June 9th, 2009
Yesterday we had a meeting of the East Sussex Rural Partnership and received very useful updates both from East Sussex County Council and the joint rural partnerships meeting with SEEDA on broadband. I may be getting old and grumpy but I now find it hard to think about this issue without a red mist descending in front of my eyes.
In the world according to BT, government policy and current telecom regulation many people living in rural areas will, for the foreseeable future, have a fourth rate service when it comes to high speed internet access. So what, you say, this is hardly a life or death service? Unfortunately it may be coming pretty close to this for the economy. Lets take a step back to put this in context.
For some reasonably sensible reasons society is now pretty reluctant to invest in roads as a way of promoting economic development. This decision came a bit late for some parts of the South East, especially East Sussex. However, the theory goes, it gives us the opportunity to leapfrog the twentieth century economy and go straight to the virtual, knowledge based twenty first century one. No need for good roads when knowledge flows, free of friction, down the ICT superhighway.
Unfortunately the physical embodiment of this virtual superhighway (the wiring) is as pothole filled, coned-off, one-way and bereft of passing places as some of our roads. Added to this, market failure means that the cable telecom providers are competing with each other and BT to provide ever better services in urban areas and collectively ignoring rural ones. The truly staggering failure of Government policy, telecom regulation, market forces and whatever passes for corporate governance at BT will result in many rural areas being permanently fourth class compared to urban ones. This will suffocate at birth a whole new generation of small, knowledge driven, home based businesses that could thrive in our rural communities.
From a different perspective, when our elected government now says it has published something it often means it has made it available on one of its websites. To be an informed voter we all need to be treated equitably when it comes to knowing what our government is doing in our name. Perhaps we should start to see accessible and affordable broadband as an issue of fundamental human rights if government is going to treat information in this way.
This is pure market failure. The solution has to be found in a combination of public intervention and creative operation of the regulatory processes in order to achieve a universal service for all. And it needs to to be found very soon.
May 15th, 2009
I believe I may be treading where angels dare not, but here goes anyway.
Lets get the obvious and the received wisdom out of the way first: rural areas need to be places with a lively economy if they are to thrive as communities and maintain the landscape. This means lively businesses, often small, many (but not all) land based, but certainly imaginative and forward looking. Many land based businesses need help diversifying in order to keep the entire holding viable; helping them to do this is, therefore, a good thing. However, diversify too far and it is hard to see what incentive there is to plough non-land based profits back into good land management? For some doing this is an act of faith, but it may not always be the case?
So how should the state intervene to help land based businesses to diversify? The EU funded Rural Develpment Programme, through the LEADER scheme, offers grants of taxpayers money to individual rural businessmen to help them invest. Why? With cost of capital at an all time low, if a profit making scheme is commercially viable why should it need a grant? If it is not commercially viable will not the grant be wasted?
There are, of course, a small number of diversification projects that fall in the narrow gap between: commercially viable in the long term with a grant, never going to be commercially viable without. Is the public sector capable of telling which projects meet this subtle criteria? Maybe, but I am sceptical. Perhaps SEEDA, DEFRA or DBERR have a magic formula for this.
There has to be a danger that locally manager LEADER schemes will end up giving grants of upwards of £40k to individuals for business propositions that would stack up quite nicely on fully commercial terms. The grant then becomes a free gift to the individual. We now know what happens when the media spotlight is turned on people receiving gifts of this kind from the public purse, especially those whose need of such a gift may be questionable.
May 5th, 2009
Have you ever come across any community building that serves as many needs as a Village Hall? Or any building that is more fully at the Heart of its Village community. Polling station, playgroup, older peoples’ lunchclub, sports centre, theatre, public meetings, youth group, cinema … the list goes on and on. Buildings that work so hard are a wonderfully efficient use of public money. Have you ever wondered why there is no specific capital fund to help them develop to serve all these needs? If you have, now is the time to say so.
We have started a petition on the No10 Downing St. website asking the Prime Minister to seek specific funding for rural community buildings. We hope that everyone who has ever been involved in the key task of running, maintaining and even re-building a Village Hall for their community will sign up to the Petition and gain the publicity for this cause that it so clearly needs.
Please do three things now: 1. Go the Heart of the Village page of this website and follow the links to sign the petition 2. From the same page of this website follow the link to make a donation to our campaign through JustGiving (we get the tax you pay on it) 3. Tell all your friends about the petition and ask them to do the same.
If we get enough people signing up to the Petition there is evidence that the Government will take notice. Do it now!
