Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson were urged to put “rural issues at the heart of their government” after setting out their policies on a host of issues in response to questions by the Countryside Alliance lobby group.
And ahead of a hustings event to be held in York tomorrow, both men pledged that everywhere in the country, including the most rural and remote locations in the country, would have access to gigabit-capable full fibre broadband by the mid-2020s.
Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt said he would make the required funding available by 2027, adding that he would favour proposals which provide close to 100 per cent coverage in rural areas when selling off specific bands of the electromagnetic spectrum for private operators to transmit signals.
Answering the same question, his predecessor Mr Johnson, who today visited the Thames Valley Police Training Centre in Reading, Berkshire, said he would roll out full fibre eight years early, in 2025. He said: “I am fully supportive of making sure that rural communities are not left behind through lack of connectivity. With close family members dotted throughout the countryside I know just how vital this is.”
Last year, the Government announced that the entire UK should have access to full fibre internet, where a fibre optic cable goes from the exchange all the way to the house, by 2033. The move would mean homes and businesses would get much faster internet speeds than currently, with many served partly by copper cables connecting to their homes.
The Countryside Alliance, which has over 100,000 members nationwide, including many with a vote in the upcoming contest, asked the Conservative leadership candidates 10 questions on rural policy to help shape the debate on who becomes the next Prime Minister.
Mr Hunt pledged to “fast track” the delivery of a full fibre broadband network and claimed that rural post offices would be “one of the beneficiaries of my pledge to take 90 per cent of high street [out of] business rates altogether”.
The Foreign Secretary also said he “wouldn’t introduce any undue restrictions on legitimate gun ownership and use” and pledged that all legislation under his government “would be based on principle and evidence.”
Mr Johnson pledged to make more funds available to address “imbalances that affect rural communities” and committed to supporting the “vital resource” of the rural post office network. He also said he would ensure that laws on wildlife management and animal welfare were based on “facts rather than emotion” and said looking to change firearms legislation was “not a priority”.
Mr Hunt said: “A Conservative Government led by me would place rural society at its heart. I would boost the rural economy by cutting corporation tax and taking thousands of rural businesses, including post offices, out of business rates altogether.
"I would also roll out a national, full fibre network to every premise by the mid-2020s. I can also pledge to base all my policy decisions on evidence and to never introduce any undue restrictions on gun ownership or the list of wild animals it is lawful to shoot. Finally, I will ensure we leave the European Union so that we have full control over our agricultural and environmental policies.”
In his response, Mr Johnson said: "Rural communities will be central to kickstarting the British economy after we leave the EU on 31 October. Around a third of our businesses are in the countryside and I will ensure that they have access to superfast broadband by rolling out full fibre eight years ahead of the current target in 2025.
"School budgets in our rural schools have been under pressure, that’s why I am boosting per pupil school funding, so every child gets a quality education.
"And I am the only candidate committed to leaving the EU by 31 October so we get out of the Common Agricultural Policy and deliver the support our farmers need so they can grow, sell and export more Great British food and drink."
Countryside Alliance Chief Executive, Tim Bonner, said: “This is a hugely important leadership election for rural communities. The next Prime Minister will be responsible for making Brexit work for the countryside and have the final say on major new policies on agriculture, fishing, and the environment outside the EU. It is the vital that whoever becomes Prime Minister puts rural issues at the heart of their government”.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post following a visit to Yorkshire this week, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said both Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson approved of the "broad approach" being taken by Defra, his department, in drawing up future agricultural and environmental policies.
After meeting farmers, Mr Gove said: "One of the things I wanted to stress was that the direction of travel that we have taken is locked on.
"Both of the candidates for the leadership endorse the broad approach we are taking."