racist, it is not introverted and it is eloquently presented, honest and open.  I suspect many “anywheres” would actually be envious of the rootedness of James and his family – this is the one thing that “anywheres” are so often looking for, especially as they settle down into family life.  The continuing trend of counterurbanisation among the 35+ age groups is testament to people’s need to find a place that they can call home.  The problem comes when that rural home is not quite what it seems from the postcard, TV programme or weekend break.  Rural England is a complex mix of somewhere and “anywheres”.  The “somewheres” will feel threatened by the globalisation of agriculture, the loss of local services to the Internet, the growth in longer distance commuting and the overriding sense that they are powerless to slow down the change that is happening to ‘their’ place.  Meanwhile, the “anywheres” are looking for a sense of community that they themselves are changing.

To my mind, “anywheres” are the result of the consumer society – they epitomise consumerism to the extent that their choice of where to live is a consumer choice.  Just as we might buy a piece of furniture for a combination of aesthetics, practicality and image (to show off to our dinner party guests), so “anywhere” people do the same with their houses.  Once in that house, the choice of whether to use the village pub or shop is also part of a much wider range of retail and leisure options open to the cosmopolitan, IT-savvy and highly mobile people.  For “anywheres”, this is not a great problem. If the village pub closes, it is sad because their village is suddenly a little less desirable and the cachet of inviting friends to the village gastropub is lost.  But there are plenty more gastropubs and restaurants in the local area and after a short period of lament, the world moves on.  For the “somewheres” in that community though, the home of several sports teams, the meeting point for several societies and the social connections of many people, especially older people living alone, are all lost.

David Goodhart explains that the high proportion of “somewheres” that voted for Brexit can be explained by their sense of marginalisation from mainstream politics and the decline of their relative economic fortunes.  “Anywheres” still struggle to grasp this on their belief that we will be worse off (based on a capitalist economic model where growth is the primary objective) outside of the EU.  That a majority of farmers voted to leave the EU when the Common Agriculture Policy provides such a large share of their income must be anathema to “anywheres”.  But then we should ask why farmers are so reliant of subsidies.  Returning to James Rebanks, his experience of the foot and mouth outbreak where generations of selective breeding could be wiped out by the decisions of Westminster bureaucrats is just one example where farmers’ local and professional knowledge can be so easily swept aside.

Farmers are independent people, proud to make a good living from their local resources, but now they are dependent on a range of external agencies and, perhaps understandably, envisage a better future if only they could take back some control.   Will this happen outside of the EU? – probably not.  Will farmers’ be as competitive on world markets?  Will the UK government provide subsidies to the same extent as the EU did – again, perhaps not.  Most likely, there will be a few James Rebanks who can marry traditional farming with other activities to sustain a good living for their families, there will be a few hobby farmers and “land managers” receiving income for maintaining the highly prized British countryside and there will be an even greater dominance of agri-business, mopping up the land that is offers only marginal returns to the smaller farmers.

The result: more sons and daughters of farmers using the income from the sale of the farm to pay their university fees; more rural places colonised by counterurbanisers whose values will dominate village society from the School Board of Governors and Parish Council to the social activities which might become more U3A rather than darts teams; and a more outwardly networked workforce with fewer rural businesses operating as integral parts of their rural communities.  In essence, more “anywhere” people, and further marginalisation of those who do not have a university degree and are not part of the digital society or the knowledge economy.

Where’s the rural in the Midlands Engine?

on the pane, chaired by Roger Turner (2nd from the left)

A panel discussion at the Rural Entrepreneurship Conference on the role of the rural economy within the national industrial strategy, chaired by Roger Turner (2nd from the left)

As part of the Government’s industrial strategy, the Midlands Engine Strategy has been proposed as a means to boost economic growth across the whole of the Midlands region. Alongside the “Northern Powerhouse” strategy, this is part of an attempt to rebalance the national economy.

In both strategies, however, the potential role of rural areas is somewhat lacking, despite the dominance of rural areas on maps of the midlands and north of England. Researchers in Liverpool (Nurse & Shaw) and Newcastle (Turner & Newbery) have set out some of the rural limitations of the Northern Powerhouse strategy so here I focus on the Midlands Engine.

The world “rural” appears twice in the 29 page strategy document, firstly in the introduction to the “Opportunities and Challenges” section where it is noted that “the region encompasses 11 cities, several important market towns and a range of economically important rural areas.” The second mention relates to a growing productivity gap which applies to both urban and rural areas of the Midlands region.  Nowhere is there a recognition of distinctive economic functions, investment opportunities or infrastructure needs for rural development.

Previously, the “untapped potential of rural England” has been valued in the region of £300 billion (Commission for Rural Communities, 2008) A more recent IPPR report has described Britain’s rural areas as representing a “forgotten opportunity”. The report adds “Their economic contribution – 16.6% of GVA – derives from diverse activities; ‘traditional’ rural sectors such as agriculture and tourism operate alongside a growing presence of agri-tech, energy generation, and manufacturing. The latter accounts for the same proportion of the rural and the urban economy.”

Across Europe, there are growing calls to recognise opportunities for “smart specialisation” to capital on the economic potential of rural regions too. A European Commission report on Smart Specialisation calls for more attention to be afforded to eco-innovations and the bio-economy as well as to the opportunities that arise from exploiting the stronger interdependences between urban and rural places.  The report also notes that “the innovation that does take place in rural areas … is not well incorporated into standard approaches to defining and measuring innovation” (Dargan & Shucksmith, 2008).  Furthermore, innovation in rural areas mainly came from diversification into other activities than agriculture, also combining different technologies as well as organisational and marketing strategies (OECD, 2006; 2014).

Therefore, with the uncertainty over trade and agricultural subsidies relating to Brexit, it is concerning to see the rural economy once again marginalised in policy terms. Perhaps the new DEFRA minister will make a difference…over you to you Mr Gove!