Four south west Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have commissioned an independent enquiry to identify opportunities to stimulate rural productivity and growth.

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Dorset, Heart of the South West and Swindon and Wiltshire have commissioned the report which is to be launched tomorrow (Oct 20) at the South West Growth Summit.

The South West Growth Summit brings together leading stakeholders from the south west business community, LEPs and local authorities to raise the profile of the regional economy on a global stage and address the areas where joint working can create effective regional partnerships.

The commission found “huge potential for economic growth if key opportunities are seized and challenges addressed”. This new report shows examples of tangible projects that will deliver benefits throughout the community.

The commission was set up to hear and review evidence from a range of sources and stakeholders to frame the south west response to the Industrial Strategy and forthcoming DEFRA 25 year plans for ‘food, farming and fisheries’ and ‘environment’; draw out opportunities to drive rural productivity improvements; understand functioning between rural and urban distinctions; secure Government support for specific initiatives in the autumn statement; influence national and local policies where appropriate to improve rural productivity.

The commission collected evidence through an open call for written evidence from April to June, followed by five formal evidence hearings across the four LEP areas.

The most important themes that emerged from the work are:

  • Digital connectivity presents a game changing opportunity but without further urgent action businesses and communities will become left behind
  • Smart technologies have the potential to create solutions to many of the challenges faced by rural areas and the development of an innovation platform on a regional scale has the ability to create higher value jobs
  • The rural SW hardworking and entrepreneurial culture, coupled with its stunning natural environment, with the right support, can become a hothouse of enterprise
  • Our agri-food-tourism economy is a strength upon which we can build globally recognised propositions as THE place to start and build and grow a food business
  • There are genuine concerns that our rural communities are spiralling downwards towards ‘fossilised retirement villages’ unless Government and local leaders take prompt action. Local and national policy must move away from the ‘one size fits all’ approach that fail to recognise that rural areas are different.
  • Brexit has the potential to shake the foundations of our rural economy – providing either a much needed boost or sudden economic shock. Now is the time for action if we are to reap the benefits in line with the commission’s recommendations.

The chair of the South West Rural Commission, David Fursdon, said: “The Rural economy is integral to raising the productivity of the south west, and this report highlights how rural prosperity can be tackled alongside urban growth, to bring about prosperity for all in every part of the economy.

“We’ve looked at what sectors are involved, what opportunities there are for growth –  and what barriers are faced – including issues around housing, jobs, transport, skills and demographics.

“If we are looking at the need for vital infrastructure to underpin growth, we need to look no further than digital connectivity, which must be the priority for all parts of our rural areas.

“We explored what the implications of Brexit might be, as well as the potential for developing innovative clusters to harness any opportunities for the future, including the potential for companies ‘scaling up’.

“We’ve heard from a broad range of people and organisations that they share a strong belief that helping the rural economy is the key to raising the productivity of the south west. Our report shows how this could work and give it the attention that it deserves.”

Mark Duddridge, chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP, added: “This report offers a positive blueprint for rural growth and job creation in our region which builds on our strengths and assets and embraces the opportunities of new technology. It also highlights the many challenges to achieving inclusive growth and rebalancing our economy. We look forward to working with our partners in business, other LEPs and Government to tackle these issues together and close our productivity gap with the rest of the UK and beyond.”