Towards a More Resilient, SME Friendly Rural Economy

As a One Nation Labour Party we need to expand our horizons beyond haphazard thinking on rural issues in order to secure a sustainable economy for Britain’s countryside and reach out to the rural electorate.

What must be recognised is that rural areas are subject to an intrinsic ‘separation’, a root cause of so many rural problems. Some have referred to this as ‘rural isolation’, but this is an insufficient term with an insufficient focus.

Where does this feeling of separation come from? Through my work, I have heard complaints and concerns up and down the UK and what is interesting is that there is a regular theme: Distance – distance from services, distance from health and social care, distance from employment and areas of opportunity, distance from entertainment, distance from education and training facilities. Where there exists a distance to these essentials of life, work and aspiration, there comes a vacuum – an inherent disconnection of what is needed from what is attainable.

Because of this, there is a marked difference between services being “available” and services being genuinely “accessible” – this difference makes policies based around “choice” untenable. After all, the rural vacuum dictates that if it is a choice between using a hospital 25 miles away or another hospital 75 miles away; or applying for a part-time job 12 miles away, or applying for a full-time job in the same town, but that requires you to work at times not covered by public transport, then there is no choice. What we must focus on is language and policy of growth, opportunity and accessibility.

In a practical sense, the ‘vacuum’ can take what is a difficult, common problem and make it impossible to overcome.

Looking specifically at rural Businesses and Employment, the difficulties faced in the countryside are numerous. Not all rural residents are wealthy, with rural poverty a serious problem – over 1.6 million rural people live in poverty after housing costs and 2.2 million live in fuel poverty. However, this is not the accepted view of rural living because rural poverty is not found in whole areas, but at an individual level, hidden and often next to great wealth.

It must be appreciated that Rural Poverty is not necessarily caused by unemployment, but by low pay and underemployment, combined and exacerbated by higher costs in rural areas, so that a single person living in a village would need to earn at least 50% above the minimum wage to make ends meet.

And when we also consider that anywhere between 54-80% of new jobs created since 2010 have been in London, the lack of opportunities and inability to access new full-time jobs, predominantly becoming available in London or (to a lesser extent) regional cities, adds to the ‘Rural Cost of Living Crisis’.

In order to tackle this problem, and so increase pay and full-time employment opportunities, Labour needs to allow jobs and businesses to come to villages, rather than just expecting rural residents to commute to them.

The willingness of people to create new enterprises in rural areas and the ability for these enterprises to grow is, in part, connected to the quality of life within each community. Increasingly, as regional economies are sacrificed to safeguard the growth of London, and austerity continues to bite, public services are harder to come by, even in relatively large rural towns.

So, the impact of public spending cuts on bus services, libraries, the Royal Mail service hits rural businesses harder, as a lack of infrastructure inevitably results in higher business costs and by causing potential customers to move to areas where there are more opportunities. What is more, entrepreneurs themselves are not attracted to live in a village or market town if it lacks for shops, pubs, post offices, health services, schools and training, broadband and connectivity to other areas.

Therefore, services underpin the opportunities for rural growth, employment and pay, and so must be safeguarded and encouraged.

One suggestion, floated by Lord Jim Knight, is for the Department for Transport to be given responsibility for broadband roll-out. This will enable a more strategic appreciation and approach to fibre optic roll-out, as the DfT would be better able to recognise areas the ‘market’ won’t reach – through initiatives like HS2 – and encourage the faster introduction of fibre-optic broadband in areas most in need.

This would alter the role of the DfT to one of actively promoting ‘connectability’ and ‘accessibility’ of people.

What about the sustainability of local community shops?

This links in well with the concept of promoting community action as a way of safeguarding services and businesses – and thereby contributing to rural living standards and maintaining the economy. With the help of initiatives such as the Plunkett Foundation, communities themselves are beginning to take control of their services through community-owned co-operatives. As it stands, there are currently 319 community-owned shops and 22 co-operative pubs. A future Labour Government would need to think how best to encourage such community action in ways that make them more widespread and increase their sustainability .

