We were told it would only take six months. We should have known better, and to be honest, we did. We were still keen to accept the invitation of North Yorkshire County Council’s Chief Executive, Richard Flinton, to become members of the independent North Yorkshire Rural Commission. It was to be the first of its kind in the country and to include commissioners with a depth of experience and understanding of rural challenges and opportunities – eight of us in total – and for me, it was an added privilege to be its chair.
Asked to investigate key issues
We were asked to investigate key issues in sparsely populated communities and to identify actions to tackle them. Not much of a challenge there, then! When starting in autumn 2019, we didn’t anticipate the global pandemic and taking almost two years to report. The pandemic highlighted areas of weakness, such as digital and mobile connectivity – does that sound familiar? It also revealed strengths, not least the strong local community – crucially important in North Yorkshire and regions like it; we came to regard it as an essential cross-cutting theme.
Our approach was to explore areas of rural challenge, listening to people of all ages, from all backgrounds, who genuinely knew about them. Few people, if any, questioned our choice of topics: the rural economy, farming and land management, energy transition, digital connectivity, housing, transport, schools, education and training.
Initial report published in 2021
By the time we published our report at the 2021 Great Yorkshire Show , we had a clear vision for North Yorkshire: beautiful, connected and embracing the future. We believed that our four cross-cutting themes, implemented in a joined-up way, could help the county move forward. These were:
- responding positively to climate change
- attracting the missing 45,000 people aged 25 – 45
- providing competent leadership
- valuing and strengthening community at local and regional level.
And, yes, we thought regional devolution could help, if it brought real powers of spending and decision-making.
"Our approach was to explore areas of rural challenge, listening to people of all ages, from all backgrounds, who genuinely knew about them.
"Few people, if any, questioned our choice of topics: the rural economy, farming and land management, energy transition, digital connectivity, housing, transport, schools, education and training."
Rising to the challenge
Some people were cynical about this exercise, believe it or not! The test of the county council’s sincerity came at a meeting of the Ripon Cathedral Rural Forum (a regular gathering of regional leaders) in September 2021. County council leaders were asked if they would set up the recommended task force, to help turn the commissioners’ work into policy. The test was passed with flying colours. The North Yorkshire Rural Task Force, bringing together people from every sector, including academics and entrepreneurs, was established.
First annual report showed encouraging progress
Its first annual report in November 2022 showed encouraging progress. Our 57 recommendations were refined to 47 policy proposals, without losing substance. Some have already been delivered, the most notable being the council’s decision to levy an additional council tax on second homes, with the proceeds committed to developing community social housing projects. Such projects can help rural areas by keeping and attracting young families, enabling recruitment to critical, if relatively low-paid, jobs, and opening the way for tenant farmers to retire locally, making way for younger generations to join the industry.
Progress was made for farmers too
Also significant is the progress in two areas relating directly to farming. We commissioners recommended that a Farm Business Task Force should be established, along with producer groups. Already, real progress has been made, coordinated by The Yorkshire Agricultural Society and the NFU. We also recommended that a robust system of business mentoring for farmers should be created – just because someone is a good farmer doesn’t mean to say they are a natural businessperson. New Defra funding has been secured for this.
My prayer is that this joined-up, vision-led, solution-focused approach continues into the life of the new North Yorkshire Council, aided by the potential advantages of the devolution deal and an elected mayor. There is no room for cynicism. Real advantages can now be gained from us all pulling together with a sense of common purpose and hope.