CRE goes to Ambridge…tum te tum te tum te tum

Academic Archers 2018 is a conference like no other.  This was the third Academic Archers get-together but the first at which Newcastle has had a presence.  As Archers fans, Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy Sally Shortall and Science Communications Manager Anne Liddon felt that the time had come for the Centre for Rural Economy to make its mark. In our CRE blog Anne Liddon shares the experience.


The Academic Archers owe their existence to Cara Courage, Nicola Headlam and Peter Matthews.  Their mission is to be an experimental form of academic community with The Archers as a lens through which wider issues can be explored.  Their values are to be “curious, generous and joyful”.  This was certainly fulfilled by the event on 17 February.  From housing problems (Ambridge experiences both ends of the spectrum – from rich parents who happen to have a spare cottage to young people unable to scrape together a deposit even for an “affordable” development) to an examination of metaphoric relationships with pets; from how the resident retired professor of classics might pronounce Latin, to Ambridge values on sexuality and gender, the topics were wide-ranging and creative.  One contributor was seeking out the names on the mysteriously elusive and never photographed Ambridge war memorial, while our neighbour from Northumbria University, criminologist Charlotte Bilby, was uncovering Ambridge’s offenders and how they have manifested over the years. 


Fact and fiction tend to become rather intertwined at the Academic Archers. The moment at which Sally Shortall nudged me and hissed “Is that Susan Carter in the queue for the ladies loo?” will stay with me forever.  For indeed, Charlotte Martin who plays the role of Susan “Radio” Carter was with us to act as discussant on a session on “Women’s Talk?” where the phenomenon of gossip and its importance in Ambridge was mulled over in some considerable detail.  Charlotte is herself a real academic and practises as a psychologist.  Hearing her pontificate on these issues in Susan Carter’s voice was mesmerizing.


But the session on “Ambridgeology and Counter-insurgency doctrine” by the rather mysterious “political advisor” James Armstrong was probably the most surprising contribution.  Drawing on his experiences advising on counter insurgency in Afghanistan, he probed the possibilities for the more marginalized and disaffected characters getting involved in civil disturbances, or even more serious action.  As Archers Tweeters commented – he has no profile on social media and is “Armstrong” even his real name?  Could it rather be James…..007?


And our own contribution?  Modesty forbids us making too many claims other than that it was a triumph.  Professor Shortall held her own admirably and defended some controversial views about the rural proofing of government policy in the face of quite a grilling from a reporter who turned up from the Borchester Echo. The whole conference is available on video at  and this Newcastle highlight may be found in the section “Ambridgonomics” starting at around 1:13:15.


Letter from the East: On Impact

Menelaos Gkartzios continues his account of his experiences during a sabbatical in Japan.


Last weekend, Prof Yukihiko Saito from Chiba University, well known to the Centre for Rural Economy from his sabbatical with us, took me to see some of Japan’s tsunami-damaged areas. The construction that goes on is extensive (still), the Japanese are building mountains (yes). Land-use planning takes on a different dimension in these coasts, the topography is reconstructed. Emotional development.


The sea looked calm; the Pacific, I thought, the greatest irony of all. The construction has also involved tsunami sea walls, on and off shore. With their 7-8 metre height by the coastline, they look aggressive – it was not a surprise hear that the communities oppose them. It is not just about blocking the horizon, they block their own understanding of what these communities ‘are’, what these communities ‘do’.


Saito sensei brought me to a residents’ market. He explained to me how he designed the basic structure, and got funding to create a structure that houses now a monthly market targeting the local community and especially the elderly who find it difficult to travel to other areas for essential shopping.

All commercial shops in the village were destroyed, there is debris on the land. ‘Be careful where you are walking’, he said. The market is an actual point of community-in-the-making as we like to think in social sciences. And it really is. I saw people sharing news, joking, hugging. We had a meeting afterwards about how the market went and how they can improve it in future. They asked for my opinion. I was formally invited back at the New Year’s Eve party, but I made them promise that they wouldn’t ask me to chop wood – again. My rural skills have their limits. We settled for sake.