New Rural Housing

There is a clear need for significant amounts of new housing in the countryside, particularly to allow young people to stay in areas close to their families. Such additional housing also contributes to the sustainability of rural settlements by providing additional users for facilities such as schools, village shops, community facilities and bus services. Labour has already pledged a massive house-building programme should they come to Government. However, whilst this is positive, we must be cautious. Although concern for local areas and opposition to new housing can (frequently with good reason) be seen as NIMBYISM, it should not mask the genuine and justifiable anxiety for the greenbelt, community character and social infrastructure.

Tourism remains a major factor in Britain’s rural economy and the loss of the green-belt has the potential to harmfully effect the tourist industry in some areas. What is more, there is little point to constructing housing in a village or town that lacks the social infrastructure – be it schools, jobs, transport etc – to cope with the inevitable influx of new people. Likewise, there is little point in building the wrong type of housing to meet the needs of the area – although the focus should most often be on social/rental builds, rather than “affordable” housing (which in the current climate is rarely that “affordable”), that may not always be the case everywhere. So, whilst a building plan is needed urgently in rural areas, it must be undertaken gradually, with these factors in mind and with the consensus of local people.

In addition to this, there is a lot that is good for the countryside in the policy areas that Labour has already mapped out: Labour’s plan to devolve government, for economic growth throughout the UK, is good for rural areas; likewise, the creation of a regional banking system to help and encourage SMEs is a positive step and sorely needed.

Greater Resilience from Shocks Needed

However, let us not forget agriculture and horticulture, which remain important industries in rural areas contributing around 17.5% to these economies. Despite difficulties, both still offer excellent opportunities, as well as a little acknowledged need, for improvement and innovation. There are serious weaknesses in our supply chains for all manner of produce and we are over-dependent on the import of foodstuffs and the distribution of supplies via supermarkets. This leaves us very vulnerable to shocks in the system – such as fuel shortages or financial breakdown – which inevitably affects prices and only worsens the cost of living crisis. Somewhat ironically, this usually has an adverse affect on rural households.

It goes without saying that farming and agriculture are undergoing particularly tough times. Income and output continue to fall and, across Europe, the permanent workforce continues to grow older . The abolition of the Agriculture Wages Board (AWB) by the Coalition will only serve to drive down pay and thus render already unpopular industries even more unappealing or unapproachable to prospective new workers.

And so, we need a revitalisation of the farming industries and greater resilience within our local supply chains. One suggestion involves local authorities carrying out an audit of land available in the public sector that could be allocated to new entrepreneur horticulturists. They could then be aided in establishing a business either as individuals or through social co-ops. Another suggestion I have long-championed is a cultural re-branding of farming and other horticultural industries, to entice new blood in to entering agricultural work.

More could be done in schools to promote greater understanding of the range of attractive opportunities farming presents as a career choice to both rural and urban youngsters and to make better links between subjects – such as geography, chemistry or biology – and their applications in agriculture.

Apprenticeships, already outlined by Labour as a key policy, would be an important part of this endeavour. Labour will need to do more to make apprenticeships applicable to agriculture, as well as to rural Britain in general. The Farming for the Future initiative (launched by Marks & Spencer) provides training through bursaries, graduate placements, scholarships for sustainable and innovation projects and postgraduate programmes . Labour would need to expand initiatives like these – talent and skill should be rewarded if agriculture is to recruit people with entrepreneurial ambition and the ability to make a positive impact both socially and environmentally.

We also need to explore the possibility of a nation-wide roll-out (delivered and structured on a regional level) of the ‘Farming Connect’ initiative, launched by the Labour Government in Wales. This initiative, among many other things, helps deliver training and supply equipment by covering 80% of costs to entrepreneurs that make use of the service. This encourages new blood in to the farming profession, as well as enabling greater diversity and innovation in businesses that are already established. If launched at a regional level across the UK, it is through this enterprise that Labour can deliver new ideas and initiatives to encourage the Agricultural & Horticultural industries.