April 29th, 2009
I have recently been asked to put into a very succint form our concern about the way in which extra help is targeted on disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods and not on rural people. This is my stab at a brief summary, it will also appear in Action in rural Sussex’s latest Newsletter:
When government is deciding where to target its spending it increasingly does so by focusing on those areas where the highest concentrations of people in need of help live. The 10% or sometimes 20% of small neighbourhoods that have a large proportion of people who are disadvantaged are picked out for special help. Of course this is right and fair, as far as it goes. However, a much larger number of people who need help live in the remaining 80% of villages, hamlets and urban neighbourhoods. These people, and the communities in which they live, are often rural and isolated but get no additional help. This is not right and not fair.
It has become increasingly apparent that in West Sussex this view of the ‘geography of disadvantage’ is starting to be well understood, however in East Sussex, with its concentrations of urban disadvantage, this has not yet happened. On the other hand, when it comes to economic development it is equally clear that urban centres, major trading estates, large scale training provision and the attraction of urban infrastructure projects seem to have a compelling hold on decision makers that squeezes out smaller scale rural initiatives.
We know rural disadvantage to be large, hidden and only just coming onto the political radar. We also know that investment never seems to be targeted at alleviating it. Which political party will make this a priority over the next 18 months?
April 23rd, 2009
Following my last posting on this subject I had a very helpful message from Pauline Raymond from Sedlescombe Parish Council. She let me have a list of local businesses many of whom operate from home and who form a very valuable part of the local economy. Unfortunately I could not publish her message in full because some of the people contained in it may not want their phone numbers broadcast in this way.
However, this page of Sedlescombe Parish Council’s website can be found at http://www.sedlescombe.org.uk/An/Website%20pages/Businesses.html . Other Parish Councils and local organisations may see a lot of value in doing something similar.
Here at Action in rural Sussex we have helped several local areas to produce ‘Really Local Food Directories’ to help promote local food businesses to people living nearby. We would be happy to help other areas publish these as well although this does, obviously, cost money.
More on this in the main part of the website here and keep the comments on home based business coming.
April 22nd, 2009
I am something of an optimist by nature, indeed my colleagues are often infuriated by my habit of responding to the latest disaster with an overly quick identification of, often very hard to spot, opportunities. Sometimes I am even right!
We and a number of others in Sussex have for some years been extolling the virtues of home based businesses and the huge contribution that they now make to the economy of our area. During the last few months we have been going further and suggesting that not only is this an area of the economy with very good, built-in, sustainability credentials it is also a sector that may be very fleet of foot as we come out of recession. Of course there is a warning light: the more value added end of this sector is very dependent on good broadband; but more on that another time.
It has been hard in the past to get a positive word about this part of the economy from the big economic development agencies. They have tended until recently to be a bit scathing and refer to the whole area as ‘lifestyle businesses’ (I get the impression that being the CEO of a major bank was little more than a perceived lifestyle until recently). But no more. All of a sudden I hear people from these same agencies waxing lyrical about the benefits of home based business and how we should work hard to reduce the regulations that often inhibit it.
Well, there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. We are lucky enough in the South East to have SEEDA who lead on business regulation for all the Regional Development Agencies, so lets build a campaign on this from the bottom. I promise to pass on, in easily digestible form, every good idea for removing barriers to growing home based business that is logged with this BLOG and follow them through with our friends at SEEDA. Get typing!
April 17th, 2009
For the last couple of years central and local government have been caught up in a kind of ritual dance over some things called Local Area Agreements (LAA) and National Indicators (NI). Anyone venturing uninitiated into the jargon infested waters of the LAAs and NIs only has themselves to blame; this is not safe swimming for the bureaucratically faint hearted. However there is an important, simple, goal at the heart of this particular government initiative.
The aim is for each area, in our case County, to clearly identify a small number of things that it wants to improve in the short term for its residents. It picks these from a long list of possible issues, defines the improvements it wants to make and signs up, with Government to make measureable improvements. Government in turn places an obligations on a wide range of its agencies and QUANGOs to help. Sensible, logical and in many cases picking up on things that really do concern people like educational attainment, road maintenance, care of the elderly etc.. The lists for East Sussex and West Sussex can be found here. You will need to select the South East Region and then either East Sussex or West Sussex.
