Rural issues can no longer be ignored by the political class following recent by-elections

Jeremy Leggett, ACRE’s Policy Adviser blogs on the need for politicians to engage with and address the very real problems faced by those living in the countryside

Parliament has wilted into a long hot summer recess and Government limps on whilst the Conservative Party seeks a new leader. Climate change doesn’t only bring a hot summer, but also some hard choices for the final two contenders in the Conservative leadership race. Both represent constituencies outside of the major cities, but will either of them ‘think rural’ if they are charged with forming a new Government?

History suggests that political parties only take notice of rural areas when they have to. It is widely believed that the Blair administration took notice of rural issues as a result of the countryside marches, the heated fox-hunting debate and the aftermath of both BSE and foot & mouth disease. This was true in part, but the more substantial reason was that many rural constituencies had become marginal, and the governing party wanted to retain them at the next election.

Fuel prices, cost of living, affordable housing, post-Brexit agricultural policy and the special challenge of net-zero in rural areas are all contributing to rural constituencies becoming contested territory. With Shropshire North and Tiverton casting long shadows, both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak need to listen to their rural constituents and up their rural game accordingly. The current opposition parties are certainly upping theirs, and it feels like they are preparing for Government; perhaps one that will have a clear and discernible rural policy – something we have lacked since 2010.

The two groups of people with power over who becomes the new Prime Minister have been Conservative MPs, many of whom represent rural constituencies, and now members of the party. So, what should be on the minds of these voters as they decide the direction of Government for the next two years? What should they be discussing among themselves, and with the candidates, as they decide where to cast their votes?

First, they must commit to helping rural communities, as well as urban ones, achieve a ‘just-transition’ to net-zero. There is no lack of will in rural areas, but the challenges are different and will need thoughtful support and investment, not least in relation to energy, heating, insulation, and transport. Coercion will be counter-productive; however it is presented. As highlighted in the proposals for a National Food Strategy, rural areas hold many of the keys to achieving net-zero, but without a coherent plan, including a national land-use strategy, there is a real risk of different elements of the rural economy pulling in different directions. Community-led action must be a major part of the plan.

Second, they need to think about future generations that will live in rural areas. We need national policies that will deliver affordable housing in rural communities, at the scale that is needed. These must be built in all rural areas, including communities located in protected landscapes. Housing needs to be delivered in tandem with economic and life opportunities that can make it a realistic possibility for young people to live and thrive in rural areas. It is essential that there is investment in all aspects of a new rural economy, one that is not just founded on farming and tourism, but also on new higher value businesses and services that will, in turn, help meet the net-zero challenge. To sustain this new economy, it is essential that we ensure rural young people can access post-16 education easily, and with the same choice and quality, as their urban peers. This will not happen without making a conscious decision to direct resources accordingly, including equal access to public transport for rural young people.

Finally, rural areas need a commitment to fairness. Both public and commercial organisations understand that delivering to rural populations is more expensive than delivering to concentrated urban ones. This is why the NHS always seeks to save money by consolidating specialist services into a limited number of locations, delivery companies try to charge extra in rural areas and commercially delivered broadband has had to be subsidised by the public purse for rural people to get a reasonable service. Rural proofing all public services is not just essential for fairness, it also guides the way in which delivery can be adapted to fit rural circumstances. Done well, and with investment in the infrastructure of rural communities, people who live in rural areas can work with Government to make the rural tax pound stretch further.

So, members of the Conservative Party must demand of their prospective leaders a commitment that ‘rural proofing’ of all policy is hardwired into Government. Having done so, a fair allocation of resources should also be provided to the 17% of the population that live there. If this is combined with an active policy of working with rural communities and devolving power down to the closest practical level, then the people living in these places can properly fulfil their potential    to contribute to the challenges of the next few years.

ACRE is a member of the Rural Coalition and many of these ‘asks’ are echoed in letters being sent to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss by the Coalition’s Chair, Margaret Clark. With its reach across all of Rural England, the ACRE Network is well placed to make sure rural constituency associations of the Conservative Party also raise these same questions with both candidates.

Jeremy Leggett

History suggests that political parties only take notice of rural areas when they have to