I asked Saito sensei if this activity of his is important for his university. While this is practice that is valued at his university, there is no ‘Impact Case study’ in Japanese academia. This is not something he will write a ‘4 star’ paper about, although the residents’ market has featured in non-referred papers and in the media. What is impact? The personal investment, the local funding acquired, the design of the market structure, the time spent there (over the weekend and on public holidays) in the area, is, to me, an exemplary case of impact. Neither was this a case where he has personal attachments, he is not from this area; he explained to me how a past student introduced him to this community. I was greeted with such kindness and warmth, which I knew it was due to his actions. If there is such thing as emotional intelligence and emotional geographies, then there is also emotional impact.

In our engaged science and social science professional worlds, I cannot imagine any academic not wanting to make impact, in the different ways that they can. Nor is it unreasonable for academics to embrace their impact activities as part of their professional identity and actions. The problem I see is with the institutional requirement to measure it: the criteria and the stars. The politics of impact evaluation and the challenge to prove our academic citizenship, rather than accepting it as part of what we do. Understanding that as academics, not only are we asked about what we ‘are’, but, increasingly, about what we ‘do’.

Farming, bird watching, beluga whales and didgeridoos at the New Networks for Nature Gathering 2017

Storyteller Malcolm Green blogs about the New Networks for Nature Gathering 2017 which took place at the Arts Centre in Stamford in November.


It would take a book to outline all that  was discussed during the New Networks for Nature Gathering but underlying many of the contributions was the tension between the need to recognise the ecological catastrophe facing the planet and the desire to express the wonder of its wild inhabitants.


This was the ninth conference, this year on the theme of Changing Nature. As always it had an extraordinary cast of contributors, including: Tim Smit (Eden Project), Doug Allen (natural history film-maker), Patrick Barkham (journalist and writer), Philip Hoare (writer), Katrina Porteus (poet), Sam Lee (singer), Mya-Rose Craig (15 year old birder and activist), Robert Craig (Cumbrian dairy farmer) and so, so many others.


In conversation, at the start of the event, Tim Smit, in his provocative manner, decried large scale environmental organisations saying that they were ‘playing the game’ and becoming dictated by accountants. The Eden Project was only ‘good’ in respect of other institutions being so bad in what they communicated. He said he saw hope in China, where after their massive industrialisation, the people and the government were seeing the harmful consequences and espousing a more Daoist philosophy (living in harmony with the way). Perhaps in this respect authoritarian governments can achieve what democracies cannot.


Michael Benton, a palaeontologist, commenced the main proceedings by bluntly outlining the rate of extinction of life on the planet. He estimated that a natural extinction rate for the present diversity of life would be in the order of 20 species a year. We are currently experiencing an extinction rate of 30,000 species per year. All the participants knew we were in trouble but this sent a chill through the room.


Doug Allen, Philip Hoare and Helen Scales talked of intimate experiences with marine life. Doug told the story of encountering a beluga whale, which clicked and whistled directly to him, so that he was aware that the animal was endeavouring to communicate / talk directly to him and he could understand what it was saying…it was speaking a foreign language.


Three people involved with agriculture and farming took to the stage and in answer to the question, why are farmers doing so little benefit wildlife, dairy farmer Robert Craig replied, if the population wants very cheap food, then economic margins for the farmers are so small that even if an individual wanted to make place for the curlew, s/he couldn’t afford to.


There were many tales of positive initiatives by groups and individuals to reconnect us to the wild but most impressive was the 15 year old British Bangladeshi girl Mya Rose, who talked of her campaign to get wildlife organisations to encourage the participation of ethnic minorities (BAME) in the outdoors and told us of her initiatives to get BAME individuals to experience nature through camps she organised.


In addition to all this serious discussion Sam Lee sang whilst Mike Edwards played the digeridoo.


