How can the UK Government support our rural entrepreneurs?

Rural Wales, house by a river

By Steven McGinty

Rural businesses play a significant role in the UK economy. Yet, policymakers often overlook their contribution and, as such, have failed to realise the economic opportunities in many of our rural areas.

Last year, University of Essex researcher Anupriya Misra presented an insightful webinar (register to hear a recording of the webinar) outlining some of the key challenges facing rural entrepreneurs, as well as the likely drivers of growth.

The make-up of the rural economy

Research by the House of Lords Library shows that the rural economy accounts for approximately 20% of England’s total economic activity, an estimated £229 billion.

Unsurprisingly, one of the key differences between city and rural economies is the size of the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors. In England, they amount to 2% of the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the rural economy. However, in rural areas classed as ‘sparsely populated’ this figure significantly increases, with these industries accounting for 32% of registered local businesses.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, agriculture, forestry, and fishing play a more prominent role in the rural economy. In Scotland, 13 out of its 32 local authorities have more than 50% of their population living in rural areas, with these councils contributing 20.6% of Scotland’s GVA. In Northern Ireland, 25% of VAT registered businesses are involved in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and outside of Belfast, it’s the largest industry in each local authority area.

The challenges for rural entrepreneurs

Many rural businesses have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the products they sell make up a significant proportion of UK exports. For example, 25% of Britain’s goods exporters are registered in rural areas. Nevertheless, these rural entrepreneurs can face barriers their counterparts living in cities are far less likely to experience. This includes:

  • Slow broadband – Online rural businesses can be particularly affected by slow broadband speeds. In addition, businesses involved in the tourism industry are affected, as free wi-fi is becoming an increasingly important part of the visitor experience.
  • Skills shortages – Rural businesses in sparsely populated areas can struggle to recruit the right staff, and their existing staff can experience challenges accessing training and development opportunities.
  • Poor transport infrastructure – Poor infrastructure can make it challenging for rural businesses to recruit, as well as connect to suppliers and customers in larger urban centres.
  • Difficulty accessing finance – Lower land values in rural areas can also limit a business’s ability to provide collateral for loans.

Why do some rural areas do better than others?

An interesting question raised by webinar presenter Anupriya Misra is why do some rural areas outperform others? In her view, a mixture of supply and demand factors impact on an area’s economic performance. For instance, having access to high skilled labour, good transport links to cities, beneficial planning laws, and business support are very important for supporting rural economic growth.

Additionally, rural areas which have a wealthy local population or have products with strong global demand are also likely to be high performing.

Business advice and networking

A key theme to emerge from the webinar was the important role business advice and networking plays for rural entrepreneurs. Fledgling rural businesses will often need a range of support, including help to develop their business management skills (such as basic accountancy skills), legal advice, as well as guidance on grant writing and the funding opportunities available to them.

Entrepreneurs looking to grow their business, will need other forms of support, from help to develop an online marketing strategy to advice on providing great customer service. Informal networks, and opportunities to connect with other business owners, can also be an invaluable resource.

In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set up the Rural Growth Network (RGN) Pilot Initiative to help rural areas overcome the barriers they faced.  This included projects in Cumbria, Heart of the South West (HotSW), North East, Swindon and Wiltshire, and Warwickshire. In practice, this involved creating a network of ‘enterprise hubs’, offering rural businesses a mix of premises, business, and infrastructure support.

An evaluation of the initiative highlighted that introducing enterprise hubs brought several benefits to rural entrepreneurs. 70% of start-up founders surveyed reported an improvement in their business skills and half reported that they improved their networking with other firms. In financial terms, the net economic impact of the RGN pilots, in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA), was estimated to be around £16.5 million, with £56.6 million expected over a further three years. And, for every £1 invested by Defra, £1.50 was created in net GVA.

Researcher Anupriya Misra concluded the seminar by suggesting that the rural economy could be improved by following Defra’s evidence and creating a new network of rural enterprise hubs, which provide business skills and support that meets the needs of local communities.


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You may also be interested in Research Online, a valuable resource for research and analysis, covering topics such as entrepreneurship, employment, learning and skills, and careers education. 

New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part one)

Wigtown town centre © Copyright Jim Barton

One thing is certain. The high street landscape has now irrevocably changed and there is no point clinging on to a sentimental vision of the past. We have to start planning for a bold new world.”

