Written evidence submitted by Shropshire Council (LRS0074)
1.1 When looking for Shropshire on a map of the United Kingdom, you will need to look to the middle of England on the map, and then to the far west of Birmingham, just next to Wales. Travel to work patterns across the porous borders indicate large numbers travelling for work to the West Midlands, to the South and East, and North and North West, and to Cheshire, Staffordshire, Manchester and beyond, as well as into Wales.
1.2 It is within this geographical context of cross border travel patterns, for residents, visitors, and businesses, that this response is being made to this inquiry. The exigencies of adjusting to external factors of climate change and political change, allied to the opportunities of maximising our natural capital, provide further context to our strategic and collaborative approaches towards achieving economic growth.
1.3 Shropshire is the second largest inland rural county in England, and one of the most sparsely populated. Shropshire is approximately ten times the size of all the Inner London Boroughs put together (31,929 hectares; source: ONS Census 2011), with just one person per hectare (1.01 persons; 323,136 population; source: ONS mid year estimates 2019), for a terrain covering 319,736 hectares.
1.4 Around 42.8% of Shropshire’s population lives in rural areas. There are 17 market towns and key centres of varying size, including Ludlow in the south and Oswestry in the north, and Shrewsbury, the central county town. An additional dynamic is that, unlike for example Cumbria, the population is dispersed across the entire county rather than there being any areas where no one lives at all.
1.5 Being an inland county brings its own challenges. There is a dependency on a limited number of key arterial transport routes, for trade and supply including freight through the county to Wales and Ireland, or up to the North West, as well as for everyday transport for local communities and businesses. It is also quite literally exposed to extreme weather conditions, with roads that are liable to flooding, and a lack of viable alternatives leading to congestion and lengthy diversions. The physical terrain poses practical challenges for digital and physical infrastructure, as well as the high service delivery costs and access issues associated with a dispersed and ageing population. At 21.4%, the percentage of the population aged 65-84 is significantly higher than the England average of 15.9%.
1.6 Our collegiate approach is to share evidence with other local authorities through channels such as the County Councils Network (CCN) and the Rural Services Network (RSN), and to submit responses through these channels, to Parliamentary Select Committees, as well as directly to Government.
1.7 It is our intention with this submission to highlight certain issues of resonance for us an authority, rather than respond with commentary for each line of enquiry. Further material may readily be made available.
1.8 We would also like to comment that whilst we see the Industrial Strategy as a good approach, it needs stripping back to principles and focusing on overt inclusion of the opportunities to be taken to level up regional disparities, west to east, coast to coast, north to south, and across borders with devolved nations.
1.9 An emphasis on inequalities within society and within communities, such as access to decent and energy efficient housing, healthcare, education and employment, including via digital means, should also include recognition of geographical and societal interdependencies rather than a separation out of different strands of policy.
1.10 This cohesive approach should then bring in an improvement in social mobility opportunities across the whole country, alongside environmental initiatives around green energy, such as use of homeworking alongside reduced physical travel, leading to sustainable, regional and truly local economies.
Mrs Lois Dale,
Rurality and Equalities Specialist, Shropshire Council
2.0 Key line of enquiry: the evidence base
2.1 The Council’s own position as an advocate of evidence based policy making is one that we have demonstrated in previous submissions to national collective efforts to develop regional and national policy for rural communities and businesses. For example, we worked with Herefordshire on a collegiate response on behalf of the Marches LEP to the Treasury Committee inquiry into regional disparities, submitted last August 2019. For the Treasury Committee inquiry, we commented as follows with regard to evidence.
Regional Data and its Usage
“We recognise the importance of economic forecasting in informing policy development, monetary/fiscal policy, predicting house prices, exchange rate forecasts, etc. We would encourage a more nuanced approach to economic forecasting, bringing together quantitative and qualitative information that demonstrates the complexities of regional imbalances in more rural areas.”
2.2 Our stance remains that national data collection and analysis, including with regard to the Indices of Multiple Deprivation, needs to take account of local and regional factors and differences and the way in which these play out in different areas. Sometimes this is due to the natural geography and how the population in an area has grown, prospered or declined over the years, eg as in the former coal mining areas. Sometimes it is more about the political geographies.
2.3 To live in, for example, Sandwell, is to be familiar with working across metropolitan boroughs, with all the population density challenges and workforce mobility and infrastructure opportunities that this may bring, including through the West Midlands Combined Authority.
2.4 To live in Shropshire is another matter entirely, as we have a dispersed pattern of settlement rather than conurbations that merge into each other, as well as a devolved nation on the other side of our porous border, and different exigencies around digital as well as physical infrastructure opportunities. Regional data that is timely and that is truly place based is vital in this regard
4.0 Key line of enquiry: sustainable local economies
4.1 Partnership working across borders
4.1.1 The Council response would be that this is not so much about tiers as it is about people and organisations working in partnership across geographical boundaries and across organisations, utilising skillsets that are relevant, including technical skills and leadership attributes, in ways which are place-appropriate. We include a case study below to illustrate our point, with regard to the River Severn Partnership.
