As a largely rural county, the results of recent research from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and global business platform, Xero, will come as no surprise to firms here. For years, they have had to contend with decaying public transport provision, poor internet connectivity and labour problems.
The research shows that the availability of quality public infrastructure and access to skilled labour are entrenching a rural-urban divide among UK SMEs. And rural firms, not surprisingly, are more dissatisfied with the quality and availability of local resources than those in cities.
Across the country, the SME business outlook is subdued. Only half (53%) expect to see turnover growth in the next 12 months, while one in four (27%) expect turnover to shrink over the same period. And less than a third (30%) of SMEs plan to increase investment in technology, research, and development, while 18% expect a decrease.
High-quality public infrastructure and access to a skilled labour force are both key to the success of a business, in particular SMEs, and the findings indicate that rural businesses are at a significant disadvantage and this is shown by the issues relating to transport:
- Well over half (58%) of SMEs in rural areas do not believe their area has reliable and well-connected trains, compared with just 39% in urban areas but this was higher in the Midlands (51%) than the South of England (36%).
- This rose further still when it came to buses – over three-quarters (79%) in rural or countryside areas do not think they have access to reliable buses.
The rural-urban divide is also evident when it comes to connectivity. While three-quarters (75%) of SMEs overall agree their area has reliable broadband, this rises to 82% in urban areas and falls to around half (56%) in rural areas.
We know that everybody, everywhere is having difficulty finding the right people for the jobs on offer. However, rural companies report a high level of dissatisfaction with their local labour markets; almost two in three (64%) SMEs across the country do not believe their local area has high availability of appropriately skilled labour BUT 72% of rural firms state this as an issue.
Government must urgently prioritise the development of public infrastructure. Such investment will not only enable local and small businesses to adapt and thrive, but it will also create jobs and inject money into local economies across the UK.
However, it is not all doom and gloom and we have some incredibly successful businesses in our rural areas who are forging ahead despite the negative factors listed above.
And we have our Rural Business Forum who have been discussing and acting upon these issues since its formation nearly five years ago. The forum been working with Staffordshire County Council to draw up the Staffordshire Rural Economic Strategy 2023-2030 which aims to tackle these inequalities and level up business competitiveness across the urban-rural divide in the county.
If you would like to join our Rural Business Forum or find out more about it you can contact Declan Riddell, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want to talk to us about any business issues, including funding, you can call our switchboard on 01782 202222 or call the Stoke and Staffs Growth Hub Helpline on 0300 111 8002 or email: email@example.com