Lords Committee calls for UK rural strategy, including review of USO

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The House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy has called on the government to develop a rural strategy in order to help realise the potential of rural economies.

The report sets out a number of recommendations to tackle the challenges facing the rural economy. Looking at digital connectivity in particular, it says that the government should direct Ofcom to conduct a review of the Universal Services Obligation (USO) as soon as possible, focusing on what minimum commitment would be needed to sustain and support rural businesses and communities, especially in more remote areas, and including both download and upload speeds.

It is recommended that Ofcom re-assess the £3,400 payment threshold so that rural homes and businesses are not excluded. This must include consideration of home workers and businesses operating from home in remote areas.

The report noted that it welcomed the proposal that Ofcom review the option of introducing roaming in rural areas to address partial ‘not-spots’, and said that it urges the communications watchdog to start this process as a matter of urgency. Government and Ofcom should also encourage mobile network operators to share transmission masts more often in appropriate rural locations.

Chair of the Committee, Lord Foster of Bath, commented: ‘Rural communities and the economies in them have been ignored and underrated for too long. We must act now to reverse this trend, but we can no longer allow the clear inequalities between the urban and rural to continue unchecked. A rural strategy would address challenges and realise potential in struggling and under-performing areas, and allow vibrant and thriving areas to develop further. Doing nothing is not an option.’

Responding to the recommendations, Evan Wienburg, CEO of full fibre infrastructure provider TrueSpeed said: ‘This new report on the rural economy from the House of Lords Select Committee highlights the growing urban/rural connectivity divide and the need for urgent action to prevent a further widening of this gap. We applaud the committee’s call for a new plan for the countryside – one that would be similar to the government's industrial strategy. The committee is right to prioritise vastly improved digital infrastructure and digital skills as a way of ensuring our rural economies continue to flourish.’

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has also issued a response, with president Tim Breitmeyer saying: ‘We are pleased that the unique circumstances of the rural economy have been recognised by the Lords which advocates for a dedicated rural strategy. The report clearly highlights how the “one size fits all” policy approach of successive governments has left the countryside lacking in terms of housing, employment and skills, broadband and mobile connectivity, as well as access to key services such as banks, healthcare, schools and shops. The report proposes to ring fence part of the shared prosperity fund for rural communities, critical for a fair deal for the countryside. In addition, it says that Ofcom should introduce rural roaming, encourage operators to share masts, and support sustainable development in rural villages through the planning rules. Only a holistic strategy embedded across government will be able to tackle these issues head on and unleash the potential of a thriving sustainable rural economy enabling people to access better quality jobs and housing in the countryside.’

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