Boris Johnson will pay a Brexit price if he continues to neglect rural issues and the countryside – Andrew Vine

THERE is a forgotten land within the confused and uncertain Britain hurtling towards who-knows-what at the end of this month. It’s called the countryside.

This weekend sees the annual Countryside Live event take place at Harrogate.
This weekend sees the annual Countryside Live event take place at Harrogate.

Residents of Yorkshire’s rural communities listening to the Queen’s Speech might have been forgiven for thinking that they had suddenly been rendered invisible for all the attention they were given.

The people of the countryside have become Britain’s unmentionables in Government terms, hardly spoken about and virtually ignored when funds are allocated.

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No matter that this weekend will see a measure of how deep affection for rural Britain runs when crowds pack into Countryside Live, at Harrogate, as they always do, to celebrate farming and learn how food makes its way from field to dining table.

Theresa Villiers is a very unconvicing Environment Secretary.

The importance of this has slipped the Government’s mind. If proof of that was needed, just look at last week’s announcement about tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit which threaten to wreck the livelihoods of farmers. No tariffs will be imposed on incoming goods, but what we send abroad may be subject to duties of up to 60 per cent.

It did not appear to have occurred to the Government that this will result in a flood of cheap imported food – quite possibly produced to reprehensible welfare standards – that undercut British farmers and has the potential to drive them out of business.

Does Boris Johnson care sufficiently about rural issues?

This would be a disaster for the countryside that could prove even worse than the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, yet it seems not to have registered with ministers.

The recklessness of this as Government policy cannot be overstated. Is this what “taking back control” of our borders was meant to be? Our own farmers facing ruin at the hands of producers from God-knows-where who would be shut down on hygiene and welfare grounds if they were in this country?

The only response to concerns about the countryside have been insipid and vague assurances that the Government will support agriculture from the Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers, one of the least convincing and dynamic incumbents of that job in recent memory.

There have been no details of what that support will be. Ms Villiers is quite obviously busking it and hoping for the best, but that is of absolutely no use.

Yet this lack of regard for farmers comes as no surprise from the Government and the Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson and his Cabinet have been speaking exclusively to an urban audience since coming to office. Every announcement on spending – hospitals, railways, policing – has been targeted at cities because their focus is on trying to win over Labour voters at the next election.

The Conservatives, traditionally the party that understood the countryside, have turned their backs on it, and not only in regard to the risks to agriculture over Brexit.

Nothing is being done to aid communities struggling to cope with a toxic combination of social factors which threaten the future of the market towns and villages so characteristic of Yorkshire.

Lack of affordable housing and jobs, and the consequent exodus of young people in search of work and somewhere to live, are at the heart of the problems. Falling school rolls as a consequence of the young moving out weakens communities, as do poor broadband which makes doing business problematical, thinly-spread services and a lack of public transport.

A House of Lords report urging the adoption of a comprehensive strategy to support the rural economy has effectively been cast aside, and the increasingly dire warnings from local authorities, including those in North Yorkshire, of a spiral of decline are going unheeded.

And if Brexit results in an economic downturn, the already weakened rural economy is likely to be hit disproportionately hard.

But the Government is looking the other way, and assuming that rural constituencies will stay faithful to the Tories whenever an election comes. That could be a very risky assumption, especially if the Brexit Party splits the Conservative vote.

The people of the countryside can see quite clearly that they are not getting a fair deal, to the extent of being ignored, and farmers will be unforgiving if it becomes apparent that farmers might go under. Forgetting about the countryside is, above all else, a shameful neglect of the people who live there. For the Conservatives, it could also prove a very costly error they come to regret.