Thu 16 Jul 2020

Live Case 4: The COVID Pivot from Growth to Recovery

To contain the disease and prevent the spreading of Covid-19, the UK Government imposed a lockdown on 23 March 2020. People could only leave their homes for a restricted set of reasons, which included shopping for essentials such as food, exercising outdoors for one hour a day, and going to work only if unable to work from home. Helen Howells started working for ROBUST partner, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), during lockdown. Here is her account of working in the Mid Wales Living Lab (from home). 

What has Covid-19 meant for the Mid Wales Living Lab?

I started my role as the WLGA Rural Wales Policy Officer on 30 March 2020. It has been a strange time starting a new job where I have not even left home! It is a little difficult not being able to meet face-to-face with my new colleagues or working with the team as I would like to, but we’ve found ways of using technology, such as Microsoft Teams, to host both formal and informal meetings. Although as I am based in rural Mid Wales, sometimes the technology doesn’t behave as well as I would like it to!

ROBUST stakeholder workshops had been planned for March. Whilst the workshops were cancelled, I have been fortunate to be able to develop relationships with stakeholders virtually and developed two online stakeholder groups. One of the key things I felt was important was identifying how Covid was affecting the rural economy in Wales, and within the first month in the role, I met bilaterally with over a dozen external stakeholders to identify their concerns, and capture any opportunities. These findings have been collated and shared in the WLGA’s Rural Business Briefing that informs Local Authorities of the issues facing the economy. I produced two iterations of the briefing during lockdown.

The virtual stakeholder groups I have established include a group made up of Economic Development and Regeneration officers of the Rural Local Authorities, as well as an external Rural Economy Stakeholder group, with representation from farming unions, Confor, Federation of Small Businesses, North Wales Tourism, Antur Teifi, Food Centre Wales, Menter Mon, Welsh Government and the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales. The purpose of these groups is to share information, coordinate communication and to test the ideas ROBUST develops as part of the Rural Economic Recovery Plan for Wales.

Both stakeholder groups have met twice during lockdown and we have started to identify headline themes for our work. These themes will be developed further over the Summer and we hope to be able to develop a virtual seminar with our stakeholders to present an iteration of the plan by Autumn 2020.

How has Covid-19 affected rural Wales?

There has been a concerted effort by both the UK and Welsh Governments to support businesses during this time with a suite of business grants and loans. In rural areas, we have found a number of small micro-enterprises falling between the cracks of the schemes – either as sole Directors of companies, or simply businesses that are trading below the VAT threshold who were unable to access schemes. By raising these issues, a small grant scheme was launched to support businesses that have been unable to access other sources of funding.

In terms of impacts on various sectors, the dairy and beef sectors were hit hard as soon as the hospitality sector closed, as farmers and processors supplying the food service sector lost their markets overnight. As lockdown continues and in line with social distancing measures, there are going to be long term impacts on the tourism and leisure industry, with 1 in 3 jobs at risk in key visitor areas such as Pembrokeshire or Conwy.

It is clear from the wide-reaching impacts of Covid on the rural economy that rather than developing an Economic Growth plan for Rural Wales, our work through ROBUST will involve developing a Rural Economic Recovery Plan for Wales.

    The WLGA has also worked to support and coordinate Local Authorities to deliver services, such as to those vulnerable groups who are shielding, by providing food boxes, as well as to children who would usually receive free school meals. We are also aware of the service inequalities facing some rural residents, who do not have adequate digital infrastructure. Some have been unable to access education as schools have moved to providing work online. Others have been unable to engage in economic activity

    We have witnessed excellent work through the LEADER programme in Wales, where thousands of volunteers have been mobilised to support vulnerable people, and purchasing, creating and delivering PPE equipment to frontline health and social care workers.  Funding has also been made available to support rural businesses to serve their communities with digital applications and delivery options, as well as resourcing food banks and credit unions to support those in financial need.

    There have been concerns in rural areas around the ability of local health and social care services to deal with a huge surge in demand from Covid, as services in rural Wales already suffer in terms of being able to recruit enough medical staff, and the added costs of delivering services across a large geographic area.

    Rural Mid Wales has experienced the lowest incidence of Covid based on population numbers, and at times this has caused community tensions with visitors who flocked to places like Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons at the beginning of lockdown ("Coronavirus holidays" stoke local fury). Wales is due to ease travel restrictions on 4 July and the success of any re-opening of the countryside and the tourism sector will rely on government making assurances to these communities that it is safe to do so.

