Brexit offers the chance to create a high tech countryside, says Policy Exchange report
One of the few certainties of Brexit is that the UK will leave the European Common Agricultural Policy which has dictated rural policy for more than 40 years. Thereby hangs an opportunity for technology, according to thinktank Policy Exchange.
As the Government publishes its position papers for post-Brexit trade, the free market think tank is calling for a clean sweep of agricultural tariffs, together with measures to promote “agritech” - including abolishing rural broadband “notspots”.
The central thrust of the report, Farming Tomorrow, is a case for abolishing subsidies and protective tariffs as a way to cut food prices while supporting developing countries. However, its authors concede that such a policy will hit farming jobs, with subsidies accounting for 87% of farming income, and part of the reform package has to be a bold new approach to rural economies.
Under this plan, the report proposes that the government “work with local areas to develop industrial strategies suitable for the rural economy”, with a focus on:
- Environment: to preserve and enhance the UK’s natural capital.
- Connectivity: enable rural workers and businesses to integrate with the wider economy.
- Innovation: use the opportunities from Brexit to become a world leader in agritech.
Agriculture is already only a small employer in rural areas, defined as settlements with a population of 10,000 or less. Directly it accounts for only 7.6% of employment in rural areas: a percentage exceeded by education, health and social work, vehicle repair and even manufacturing (11%).
“It is increasingly the case that ‘rural’ is no longer synonymous with ‘agriculture’, and that ‘agriculture’ is no longer synonymous with ‘rural’,” the report notes. The challenge is that rural economies do not share the “agglomeration effects” enjoyed by cities, and belatedly recognised as a vital engine of growth. (Every doubling of city size increases productivity by 3% to 8%.)
The way forward is to enable rural workers and businesses to integrate with the wider economy through digital connectivity “which will increasingly act as a core enabler for many other types of businesses, from agri-tech to independent freelancers,” the report says.
This would require investment to end the speed lag of rural broadband, currently on average half of that in urban areas, and rural areas “should also work against falling behind in the adoption of 5G, which is likely to be at least as important in rural areas as urban ones”.
As the report acknowledges, the snag is that up to now the long promised “death of distance” has not occurred. However “It is still possible that it really is different this time, and that we are seeing a structural shift away from physical concentration.”
Of couse it remains to be seen whether the Government or its successor has the political courage to act on such a programme. But Policy Exchange’s proposals could be a useful weapon for campaigners seeking to end the rural-urban digital divide.