The recent publication of the Lords Inquiry into the rural economy (explored here by Baroness Young) reinforces the need for a Rural Strategy as proposed by the Rural Services Network, its partner organisations and many others, including LCC.
As we often find many MPs and political leaders are surprised to find that more people live in rural England than live in Greater London (ONS Census 2011), yet these people clearly have much less collective clout on the direction and outcomes of discourse, politics and ultimately the policies of the UK.
It probably doesn’t help that no one speaks for them. While Defra (the RA being Rural Affairs) has been in existence since 2001 there has rarely been a dedicated Minister for Rural Affairs, with the current post held by a Peer who covers Rural Affairs and Biosecurity. A specific Minister for Rural England would be good, given devolution, yet there are or have been Ministers for London, Portsmouth, for the Northern Powerhouse, for Cities, and for each of the regions of England in recent governments.
One policy proposal in the call for a Rural Strategy is for a dedicated Minister sitting in both Defra and the Cabinet Office. That is a minimum requirement; ideally the communities of coast and country need a dedicated Secretary of State to ensure their interests are heard equally with those of urban Britain let alone the many voices speaking for London. That, of course, almost certainly means separating environment from rural, a good thing given they are quite different things (a side benefit might be a more serious approach to the urban environment).
While a more significant role and voice is part of the answer for rural England, there is also a need for a Rural Strategy or something like a Rural White paper, the last having been prepared by the Blair government in 2000. Austerity, the centralised top down pressure on communities to build more homes, the decline in services to communities in villages and towns all mean the government needs to take a step back and consider how it serves the many of coast and country – as citizens of England and the UK they deserve better, much better, and as we have campaigned before every child does matter, so we need to have a robust approach to schooling outside of the cities, just as we have announced for buses.
A robust approach to public services for communities of coast and country can only come from a government wide analysis of the issues and appropriate, holistic solutions – it is only with the full engagement of all domestic departments that decent, properly funded services and infrastructure will be made available to the many citizens of rural England – Labour has a role in making that happen, and is probably better placed to deliver – that’s why LCC calls on the Labour Party to sign up to the call for a Rural Strategy for England, and commit to putting one in place within two years of entering government.
You can read more on a recent conference exploring the call for a Rural Strategy here.