      Photo: Allan Shepherd

      One of the key future challenges facing rural Wales could be rising property prices as people living in urban areas consider less-populated areas as healthier places to live. Given that most people in professional roles are home-working, it has opened the possibility that you could work for a firm in London but be based anywhere. Currently, there is a strong prevalence of retired urban dwellers moving to rural Wales, but a shift to new patterns of working could lead to younger people relocating. 

      Tourism has been a key growth sector for rural Wales, with many farm businesses diversifying into the sector as a way of keeping family members working on farm. Covid-19 has shown that the visitor economy is incredibly fragile. However, there are opportunities to utilise tourism accommodation for permanent residents year-round, and it would be interesting to consider the impacts on rural communities and the economy of an increase in residents in full time employment within these areas.

      In a response to Covid, many local butchers and grocery shops have seen a significant increase in trade, as customers did not want to travel to larger towns, and supermarkets were unable to meet the surge in demand for online deliveries. During the first 12 weeks of lockdown, beef sales at high street butchers were up 41%, with thousands of customers supporting their local businesses. There are opportunities to retain this local spending post-lockdown to reinvigorate rural high streets and retain money within the local rural economy.

        Where to next?

        The following themes have been identified as the initial headline issues to be addressed in our Rural Economic Recovery Plan for Wales.

        Sustainable Food Systems

        • Community Wealth Building and Progressive Public Procurement – this ties-in with Welsh Government policy drivers relating to the Foundational Economy

        Cultural Connections

        • The Welsh Language

        Public Infrastructures and Social Services

        • Planning Policy and the National Development Framework for Wales
        • Digital maturity of rural businesses and the exploitation of digital infrastructure
        • Banking and Credit facilities in rural areas
        • Affordable Housing
        • Decarbonisation, relating specifically to energy and transport
        • Skills for a Renewed Economy
        • Developing Sustainable Places, including rural town regeneration
        • A Green Economic Recovery in a rural context

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        Tue 19 Nov 2019

        Live Case 3: Collaboration Challenges in Rural Mid Wales

        How do stakeholders from the public, private and voluntary sectors get together across a large, diverse region and work effectively to promote rural development?

        This was one of the key questions considered at the ROBUST Wales Living Lab regional workshop in Aberystwyth in September 2019. The workshop set out to explore the experiences and challenges of collaboration and partnership working in rural Wales and to draw out lessons for future practice, but the workshop in itself reflected some of the issues faced.

        The difficulties of bringing busy professionals together in a region where some participants needed to travel for over two hours just to get to the workshop meant that the exercise was combined with an already-planned event on the evidence needs of rural civil society and local government.

        On the day, eighteen participants joined the workshop from local government (including officers responsible for managing LEADER local action groups) and voluntary sector groups, as well as independent consultants and researchers from Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea universities.

        The workshop kicked off with short informative presentations on the policy context, research on rural Wales, and networking in the rural sector, and a guest talk by Dr Maura Farrell from the National University of Ireland Galway on learning from the Irish Rural Network.

        Most of the workshop used a ‘world café’ format, with participants moving between small groups focused on the themes of communities and culture, economy and employment, environment and land use, and the changing population.

        Wide-ranging discussions covered major issues facing rural Wales, such as ageing communities, the precarity of agriculture and problems of isolation and poor infrastructure; as well as potential priorities for rural development, notably strengthening sustainable local food systems and adding value to cultural heritage.

        Cutting across these topics, however, was a common thread: the need for a partnership approach across sector and scales and between communities and government, and the obstacles to making it work.

        Three core lessons emerged.

        First, genuine cooperation is required in all parts of policy making and delivery for rural development. As one participant put it, “we need to talk more about the ‘co’ in co-production”.

        The incorporation of LEADER into local government responsibilities was cited as an example of where cross-sector partnership had been reduced, limiting opportunities for a broad, inclusive approach to rural development as in Ireland. The Welsh Government was identified as the most important actor, but was also perceived as opaque, with difficulties connecting with the right people.

        Second, it was recognized that some of the barriers to effective collaboration are structural and require systemic change. Participants expressed frustration that, “everything is about a project”, reinforcing a rigid, segmented model that constrains innovation and integration. Silos in government similarly militate against joined-up thinking, but these exist not only in policy-making but crucially in budgets, legislation and statutory responsibilities.

        Third, inclusive rural development needs to engage and empower communities, for example through ‘place planning’ exercises. Successfully involving communities requires trusted intermediaries and honest brokers who can help build connections, and the delegation of responsibilities needs to be accompanied by training. Yet, equally some suggested that there could too much planning, that the real answer was just “to let people get on with things”.

