Rural Wales is in trouble. Probably more trouble than in living memory, and from forces and trends that are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Economic dysfunction is old hat here of course. The social problems consequent on poor wages, low value added, and a lack of economic opportunity and market income are many and longstanding. These include poverty, the hollowing out of towns, poor service provision for rural areas, and the out-migration of the young. So schools close as young families leave. Pretty seaside and mountainside villages pivot ever more strongly to respond to the volatile, but crucial, economic demands of tourists. Planning policy proves wholly inadequate to cope with the trend for wealthy outsiders (yes, Welsh as well as English) for a rural pied-a-terre that stands empty, and socially and economically useless, for nine of twelve months.

On the actual landscape, things are scarcely better. Countless hectares of bare sheep pasture are typically broken only by conifer plantations, the occasional dairy farm, and by multinational-owned windfarms. Not much of this is really viable in the ‘free market’, and most of it is about to be upended by a combination of urgent climate mitigation and adaptation, farming-sector demographics, and the multiple and still-unfolding consequences of Brexit (G’day Aussie lamb!)

We face the prospect of a piecemeal, ineffective and possibly even chaotic transition of rural Wales in response to these challenges – and one that might further disadvantage ‘local’ voices and embedded organisations. A better and more equitable response requires a cold-eyed assessment of just what the problem is.

First the bad news: Wales ain’t that special

The negative impacts of the COVID-inspired rush to the countryside of holidaymakers and would-be second-home owners are just the latest episode in a series of raw deals experienced by rural areas worldwide for at least six thousand years. As Liverani points out in his book on the ancient near East, from the very beginnings of the urban revolution cities took from their hinterlands a huge range of mission-critical raw materials, food, energy sources and manpower, and in return provided cultural influence and ideologies – ideologies which of course usefully justified the extraction of rural resources. Throughout the rest of human history, the same pattern repeats, whether in Roman Italy, Hanoverian England, the Highland Clearances, or Qing China: resources are extracted to fuel higher-welfare lifestyles in town, often at the behest of a high social status (and law-making) elite – simultaneously man-about-urban town, and absentee (but dominant) rural landowner and landlord. In times of war and economic change, demands increase, with rural surpluses of capital and labour directed to industrialisation and conquest.

Indeed, conquest had big implications for rural areas in Europe, and especially in seats of empire like Britain. Exploitation became a global game, with high-value new world commodities such as tobacco and sugar attracting attention and disposable income, and to some extent supplanting domestic produce – which then had to compete like-for-like with American wheat and other staples with the repeal of the corn laws. This latter development of course benefitted the hungry British poor (coming too late for the starving Irish), but also diminished the power and importance of the rural, relative to the urban. In a like sense, the development of fossil fuels – first British coal and then portable middle eastern oil – further diminished the importance of rural resources (for example, waterpower for milling), meaning any rural ‘value adding’ became increasingly vestigial. Post-World War II, agriculture in Europe saw a renewed focus, as the continent moved to ensure adequate food supplies in the face of potential future disruptions, not reckoning with an ongoing Green Revolution that would see productivity skyrocket and wreck the supply-demand balance. The consequent EU Common Agricultural Policy has continued, for Wales, a tradition of agricultural production based on a handful of for-export commodities and a sector shaped by outside interests that has continued largely unabated since Tudor, or even Norman times.

Wales: Unhappy in its own way?

The sad development story of rural concentration on a small number of commodity exports (and more latterly tourism) is one told of many places in the Global South – albeit with usually far starker consequences than in Wales, which has for centuries been politically and economically integrated with its powerful neighbour and primary market. Where immobile resources in Wales are comparably productive or attractive, we see (as in the global South) a predominance of non-local ownership and control – energy sectors and higher value parts of tourism – whereas activities dominated by local business also feature marginal resources, very small firms, low capital availability, volatile prices and seasonal swings, and limited scope. The resulting economic ‘inefficiency’ places rural Wales in a bind, and unable to move to more (economically or holistically) valuable or sustainable patterns of production.

In contrast to other resource-intensive peripheral economies, Wales experiences intense and multi-level public sector intervention from local, national, UK and (until recently) EU actors. For the most part these interventions are not tailored to the rather quirky Welsh context, and rarely emerge from truly local debate and decision. Even where an effort to localism is made – for example, formerly in EU Development Plans – it is stymied by bureaucracy and a lack of participation from the disinterested and distrustful. Local ideas wilt in the face of the harsh realities of UK renewables’ Contracts for Difference, a remote and hidebound public sector, the Single Farm Payment, and actual prices for exported commodities.

From a political perspective, not only is rural Wales unusual, small and difficult, but it also doesn’t really matter for any party, except those smaller and desperate for the seat or two that means a big win, rarely then those in government. The political and economic narrative in Wales and the UK is resolutely urban, and the white economic knights of policy – big infrastructure, Innovation and R&D, creative – are set square in and between cities. There is a huge mismatch here, as most evenings spent watching S4C will attest: the rural economy is centrally important for reasons of language and culture, and for swathes of towns and villages outside our southeast. Yet this complicated importance has been seen in Cardiff as a reason to (mostly) leave the rural alone. That time is now over.

