LCC’s Review of 2018

2018 is almost done and yet politics continues its fascinating, yet gruesome hold on the nation! While much of the year has been one take or another on Brexit and its ramifications, LCC has kept the flag flying for the communities of coast and country.  Working with many of you, our MPs and Peers, and a range of others who value the chance to speak for these communities that work has included:

  • Speaking engagements at CLPs across the country, including in South East Cambridgeshire and West Worcestershire.
  • Two conference fringes in Liverpool, our now annual gathering on Sunday lunchtime and a Monday lunchtime fringe to launch “Towns of England, your time has come: A Manifesto for 2019”.
  • Convening two dinners in Parliament with a range of back and front bench MPs to discuss coast and country issues, and potential solutions as part of the process of developing our ‘Manifesto for 2019‘.
  • Contributions to external research, including the Fabians ‘Labour Country: How to reconnect with Rural Communities’  report and the Labour Party Coastal Communities consultation.

Looking forward to 2019 there are the key local elections for England on May 2nd. We have already published our ‘Manifesto for 2019’ (glossy hardcopies are still available if you are interested) and that is getting good circulation with Labour frontbenchers, some of whom we will get to blog about their thoughts on it, and wider policy ambitions in the new year.

With those elections in mind, and to continue to engage members wherever they live, we are meeting and speaking at a variety of events, with the following confirmed:

  • Southend CLP | Wednesday 13th February
  • New Forest West CLP | Monday 25th February
  • ‘Winning England, how can Labour win votes in rural England’ with Stroud CLP and English Labour Network | Saturday 16th March

We’d be delighted to hear from you – info@labourcoastandcountry.org – if you’d like an LCC speaker at your CLP next year.

With best wishes for 2019,

The Labour: Coast & Country Team

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The Digital Village | Lord Jim Knight

A few weeks ago I was sat in the Home Room in the House of Lords having a conversation over dinner about the “digital village”.  

It is a classic wood-panelled room with a long wooden table set for dinner with white table linen, House of Lords crockery and plenty of wine glasses. There were around twenty of us there, including our hosts from The Prince’s Countryside Fund, Lord Don Curry, DEFRA minister Lord John Gardiner, Helen Milner from the Good Things Foundation and representatives from BT and Facebook amongst others.

Such evenings are either a perk of the job or an occupational hazard – depending on how the conversation goes!

There was a slight misunderstanding around the table.  The minister wanted to talk about rural broadband, and the important issue of getting bandwidth to the last settlement.  However most of us wanted a wider discussion about the potential of digital to empower rural communities.

The discussion was informed by a great report that the Fund has commissioned from Professor Sarah Skerratt.  The title “Recharging Rural” echoes the recommendations of making rural communities more sustainable.  The problems are familiar: an aging population with fewer and fewer village amenities. The conclusions can be summarised around better digital connectivity, better transport infrastructure and more diversity of employment.  

Since then I have been reflecting on what more policy makers could do in using digital to redefine what is possible in peripheral areas.

Anything that is done has to tackle inclusion.  There are still areas and residents with very poor connectivity, and still 11 million people in the UK without the skills and confidence to be active online.  I have also written elsewhere about problems around the readability of the web.  The efforts from government to reduce this exclusion need to continue apace.

Scarcely populated areas struggle to sustain services because, by definition, they can not offer the economies of scale that urban areas can.  But we can now aggregate dispersed populations to create viable rural services using digital.

The rise of Babylon to supplement NHS GP services has been controversial.  Whilst there is every reason to be suspicious of this private sector entrant into NHS primary care, and accompanying worries about personal data security, the core service is certainly interesting.  The notion that NHS GPs in rural areas could offer a similar service is compelling.

Their service has an app interface that allows the patient to talk to an artificial intelligent bot about symptoms which then triages the individual and can connect over video to a human GP 24:7.  The GP can then prescribe, and presumably get a prescription delivered. If the choice is that, or phoning a triage nurse and either being directed into a hospital some distance away or being given a GP appointment the next day, which would we choose?

Similarly I am no fan of the corporate practices of Uber, but I also recognise a great service.  Could their platform technology be re-purposed to better organise volunteer hospital transport, or Uber Pool technology to create new forms of rural transport?