All in all, the conference was a sobering, affirming, enjoyable and powerful experience. Thank you to Derek Nieman and Mary Colwell who put it together.


was established in 2009 by a group of artists and scientists committed to nature conservation. It is a politically neutral, networking organisation that endeavours to inspire people and be a positive force for change in attitudes and policy around the natural world. Although 100 people or more people attend the gathering, it has the feeling of an extended family, with new members welcomed.  To find out more please see the website:

Letter from the East: Academic out of water

Menelaos Gkartzios updates us on his sabbatical in Japan

Based at the University of Tokyo, I have already spent two months in Japan. I was expecting a futuristic office, to find myself in a building from the previous century (almost a rarity in Tokyo), with windows overlooking elegant ginkgo trees. Aside from indulging in autumn leaf changes, my time here is spent doing a couple of things. First, I am teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students a module on ‘Rural Sociology and Development’. The course is probably the most important experience of my work life here, because it puts me in a direct relationship with the University and its students – an extremely talented cohort. I was worried about my students’ English (let alone my own, ehm, Japanese), to realise that students not only speak English, but they can ask questions too: ‘But what is the purpose of rural sociology?’ an undergraduate student asked in my first class. I couldn’t be happier.

Regarding fieldwork, I am continuing my work on ‘rural arts’, following the Working Group on ‘Doing Art in the County’ with Julie Crawshaw (Northumbria University) and Marie Mahon (National University of Ireland, Galway), back at this year’s European Society for Rural Sociology conference. I discovered a well-established tradition of ‘outdoor’ art festivals (outside the city galleries, art museums and ‘creative hubs’), thanks to the vision of Fram Kitagawa, who is responsible for a few art festivals across uplands, islands and remote areas in Japan. Few weeks ago, with my colleagues from the University of Tokyo, we attended an extraordinary art festival in the remote peninsula of Ishikawa, the Suzu 2017 Trienale. The artists re-used closed schools, abandoned train stations, derelict houses and old fishing huts, asking the most critical and poignant questions about the region’s rural future: extreme rural depopulation is a major issue here. At the backdrop of a declining rural economy, the festival venues were spread over the peninsula, across Japan’s very own satoyama and by the Sea of Japan. Inherent in the festival’s approach was, to a westerner at least, a different way of being and working in the natural environment, whereby nature is neither idealised and romanticised, nor dominated and overexploited. My research tools: an ethnographic diary, interviews with art professionals, reflexive surveys from other visitors – finally, yes, fieldwork.

 Like a ‘rolling stone’, I decided to travel and connect as much as I can with the country’s rural sociology community. Apart from the current President of the International Rural Sociology Association who is Japanese and whom I am visiting, there is also an Asian Rural Sociological Society. So, I am going on a tour: I am giving invited seminars at Kyoto University, Kindai University and Chiba University, while my public lecture in Tokyo University will be later this month. A rural planning trip to tsunami affected villages and attendance of recovery meetings is also already scheduled. A few writing and research projects are on the way, including the first and promising Routledge Companion to Rural Planning. I am experiencing tremendous kindness and support from my Japanese colleagues. Drawing on some linguistic fascination I have written about before my arrival, I am trying to learn Japanese. I don’t think anything else demonstrates so unequivocally the richness and magic of this culture, than its language; it offers me possibilities of being, thinking and writing about this new world I had never imagined. Still like a fish out of water I guess, but learning to fly.

The price of fish

Science Communications Manager Anne Liddon shares her enthusiasm for eating local fish and ponders some of the challenges involved in marketing this healthy food.

I live in Tynemouth, beside the sea, and I buy and eat fish regularly and enjoy it in many different dishes, but many of us eat no fish at all and overall consumption is declining.  This seems strange for our island nation.  Families are increasingly pushed for time and many people look for quick and healthy options when cooking, so surely fish is an obvious choice?  Discussion at a recent event in North Shields – still an active fishing port – generated as part of the European Strength2Food project, organised by Food Nation with Newcastle University and involving both experts from the fishing and food industries and consumers, came up with a range of possible reasons. Fish as a local product and how it can bring the best returns for fishermen and communities was the basis for the discussion and participants brought a range of views and perspectives to the table.

As consumers we seem to lack confidence and knowledge about fish.  Many people feel ill-informed about how to prepare and cook the different varieties.  There may also be a reluctance to try something new.  Fish isn’t cheap so supposing you spend your money then don’t like it?  Then there are those bones.  They can be alarming and make fish seem difficult to deal with, in the kitchen and on the plate. For me, buying fish that has been landed at North Shields is important.  I want to play an active role in the local economy and I think it’s important to acknowledge the specialised and often dangerous job that our local fisherman do in bringing excellent products to our plates.  But in the case of fish, “buying local” doesn’t seem to play a major role in consumer decision making in the North East.  Much of what we do buy is imported and may be farmed – salmon in Scotland, sea bass as far away as Greece and Turkey, prawns being flown in from India and Thailand.  On the other hand, promotion of local fish can be done.  In Cornwall, for example, local fish plays an important role in gastronomic tourism, and is promoted by well-known restaurants and celebrity chefs.

