Putting the people of coast and country at the centre of decision-making.

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.

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The Coast & Country question: why should Labour bother with the rural vote?

In the last summer of 2013, I was interviewed on Radio Norfolk. They had recently heard about my campaign to get the Labour party to launch a “Rural manifesto” to reconnect with non-urban voters. Some had even read my Rural manifesto proposal – over-long and badly written, though it was. It was a terrifying experience, and while most callers from rural Norfolk were in support, some concerns became apparent from this broadcast.

First, why should Labour even bother trying to appeal to the coast and country voter? The majority of rural constituencies, especially in England, are safely Conservative (with a number of rural Lib Dem seats, mostly in the southwest). But contrary to popular perception, this was not always the case. Some of the great Labour victories of the past, most recently in 1997, saw unexpected non-urban constituencies – such as Northwest Norfolk, Rochester and Strood, and Harwich – elect a Labour MP.

But 2015 will not be this kind of clear-cut landslide by any stretch of the imagination. So why bother wasting scarce resources to appeal to non-urban areas we generally won’t win? The combined rural population of England, Scotland and Wales is over 11.75m (19.5 per cent of the three countries’ population), which, based crudely on the turnout of the 2010 general election, means there are over 7.6m votes to contest for in rural areas. In addition to this, 25 of the 106 designated target seats are classified as rural or semi-rural. So, as Ed Miliband declared his intention for the party to have “4m conversations on the doorstep”, those conversations can not be confined to the city if Labour is to build any kind of popular consensus to govern – even as a minority or coalition. In this election, every vote will matter.

The Labour party, however, has a problem when it comes to the hinterland. Take the high-profile and extremely successful “Freeze the Bill” pledge. So successful was this campaign that it defined the political discourse for months afterwards and Labour’s lead in the polls reached a high point. But this campaign, in its original form, ignored the fact that up to half of households in many non-urban areas are off-grid and reliant on oil or gas suppliers – still subject to the same price increases and extortion, but just not covered in “Freeze the Bill” (this was rectified later).

Although much of what Labour is talking about and devising ample policies for – be it on the cost-of-living crisis, the devolution of powers to local government, housing supply, rental controls, child care or transport re-regulation – is as applicable to the city as it is the market town, it needs to be adequately rural-proofed from inception, rather than as an afterthought. The Rural Manifesto offers us the chance to display some of these policies from a purely non-urban perspective, which the main election manifesto won’t.

That said, I’m not going to pretend that Labour has been answering all coast and country questions but just framing things the wrong way. There are big questions that still need to be answered on agriculture and the food and fishing industries, on transport and infrastructure, on the environment and greenbelt, on low wages and underemployment (to name just a few).

Most of all, though, Labour needs to realise that one size does not fit all when it comes to the coast and country. After all, the challenges faced by people living in North Norfolk are different from those in the Highlands of Scotland, which are, in turn, different from those in the Vale of Glamorgan. Despite popular perception, “rural” can mean wealthy or deprived, agricultural or industrial, mobile or immobile, young or old.

Although the party has not announced whether there will be a Rural Manifesto, I have heard a suggestion that it may be due to be unveiled in April. No one is expecting miracles, but if it does go ahead, it would give rural Labour something to fight with on the doorstep. For victory in 2015, Labour will need votes from all areas: urban and suburban, coast and countryside.

Jack Eddy is National Coordinator for Labour: Coast & Country.

First published in the New Statesman.

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.

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.

A Rural Manifesto for 2015: further calls.

In considering the particular needs of rural communities and individuals, the Labour Party must appreciate that these are as much in and of the mainstream as city-dwellers. We share the same concerns for the big issues of the national economy, defence, jobs, immigration etc. A Rural Manifesto focused solely on our special issues would be incomplete.

Having said that, our particular needs are unquestionably points of difference which should be addressed. To ignore rural and minority Labour clusters is to fail the notion of One Nation. It may seem to our metropolitan policy-makers that these minorities should not drive policy but I would argue that the issues which Labour should prioritise are highlighted by the rural reality. In leafy, green parts of England and Wales as well as much to envy there is much to improve. Isolation and higher living costs contribute to making rural life hard for many who live here.

Isolation – or obstacles to access to essentials – is occasioned by living in small communities lacking services. In towns and cities most facilities and services are to hand round the corner. In the country these may be several miles away, with no public transport links. Overcoming distance requires transport, with accompanying costs. This factor alone means that essentials like healthcare, food, education and energy are far more expensive for the rural householder than the urban. Add to this Council Tax at levels not merited by services provided – in essence subsidising urban services; and being deprived of the same level of broadband speed available to others, and isolation and cost of living can be seen to be issues of even greater impact in the country than the city.

“Move to the town, then” may be your response. Does this make sense for the country or the individual? Depopulation of villages to impose greater burdens on towns already lacking housing and school capacity will only serve to remove a workforce needed for those aspects of rural economy which can only be practiced in the countryside: agriculture, horticulture, arboriculture; let alone the workers who keep the assets of the wealthy going. And to what employment can they go if they seek affordable homes in towns because none are left in the countryside?

Affordable homes, transport, digital connection and energy for all must include rural dwellers. Without these being part of Labour thinking and action, this will continue to become 2 nations – rich and poor, divided further between the haves in cities and have-nots in the country; and Labour will fail to win the support of millions of voters living in the countryside.

Tom Serpall is a Labour Member from Wealden CLP
Twitter: @UckfieldLabour