Is it too late to save the rural economy?

It is very clear that the government’s lockdown policies are no longer about protecting the NHS which has ample capacity and is now failing people in many other ways as a result of the fear instilled by the handling of the Covid-19 crisis. On those grounds, one might question why lockdown rules remain in place at all.

However, my argument here concerns a lack of rural proofing of the government’s actions.  The latest delays on re-opening parts of the leisure sector and the communication of new restrictions across Lancashire and Yorkshire suggest that no consideration has been given to distinctive rural issues nor to the urban-rural variation in rates of spread or risks to human health. Data from Centre for Towns identifying the rapidly escalating job losses and fears about the future of our graduates are surely more alarming?

The last-minute reversal of plans to allow closely managed access to sporting events has been devastating for their respective industries, just as the quarantine rule changes have for the international travel sector.  The knock on effects have seen other smaller events cancelled simply through fear. They may sound small and trivial but ceramics fairs such as the one in Southwell , whose cancellation was announced this weekend, are vital for networking, connecting with customers and orienting the work of a number of very small producers whose businesses may now fail. Some agricultural shows have attempted to operate online but these have been unable to recreate the retailing opportunities that are so important for many rural craft businesses.

In business, we all know that uncertainty is the biggest obstacle to firms getting back on track. Sudden decisions informed by the science of small numbers and with insufficient attention to regional difference must be challenged on grounds of being disproportionate and failing to weigh up multiple socio-economic impacts.  As restrictions eased, businesses invested in ways to reopen safely so they must be given the chance to earn back that investment with the confidence that if they stick to the rules, they can make plans for the future.

There is, perhaps, just time to save tens of thousands of jobs by easing lockdown measures and maintaining the support and cooperation of businesses who are working so hard to keep trading AND to keep people safe.  If these business go to the wall, BOTH the economy and the safety measures employed by businesses will be lost and the result will see poorer-managed and less safe activities taking place across the country – whether that is 1,000s of anonymous people packed on trains to the coast, as we saw last weekend, or growing civil unrest in the face of economic hardship and social breakdown.

I urge the government, and everyone who wants to help our young people, to take action before it is too late.

Are calls to end the Lockdown really just expressions of right wing capitalist greed?


Reading Twitter this morning, there appears to be a political divide between those who call for a relaxation to lockdown and those who accuse right wing marketeers for insensitive, thoughtless greed.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this but it is far too simplistic.  There are deeper class-based and geographical differences too.  Big businesses calling for their staff to go back to work to get profits up again is pretty unacceptable, especially where these people will be in personal danger and their activities can significantly increase the spread of the virus.  On the other hand, small businesses with one or two staff and very limited social interaction could surely get going again soon.  These businesses are currently dependent on the banks sorting out loans in time to stay afloat – it’s not a case of greed but of survival for the business and their families.

A further distinction could be drawn between densely populated areas with high rates of Covid-19 case and sparsely populated areas where the risks of contracting the virus are lower, and the risk of multiple exposures or a high viral load are especially low. Allowing a few households to interact with each other, or allowing a small class of children to return to school in a relatively insular community should be quite reasonable.  Again – this is far away from the “greedy capitalist” accusations levied at those calling for a relaxation of lockdown.  However, it does show that the voices of those in small businesses and in smaller communities are often less well represented.

A regional approach to relaxing lockdown, where families and small community groups can reconnect can help to overcome the mental health concerns and where small businesses can get up and running as soon as possible needs to happen quickly.  This will help to reduce the phenomenal economic costs that will follow but, most importantly, also help those small businesses whose recovery is likely to be most challenging, get a head start on the big businesses who will be geared up for a  swift return to normal at all costs. 

Reports that up to 150,000 deaths could be caused by an extended lockdown are currently being ignored.  While this does sound excessive, the knock on effects are not insignificant.  Aside from poverty and unemployment, loss of education will have long term impacts, especially for children where their home environment is not supportive for home-education and isolation will have significant social and mental health implications – the duration of which cannot be known.  Add to this all of the other medical treatments and diagnoses (especially early cancer testing) that are being side-lined and we are not simply weighing up virus prevention with economic greed, but with a whole range of societal impacts. 

Trying to stay afloat: A tree surgery business explains the challenges of lockdown

Springwood Tree Services, based on the Nottinghamshire-Lincolnshire border, have stopped trading for the safety of their workers, their clients and their family. There is not a blanket restriction on this activity although the husband and wife team that run the business explained that it would be virtually impossible to observe social distancing rules and to avoid sharing of tools and machinery. They wanted to do what they feel is the right thing.

