New centre to help unlock potential of the UK’s rural economies

Newcastle University and partners will lead a new National Centre to support enterprise, resilience and innovation among rural firms and unlock the untapped potential of rural economies across the UK.

Creating resilient and sustainable economies

Led by experts from Newcastle, Warwick, Gloucestershire and the Royal Agricultural Universities, and working with businesses, policy makers, enterprise agencies and communities, the Centre has been awarded £3.8 million of funding by Research England.

In England alone, rural businesses comprise over half a million enterprises, 3.6 million employees and contribute over £260 billion to GDP.  Yet despite this, they are still largely underexplored and underutilised.

Through the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE), the aim is to help build the capabilities of policy makers, support agencies, rural businesses and their advisers to create resilient and sustainable economies fit for the 21st century.

“A thriving rural economy is crucial to the future prosperity, well-being and resilience of communities across the UK” says Centre Director Jeremy Phillipson, Professor of Rural Development at Newcastle University.

“The need to encourage and release the dynamism and untapped potential of rural areas is even greater now with the combined uncertainty of Brexit and impacts of Covid-19 and what the implications will be, not just for rural areas, but for the UK economy as a whole.

“Our aim is to strengthen the evidence base relating to rural innovation and enterprise to encourage more effective policy making and support for rural firms and communities at local and national levels. We will work actively with businesses, rural communities and economic development agencies at the local level to share learning and test new approaches to innovation and enterprise.”

Economic challenges

Though the decision to fund NICRE was taken before the outbreak of Covid-19, its work will help to understand the ongoing impacts in rural areas and inform recovery. The Centre will begin its work formally this September, but the current crisis means its partners are already working to support the national response to the pandemic.

A key focus for NICRE will be to identify and release rural contributions to our country’s long term challenges and opportunities – an ageing society, need for clean growth, future mobility and the data revolution – identified as Grand Challenges in the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

Richard Baker, Head of Strategy and Policy at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, explains: “The National Innovation Centre marks an important milestone in the development of key economic assets in the region and will contribute to our regional economic strategy development. NICRE’s multi-disciplinary approach which will combine research programmes and evaluation of practice in delivery offers a unique opportunity to tackle both opportunities and deep-seated economic challenges in our rural communities. It couldn’t be more timely as we work together to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and plan the North East’s recovery programme, and consider changes ahead in rural policy now we have left the European Union.

“The North East Local Enterprise Partnership welcomes the plan for collaborative development of solutions that foster rural innovation and enterprise to raise the economic productivity and protect the vibrancy and dynamism of our rural areas. It is also good that through NICRE we will be able to work with other rural regions across England to learn from the experience of different places.”

James Farrell, Head of Rural at Strutt & Parker, said: “The strategic timeliness of the Centre could not be better. The government has repeatedly said that the changes that Brexit will cause are a once in a generation opportunity to introduce new ways of supporting our economy to reach its potential.  The National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise can provide much of the research, knowledge transfer and support for businesses, and exemplars that are needed to do this, which is why we are delighted to help develop and support it.”

Gary Brockway, Partner at Baldwin’s Accountancy, added: “Baldwins is uniquely well placed to support NICRE. Our focus on SME businesses, which includes many rural companies, gives us an unparalleled insight into what those companies need to thrive. If that understanding can be fed into how government policy supports the rural economy, then that will drive better outcomes for rural business at all levels. The launch of NICRE is timely, given the impact on rural business from Covid-19, as well as the likely further impact from Brexit later in the year.”

Catalysing innovation

NICRE is the third National Innovation Centre to be led by Newcastle University – alongside the National Innovation Centres for Data (NICD) and Ageing (NICA).

Commenting on this latest addition to the portfolio of Innovation Centres based in the Catalyst building on the Helix campus in Newcastle city centre, Professor Brian Walker, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research Strategy & Resources at Newcastle University, said: “The Innovation Centres have been designed to catalyse interactions between expert researchers in the universities with innovators in business and in policy making. This approach is key to rejuvenating the economy in the North East of England and across the UK.”