On the supply side, fishermen really are the last of the hunters, doing a difficult, dangerous job and they often want simply to sell their catch as easily and quickly as possible. They may not have an interest in engaging with the supply chain and at the moment most of the fish landed at North Shields is exported.  Langoustines – a luxury product – forms the major part of the catch here, and it is enjoyed by consumers in France and Spain, while few in North Shields ever have the chance to taste it.  In fact most people express surprise to hear that these exotic-sounding shellfish are even native to the North Sea.

Does this matter?  As Brexit looms it may.  Those markets in France and Spain could be more difficult to access.  So could we engage local consumers more in eating these excellent products?  People are sometimes more willing to try new things when eating out, so restaurants could play a role.  Small tapas-style plates and special events could help in giving consumers a first taste and making us all more aware of what is available. 

At the moment there does seem to be a gap to be bridged, between consumers and suppliers and better networks are needed to promote fish as a valuable and delicious food.  I buy fish regularly from retailers on the North Shields fish quay.  It’s not always expensive – as in any market, what’s plentiful is generally cheap.  Fish is easy to cook and a small repertoire of recipes can be applied to most varieties.  If you don’t want bones, then the fishmonger will fillet it for you – and do a far more expert job than I could manage myself.  I just wish more consumers could be convinced of the benefits and enjoyment to be gained from the wide range of fish available to us in the UK.  Perhaps Strength2Food can help to put the word out and encourage us to be more adventurous.



Involving smallholders as partners in research could make all the difference to their development


In our CRE blog Mark Reed and Lindsay Stringer call for a shift in how we carry out and focus research in the world’s drylands.


Mark Reed is Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation at Newcastle University/HEFCE N8 Agri-Food Resilience

Lindsay C. Stringer is Professor in Environment and Development at the University of Leeds


We have both dedicated a substantial part of our careers to understanding how people living in drylands can make a sustainable living from some of the harshest environments on earth. We both did our PhDs in southern Africa over a decade ago, working in the same region on the similar issues at neighbouring UK universities (Leeds and Sheffield), without any knowledge of each other. We only discovered this after we finished our PhDs, but haven’t looked back since. The latest in a long string of collaborations has been a project with colleagues from the world’s largest research group working on drylands. In it, we reviewed the last decade of research on dryland agricultural systems, to set a new agenda for the research that is needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.


More than 2.5 billion of the poorest, hungriest, least healthy and most marginalized people in the world live in “dryland” environments that are characterized by a lack of water. Their inhabitants face combined challenges of poverty and unemployment related to high population growth rates, low crop yields and land degradation, climate change, conflict and civil unrest.   It’s a hostile environment in so many respects. 


At the same time, there is an upside.  Drylands also have abundant solar energy and rich plant biodiversity.  Fifty per cent of the world‘s livestock are being raised in drylands and the people who are farming them have real opportunities to branch out and intensify production and to tackle climate change.  But how is this to be achieved?  Our research suggests that, given the right support and encouragement, involving real partnerships, smallholders could hold the key.


Interventions have been tried before, of course.  Generally development efforts have been spearheaded by a range of international groups, investing in large-scale, top-down projects and programmes, aiming to manage things like soil structure, soil fertility and water availability through irrigation.  More recently there has been more of a systems-based approach to tackle these issues, looking at everyone involved, all the core environmental processes, and how it all interacts.   Smallholders are vital cogs in this system, driving development.  They are central to food security, generating employment and contributing a significant percentage of Gross Domestic Product in many drylands. Improving the benefits from and profitability of smallholder farming remains an urgent challenge for the international community.  How to do this has been a moot point.  We argue that the time for top-down solutions is over and a totally new approach and research agenda is needed, one that emphasizes complexity, interactions, trade-offs and working with affected populations to jointly address dryland development.