One possible solution to encourage shorter local supply chains, and which could be delivered by a nation-wide “Farming Connect”, is greater use of polytunnel farming, in order to supply specific fruits and vegetables for local markets (or sold via an expanded farmer’s market, rather than go to big supermarkets). However, this idea requires further thought. Polytunnels certainly allow the possibility to be very efficient and innovative – increasing yields and allowing entrepreneurs to specialise in produce that may not be easy to grow outside.

That said, persistent criticisms of their use include a potentially negative impact on the tourist industry, due to their “ugly” design (although it should be noted that tourism in Spain seems unaffected, despite large-scale polytunnel farming being a frequent sight in the country).

Perhaps then, greater use of High or Solar Roof Tunnels offers a more viable alternative to the polytunnel, given that they are designed to blend in to scenery. What is more, Solar Tunnels provide similar flexibility to polytunnels – easily constructed, de-constructed and moved – whilst being more secure and less prone to irreparable damage. If rolled-out via “Farming Connect”, a Labour Government would be able to encourage greater use of High or Solar Tunnels in farming by helping to meet most of the costs in acquiring the knowledge and equipment necessary – other incentives may be required, but this is a good first step.

Over all, more needs to be done to show how the Party’s existing ideas apply to rural areas. Rural questions need to be answered and to do that we need to give policy a specifically rural dimension. And so we must ask: how will Labour ensure policies around businesses, skills and employment will be rural-proofed?

Prior to 2010, the office of the Rural Advocate and the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) did a lot of good work in ensuring the rural perspective was considered at all levels of Government and that detailed research in to rural problems was carried out. In a very unpopular move, even among the Government’s backbenchers, both the Rural Advocate and the CRC were scrapped in 2010 by this coalition government. An incoming Labour Government should re-form this office, but with an increased budget and slightly wider jurisdiction.

Another suggestion for ensuring the countryside is at the heart of Government policy development, put forward by a Labour member at the Labour: Coast & Country Conference, is for the use of Equality Impact Assessments – similar to those used in the Health service – on the basis of ensuring rural equality. Adding to Labour’s Agenda for greater devolution, with regional Ministers to safeguard regional issues and maintain even growth, Rural EIAs could potentially be utilised as part of that initiative.

Now is the time for the Labour Party to develop and promote a Rural Manifesto for the 2015 General Election. Only through an initiative of this kind will we be able to communicate the party’s ideas to rural areas, laying down the foundations of long-term prosperity in the countryside. Such a project not only holds the potential for a Labour Government to ensure rural areas are a place of opportunity and growth, but would also see us reach out to rural Britain in a way not attempted by Labour since the great Government of 1945.

This article was also published at:

Jack Eddy is Co-ordinator for Labour: Coast & Country and author of ‘The Proposal for Labour’s Rural Manifesto’.


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 Coast & Country Report from the NPF

The penultimate weekend of July was one of the hottest of the year when sensible people were heading to the coast or country. However members of the National Policy Forum were instead gathering in Milton Keynes to finalise our policy platform for 2015.

As part of the National Policy Forum, Ed Miliband gave an excellent keynote speech followed by several rounds of questions. At events like the NPF, when there is a leader’s Q&A, questions normally follow a pattern – “I’m a Coop delegate – what is your view on Cooperative solutions…” “I’m a young person – how will you ensure youth services…?” “I’m from LGBT Labour… what is your view on equality…?

However it is quite a recent phenomenon for the “I’m from a rural part of the country…” question to come up. I’m delighted to report it did and that Ed’s reply was unequivocal. He promised that we would have a rural manifesto – which is a victory for the campaigning efforts of organisations like Labour Coast and Country.

