Landlines

Two reports on the problems – but let’s not forget the pleasures – of living and working in rural areas were published last week.

A fact I found particularly interesting was that during the first 10 years of this century there was a net migration to the countryside as more people moved to accessible and remote rural areas than to anywhere else in Scotland.

From that finding, Professor Donald MacRae concludes: “The ultimate test of any economy is that people choose to live in it. By that definition, rural Scotland is performing well. Of the 5.2million people living in Scotland, almost one million of them live in rural areas.”

Given the well-documented problems claimed for rural areas and also given that the Borders and north Northumberland are two of the most rural areas in Britain, not everyone might agree. What about low wages, fuel poverty, down-at-heel town centres?

Perhaps his definition of rural might help. Rural is settlements with a population of less than 3,000, sub-divided into accessible rural and remote rural. Accessible rural is living within 30 minutes, driving, of the nearest 10,000+ town.

Remote rural is a drive time of more than 30 minutes to such a centre.

This latest economic bulletin from Lloyds TSB Scotland provides statistics for what most of us who live in rural areas recognise from anecdotal evidence and what we see around us.

For instance, small businesses, nought to nine employees, dominate the local economy; farming, fishing and forestry account for 17 per cent of workers in remote rural areas and 12 per cent in accessible rural areas; rural areas have a lower percentage of start-up businesses per head of population, but those that do start have a higher survival rate.

The employment percentage is higher in all areas of rural Scotland than urban areas and the unemployment rate lower, with self-employment double the percentage of urban Scotland. More surprising to me, the TSB report found that gross annual pay of full-time employees in Scotland is highest in accessible rural areas. Does that mean many are commuting to town and city?

The next finding of the survey, that rural Scotland has a higher percentage of households with a net annual income of more than £20,000, particularly in accessible rural areas, suggests to me that many must commute to where the better jobs are.

That’s not quite the same thing as a buoyant rural economy any more than the number of holiday and second homes in an area.

When the recession was at its worst – Professor MacRae might be an optimist here – in 2009, it was found that the rural economy struggled through better than the urban one. That was also true of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011.

But in the succeeding three quarters of 2011 the rural economy was harder hit by rising costs and prices, particularly fuel and transport, and suffered a substantial decline in new business. So what’s the outlook according to Professor MacRae?

He found that rural businesses have more modest ambitions than urban, planning and hoping to stay the same size over the next three years rather than expand. I think that might be realism rather than lack of ambition – high dependence on transport and the cost of fuel does that to you.

Professor MacRae concludes: “Any future policy on rural development must recognise that many of the issues faced by rural areas are identical to elsewhere in Scotland. There are few unique rural problems not faced by individuals and firms in urban Scotland.”

Well, possibly. The second report of interest was from the Scottish Agricultural College that argued that what rural Scotland needs is national policies that are specifically tailored to its needs, and locally applied.

That includes dealing with what the report calls broadband “not spots” and “twilight zones” where problems with modern communication methods cause big problems for individuals and businesses in education, jobs, social networks and services.

The report lists 90 rural towns vulnerable to downturn and economic and social change, and the special role that businesses and volunteers play in rural communities. It’s not an optimistic report, concluding that it is not an argument for giving rural areas privileges over urban and admitting that “localising design and delivery” of policies might be seen as an expensive luxury when we’re all having a tougher time.

But not to localise might mean even worse times ahead for rural areas. At least I think that’s a summary of a rather convoluted final paragraph. It will be a happy day when reports are published shorn of jargon – and an even happier one when action is taken on them.

Last week I wrote too soon about anti-GM protests being in the past. About 200 protesters tried to sabotage a GM wheat trial last weekend, failing because scientists at Rothamsted and the police were warned in advance.

TV pictures indicated a fairly good-natured protest. That doesn’t alter the fact that the thinking behind it was as woolly as ever and that interest in the science behind GM – in this case to breed a wheat naturally resistant to pests that would reduce pesticide use and therefore benefit the environment – is still nil.