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Report: Rural communities missing out on levelling-up cash

Words: Laura Edgar
Rural economy / iStock_000005662522

Funding allocated through the government’s levelling-up programme is ‘failing’ to recognise the needs of rural communities.

This is the conclusion of research published by the Rural Services Network, the national champion for rural services.

Towards the UK Shared Prosperity Fund finds that prioritisation of the Levelling Up Fund has favoured non-metropolitan urban locations, especially in northern England’s ‘red wall’. Other areas though have been “overlooked”.

Rural Services Network explained that large parts of rural central and southern England, as well as northern rural areas, are seen as low priorities, even though they received funds through previous EU-backed programmes.

The report notes that just 18 rural districts were placed on the government’s priority list of 123 local authorities for its Levelling Up Fund. If the low standards of living in rural communities are to be properly accounted for, the report suggests that this figure should be as high as 27.

The study authors, economists and researchers from Pragmatix Advisory, argue: “The Levelling Up Fund is the latest in a line of UK Government-funded programmes to disadvantage rural communities – partly the result of Whitehall’s choice of data on which they make their selections.

“Although detailed, the government’s complex algorithms for allocating funds remain partial, judgemental and, too often, confused.

“The Levelling Up Fund prioritisation framework, for example, considers the number of empty commercial properties, but does not account for the quality of schools. It looks at physical connectivity but does not take into account digital connectivity like broadband speeds or availability.”

The report calls for a new, transparent and straightforward process for the geographical prioritisation and allocation of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which launches next year to replace regional economic development funding previously distributed under European Union programmes.

Towards the UK Shared Prosperity Fund recommends that future levelling-up funds, including the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, should be allocated between local authorities on the basis of an assessment of living standards achievable by people living and working in each district.

Graham Biggs, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, said: “Currently, the way in which the government allocates spending spatially is failing to unlock the opportunities rural areas can offer to the nation.

“Whitehall needs to keep it simple. Allocate levelling-up funds to where living standards, and economic opportunities, are lowest – regardless of whether these are in the North or the South, or in towns, cities, conurbations or in the countryside.

“The process simply needs to be fair, transparent and demonstrably based on need.”

He highlighted that in the countryside wages are lower but many living costs are higher, therefore rural standards of living, in particular for those who either can't afford to or are unable to commute to the cities for work, are low.

“If the government used an objective measure of living standards, more money should be targeted at levelling up rural communities.

“If government economic and structural development funds were prioritised and allocated on the basis of local real incomes, there would be a clearer line of sight from the levelling-up objective through to action on the ground. And more rural locations, which have had their needs obscured and been disadvantaged by recent funding rounds, would benefit from a fairer distribution of national funds.”

The report was commissioned from Pragmatix Advisory Limited and funded by Rural Services Network.

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