Rural Wales in the rest of the 21st century

Rural Wales is, like many other rural places, in an odd and dual position. A place of long-time political disinterest, appearing on the news mostly as an economic or sustainability problem, and producing stuff that (with notable exceptions) is only saleable at prices which nowhere near cover costs. Yet at the same time, our rural landscape is of increasingly clear value to Britain’s urban populations as a restorative bolthole, as a supplier of low carbon energy, and within Wales as a cultural locus. Meanwhile it is abundantly clear that we cannot meet a zero net carbon commitment, or respect and repair ecosystems and biodiversity, without a deep transformation in rural production and land use. The rural is very much coming home.

This could go one of two ways. A more diverse and autonomous rural Wales could emerge, building on local objectives to deliver wellbeing, nature and climate-enhancing production and consumption systems that are more self-sustained and globally just. History, however, tells us this is much the less likely option, particularly in market-friendly contexts where citizens have been long downgraded to consumers. More likely is an un- or badly planned post-Brexit-climate-emergency-COVID transition that sees an increasing role for well-resourced outside interests (corporations, governments and people) purchasing assets for extremely specific purposes – carbon offsetting, energy generation, tax breaks, occasional holidays, lifestyle-retirement – that connect not at all, and may even cut across, the objectives and values of embedded communities.

Over millennia, urban cores have shaped both hinterlands and far-flung rurality through a mix of cultural persuasion, coercion, the imposition (or co-opting) of elites and, latterly, the development of pricing and trading structures that ignore the wider value (and fragility) of nature, depreciating the value of food, energy and raw materials relative to shiny manufactures and urban services. In Wales, devolution has been (so far) wholly inadequate (or insufficiently directed) to tackle the consequent problems and deliver a revitalised rural Wales – but such a rebirth is increasingly vital.

Any plan for Wales that delivers on the climate and nature emergencies whilst reversing social decline and protecting local culture must be clear-eyed about the causes of dysfunction. Specifically, it must recognise and respond to a political economy of place that allows the wishes of those who found success in old, high energy, frivolous, unreal, and unequal urban economies to trump those who are long embedded in their rural places. Even a body as limited as the Senedd has plenty it can do in the areas of planning policy, tax structures, regulation, and business support. And it is here a case of ‘physician heal thyself’: as well as celebrating and encouraging the local, Welsh Government policy must allow and resource bespoke local solutions, local ideas, and local visions. The days of hillsides from Conwy to Ceredigion managed from Cardiff must end.

Moving the locus of important decision making – and really prioritising local asset ownership – is the only way to make local politics a worthwhile activity, and to thus drive wider engagement and include a wider range of voices. This is of course not sufficient itself to turn rural Wales into a diverse set of well-functioning and broad-based economies that deliver wellbeing for residents, and protection for nature and the climate. The giving away of power by Cardiff Bay does not imply the shedding of responsibility. There remains a need for Wales-level institutions to provide policy ‘red lines’ (not least via the Future Generations Act), and high-quality scientific advice (for example through a better resourced, more decentralised and locally accountable Natural Resources Wales); to develop strategic infrastructure; and to ensure that local actions do not imply unreasonable consequences for other places and people.

Over the long arc of human history, the rural has been developed, exploited, and discarded at the whim of the urban, with only the hope of partial trickle out – of technology, welfare, commuters or tourists – as a salve. To expect this to change fundamentally is perhaps to expect too much. But this is a unique time in human history. As we increasingly (and finally) recognise the key role of natural resources in enabling complex human society, we can either continue down the path of the industrialised, centralised and short-termist exploitation of places for narrow goals, inventing ever more artificial ‘market’ solutions as a fig-leaf of respectability, or we can seek to break with the past and let these places themselves decide how best to manage resources for the common good. Rural places, in Wales not least, are in trouble because the people who make decisions for them do not live in them. It is about time that changed.

Calvin Jones is a Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School. He does not live in rural Wales.

Pic by David Saunders

3 replies on “What’s rural Wales’ problem?”

  1. Like all the articles, views and comments on matters rural there are no concrete proposals here. Not that many years ago Wales produced grain eggs and vegetables even from hill farms. There is no encouragement or desire for farmers to grow these foods now. Once the land was worked hard. Now it’s all rye grass pasture producing little and expensive meat that we all have to pay for through farm subsidies that can’t compete with Australasia. And all I hear from farmers is, where’s my subsidy? I grew up on a hill farm by the way.

  2. There are plenty of ideas lying around that would boost economic activity in rural areas and hit many other objectives too. For example, WG could reform land use/planning regs in a way that would increase opportunities for people to return to the land and grow stuff for which there is actually high demand. At the moment, if you want to buy land and develop a horticulture business, you have to live in a caravan. WTF? If WG pulled its finger out, we could have lots of new small holders out there, producing food for themselves and wider markets. Local economy stuff if ever there was!

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