Maggie Jones on a government immune to the plight of rural communities
Has the government been guilty of taking the support and votes of rural communities for granted? You might think so given the current plight of their economies. Whether on jobs, growth, public services or farming sustainability, all the measures of success seem sadly to be going in the wrong direction. For those living in rural areas there are few reasons to be optimistic about their future prosperity.
Too many rural workers find their employment opportunities limited to low skilled, insecure work. Average annual wages are £4,500 lower than in urban areas and the gap has grown by £1,000 since 2010. Rural communities are the hardest hit by reductions in public services – which are the largest employers in these areas. Families meanwhile, are particularly affected by spiralling energy, transport and childcare costs. Bus fares for example, have risen by 27% at the same time as 2,000 routes have been cut.
Many rural areas have GP shortages, educational attainment is lower than in the urban equivalents, and the Conservative’s forced academy programme now threatens many village schools with closure. The housing crisis has also hit rural communities hard – with prices rocketing, the bedroom tax squeezing incomes and social housing waiting lists getting longer. So it’s tough trying to bring up a family in these circumstances, and the government is showing little sign of understanding, let alone action, to improve their lot.
The Treasury’s focus on economic regeneration via devolution to powerful city-regions is a case in point. These plans largely exclude swathes of our country, such as the South West and East – both of which don’t have a large city focus.
By doing so, ministers are ignoring the substantial contribution that rural areas make to our economy. Latest estimates show that those in England contributed £229bn to the economy – about a fifth of its total. These are disproportionately small businesses, employing around three and a half million people. They represent a huge economic potential and include some of the more creative and inventive start- ups vital for our future prosperity. Yet far from being nurtured by government, they are being denied access to business support and investment routinely available to their urban equivalents.
Of course, the most frequent complaint of small businesses is the dire state of the rural broadband that is crucial to their business infrastructure. Ministers have been guilty of dithering on this issue on a grand scale. Having scrapped the last Labour government’s roll-out timetable, the subsequent targets have been marked by muddle and delay. The latest plan, a Universal Service Obligation, is anything but universal and would mean a cost penalty for those living in very rural areas. And the government has failed to act on increasing evidence that existing broadband providers routinely fabricate the speeds they can offer to rural customers.
Life under a Conservative government has not been easy for the farming community either. Income is falling, exacerbated by delayed payments from the Rural Payments Agency. The dairy industry is caught in a perfect storm of global market saturation and plummeting milk prices. Over 4000 dairy farmers have already been forced to leave the sector, unable to resist the pressure to cut prices from powerful supermarkets and milk producers. This inevitably impacts on local jobs as well as threatening our longer term food sustainability.
So there are few reasons to be cheerful for those trying to make a living in today’s rural communities. That is why Labour is committed to raising living standards by tackling low pay, investing in skills, delivering a reliable infrastructure and creating fairer markets for producers and suppliers. We want to ensure that public services receive the support they deserve and build more affordable housing. Unlike the current government, we don’t take these communities for granted. We not only recognise the crucial contribution they make to our economy but will work in partnership to shape a more vibrant and prosperous future.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 27th April 2016