Hinterland - 02 March 2020

Hinterland this week - a smattering of IT stories, farmers nervously holding their breath and the fall out over the floods. Read on.

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How Boris Johnson can keep his promise to ‘level up’ rural Britain

Really interesting article from a centre right think tank. It tells us:

According to ONS statistics, the rural economy is 16% less productive than the national average. If we could unlock that potential, the benefit to the economy in England alone would amount to an extra £43 billion each year.

The UK’s departure from the EU, and the changes in agriculture policy that have only just begun, are forcing farming businesses to adapt, seek new markets, change land use and diversify. Ultimately, they will continue to make a substantial contribution to a rural economy that in turn makes a sizeable contribution to the Exchequer. And with the evolution of farming and the rising importance of realising environmental objectives, as well as the need to mitigate climate change and embrace carbon sequestration, the pressure on farms to diversify their businesses is only increasing.

Diversification is a growing trend. The Defra Evidence Compendium shows that 66% of farm businesses in England in 2017/18 included some form of diversified activity, generating around £680 million in profit. Many farmers now make more cash from tourism than they do from growing food.

In spite of this, it remains extremely difficult for land-based businesses to diversify. There are many reasons – but speak to entrepreneurial farmers across the country and they will tell you one of them is the existing tax system, under which each revenue stream in a rural business must be reported on and taxed separately. Not only does this impose a large and unnecessary administrative burden on the business owner, but it can actively discourage the entrepreneurship needed for the Government to achieve its ambition to rebalance the UK’s economy.

A solution to this is the establishment of the ‘Rural Business Unit’ (RBU). RBUs would make sure that rural businesses which pass certain qualifying tests (relating to their activities such as agriculture or environmental management; management; size and income) are taxed as single entities, rather than a collection of revenue streams. As the CLA’s recent Budget submission suggests, a simplified regime of this kind would give farmers more opportunities to grow and diversify their businesses. At the moment, they are condemned to wasting time filling out several lengthy tax forms, which requires them to spend time focusing on the minutiae of what cost should be apportioned to what income stream, or to facing large bills if an accountant has to help them.

It would also encourage farmers to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, as the RBU would make it easier to use assets and other resources across different facets of the business, as new opportunities materialise.

This proposal is one of the pillars of our Rural Powerhouse campaign, which we developed to unlock investment and economic growth in rural areas. It’s a campaign that has four other main aims – to connect the countryside fully, to establish a planning system fit for rural communities, to make farming both profitable and sustainable, and to push investment in skills and innovation – the realisation of which will be necessary for the countryside to meet its true potential.


UK shared rural mobile mast network to proceed without BT - report

Interesting insight into the relationship between BT and its competitors. This article tells us:

UK mobile operators are close to agreeing a deal to share mobile masts in rural areas, with O2, Vodafone and 3 UK set to build and share their own masts, leaving BT to pursue its own plans, reports The Telegraph.

According to unnamed sources, the plans could be announced as early as the week of 24 February, although this timetable could be delayed as the contracts are finalised. The move by BT rivals to go it alone comes after the company wanted to charge rent for access to its masts, rather than build new shared sites. The proposed fees are understood to be more than 3-times standard industry rates, with BT insisting that the charges are 'fair and reasonable' when taking into account its investment.

Once source told The Telegraph that it made no sense for the other mobile operators to spend more sharing the BT network than it would cost to build and share their own masts. The operators declined to comment on the report. 


How floods divided Britain

Very thought provoking article about how the balance of power plays out when things go wrong in rural places…..

I thought of Thorney, Somerset and Thorney, Westminster as twin towns of a kind, for one was subject to decisions made in the other – though by the time the winter was over, the inhabitants of the village and its neighbours would reverse the pattern, by forcing those at the centre to accept their perception of the causes of the flood.

There were other resentments directed at the other Thorney: people were tired of being told by Londoners that they shouldn’t live on flood plains, since London is on a flood plain as well. Yet even the Thames Barrier – which is deployed with increasing regularity to protect central London – cannot stop the Thames bursting its banks upstream, and the residents of places like Thorney were angry that nothing much was done until Berkshire and Surrey had flooded.

Most people recognised that living beside water carries risks – some did not regret their choice even after they had been flooded. Yet many saw floods as a man-made disaster, rather than a natural one, caused by the neglect or mismanagement of the office-bound bureaucrats who rarely visit the places they oversee.


British farmers fret about losing their protection and their subsidies

Im not sure anyone has fully scenario planned life outside of the common certainties of the common agricultural policy yet. This article speaks to some of the uncertainty around the issue and its stress causing propensity for those involved in farming it tells us:

It is a truism that farmers like Conservative governments. The party has deep roots in the shires and has traditionally supported country pursuits. Yet the present Tory government worries farmers. Their biggest concern is about whether and how it will replace their £3bn ($3.9bn) of annual subsidies under the European Union’s common agricultural policy, which make up nearly two-thirds of total farming income. They are right to fret. Some Tories believe that escaping the ludicrously lavish and protectionist cap is among the biggest benefits of leaving the eu.

Drenched by recent floods, farmers will have drawn little comfort from this week’s conference of the National Farmers Union (nfu). George Eustice, newly promoted to the job of secretary of state at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, spoke enticingly of a prosperous future, but also of the biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century.


Bring the broadband: can better connectivity level up Britain’s economy?

This article speaks about the economic rationale behind giving rural areas better access to broadband. It tells us:

To tackle this, the government pledged £5bn in its election manifesto toward providing gigabit-capable broadband – a speed seen as the gold standard – to every household and business in the UK by 2025. This would concentrate efforts on remote rural areas that have traditionally been ill-served. 

With both domestic and business users consuming more bandwidth than ever before, it’s a timely intervention. Ofcom figures suggest that both fixed and mobile internet connections used about a quarter more data in 2019 than 2018.

However, the current proposals are watered down from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s earlier promise to provide full-fibre broadband – that is, a fibre optic cable link – to every address in the UK, which some critics considered over-ambitious. Instead, it’s now assumed that gigabit-per-second speed will be delivered via a mix of different technologies.

In some places, this will still involve laying fibre optic cable to the premises. Currently, many who use it rely on a fibre optic link only to the nearest street-level cabinet, with the so-called “final mile” (sometimes no more than a few yards) connected via copper cables.

Elsewhere, it seems more likely that faster speeds will be achieved by co-opting Virgin Media’s existing hybrid cable network. This is thought to happen largely through the use of 5G masts, which deliver a fast, wireless connection over the “final mile”. It’s believed that the government will try to broker shared-service agreements between the two companies that provide masts for the UK’s mobile networks, so that all end-users can benefit regardless of their service provider.


And Finally

Landscapes of chemical and biological warfare

We end with some fascinating and spooky photos – nearly all from rural places across the UK. This story tells us:

Irish photographer Dara McGrath documents British landscapes associated with chemical and biological warfare.

His work, Project Cleansweep, takes its name from a 2011 Ministry of Defence report on the risk of residual contamination at 14 UK sites used in the manufacture, storage and disposal of chemical and biological weapons.


About the author:
Hinterland is written for the Rural Services Network by Ivan Annibal, of rural economic practitioners Rose Regeneration.



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