This was the conclusion of the Grimsey Review in 2013.  Five years on and the challenges facing the high street remain – now with the added economic complexities presented by Brexit.

Yet there remains optimism.  In the last year, a number of reviews have been published, illustrating how we can bring town centres and high streets back to life.

In summer last year, an update to the Grimsey Review was published. Its title – ‘It’s time to reshape our town centres’ – is something of a call to arms.

It sets out 25 recommendations to help support the high street to transform “into a complete community hub incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure, business/office space, as well as some shops, while developing a unique selling proposition (USP)”.

In November, Lichfields also published a number of recommendations for high streets, based on their own research.  Their conclusions echo that of Grimsey: “Town centres and operators within them should embrace online, promote themselves better and develop their own unique selling point(s). They must broaden their offer and attract new anchors and other uses, which make them more family friendly, and improve the overall ‘experience’ for visitors”.  It also highlights a number of examples of innovative practice.

In addition to these, at the end of December, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published the findings and recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel, and a related report by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) – ‘High Streets 2030’.

The IPM report gathered the opinions of local people, including young people, about their town centre, what they would like to see developed, and the related challenges that they perceive.

Over the next two blog posts, we will look at some of these reports’ key recommendations, and highlight some innovative examples of good practice.

A diverse high street

A recent tweet by Fountain Bookstore in the U.S. highlighted the difficulties presented by ‘showrooming’ – where people visit high street stores to view items which they subsequently purchase online, often only for a marginally cheaper price.  The tweet went viral and sparked much debate.

However, realistically, online shopping is not going away – and in recognition of this, it has been widely recommended that high streets should diversify their offer, placing greater focus on services and experiences that cannot be replicated online – including food and drink uses, and leisure facilities, such as cinemas and gyms.

There does appear to be some evidence of this happening in practice – barbershops and beauty salons were ranked first and second respectively in terms of their number of net retail openings in 2017.  And Fountain Bookstore may be pleased to learn that there has been a small increase in the numbers of indepedent booksellers in towns across the UK.

A unique high street

Another key recommendation is for town centres to identify their own unique selling points (USPs).

Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, is a fantastic example of a town that has developed a USP in order to regenerate the community.  In 1998, Wigtown was designated Scotland’s national book town, and it has since become home to a wide range of book-related businesses, including both new and used booksellers, and an annual book festival that attracts many people to the town.

Other towns have sought to capitalise on their heritage to bring people back to the town centre – such as through the relatively new Heritage Action Zones programme and the £55 million fund announced in the 2018 budgetfor heritage-based regeneration, restoring historic high streets to boost retail and bring properties back into use as homes, offices and cultural venues”.

A digital high street

While the ubiquitous growth of technology has presented high streets with some of its key challenges – in the form of online shopping and showrooming – it also presents a number of opportunities.

As well as making the most of click and collect services, many town centres may also be able to capitalise on the ‘clicks to bricks’ phenomenon – where online retailers open physical stores in order to provide their customers with an enhanced experience, such as being able to trial goods before purchasing.

Grimsey 2 also outlines a number of other ways in which high streets can capitalise on technology – from providing free wifi and spaces for freelancers to work/come together, to becoming involved in digital marketing campaigns and gathering/using local datasets.

In Scotland, a number of ‘Digital Town’ pilots have been set up with a view to improving the high street’s digital infrastructure and skills, and supporting high streets to take advantage of these in order to boost tourism and local economies. Related guidance on the development of ‘Digital Towns’ has also been produced.

A well-supported high street

There is also a range of innovative supports for high streets – some more traditional, like business improvement districts, and others more unconventional – such as the growth of popup shops and other supports for local entrepreneurs.  We have discussed the many benefits of markets for town centres in a previous blog post. There have also been various awards and awareness-raising campaigns, such as Love Your Local Market, and the Great British High Street.

Another approach is to use the planning system.  One particularly innovative example of is that of the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ – Scotland’s first Simplifed Planning Zone (SPZ) focusing on town centres.  It was set up in 2015 and built on the success of Glasgow’s award-winning Hillington Park SPZ.

The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle. According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Renfrewshire Council have published a ‘how to’ guide detailing their experience.

