Jan Royall on Labour’s commitments to rural Britain
Looking through the train windows at the beautiful Stroud Valley, I feel glad to be alive, confident that in three weeks this will again be a Labour constituency, with David Drew elected to Parliament. It is a glorious spring day, the trees and the hedgerows are bursting into life and my own Forest, the Forest of Dean, looked wonderful earlier this week as Shadow Food and Farming Minister, Huw Irranca Davies and Hywel Lloyd, co-founder of Labour Coast and Country, launched their rural tour of England with our terrific local candidate, Steve Parry-Hearn.
I am proud that Huw and Hywel started their tour here, demonstrating Labour's commitment to keeping our forests public, and recognising the fantastic fight that was started by HOOF (Hands Off Our Forest) against the Coalition’s crazy plans to privatise our woodlands. I am also proud that in our manifesto we make it crystal clear that we will protect the Public Forest Estate and promote access to green spaces in public planning. We want everyone to have enjoy nature – whoever they are, wherever they live.
We met at Hopewell Colliery, a working free mine that doubles up as a visitor attraction with underground tours and a small museum. Free-mining is one of our treasured Forest traditions, which we are determined to sustain for future generations. Speaking both to members of HOOF, a non-political organisation, and the local Labour Party, Huw also raised other issues crucial for maintaining and reinvigorating rural communities – broadband, transport, housing, health and care, jobs, and wages that enable people to love with dignity. Labour wants people to live and work in rural areas, with vibrant small businesses and affordable housing. Our policy of raising the minimum wage to at least £8 per hour by 2020, together with our active encouragement (led by Labour councils) of the living wage and banning exploitative zero hours contracts, will help deal with the very real problems of rural poverty. Likewise, we want to ensure fair agricultural wages by working with the Low Pay Commission.
West Gloucestershire has for two years running been the location of the ineffective and inhumane badger culls – another focus of Huw and Hywel’s tour. Of course we understand that Bovine TB is a scourge on the countryside, devastating livelihoods as well as communities. That is why the last Labour government undertook an extensive field trial, which concluded that culls could make no "meaningful contribution" to reducing the disease and might in fact make the problem worse. Sadly, Coalition Ministers disregarded both the science and the expert panel which evaluated the first year of pilots, choosing instead to continue with uneconomic and cruel culls. Labour is committed to working with scientists, farmers and wildlife groups to develop an alternative strategy to get Bovine TB under control, including stricter cattle measures and prioritising badger and cattle vaccinations.
People in the Forest, as in other rural areas, want and need the support of the government. They want an education system that provides their children with the skills and opportunities to flourish vocationally or academically, as well as quality jobs and a caring NHS. But they also want to be trusted to use power that should – and will, under Labour - be devolved to County as well as City Regions. All too often the man in Whitehall does not know best, when it is people who live and work in rural areas who understand their needs and aspirations. They need a government however, that will listen and enable them to act – a Labour government.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour Leader in the House of Lords and a resident of the Forest of Dean. She tweets @LabourRoyall
Published 15th April 2015