MPs welcome Rother’s new collaborative approach to supporting rural growth
Last Friday, local MPs, Huw Merriman and Sally-Ann Hart, hosted a rural roundtable which heralded a new era of collaboration between rural businesses and Rother District Council to support rural economic growth and development.
The event held at the Woodland Centre in Flimwell, was attended by over 40 rural businesses, farmers and Rother Councillors and officers.
The concept for the roundtable came from leaders of Rother District Council and MPs following discussions about rural planning issues and the challenges they can present. Rother District Council is keen to ensure that their planning policies and procedures support sustainable economic growth and employment in rural areas whilst conserving the areas of natural beauty and the environment.
Introducing the roundtable Huw Merriman, MP for the Bexhill and Battle constituency, said:
“I am fortunate to represent a beautiful constituency in which over half of my constituents live in rural areas and villages. Whilst this sounds idyllic, rural areas like Rother face many economic and social challenges. The UK has an average age of 37, the average age in Rother is 53. A high proportion of residents work on minimum wage and the average wage-to-house price ratio is currently 1:12; there are now over 1800 people on the Rother housing register and house completions are slow. Many families are simply priced out of buying homes in their villages. Over 85% of the land is designated as Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which is rightly protected under planning laws. It is therefore really important that we create more out of our rural economy and make more from our land for the entire community in terms of jobs, homes and visitor spend. I am pleased that today’s roundtable will deliver a more enabling planning approach from Rother District Council to support our growing rural industries, like vineyards and breweries, as well as helping councillors and planners understand more about the future of farming and the need for rural diversification. I am grateful to the Councillors and officers for suggesting this roundtable which is a significant and productive first step towards closer collaboration on rural planning issues ”
During the roundtable, the meeting heard from a variety of rural industries, land agents and business support agencies about the changing needs of the agricultural sector and rural sector. The rural sector explained the need for diversification and ability to adapt to changing farming practices and businesses. Concerns about planning delays and a lack of appreciation of the needs of the rural sector were aired and the council reiterated that it was keen to understand the issues and ensure its planning policies and local plan were supportive of rural growth.
Closing the roundtable, Sally-Ann Hart MP said:
“‘Rural SMEs provide benefits to communities beyond direct employment; they generate wealth with profits being spent locally, and owners of SME’s living locally and creating jobs. Statistics show that rural communities with a relatively high share of SMEs tend to have better health outcomes - important in rural coastal communities like ours. Keeping pace with change is necessary and preserving our countryside means protecting it from change; we need to conserve it by protecting it by responsible means so that businesses can flourish, providing jobs and opportunity.”
Speaking after the event, Cllr Doug Oliver, Leader of Rother District Council said:
“The event was welcome and useful. Bringing interested parties together in this way and talking over the issues shows that by working together we can at least begin to understand each other’s perspective and move towards our common aim of supporting the rural economy in Rother.”
Harry Wills, who runs the Beech Estate in Battle, added:
"The round table discussions allowed local business owners, viticulturists, farmers and Sussex business development services to underline how significantly a slow and unresponsive planning department impacts on economic growth and the wider community. It was great to see Rother taking this on board and outlining ongoing changes and improvements. Hopefully this discussion will be a springboard for further dialogue between all parties. This will see Rother growing in prosperity through a collaborative planning process that protects the AONB whilst not fixing it in aspic and understanding the need for change and carefully considered, well-conditioned development."
NFU group secretary George Ashby, who attended the roundtable with NFU farmer and grower members, said:
“We welcome Rother’s recognition of the enormous potential of agriculture, and viticulture, in providing fertile ground on which to cultivate new jobs and deliver clean growth. Our diverse farm businesses not only produce traceable, safe and affordable food and drink, given the right planning policy framework and informed decision-making by local authorities. They also generate renewable sources of energy and fibre, manage valuable environmental and recreational assets, and are working towards being net zero by 2040.”