To be continued…

These are but a few of the many innovative ideas and experiences that have helped town centres across the country.

In our next post, we will continue this theme and outline some additional ways that town centres can help to address their challenges and increase footfall – through community involvement, good quality, inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street.


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Supporting regeneration and creative start-ups … what can we learn from Hackney?

View of Amazon HQBy Morwen Johnson

A traditional pub, standing alone in the midst of a massive development site in East London. The photo above, taken at the end of June, seems to sum up dramatic changes that are being replicated all across London as regeneration transforms many Boroughs. Social and community regeneration, however, does not inevitably follow from investment in commercial property development. And ensuring that local communities benefit, and are not displaced or excluded by processes of gentrification, can be a tough balancing act.

I recently went on a study tour within Hackney, organised as part of the RTPI Convention in June, to understand how the council’s planning and regeneration team have been working to attract investment into the area and tying this in to employment support and small business growth.

Rapid economic growth but continuing deprivation

A number of high profile major site developments are underway in Hackney, including multiple hotels and the new Amazon HQ. This has gone hand-in-hand with its emergence in the last few years as an attractive location for start-ups and entrepreneurs.

Hackney experienced a business growth rate of 40% between 2004 and 2012, 17% higher than London as a whole. The population of the Borough has also grown from approximately 265,000 in 2006 to an estimated 310,000 in 2015. A report from Tech City published last month also highlighted the importance of the key sectors of creative, technology and business services in the local economy – they make up 37% of all employment in Hackney and 54% of its 11,000 businesses.

It’s worth noting, however, that this economic success has come at a time when Hackney still has some of the highest levels of deprivation and poverty in London. For example, in 2016, 30% of nursery and primary school pupils are eligible for and claiming free school meals, rising to 33% at secondary level (London Datastore).

Vibrancy of the area at risk?

The improved perception of the area, while welcome, is pushing up property and rental prices. And now, as start-ups and small businesses risk being priced out of Hackney, it is important for the area to retain the ability to host start-ups. One solution is ‘meanwhile use’ – the temporary use of vacant buildings or sites, especially for community projects.

Hackney council has engaged with local developers and property partners to create innovative and cost-effective spaces on a temporary basis to promote local business, employment and culture.  Hackney House on Curtain Road is just one example – the building provides a café and bar area, as well as exhibition and meeting space for hire. Wi-fi and desk space is available for not-for-profit organisations and start-ups to use, and regular events encourage business networking. The project won the Best Town Centre project at the London Planning Awards in February 2016.

The council suggests that while it’s important to keep businesses in the area, the core aim should “be to keep projects innovative and exciting”. Some churn is inevitable and councils should “extend both a platform and an open mind to its current local business communities”.

Ways into work

Another example of collaboration which has delivered cost effective assets to support the local community is The Opportunity Hub on Pitfield Street. The council has been working to develop its role as a broker between the private sector and community sector to create jobs and training for local people. The Opportunity Hub sits next to a large housing estate and research showed that nearly a quarter of residents local to the Hub had never used the internet.

Previously a community centre that was only being used for two hours a week, the building has been redesigned to offer an antithesis to job centres. As well as having space for training or employer recruitment sessions, there is free hot-desking space. A team of information and guidance advisors are available and focus on getting local people ‘job-ready’. They also engage with local businesses to promote apprenticeships. Touchingly, the local group of women who used the previous centre for afternoon bingo now use the Hub space instead.

Hackney collateral

Looking to the future

It’s clear that the council in Hackney aren’t resting on their laurels. As well as continuing to use Section 106 as a tool to ensure larger businesses moving into the area will offer jobs to local unemployed people, they are planning another Opportunity Hub in the foyer of a local library. They are also looking at new ideas to provide space for temporary uses, such as the untapped potential of over 2000 empty garages in the area.

Close relationships between planning professionals, town centre managers and the business development teams appear to have helped the council to use regeneration to benefit the local community.


Read more about Hackney’s three year framework to promote enterprise and regeneration in the Tech City Best Practice report.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on regeneration:

Not dead, evolving – high streets of the future

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Image Grand Arcade, Leeds, Gunnar Larsson via GNU Free Documentaion License

This week, individuals from local councils, town teams, business improvement districts (BIDs) and industry bodies will come together to share and learn from high street revitalisation success stories as part of the Future High Street Summit. The Summit, set up by retail expert and high street campaigner Clare Rayner in 2014, refutes claims that the ‘high street is dead’. It argues that far from being dead, it is instead ‘evolving’.

