New challenges accentuating decades-long issues for countryside

This story was published 1 November 2022

Rural communities are facing a host of new challenges that are compounding deeply-ingrained problems that have blighted the countryside for decades, the chairman of a pioneering taskforce has warned.

Two men and a lady stood outside

Countryside areas of North Yorkshire are at the epicentre of newly-emerging issues ranging from soaring inflation and the cost of living to the effects of the war in Ukraine impacting on feed for livestock and the price of fuel and energy.

The challenges which have emerged throughout this year are placing communities in the vast rural swathes of North Yorkshire under intense pressure, and have added to existing issues ranging from a lack of affordable housing and poor public transport links to a dearth of digital connectivity for both mobile and internet coverage in countryside areas. 

A rural taskforce, which was established in the autumn of last year, has published its 12-month report to highlight a wide-ranging package of work which has been undertaken to help alleviate the pressures on the countryside.

However, the chairman of the North Yorkshire Rural Taskforce, Richard Flinton, has admitted that a wave of unexpected issues on the global stage has had a profound impact on thousands of people living in isolated communities in the county.

Mr Flinton, who is also the chief executive, said: “The rural commission was established to help tackle wide-ranging issues that have long affected the countryside.

“A significant amount of progress has been made, but no-one could have anticipated the additional challenges which the nation, and in particular countryside communities, are facing.

“These new challenges are unquestionably mounting extra pressures on those who live across North Yorkshire’s rural areas, accentuating the issues from a lack of affordable housing to helping ensure young people are given the career opportunities they expect and deserve.

“The work of the rural taskforce has been invaluable in helping tackle these long-running issues, and we remain committed to working to resolve the new and emerging challenges.

“It will not be easy, but the future viability of the countryside is not only vital to North Yorkshire, but also the country as a whole.”

The taskforce was established as the result of key recommendations that were published in the final report of the landmark North Yorkshire Rural Commission.

The independent commission, the first of its kind nationally which was established by us in the autumn of 2019, met 20 times, taking evidence from more than 70 participants, including MPs and government officials. Three visits were made to rural communities, while 27 written submissions were considered.

Among the commission’s most radical proposals were a levy on the owners of second homes, and an overhaul of the Government’s funding formula for both education and housing. The county’s economy also needs to focus on the green energy sector, according to the commission.

The commission listed a total of 57 actions in its original report, which have been streamlined into 47 individual topics by the taskforce which will be addressed over a five-year period. In the first 12 months of the taskforce’s work, four actions have already been completed, including work to support farming and rural schools.

The commission’s chairman, the Very Rev John Dobson, who is also the Dean of Ripon, said: “Whatever challenges there are in North Yorkshire, the county is now in a far better place and on the front foot thanks to the work of both the rural commission and the taskforce.

“It is heartening to see that the taskforce has taken on so many of the recommendations of the commission, and there is now a far more strategic approach to tackling issues.

“What was needed was to take a view of the county as a whole to tackle long-running challenges, and see how working together can bring about solutions.

“There is still a lot of work to do, but the significance of this strategic approach should not be under-estimated, and it will be of a huge benefit in the years to come.”

A constant theme throughout the commission’s final report was the need to secure a devolution deal from the Government for North Yorkshire, passing key decision-making powers and millions of pounds in funding from Westminster to the county’s political leaders.

A proposed devolution deal for York and North Yorkshire with an investment fund totalling £540 million over 30 years was unveiled on 1 August, on the day of the traditional Yorkshire Day celebrations, marking a major step forward for the rural commission’s ambitions.

Work is also continuing to secure millions of pounds from a variety of sources from the Government, including the Shared Prosperity Fund, Levelling-Up Fund and Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund. The new Rural England Prosperity Fund has provided another welcome boost, with an additional allocation of £5.4 million to support development in rural areas of North Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of homes and businesses have benefited from an ambitious roll-out of superfast broadband connections, which has involved one of the most challenging projects nationally to install the technology in deeply rural communities in North Yorkshire.

Since work began on the Superfast North Yorkshire programme in 2012, more than 190,000 premises have been upgraded on Openreach’s digital network to provide faster and more reliable broadband connections.

Work is continuing to boost the vital farming sector in North Yorkshire, with new funding from the Government to help diversify agricultural businesses and provide mentoring services to encourage new enterprises.

We have continued to press the Government for increased funding to support rural education and has helped secure a proposed rise in finance for schools with super-sparse catchment areas for pupils.

One of the biggest issues highlighted by the commission was the need to tackle the critical lack of affordable housing in North Yorkshire’s rural communities. Radical solutions which are being considered in North Yorkshire include a proposed 100 per cent premium on the council tax bills for second home owners, in the hope of freeing up properties for local communities.

The authorities covering the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks have also agreed to housing strategies which are in line with the commission’s recommendation that new affordable homes should be built in every parish across the county over the next decade.

Meanwhile, concerted efforts are under way to improve rural transport links, including securing £2 million in funding from the Government which will finance 70 new electric vehicle charging points in rural areas across the county. 

