The last few months have been particularly difficult for rural communities as they have for the rest of the country. Obviously COVID has hit rural areas particularly hard but the issue has been made worse by this Government’s pursuit of a free trade deal with the US whatever the dire consequences. This has caused consternation and concern amongst farming families and I have never known such a sense of betrayal given that such a deal can only be achieved by the loss of our reputation for quality food and the threat of being swamped by cheap imports.
Of course, whilst agriculture has largely been able to keep going over recent months other businesses haven’t with many shut and staff, at best, furloughed. How many can recover will be a key question for the future viability of our towns and villages. Certainly, the key question will be the way in which supply chains can be restored as a matter of urgency. Government intervention and support will be vital if this is to occur without massive adverse effects.
Other parts of rural communities also face resilience questions. It has been pleasing to see the crucial role that village shops have played, especially those run voluntarily, as the means to keep villages supplied with food and other essentials. However other important facilities have not fared so well. Village halls, in many areas the sole remaining rural feature have been shut indefinitely. Given that their only source of income is through bookings, the loss of income could prove calamitous and outside financial support will be necessary if they are to survive. Similarly, rural pubs will face closure unless support packages are put in place as a matter of extreme urgency.
Rural schools have also been hit. Clearly this Government hasn’t a clue on how heads, teachers, and governors have had to struggle to deal with social distancing for pupils when there are only one or two classrooms available. The lack of guidance from central government shows its ignorance of schooling in the countryside.
Likewise COVID has brought home the threat of rural isolation with all the accompanying mental health and physical issues that will be an inevitable result of this time in our history. Local resilience in rural areas has been a marvellous example of how self-help remains a key factor with residents setting up support groups, but that won’t be enough as we start to get back to some normality. Clearly there is a major role for local government and rather than ignoring it government has to give it the resources it will require to aid the recovery.
Finally, whilst we all clap for the heroes in the NHS, social care and other key workers, let us not underestimate the future challenges to those services in rural areas – not only because of the serious underfunding of the last decade – but because of the strong pressure there will be to pull monies back to the centre.
Labour must address all of these issues and more if it is to win back those rural seats that gave it support in 1997 and, in turn, guarantee the Labour Government that coastal and rural areas desperately need.
David Drew, former MP for Stroud (1997-2010 & 2017-2019) and Shadow Minister for Farming and Rural Affairs (2017-2019).
David will be joining us for an informal Zoom discussion next Thursday at 6:45pm on the organisational tools needed by rural and coastal CLPs to win and the motions we should consider sending to this year’s virtual party conference. If you’d like to join us, please RSVP to Tom for joining details.