Clearly the ‘One Nation’ slogan highlights the need to make sure that we have policies that appeal right across Britain and not just in urban areas. Supporters of Labour Coast and Country know there is an electoral imperative not to ignore our coastal and countryside areas. They are vital in European elections, for example in my East of England region, where the votes of coastal and countryside Labour supporters ensure we have Richard Howitt MEP as a progressive voice.

Many key Westminster seats have rural surrounds and Labour votes in wards we can only rarely win in council elections are still a crucial part of winning the seat and so a Labour Government.  Just before the last General Election I was driving a minister to the then Labour held (now highly marginal) constituency of Waveney in Suffolk. I told him we had just crossed over the boundary into the constituency sparking the shocked reaction: “But this is the countryside!” Yet if we look back a little further to 1997, a hundred seats won by Labour were classified as rural or semi-rural.

The Living Standards and Sustainability policy document has a section entitled “Supporting Rural Communities” and we will go into the next election with policies specifically aimed at those living in more remote areas – for example to pay Winter Fuel Payments earlier for pensioners using off-grid energy, allowing them to purchase their energy at lower summer prices and store up supplies for the winter.

The way the NPF works is that there are hundreds of small meetings (a couple of NPF reps and the relevant shadow minister) hammering out details. I contributed to a meeting on the post-AWB landscape discussing how the next Labour Government will look at what more can be done to ensure agricultural workers are properly protected and extend the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. But rural and coastal issues are cross cutting and in many ways you could go through so many of our policies adding the words “including in rural and coastal communities”.

The cost of living crisis is not an issue confined to our cities, but critical also for rural communities. Indeed given higher transport costs and less choice, rural families are already spending £2,700 more on everyday goods compared to their urban counterparts.

Take the Bedroom Tax, there is a shortage of one and two-bedroom homes across Britain. But in some villages there simply are no one and two-bedroom homes at all. ACRE, the national voice for England’s network of rural community councils, has highlighted rural tenants having no choice but to move into towns or fall into debt if they cannot make up the rent shortfall.

Likewise increasing the minimum wage by more than average earnings, an end to the abuse of zero-hours contracts, cutting business rates for small businesses and restoring our National Health Service will all resonate in rural and coastal communities.

So I would make a plea to everyone campaigning and promoting our policies that as well as talking about “our towns and cities” you also mention “our villages and market towns” – it doesn’t cost a penny so will please Ed Balls!

When we go into rural and coastal communities with the mental note in our heads that you can add the words “including in rural and coastal communities” to the end of almost all our policies then we will truly get across the fact that a Labour Government will change the lives of people living not only in Birmingham but in Burston or Bishop Burton too. In fact we’ll govern for One Nation.

Alex Mayer is NPF Representative for the East of England

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.

Delivering on the politics of the periphery

Three years ago in Progress I wrote about the need for what we would now call One Nation Labour. Welcome as this approach is, I remain unconvinced that we have a coherent rural and coastal programme to campaign on, that makes the new brand credible.

Whilst the Tories take their rural heartlands for granted, and ideologically reject non-market solutions, these areas feel on the periphery. They feel on the edge physically, economically, and in social policy. Without the volume of consumers, services are unviable and the market increasingly just delivers retirement and second home communities.

Labour is the party that believes that where the market isn’t working, and social injustice follows, we should intervene. However rural areas are too often on Labour’s emotional periphery. And yet the powerlessness, misery and injustice of rural poverty in Britain is as profound as anything in our urban areas.

So it should be no surprise that many in peripheral areas feel that none of the major parties offer any solutions. The cost of living means they are living on the edge financially as well as geographically. But it need not be like this.

We are now living through a technological revolution that is redefining geography. Industrialisation, and urbanisation, were driven by the new ways of connecting people by canal, then rail and then road. The digital revolution is also about connectivity and collaboration. We now have to realise this opportunity in public policy.

