As a One Nation Labour Party we need to expand our horizons beyond haphazard thinking on rural issues in order to secure a sustainable economy for Britain’s countryside and reach out to the rural electorate.
What must be recognised is that rural areas are subject to an intrinsic ‘separation’, a root cause of so many rural problems. Some have referred to this as ‘rural isolation’, but this is an insufficient term with an insufficient focus.
Where does this feeling of separation come from? Through my work, I have heard complaints and concerns up and down the UK and what is interesting is that there is a regular theme: Distance – distance from services, distance from health and social care, distance from employment and areas of opportunity, distance from entertainment, distance from education and training facilities. Where there exists a distance to these essentials of life, work and aspiration, there comes a vacuum – an inherent disconnection of what is needed from what is attainable.
Because of this, there is a marked difference between services being “available” and services being genuinely “accessible” – this difference makes policies based around “choice” untenable. After all, the rural vacuum dictates that if it is a choice between using a hospital 25 miles away or another hospital 75 miles away; or applying for a part-time job 12 miles away, or applying for a full-time job in the same town, but that requires you to work at times not covered by public transport, then there is no choice. What we must focus on is language and policy of growth, opportunity and accessibility.
In a practical sense, the ‘vacuum’ can take what is a difficult, common problem and make it impossible to overcome.
Looking specifically at rural Businesses and Employment, the difficulties faced in the countryside are numerous. Not all rural residents are wealthy, with rural poverty a serious problem – over 1.6 million rural people live in poverty after housing costs and 2.2 million live in fuel poverty. However, this is not the accepted view of rural living because rural poverty is not found in whole areas, but at an individual level, hidden and often next to great wealth.
It must be appreciated that Rural Poverty is not necessarily caused by unemployment, but by low pay and underemployment, combined and exacerbated by higher costs in rural areas, so that a single person living in a village would need to earn at least 50% above the minimum wage to make ends meet.
And when we also consider that anywhere between 54-80% of new jobs created since 2010 have been in London, the lack of opportunities and inability to access new full-time jobs, predominantly becoming available in London or (to a lesser extent) regional cities, adds to the ‘Rural Cost of Living Crisis’.
In order to tackle this problem, and so increase pay and full-time employment opportunities, Labour needs to allow jobs and businesses to come to villages, rather than just expecting rural residents to commute to them.
The willingness of people to create new enterprises in rural areas and the ability for these enterprises to grow is, in part, connected to the quality of life within each community. Increasingly, as regional economies are sacrificed to safeguard the growth of London, and austerity continues to bite, public services are harder to come by, even in relatively large rural towns.
So, the impact of public spending cuts on bus services, libraries, the Royal Mail service hits rural businesses harder, as a lack of infrastructure inevitably results in higher business costs and by causing potential customers to move to areas where there are more opportunities. What is more, entrepreneurs themselves are not attracted to live in a village or market town if it lacks for shops, pubs, post offices, health services, schools and training, broadband and connectivity to other areas.
Therefore, services underpin the opportunities for rural growth, employment and pay, and so must be safeguarded and encouraged.
One suggestion, floated by Lord Jim Knight, is for the Department for Transport to be given responsibility for broadband roll-out. This will enable a more strategic appreciation and approach to fibre optic roll-out, as the DfT would be better able to recognise areas the ‘market’ won’t reach – through initiatives like HS2 – and encourage the faster introduction of fibre-optic broadband in areas most in need.
This would alter the role of the DfT to one of actively promoting ‘connectability’ and ‘accessibility’ of people.
What about the sustainability of local community shops?
This links in well with the concept of promoting community action as a way of safeguarding services and businesses – and thereby contributing to rural living standards and maintaining the economy. With the help of initiatives such as the Plunkett Foundation, communities themselves are beginning to take control of their services through community-owned co-operatives. As it stands, there are currently 319 community-owned shops and 22 co-operative pubs. A future Labour Government would need to think how best to encourage such community action in ways that make them more widespread and increase their sustainability .
New Rural Housing
There is a clear need for significant amounts of new housing in the countryside, particularly to allow young people to stay in areas close to their families. Such additional housing also contributes to the sustainability of rural settlements by providing additional users for facilities such as schools, village shops, community facilities and bus services. Labour has already pledged a massive house-building programme should they come to Government. However, whilst this is positive, we must be cautious. Although concern for local areas and opposition to new housing can (frequently with good reason) be seen as NIMBYISM, it should not mask the genuine and justifiable anxiety for the greenbelt, community character and social infrastructure.
Tourism remains a major factor in Britain’s rural economy and the loss of the green-belt has the potential to harmfully effect the tourist industry in some areas. What is more, there is little point to constructing housing in a village or town that lacks the social infrastructure – be it schools, jobs, transport etc – to cope with the inevitable influx of new people. Likewise, there is little point in building the wrong type of housing to meet the needs of the area – although the focus should most often be on social/rental builds, rather than “affordable” housing (which in the current climate is rarely that “affordable”), that may not always be the case everywhere. So, whilst a building plan is needed urgently in rural areas, it must be undertaken gradually, with these factors in mind and with the consensus of local people.
In addition to this, there is a lot that is good for the countryside in the policy areas that Labour has already mapped out: Labour’s plan to devolve government, for economic growth throughout the UK, is good for rural areas; likewise, the creation of a regional banking system to help and encourage SMEs is a positive step and sorely needed.