Looking at recent headlines, one would be forgiven for believing the high street was in terminal decline. For example, it was recently reported that in a study of multiple retailers across 500 towns, the net loss of stores in 2014 was nearly three times greater than in 2013 (987 compared to 371).

According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the main challenges facing the high street include:

  • pressures on prices exerted by online retailers and large grocery stores;
  • increased costs, including business rates, rents, and the introduction of the minimum wage;
  • the ease and cost of starting an online business compared to a business on the high street;
  • the digital delivery of some products (music, books etc) removing the demand for high street music shops.
  • access and parking restrictions/costs in town centres
  • the growth in ‘out of town’ retail parks and large supermarkets
  • the lack of diversity, i.e. ‘Clone town’ syndrome

Showrooming’ – when shoppers look at products in store, then buy the product online from a different supplier – has also been identified as another potential threat to high street stores.

So given these challenges, does the high street really have a future?

According to Mary Portas it does.  In her recent reflections on the progress made since her 2011 review of how government, local authorities and businesses could better promote the development of more prosperous and diverse high streets, she argues against predictions of the high street’s demise.

She cites research by Deloitte, which found that 38% of people still visit their high street almost daily, and that that a significant proportion of people continue to use their local high street, particularly to top up on groceries (59%), buy health and beauty, and pharmacy products (55%), and buy shoes and clothes (50%). She also notes that a significant number of people reported visiting the high street to use the library (44%).

Indeed, even the statistics show some cause for positivity. The Local Data Company, which publishes a ‘End of Year Vacancy Report’ in February each year, recently reported a downward trend in shop vacancy rates, from 14.5% in February 2012, to 13.4% in May 2014 – the lowest rate since 2010.

Commenting on these figures, Clare Rayner, organiser of the Future High Street Summit, notes:

“Figures from LDC/bira show that high street vacancy rates have dropped a little; but the national averages mask the detail, which interestingly shows that there has been a net gain in independents and a loss in multiples. To me it’s clear that smaller businesses and independent retailers are the ones who are keeping our high streets alive – so it is essential they get the support they need from the relevant authorities and place managers.”

So what can high streets do to support independent retailers?

In Rotherham, Mary notes that mystery shoppers have been used to help local businesses improve their standards, by providing advice on quality, store layout and pricing. Local shop owners have been offered social media training, and there has been a ‘shop local’ campaign, showcasing the range of independent shops available. A ‘pop up high street’ has also been run at various locations, including council offices, retail parks, hospitals and local events, and town centre parking charges have been frozen.

BoxPark is another great example of support for small independent shops. It is a ‘pop up shopping mall’ in Shoreditch, London, created entirely from containers, and houses a variety of different independent retailers, artists and craftspeople.

In his book, ‘How to save our town centres: a radical agenda for the future of high streets’, Julian Dobson highlights Handpicked Hall, in Leeds, as a key example of good practice. Set up in October 2012 in a vacant department store, it opened up the space to a host of local producers, including “craftspeople, artists, food makers, fashion designers, a woman who wanted to open a vintage tea salon and even a man selling carnivorous plants. People that wouldn’t fit within a traditional market and couldn’t afford to kit out a shop of their own… None could have borne the cost of trading in a traditional high street shop.” (Dobson, 2015:109).

Unfortunately, Handpicked Hall closed in 2014, however, the majority of the retailers within it moved into the Grand Arcade. According to local business owner, Claire Riley, co-owner of Our Handmade Collective, “Taking the empty units within the Arcade has actually turned a forgotten and empty shopping arcade around, and we’re now proud to call the Grand Arcade the Home of the Independents.”

As well as support for local independent retailers, the high street also needs to evolve to address the challenge of e-commerce. According to Mark Hudson, retail leader at PWC, “The future can be seen by watching the ‘digital natives’ at work and play – those who have grown up with online shopping, mobile phones and ubiquitous broadband have a very different relationship with traditional high streets than the previous generations. Rather than try to recreate the past, the high street needs to evolve to be relevant to the future.”

