THE BLOG

The Rural Economy

24/05/2013 16:40 BST | Updated 24/07/2013 10:12 BST

The rural economy faces significant challenges that do not arise in urban areas. This has contributed to a rural recession which is different in tone to that in urban areas. It is characterised by longer-standing levels of low economic activity and an older profile of employment.

Some of these challenges include the need to spend more on fuel (a problem which has increased in recent years), the lower numbers of skilled young workers and the distance from core urban areas.

Perhaps the difference between the rural and urban economies that best typifies is digital infrastructure.

When I became an Assembly Member in 1999, technological change and the internet was supposed to overcome the logistical divide. But in fact it has re-enforced that divide. Rural areas were the last to receive access to the internet, the last to receive broadband and the last to receive decent mobile telephone signals. Internet connectivity was supposed to remove the obstacles facing rural entrepreneurs; instead it has become one of those obstacles.

It also has to be said that governments often inadvertently ignore rural areas when promoting economic development. The UK government have undertaken the laudable aim of reducing corporation tax. However, there has been little recognition that rural businesses are by-and-large small business, which are highly unlikely to be incorporated and therefore will not benefit from this tax cut.

These factors have all combined to create a challenging environment for entrepreneurs and businesspeople in rural Wales. And that challenging environment has, in turn, created an image problem for rural Wales.

At the heart of this problem is a belief that there exists a fundamental tension between modernising an economy and maintaining a rural lifestyle. This belief is simply untrue. In fact, modernising rural economies sustains rural communities. Without appropriate support for businesses or infrastructure there is little to lure the economically active to rural areas or even to encourage those who were brought up there to stay.

We need an economic plan which acknowledges the specific challenges, and the specific opportunities, available in rural areas. It should address the specific infrastructure and skills problems in those areas and be focussed around the type of businesses that are located there. But at its heart it should set out a unique economic programme that gives rural Wales the similar economic opportunities as elsewhere, whilst preserving the distinctive nature of Welsh communities.

For example, farming is the most traditional of industries but even here modernisation can be brought about without damaging the unique character of rural communities. Farmers should be helped to diversify into food and drink production or tourism. Disused farm buildings could be turned into affordable housing much needed in rural areas. All of these would allow rural businesses to expand and create jobs. But farming would still remain at the heart of the rural economy.

But farming businesses are not the only businesses that exist in rural areas and never have been. Rural communities have been defined in the past by their community-based economies. Shops and services available on the local high-street, often by independent shops, are the popular image of this. The decline of town centres is not a uniquely rural phenomenon but it has hit these areas the hardest. Investment in high streets and a re-think of what these services are for is paramount.

There is no doubt anymore that rural areas have not prospered as much as they could have. A false distinction between conserving a rural way-of-life and supporting job creation has been created. There is urgent need for a Rural Economy Strategy for Wales and I urge the government to develop one.

Kirsty Williams will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org