Hi-tech businesses have helped to support a marked rise in knowledge industries in the rural West Midlands, according to a new report on the rural economy.
State of the Countryside 2008, which is the tenth in a series compiled by the Commission for Rural Communities, outlines a number of important challenges facing Warwickshire businesses and calls on the Government to do more to help.
One of the highlights, however, is the growth in knowledge-based industries such as banking, financial and insurance sectors across the county. Over the four years from 2003, there was a 79 per cent increase in these industries, helping to offset declines in the agriculture, energy and transport sectors, including a seven per cent decrease in employment in agriculture in the West Midlands since 1999.
The strengths of Warwickshire as a base for IT companies is one of the key factors in supporting this growth. However, these increases in high-technology industries hide some significant challenges in the rural economy.
The report also shows that rural households have higher gross incomes than those living in urban West Midlands with 18 per cent of households in rural areas were below the “poverty line” in 2007 compared to 19 per cent in urban areas.
Shropshire and Staffordshire, in particular, have significant challenges with the two counties listed second from bottom in the league table of county GDP for their rural wards.
In 2006 new firm registrations in core cities and principal urban areas slightly exceeded 80,000, compared with just under half this number in our most rural districts.
Hall Green-based Dr Stuart Burgess, chairman for the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), said: “State of the Countryside provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the changes taking place in the rural economy in the West Midlands, look forward to what the future might hold, and to reflect on what aspects have remained important since the report was first published in 1999.
“Whilst rural England has some major strengths and much to celebrate, significant ongoing challenges remain if rural communities are not going to be disadvantaged.
“Rural firms are found in every sector of economic activity, mirroring closely the broad industrial sectors found in the national and urban economies.
“Other inherent strengths include a higher rate of business start-ups and an overall growth in the number of businesses compared to a net decline in the urban business base.”
Rural districts supported a growth in new firm formation of 2.7 per cent between 1998 and 2006, while in urban boroughs new registrations declined by 2.3 per cent.
The report also highlights the shift in the usage of land in the West Midlands. The value of agricultural land in the West Midlands rose sharply during 2007, mainly due to increases in the prices of agricultural commodities and to high demand for land for ‘lifestyle’ rural properties.
There are also signs of a renewed sense of optimism amongst farmers, but these trends could increase pressures on environmental quality once more,” concluded Dr Burgess.
State of the Countryside provided a glimpse of life in the future, with the possibility of diverting land from food to energy production at the top of the agenda.
Rising food and fuel prices will challenge policy makers to make sure that the changes that will be needed provide benefits to all communities, including those in rural areas.