In Ashford, they have sought to address this challenge by using technology to promote the town centre. They aim to develop a ‘digital high street’, which will take the format of an innovative website and app that will guide visitors through the town, providing special offers, and ‘click and collect’ features for all the businesses.

Of course, the high street has an importance far beyond retail. It also has a wider role providing services and meeting places, including libraries, health centres, tourist information centres, bus and rail stations, education centres, post offices, workspaces and meeting rooms.

Recent examples of such high street services include the relocation of Dorking library to the high street, the provision of creative craft classes in Leeds, meeting space for mothers and their children in Bristol, workspace for artists in London and short term respite services for children with disabilities in Bristol, Cheltenham and Swindon.

As Julian Dobson notes: “A high street, and wider town centre within which it sits, is far more than simply a collection of parcels of individually or publicly owned land, shops and highways. It is the heart that keeps a place alive.” (Dobson, 2015:256).

Sharing and learning from good practice, through events such as the Future High Streets Summit and the Great British High Street competition, is a key way of ensuring that the high street remains very much alive and relevant for the foreseeable future.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on regenerating high streets, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Propping up the market? (temporary retailing), IN Estates Gazette, No 1505 7 Feb 2015 (A53773)

Digital High Street Advisory Board (2015) Digital high street 2020 report (B41351)

Dobson, J (2015) How to save our town centres: a radical agenda for the future of high streets. London: Policy Press. (B41359)

PricewaterhouseCoopers (2014) The changing face of retail: where did all the shops go? (B37238 )

Resurrecting the high street (regenerating town centres), IN Local Government Executive, 16 Oct 2014 (A52351)

Town Teams, Portas Pilots and the future of the high street, IN Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal, Vol 7 No 3 Spring 2014 (A49469)

Institute for Retail Studies (2014) Town centre and high street reviews (The Retail Planning Knowledge Base briefing paper) (B38740)

Wrigley, N and Lambiri, D (2014) High street performance and evolution: a brief guide to the evidence (B38664)

Mayor of London (2014) Learning from London’s high streets: a collection of essays, case studies, learning and inspiration (B38523)

Future High Streets Forum (2014) Good leadership: great high streets (B37725)

IDOX (2014) Town centres in Scotland: changing policy and practice (In focus) (B37581)

Enterprise Zones … did they work then, will they work now?

Modern office building

by Laura Dobie

In this article we look at past and present incarnations of Enterprise Zones, their potential to create jobs and growth, and issues to address in policy approaches.

Past experiences and lessons learned

The Enterprise Zone concept emerged in the UK in the 1970s. They were conceived by the planning academic Peter Hall, with the idea that removing all obstacles faced by businesses, such as regulation and bureaucracy, would allow enterprise to prosper, prompting a surge in the number of companies, employment levels and incomes in areas which had been ravaged by industrial decline and restructuring.

Enterprise Zones were created in the UK between 1981 and 1996 and were mostly concentrated in areas of post-industrial decline on the outskirts of towns and cities. The policy, as it was implemented, departed somewhat from the original, free-for-all vision: the zones concentrated on built environment challenges and the use of capital-based grants and rebates to drive growth.

The incentives offered included:

  • 100 percent tax allowances for capital expenditure on constructing, improving or extending commercial or industrial buildings;
  • Exemption from Business Rates for industrial and commercial premises;
  • Simplified planning procedures;
  • Exemption from industrial training levies;
  • Faster processing of applications for firms requiring warehousing free of Customs duties;
  • A reduction in government requests for statistical information.

The Department for Environment’s final evaluation found that approximately 126,000 jobs were created, of which up to 58,000 were additional, and that additionality was highest for manufacturing and lowest for retailing and distribution activity. It estimated that the cost per additional job created was around £17,000 (£26,000 at current prices), assuming a ten year job life, and that over than £2 billion (1994/95 prices) of private capital was invested in property on the Enterprise Zones, a public to private leverage ratio of about 1 to 2.3.

However, Enterprise Zones have been subject to much criticism, and it has been argued that, overall, they did not produce a lasting recovery in investment and employment. (Danson, 2013, p17). Critics have highlighted the displacement effects of Enterprise Zones, i.e. that many jobs created in Enterprise Zones were displaced from other areas (Sissons and Brown, 2011), and the expensiveness of the policy (Larkin and Wilcox, 2011).

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