I now have oversight of Tes Institute, a digital teacher training business.  We have been able to train teachers in a way that was previously inconceivable in far flung places like St Helena and the Isles of Scilly, because we blend a social learning experience online with peripatetic tutors.  

There is no doubt that public service delivery can be transformed with digital innovation to the great advantage of rural areas.  This can significantly help the existing rural population. But can it make communities more sustainable by shifting their demography?

That is a harder problem to crack.  It is not as simple as installing high bandwidth connections and selling great quality of life and good schools to aspirant entrepreneurs.  Whilst this could go a long way it needs more to trigger a behavioural shift.

I have been interested for some time in shifting thinking away from a sense that urbanisation is inevitable in a post-industrial economy.  The pressures on our great cities are now almost overwhelming as house prices, air pollution and congestion make them harder to sustain. So why not follow Dave Coplin’s vision from this 2013 RSA talk around flexible working?

If government mandated two or three day a week season tickets on our trains, knowledge workers could come to cities for some of the time and get the benefit of clustering and creative exchange.  But if rural market towns also had flexible working facilities like WeWork (the largest real estate tenant in London, New York and Washington DC), then those people can then work and start businesses in rural communities.  They then support local retail and daytime economy, and get the quality of life of the school drop off and pick up.

All of this points to the opportunity of digital in making rural Britain more diverse and therefore sustainable.  It needs vision and a magpie mentality to steal the best of digital enterprise and bring it to serve the public interest.

Lord Jim Knight

Why the South East needs Labour | Rosie Duffield MP

When people talk of the Southeast region of England, it can often come across in two distinct ways. One way people mention the area is in a pejorative way, alluding to the region’s perceived blandness, as if it were the magnolia paint of British regions. On the other hand, it can sometimes sound as if strangers are talking of a utopia when they reference the Southeast. when people say ‘Kent’, often the first thing that comes to mind is ‘the garden of England.’ When people talk of Sussex, we often think of the sunny beaches of Brighton, and certainly nobody could deny the fabulous history and academic prestige of Oxford.

The Southeast is often known to be one of the wealthiest regions in the UK, it has several prestigious higher education institutions, a highspeed rail line, and more importantly, relatively better weather compared to the rest of the UK (sorry Edinburgh, but it’s true). So, who in their right mind would want to change anything about the Southeast, let alone the current political order?

Well, according to the Care Quality Commission, Kent and Sussex have some of the lowest adult social care ratings in the country and parts of Surrey and Sussex have the worst GP practice ratings in the UK. With a flurry of cuts to the NHS, this Tory government has left health services across the country and in the Southeast under severe pressure.

Take the constituency of Canterbury, for which I am MP, as an example. Tory cuts have meant that all acute procedures from Canterbury hospital have been cancelled. This means that anybody who suffers a stroke or a heart attack must travel all the way to Ashford before they can receive the ‘urgent’ care they so desperately need. These cuts are reducing medical services, putting NHS staff under great financial and psychological stress, and risking the lives of citizens in need of medical attention. In many cases, the people most at risk are the elderly who live in rural areas. By the time an ambulance reaches those people and escorts them an hour away to the nearest hospital for emergency medical treatment, the chances of survival can be very slim indeed.

Another thing, which is often glossed over by Tory politicians, is the sheer level of economic deprivation in some areas of the Southeast. In Kent, 21 local wards fall within the 10% threshold of most deprived areas in England2 and in Sussex this number is 143. What is arguably more shocking, is that in some parts of Oxford, child poverty rates are close to 29%, in Hastings and Rye this figure is close to 32%, and in South Thanet, this figure is close to 33%4.

These horrifying figures paint a picture. The picture is that under the Tories, the Southeast is a place where there is increasingly a greater gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ the many and the few. So, yes, while the southeast remains one of the richest regions in the UK, cuts to social welfare has meant an increasing disparity between the wealthiest few and everybody else.

Things are worse now than ever before; it angers me that this government continues its careless crusade on the public sector and on social welfare, when children are going hungry and more and more families are relying on foodbanks to stay alive. Not voting Labour is a luxury that the Southeast and the UK can no longer afford.

