The Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit together highlighted many of the challenges facing rural Wales, from poor accessibility to services and youth out-migration to the over-concentration of tourism and reliance on European export markets.
At the same time, as Wales navigates the post-pandemic recovery and designs post-Brexit policies and programmes, there are opportunities to approach problems in new ways and to do things differently. This pivotal moment formed the context for work by WISERD researchers at Aberystwyth University – Professor Michael Woods, Dr Jesse Heley and Dr Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins – in the ROBUST (Rural-urban outlooks: unlocking synergies) project, which finished in November 2021.
Funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, ROBUST involved a Europewide consortium of researchers and practitioners examining how rural-urban synergies can support smart rural development. The 11 case study regions each formed a ‘Living Lab’, with researchers working with a practicepartner: in Wales, the Rural Forum of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), represented nine predominantly rural local authorities. Following a bottom-up approach, each Living Lab defined its own project within the framework of ROBUST. In Wales, it was decided to focus on producing a Rural Vision, articulating priorities for rural development and policy.
To help produce the Rural Vision, WISERD research assembled and analysed evidence on the socio-economic condition of rural Wales, interviewed stakeholders, ran an online survey, and facilitated workshops with academics and stakeholders. The resulting Rural Vision document, supported by a substantial Evidence Report, was endorsed by the WLGA Rural Forum and launched in January 2021.
The Rural Vision document set out seven priorities to ensure that the post-Covid recovery in rural Wales is fair and sustainable: Diversifying and greening the rural economy; developing the skills and opportunities of the rural workforce; investing in digital infrastructure and preparing for post-carbon transport; encouraging more widely-spread and sustainable tourism; providing affordable housing that meets the needs of rural communities; supporting small towns with a Smart Towns Initiative; and empowering communities and keeping wealth within local economies.
Suggestions put forward in the Rural Vision have gained support from stakeholder groups in rural Wales and are informing the development of a new Rural Development Programme by the Welsh government. WISERD members have been active in promoting the Rural Vision and encouraging continuing discussion of the issues that it raises, including through a specially commissioned series of podcasts fronted by former first minister Carwyn Jones.
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