4.1.2 By way of background, the Council adopted a Climate Change Strategy Framework at a meeting of Full Council on 19 December 2019, setting a clear commitment and direction for the Council and county as a whole. Shropshire has the UK’s fifth largest amount of installed renewable energy equipment. It already plays its part in the national effort to decarbonise energy generation. We recognise we can do more and we see the growth in green technology skills as a significant factor in future economic growth.
4.1.3 Turning to our case study of partnership efforts to combat climate change, the River Severn Partnership, established September 2019, has secured around £40 million to progress flood defence in a multi-billion pound national investment announced on 17th July 2020. The Government announcement, which included £200 million for innovative projects and £170 million for accelerated flood defence schemes, comes as welcome news to the partnership and its ambition to make the Severn river network the most vibrant and resilient in Britain.
4.1.4 The River Severn Partnership brings together the Environment Agency, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, Severn Trent Water, Water Resources West, Natural Resources Wales, wildlife trusts and others to establish a strategy for adapting to climate change and to improve resilience across an area which covers the Rivers Severn, Teme, Warwickshire Avon and the Wye.
4.1.5 The Partnership has been chosen as one of four nationally to trial and develop new ways of planning ahead and making wise investment choices based on the long-term uncertainties brought by climate change. The hope is that this will provide a strong basis for the Partnership to bid into the wider £200 million Innovative Resilience Programme which will be available later this year.
4.2 Partnership working within our market towns and rural areas
4.2.1 Market towns support wide swathes of rural hinterland and often contain much of the social infrastructure that supports daily life, including banking, doctors, dentists, libraries, places of worship, and schools, as well as retail and hospitality. They are both drivers of community life and connectors of possibilities and opportunities for people in rural areas. Ensuring the health and vitality of the rural high street is crucial to those communities.
4.2.2 Alongside the Council’s Local Plan Partial Review, now into the fifth stage, the Council has accordingly and proactively developed Local Economic Growth Strategies. These are focused on the local delivery of Economic Growth in six of our key market towns, including the wider hinterlands and surrounding parishes. The strategies are not statutory documents but will act as an evidence base for those that are, as well as guiding the delivery of economic growth priorities locally. The documents have been co-created and informed by Shropshire Council, working with the Town Councils, Parishes and businesses in the areas.
4.2.3 The focus in the immediate response phase to Covid-19 has been quite rightly on those sectors hardest hit by lockdown: retail, hospitality and leisure. Within the context of market towns and town centres, these sectors are particularly important for employment and also for the viability and vitality of our towns for the future.
4.2.4 Government support that facilitates local authorities in working with these sectors to adapt and evolve is going to be really important, not least given the timely CCN Grant Thornton report findings indicating that 34 out of 36 counties are above the national average for jobs in sectors at risk ,including those with a heavy reliance on tourism and retail. Often, retail businesses trading in such locations are working on the margins of viability. We need an urgent review of the system of Business Rates to help level the field for these businesses.
4.2.5 Initiatives like the Future High Streets Fund and Town Deals are welcomed but have so far been too narrowly focused on the more urban and most deprived places – leaving out the market towns serving largely rural and less visibly deprived communities, whilst not recognising the pockets of deprivation within these communities. These towns and rural county areas are going to be key to recovery, particularly when considering latest information and data from towns and cities on recovery, with the smaller more local towns recovering more quickly as people choose to stay/shop local.
4.2.6 Manufacturing and supply chains are also an area of particular concern, as is construction. These are all sectors that have seen a slowdown of production and activity throughout the pandemic. The fear of more larger scale closures and redundancies impacting on the conurbations and supply chain companies in county areas like Shropshire serving them are signs that this sector needs some attention. Support such as business rate reliefs for this sector, specific productivity grant support and packages of support to work with employers on the resilience of their workforce to ensure they are flexible/adaptable for innovation and automation are examples of how Government could assist.
4.2.7 Whilst agriculture is more than five times as important for Shropshire as is the case nationally, another key sector for us is health and care, equating to 1 in 7 jobs. This has commensurate implications for not only public transport but also car ownership and the distances that need to be travelled, whether people are carers in a professional or personal capacity or recipients of health and social care services. This is not a surprise, given an ageing demographic, which also impacts upon succession planning within sectors as well as upon skills acquisition and retention across the piece.
