I have lived in Hampshire for a large portion of my life and worked in a local authority in a predominantly rural county, so have seen first hand the kinds of unique issues people face when living in the countryside – particularly when they are also dealing with challenging life circumstances such as unemployment, disability or poverty. Those residing in our bustling cities often have only an intellectualised, sometimes distant, notion of what it means to live in complete isolation, where there is no public transport and the nearest bank or post office is miles away along treacherous, unfootpathed roads that the local Jeremy Clarksonites like to speed down in their armoured four-by-fours.
Rural poverty is an issue that continues to be relegated to the lower echelons of the political agenda. The only time we seem to hear about the it is in relation to preserving outstanding natural beauty and the habitat of our wildlife, or about the moneyed city dwellers who are looking for weekend retreats from their fast-paced jobs. These may all be valid issues in themselves, but the majority of those residing in our countryside and coastlines are hard working people who do not commute to the city; many of these people are facing acute challenges in their lives, yet remain but a blip in the discourse of policy that directly effects the areas that they live in.
If you are poor, unemployed, elderly or disabled, and happen to live in a rural area, the challenges you face are doubly hard compared to having the same issues in a city. The likelihood of you receiving any support is dramatically diminished. What makes this cruel fact even harder to digest is that it’s the same issues that have been persisting for decades, centuries even.
Poor and expensive transport links, lack of access to basic services like GP surgeries and banks, limited mobile and internet coverage. These are all things we have heard before and keep hearing over and over again. So why has there been no progress? In fact, since the coalition government came to power, things have gone backwards; public transport in rural areas have faced huge cuts, local services are stretched beyond their limits and small businesses are struggling.
This isn’t a case of, ‘how can we do things differently?’ or ‘do we need to take a new approach to these issues?’ because we know all the answers to these questions and have been going round and round in circles, preaching to the converted, while no one listens and nothing is done. What this comes down to is something far more fundamental: who is making the decisions?
We can only begin to face down the challenges people are facing as a result of living rurally if we put those very people at the centre of our decision-making. Only if we speak to and listen to these very people and increase their real, meaningful participation in local and national decision-making, can we start to see real and meaningful progress.
The first way to do this would be to ensure that on a local level, areas that have a large proportion of rural and coastal land create panels made up of residents from these very areas, and come from a wide range of economic backgrounds. Clear processes and procedures should then be put in place to actively involve these panels in the commissioning of new services in those areas.
On a national level, we need two things. Firstly we need to ensure that we have proportional representation of residents from the countryside and the coastlines in Parliament. This will require efforts from all parties and a long-term engagement and leadership programme that intersects with other issues of representation to do with gender, socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicity. Secondly, we need to ensure that similarly to the local panel, a national panel is set up so that any policy and decision-making that happens through government departments that have an impact on rural and coastal areas, actively involves a sufficiently diverse group of residents who come from those areas.
Putting people who actually live in the rural and coastal lands of the UK at the centre of decision-making about their own areas, means we can we can finally see positive movement on the huge challenges we have been seeing in these areas for generations. But most importantly of all, it will be the kind of change that rural communities can take ownership and pride in, and make us stronger as a country.
Satdeep Grewal is a multi-disciplinary fine artist who works and resides in Hampshire.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.