In our latest paper we make this explicit, comparing conventional and new approaches.  We argue for a focus on social-ecological systems and livelihood portfolios rather than simply considering single components without looking at connections and linkages.  This approach calls for a transdisciplinary strategy, bringing different disciplines together to work towards shared goals, ideally including expertise from stakeholders who bring different knowledge and perspectives to the research across lots of different scales.  Transfer of scientific knowledge is often one way and it hasn’t worked in the drylands.  We highlight the importance of two-way exchange and co-production of knowledge between researchers and stakeholders, as this draws on a much richer range of knowledge sources and improves local ownership of results.  It’s also important to engage disadvantaged groups and create the conditions for them to become empowered as a part of the process.  Throughout we have to acknowledge that there will be trade-offs where multiple aims of improving productivity; reducing risk; and considerations of social, economic and environmental sustainability are involved. 


If we are to make significant progress towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals there have to be new priorities and a shift in how we go about achieving them.  Looking effectively at systems will involve unpacking the relationships and interactions in dryland systems.  We have to understand better how people make their livelihoods in these challenging environments.  This will enable partners to identify opportunities and risks for innovation and investment.  We need to be traversing different scales and sectors and work together to create knowledge.  A consciously people-centred focus is essential and can help us, as partners, to avoid unintended consequences.  The value of the knowledge and understanding of those who know and live in these environments should never be underestimated.   Sharing knowledge is vital as we move into a situation of genuine, equal partnerships and the joint development of new ideas in a process that meaningfully involves stakeholders from relevant sectors and scales.


Language, the City and the Rural: Future Perfect

Menelaos Gkartzios opens up a debate about countries, language, the urban and the rural.

I am moving to Japan, just for a semester, to take a Visiting Associate Professorship at the University of Tokyo. My preparation involved learning Japanese and a fellow researcher and architect Kevin Donovan gave me a book: Tokyo. Skilfully written by Donald Richie (1999), the book explores the development history, cultures and countercultures of the Asian metropolis. In a fascinating manner, the author argues that Tokyo is a city we Westerners struggle – if not fail – to comprehend: there is no ‘city centre’ (or what might be considered as ‘the centre’ is practically empty); the city does not have a linear address system we can recognise (think of any city you know); Tokyo is not defending an immortal or eternal mythology (think of Rome or Paris). His observations about the city remind me of the Japanese language, a link to which Donald Richie also draws attention.  

Like Tokyo´s address system, the Japanese language is extremely ambiguous: personal pronouns are unnecessary; there is no singular or plural form for nouns (think of that for a moment); words are written with no space in between. Oh, and there are three writing systems that co-exist in a document; yes, three. Ambiguity is part of talking and getting lost is part of finding yourself somewhere in the city.

Japanese is characteristically pronounced in a flat, somewhat colourless way. There are accents, but the pronunciation is monotonous, almost without rhythm. The language doesn’t try to impress, there are neither exclamation nor question marks. Similarly, the city of Tokyo strives to be almost unremarkable. Richie writes about how sameness prevails, compared to at least to European cities: vistas are rare (think of Lisbon) and there are no grand monuments marking the boundaries of avenues (think of Edinburgh). More importantly, Tokyo, is a city very much in the present, always in the making. Tokyo’s past and future legacy are not dictating its present. Richie explains how the city does not follow the western assumption to ‘be logically planned and built to last’ (p. 50). Equally, the ‘dead are being forgotten’ (p. 29). Interestingly, the Japanese language itself has no future tenses. There is a single past tense (compare this to the English simple, continuous, perfect past tenses). This frames a completely different logic of understanding time. The city, like our conversations, is almost continuously ephemeral.

Tokyo’s development trajectory seems to unravel in parallel to the realities of language. However, language is not just a neutral medium we use to communicate; language (anylanguage), it creates possibilities and barriers (argued brilliantly by so many social scientists, not least by Norman Fairclough). One can argue that this is the case in all territorial settings, in rural areas too. In England, for example, the urban/rural dichotomous post war planning legacy, with very particular expectations about what constitutes legitimate development in either spaces, follows one of the greatest antitheses in the English language. This link between the English language and planning has also been considered by Thomas Sharp in his seminal Town Planning (1940).