But, and there is a big but, Government has chosen to measure achievement of some very important issues for people through something called the Place Survey. (Click here for an example, in this case the Wealden one) This is a survey of people’s perceptions of their ‘local area’; local government will be judged, and in some cases financially rewarded, as a result of improvements in these perceptions. Lets look at just two of the questions that the recipient, poor sap, must try and answer for ‘their local area’ (this is the area within a 20 minute walk of home!): No 22 …how safe or unsafe do you feel when outside in your local area after dark? Or No 10 To what extent do you agree or disagree that (your Councils) provide value for money? Remember this is not reality, it is perception, the outcome of which probably has more to do with headline issues in 6.00pm news than anything public sector organisations can influence. How, exactly, is the general public meant to judge value for money with our current Kafkaesque approach to local Council funding?
It is hard to say whether the survey may have some relevence in dense urban areas but for rural Sussex its dubious statistical significance makes it probably the most asinine, pointless and ill thought out approach to measuring improvement in public sector services that you could hope to find. I feel deeply sorry for the the Chief Executives of the the District and County Councils who have had to put their names to it.
However, what is truly disturbing is that this survey is being carried out nationally. The Department for Communities and Local Government, DEFRA, the Commission for Rural Communities and many others could be lured into thinking that aggregating up data from rural Districts will give them some genuine insight into the state of rural areas. We need to be assured that they will not even attempt to use it in this way.
April 1st, 2009
There is an interesting spin on today’s news of local government re-organisation in Sussex even though none of our Councils are directly affected. The Government has been very assertive in saying that unitary government is better for people and communities because it creates less confusion over which Council provides which service. It is hard not to conclude that if the Government is right that unitary local government can work in Cornwall and Northumberland, then there will soon be no credible argument to be raised against it being a good system for any other rural area.
Even in the new Unitary rural Counties there will not, of course, be a single tier of local government. Parish Councils will continue to be the most local form of representative democracy and we would all do well to ensure that they genuinely live up to this description. There are many opportunities opening up for Parishes to take the initiative locally for their communities and AirS will be doing all it can to encourage these opportunities to be taken up in a progressive, open and inclusive way.
However, for all this talk of making local government simpler and easier to understand, what do we see coming over the horizon? In much of West Sussex and part of East Sussex we will soon have County, District, Parish and a National Park authority. It remains to be seen if this will bring us less confusion and a more straightforward way of tackling crucial issues such as rural housing affordability.
March 27th, 2009
How many people living in your village have a genuine stake in the local economy? By that I mean: do they derive any significant part of their income, directly or indirectly, from the local economy? I suspect, and the data would seem to suggest that this is the case, it is relatively few. Once you have discounted those households whose income derives from commuting more than, say, twenty miles; deducted those living on pensions or investments that depend on economies around the globe and then taken off those working in the public sector supported by taxes collected on a national basis, it is probably few.
So, why are we suprised when there is so much resistance to planning applications for business activity or affordable housing for people who do work in the local economy? With the best will in the world this kind of development will involve the occasional 40 tonne lorry, machinery noise or just an increase in general traffic. What incentive is there for those not linked to the local economy be positive if they perceive their quality of life under even the smallest threat?
As we finally come out of recession this year, next year (sometime, never…) it will be the small, perhaps currently home-based, businesses that will be fleet of foot and ready to grow and take advantage of opportunities. We need their local communities to support them and for this to happen they need a stake in local business success. Perhaps now is the time, in rural areas, to pass the national non-domestic rate to Parish and Town Councils. It could be given with the express intent that they use it to benefit the quality of life of the whole community and provide a real incentive for small businesses to remain there, grow and add to local employment opportunities.
February 25th, 2009
On Monday I had the rare privilege of attending an event with all the Cabinet (barring Hillary Benn as he was busy in the Antarctic) in Southampton. It provided an opportunity to stress some of the key issues for rural areas in the South East. In particular I made the point, often lost sight of, that 70% of the most disadvantaged people living in the South East do not live in the small number of urban wards that are usually the subject of government initiatives.
However, one of the more interesting contributions at the event came from a representative of SEEDA, the Regional Development Agency for the South East. She described the regeneration activity that is happening in the Southampton and Portsmouth areas (now commonly known in government circles as the PUSH area) and went on to say “this area is a micrososm of the South East”. I think many of us would beg to differ.
If anything Urban South Hampshire is the urban exception to the rest of the South East. The South East’s economy and settlement pattern is actually based around small and medium sized towns and equally small and medium sized businesses. The opportunties for large scale, PR friendly, urban regeneration are rare. The experience of Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, so beloved of the regeneration community, do not fit the South East as it really is. Could we perhaps have an RDA for the South East that understands its region a little better than this comment seems to imply. Please.