CLA Kent's new rural champion

PUBLISHED: 17:41 31 October 2015 | UPDATED: 17:41 31 October 2015

CLA Kent's new rural champion Allan Buckwell

CLA Kent's new rural champion Allan Buckwell

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Allan Buckwell, the new Chairman of the CLA's Kent branch, will be looking at the challenges faced by the many different businesses based in our countryside

Emeritus Professor Allan Buckwell is the new Chairman of the CLA’s Kent branch. Allan is an agricultural economist, who works part-time for the Institute for European Environmental Policy as senior research fellow.

A former Professor of Agricultural Economics at Wye College, University of London, he has also previously worked for both the CLA as Policy Director and for the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture.

The CLA has published a new rural business league table, which scored English counties on some of the main criteria which can support or challenge rural firms. Cheshire topped the table as the best county in England for running a rural business, with Oxfordshire joint second.

Kent’s place, just outside the top 20, reflects some specific challenges, including low levels of rural start-ups and aspects of the planning environment. Among the criteria used were the extent of broadband and mobile coverage; adoption of local plans by planning authorities; opportunities for development of rural skills; and entrepreneurial dynamism.

Clearly, other factors influence how hospitable or challenging a county is for rural businesses, such as its geography and infrastructure, flood risk, soil type and levels of rural crime.

Operating in a rural area brings opportunities but also challenges and there is much that can be done to help rural businesses succeed. Top of the list is connectivity; almost any type of business can operate in a rural area provided they have good quality mobile and internet connection.

In Kent levels of digital connectivity are rated at 10.7 out of 15 for superfast broadband coverage and 9.3 out of 10 for 3G coverage. However, these figures are based on the county as a whole, and the quality of coverage remains a postcode lottery with too many businesses still losing out.

We need government, councils and network providers to focus on delivery especially in our most remote areas. A growing business often needs space or to update existing buildings and facilities. This can be frustrated by poorly managed planning systems. The CLA analysis rates the performance of planning authorities on whether they have Local Plans in place and whether they are permitting or refusing applications to convert and change buildings.

In Kent, the rating for local plans stands at 6.9 out of 10 and the report also identifies more refusals than approvals for change of use of 
agricultural buildings. The analysis also revealed the results of a new survey on local preferences for using rural businesses. Loyalty towards local producers of food, drink and other items and a preference for using locally based cafés, farm shops and leisure activities can play an important part in the success of rural firms.

Across the south east, including Kent, there is significant room for improvement, with a preference rating for using local products of only 5.6 out of 10, compared to 9.2 in the south west.

The Government’s new £24m Growth Programme offers a welcome boost for many rural businesses. Funding is being rolled out through Local Enterprise Partnerships and we are hopeful that the South East LEP will join other LEPs in the region in receiving grants.

The initial focus of the grants is on tourism, small business development and food processing, with funding support in the £35,000-£200,000 range on offer. Among projects likely to receive assistance are investments in new or existing visitor attractions, farm diversification activities and adding value to locally produced food products. Rural development funding is also available through the LEADER programme.

Over recent months, the CLA has been urging local MPs to see for themselves the innovation, diversity and challenges faced by the multitude of different businesses based in the countryside.

The rural economy makes a significant contribution to the success of our county. It is vital that both national and local government focus on opportunities to create an environment and services which enable rural businesses to grow and prosper. w

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