Douglas Chalmers: A real chance for rural voters to seize the agenda

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With less than 100 days to go to the general election, political party spin doctors are now in full swing, pumping out a stream of carefully crafted messages at a dizzying rate. We’re told that jobs, the NHS and immigration are the battlefields on which votes will be won or lost.

But with this election shaping up to be unlike any other in recently history, every vote will count and the rural economy could play a key role in deciding our future destiny, particularly here in Yorkshire.

About 86 per cent of Yorkshire is classed as rural, however this vast area can claim only 19.5 per cent of the population. Population equals seats equals parliamentary power, so it is little wonder that rural voters are often overlooked.

This election is looking too close to call, and there is open talk of a three-party coalition government, with parties previously thought of as minor, such as the Greens and Ukip, or those with no national mandate, such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru, now potential partners.

With the vast majority of the population living in towns or cities, modern day politics is predominantly urban-focused but the uncertainty surrounding May’s election offers a real opportunity to make our rural voices heard.

In the post-election scramble, parties will be looking for any sort of high ground, moral or numerical. If the number of seats cannot create clear water between them, they will turn to the popular vote, and then the rules change. It doesn’t matter if it was cast in Allerton or Aysgarth, Hallam or Holmfirth, a vote is a vote is a vote and contributes to a mandate.

It’s not as if the big issues aren’t relevant in rural areas. The rural economy is a big player in the national scheme of things.

Farming is the highly visible end of rural activity, which Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss recently referred to as a “high-tech powerhouse at the heart of our long-term economic plan, vital to the country’s future security”. How refreshing to hear the word “powerhouse” used outside the context of urban-based commerce and investment.

Mrs Truss also believes our rural economy could be as productive as that of towns within 10 years. Currently it contributes about 20 per cent, which means that rural businesses will have to more than double their financial output.

But to achieve its potential, Yorkshire’s rural economy will need to punch above its weight. We must focus on the things that really matter and make sure our future political masters are up to the job. The CLA has produced its own manifesto to help candidates of all parties to achieve a better understanding of the countryside, to ensure that their policies unlock the potential of rural areas.

First and foremost, better broadband provision is a must. We’re only promised 95 per cent cover by 2017 and according to Defra the remaining five per cent comprises 1.4 million premises across the country. You can bet many of them will be in our moors, fells and dales.

It is hard to think of any other investment that could make such a difference to the rural economy. The ability to connect with the rest of the world would go a long way towards reversing the de-population of rural communities and boosting local business output.

We will hear the environment discussed throughout the campaign as well. And rightly so, as it provides numerous opportunities to contribute to the nation’s wellbeing and, believe it or not, prosperity.

The Natural Capital Committee recently highlighted that every £1 spent on land managers’ environmental schemes means at least a £3 benefit to society, and this doesn’t include the non-monetary benefits. We already know that Yorkshire’s scenery brings in millions of visitors and billions of pounds – look no further than the success of last year’s Grand Départ.

Yet our “natural” landscapes and waterways have been sculpted and managed by generations of farmers and land managers.

Changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) mean that large areas of our landscape managed for environmental purposes will lose funding. Getting the balance between food production and the environment is critical and potential candidates must be able to demonstrate an understanding of this complex relationship.

Between now and the general election, the CLA is urging all those who live and work in rural Yorkshire to engage with candidates and really quiz them on their rural credentials. A proactive approach with the countryside at its heart is needed from the next Government if we are to provide affordable housing, embrace new technologies, deliver fair rewards for farmers and unlock the potential of rural-based businesses to the wider economy.

Douglas Chalmers is policy and public affairs director of CLA North.