The Rural Project
By Ben Eagle
There is a great myth about the British countryside; that it is a place that is rarely changing, a haven for wildlife or second homes for wealthy incomers escaping the city. Once you peer through this smokescreen, heavily influenced over the past two centuries by enclosure, romanticism and a metropolitan media, you can see rural communities differ from region to region, each with their own peculiar cultures, local economies and outlook. There is wealth as well as high levels of inequality, with Cornwall in the top 10 of the most deprived regions in Europe - poorer than Lithuania.
With nearly 20% of us now living outside of towns and cities and ONS figures suggesting that rural populations will increase by 6% by 2025. It is time to re-evaluate rural life and the way the rural economy works. How can we enable all generations to live well in the countryside, stay connected and keep pace with new innovation, whilst staying true to what it means to live in a rural area, respecting the local environment and building a sustainable future.
One person is trying to transform the rural economy with her vision for a collaborative economic model that could ultimately be rolled out to communities across the country. Last month I travelled to Somerset to meet creative entrepreneur Petronella Tyson who has a dream to solve the problem of rural economic isolation, help landowners find alternative revenue streams, and build community hubs in rural areas that are driven by innovation and local resilience.
Petronella recently launched The Rural Project, which is, in essence, a workspace with access to land and offices. However, this will be no ordinary business park - social enterprises and charities renting space at the Project will work alongside each other and with each other, sharing in each other’s inspirational practice. Whilst still in its early stages, Petronella has grand ambitions and will be opening her doors later this year.
There is a strong element of encouraging people to get outside, working alongside each other in the outdoors, tending the project’s herb farm which will run as a commercial operation. Petronella also intends to run workshops and outreach sessions, offering space for inner-city kids and isolated groups to come together around practical activity and purpose, making the most of the site’s unique environment.
The project is partly about slowing the rural exodus and encouraging those of us living in rural areas to see the potential in what we have already, rather than moving to the cities to solve our economic problems. However, it’s clearly also partly about reimagining rural life, as an active and unique economic community able to make the most of rural surroundings to improve productivity and personal connection with other people, wildlife and the local environment. It’s about encouraging a deeper engagement with place and tending a passion for exploration of understanding a particular place in a way that is only really possible by getting outdoors and working within it.
Why the South West?
Although she was born in the south east and has lived and travelled all over the country and the world, including Singapore, Leeds, London, Mongolia, Canada, Spain and Sweden, Petronella has always wanted to settle in the south west. She thinks that it is the perfect place to launch The Rural Project.
How to live with less income?
I spend much of my life in (semi) rural Essex, where there are without doubt fewer opportunities to spend money. I can garner as much joy from running along country lanes, going foraging or swimming in the sea as I can by meeting friends at the pub. When I visit a city, London or Bristol, I find I spend a lot more money, as there are more opportunities to. With spending generally lower in rural areas, there is less of a need to make significant money, and this is something that Petronella wants The Rural Project to champion:
Can the project ever be truly environmentally sustainable?
The Rural Project is partly about fostering community, bringing people together in a shared economic and social endeavour that is fully inclusive and welcoming. However, by its very definition, access to the Project relies on transport and rural transport infrastructure has been cut dramatically when compared to cities. Why would a travel company invest when the returns are likely to be much lower? Most people of working age in the countryside have a car and drive themselves everywhere. It is a matter of convenience, but it is also one of maintaining independence. Reliance on cars is a problem when it comes to the project’s environmental sustainability.
An Enlightening Vision for Rural Britain
There are evidently still issues for which Petronella wants to find solutions, but the essence of her idea, for me at least, remains overwhelmingly enlightening. Before we spoke, I was sceptical about the idea, questioning whether it was just lifting urban thinking into a rural context. However, I’ve come to see the project’s potential. The core of the idea is simple and yet it has the capacity to change the way rural living is imagined and transcribed to reality. The rural economy is so often conflated with the farming industry and it's supporting businesses and services, but it can offer so much more. As the population grows, the way that the rural economy and society works will alter. The Rural Project can be a part of shaping this new existence. It is the beginning of the road for Petronella, but I hope that her idea, however novel for now, could be mainstream in future rural Britain.
Ben Eagle is a rural commentator based in Essex. He has previously written for The Guardian, Rewilding Britain and the Sustainable Food Trust. He is also the Conservation Editor of Farmland Magazine. His blog www.thinkingcountry.com was highly commended in this year’s UK Blog Awards. You can follow him on twitter @benjy_eagle.
To purchase your copy, or better subscribe to the Stir to Action magazine, follow the link. Also featured this month are: The Cult of Innovation — Dan Gregory, Digital Employability for the New Economy — Doug Belshaw, Playing for our Lives — Inez Aponte, Interview: Brianna Wettlaufer & Nuno Silva, Q&A: Imandeep Kaur, The William Morris Economy — Simon Parke, Post-Brexit: English Futures — Andy Goldring. See www.stirtoaction.com for more info about them and their brilliant workshops. Thank you Jonny and Ben for your ongoing support, and belief in what was a difficult month.
*since this article was published, the site we found has sadly fallen through due to unforeseen circumstances