Ringing the changes in the rural economy
by Councillor Ray Ellis, Executive Member for Economic Development and Rural Affairs at Hampshire County Council
Monday, 17 December 2012
I always marvel at how lucky I am to have been born and to live in Hampshire. Hampshire really does offer something for everyone: from our outstanding rural landscapes, two National Parks, picture postcard villages and maritime heritage, to cutting edge industries and the economic powerhouses of Basingstoke, the Blackwater Valley towns and of course southern Hampshire.
Hampshire is prosperous - but we cannot take this for granted. Now, more than ever, we need to maintain a strong, stable and sustainable economy across the whole county. As 83 per cent of Hampshire is rural, we need to take advantage of the opportunities available for example through tourism, and also tackle the threat that rural communities may be left behind in the age of the internet, which makes access to reasonably fast broadband essential. With rural communities facing economic and social changes, driven by factors such as the continued downward pressure on wholesale food prices, potential loss of vital rural services and the need to generate jobs, we must be resilient to these pressures.
One of our priorities is to ensure rural towns and villages remain vibrant and attractive places to live, with employment opportunities and a reasonable standard of living. Above all the countryside mustn't become just a convenient place to commute from. We are therefore working to support the Government's Rural Statement, released in September 2012, that aims for "successful rural businesses and thriving rural communities in a living, working countryside". A recent report estimated that Hampshire's rural businesses contribute almost £4 billion to the county's overall economy and we need to make sure that the economy remains strong and flourishing for the health of the whole county.
Tourism is a valuable source of revenue for the countryside: on average 15,000 people visit tourist attractions in Hampshire - many of which are in rural locations - every single day. This supports 60,000 jobs and brings in almost £3 billion to the county. Visit England, the English tourist board, is targeting a five percent year-on-year growth in the country's tourism industry over the next 10 years, and we are poised to take advantage of some of the estimated extra 225,000 jobs and £50 billion in revenue. We are actively looking at ways to grow and build on this trend in Hampshire.
We have recently showcased attractions from across the county to a group of tour operators and have shown what a warm welcome awaits visitors from the UK and from abroad. With our traditional offer of shooting, fishing, camping and county shows, diversification of farming and the boom in 'Staycations', we are in a strong position to develop this sector. Newer activities such as music festivals and mountain biking add to the list of attractions. We are also targeting overseas visitors as they spend 4-5 times that of the domestic tourist. China, India and South American countries are being encouraged to visit Hampshire.
The countryside also needs good broadband access so it is plugged into the modern economy, but there are many rural homes and businesses struggling to even get standard 2Mbps (Megabits per second) speeds. Starting in 2013, our Hampshire Broadband Programme will target areas that are unlikely to be upgraded through the commercial market. A total of £10 million County Council and government money will be used to stimulate investment where there are too few potential customers to cover the costs of installing the necessary infrastructure. The Government's aim is to make sure that 90% of homes and businesses in Hampshire will be able to sign up to 24Mbps, with everyone having access to at least 2Mbps.
Villages are at risk of losing their local services, such as post offices and shops. These are not only lifelines for many but also a meeting point and focus for the whole community, especially for older and vulnerable residents. Under the 'Village Shops Grant Scheme' the County Council has provided funding to support local stores, particularly in villages at risk of losing their Post Offices or where no shop exists. Recent success stories include Sparsholt's Village Shop and Post Office, bought by the community as Sparsholt Village Shop Association Limited in January 2009 with a £20,000 grant from the Village Community Grant Scheme and local contributions. With strong commitment from the village, the shop is now thriving. West Meon Community Shop has become a successful community facility, following a bid to develop the facility in 2008 by renovating an unconverted store at the rear of the premises to provide an internet café, drop-in meeting point and Tourist Information Source.
The Council also works closely with Hampshire Fare, which promotes the county's food and drink as well as publishing an annual directory of local producers. The annual Hampshire Food Festival in July will celebrate the best of local food and farming throughout the month. Alresford's Watercress Festival in May is another unmissable event with thousands of people filling the town's streets to take part in activities ranging from watercress speed-eating championships to watercress soup competitions.
These and other schemes are helping to regenerate the rural economy so it can continue to be in a strong position to meet the challenges it faces and go from strength to strength in the future.