As a small limited company with no full-time staff, just subcontractor arrangements, they do not qualify for self-employment income support scheme (although thankful the self-employed contractors are covered). As will so many rural businesses, they are not VAT registered and they recently discovered that their landlord has not registered their property for business rates so those relief schemes no not apply either. This leaves one partner able to claim 80% of his nominal salary in relief but no relief for the lost profits. Unlike self-employed people, he is not allowed to continue working for the company in this situation either. They are praying that the bank will process their Business Interruption Loan application before too many more bills arrive and they hope that the rental protection scheme for commercial leases will offer an additional safety net. This highlights the vulnerability of limited companies with few capital reserves for whom any delays in administering the loan could be terminal.

All small businesses are facing uncertain economic conditions, but they are used to dealing with some uncertainty. What is most important is that they have an exit strategy, but they can’t do this without clarity from government. So what are they able to do?

  • They have agreed with clients to delay work that is already in the books so that they have an income when things start again and they are relying on trust that this work isn’t given to competitors.
  • They are looking at their client groups to identify which will be in a position to spend money on their services once lockdown ends. As individuals, we might all rush to the pub, the beach or the shops but tree surgery will probably not be high on the list. For commercial clients too, they will take time to get their own businesses back in order so again, tree surgery is unlikely to be a priority.
  • If lockdown is extended, the salaried partner will probably have to work in another business to maintain their family income, exposing his family to the risks they are trying to avoid.

Alongside a clear plan for ending the lockdown, rural businesses like these need a head start to enable them to get up and running within a local area, adopting safe working practices.   The intensity of the health risk is lower in rural areas and a phased end to the lockdown that allows rural businesses to get up and running again is essential. An end to lockdown that occurs everywhere at the same time would give a huge commercial advantage to businesses that have been able to stay open, that have potentially gained market share and that have the cashflow in place in capitalise on the spending boost that would ensue. A regional approach should be combined with strong messages to support local businesses and thus reduce travel and widespread social mixing.

Tourism and recreation may have to wait a bit longer as these will see much more social mixing that other manufacturing, business services and land-based work. Getting village schools and parks open again to allow families to work within their local communities should be a priority for overall health and wellbeing effects too. These are not “luxuries”, these are fundamental necessities for preserving society as we know it. As I have said before, in times of war nations sacrifice lives to protect the society they believe in. Today, we ungently need to put society and communities first and not allow countless lives to be lost or damaged in coming months and years due to prolonged lockdown in areas where the risks of Covid-19 are much lower.

Coronavirus or the economy…a stark choice?

Debate is intensifying about the need for a measured response to controlling the spread of coronavirus that will allow economic recovery without long term damage to society.  I argue here that it is not just about when but how a gradual return of normal life can be rolled out across Britain.

As we are starting to see in Italy, wholesale lockdown will not be tolerated for weeks on end.  Even if the government’s support packages are generous and comprehensive enough to bridge the financial hardship, there will be large numbers of people in society who begin to fight back against lengthy oppression.  That’s not to mention the injustice facing those unable to access other health care and essential services at this time.

The riots in summer 2011 were, according to reports in the Guardian, almost inevitable given the prevailing conditions with a “tinderbox of economic and social tensions”. No-one would suggest that those social inequalities have gone away and current events are increasing unemployment once again.  Those on precarious contracts are likely to be particularly hard hit.  With lockdown, add to this increasing boredom, household tensions, anxiety and testosterone build-up among young men along with a lot of unoccupied retail premises and a new “tinderbox” is again present in many urban neighbourhoods.

It would be easy then to argue, and several commentators have done, that we should revert to “business as usual” as soon as possible and accept that a few more people that usual will die.  The problem with this argument is not one of “saving lives” vs “saving the economy” though – given the events that have already taken place the economy cannot just be turned back on.  As Jonathan Portes wrote in the Guardian (25/2/20) even if we were all allowed to return to work, “many or most of us would, quite rationally, choose not to, for fear of catching the virus”.  Without a degree of confidence and certainty, both about personal finances and the wider economy, Portes continues: “households won’t spend and businesses won’t invest. And that simply isn’t going to happen until the spread of the diseases has been contained”.

