DEFRA Minister George Eustice MP praised the Heart of the South West Rural Growth Network (RGN) pilot on a recent visit to Devon.
The Food and Farming Minister spoke on support for rural business at the Growing the Rural Economy event at the Cullompton Community Centre.
The event, organised by Devon County Council, was part of the work by the Heart of the South West LEP Rural Growth Network (RGN) pilot. The pilot was awarded £2.9 million from DEFRA to develop a network of rural enterprise hubs to support micro and small businesses across rural Devon and Somerset, and is expected to help create around 1,300 jobs in the area.
The Heart of the South West Rural Growth Network is one of five pilot areas chosen to tackle the barriers to economic growth in the countryside, such as a shortage of work premises, slow internet connectivity, fragmented business networks, competitiveness, lack of properly skilled people, and support for micro-enterprises.
Mr Eustice said: “Rural growth is a priority and it is key that we get the conditions right to unlock the potential of the rural economy and help businesses to thrive and grow. We want to see successful businesses and thriving communities in a living, working countryside. The legacy of the RGNs will go beyond the pilots. We are evaluating the lessons they learn and will share these with other LEPs and Local Authorities to inform their own growth plans.”
The Minister added that that broadband infrastructure investment was a winning rural policy and that unlocking rural growth was particularly relevant to the area represented by the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, which has one of largest rural populations of all the LEPs with over 640,000 people, 38.5% of the population, living in rural areas.
Chris Garcia, Chief Executive of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership said: “Supporting rural businesses is a crucial part of ensuring economic growth across the Heart of the South West. Using the RGN funding we have created a number of initiatives which are designed to embrace the enormous potential of our many rural enterprises and encourage the growth of new rural businesses. Improving productivity, supporting business growth, protecting existing employment and creating new jobs are ways in which the interests of the rural economy can be promoted and maximised.”
Councillor Andrew Leadbetter, Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Economy and Growth, said: “It was encouraging to hear how highly the work of the RGN pilot is regarded by the Minister and I was glad he had the opportunity to see what we’re achieving here in collaboration with Somerset. Our rural economy relies on small enterprises, and businesses that have received Rural Enterprise Grant funding will be helped to grow which will benefit the local economy.”
Councillor David Hall, Deputy Leader of Somerset County Council, said: “I am really pleased that the Minister took the time to visit and speak to rural businesses in the HoTSW area about future plans and support for the area, as well as listen to local business people’s issues and barriers to developing. Supporting rural businesses is crucial to the future economy of Somerset and Devon and we are committed to helping them grow and prosper. Somerset County Council is an active partner in the HoTSW Rural Growth Network as part of our commitment to this.”
As part of his visit, the Minister also opened the new £1 million workspace hub at Bicton College, which received £300,000 of RGN capital funding to convert an old farmhouse into six office units to help start-up businesses. He also toured Hillside Foods, based in Kenn, which was awarded £27,000. This will fund the expansion of the business and recruitment of up to three additional staff and allow Hillside to nurture other emerging small business by allowing them access to their product development kitchen.
Around 20 rural micro-businesses have received a share of £1 million Heart of the South West Rural Enterprise Grant (REG) over the past year, secured from DEFRA and the Rural Development Programme for England. The REG programme has provided capital grants to rural enterprises with fewer than 10 employees to boost growth and create jobs throughout the area.