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        Mon 13 May 2019

        Live Case 2: Can A Living Lab Go On A Road Trip?

        Over the past month, the Mid Wales team at Aberystwyth University have clocked up many miles across the countryside. We’ve been doing more than sight-seeing. Our mission has been to explore the challenges that different parts of rural Wales currently face, and to learn about the practical initiatives and innovations that hold promise for the future.

        We’ve taken our envisioning process out of the office and onto the road because we need to understand what’s happening across the region in order to imagine what rural-urban synergies in Wales could look like.

        From our journeys so far, we’ve identified three main areas where ROBUST’s conceptual approach is particularly relevant:

        • There is no single region called ‘rural Wales’. Different places experience rurality in different ways. However, rural areas often understand the opportunities they have for growth in relation to their physical proximity to cities. How can we use rural-urban connections to foster inclusive growth in localities without a city on their doorstep?
        • Although rural regions in Wales are very diverse, they also share many common challenges. But these challenges won’t be tackled by urban-led policy, which often sees rurality as exclusively about the environment or agriculture. Governance arrangements don’t always help – boundaries can stifle cooperation, yet cooperation brings challenges of its own. What kinds of network governance are needed? How can we use these to strengthen rural participation and inclusion?
        • Innovative strategies are needed for rural growth. Rural places in Wales can boast beautiful landscapes, but places need more than scenery to keep them liveable. For rural places to thrive – and the Welsh language with them – future generations need opportunities, not just retirement options. How can smart development strategies help us create thriving rural futures?

        We get some rural-urban advice via a thought experiment run by Public Health Wales. (Photo by Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins)

        Envisioning hits the road

        The Welsh Local Government Association’s (WLGA) Rural Forum represents the nine – out of 22 – local authorities (counties or municipalities) in Wales that are predominantly rural. These authorities cover all of Mid Wales, and include some of our northern and southern neighbours.

        Rather than draw a strict line around Mid Wales, our Living Lab is working with all the Rural Forum members, using research to inform and enhance their shared agenda. But, reaching a shared agenda starts with separate conversations.

        The nine rural authorities are geographically diverse: from Monmouthshire, in the commuting corridor between the Welsh capital of Cardiff and Bristol over the English border, to ‘deep rural’ Gwynedd, which is largely in a national park.

        The ROBUST envisioning process provided an opportunity to explore what makes these different rural regions unique, while honing in on what they have in common. To do that, two Aberystwyth University researchers hit the road.

        We visited most of the local authorities on their own patch. As well as building academic-practitioner relationships face-to-face, we were able to see some promising initiatives in situ – like the ‘incredible edible’ garden that hosts a pollination project (Mid Wales is part of ROBUST’s sustainable food systems community of practice) or the potential site of a new harbour development (we also participate in the public infrastructures and social services community of practice).

        During our visits, we met with senior representatives from each local authority, both elected officials and practitioners with expertise in rural development, economy, regeneration, planning and transport. Talking together around a table proved an opportunity for honesty, aspiration, and debate. Animated conversation flowed, and we were surprised by how rarely we needed to refer back to our pre-prepared questions! All the talks covered topics including:

        • What matters for fostering local culture and liveable community?
        • What kinds of infrastructures are needed for future growth?
        • What part can local food play in sustainable growth?
        • What could an inclusive future look like?

        The famous Welsh Cakes – fuel for good conversations. (Photo by Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins)

        Shared challenges in distinctive places

        Our discussions regularly returned to the challenges that rural areas experience or perceive. The three ROBUST communities of practice that our Living Lab participates in help us to focus on some of the similarities that different parts of rural Wales share:

        Cultural connections

        In Welsh Government policy, ‘rural’ is largely equated with environmental or agricultural issues. These really matter – but their predominance suggests that policy is being led by an urban perspective, which overlooks cultural and community life in rural places. Indeed, supporting the ‘liveability’ of rural places, including through thriving culture, is a long-term challenge. The challenge is all the more acute since the Welsh language is an integral part of community life in many rural areas.

        Public infrastructures and social services

        Rural areas in Wales are often under-served by infrastructures. Increasingly, concerns are shifting from inadequate roads to poor digital connectivity and ‘not-spots’. Both provide vital rural-urban linkages, including access to markets and opportunities for business innovation. Yet, infrastructures are often associated with market failure, with blunt economics meaning that rural areas continue to miss out on the investment they need. Amidst neglected infrastructures and market failures, facilitating connectivity remains a challenge.

