Marc Jones is the Police and Crime Commissioner in Lincolnshire
As a person born and raised in a rural shire county, I am, of course, passionate about the beguiling beauty of the countryside and the resourcefulness of the people.
More than that, though, I understand the vital importance to the nation’s economy, food security, and general way of life, that great swathes of rural England provide, almost without being noticed by decision-makers in Westminster.
The coming General Election has to be seen as much more than a resolution to the Brexit deadlock, important though that will be. It is the opportunity we need to re-engage with our rural communities and recognise the value these bring and the support they need to flourish in the future.
Whether in the cider orchards of Devon, the rolling fields of Lincolnshire, or the stunning majesty of the Cumbrian hills, the beauty of our countryside is clear. The challenges, however, are often less easy to see, and as a Party we have not always championed their cause.
For far too long, many rural areas of our country have struggled to provide essential services such as policing, local government, and healthcare across their vast geography. The inequitable funding formulas have failed to recognise the challenges of rurality and the essential need to invest in infrastructure, such as broadband, road and rail links.
This has been compounded by the outstanding ability of local leaders, more often than not Conservatives, who have time and again delivered against sometimes impossible odds.
I know that some will point to austerity as the cause but let us be very clear, the shameless introduction of the mid 2000s funding formula for policing by Labour took millions from most rural areas and redistributed it to urban areas. Of course some less urban Labour controlled areas such as Northumbria fared much better and were not penalised under the changes as harshly as areas like Cumbria or Lincolnshire.
It’s time for a strong Conservative Government to redress the balance, to ensure local services across our rural areas are sustainable, and that investment is made in vital infrastructure. It’s time to recognise that protecting our rural way of life, food production, tourism, and the real sense of community that is woven into the fabric of our villages and market towns must be a national priority.
Let us not forget that it is these rural areas of England that have been, and remain, the staunchest supporters of our Party. It is rural England that forms the bedrock of Conservatism.
The link between the economic prosperity of the country and the countryside is frequently overlooked. Conservatives have made some solid improvements to address this with the Midlands Engine, Northern Powerhouse, and the Borderlands Growth Deal, for example, but much more is needed. These deals often still focus on urban contributions and overlook the truly rural contributing factors that we need to see included to protect and develop local economies.
As we look forward to a post Brexit Britain, and all the opportunities it will bring, Government and the Conservative Party must not take rural England and its voting public for granted. Policing, schools, and hospitals are all stated priorities of our Prime Minister, which I fully support, and now it’s time to include food security, tourism, and protection of our environment too.
We can transform the connectivity of all of our communities across the country with broadband, road and rail investment, and reap the benefit of increased prosperity for the whole nation. We will see businesses open and expand, tourism boom, and our communities retain the young talent that too often moves to our urban centres for lack of local opportunity.
We have a very special opportunity to shape the future of our whole country, to leave no part behind. To deliver the one nation Conservatism that can preserve the best of our traditions, whilst benefiting every community from Plymouth to Penrith, and Prestatyn to Peterhead.
Through this, we can secure the rural and, by extension, the British way of life for generations to come.