The British countryside is under threat and although, important as it is, in this instance, it is not about the threat to the natural environment. This a threat to the social framework of modern Britain.

As we leave the EU, there is a vital debate around how to repatriate the rural policies ceded to the EU over the past 40 years. Environmental and farm policies are quite rightly front and centre of this debate.

But where is the debate about rural life and the communities that make up the countryside? The Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) was designed to not only support farming businesses and protect food supplies to the nation states of Europe; it was also designed to protect the communities and maintain the fabric of rural life.

The CAP is a policy for the past and farming policy needs to plough a new furrow. There are many policy documents on reforming how agriculture and environmental policy can be delivered, and Bright Blue has eloquently entered this arena. The Government is still yet to announce the date of the next stage of its Agriculture Bill. However, the fundamental question of how to help rural communities thrive is absent and unfortunately falls between the cracks of government departments.

Across the country, local government is changing. Devolution is creating ‘City Regions’ with ‘Metro Mayors’ whose new powers in areas of transport, planning and skills are things that rural councils should be looking to grasp.

Very few rural ‘Devolution Deals’ have been agreed, and those that have been have very few powers. An example is the Cornwall deal, which includes bus franchising rights and promises to work with government to deliver a better skills agenda and integrated social care. Within the total £568m signed to the Cornish deal, there is very little “new money”, although EU grants and current spending is now rightly in the hands of the local area. In contrast, City Regions like Greater Manchester are now onto as many as six Devolution Deals, with more and more cash signed to them, including a £6 billion health and social care devolution deal in 2015 and a new £300 million fund for housing.

The inability of rural councils and government to agree a way forward for devolution is leading to a lack of investment in infrastructure, such as broadband, in their strategic areas. The fact that these areas lack a mayor who can be accountable is also a factor, as the Metro Mayor system allows for a one-to-one working relationship between central government and regional mayors. Areas such as Cumbria and Cornwall continue to rely on the old economy of agriculture and tourism with the low wages those industries attract.

Indeed, workforce trends have also signaled trouble for rural communities. Since the 1990s, the number of students attending university has almost doubled. With few high paid jobs to return to at home, graduates choose to stay in the city to forge their careers.

Additionally, during the 1990s, the Regional Planning Policy Framework precluded building on green fields in favour of brownfield sites in urban areas, meaning only 50 houses per year were built in Eden (Cumbria), an area of 827 square miles. This policy was abolished in 2010 and replaced with the National Planning Policy Framework, which has fewer restrictions. Despite this, the legacy is that rural housing is now in short supply but also lacks modern energy saving design. Affordability for the remaining young people to stay in their home village or market town has reduced, so eventually they too move to a city where new homes are being built, or to chase a higher wage. The ageing population left behind is finding it increasingly difficult to affordably heat their homes.

report by the Commission for non-Metropolitan Areas in 2015 stated that 56% of economic output is outside city regions, meaning this young workforce drain to the cities is unsustainable. We need a new way to think about the relationship between cities and their rural hinterlands.

Alongside the city regions, the first step towards this is an overhaul of the local government system to more closely reflect modern life and connect travel to work areas in a way that would make cities and their hinterlands prosper. Rural areas provide city regions with water and power through reservoirs and onshore renewable energy, alongside the obvious leisure and health benefits from activities such as hill walking and boating. These benefits could be taken into account as the government pot is shared out to fund infrastructure and connectivity for a modern UK that takes into account all our communities as one prosperous economy.

The opportunity of opening up the countryside as a modern place to live and work, alongside and in partnership with city regions, is enormous. We can also improve the social structure of the UK by realising and building a stronger rural-urban connection.

Kevin Beaty is a farmer in Cumbria and the former Leader of Eden District Council. The views expressed in this article are supported by FERN. This article was originally published in BrightBlue.