Heather Hancock, one of eight North Yorkshire Rural Commissioners, looks at how the rural economy can be helped to thrive.

RURAL communities across North Yorkshire are full of economic opportunity but longstanding obstacles are blocking their potential. Shall we sit tight, hoping that someone or something else will “make it all okay” or take bold action to create a brighter future?

As one of the eight appointed Rural Commissioners for North Yorkshire, I am firmly for action. Supported by North Yorkshire County Council, we are looking at the sustainability of our remote rural communities (meaning almost the whole of North Yorkshire) and I am delighted to take it on.

Much of my working life has revolved around the rural economy, in the public and private sectors, and setting up – with my husband – new businesses in the Dales, creating over 50 jobs.

I’ve worked with major landowners across the UK to revitalise estate economies, backed young rural entrepreneurs, and as a director of Rural Solutions, with 40 professionals advising rural land-based businesses from our Skipton HQ, I see lots of successful innovation. I’ve first-hand experience of the opportunity and frustration when it comes to creating jobs and businesses in the countryside.

I believe that the more variety we have in rural jobs and businesses, the more resilient our economy becomes, and that new markets, business opportunities and innovation will result.

On some important measures, North Yorkshire is doing well. Employment levels exceed 80 per cent and 15 per cent of people are self-employed. However, average weekly earnings lag £40 behind the national average, and vary widely within the county. That’s exacerbated by high housing costs, and the disproportionate chunk of household income spent on transport because jobs are often dependent on long commutes. We have a very healthy number of small and micro-businesses, often one or two people pursuing rewarding lifestyle choices, but it’s challenging to expand them.

So on the face of it the county’s economy overall isn’t doing badly. But it needs to do better and it’s facing some strong headwinds.

I believe the conditions for sustained success have to be home-grown. For too long, the rural economy has been an afterthought at national level. For city dwellers, living in a rural area appears a lifestyle choice, and an impractical, even baffling, choice at that.

Then there’s the simplistic view that “rural” means either farming or tourism. These may be the warp and weft of our local economies, but the fabric of North Yorkshire’s economy has a much richer pattern. In one breath I could name high-value manufacturers, scientific researchers, PR companies, music producers, and logistics companies, alongside retailers, hotels and pubs, care services, financial advisers. I hope the new Government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse will release the untapped energy in our rural economy. Our Commission will be ready with practical proposals to benefit from the North being top of the political agenda.

It’s not for our Commission to try to “pick winners”. Creating a better climate for every rural business is a more sustainable way to increase wages, improve profitability, create wealth for reinvesting – and to enable new business opportunities to be opened up.

First on my list of essentials to sustain a thriving local rural economy is non-negotiable: high speed reliable affordable broadband. We cannot succeed in the 21st Century without it.

Add to that: affordable, quality workspace; people having the right skills, able to reach their jobs without disproportionate cost; transport links that support supply chains, access to markets, training and clients; and affordable local housing. Future access to finance and business advice is a worry, as many banks turn their backs on the countryside.

And, Welcome to Yorkshire making a full recovery is critical to us taking a bigger share of national and international visitor spending.

Let’s also anticipate the challenges on the High Street as they affect our market towns and villages. Moves to address the business rate burden should help. I’ve seen some great shared work hubs created for start-ups and small businesses, giving redundant shops a new purpose, bringing jobs into the market square which means more footfall for remaining retailers. In the countryside, agricultural buildings can be given a fresh purpose – like the state-of-the-art food production facility near Bolton Abbey, created by premium baker Love Brownies, which to the outside still looks like a cattle shed.

All this requires a flexible, economically-aligned planning regime, and perhaps some new thinking from property-owners and those financing development.

Finally, our plans must look to the next generation. Nationally, young people are really enthusiastic about starting their own business. I’d like to know what practical help, mentoring and training would help them succeed locally. It’s good experience for our children to go off to university and college, but by the time they’re 30, how might we encourage them to bring their talent home?

For eight years, I was closely involved with delivering the London Olympics. I saw that when the policy makers and wallet-holders face the same way, with the pressure to deliver a project they could none of them address acting alone, together they achieved unimaginable outcomes. Today, in North Yorkshire, we have that degree of alignment and commitment to the work of our Rural Commission. Let’s make the most of it – resist the temptation of easy wins and window dressing, and instead harness that combined power to overcome the big obstacles to rural economic growth, setting the next generation securely on their way.