Speaking then of luxury, the mere concept of home ownership is something reserved for an elite few. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show not only that house prices in the southeast are higher than in most other regions in the UK, but also house prices are rising faster than most of the UK6. One of the reasons for this is that better transportation links, such as the introduction of HS1, has meant that wealthy individuals are moving out of London into surrounding regions close enough to commute to the city. With already dwindling availability of housing, any available houses are becoming more and more expensive to buy. This means a growing lack of affordable housing, and combined with the cuts on public spending, social housing availability is at disastrously low levels.

Rising house prices not only exacerbates the level of inequality between wealthy landlords and renters, but the cost of renting has also meant that more and more people cannot even afford a rented roof above their head. In fact, when population size is considered, some of the worst rates of rough sleeping in the UK can be found in Southeast towns and cities such as Brighton and Hove, Canterbury and Hastings7. Rough sleeping, especially in the terrible weather we have been exposed to this year, can be incredibly dangerous. This year alone, I was made aware of the death of two of my rough sleeping constituents over the cold winter months, and it really brought home the harsh reality of what a lack of housing and well-funded social services for our most vulnerable citizens can cause. The southeast needs more housing, but not just for the wealthy few, but for the many who cannot afford the extortionate prices that currently exist, we need more social and truly affordable housing desperately.

So yes, the Southeast is a region of great natural beauty, of ancient historical importance, and great social diversity and vibrancy. However, it would not be right to celebrate the brilliance of the Southeast without recognising the disadvantages and difficulties that many of its residents face. The Southeast needs Labour. The complacency of its Tory politicians has meant that the inequality in the region has been ignored and the plight of the many has been sacrificed for the privilege of an elite few. Only a Labour Government can rectify these issues and ensure a Southeast which serves everybody equally.

Rosie Duffield MP for Canterbury

  1. The state of health care and adult social care in England 2016/17, Care Quality Commission, 2017.
  2. https://www.kentlive.news/news/kent-news/21-most-deprived-areas-kent-497851
  3. https://www.hastingsobserver.co.uk/news/politics/levels-of-deprivation-across-sussex-revealed-by-charity-report-1-7672973
  4. http://www.endchildpoverty.org.uk/poverty-in-your-area-2016/
  5. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/average-income-regional-variation-inequality-poverty-wages-salary-institute-fiscal-studies-a7847261.html
  6. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/housing/articles/townsandcitiesanalysisenglandandwalesmarch2016/2016-03-18
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jan/25/number-of-rough-sleepers-in-england-rises-for-sixth-successive-year

A Manifesto for 2019 | Towns of England, your time has come!

Britain’s towns had a higher profile at Labour Conference 2018 than they have ever had.  In addition to both Labour: COAST&COUNTRY (LCC) fringes, they were on the agenda of a Fabian fringe, a CPRE/Hastoe event, as well as other sessions where Lisa Nandy MP among others had an opportunity to speak up for towns everywhere.  And then post conference Labour’s party political broadcast jointed the party and spoke up for ‘your town’.

The local elections of 2019 offer Labour a real chance to land some of this understanding, as that election is almost exclusively being held at the district council tier, the councils that service many of the towns we are seeking to win.

LCC has always campaigned for the district and country council elections to have a bespoke national agenda that properly spoke to those places, and wasn’t a re-tread of a general election or urban take on life.  As one speaker at our fringes said “these elections aren’t about saving the NHS!!”.  No indeed, they are about the issues of rural and coastal communities who are less access to services than their urban friends, that have fewer choices of secondary education or primary care services, who see austerity making their town or village suffer, dis-connecting them with the almost abolition of bus services, and leaving them a dumping ground for the 1,000 new home estate.

With the ‘your town’ PPB we can see the powers that be are getting it; to help them set the right tone for Labour’s campaigning in 2019 at conference we launched ‘A Manifesto for 2019’  Please read or download it here; share it widely with your CLP, your district council candidates, and of course send us and the shadow front bench your thoughts on it!

If progressives are to tackle poverty and inequality they need to look beyond the rural idyll | IPPR

All too often when policy makers consider the countryside they think of chocolate box images of the rural idyll. These assumptions, however, mask a nuanced reality in which rural areas are much more vibrant and dynamic than many imagine but also suffer far greater deprivation and poverty too.