The Yorbus scheme, which provides on-demand bus service booked by passengers in the pilot area of Ripon, Masham, Bedale and surrounding villages, is set to be expanded.

However, members of the rural taskforce, who include representatives from the county council and district and borough authorities, the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Park authorities, the National Farmers Union, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, Community First Yorkshire, and Askham Bryan College, have admitted that the global situation looks “a very d­­­­­­­ifferent place” from just 12 months ago.

Coupled with the profound impact of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on global economies and the subsequent soaring rates of inflation with rising energy costs, key government strategies, such as planned support to farmers, taxation and public expenditure, are also under review. 

Current calculations from the Government have shown that countryside communities are falling behind urban areas when receiving national funding. Rural areas currently receive 37 per cent less from the national Settlement Funding Assessment grant, compared to major towns and cities – which is the equivalent to £105 per person.

While we have kept a close check on its finances, it is expected that the dramatic rise in inflation, soaring energy prices, the increasing demand on social care and rising staff pay will lead to an additional £51 million costs for the authority during this financial year alone.

Council leader, Cllr Carl Les, stressed that the work of the rural taskforce needs to be carried forward with the launch of a new authority in the spring of next year.

The new North Yorkshire Council, which will be created when the county council merges with the seven district and borough authorities in the county, presents a watershed in taking forward the work of both the rural commission and the taskforce, according to Cllr Les.

However, he added: “The challenges faced by rural communities in North Yorkshire cannot be separated out from the national context and the development and direction of national policy. 

“The Government’s recognition and intervention is critical across all policy areas, from rural transport to more funding for education and support for the farming sector, which have been investigated by both the commission and the rural taskforce.

“Increased funding, additional support as well as a genuine commitment to fairness and equality in rural areas is critical if the Government is serious about realising its own ambitions to level up the country.”

Farming placed at ‘eye of perfect storm’ with host of challenges

For more than 150 years, the Kitching family has overseen Summerfield Farm in the North Yorkshire countryside, dedicating their lives to the agricultural industry.

The rural enterprise is run by Neville Kitching, who has followed in the footsteps of relatives dating back to his great-great-grandfather, Robert, who took on the farm in 1843, and has now had a career himself of more than 40 years in agriculture after leaving school at the age of 15.

Neville Kitching, who runs the dairy farm at Ingleby Cross, near Northallerton, with his 25-year-old son, Will, admitted that the farming sector has faced a succession of challenges throughout the decades.

But he admitted that this year has been the most challenging that he has known during time in the industry.

The soaring rate of inflation has impacted on the cost of feed and red diesel, and climate change has also affected the business as well, with the hot and dry weather during 2022 reducing the amount of crops for silage.

The political unrest in Westminster has meant that there has also been a lack of clarity on how the new subsidies that are due to be provided under the Government’s environmental land management schemes in the wake of the UK’s departure from the European Union are due to be administered.

Neville Kitching, 57, who is married to Catherine and also has two daughters, Charlotte and Emily, said: “There is so much uncertainty now, as the markets are so volatile that it makes it very difficult to predict what may be happening from one month to the next.

“For any business, one of the most important things is the ability to have some certainty to plan for the future, but at the moment that is pretty much impossible.

“We do seem to be in the eye of the perfect storm with so many factors affecting farming. There have been challenges in the past, and I am sure there will be some in the future, but this year has been by far the most difficult to contend with in all the time I have been in farming.”

The biggest hike in inflation in 40 years has seen dramatic increases in the price of goods and equipment, which has impacted on profit margins with rising costs having to be passed on to consumers.

Research published by Farmers Weekly has shown that the price of red diesel is now £1.13 a litre, compared to 74 pence a litre at this point last year.

Milk prices have risen by nearly 50 per cent to more than 45 pence a litre compared to last year due to increased cost in production.

Neville Kitching has been faced with buying in silage for his 250-strong herd of cattle after 2022 has proved to be the UK’s warmest year on record so far for January to August, and the driest year since 1976. Due to rising demand, the cost of silage has increased by up to 50 per cent compared to last year.

Many in the farming industry have been affected by the dramatic increases in energy costs, although Mr Kitching counts himself as fortunate for agreeing a three-year contract in November last year, which has set a unit of electricity at 15 pence for the next three years.

He has already looked towards installing renewable energy sources, such as the 16 solar panels which have been introduced on his farm buildings. Mr Kitching also has hopes of installing small-scale anaerobic digestion plants to produce power for machinery and vehicles.

But with so much uncertainty in the farming industry over costs, Mr Kitching admitted he is currently unable to commit money to fund more renewable energy technology.

Neville Kitching, who is the vice-chairman of the NFU’s Dairy Board for the North-East region, said: “I am one of the lucky ones, but there is still uncertainty as the cost of energy is unlikely to fall any time soon.

“I am almost a year into the contract, so there is still the consideration of what the situation will be when it comes to an end.

“Farmers are faced with so many challenges at the moment, and it doesn’t appear it will be getting any easier any time soon.

“We are resilient types who work in farming, but I know many are considering their futures at the moment and how their businesses can remain viable.”