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'You're letting our countryside down' Rural North is being failed, experts claim.

Byline: William Green Political Editor

MINISTERS are consistently failing rural communities in the North East, experts from the region claimed yesterday.

Rural economists are now calling for a radical shake-up of Government departments to address problems of unemployment, low wages and poor transport infrastructure.

A Newcastle University expert and the Government-created Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) told MPs yesterday that the Whitehall department supposed to look after rural areas is not doing its job.

Professor Neil Ward, from Newcastle University's Centre for Rural Economy, said the failure of Government rural policy since 2001 was partly down to the "eclipse" of rural affairs in the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) as it focused on climate change and animal disease.

He warned an overly agricultural and urban-centred approach to development and "naive and simplistic" assumptions have added to the failures.

"The result is that the major drivers and problems of rural economies are not properly targeted by business support, training provision and infrastructural investment," said Prof Ward.

He acknowledged the importance of the environment, but did not see much evidence that giving responsibility for it to Defra alongside duties over farming and food worked well.

"Environment could have been put with energy and transport," said Prof Ward. "Rural affairs understandably doesn't fare well with that kind of struggle for what the priorities are."

He warned resources focused on rural affairs had been cut as he gave evidence to the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee (EFRA), which is holding an inquiry into the prospects for the rural economy.

Prof Ward is now calling on ministers to make Defra an effective champion of rural areas and to "rural proof" policies, warning some redirection of resources may be required if it really is a priority.

The CRC stressed the need for good transport links - a key concern in Northumberland where the A1 is not fully dualled through the county to Scotland.

It highlighted how rural unemployment in the North East tops 25% compared to less than 20% in the East Midlands, which has the highest rural employment level.

Hourly pay in parts of Northumberland and County Durham are as low as pounds 6 compared to the English average of pounds 13.61 in 2007.

Weekly pay in Alnwick and Berwick was less than the pounds 468 recorded in Copeland, West Cumbria, between 1998 and 2005.

Residents in urban areas earn up to pounds 130 more a week, according to the CRC.

Last night, regional Countryside Alliance director Richard Dodd said Defra had always been an "unwieldy" department since replacing the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Farming in 2001.

But Defra last night refuted claims that the department was not doing enough for rural communities, saying it took that work very seriously. It said 494,000 more people were now in employment in rural areas than in 1997.

Comment 10

STATISTICS

EMPLOYMENT in North East rural districts is 73.5% compared with 80.4% in East Midlands areas.

Hourly pay in rural Northumberland and County Durham is as low as pounds 6, compared with the English average of pounds 13.61 in 2007.

Weekly pay in Alnwick and Berwick was less than the pounds 468 in Copeland, West Cumbria, between 1998 and 2005.

Between a third and nearly half of rural workers in many parts of Northumberland are in low waged jobs, compared to the English average of 24.7%.

Urban dwellers earn up to pounds 130 more a week, and many rural counterparts have weekly salaries well below the English average of pounds 426.

INCOMERS PAY

THE arrival of newcomers into rural areas of the North East has been good for those communities, says expert Professor Neil Ward, from Newcastle University.

He told MPs a significant proportion of the workforce in such areas were working for firms set up by outsiders.

Research showed there were up to 9,000 microbusinesses in the rural North East, with many started by incomers who were "more significantly growth-orientated and employ more people".

He said farming made up just 2.6% of rural employment.

Some 80% of jobs are in business and financial services, education, training and health, manufacturing, public administration, distribution and retailing.

The major problems of rural economies are not properly targeted by infrastructural investment.

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CAPTION(S):

COUNTRY VIEW Economists have called for a radical shake-up to address problems of unemployment and low wages in rural communities. Picture: Tim McGuinness www.icnewcastle.co.uk/buyaphoto ref: 01095994; WARNING Prof Neil Ward of Newcastle University.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 8, 2008
Words:760
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