I often boast about the beauty of my constituency. I live in it, I work in it and I love it to bits. Bridgwater and West Somerset is predominantly rural. Agriculture and tourism are the two prime industries. So the economy is fragile and linked to the weather and the seasons.
But the very facets that make this political stamping ground so desirable – the lush pastures on the Somerset levels, the views, the hills, the wide open spaces, and Exmoor – also generate considerable problems.
It is an absolutely stunning place to live, but only the rich can afford to live here.
To say we have a shortage of affordable housing is a gross understatement. Affordable homes are like fairies at the bottom of the garden. We would love to believe in them, but very few of us are ever likely to spot one.
Yet without decent accommodation at fair prices the work-force will simply melt away and the character of the entire region will slowly erode. It is already happening. Cherished pubs have shut their door, because there weren’t enough customers to cherish them. Friendly local shops have vanished for lack of custom. The populations grow older and, sometimes, grumpier. Picturesque villages are gradually being starved of life itself.
And we only have ourselves to blame.
That is why I am keenly supporting the National Housing Federation’s Save our Villages campaign. Anything that pricks the consciences of the decision-makers has to be welcomed. I am all for achieving a proper rural housing plan and for getting councils signed up to the process. I want to involve councils big and small.
But this is an issue that deserves more than cheerful lip service from politicians. I believe I have a duty to twist arms and bend ears among the population I represent to achieve a fundamental change of attitude. It is no longer reasonable, or fair, to believe that rural life must stand absolutely still and sensible developments be abjectly opposed. One of the most frustrating aspects of my job is seeking to counter this closed mindset.
There are NIMBYs in my patch who would rather keep everything in aspic. I can understand what they want – to conserve the best of the past and the present. But too often I come up against a brick wall of understanding when I ask them to consider the future. The tragic fact is that there will be no future for villages if today’s villagers discourage tomorrow’s generation by pricing them out of the market and saying no to new housing.
I live in a village. I live next door to the pub – and I patronise it. My wife works in the village store. In fact there’s a rota of local helpers – otherwise there probably wouldn’t be a village store.
It is easy to blame councillors and planners for bad decisions. Yes they’ve probably made mistakes too. But imaginative attitudes tend to start with the people and work their way up. The realisation that attitudes must change is vital. That is the battle that now needs fighting. Hearts and minds for bricks and mortar.