Nick Herbert was appointed shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs last week and today he has followed Eric Pickles’s lead by taking the party’s message to the people of Devon and Cornwall.

He’s not there in the flesh, but he has written about Labour’s failures on rural affairs for the Western Morning News, whose readers include voters in a large number of West Country marginals, many of which are currently held by the Lib Dems.

Here are just some of the ways in which he explains that rural communities are being hit especially hard by the recession:

  • In remote rural areas, the number of businesses per 10,000 people is almost three times the urban level: the Commission for Rural Communities has warned that lower consumer and business spending, together with difficult borrowing conditions, have led to job losses and business closures;
  • The marked downturn in the construction industry has led to a significant decline in the demand for wood;
  • Over a third of tourism businesses have reported a decline in profits;
  • House prices are significantly higher in the countryside than in urban areas, yet earnings are lower, so there are fewer first time buyers: although values have now fallen sharply, the unavailability of credit means there’s no silver lining of increased affordability;
  • Last year’s soaring fuel prices clobbered rural motorists who rely on their cars where the provision of public transport is poor;
  • Rural homes have seen the cost of heating oil double over the last two years;
  • Rural England has lost over a fifth of its entire post office network since the new millennium: nearly 1,400 rural branches have closed;
  • Well over 200 of the smallest schools have closed since 1997;
  • In this Government’s first two terms, 384 police stations closed in the shires, nearly five times the number in the metropolitan boroughs;
  • Rural pubs are closing at the alarming rate of two a day.

He concludes by stating that over the last decade the Labour Government has
shown "arrogant disdain" for people’s views and that the Conservatives
offer an alternative government which would both understand and listen
to the the countryside:

"Across rural Britain, quiet communities have become
angered by a Government which won’t even listen, still less give them a
say. People have marched and protested. They have travelled up to
Westminster to lobby Parliament. But too often Ministers are deaf to
the countryside.
"We desperately need a new Government which understands rural Britain
and cares about it.  But we also need to reverse the trend of
centralisation, to end the years of thoughtless dictat from Whitehall,
so that rural communities are respected… Turnout in rural Britain at
the last general election was significantly higher than in urban
areas.  Rural communities are crying out to be heard. They should no
longer be ignored."

As the man who oversaw the transformation of the British Field Sports
Society into the Countryside Movembent – the precursor to the
Countryside Alliance – Nick is extremely well-placed to take on the
rural affairs brief. We look forward to hearing more from him on these
issues in the months to come.

Jonathan Isaby