Don’t let Brexit zealots destroy Yorkshire’s rural heartlands as Show begins – Andrew Vine

The 2019 Great Yorkshire Show begins today amid renewed uncertainty over the future of farming.
The 2019 Great Yorkshire Show begins today amid renewed uncertainty over the future of farming.
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THERE can be no more powerful symbol of the importance of safeguarding our rural economy than the Great Yorkshire Show.

In all its scale and scope, Britain’s greatest agricultural show – which begins today – is not only a celebration of what the countryside does, but a reminder of what is at stake if it is not given more Government attention and support.

There is no evidence to suggest that Boris Johnson, the main likely to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister this month, understands the rural economy.

There is no evidence to suggest that Boris Johnson, the main likely to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister this month, understands the rural economy.

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Many amongst the crowds flocking to Harrogate over the next three days will gain a greater understanding of how the countryside works, its delicately-balanced relationships between landscape, farming, conservation and the communities which depend upon it. The show will also help them appreciate the journey food makes from field to their tables, and hopefully recognise the often-unseen, year-round hard work that goes into making that happen.

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If only senior politicians had a similar appreciation of how agriculture and the rural economy work. For too many, the countryside is the invisible element of Britain’s wider economy. They will spout about manufacturing, the service sector, financial services or digital industries, but on rural matters remain silent.

The Great Yorkshire Show remains the country's premier celebration of agriculture.

The Great Yorkshire Show remains the country's premier celebration of agriculture.

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Ignorance is partly to blame, but so is a deep-rooted attitude that nothing needs to be said or done, that the countryside somehow manages to look after itself and will muddle through, that the fields will always be full of cattle and sheep, or crops awaiting harvest.

The farmers at the Great Yorkshire Show know different. They are acutely aware that agriculture and the rural economy of which it is part stand at a perilous juncture.

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Michael Gove visited the Great Yorkshire Show in 2017 shortly after his appointment as Environment Secretary.

Michael Gove visited the Great Yorkshire Show in 2017 shortly after his appointment as Environment Secretary.

Uncertainty over Brexit is part of that, but only one element. We do not know what the impact of leaving the EU will have on the countryside, whether it will place farmers under pressure from cheap imports, or if border issues and tariffs will make exporting our produce uneconomic.

The posturing of the two men vying to become Prime Minister later this month is not helping. Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Hunt has yet said anything about the rural economy remotely reassuring that either has its welfare to the forefront of their minds.

On the contrary, their efforts to outdo each other on who will take the toughest stance with the EU ramps up the chances of Britain crashing out without a deal, with possibly catastrophic consequences for agriculture.

But Brexit poses only the most immediate potential threat to our rural economy. The respected Institute of Economic Development has warned that rural communities are likely to face the most serious problems of any areas of Britain over the next two to three decades unless action is taken to help them.

The Red Shepherdess Hannah Jackson with a Westmorland Rough Fell at the Great Yorkshire Show.  Photography by Richard Walker

The Red Shepherdess Hannah Jackson with a Westmorland Rough Fell at the Great Yorkshire Show. Photography by Richard Walker

That stark assessment was echoed by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy, which called in April for a Government strategy to help the countryside.

Coming as it did amid Parliamentary convulsions over Brexit and paralysis in all areas of domestic policy, the committee’s report was overlooked.

To his credit, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has performed better than many of his predecessors in recognising the needs of the countryside, and called for his department to have more financial autonomy from the Treasury so that it can boost the rural economy.

That is a sensible idea, but it is far from certain Mr Gove will remain in post to push it through if his rival, Boris Johnson, becomes Premier.

The list of problems besetting the countryside is long and requires urgent action. Yorkshire’s rural communities exemplify them and all are interlinked in a dangerous cycle of decline.

There are pockets of deprivation to be found even in the most seemingly-idyllic towns and villages, the consequence of low wages and a lack of opportunities.

They are key elements in the exodus of young people from the places where they were born and grew up to the cities in search of work. Add to that property prices they cannot afford and it amounts to a draining of vitality from the countryside. In turn, this is creating a threat to rural schools because of falling pupil numbers.

And aggravating so many of the problems is a lack of essential infrastructure – slow broadband that makes it difficult for businesses to set up and create jobs, inadequate public transport and widely-scattered health and social services. If inner-city areas were facing blights as serious as these, any Government would view them as priorities for spending, on the grounds that they cannot be abandoned to a slow, downward spiral. But the countryside simply doesn’t get the same attention.

Rural communities, and the economy of which they are part, need, and deserve, a much fairer deal. And if that message goes out from the Great Yorkshire Show, the event will be doing the countryside even more of a service than it does already.