Last week I had the pleasure of meeting the 5 MP’s for the county: Dominic Grieve, Steve Baker, Cheryl Gillan, David Lidington and John Bercow – courtesy of Bucks Business First. The meeting was to discuss the rural economy in Bucks. We were joined by some great farming and rural businesses that I have had the pleasure to work with in the past.
It was, as you would imagine, really enlightening to hear from the key MP’s about their views. Rupert Waters, Head of Economic Research, gave a brilliant assessment of the national economy and where Buckinghamshire fits into the wider national and world picture. In short it seems “Top of class” nationally but “could do better … see me!” internationally. It is clear that Buckinghamshire is a net contributor to the economy, second only to London, and the most affluent county second to Surrey.
Buckinghamshire is a rural county so it stands to reason that this great wealth is being made in the rural hinterland. Not only can we boast beautiful scenery, a great place to live (confirmed by The Telegraph – second only to Rutland – make up your own mind about that! Rutland named as Britain’s best rural place to live )
But I wonder how evenly spread this success is. Buckinghamshire seems to be the best place to start a new business and, outside London, has the highest number of new business start-ups in the country. Most businesses – over 80%- have fewer than 10 employees and half of the ‘micro businesses’ are in the rural areas. Good access to markets, great support for small businesses, good communications, M40, M4, M25, excellent rail. All sound good.
I sound a cautious note here. Not to spoil the party or deny the great success of local business, but to shed some light into the corners that the glitter ball does not reach. In the darker corners of the rural county two areas of rural infrastructure are critical and largely absent. This is creating a two-tier business world. I voice the concerns of many rural businesses if I say that we could still do better by evening out the rural/urban playing field.
Rural Broadband: I am sure you must be bored with hearing about it, but it is still an issue for many. A business without good broadband will struggle. Most of those Buckinghamshire businesses suffering without access to fast broadband are in rural areas (the LEP, Chris Rawson and his team have done a great job getting broadband out to many towns and larger villages but there are still many without!). These businesses cannot effectively market, take payments, interact, upload promotional videos, video conference etc. One example just a few miles from Princess Risborough and High Wycombe is Orchard View Farm – a great new developing business yet has to wait for a cloudless sky to take a credit card payment!
Rural Transport: With our towns bulging at the seams, very little low-cost housing and our rural villages becoming retirement and dormitory villages we must ask why? Access to good employment options is usually a matter of transport as much as anything else. Without good rural transport employment will be challenging for both businesses seeking good quality employees, and the employees themselves. If young people are to come back after education to Buckinghamshire then these issues must be sorted out.
In a county as successful as Buckinghamshire it is easy to forget that some rural communities and businesses are still struggling. Identifying the problem is the easy part. Changing things will be harder. At Community Impact Bucks we are Buckinghamshire’s representative on the Rural Community Council, member of the Bucks Rural Affairs Group and Wycombe Rural Forum – so I must shoulder some of the responsibility to raise these issues but also to see if we can be part of the solution!