The Levelling Up White Paper: Initial views of the RSN: How can it be made to work for rural settings?

At some 350 pages in length (plus a Technical Annex on Missions and Metrics), it will take us some time to consider all the rural issues in a ‘Rural Lens Review’ of the White Paper

Here are some initial reactions.

Potentially there are some huge opportunities here – but a lot of work to do to explore how to make it work for rural. There are ‘Hooks’ but also ‘Challenges’.

It is written in very ‘urban language’ and when you look at the ‘Missions and Metrics’ in the Technical Annex there is no doubt that most of them could be achieved without any focus on, or change/improvements in rural areas. There is a real challenge there from the outset. That said, the principal objective(s) of Mission 1 of “boosting productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where they are lagging” and directed at “closing the significant and persistent special disparities in productivity, wages and employment across all regions and nations of the UK” must surely include rural areas.

It was pleasing to note from the Executive Summary that the Government “will publish the second report on rural proofing in England this spring. This report will set out how government departments are working to support levelling up in rural areas, through targeted approaches where needed, and how we are strengthening the rural economy, developing rural infrastructure, delivering rural services and managing the natural environment”.

The document is strong on analysis but virtually silent on delivery funding and capacity. Some great words in places but how will they translate into rural? Where are the priorities? The measures are very vague "increase significantly" and not proper targets at all. There is no mention of targets along the way to monitor the progress to 2030.

There are some recognitions of a clear urban/rural divide. 

There is widespread agreement that poor access to health and social care in rural areas is inequitable and fails to deliver on the commitments made in the NHS Constitution.  It goes without saying that it must be at the forefront of the levelling-up agenda.  By definition, this means that if levelling up is properly designed and implemented many economically disadvantaged rural and coastal towns will get a better deal and their wider rural catchment populations will benefit as well.  But design must reflect the different challenges in rural areas and avoid a one-size fits all approach. We need different models of delivery, not just a tweaked urban approach, and we need better measures of impact and health outcomes

On the principle that what gets measured gets done, the granularity of the data to measure the success of the Missions needs to be at a much lower level than Regions – or even County level – as rural issues are often masked and lost by analysis at those levels.

In respect of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, it is stated that “the UK Government is keen to strengthen the role of local stakeholders in the broader employment landscape, using local insight and expertise to shape the UKSPF and future national employment provision”. Will rural interests be amongst those local stakeholders?

The Levelling Up White Paper followed hot on the heels of the Inquiry into Rural Health and Care, launched on 1st February.  This inquiry report highlighted the various significant problems experienced by many rural citizens in accessing health and social care services.  The Inquiry Report also emphasised the many factors that contribute to these access problems, ranging from poor digital connectivity to lack lustre public transport services and lack of affordable rural housing.  The funding of health and care in rural areas, in addition to poor community infrastructure, is at the heart of healthcare disadvantage.  The National Centre for Health and Care (NCRHC) welcomed the commitment to levelling-up, but commented “it must go beyond political rhetoric and result in meaningful action appropriate to local areas.  The underpinning determinants of poorer access to health and social care are clear and the solutions obvious, including the use of a funding formula that recognises the true costs of service delivery in dispersed communities and coastal towns. Levelling up is not just about socio economic, inequalities, or the north south divide - important though these are - they must also address rural disadvantage as well. And we need a place-based approach when it comes to looking at these dispersed and different communities in rural, remote and coastal areas”.

We look forward to seeing the promised 'White Paper designed to tackle the core drivers of disparities in health outcomes’ which must be fully rural proofed reflecting the evidence in the Inquiry report.

It is disappointing that there is no recognition of affordable housing as a cornerstone for levelling up economically and socially. Housing challenges are more than access to home ownership and unfit housing. Both are important but more social housing in rural areas is, at the present time, the overriding need.

And finally, there is little mention in the Levelling Up White Paper of the cost of living being a key metric.  Research commissioned by the RSN last year shows wages are lower in the countryside, but many of the living costs are higher. So rural standards of living, especially for those who can’t afford or are unable to commute to the cities for work, are low. If the government used an objective measure of living standards, more money should be being targeted at levelling up rural communities.  


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