One could be forgiven for not realising that the West Midlands has diverse and attractive rural spaces with agriculture alone producing some £440 million to the economy (Defra, 2013).
A significant rural-urban fringe surrounds “Greater Birmingham” where the wider rural development dimension has been largely forgotten and neglected in policy and decision making.
Recent debates about economic growth, housing, inward investment and devolution have focussed almost exclusively on the city and surrounding urban areas with only the green belt being the quintessential “rural” bit that features in contested debates over the kinds of growth and development that we want.
Whilst this seems logical given the economic powerhouse that is Birmingham, there are significant missed opportunities in neglecting rural development and inherent dangers in not understanding the urban-rural interdependencies and wider natural assets that are key to the future prosperity of the West Midlands itself.
To address this deficit I arranged a seminar with a colleague last week on the rural West Midlands. This blog highlights my key concerns.
What is rural anyway: There was common concern about the lack of any agreed definition of rural as different agency definitions muddied the statistical water of understanding just what is going on in the rural West Midlands areas.
This is far more than a simple academic navel gazing exercise; the EU does not see any part of the West Midlands as rural which automatically cuts off significant funding streams for wider development. So the main funding stream is still rooted in agriculture rather than the wider rural economy. The “rural” West Midlands is thus defined as “peri urban” which unfortunately falls between rural and urban systems and policies and thus becomes an accidental and reactive space rather than a space planned for in its own right.
Thus for many rural West Midlanders, policy and decisions do nothing to help people who live and work there. Yet they face many deep seated problems which show little signs of getting better.
There is a strong historical rural policy problem associated with rural areas being seen as places to be preserved. Here the urban beast is seen as an “evil” to be resisted and where we should promote agriculture, forestry and the green belt; particularly if we are fortunate to live there in our rural idyll.
This has only slowly changed with attempts to deliver a more diverse rural economy and through recent permitted development changes enabling agricultural buildings to be turned into houses. But such changes encounter significant public opposition to the perceived “despoliation” of rural areas with business and housing development.
Yet it is the stifling of such developments which then leads to further decline in rural services. This is magnified by the number of commuters who can afford to live in rural areas yet secure their services elsewhere; eg school, jobs and shopping.
The rural West Midlands is fast becoming a disconnected and iniquitous space. The projected pattern of further local authority cuts are likely to fall disproportionately on the rural parts of the West Midlands and the Local Enterprise Partnership who is charged with promoting the wider economic development of the LEP has scarcely engaged with the rural agenda in any of its work. .
There is a significant affordable housing problem in our rural areas. Current viability issues under the National Planning Policy Framework mean that many local authority targets for affordable schemes are being revised downwards.
This is compounded by the fact that nearly 40% of the West Midlands is green belt which not only limits development but increases house prices and leads to pressures leapfrogging elsewhere thus increasing the dormitory nature of many of our villages.
The Right to Buy scheme clearly threatens future provision of affordable housing and makes rural housing associations properties extremely attractive.
In terms of realising new opportunities, problems of rural accessibility can be strengthened not through HS2 but through high speed broadband where there are real opportunities for rural development and new business formation that challenge conventional urban growth models.
This kind of revolution in where businesses can locate seems to have been entirely lost in the debate about the future growth of Birmingham. The opportunities for new rural development models reflecting high quality living and working environments are compelling when one has to consider the costs of commuting and congestion in traditional journey to work patterns. There does not appear to be a forward thinking local plan response here.
Nature is a key asset of the rural West Midlands. From Cannock Chase to Sutton Park to Wyre Forest to the Staffordshire Moorlands, these are jewels that provide significant recreation and conservation benefits to local populations with associated rural development opportunities.
Equally on the edge of our urban areas our parks, canals and rivers provide important ‘natural health services’ to our populations but remain largely ignored. The West Midlands has the only Nature Improvement Area in England situated in urban authorities and yet is hardly known outside nature conservation circles.
Nature also provides sources for development in terms of renewable energy and here wind and solar developments offer exciting but contested opportunities for rural diversification and reducing carbon emissions.
Yet opposition is deep seated reflecting a lack of any coherent national energy policy and with top down imposition of such schemes with limited community benefits. Perhaps the community ownership model offers a way forward and it is notable that the UK has not gone down this route as compared with Denmark for example.
These links between nature, rural and urban are key to the future prosperity of the West Midlands and, at the time when combined authority and elected mayors are being talked about amidst the Queens speech, there is an urgent need for rural to be more than just where the next bit of urban expansion goes.
But at present there are too many voices shouting out about the kind of rural that is wanted. To help produce more coherent voices on this rural vision, neighbourhood plans offer a potential way forward for local people to voice their desires with some statutory clout behind them. Rural examples in the West Midlands to date show significant demand for such plans but with problems relating to the huge input of voluntary time and resources together with professional skills to steer a plan towards its successful adoption.
Many rural areas simply do not have the capacity or even spatial and political coherence to undertake such an endeavour and the signs are that local authority cuts will fall hard on planning services that equally are trying to support such ventures.
So the message to those in the urban powerhouse is to rethink how you view, protect and enhance your rural assets. To date they are forgotten and under utilised and most of the growth and development talk is still urban focussed. Such myopic thinking will create further rural inequality and worse hinder this rural voice which increasingly needs to be heard.