Brian Wilson: At the election, rural voice must be loud and clear

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IT is important that MPs, aspiring MPs and their political advisers are hearing the voice of those from rural constituencies, not least because of a traumatic start to 2015 for the nation’s dairy industry.

With less than four months to go to the general election, the particular needs of rural areas must become part of the electoral debate.

Of course, city and urban areas have also their needs, but too often the smaller rural voice is drowned out or overlooked within national discourse.

That is why the Rural Services Network – an organisation whose membership includes over 260 local authorities and other service providers from across rural England – has launched its Rural Services Manifesto.

It is an ambitious attempt to set out priorities for an incoming government in May 2015, of whatever political hue that 
may be.

It contains a range of policy actions which, if taken up, would immeasurably improve the quality of life for rural communities and give a boost to the rural economy.

An incoming government must tackle the dire shortage of affordable housing in rural areas.

This breaks up communities, pushing out many local young people and families, and it can leave local businesses struggling to recruit to vacancies. It cannot be right simply to let rural communities become places where only the rich can afford to live.

There are some actions government could take and which would make a real difference. These would involve changes to the planning system and to the way that subsidised housing is funded.

Currently, that subsidy favours larger urban housing developments over small-scale rural ones. Most communities would welcome new affordable homes to meet local needs.

Internet connections remain slow in too many rural areas, holding back businesses, making it hard for people to access online services and causing problems for those (including farmers) who are now expected to submit returns online. Modern life depends on a decent broadband connection.

It is true that governments have invested to ensure that broadband networks reach further into rural areas. But there remains some way to go and considerable effort now needs to focus on more remote locations, where commercial providers will never invest without public sector support.

Improving access to health services is another issue which deserves to be on the election agenda. For rural communities, hospitals can be a considerable distance away and may be impossible to reach by public transport. This impacts patients – especially those requiring a course of treatment – and those visiting inpatients. The desire to see more NHS treatments delivered locally in GP surgeries, health centres and community hospitals should be rigorously pursued in rural areas.

An incoming government should also face up to a potential shortfall of GPs within rural practices. Many rural practices are already finding it hard to fill vacancies. Add to this the fact that a substantial proportion of existing GPs are approaching retirement age. Trainee GPs should be encouraged – and perhaps incentivised – to spend time in rural practices.

Then there is the very real need to tackle fuel poverty, with statistics showing clearly that this is an issue which particularly blights rural communities. More than half of homes in villages are off the mains gas network, making them reliant on heating sources such as oil, electricity and solid fuel.

Not only are these dearer, but it means households cannot benefit from fuel discount packages. The large number of solid wall homes and low wages are further factors in rural areas.

One obvious action a furure government could take is to enforce the rural target for the Energy Company Obligation or ECO. Energy suppliers have a legal obligation to help low income customers make their homes more energy efficient.

Some 15 per cent of their ECO funding was supposed to go to rural customers, yet analysis in July 2014 found no more than one per cent had done so. Given that rural customers help pay for ECO through their energy bills, this can’t be allowed to continue.

Finally, any incoming government must look again at the way the pot of funding for local government is shared out. At a time of austerity it is especially important that the distribution of funds for local services such as refuse collection, care for the elderly, libraries and bus route subsidies is a fair one. This is not a call for extra funding, just for fairer funding.

In the current financial year, the Government is giving grants to rural local authorities worth £421 for every resident. Compare that with the £599 given for each resident in urban local authorities – that’s £178 more. Rural households are paying higher council tax bills while receiving fewer services than their urban counterparts.

Individual voters will have their own reasons for voting as they do next May. Nonetheless, any political party which can set out credible commitments on issues such as those above will deserve to be taken seriously by the fifth of England’s population living in our rural towns, villages and countryside.

• Brian Wilson is policy and research director at the Rural Services Network.