The relationship between language and the development of places is not new territory for me. I am fascinated by the discursive possibilities and impossibilities of language (that are of course dynamic, even if somewhat persistent) in the context of development studies. Delightedly accepting an invitation by Professors Sally Shortall and Bettina Bock, I recently talked about language in social science research at this year’s European Society for Rural Sociology conference. In the world of academia, English has become the language of science, a language of authority, while fieldwork has remained – of course – linguistically plural. Moving between these two platforms, that of publishing and that of conducting fieldwork, is not an unproblematic process. I argued how little rural sociologists have engaged with the literature on language politics, how discourses of rurality internationally differ not only due to socio-cultural differences, but because language itself constructs and frames the rural in diverse and even unimaginable ways – a derogative or even nonsensical term in some contexts – far from the idyllic constructions well observed in more industrialised countries. My argument followed extensive reviews on discourses of rurality in non-Anglophone contexts, and observing minimal references to methodological issues of language for an article on language politics in rural studies I am currently working on. None of these arguments are ground-breaking (and I encourage you to read the prolific works of Robert Phillipson or Abram de Swaan), but language politics seems an unexplored field amongst rural sociologists.  

In my effort to start a critical debate, I ask: Can we observe the parallels between language (im)possibilities and development trajectories in rural contexts? What development imaginations does the ‘rural’ frame internationally? Furthermore, in a wider sense, whose language matters in producing rural sociological knowledge, and what does that mean for our research? Is knowledge mono-lingual? What idiosyncrasies are masked through translation? And since when are social scientists also good translators? And, finally, how can we move on the debate recognising both the usefulness and the politics of English as, in Phillipson’s terms, a lingua academica? I am taking these questions with me, to Tokyo. In my effort to make sense of this new world, I will avoid the use of future tenses, but I will be reporting in this blog. In English.


From snow to sun – rural growth in the European Union

PhD student Ian Merrell updates colleagues on the latest activities of the Rural Growth Intereg project and how CRE is contributing to nurturing rural tourism across Europe.


The Rural Growth European Union Intereg project isn’t just a great opportunity for me to visit some fascinating places in Europe.  It’s an initiative that aims to increase the competitiveness of rural small and medium sized enterprises through tourism, and it brings together partners from the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Finland for knowledge exchange and learning. CRE is the academic advisory partner and that’s why we are invited to meetings in all of these different countries. The project aims to provide a methodology for the practitioner groups to follow, using contributions from local stakeholder groups as their starting point. The themes of previous meetings have largely been around ambition setting, status quo analysis and highlighting best practice, but now the project is progressing into the juicier stages of influencing policy. Each partner is to host an inter-regional meeting and this time it was the turn of Savonlinna (in Finland) and Medina Del Campo (in Spain).   So, on to Finland!


After a beautiful train journey north out of Helsinki, the team arrived in the tranquil town of Savonlinna. Our Finnish hosts had invited a local Councillor to open the meeting and provide a detailed overview of the socio-economic context of the region, explaining the importance of cultural events, newly planned infrastructures and potential ties with St Petersburg to improve the touristic offer. In the afternoon each of the partners from the countries involved was asked to present what they wanted to achieve in the project, now they have consulted with their local stakeholders and highlighted their best practices. Each is now developing a distinctive offer; no two presentations were the same, and each was interesting in its own way.


Field visits are a vital part of inter-regional knowledge exchange and our Finnish hosts were keen to show us the sights. We visited a local hotel (as you will see from the photo, I took the rather adventurous route – on ice skates on a frozen lake), the world’s largest wooden cathedral, Savonlinna Castle (the home of the International Opera Festival) and National Park.  We also met local entrepreneurs.

We rounded off the visit with a workshop where the CRE team helped partners to think about policy instruments and action plans. The importance of digital connectivity emerged as one constant theme in the discussions.


Our next project get together was at a completely different venue: Medina Del Campo, two hours west of Madrid. Our Spanish partners had organised accommodation in a 16thCentury fortress (a real treat!). The focus of the meeting was to consider the key themes that have emerged from our work so far:

  1. Building on Natural and Cultural Resources: The Importance of Place
  2. Enterprise, Partnership and Diversification:  Innovation and Incubation
  3. Providing Recreation and Amenity: Providing Authentic Rural Experiences

 And to look at the first drafts of the partners’ action plans around these themes.


