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Community ownership: how local people can lead the way on Levelling Up

Community ownership: how local people can lead the way on Levelling Up

4 November 2021

Why are rural areas ‘left behind’?

For decades, rural communities have been seeing a loss of local jobs and services such as transport, shops and pubs, writes Georgina Edwards, policy and research manager, Plunkett Foundation.

Young people in particular, according to CPRE’s latest research, are increasingly leaving their rural communities. Affordable housing, lack of connectivity, higher cost of living, and a decline in local services and employment opportunities all play a critical role in rural depopulation. This is a long-term issue that undermines the future sustainability of rural communities and businesses.

The situation is only set to get worse in the wake of the pandemic, if rural house prices and the cost of living continue to rise. As the Rural Services Network highlights in their Revitalising Rural campaign, the UK Government has consistently underfunded rural areas in comparison to urban areas.

How does community ownership help?

‘Left behind’ does not mean that rural communities are failing to ‘catch up’. As the new briefing paper by NICRE points out, the urban bias towards ‘towns’ and ‘cities’ in current Levelling Up proposals overlooks untapped potential in rural places.

Rural communities are innovative and responsive to change – this is evident in the continuous growth of community-owned businesses, with over 800 now operating across the UK. Even during the pandemic, and against a backdrop of a long-term decline in rural services, the Better Form of Business reports by the Plunkett Foundation found that the community shops and pubs sectors grew by 3% and 11% in 2020, with over £3m raised in community shares to open new businesses.

Community businesses are owned and run by local people, meaning that profits are reinvested for local benefit. Local accountability ensures the business is tailored to customer needs and is successful in the long-term. Community ownership has been a direct response to save rural services, such as post offices, pubs and shops. New projects, such as renewable energy initiatives, have also flourished in recent years.

In our Rural Vision, Plunkett has highlighted how rural community businesses can lead the way in a post-pandemic recovery, such as through creating jobs and taking environmental action. Our new Community Food Strategy identifies opportunities for community businesses to re-localise the supply chain and boost the local economy.

What do rural community businesses need to boost Levelling Up?

We need national policy to better enable rural communities take charge to grow the local economy and build thriving and sustainable places to work and live. Plunkett Foundation is calling for 25% of post-Brexit funding to go directly to local people to invest in their own priorities for the economy, as part of the Communities in Charge campaign. In our 2021 Autumn Budget submission, we emphasised the need for a UK-wide Community Right to Buy on local assets, and dedicated infrastructure support as part of the Community Ownership Fund.

For ‘Levelling Up’ to be meaningful, it needs to be felt at the local level. Community-owned businesses offer a ground-up rather than a top-down approach, with wider social and environmental benefits alongside economic productivity.

Plunkett Foundation is a UK-wide charity supporting rural communities to set up community-owned businesses that are inclusive, innovative and impactful. For more information about its work with community businesses, go to its website.

Find out more about NICRE