Productivity: Rural Areas

Part of RAF Valley: Funding and Employment – in Westminster Hall at 5:21 pm on 14th October 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs) 5:21 pm, 14th October 2020

I guarantee I will. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I am grateful to Scott Mann for bringing this debate.

Rural communities’ needs must have greater prominence in Government policy. We would do well to ensure that this debate provides traction for that ambition. Across the UK—especially in England and Northern Ireland, where the topography is literally more accommodating—rural populations and their needs as taxpayers and citizens, together with their economic contribution are too easily and routinely overlooked. That is an opportunity lost.

The City of London and North sea oil and gas were the powerhouses of the UK economy for nearly 30 years or so. From Caithness to Cornwall, if we removed the net economic output from rural communities across these isles, we would see one heck of a dent in the UK’s economy. Rural communities and economies need a far greater slice of the investment cake if they are to increase productivity. Resources are the end result; the means to that is a shift in perspective and central Government policy. Centralised institutions and Whitehall must react to this.

We need our great regional cities—whether Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff or Durham—to be reborn as regional hubs. This base must exploit their existing and manifest competitive advantages. These can then act as economic nodes for regional opportunity in a far more targeted way, supporting start-ups and peer support between businesses, and generating and cultivating the multiplier effect, which can spread growth, opportunity and prosperity out to landward areas.

In Scotland, great strides have been made to enable decentralised power much closer to the people, under devolution in Edinburgh. This has been replicated in Wales, Northern Ireland, London and the other mayoral assemblies in England. In an independent Scotland, it would be unforgivable to repeat the difficult-to-unwind centralisation mistakes of the UK. That sounds like a political point, but I would contend that it is a political science point. By any stretch of the imagination and by any international comparator, the UK is chronically over-centralised in London. That comes at a significant cost to the rest of these islands.

There is great concern regarding physical and digital connectivity. Both are extremely important. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall highlighted, without superfast broadband, the nicest hotel in the village would find it difficult to get custom and impossible to get repeat custom, and customer reviews would reflect that. I am afraid that superfast broadband is no longer a luxury add-on; it is absolutely essential for the hospitality industry. Without that, individual businesses are working with one hand tied behind their back, because there is nothing they can do about it. That requires significant public investment. Following that investment, there is a need to build a more sustainable model where economic activity and output creates the demand for a more market-led support for services and infrastructure.

The Scottish Government, where we have the powers, have in the “Programme for Government” put the rural economy at the heart of the agenda. We recognise the importance of diversity in the rural economy and we are committed to a range of measures to support that growth. The rural economy is a major source of growth in Scotland, with its economic contribution worth about £35 billion in gross value added. Figures from 2015 show it was 27% of Scotland’s economy. There are 67,000 jobs in Scotland in farming alone. The Scottish agriculture sector, which is no different to that in great swathes of England—not least Cornwall—is worth about £1.3 billion to our economy. Farming is at the heart of Scotland’s economy and has the potential to contribute to our national recovery from covid, as it does elsewhere.

It needs to be accepted that different challenges are faced by rural businesses. The Scottish Government are addressing those, including through a new place-based approach to integrate business support for rural micro-enterprises. As other hon. Members have said, it is really important to look at the aggregate effect. There are not massive companies in rural settings—that is not what characterises rural entrepreneurship. There are many different economic enterprises—often, as has been pointed out, in the same household—all contributing to a significant economic output.

I am grateful to have had an opportunity to contribute to the debate. I wish the hon. Member for North Cornwall every success in taking this issue forward with his colleagues in Government.