No more is this the case than in respect to the rural housing market. New research from the Institute for Public Policy Research has found that the average rural house price at £320,700 is more than £87,000 higher than the urban average excluding London (£233,600). This is similarly the case in respect to rented homes, with rural dwellers spending a significantly larger portion of their incomes than their urban counterparts on rent.

Despite this, only 8 per cent of the housing stock in rural areas is affordable compared to 20 per cent in urban areas, and current delivery is failing to provide enough new affordable homes. In settlements of less than 3,000 people, a definition of a rural community which is commonly accepted, 4,079 affordable homes (of all types) were built in 2016/17. This falls far short of the 7,500 affordable homes that the Affordable Rural Housing Commission estimated were needed to meet need.

High housing costs can have a significant impact on rural communities. A recent report by IPPR found that between 2010 and 2016, there was an increase in rough sleeping of 56 per cent in largely rural areas, and a key driver of this increase was poor access to affordable homes.

In addition to impacting on individuals, unaffordable housing poses a significant threat to the nature of rural life itself. In the absence of sufficient affordable and long-term accommodation, young, economically active people will continue to move away from rural communities, essential services will close, and some villages risk terminal decline.

Yet, rural communities have at best been ignored in housing policy and at worst, governments have made things worse. For example, as our report finds, the failure of successive governments to understand the particularities of the rural land market and to effectively rural proof policy has led to a range of policy changes which will negatively harm the delivery of affordable homes in rural areas. The most recent example of this is the government’s policy of Entry Level Exception Sites which risks undermining the rural exception site policy which has been one of the most successful vehicles for delivering affordable homes.

Moreover, the Labour Party’s recent affordable housing green paper, laudable in its ambition to tackle the drastic undersupply of affordable housing, makes only scant reference to rural communities.

Tackling the rural housing crisis needs a number of interventions, not least increased funding for new affordable homes. This is why we have called for Homes England to be tasked with the responsibility for a significant rural house building programme, equipped with a rural affordable housing target and a specific rural housing grant, which should reflect the higher costs of developing in rural areas.

But more than this we need a shift in the way that rural communities are viewed and we need to guarantee that their voices are heard in policy making. This will require institutional change. It is for this reason that our report has called for a new deal for rural communities, which better embeds an understanding of the dynamics of the countryside in government. To achieve this, we have made two key recommendations.

Firstly, devolution has the capacity to play a key role in increasing the supply of affordable housing. However, to date it has almost exclusively focussed on urban areas. Rural communities should unlock the potential of regional governance by entering into new devolution deals, negotiating additional resources for housing and infrastructure in order to boost supply, alongside securing additional powers to make sure they can develop policy which is appropriate to the rural context.

Secondly, government should establish a central rural policy unit which focuses on promoting rural communities. This unit should work across government with representatives from Defra and MHCLG but should ultimately be a part of the Cabinet Office. It should be tasked with monitoring and rural proofing policy and in doing so engaging with rural stakeholders, bringing them into the policy making process.

A key part of its initial role should be to should be to develop and award a statutory definition of a rural community, so that policy can be differentiated between urban and rural areas.

Our report shows that the rural housing crisis can be solved. However, doing so will require politicians and policy makers to move beyond a simplified view of rural life and to challenge the assumption that socio-economic problems, including a chronic shortage of affordable homes, are solely an urban phenomenon.

Luke Murphy is Associate Director for Energy, Climate, Housing and Infrastructure at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Darren Baxter is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

A Trip to Pershore | Hywel Lloyd

A warm evening and a railway station with a Betjeman poem on the platform (Pershore station, or a Liverish Journey First Class) – a very English setting from which to be picked up for an evening’s discussion with the Pershore branch of West Worcester CLP, and their guests from Evesham.

Gathering in a recently refurbished room of the Town Hall twenty or so members had come from Pershore, Evesham, Bredon and further afield, reminding us that a Labour meeting in the country is a much more complicated feat of logistics than just getting a bus, or walking in an urban setting.

After a brief introduction to the history of LCC, and some of its recent activity, the first key question of the evening was put – what are the biggest issues for your community, that you think Labour could and should address?

