As Britain’s Leading Edge of 11 local authorities prepares to launch its second manifesto, the economic, social and cultural challenges remain stark for peripheral rural areas without the economic pull of a major city.
But I am encouraged by a new sense of possibility within our advocacy network. Since 2019, Britain’s Leading Edge has provided a voice to places often overlooked by Government. By putting forward our distinct perspective through evidence to Select Committees, working closely with Government departments to raise awareness of rural requirements and producing original research, we hope we are shifting Government’s attention from its historic focus on large urban areas.
With renewed Government enthusiasm for levelling up, this is a galvanising reset moment for peripheral local authorities. We have a real opportunity to help shape the policy narrative for years to come. It is promising to see some of Britain’s Leading Edge members – including my own area, Cornwall, along with Durham, East Riding and North Yorkshire – to be among the first invited to negotiate a devolution deal with Government.
Local authorities at the edges of the UK have so much to offer. We are the energy powerhouses of tomorrow, with our rich natural capital capable of producing clean, reliable energy for the entire country.
In 2020, Britain’s Leading Edge areas generated over 99,000 MWh of renewable energy, compared to just under 23,000 MWh from the rest of England. As international supply problems drive higher energy prices, while the climate crisis intensifies, the UK must move away from our reliance on imported hydrocarbons. Britain’s Leading Edge, working with the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, can help do this.
Residents of rural parts of the country are custodians of the natural public spaces that proved so vital to physical and mental health and wellbeing during lockdowns – and which are continuing to produce tangible benefits. We generate eight times fewer carbon emissions than the rest of England and play a vital role in taking carbon out of the air and safely storing it.
We can also help feed the UK. Increasing Britain’s food supply chain resilience will be even more critical in future, as geo-political disruption continues, and greater effects of climate change are felt. Much of the UK’s food and drink sector is based within peripheral areas, as is a significant proportion of the country’s agriculture, fishing and forestry businesses.
We have the potential to provide even more energy, more carbon storage and more food – if we receive the right level of support to overcome the demographic, infrastructural and productivity challenges we face.
On average, our residents are older and less well off than the rest of England. Gross domestic household income was £20,161 in 2019 in our areas, compared to £21,590 in the rest of England. While our employment rate is marginally higher in our areas than in the rest of England, many jobs are seasonal, insecure and low-paid. Total gross median weekly pay in our areas is £446 compared with £496 in the rest of England.
And our productivity is lower than elsewhere in the country. Gross value added per hour worked in our areas is just over £28, compared with just over £34 in the rest of England. Improving productivity requires upgrading our infrastructure. Yet gigabit internet access to premises is lower in our areas, averaging 13.4% compared to 32.7% in other local authorities. The post-pandemic normalisation of home-working has encouraged businesses to switch their focus from the South East. This means we have a real chance to reduce the numbers of talented young people leaving rural areas for job opportunities in cities. In turn, this could drive productivity and address demographic imbalances – but these gains depend on having fast, reliable internet access.
These opportunities and challenges have given rise to our six manifesto commitments. As dispersed local authorities, we see partnership working as essential to convincing Government to provide the meaningful support we need to improve skills, infrastructure and productivity. Together, we commit to:
- Continuing to advocate for moving focus and investment beyond the policy corridor, which still affects so much of central Government policy.
- Pressing for all parts of the UK to be truly levelled up, so that rural areas perform as well as metropolitan areas do with reference to the 12 Levelling Up Missions.
- Helping Government deliver on its promise that the UK will be net carbon zero by 2050. Britain’s Leading Edge regions contain the clean energy capacity which will power this commitment.
- Building UK energy and food resilience, particularly in the light of ongoing geopolitical developments.
- Advocating for fairer Government investment in research, development and the vital connectivity infrastructure that peripheral areas need to unlock our potential for growth.
- Championing Government recognition for the extra costs involved in providing reliable, high-quality public services in peripheral areas, and pressing for fair funding to drive innovation in service delivery.
Despite our best efforts, I know change will not happen overnight, but Britain’s Leading Edge is determined to keep advocating for parity of treatment for our often-overlooked residents and businesses.
Cllr Linda Taylor is the leader of Cornwall Council and a founder member of Britain’s Leading Edge