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. 


Labour’s Coastal Consultation | Alex Mayer MEP

There are few more quintessentially English postcard images than deckchairs lining a sandy beach with a pier in the background. I am lucky that in my constituency there are many fantastic coastal towns that attract thousands of visitors on holiday. But for years now they have been faced with a real and growing set of problems.

There are of course special challenges for coastal communities; the nature of seasonal employment; being at the end of transport networks; poor quality housing often with a higher than average number of people living in bedsits and the threat of flooding. Meanwhile pressures on services, caused by a much older than average population coupled with austerity are just some of the harsher realities of seaside living.

After being let down by underinvestment from successive governments, a lack of hope for real change mixed with the current strand of anti-establishment politics, resulted in a strong vote to leave the European Union in many seaside towns. In my region, Waveney recorded a 63% Leave vote, Great Yarmouth 72% and Castle Point 73%.

Paradoxically, and indeed sadly, figures also show that seaside areas were large net recipients of EU funding including for the regeneration of Southend’s seafront, investment in the creative industries through organisations like Great Yarmouth’s SeaChange Arts and the Orbis Centre in Lowestoft, which has been instrumental in harnessing the opportunities of offshore wind.

European funding was rightly forward facing, using the skills of the local population and re-skilling, looking at the green jobs of the future, and moving away from the high volume day-tripper market to the under-tapped ‘staycation’ market, with more focus on visiting the natural heritage along the coast over penny machines, cheap beer and neon lights.

It is heartening that the Labour Party is currently undergoing a “Coastal Consultation” especially as is not so long ago that Labour MPs represented areas such as Clacton, Scarborough and Weymouth, and we can do so again. With Brexit on the horizon, it is now more important than ever that our party again builds an attractive offer for seaside towns, as it will fall to Labour to push a new postcard image of our seaside, where communities thrive as they look to the future.

Alex Mayer is the MEP for the East of England

The ‘Talk of the Town’ . . .

The recent Demos Report “Talk of the Town” seeks to highlight the very different “performance” of towns from their neighbouring cities. It has selected a range of measures through which to compare aspects positive and negative, to some extent social but more economic, through which to suggest how well each community is faring. I am not competent to comment on these metrics but do see a significant opportunity missed in this analysis.

It is true that Demos’ authors allow that there is more to be done in progressing this valuable work. It is valuable in part because it is overdue; and because all political parties are exploring forms of devolution which may impact on or be affected by the truth of the findings. However, if the project sought to depict the differences between urban categories, then they have started at the wrong end of the spectrum. Yes, choose cities as the dominant regional players; but surely to select for comparison the next thing to cities – the largest nearby towns – is to compare younger siblings with their older brother or sister, rather than with children from a different family. Surely a more striking and useful comparison would be between cities and smaller, more remote market towns. Isolation is surely one of the most economically debilitating of features for individuals and communities.

Take, by way of example, the choices of Portslade and Shoreham-by-sea for comparison with Brighton. Both are actually part of the Brighton-Hove continuum. Portslade is part of the city’s bus routes and shares an MP with the Western end of the city. You will see no boundary of fields or other geographic features as you move from one to the other. Yes, they may have their own town centres; but so do different parts of Brighton and Hove. Economically they are surely suburbs; interdependent, not distinct. Some city suburbs have lower performance than others, because of the nature of their housing, history, commerce etc; but they are part of the same economy. Similarly, surely Fareham, Havant and Portsmouth are of one conurbation. Most trios selected are commuter lands.

Size too has relevance as well as proximity. Critical mass can determine just how well served citizens are by public services, infrastructure, policing, etc. Small can be beautiful when it comes to communities to live in; so long as one can afford living there. But lack of affordable rents, limited or non-existent public transport, lack of access to mains gas, healthcare, jobs and job centres make smaller rural and coastal communities very different to towns under the wings of cities.

It is, though, the combination of size and remoteness which leads to deprivation and particular needs in coastal and country towns. I suspect (and challenge/encourage Demos to go the extra miles away from their cities to find out) that the gaps between city and small and/or remote town are far greater than those shown in the work so far. What of the “performance” of Burgess Hill or Uckfield; Hastings or Hythe; Clacton or Harwich; Thirsk or Saltburn; Bolton or Fleetwood?

Far from making the case for the sort of towns selected so far being considered as distinct, as it seeks to claim, thus far it illustrates co-dependence. The true distinction must lie between city and market town or seaside resort; with these as yet being given little consideration in the devolution debate.

Tom Serpell, LCC Executive Member

What does Labour need to do to win the rural vote?

How will Labour win the rural vote? I’ll some it up in three words: policy, process, and people! People with passion for the rural, for the countryside and coastal communities which help define this island nation.

But first of all, we must be clear on what we mean by the “rural vote”. That really matters!

  • The “rural vote” implies some horrible homogenous mass, that politicians can target crudely by devising a one-size fits all set of policies for a one-size-fits all countryside. That’s not only wrong, but downright condescending. The strength of rural communities lie in their great diversity, and their interdependence with market towns and the urban.

  • The keys to unlocking the “rural vote” lie in addressing the real rural issues that make a difference to people’s lives, both in quality of life, and their standard of living. This includes the health and wealth of the people and communities, and well as the health and wealth of the natural environment.

  • My final comment on the “rural vote”, which the Tories – and LibDems -have simply taken for granted for far too long: as Shadow Sec of State Maria Eagle said yesterday at a Labour Coast and Country fringe, “Labour doesn’t have a rural problem. Rural Britain has a Tory problem.

Now I don’t want to dwell on this. But … let’s cast an eye over the record of the so-called “party of the countryside”, who have spent the last four and a half years acting like absentee landlords to rural communities and the rural vote.