Greater Resilience from Shocks Needed
However, let us not forget agriculture and horticulture, which remain important industries in rural areas contributing around 17.5% to these economies. Despite difficulties, both still offer excellent opportunities, as well as a little acknowledged need, for improvement and innovation. There are serious weaknesses in our supply chains for all manner of produce and we are over-dependent on the import of foodstuffs and the distribution of supplies via supermarkets. This leaves us very vulnerable to shocks in the system – such as fuel shortages or financial breakdown – which inevitably affects prices and only worsens the cost of living crisis. Somewhat ironically, this usually has an adverse affect on rural households.
It goes without saying that farming and agriculture are undergoing particularly tough times. Income and output continue to fall and, across Europe, the permanent workforce continues to grow older . The abolition of the Agriculture Wages Board (AWB) by the Coalition will only serve to drive down pay and thus render already unpopular industries even more unappealing or unapproachable to prospective new workers.
And so, we need a revitalisation of the farming industries and greater resilience within our local supply chains. One suggestion involves local authorities carrying out an audit of land available in the public sector that could be allocated to new entrepreneur horticulturists. They could then be aided in establishing a business either as individuals or through social co-ops. Another suggestion I have long-championed is a cultural re-branding of farming and other horticultural industries, to entice new blood in to entering agricultural work.
More could be done in schools to promote greater understanding of the range of attractive opportunities farming presents as a career choice to both rural and urban youngsters and to make better links between subjects – such as geography, chemistry or biology – and their applications in agriculture.
Apprenticeships, already outlined by Labour as a key policy, would be an important part of this endeavour. Labour will need to do more to make apprenticeships applicable to agriculture, as well as to rural Britain in general. The Farming for the Future initiative (launched by Marks & Spencer) provides training through bursaries, graduate placements, scholarships for sustainable and innovation projects and postgraduate programmes . Labour would need to expand initiatives like these – talent and skill should be rewarded if agriculture is to recruit people with entrepreneurial ambition and the ability to make a positive impact both socially and environmentally.
We also need to explore the possibility of a nation-wide roll-out (delivered and structured on a regional level) of the ‘Farming Connect’ initiative, launched by the Labour Government in Wales. This initiative, among many other things, helps deliver training and supply equipment by covering 80% of costs to entrepreneurs that make use of the service. This encourages new blood in to the farming profession, as well as enabling greater diversity and innovation in businesses that are already established. If launched at a regional level across the UK, it is through this enterprise that Labour can deliver new ideas and initiatives to encourage the Agricultural & Horticultural industries.
One possible solution to encourage shorter local supply chains, and which could be delivered by a nation-wide “Farming Connect”, is greater use of polytunnel farming, in order to supply specific fruits and vegetables for local markets (or sold via an expanded farmer’s market, rather than go to big supermarkets). However, this idea requires further thought. Polytunnels certainly allow the possibility to be very efficient and innovative – increasing yields and allowing entrepreneurs to specialise in produce that may not be easy to grow outside.
That said, persistent criticisms of their use include a potentially negative impact on the tourist industry, due to their “ugly” design (although it should be noted that tourism in Spain seems unaffected, despite large-scale polytunnel farming being a frequent sight in the country).
Perhaps then, greater use of High or Solar Roof Tunnels offers a more viable alternative to the polytunnel, given that they are designed to blend in to scenery. What is more, Solar Tunnels provide similar flexibility to polytunnels – easily constructed, de-constructed and moved – whilst being more secure and less prone to irreparable damage. If rolled-out via “Farming Connect”, a Labour Government would be able to encourage greater use of High or Solar Tunnels in farming by helping to meet most of the costs in acquiring the knowledge and equipment necessary – other incentives may be required, but this is a good first step.
Over all, more needs to be done to show how the Party’s existing ideas apply to rural areas. Rural questions need to be answered and to do that we need to give policy a specifically rural dimension. And so we must ask: how will Labour ensure policies around businesses, skills and employment will be rural-proofed?
Prior to 2010, the office of the Rural Advocate and the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) did a lot of good work in ensuring the rural perspective was considered at all levels of Government and that detailed research in to rural problems was carried out. In a very unpopular move, even among the Government’s backbenchers, both the Rural Advocate and the CRC were scrapped in 2010 by this coalition government. An incoming Labour Government should re-form this office, but with an increased budget and slightly wider jurisdiction.
Another suggestion for ensuring the countryside is at the heart of Government policy development, put forward by a Labour member at the Labour: Coast & Country Conference, is for the use of Equality Impact Assessments – similar to those used in the Health service – on the basis of ensuring rural equality. Adding to Labour’s Agenda for greater devolution, with regional Ministers to safeguard regional issues and maintain even growth, Rural EIAs could potentially be utilised as part of that initiative.
Now is the time for the Labour Party to develop and promote a Rural Manifesto for the 2015 General Election. Only through an initiative of this kind will we be able to communicate the party’s ideas to rural areas, laying down the foundations of long-term prosperity in the countryside. Such a project not only holds the potential for a Labour Government to ensure rural areas are a place of opportunity and growth, but would also see us reach out to rural Britain in a way not attempted by Labour since the great Government of 1945.
Jack Eddy is author of The Proposal for Labour’s Rural Manifesto and a member of South Norfolk CLP