For these communities, the major issues are transport and housing.

For the former there are issues of the poor state of the roads; and particular concerns about the availability and accessibility of public transport.  Even with a main rail connection to Worcester and to London, buses are few and far between; everyone appreciated that Jeremy Corbyn had led on buses at PMQs in the week.

Housing concerns included what is available for rent, for older people as well as for young people, and affordability; while recognising that mass developments of 500 to 1,000 homes at a time are often just dumped on a community, with little regard to integration with the existing place, building of the necessary facilities that make a community, or provision of local public services to support the doubling in size of a village.  A good word is offered in favour of neighbourhood planning as a way of addressing these issues of integration and appropriate development, yet it feels that even this community-led engagement in planning can often be over-run by ‘development’ and ‘housing targets’, and even in one case the housing targets of a neighbouring county being displaced over the county border!

The NHS and health services get a mention, recognising the need to keep it local, not forcing a centralisation that then deprives people of access especially given the transport issues already mentioned; not forgetting air quality and clean air can also be a rural issue, especially if the M5 isn’t far away….  Finally, one or two other issues that shouldn’t be forgotten – poverty is prevalent here and is often overlooked, while agricultural work offers low wages and suffers a shortage of available labour.

Listening to local people, their issues and preferred solutions is a good starting point to the work of any branch or CLP, especially a growing one with new members and new opportunities.  We discussed the sorts of things that could be done, drawing upon the lessons from other branches and CLPs across the country. 

And then we thought ahead.  May 2019 will be England’s election, nothing much urban, and no elections in Wales or Scotland (unless some hitch in Brexit demands MEPs . . . ) so what should Labour stand on in its ‘Manifesto for England”? Here’s a few thoughts:

  • Labour recognises the importance of non-urban areas in re-building a successful future for the country.
  • Labour recognises the individual, varied and particular nature of much of England, and will act to protect it.
  • Labour will re-nationalise and regulate all of England’s bus services.
  • Labour values district and local health services and will work to extend services offered as we protect the NHS.

LCC is working with the Party to create a ‘How to / collective knowledge guide’ for circulation to all those who might need it – so keep in touch, sign up, support and contribute as best befits your circumstances!

Hywel Lloyd | Co-Founder, LCC

Reflections on GE2017 | Nia Griffith MP

Amongst Labour’s impressive gains in last June’s general election were a number of rural and coastal constituencies. David Drew re-took Stroud and is now serving as a Shadow DEFRA Minister, and my good friend Tonia Antoniazzi won the Gower constituency back for Labour.

Not only does this bring us closer to delivering a Labour government that can deliver for all parts of the UK, but it also means that the particular concerns of rural and coastal communities are more fully represented on the Labour benches in Parliament.

We have seen how new colleagues in Plymouth and Portsmouth are standing up for the maritime economy, keeping up the pressure on the Conservative government to protect the shipbuilding and Royal Naval jobs that those cities depend on.

And colleagues have also been working with our Shadow DEFRA team to make sure that any changes to agricultural subsidies post-Brexit deliver for farming and rural communities.

But we also need to take firm action to rebalance our economy away from an overreliance on London and other major cities, ensuring that investment is spread across the nations and regions and that there are opportunities for young people wherever they grow up.

The Conservatives’ push towards devolving power to metropolitan areas may well benefit the cities and the towns that’s surround them, but these solutions will not necessarily work for many rural or coastal communities that risk being left behind.

It is a good thing that cities like Manchester and Liverpool have effective Labour metro mayors to speak up for their residents, but there is a limit to how much this model can benefit all parts of our country.

Labour has been very clear that we want to see an end to the vast regional and sectoral imbalances that we currently face.

We are concerned that many coastal towns, as well as post-industrial parts of the North and Wales, have seen their economies and communities held back by an approach to the economy that has been over-reliant on London and the South East.

The absence of vibrant local economies is not only bad for growth, but it can also undermine the fabric of communities, damaging the quality of life of local people.

And so the next Labour government will put the interests of coastal and rural economies at the heart of our industrial strategy, to ensure that everyone can share in our nation’s prosperity and no community is left behind.

Nia Griffith, MP for Llanelli.