Rural areas would benefit from greater devolved decision making and a single, co-ordinated voice to avoid long-term issues being made worse by Brexit.
Academics at the University of Cumbria, Newcastle University and Northumbria University looked at the implications of Brexit on rural Northumberland and surrounding areas.
They concluded that the increasingly complex governance structure - made up of Combined Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, local authorities and Growth Deals - has led to duplication and the absence of a coherent voice.
For many years, rural areas in the North of England have lagged behind the wider regional and national economies and face issues such as low wages, lack of affordable housing, poor transport infrastructure and low connectivity, and are highly dependent on EU funding.
Based on discussions with more than 100 stakeholders, including rural businesses, farmers, local politicians and community organisations, the researchers carried out a sector by sector review and developed best case and worst case scenarios from Brexit for the key sectors in the rural north.
Among the most optimistic outcomes was that the withdrawal from the Common Agriculture Policy could stimulate innovation, prompt farms to invest in technology to improve productivity, and support small scale businesses.
The worst outcome scenario highlighted that the biggest risk facing rural areas would continue to be depopulation, made worse by lack of public investment, tariff barriers, delays at borders and labour shortages.
Dr Paul Cowie, who led the review for Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy, said:
“Britain’s departure from the European Union could trigger a spiral of decline unless policymakers confront many of the long-term issues in rural areas.
“However it could also provide policymakers with an opportunity to tackle these challenges as a whole so that opportunities aren’t missed, but only if rural areas work towards a shared vision for the North of England and speak with a single, confident voice driven from the bottom-up.”
The research team conducted a thorough review of the Brexit literature, both academic and policy related across the various sectors of the economy of the rural North in order to gather detail on what are thought to be the current challenges and opportunities facing them now and post-Brexit.
They highlight the diverse economic activities in the rural north, with industries such as energy generation, creative and digital, and manufacturing accounting for a large part of the rural economy alongside more traditional sectors such as agriculture and tourism.
While this diversity does give rural areas some resilience, the researchers say that the clear links between sectors mean that the implications of Brexit need to consider the rural economy as a whole - as well as the connections between rural and urban areas.
They also point out that while each sector has its own plans, these are not shared with others despite many of the same challenges facing them. This leads to duplication of effort and opportunities being missed.
The review focused on rural Northumberland, but due to its proximity to rural parts of Cumbria, the Borders and Durham, also considered the wider rural North of England.
Dr. Gail Mulvey, University of Cumbria, said:
“There is a tendency for discussion to take place in silos and one of the aims of this research was to bring experts and policymakers together from different sectors so that the interdependencies of sectors could be examined. The effects of Brexit on a particular sector, for example, agriculture or forestry, are likely to have a knock-on effect for the environment and tourism sectors. This, in turn, will affect the employment opportunities and standards of living of those who live and work in the Rural North.”
The research also demonstrated that there is a role for universities to actively support rural areas, through facilitating the knowledge sharing needed for a joined-up approach to rural development. In addition, the researchers say that retaining more graduates in rural areas could generate more start-ups, improve productivity and change the demographic balance of rural areas with younger people choosing to make the rural North their home.
The report was commissioned by Northumberland County Council to inform their developing rural development strategy as part of both the North of Tyne Combined Authority and Borderlands Growth Deal.