The partners each presented their first draft action plans to the group and feedback was given by the CRE team. Again, the plans are developing in different and interesting ways; some partners are focusing on creating local brands and networked governance, while others are more concerned with physical infrastructure or providing consolidated information for other partners.


But there was time to find out more about tourism on the ground too. Our Spanish partners were very enthusiastic about showing us their best practices through a series of fieldtrips and evening meals.  The region has built up tourism around their local wine industry, with an official wine route for visitors, and they also put on historical re-enactments.  We had the opportunity to sample both. Highlights included a tour through Medina Del Campo (experiencing a small re-enactment, sampling local produce and a visit to the palace/town hall) and a bus journey through their famous wine route (stopping off at wineries, restaurants and shops).

On the final day of the meeting the focus turned to policy instruments and, more importantly, how the group could influence them, with some useful discussion involving everyone. This is a key output of the project, and should provide some rich and nuanced results for future projects to learn from.  Next stop, Hungary!

Would older women do better as apprentices or as employers?

Anne Liddon, Science Communications Manager at CRE, responds to comments by local MP Guy Opperman about employment for older women.

Women Against Pension Inequality – the “Waspis”, – and also fellow MPs, shouted down Tynedale MP Guy Opperman recently when he suggested that the millions of women in their sixties who are facing a sudden hike in their pension age should get back into work via apprenticeship schemes.  Arguments about perceived injustices involved in such changes abound; while most people nowadays would agree that both sexes should be treated equally, for many years a prevailing narrative of growing mechanisation and increasing leisure implied that this could be achieved by allowing everyone to retire earlier, an aspiration that now seems absurd. 

Putting such debates aside, however, what is wrong with the idea of learning new skills in your sixties?  Adult education classes bulge with older learners, keeping their brain cells and social networks alive.  But is further employment training for older people really the best use of public and private resources?  Apprenticeships are funded from a levy on employers and general taxation.  Do either companies or the tax payer relish the prospect of investing in training people who may only be working for a further ten years or so?  Even more seriously, won’t these older apprentices be depriving younger people of opportunities?

Perhaps Mr Opperman could approach the problem from a different perspective.  As an MP who represents a largely rural constituency in an area that includes several market towns, he might consider some results from research carried out by Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy on rural in-migration.  We know that a significant proportion of people in their fifties and sixties who move to the countryside either do so with the intention of setting up a small business, or decide to take such a step once they have settled there.  Many of these are women who create micro businesses, working from home. 

Small businesses may, of course, grow, begin to provide employment, train workers in new skills, and act as a key driver in the UK economy.  Some may even develop into much larger enterprises.  Two of the underlying principles from the Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper are: “Supporting businesses to start and grow” and “Driving growth across the whole country”.  The aspiration expressed within this document is for more innovation that reaches well beyond the larger towns and cities.  What an opportunity this could offer for women – and men – who have accumulated decades of experience and skills that they could now use to set up their own small firms.   

Such developments could be a particular benefit in the countryside, where both young and old often struggle to find local employment.  The Rural Coalition has called on the UK Government to take positive action to “deliver a support programme for rural businesses and community entrepreneurs” and an investment in some underpinning services to help kick start new enterprises could prove very fruitful.  Our research in CRE certainly suggests that rural firms are an underexploited resource in the UK economy.  We know, for example, that many more of these firms have goods suitable for trading abroad than are currently exporting.  As products are increasingly traded on-line, accessing markets abroad should become more achievable, if small companies are actively encouraged to do so. 

Improvements in infrastructure such as mobile phone coverage and broadband where it is currently lacking are, of course, essential.  But more targeted advice and support are also needed to encourage new and growing companies to fulfil their potential, particularly in rural settings.  Greater acknowledgement and help for women as well as for male entrepreneurs, better access to business expertise and sources of financial investment, would surely be a more imaginative, and potentially a more useful approach, than sending women in their sixties on apprenticeship schemes.  Rather we could be helping them to set up businesses that could provide such apprenticeships, training opportunities for younger people and longer term gains for the UK economy.