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Levelling up rural: the untapped potential

  • by JW

“Rural economies are distinctive. They are characterised by higher levels of employment and home-working.”


Promises have been made to ‘level up’ – but it seems to be focussed on urban areas:

UK Community Renewal Fund: prospectus 2021-22 – GOV.UK


What about levelling up rural?

Revitalising rural – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Levelling up rural: how to fairly allocate government funding – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Levelling up rural: unlocking the potential – Vision Group for Sidmouth


Because, the UK is “more geographically unequal than any other rich country”:

UK has higher level of regional inequality than any other large wealthy country – Archive – News archive – The University of Sheffield


Although the debate is a fraught one:


GDP per person employed in the richest area (Camden and City of London) was 1.7 times that of the poorest area (Torbay in southwest England) in 2000. By 2016 that ratio had increased to 2.6, with Torbay’s GDP per person employed having fallen 20%; and Camden’s having increased by the same amount. Furthermore, on this basis, Britain ranks 7th among 32 OECD countries for which data are available. It is clear, therefore, that regional inequality in Britain is bad and getting worse.

The challenges of charting regional inequality | by Alex Selby-Boothroyd | The Economist (available)


Newcastle University’s National Innovation Centre – Rural Enterprise looks at the ‘considerable untapped potential’ of rural economies:


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.  ‘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 State of the Art Review – Levelling Up and Rural Areas (March 2021) 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.

Level Up, Build Back Better – the rural and regional dimensions | Blog | NICRE – NICRE – Newcastle University