However, is there an alternative way of thinking about this problem?  Does the UK have to follow one set of regulations everywhere and at all scales?  As geographers we always talk about scale and as someone who studies regional and rural economies, I want to advocate a localised approach to relaxing the restrictions currently in place.  There are, in my mind, 4 strong justifications for this:

  1. The virus spread much less quickly in rural areas.  This phenomenon has been reported in Southern Italy and data from the shows that there are roughly half as many cases per head in rural districts compared to urban areas UK (further updated Defra figures to follow). Break this down to lower scale of geography and we can be fairly confident that the difference would be even greater. Recent reports suggest a higher “viral load” also increases the risk to human life, and in densely populated urban areas, exposure to multiple sources of the infection, and potentially to slightly different strains simultaneously, is also higher.
  2. In rural areas, isolation and loneliness among older generations was one of the biggest health concerns up until a few weeks ago.  Despite the great efforts of many communities to help isolated and vulnerable people, the mental health impacts will increase the longer the lockdown continues.  If restrictions on local services and amenities are relaxed for those within small communities, it should be possible for social engagement, and low-level economic activity to return whilst social distancing continues to be observed.  Even village schools could potentially reopen sooner so as not to impact the social and educational development of young children.   In all of these cases, the social mixing would be limited to local communities and not a widespread inter-mixing of different groups of people.  Together, such localised re-openings would allow home-workers to become more productive, allow the self-employed and small businesses to keep ticking over, reduce isolation and actually build on the positive responses of local community-focused activities of people trying to help others in responsible ways.  The fact that positive community responses to help those at risk are largely occurring at a local level highlights that despite our global society facilitated by multiple communications technologies, community-spirit is still “local” and place-based.
  3. The economic recovery will itself be uneven and businesses in rural and peripheral regions will have to work hard to rebuild their markets.  Currently, a lot of bigger businesses that already have well-developed retailing and other services will be improving their market share.  The longer-term effect of this on supply chains may see a number of rural firms falling further behind.  Allowing a regional relaxation of lockdown can enable these firms to re-establish local supply chains and start to serve local markets more quickly, before nationwide market competition returns.  Not all rural businesses can do this (e.g. rural tourism will inevitably lose a large share of annual income) but where it is possible, this could also stimulate shorter supply chains in the future and strengthen local economies and local business networks in the future.
  4. Looking further ahead, rural economies have the potential to deliver significant growth and to better support their local communities.  This requires spaces for interactions between disparate groups of people living and working in rural areas.  The current crisis sees these individuals coming together on social media to support their communities and as freedoms return, there is a real opportunity to capitalise on the new connections being made.  Home-workers, self-employed people and a range of small businesses all have a lot to offer their communities but so often they are segregated, each operating in their distinct professional network or social grouping.  Linking together the skills and activities that are taking place locally can see rural localities becoming more vibrant, lead to reduced commuting and stimulate a greater degree of local spending to sustain rural services.


At a time when large number of lives are being lost in our bigger cities and key workers are putting themselves in danger, these points may seem a little parochial to some.  Clearly, there are other priorities to tackle first but we have to plan for an end to the situation both to help people to keep conforming to the restrictions – a light at the end of the tunnel is essential for this – and to ensure that the aftermath of the lockdown is not worse than the current situation.

I don’t like the comparisons with war.  Limitations on personal freedom and the overriding fear of losing lives are of course similar but, in a time of war, lives are sacrificed for a belief in society whereas this emergency sees society put at risk to save lives.  Perhaps one useful comparison, though, is the idea that winning the peace is more important than winning the war.  If the end of restrictions and the containment of the virus leads to an uneven rate of recovery, poverty and social unrest could be just as big a fear as coronavirus itself.  We therefore need clear strategies for how, as well as when, a return of civil liberties and of economic activity can take place.


Rural Mobility

Addressing the needs for improving rural mobility is a wide-ranging question.  Our research to date has identified a range of innovations that could make a real difference – not all based on technology.  The first requirement is organisational innovation to bring public budgets and transport planners together to address to collective mobility needs of rural people, not segregated between health, education recreation and work-related categories of travel.

Planning and infrastructure development are also needed to enable rural areas to keep pace with and embrace more radical mobility technologies that are coming on-stream.  Our view is that rural hubs (e.g. are an important focus for “first mile” or “last mile” mobility solutions, for both people and goods.  Over time, these hubs can also provide business opportunities through increased footfall, sites for mobile public services (including health outreach services) and locations for the development of innovation hubs and flexible workspaces, thus reducing the need for longer distance commuting.

Building on this model, autonomous vehicles (such as the one being trialled by the University of Lincoln pictured here), drones, demand-responsive transport, lift-shares facilitated by smart payment technologies can operate alongside, and enhance traditional forms of public transport.  These are all forming our initial thoughts for a Rural Mobility Toolkit which will be produced with Midlands Connect in September. More details to follow soon…