Some of our cities are shrinking. As this BBC article discussed, some of the iconic cities of the industrial age in the Mid-West, like Detroit, are unviable in the post-industrial age. They are being reclaimed by nature. Industrial pollution saw off beavers from the Detroit river two hundred years after the city was founded as a centre for the beaver skin trade. But fast forward another hundred years to today, less manufacturing means less pollution – and now the beavers are back.

By contrast, London increases in size by two double decker busloads of people each day. It cannot cope. Should we not be looking at how the new connectivity revolution can revitalise our rural areas as places for families to live and work, and thereby reduce pressures on our cities? Including making the Department for Transport the department for connecting people online as well as offline?

If we can change the culture of presence in our offices, as Dave Coplin discusses in this animated RSA talk, and measure productivity on output instead, then we could work wherever is convenient. If rail franchises included mandating a three day a week season ticket, some would choose to work from home or the town coffee shop instead. Mutual workspaces could be incentivised with great connectivity, video conferencing and fabulous coffee. Suddenly less pressure on the railways, on the cities, and a more viable rural economy.

We need to paint a compelling picture of change and hope. We are all working, shopping, and socialising in new ways. Equally there are new ways of doing things in government for neglected rural and coastal areas. Labour has to deliver on the politics of the periphery.

Jim Knight is a Labour peer, a former rural affairs minister and co-founder of Labour Coast and Country. See more at:

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.

Why does Labour: Coast & Country Matter?

Why does  Labour Coast and Country matter for me – and my local friends here in Sussex by the Sea? Well, the name is the clue – it is relevant to where we live. But why do people like us in places like this need another organisation?

Let me explain my personal viewpoint. I am a late convert to progressive politics and activism. A long career in industry encourages a too-ready acceptance of capitalist values, even despite a long interest in moral philosophy and marriage to a lefty. The Iraq war lit a flame of anti-Establishment; the hypocrisy of the LibDems made them intolerable; and the callousness of the Tories created the determination to support principled politics. But how? I live in an artificial constituency: one not geographically cohesive, with no epicentre for its collection of small towns and villages. It is rural, agricultural and a lovely place to live, albeit we are surrounded by thousands of Tories and [U]Kippers. Labour has no chance of winning a seat at any local or national election. We have just 200 members in the whole constituency and a CLP barely able to function, let alone able to expand. So how can Labour supporters, people who care about society as opposed to just themselves, have their voice?
First, we have found and bonded with fellow members locally who feel similarly isolated. We formed a discussion group through which to give vent to our passions and articulate reasoned policy thoughts. Second, we have looked for a way in which our small number can become more meaningful, by linking with other like-minded minorities nearby or further afield. In Labour, Coast and Country we found the potential means for this – if only it has the means to develop. By connecting digitally with other rural and seaside groups and individuals who have similar political and economic issues, we hope to create the critical mass which will demand attention to these issues. This alone will reduce our sense of isolation and increase a sense of value to the Party. We are already seeing this in our local networking with neighbouring CLPs, with whom we are collaborating in fund-raising events, to get the excellent Nancy Platts elected as MP for Brighton Kemptown – Labour, Country supporting Labour Coast.

Tom Serpell

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

Campaigning in Rural areas – quick guidelines.

The Rural Group of Backbench MPs that operated throughout our 13 years in power did invaluable work to raise the profile if Labour in rural communities. What it established beyond doubt was that Rural Britain faced exactly the same issues as Urban Britain, but that the scale and sensitivity of the way in which they should be approached needed to be different.

It is this realisation that has concentrated my efforts on how best to campaign in the countryside and that is what I would now like to impart:

1. Spread the word: Word of mouth is the most effective way of getting our message across and in order to do this Labour campaigners have to build local presence in rural areas by being visible and working through (rather than instead of) community activists.

2. Be Visible: There is no substitute for earning peoples’ trust and this must be done through accessibility, visibility and by careful application of campaigning. Never overtake someone else’s campaign – be alongside those who are campaigning and find mutual support through help and advice where appropriate.

