Rural England has suffered a decade of disrespect by Labour. Quiet communities have become angered by a Government which won’t even listen, still less give them a say. Local services have been withdrawn, rural communities have been denied a voice, and power has been taken away from local people.
Yesterday, Jim Paice MP – the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs – and I launched Rural Action, the Conservative agenda to revitalise our rural communities. We are setting out solid proposals to empower rural communities, protect rural services, respect rural people and revive the rural economy. And we are also launching a grassroots campaign, Conservative Rural Action, to promote our ideas throughout the countryside (also marked by this video posted on ConservativeHome yesterday).
Many of the challenges people face in the countryside are currently ignored because they are masked by an appearance of prosperity. But 1.6 million people are living in rural poverty. Motoring costs in rural areas are higher and public transport is thin on the ground. And there is a serious shortage of affordable housing.
Labour has exacerbated these problems by failing to appreciate the social value of rural institutions such as post offices, village pubs and small shops. 1,400 rural post offices have disappeared since the year 2000. There are now 200 fewer rural schools than when Labour came to power. 384 police stations closed in the shires in Labour’s first two terms.
The gap in public funding between urban and rural areas has widened dramatically since 1997. We will ensure fair funding for rural areas by removing the political element from the allocation of grant for individual local authorities. But tough decisions will have to be made about overall spending over the next few years. So we need to ensure that services are made more efficient and bureaucracy is reduced. I am taking a long, hard look at the quangos which fall under Defra. There are too many officials with clipboards marching around the countryside.
We also need to ensure that the social value of rural services is taken into account, so that short-sighted decisions aren’t taken which damage the economic viability of villages and rural towns. We will facilitate new business opportunities for post offices and pilot the successful demand responsive public transport schemes which operate in rural parts of mainland Europe. And we’ll devolve funding to rural communities, enabling localised and innovative approaches to deliver services. As Conservative local authorities like Essex County Council have shown, new solutions can be found to protect rural services within existing budgets.
We will reverse Labour’s centralisation, ending the years of insensitive dictat from Whitehall, and set about restoring the voice of rural areas in decision making. We will make police forces more accountable to local communities. We will scrap limits on surplus places so that good small schools can prosper and new ones can open where parents want them. And we will give rural communities the power to expand and build the homes they need, subject to the agreement of local people.
We should respect rural life by regulating only where self-regulation fails. We’ll let councils cut the red tape that makes it unnecessarily difficult for charities and sports clubs to put on events such as fetes. And we will encourage school trips to farms and the countryside by allowing teachers more discretion to organise visits and sweeping away absurd health and safety regulations.
Marginalising rural communities isn’t just unfair. It’s also a massive waste of potential. The countryside cannot be a dormitory or a museum. It is a place where millions of people work and which could be home to vibrant businesses and sustainable jobs growth of the future. So we will reduce the barriers to rural business growth through reforms to the tax and planning system, and by supporting community broadband schemes to bridge the ‘digital divide’.
Rural England is a place of outstanding natural beauty, rich cultural heritage and enduring traditions, yet too often it is undervalued as an economic, social and environmental asset. We know that rural communities are crying out to be heard. They should no longer be ignored.