FOR political generations, the Tory party has been traditionally associated with the countryside, and rural issues, while Labour’s heartlands have been in Britain’s inner cities.
Yet, more recently, there have been subtle shifts in this support, not least because successive premiers and Tory leaders – Theresa May is no exception – have all paid ‘lip service’ to the rural vote.
However, if the Conservative Party is to regain lost ground, it needs to address the needs of countryside communities before they wither away.
Mrs May, and her team, can begin by implementing – in full – the serious and thoughtful recommendations published by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy today following a detailed study.
Findings which echo The Yorkshire Post’s own coverage, and the economic and social challenges facing this county’s rural and coastal communities in spite of a £9bn a year tourism industry, they’re also politically uncontentious.
At their core is a call for future policies – whether driven by the Government, councils or stakeholders like local enterprise partnerships – to be rural-proofed from the outset so the rural economy’s untapped potential can start to be maximised for the greater good.
At present, Defra – the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – has been responsive under the energetic Michael Gove, one of Mrs May’s more respected ministers, to rising public concerns about climate change and marine pollution.
It is also working to help the agricultural industry prepare for Brexit, and the appointment of Scarborough and Whitby MP Robert Goodwill as Farming and Fisheries Minister has reassured many in this sector.
But Defra has been less effective when it comes to the third element of its remit – rural affairs – and this is self-evident on its website which pays scant regard to issues like affordable housing, low wages, public transport, digital connectivity, skills and the provision of key amenities, such as schools, health services and shops, which are fundamental to the viability and vitality of countryside areas.
And while Mr Gove accepted the case for rural-proofing, and specifically those LEPs which believe that enterprise is exclusive to urban towns and cities, rather than the countryside and all those industrial villages and farms located between such centres of population, the question is whether he can persuade the rest of Whitehall to embrace this approach when the Government is in so much turmoil.
This newspaper, for one, hopes that he succeeds while he still has a chance, as Environment Secretary, to exert his influence and ensure that this common sense report is not, like so many, left to gather dust by Ministers, and officials, who lack vision.
Not only would this be an insult to those peers who brought so much expertise to the inquiry, but it would be a betrayal of those rural areas – many here – which are already shortchanged when it comes to funding.
And neither the Tories – or Labour – should have anything to fear from the committee’s call for an annual report to be presented to Parliament on rural strategy, and the record of individual departments, if they’re to make the most of this opportunity. Governments, in case they need to be reminded, are supposedly obliged to represent all parts of the country equally – including rural Britain.