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Level Up, Build Back Better – the rural and regional dimensions

Level Up, Build Back Better – the rural and regional dimensions

9 March 2021

Prominent, if under-developed, new mission for Government

Britain is one of the world’s most geographically unbalanced countries, with London and the south east advantaged compared to the rest of the country, writes Neil Ward.  ‘Level Up’ and ‘Build Back Better’ are the prominent, if under-developed, new mission for Government.  

A common assumption is that economic development efforts are best located in large cities. This is not just because they are home to more people but also because large urban economies are thought to function in an inherently more innovative and productive way. Growth in urban economies is often lazily treated as inevitable and this has inspired a city-regions movement. It remains to be seen what the Covid-19 pandemic will mean for this previous faith in larger cities as engines of economic growth. 

Rural economies are the archetypical ‘left-behind’

A well-organised lobby promotes the case for investment in cities. As there has been no counterpart for non-metropolitan areas beyond cities, and no national voice for rural economies, it is no surprise that the scale and economic development potential of non-metropolitan Britain is little understood and often actively marginalised. Rural economies are the archetypical ‘left-behind’.

Over 60% of the UK population live beyond the largest cities and metropolitan areas of more than 250,000 people. To ‘Level Up’ and ‘Build Back Better’ will require a more geographically sophisticated approach to sub-national economic development than we have seen over recent decades. 

In a Levelling Up and Rural Areas (March 2021) (PDF: 415KB) for NICRE, I review how rural economies are distinctive. They are characterised by higher levels of employment and home-working, and there is evidence of considerable untapped potential, with rural firms more likely to be exporters of goods and services, and more likely to have introduced innovations compared to their urban counterparts. The geographical setting for rural firms – crucially characterised by sparsity and distance – often means they have, by necessity, to be more innovative to survive.

Need for inclusive approach

As NICRE will set out in a Briefing Paper on Levelling Up, national, regional and local economic development strategies must be tailored and sensitive to the particular challenges and opportunities of rural economies, and this will be vital if any ‘Levelling Up’ is to be successful. An inclusive approach should include the brokering of local collaborative networks and partnerships, as well as ensuring better connectivity digitally, physically and strategically. 

A naïve and simplistic approach to Levelling Up would centre on the ‘north-south’ divide, measure success simply by disparities between regions, and succumb to the agglomeration fetish by concentrating efforts in the largest centres of population in the hope of maximising the ‘bang-for-buck’. This would not only be a missed opportunity to harness the real and positive potential of an archetypical ‘left-behind’ part of the economy, but it would also have the perverse effect of widening and deepening many more divides within the north and within the south. To truly ‘Level Up’ and ‘Build Back Better’ requires integrated and inclusive economic strategies that recognise, are sensitive to, and actively harness the interrelationships and interdependencies between local rural economies and their urban counterparts.

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