The Marquess of Abergavenny is National Chairman of the Conservative Rural Affairs Group.
We have had “twinning” for years. As an exercise it seemed harmless enough, even benign, although I suspect some councillors have seen it as a bit of a taxpayer funded jolly. I am not entirely sure what the taxpayer got for their money, though. But the goals of increasing mutual understanding and collaboration are laudable.
Much is made of the difference in funding and treatment between our four Home Nations – but our four countries are also split into parallel universes between the rural and the urban. This applies in all four countries of the United Kingdom and in all areas within each country. This is also about far more than just the funding, taxation and provision of services, it is also a question of rural representatives knowing and understanding their urban counterparts and their issues and challenges – and vice versa.
If it was considered important enough to twin Tunbridge Wells with Wiesbaden, surely Brexit and the economic interests of the United Kingdom demand that we steal this idea from Europe and twin Tunbridge Wells with Crowborough.
Actually I don’t care if twinning doesn’t happen (although it could be a useful tool to further, or initiate, communication) – as long as local authorities actually engage with and understand each other. History has proven this to be sketchy and inconsistent, if not the exception. Maybe twinning is an/the answer.
It is natural and right, of course, for elected representatives to focus on their own constituents – but people generally are not even aware of the borders they cross to go to work, shopping or for leisure purposes. They also don’t care. In the North of England people are often prepared to travel long distances simply to go shopping, to work or for leisure purposes.
During my two terms as a District Councillor in Wealden, I tried to get representatives of town and country to get to know each other in the hope that knowledge would lead to understanding and, heaven forbid, co-operation.
It is an indictment that there is even a need for the group that I chair, the Conservative Rural Affairs Group (CRAG). Our rural areas are home to 17 per cent of the population – that’s over nine million people, enough to win a General Election.
The countryside can be a great place to live, although it isn’t when services are cut, businesses leave and pensioners become isolated. But the countryside can, and should, be a great environment for start-ups and small businesses – and not just the obvious and expected rural businesses.
It could also improve quality of life, congestion, pollution, commuting times, work-life balance, sustainability. The mantra of “a country that work for everyone” is a great goal, but to achieve it, the countryside needs to be nurtured.
If we don’t take action to look after the countryside it could become even more of a collection of ghost villages and pretty posh dormitories than it already is becoming, increasingly devoid of the rich tapestry of people and jobs it was, and should be, home to. The death of local pubs, post offices and small businesses is just the symptom of decades of neglect of the countryside. Good internet connections and transport infrastructure are just some of the things vital for rural economies to retain businesses, jobs and young people as well as attracting people involved in start-ups and internet based professions not heard of ten years ago.
But it’s more than that. Without getting into the debate about Brexit (apart from the obvious plus that politicians won’t have the EU to blame for things anymore) Brexit also has huge opportunities for the countryside. Or to put it another way, a vibrant countryside is a real opportunity for the country.
A strong post-Brexit UK needs a strong economy across all of its sectors and all its regions. Ignoring, or under utilising, the potential of the countryside and the 9 million people who live and work in the countryside would be madness.
Getting urban and rural authorities to actually interact and co-operate with each other – via twinning or whatever mechanism – could help contribute to this.
Of course there are a myriad of other issues holding back rural areas and CRAG is publishing a paper later this month in an attempt to address some of these issues and contribute to the Government’s policies to create a prosperous post-Brexit economy.