In her maiden speech of Mhairi Black, the UK’s youngest, MP has attracted many admiring headlines for her verve and passion but she has also pointed to a policy problem that has attracted little attention – policy towards small towns. All of the policy focus has shifted to cities, and under plans for devolution to places such as Manchester and Cornwall, little consideration has been given to the small town. Most rural areas now are only considered through the lens of either agricultural productivity or the roll out of rural broadband, neither of which constitute an economic policy. The complex economies of rural areas, the mix of agriculture, services and manufacturing that constitutes bedrock of rural areas has been relegated to the hinterland of city ‘powerhouses’.
The research pointing to the importance of cities is often compelling but it is not quite as straightforward as a simple urban/rural spit, with the urban as the engine of innovation and growth which rural as the provider of services – recreation, food and raw materials. There are several city regions across the world – the Veneto, Yangtze Delta and Flanders – for example that are based on a mix of the rural and urban in ways that complement one another. The mix of economic and social capitals of smaller communities can offer a secure base for innovative businesses. Translation costs can be lower where trust and community find it either to thrive. Whilst the opportunities for live/work spaces and small scale business units mixed with agricultural production offer a high quality environment for all.
In a country such as the UK with a rich mix of towns, cities and rural areas, often easily accessible to one another, reproducing simple models of urban/rural development are unlikely to offer sustainable long term solutions.