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


Rural voters and the price of milk

In recent years my campaigning activity has been limited, but having been made redundant from local government I was able at last to play an active role at the general election this year. I hit the streets with gusto wearing my ex-council demographer hat to find out the lie of the land.

Now, being a Labour activist in rural Lincolnshire can be a thankless task. It is rare to have so much as a town councillor to show for all your hard work yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, we are often asked to forgo our own campaigns and travel many miles to work in key marginal seats. We know that few will make the return trip and bang on the doors with us; rural areas just are not the priority.

So what has all this got to do with the price of milk you ask? Almost everything.

Knocking on the doors reveals no shortage of people who share our values, but beyond local activists these voters are rarely addressed by the Labour party. When the Tories appear ever more metropolitan and complacent in outlook it ought to present a great opportunity for those willing to meet the concerns of the unfashionable countryside and enthuse disaffected voters.

The United Kingdom Independence party has risen to the challenge already. In 2013 it won 16 seats on Lincolnshire county council, becoming the official opposition. Fourteen of these seats were in the east of the county, remote from major cities and transport links. A similar pattern emerged in Norfolk. It won in the seaside resorts, marshes and fens where seasonal work and labour intensive agri-businesses are the major employers and wages are low. It is not the chocolate-box stone and thatch villages of the metropolitan imagination but isolated settlements separated by wide-open spaces and big skies. Services are few and far between and cuts are felt deeply.

Labour is already in tune with many of the daily trials facing rural voters. Deprivation is so much greater when it is a 20-mile round trip in the car just to sign on, and if you cannot drive it can be a very desolate life indeed. With our town post office currently closed, residents are embarking on almost a day trip just to obtain the full range of forms for passports and driving licences. The price of petrol is a huge issue here as the car is such an essential part of life; so of course we have to pay more for it. Public transport is patchy to say the least.

Then there are the problems faced by small farmers too, which brings me back to the price of milk. As the big supermarkets flex their muscles, farmers are squeezed between diminishing returns and increasing overheads. Livestock farmers need constant supplies of electricity and animal feed meaning milk can cost more to produce than its commercial value so they quietly sell up and leave the industry. Yet at times of crisis for small producers it’s rare to hear a Labour politician speak out.

Often local activists do not even get responses to their enquiries as shadow ministers are more concerned with issues like animal welfare, which offend urban sensibilities, rather than the bread-and-butter aspects of marginal farming. This has left Labour looking ever more like an urban party for trendy vegetarians which talks in terms of city lifestyles where you have a choice of shops or schools and where broadband (fast or slow) is taken for granted.

For various historic reasons such as dispersed communities and lack of unionisation, country areas never engaged with the Labour movement, yet for the most part they share the same social values as the mining areas and mill towns we claim to represent. These are not the ruling classes. Indeed many country people still genuinely labour for a living in packing plants and food factories.

My belief is that Labour needs to come up with a well thought-out rural strategy which engages with country voters and meets their concerns up-front. These may not always be palatable to us but there are areas of commonality that we can address, as well as giving us the opportunity to explain why the things we stand for can bring benefits beyond the suburbs.

We have a tremendous opportunity to grow new support and sell our message in areas we have never looked at before. It is time for us to start engaging at senior level with rural voters in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Devon and Powys and show them what we have to offer. It may not deliver us many seats in the short term but it is vital to show that we care for areas where you can’t easily buy a panini.

Christabel Edwards is a Labour party activist.

This piece was originally published on Progress, here

A Living Wage for Powys County Council – success for 6 strong Labour Group!

Despite the idyllic postcard look and feel to Powys, if you scratch the surface there is real poverty and deprivation – sometimes disguised by our rolling hillsides.

The Independent-run council has happily allowed more than 1000 of its workers to scrape by on poverty pay for years, but since Labour increased its numbers in the 2012 elections, we have been using our new muscle to push the case for a Living Wage.

As one of Labour’s newly elected Councillors, I led the campaign and mobilised support across the Trade Union movement. The determined efforts of the Labour Group, and its Trade Union allies, to help lift the council’s own workers out of poverty has finally paid off: Powys Council staff will now be paid a Living Wage.

That’s Labour making a difference to rural communities, despite being in opposition, and it’s a record that Labour in Powys is proud of.

Labour’s three year campaign was won through hard work and dedication, but most of all it shows why a Labour voice is as relevant to rural communities as it is to cities.

The local party have got their sights set on the Council’s shameful use of zero hour contracts now. Powys traps 25% of its workforce on them.

This battle is won, but the fight continues!

Matthew Dorrance is Labour Candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire and a Powys County Councillor

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.