4.2.8 Retention of a skilled workforce is an issue we have been grappling with as a result of the ageing demographic and out-migration of younger professionals and families to the conurbations and cities, The Grand Challenge of an Ageing Society is a particular issue in Shropshire, where the percentage of the population who are aged 65-84 is 21.4%, significantly higher than the England average of 15.9%. (Source: ONS Census mid year estimates 2019)
4.2.9 Positive interventions include relationships between employers and education and training institutions to ensure that current and future skills needs are met, and that there are more vocational and apprenticeship courses and opportunities, alongside Higher Education choices.
5.0 Key line of enquiry: regional funding
5.1 For the Treasury Committee 2019 inquiry, we commented through the Marches LEP with regard to the UKSPF and regional funding. In this, we said that there needs to be greater opportunity for collaboration across borders with the devolved nations. We cited that:
“The Marches area is a prime example, with Welsh and English authorities sharing a border. Current funding programmes actively prevent joint activity taking place.”
5.2 It is noted here that the Grant Thornton report indicates that England’s counties are the most vulnerable areas in England to the economic impact of Covid-19, with almost six million employees working in ‘at risk’ job sectors and the vast majority projected to have an GVA decline greater than the national average.
5.3 We concur with its recommendations that targeted investment needs to focus on the county areas identified to help narrow the gap between high-growth areas and those with lower growth. We also find resonance in the conclusions that, in the longer term, an effective recovery will be hugely assisted by devolved powers and resource, particularly over skills and transport to re-train people into new jobs in a new economy, whilst providing both the physical and digital infrastructure for growth.
5.4 Focusing in on physical infrastructure and funding, we commented as follows to the Joint Inquiry by the County APPG and CCN into the decline of local buses: (Shropshire Council Final Response 15th April 2020)
“2.1.5 One of the single most significant factors that has impacted negatively on public transport funding in rural areas, over the last few years, has been the underfunding of the concessionary fares scheme, a subject of recent LGA analysis. This funding otherwise could have been spent on the public transport networks and the respective infrastructure.
“2.1.6 In Shropshire, at the commencement of the free concessionary fares scheme, the Council was being reimbursed by the Dft at c£1,000,000 per annum. The Council now spends c£3,400,000, with the gap in funding provided by the Council, as the Dft support was capped at £1,000,000.
5.5 A meeting with Cornwall Council and with the Transport Select Committee has enabled Shropshire Council to reinforce the concessionary fares issue, and to also raise the following: active travel; bus franchising; electric bus town proposals for Shrewsbury; and integrated public transport for Shropshire.
5.6 With regards to digital infrastructure and funding, it would seem appropriate, given our focused reliance as a society upon digital connectivity, that the Government considers investment in the reskilling and upskilling required across sectors and demographics, not least as digital working has become the mainstay of economic continuation throughout the Covid-19 period.
5.7 It is widely accepted that the economic recovery will be both a green and digitally driven one. In a world where ‘work is what we do and not a place’, equipping rural counties, such as Shropshire, with high quality digital connectivity, will enable us to compete with traditional city based economic powerhouses. There is a danger that rural communities will become increasingly digitally excluded if superfast broadband capability does not provide comparable services
5.8 Covid-19 will have created long term disruption with many businesses no longer considering a return to a traditional co work centre. Many will adopt the cost benefits and efficiencies of the ‘new world’ remote agile practice. In order to sustain this new world, added investment and equity across rural areas will be paramount. Whilst we are aware that £5bn has been committed (pre Covid-19) to enable ‘gigabit’ capabilities by 2025-2033, the funding will fall far short of the aspiration.
5.9 Given that digital can reduce ‘carbon’ impacts and address the ‘green agenda’ and will see a marked reduction of public travel/commuting, now would be the time to consider raising this in importance on the agenda, where it has previously been considered secondary to large scale road and rail infrastructure for example
5.10 Turning to approaches to regional funding, we commented as follows in the Marches LEP Submission to the Treasury Committee inquiry
“One approach is a single pot investment programme that can achieve an holistic approach to economic development that is efficient, focussed and has a maximum impact at the local level.
“There would need to be safeguards to ensure that the inclusion of local growth funds does not divert funds from other important but “softer” activities with more qualitative outcomes, like the success and viability of town centres of varying sizes; including market towns, the role of the natural environment, including green spaces and biodiversity in urban and rural areas; and action around social inclusion.
“It is important to address the skills challenges. However, it will only work if they are planned and coordinated locally and aligned with other initiatives to target training and career development of the current and future workforce and recognition of constraints in rural geographies, such as transport and physical and digital access to further and higher education opportunities.
“Finally, there needs to be recognition within UKSPF and in other national policy and funding endeavours, that economic development covers a wide spectrum of activity, including public service delivery, clean growth that will protect the environment as well as make use of natural capital, and social inclusion, which may offer less tangible outcomes than job numbers but are important for social cohesion. These likewise cut across a range of sectors within a rural economy, and are impacted by the challenges of an ageing demography, including succession planning as well as health and social care considerations.”