How do people earn a living in rural areas, now
that only 4% of the rural population work in agriculture?
A new report for the UK Commission for Rural
Communities (a division of the Countryside Agency) sets about
exploding some of the myths and poses some challenges about the rural
economy in the 21st century.
The focus of the report, Under the Radar,
is on home-based businesses which form a potentially dynamic but
unsung Cinderella sector creating wealth and employment in rural
The two key questions posed by the report are:
- Why does the value of this sector go largely
unrecognised by business support agencies and policy makers?
- What should public authorities at every level
do to respond and how can they maximise the potential?
Homeworking more common in rural areas
One of the particular strengths of this report is that it is
strongly evidence-based. A huge amount of evidence has been
marshalled from official and other sources, to present a convincing
picture of the strength of the homeworking economy.
Amongst the data pulled together by the authors are the following:
- Home-based working in the UK had risen to
almost 3.3 million in the Spring of 2004, according to Labour Market
- 766,000 people work from home in the 145
English rural districts (the focus of the report)
- This 11.6% of the
rural workforce working from home compares to 8% of the urban
- 56% of self-employed people are home-based
- Nationally, 39% of small businesses are home-based. in
rural areas it is 55%
- 60% of rural homeworkers are men, 40% women
The map above shows the distribution of rural districts with above
average levels of homeworking. It is particularly strong in the
South-West and parts of the North-East region - the more remote areas.
In some communities in these areas over 20% of the workforce may be
running a home-based enterprise or two.
What are home-based workers doing?
The nature of homeworking has changed radically over the course of
the last century. Most people who worked at home at the time of
the 1901 Census were women engaged in dressmaking and laundry work.
There remains a minority of low-paid homeworking jobs. But
over the past 15 years or so the availability of new technologies has
transformed the nature of home-based work, not least in rural areas.
This takes two forms:
- New economy jobs dependent on the new ICT, where skilled
professional or lower-skilled data processing is carried out from
- More traditional occupations can become more viable as business
start-ups as the new technologies are used to overcome distance, so
for example craft products can reach a far greater market, or
customers can be enticed to come from afar.
In around 50% of cases, according to the report, home-based
businesses are started up by incomers to rural areas, something that
the authors feel should be encouraged and supported.
Many people are running more than one business enterprise, and many
also combine part-time employment with self-employment.
What is the impact of home based business in rural areas?
Rural England has faced many challenges over the past 20 years.
Thousands of post offices, villages shops and pubs have closed,
leaving many communities without local services. The growth of
home-based working can help to recreate local economies, and
revitalise dormitory towns and villages.
The authors also point out the "sustainable communities impact".
Potential benefits of home-based work include:
- use of one property not two (i.e. for home and work)
- less need to build new workspace to accommodate employment
- village and town centre renaissance
- reduction in commuting travel
- increased security - more homes occupied during the daytime
- an enhanced role for market towns providing 'hub' facilities.
So what should be done?
At the moment this growth in home-based enterprise is slipping
"under the radar". There is a plethora of agencies with fingers
in the pie of rurality and economic development, but there is little
evidence of anyone getting to grips with the issues. As the
"What is rare is any cross-theme thinking that sees the success of
home-based business as being good for wealth creation as well as for
the community and the environment. Put simply, planning and
economic development departments are not doing enough to connect the
two issues together and work at supporting the new home-based working
The business support agencies come under fire from many of the
interviewees in the report, as well as from the authors. Most of
the support available is jargon-ridden, bureaucratic and is geared to
growth and expansion models rather than sole entrepreneurs.
Networking models, however are held up as examples of good practice
- where public money supports self-help networks and hubs where
home-based workers can network and have access to facilities.
The report has many suggestions for public policy responses: for
central government, Regional Development Agencies and local
authorities as well as Business Links.
The recommendations include:
- gathering evidence about local home-based businesses and their
- supporting networking and hub initiatives
- encourage the in-migration of high earners
- support mentoring initiatives
- simplify the processes of applying for funding.
And above all, home-based business in rural areas needs to com onto