        Sustainable food systems

        Food is an issue of growing concern. There is an increased engagement with sustainability and food chains at a local level. Brexit also looms large, with the likelihood of reduced agricultural payments and potential disruptions to export markets. Rural areas do not only grow food, but are often sites for research and development facilities, and processing and packaging plants. These can be important local employers – but with risks ahead, the challenge is to support their development.

        Aberystwyth is the largest town in Mid Wales – but not all of the region is coastal. (Photo by Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins)

        Envisioning rural-urban revitalisation

        ROBUST aims to connect rural and urban, for mutual growth and benefit, towards a shared and sustainable future. Mutual benefit – allowing both rural and urban to grow – is crucial here. Creating mutual benefit requires innovative approaches and policy support. But, it’s clear from the conversations we’ve had since taking the Living Lab on the road that rural Wales isn’t an equal part of the policy equation.

        When both dominant growth models and government mindsets are urban-oriented, rural areas are left lagging. For many parts of rural Wales, the challenges are compounded by long distances from the centres of economic development. While there are plenty of arguments to be made for better funding for rural areas – especially due to continued cuts to council budgets and the impending loss of EU regional investment – redistributing finance is not in itself a recipe for rural-urban relations, either.

        We need innovative strategies to support and sustain inclusive growth. Although we’ve talked about plenty of problems in our road-trip around rural Wales, we’ve also learned a lot about positive opportunities, including:

        • The potential for new forms of cooperation to bring stakeholders and resources together across administrative boundaries.
        • An increased willingness among rural stakeholders to take on the risks that new ideas bring and to be open to failure as part of the innovation process.
        • The role local authorities can play in innovatively responding to market failures.
        • The possibilities that digital infrastructures and smart development offer for overcoming the distance between rural places and urban markets, and for generating new employment opportunities.
        • Envisioning is not about reaching final conclusions. Instead, we’ll be unpacking these possibilities in the coming months as the Mid Wales Living Lab returns from our road-trip, and starts experimenting.

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        Wed 16 Jan 2019

        Live Case 1: Going "Off Script" in Mid Wales

        How can we grow positive rural-urban connections at a distance from the city? We are trying to answer this question through our Living Lab in Mid Wales. As a region which doesn’t have a dominant urban centre, models of city-led growth are not always the answer in this part of the UK. These models also leave us stuck with the assumption – historically put forward by academics and policymakers alike – that predominantly rural regions like Mid Wales will always be left behind, or at least disadvantaged in some way. It’s easy to put Mid Wales in a box marked ‘rural development’, and to seek funding on the basis of being a ‘problem area’, but it is a lot harder to imagine more positive alternative futures.


        In the meetings and consultations we’ve attended in Mid Wales, we have often heard the same issues come up: young people are leaving, shops are closing and other services are being lost, and the roads are bad. These are real problems and they cannot be simply overlooked.  However, they’re a bit like a script that people repeat when they hear the word ‘rural’. And, the more people repeat these same scripts, the less they tend to think about the complex causes underneath and about the differences between places. What’s more, repeating these truisms means that the issues that don’t fit get left out of the conversation. So, our first experiment in the Mid Wales Living Lab is simple: what would happen if we worked without the usual rural script?


        In the coming months, we’ll be working through the Welsh Local Government Association’s Rural Forum to talk to local authority stakeholders about their localities. We’ll be asking what needs to change and what can grow – but we won’t be asking stakeholders to think "rurally". We want them to surprise us! These talks will help us build a new picture of Mid Wales: one that might still have bad rural roads, but also one that has local food networks, book-a-bus services, and innovations over the radio waves. Rethinking the rural script in this way isn’t about a new definition of the rural, or the kind of academic rethinking that ends up in articles nobody reads. The Mid Wales Living Lab gives us real opportunities to understand our region in new ways, and to turn that knowledge into practical action.


        Admittedly, the UK will face many challenges in the coming year. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, there will be implications that domestic legislation, policy and funding will need to address. It will be critical that the needs and aspirations of rural communities are front and centre in the design of new funding approaches that replace what we’ve traditionally known as EU funding. It’s certainly a challenge to try to tell new stories about Mid Wales when we don’t know what the economic future holds in three months, let alone three years. Let’s remember, though, that politics in Brussels, London, or Cardiff is also a rural-urban connection … what matters for Mid Wales is that the traffic isn’t one way.

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        News about Rural-Urban Europe and the ROBUST project is published regularly in the INFORMED CITIES newsletter.

        ROBUST is a European research project involving 24 partners from 11 countries. ROBUST receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727988.

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