Rural areas are characterised by lower-earnings and self-employment, yet this has been made worse by the lack of growth in earnings over the last 5 years, the increased use and abuse of zero-hours contracts and under-employment. There is a nationwide cost-of-living crisis in which we are from being “all in this together”, an austerity drive far from being balanced on the shoulders of those who can bear it the most, yet rural areas suffer this more with the cost of services and goods, the costs of accessing public services and work, schools and training, the poorer transport and digital infrastructure. Food banks are not just an urban phenomenon.

Housing costs, food, water and energy bills, transport and childcare are often more expensive in rural areas. On average, rural households pay nearly £1000 more per year on transport yet their access to public and integrated transport is worse. Rural businesses and households have seen the soaring energy costs, but have an added burden, in that 1 in 5 in rural areas and over 1 in 3 in sparse rural areas have no grid access, forcing them to use more expensive alternatives for heating.

A government – LibDems included by the way though some have recently had a pre-election Damascian moment – that is happy to see people forced from their homes and rural communities, from their children’s schools and places of work, through the callous and downright daft bedroom tax. It has more of an effect in rural communities where alternative suitable accommodation is even rarer.

And if you’re looking to buy a home, in rural areas the average deposit for buying a home is three times the average salary.

In rural communities places where people gather are important economically but also socially. Local pubs have been closing at a rate of 26 per week. Post Offices are adapting but still struggling to survive, dependent on the link with Royal Mail, and now threatened by the fire-sale privatisation of Royal Mail.

Oh, and of course, the same government that tried unsuccessfully to flog off our public forests, was criticised for the way its decision to break up the Food Standards Authority contributed to a confused and delayed response to the horsemeat scandal, downgraded flooding as a priority in Defra, and frankly doesn’t seem to know biodiversity from its bio-detergents.

Rural Britain needs championing. It needs champions.

Labour will champion rural Britain because a truly One Nation party and a One Nation government must speak for all of Britain in all its splendid diversity, urban and rural, city and market-town and hamlet.

Labour will champion Rural Britain because the social, economic and cultural linkages between urban and non-urban are integral to the future success of every to our nation, and to every community and every individual. In this interdependence and mutual reliance is our strength, and our national character.

Labour will champion the people and businesses, communities and organisations of Rural Britain: because it is right to share the proceeds of economic growth equitably, and to promote a good quality of life and standard of living for every person.

So Labour in government will strive to:

  • Secure the recovery in rural communities by building more affordable homes, helping businesses grow and prosper, and delivering universal broadband as part of a high-tech rural economy.

  • Work in partnership with local government, voluntary and local organisations to ensure effective and efficient delivery of frontline services in rural communities

  • Promote sustainable and profitable food, farming and fishing industries, and secure meaningful – and I mean meaningful – reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy

  • Preserve and protect and enrich the diversity of our countryside and natural environment, whilst protecting it against flooding and adapting to climate change.

  • Re-instate and strengthen the processes by which we get the right policy choices in Whitehall, at a regional level, and at a local level. This means “sharper-elbows” in all levels of government for rural-proofing and for mainstreaming policy, and sharper-elbows in town halls and in regional consortia, so that policies are fit for purpose, right for rural communities, always and automatically. It means devolving power and responsibility away from Whitehall to the town hall and parish hall.

So, some early practical examples of this approach: Labour will pay off-grid households their winter fuel payments early, so pensioners can buy fuel cheaper, and not make the choice between heating and eating; and we will freeze energy prices to save those small rural businesses over £5000 per year; we’ll give communities the powers to protect their bus services so they get better value for money; and we will push the minimum wage

To sum up: it is the “Three P’s”: Policies that matter to people and make a difference, the Process in government that helps that happen, and people – Labour people – who will make that happen!

Labour has to mean what it says about rural communities, and – just as importantly – look like it means it! Labour has never been just a party of the city and the suburb. Our roots go deep in the countryside too. But we sometimes don’t shout loud enough about it.

But we are under-represented in rural areas politically, and we must work to change this, because otherwise the voice of social justice in rural areas is missing.. We need champions of people and rural communities, from a local level to the very top of government. That is out mission.

There will be a rural conference. There will be a rural manifesto. There will be a stronger rural voice and more rural champions in parliament after the next election when we turn our PPCs into MPs.

Huw Irranca-Davies, Shadow Minister for Food and Farming | Conference 2014

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.

Tory bribery and publicity stunts in coast and country areas increase as the General Election looms

The cynicism of politics was manifest last week with the descent on Eastbourne of both Cameron and Osborne, bearing a £2m handout for the restoration of the burnt-out – and insured – pier. Here is a LibDem marginal target for Tory take-over next year being handed largesse by people who have hitherto shown no interest in the place.  Coincidence?

The money is to come from the new, tiny pot set aside for Coastal Communities, whose minister responsible was not in attendance. This cosmetic and opportunistic approach to politics demeans the whole process, when seaside towns like Eastbourne, Hastings and others cry out for improved transport, jobs etc. But the things that really matter are not funded.

No further from London than Brighton, Eastbourne has a rail link which takes 1 hr 45 minutes; and no rapid direct road route to anywhere. Its hospital is being eroded; but it has a higher-than-average proportion of elderly and disabled residents. Between Eastbourne and London lies the Weald, an area of great beauty but containing few jobs and hidden poverty.

£2m for a publicity stunt sums up the Government’s attitude to Coast and Country. The Tory ineptitude is further underlined by the contrast with Hastings, also a marginal  but one Labour will surely win next year, whose pier also burnt down some years ago but which received no such Government cash – they must be furious.

Labour must take a longer-term, more strategic position on this neglected section of our country.

Tom Serpell is a member of the Labour: Coast & Country steering committee.