Tom Richmond: View from Westminster is blind to villages’ plight

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RURAL Britain is one of this country’s greatest success stories. It is a £211bn-a-year industry according to the Government’s own figures.

Despite this, countryside communities across Yorkshire and further afield are said to be in crisis because key services are no longer sustainable.

The reason is this. A generation of young people has emerged who no longer have sufficient belief and confidence in the rural economy. They have started to move to the cities to secure a more lucrative future.

The consequence? A scaling back of key services by successive governments, making rural life even more unattractive to people from farming backgrounds and the like, and fears that some villages – the very essence of Yorkshire – will have more holiday homes than houses for local families.

Why does this matter? Without a thriving and viable agricultural industry, there will simply not be sufficient food on the table to feed this country unless even more produce is imported from overseas. It’s that fundamental.

However the status quo cannot persist if this trend is to be reversed. And, because of this necessity, two things need to happen – all political parties need to gain a better appreciation of the rural economy’s importance and the countryside needs to find a way to replicate the stirring success of the “Buy British” campaign.

First the politicians. In many respects, Westminster’s ambivalence stems from the fact that the Tories, the so-called party of the “shires”, have been able to take the rural vote for granted for too long. Because of this, and the fact that Tony Blair secured three thumping majorities without Labour penetrating Britain’s rural heartlands, policy now revolves around the needs – and whims – of those 50 or so marginal seats that will determine whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband governs after the next election. That’s all that matters to the election strategists Lynton Crosby and David Axelrod who have been drafted in from Australia and America to help the Tories and Labour respectively; the Yorkshire Dales or North York Moors will not even feature on their radar.

Yet, given that rural residents are conservative by instinct, the last thing they want is further tiers of government – even though the Cabinet is now full of spurious roles created by Cameron and his predecessors to appease certain sections of the electorate.

But what they do expect is for Cabinet members to recognise that it does cost more to fund key services – like schools, hospitals and buses – in rural areas, and that some policies, like the bedroom tax, are totally impractical in remote communities where there is already an acute shortage of affordable homes.

Not only does the funding of public services, a convoluted and anachronistic process that becomes more unfair with each passing year, need to be overhauled to reflect the true cost of providing schools and health services outside Britain’s major cities, but policies need to be rural-proofed from the outset. What is best for Notting Hill and Islington, or those urban areas transformed by advances in mobile technology, may not work in one of Wensleydale’s wildernesses where broadband access is still a distant dream.

In short, Owen Paterson – the Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – needs to realise that his brief extends beyond climate change and wind farms, and that he needs to become far more assertive in persuading his colleagues that they have an obligation to provide adequate funding for schools, NHS facilities, buses, police and so on.

Equally, it would be remiss if countryside communities were allowed to wither because of apathy. They’re too important for this to happen, as exemplified by the villagers of Coverdale on the northern tip of Wensleydale.

After the closure of The Foresters Arms pub in 2011, they formed a co-operative that raised £350,000 so it could reopen as a hostelry, restaurant and focal point for the local community. Its shareholders include the Olympic triathletes Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee who are no strangers to the area, which is one of their training bases.

It shows what can be done when villages harness people power and challenge established orthodoxies. There are plenty of other examples across Yorkshire. But the resolution of these residents must be matched by policy-makers, especially those who have the power to turn the countryside into a major growth industry if they possessed sufficient inclination and pragmatism – two traits in short supply in recent times.

And that is why so many people are frustrated with David Cameron’s government. They expected this complacency from Labour. They did, however, have the right to hope for better from the Tories, the traditional party of the countryside.

For, if the Conservatives can’t champion rural areas, who will?

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk