I had a major article on the future of the rural economy printed in the East Anglian this week. Basically farming does not employ as many people as it did in the past and we must give the rural workforce the skills to work in growth areas such as IT, tourism and creative industries.
The article is not on the EADT website but I've pasted it in here so you can all read it.
The future of the rural economy in Suffolk
Many people still see rural Suffolk as a farming area, but the truth is that Suffolk has changed and is no longer reliant on agriculture. Tourism, IT and creative industries have become much more important to the rural economy, especially in terms of employment and opportunity. Continuing investment in infrastructure and the right skills will ensure that new businesses grow to provide a vibrant economy in the countryside.
Since 1973, labour productivity in farming has doubled. Or to put it another way, the number of workers required has halved in a generation and now just 11,582 of Suffolk’s population are directly involved with agriculture. The subsequent drift of young people to urban areas in search of work and suitably priced accommodation makes sustaining communities difficult. It is vital to the future prosperity of the rural economy to encourage new, non-farming businesses to grow.
The wider tourist industry now employs 11% in rural Suffolk, double the 5.6% employed in farming, and the Farmcafe at Marlesford on the A12 is great example of the type of new business that Suffolk needs. The important point is that it uses local food sources as far as possible, helping local suppliers. It also employs local people, helping to sustain local communities. We need to encourage and nurture more of this local entrepreneurship.
One of the main enablers for the rural economy has been the advent of broadband internet. Broadband availability in the East has reached over 80% - still below the national average – despite £5.8m of sustained funding from EEDA. It’s important that broadband availability is increased by both pressure on BT and use of new technologies. A trial of radio broadband is underway on the Tendring peninsula, which should bring broadband to more remote areas. Of course, the new technological solutions may cost more to develop but it is important that rural areas do not pay more than urban areas. The Government have a role here to ensure pricing parity across the country.
Peter Thurlow is a creative type, working from home in Brandeston. He says that attitudes to working at home have changed: “a few years ago it just didn’t feel right” he says, “but now people envy me for working from home”. New technology allows people to work in a different way and provides an opportunity for new business startups.
One thing holding the rural Suffolk economy back is a lack of skills. Only 38% have NVQ3 qualifications – the level an apprenticeship typically leads to – below the regional level and well below the 50% National Learning Target. Over 30% have no qualifications at all. A skilled workforce is essential and the Government recognises this with new plans for age 14-19 education. These see a greater emphasis on individual students developing a mix of subjects from age 14 that meet their interests and aspirations. This is reflected in the new 14-19 strategy for Suffolk covering young peoples’ education and training, which has been developed by Suffolk County Council and partner organisations. This will build on successful initiatives like PAVE where 300 schoolchildren aged 14-16 from South Suffolk schools attend Suffolk College for two days a week of work based training covering construction, engineering or catering. The Suffolk strategy and local initiatives are to be warmly welcomed. However, we need to make sure that the goals set out in the strategy to raise aspiration, participation and achievement are realised.
The jewel in the crown of Suffolk’s education provision will surely be a University for Suffolk. Current participation in Higher Education for residents of Suffolk is 1.77%, below the national average of 2.26%. A local university will serve the local need to increase skills. The current scheme for University Campus Suffolk is no ivory tower as it envisages a Lifelong Learning Network across the county to provide both work-based learning and supported distance learning. The university will be a powerful enabler for the future of Suffolk.
The combination of a new technological infrastructure and investment in education and skills means the future of the rural economy is brighter than ever.