The first thing to understand about the parties’ attitudes to the countryside is that, even though the Conservatives are overwhelmingly the leading party in rural areas, there are at least two different sorts of countryside. The first is the prosperous near-London commuter belt, typified by Ightham, near Sevenoaks, officially the least deprived council ward in England. The second is the deep countryside, far enough away that the economy still really depends on agriculture and a bit of tourism rather than commuters from a nearby town. There aren’t too many of those left now, but somewhere like the upper Teesdale or the Torridge Valley in Devon might fit the bill. If you want to understand the difference, it’s the difference between the Farmers’ Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph will never care about livestock prices, the FG will never have an opera reviewer.
The issues voters have in those different areas are miles apart. In the commuter belt, the concerns might be over taxes, immigration, or hunting. Europe is the evil to be fought against. In the remoter areas of England, organisations like the National Sheep Association campaign for greater involvement by Britain in the EU, and immigration brings cheap labour for harvest time. The worries are around housing, fishing, or restrictive planning regulations that prevent farms being turned into more profitable businesses.
The parties have responded with policies designed to target some of those rural concerns, particularly on housing. The Conservatives, radically, want to give planning powers directly to neighbourhoods and communities, which is perhaps something of a gamble. While many people in rural areas might agree that low-cost housing for local people is needed somewhere, it’s also easy to imagine the local Lynda Snells popping up on the committee to knock down any specific proposals.
All three main parties have a plan for rural pubs and post offices, and mostly it’s about giving them over to the local community as common assets. There is a sense in which the parties are saying “your problem, mate”, and handing over an unviable business to see whether free effort from local people can make it work. It can work – but it doesn’t seem like a long-term solution. It’s worth noting that the Liberal Democrats, ambitiously, have promised to stop post office closures by modernising the network.
On farming specifically, the fiasco of farm payments (royally cocked up by the Rural Payments Agency a couple of years ago) gets a mention from the Conservatives. All want reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, generally to move payments away from direct subsidies to environmental protection payments. That’s been the direction of travel in recent years, but British demands for CAP reform have been being ignored for thirty years now, so there’s little chance of major movement on that.
Finally, on food, the nasty old supermarkets get a kicking from all three parties for underpaying farmers – without, obviously, spelling out to non-farmers that price increases at the farm gate mean price increases in Gateshead and other poor urban communities.
Ten years ago, farmers used to complain that they were treated as “park keepers” – not expected to be businessmen, but just to keep the landscape of England (which is a man-made landscape) looking the way townies expected it to look. With EU money increasing for environmental improvements, eco-tourism booming in the west of England, and the supermarkets being ordered to be nice to them, perhaps the farmers will find out that being a park keeper isn’t so bad after all.
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