3. Keep it local: Always be sensitive to local opinions – literature should be focused on as narrow a local area as you can manage. Remember that when people start to trust and appreciate you then they begin to offer to deliver for you and provide the communication channels that will be so important to stay in touch with that community.

4. Use local Media: Where other organs of communication exist, such as Parish magazines, use them as much as possible – a good letter is worth their weight in gold if published. However, you should never over do the Party Politics as this will be counterproductive. Instead come up with solutions to some local issues.

5. Get to know the key people: the vicar (or other Church Ministers), Head Teacher, Postmaster/mistress, Parish Council Chair and Clerk, GPs, landlord, other major movers and shakers in the village. Within reason people will want to see you, even when they may be allied to our opponents, and you will be surprised what an impression you can leave if you try.

6. Think long-term: Relationships cannot be built overnight, but if you play for the long term you will elicit an amazing amount of loyalty and this will be the basis of your political campaign when this is needed.

7. Remember you are never off duty: a casual indiscretion can cost you dear! And remember that everyone is related to everyone else so be very careful what you say about others.

8. One size never fits all: what worked in one place at one time may not work somewhere else next week. That’s why there is no alternative but to get into different rural communities and work with what is the best approach there.

9. Keep trying: sometimes it is difficult to prompt a response but this does not mean that people there have not listened – it’s just that they are coy about communicating back.

10. Overall, reputation is everything: so build it up in those communities over a long period of time – fetes, carol concerts, school visits, charity events, sporting fixtures are all good ways to raise profile. Be sincere and don’t ever appear that you are there for the sake of it or perish the thought, electioneering!

David Drew was Labour and Co-operative MP for Stroud 1997 – 2010, and is PPC for Stroud for the 2015 General Election
Follow on Twitter: @DavidEDrew
Or Stroud Labour: @StroudLabour

The Rural Manifesto proposal: empowering rural Labour

“Your most precious possession is not your financial assets. You most precious possession is the people you have working there, and what they carry around in their heads, and their ability to work together”

These words by Robert Reich help explain the purpose of the Rural Manifesto: to maximise the potential of the Labour movements most untapped resource – rural Labour – and so enable the Labour Party to reach out to the rural vote in a way that they have not attempted since 1945. What prompted the writing of the proposal for the manifesto was a combination of despair and a knowledge of History. As a resident of a safe Conservative seat, it is a constant frustration to know that Labour has, in the past, purposefully and successfully gone out to the countryside to appeal to the rural voter. My own constituency, South Norfolk, was the first rural area to vote Labour in 1920. And one of the outstanding achievements of the great Attlee administration was the enormous rural swing to Labour in 1945.

However, progress in the countryside has rarely been built upon over the long-term and Labour has relinquished most of rural Britain to our opponents. By 2010, even in the rural and semi-rural areas where we had acquired votes in 1997, Labour’s rural support had all but evaporated. Sadly, it is easy to see why. Labour’s 2010 ‘Rural Manifesto’ is a lesson on how NOT to win the rural vote… which is why its existence is all but forgotten.

This is why a proposal for an inclusive, adaptable and thoroughly comprehensive ‘Rural Manifesto’ – one that would entail the input and organisational reform of all rural CLPs – was written. This document is not perfect: it is a little light on environmental issues, doesn’t go far enough on Europe and, at 25 pages, is a little inaccessible, to point out just a few criticisms. Nonetheless, I truly believe that with a Rural Manifesto of this nature we can start to build Labour support in rural areas and appeal to new voters, making a significant contribution to Labour victory in 2015.

Most of all, by taking the long view, setting up realistic targets to be attained over the short, medium and long-term, we can establish the solid foundations of Labour support in all areas of the countryside. In time, we may even be able to challenge and win in places we never thought possible.

If you are interested in reading the proposal for the Rural Manifesto, please contact me at: