Simon Hart: The next government must engage with the countryside
Last week - along with Kate Hoey, the Countryside Alliance chairman and Labour MP for Vauxhall - I launched the Countryside Alliance's Rural Manifesto. No great surprise there you might say; every lobby group will be doing the same over the coming months - but ours is a bit different.
It seeks to attract endorsement from individual members of the public, which will be presented to the three main parties prior to the General Election. We want it to be read, we want it to generate discussion and we want it to make people think. We want the main parties to abandon any preconceived notions they may have as to its origins and embrace it.
The Rural Manifesto cover five topics: housing, transport, rural services, farming and, of course, repeal of the Hunting Act. At the heart of the matter is our desire to inform, persuade and educate our audience.
This is not a random choice, nor are these five necessarily the most important issues for everyone. What they do represent is a five piece jigsaw. Each piece connects with the next. Some have huge practical implications, whilst others make important political statements.
Rural Britain has changed drastically under Labour, and not always because of Labour. More people live are now moving to 'rural' areas than ever and more will continue this trend as our infrastructure, roads, technology and habits change and evolve.
The values of rural and urban households are, in many ways, more synchronised now than in the past. Everyone is feeling the impact of the recession; everywhere has pockets of real deprivation; concerns about our quality of life, the environment and the kind of Britain we want to live in are widespread and have less to do with what we see when we look out of our own windows and more to do with how we perceive the outlook from everybody’s windows.
Rural Britain has never been more aware of the need to abandon the notion that all "townies" are out to get them, and equally urban Britain has become much more aware that the "countryside" (strange though it is in parts), is actually a force for good in our crowded island.
My home patch in West Wales (and where I am also the Conservative PPC) would be described by the pollsters as rural, but the reality is that surprisingly few people actually farm, derive their principle income from agriculture or lead a traditional rural lifestyle. But agriculture continues to form a vital piece of this jigsaw. It’s about feeding the nation good healthy food; rearing animals; maintaining a landscape responsibly and above all keeping communities together.
On the whole, farmers get a pretty average press. We are challenging outdated notions of wealth and disregard. Farmers are not subsidised park keepers, but open air businessmen, embracing traditional production with modern technology. We are calling on the next administration to restore farming’s faith in Government; to be its friend not its enemy.
Community is about more than jobs which is why we attach real significance to housing – the chance for local people to live locally, to fill schools, support local services and, keep families together. The countryside has always evolved and this generation of rural people understands the social and technical requirements of the 21st Century. It knows how to change, but it wants the opportunity to do so in the countryside it grew up in.
And of course there is hunting. Whilst the party that banned hunting is unlikely to adopt a policy of getting rid of the Act just yet, the common consensus is increasingly that the Hunting Act represents everything that is wrong with this Governmen: a readiness to ignore evidence, principle and civil liberties for short-term party political gain. Spite, prejudice, and revenge were just three of the words used to describe the campaign to ban hunting as the Bill ground its way through 700 hours of parliamentary time. Almost everyone now knows that foxes were the last things on the minds of the Bill’s supporters, especially after one of the most prominent Peter Bradley MP eventually admitted that it really was all about “class war”.
When repeal comes before the House, the debate will no longer be about hunting but about whether an unworkable and wasteful law, passed for bad reasons, should be allowed to stay on the Statute Book. The settled position of the Conservative Party is to allow a Government Bill in Government time on a free vote – in other words in line with the 2005 manifesto commitment and consistent with the party’s current agenda. It recognises that tolerance and respect are unarguable. It recognises the need for workable legislation that can be understood by the police, the courts and those it affects. It recognises that prohibiting any activity only works when there is overwhelming evidence that it is causing a demonstrable harm. And crucially a simple repeal bill can go through the Commons in well under a day.
We have, of course, talked to the media about repeal and how they would react to it. The Sun expects a Conservative Government to get rid of the Act and gave a characteristic response – “the story is not if Dave does this, but if he doesn’t”. The Sunday Times, Evening Standard, Sunday Telegraph, Times and Telegraph have all already called for the Act to be scrapped. The Observer and Independent have gloried in the fact that it is unworkable. The Guardian, Mail, Mail on Sunday, Express, Sunday Express and Star all vociferously opposed the ban being passed in the first place.
When the next Conservative Government brings forward its proposals to get rid of the Hunting Act there will only be one national newspaper opposing the move. And if you are on the wrong side of the Daily Mirror, you can be fairly sure that you are on the right side of the argument.
In the next ten months we will be talking to all the major parties about their policies for the countryside. We believe there is no reason that any party could not adopt the realistic and practical proposals we are putting forward. We are more than mindful of the economic situation any incoming Government will face and are not being unrealistic about demanding increased expenditure in some areas. Indeed proposals such as cutting the rate of VAT for repair, maintenance and home improvement work has even raised tax revenue in other European countries.
Most of all, by adopting the proposals in the Rural Manifesto, political parties will be signalling an end to the partisan politics which has dogged the relationship between the countryside and government over the last ten years. It is time for a government that engages with the countryside as it actually is, not as some anachronism of a Britain that never actually existed. It is time for a fresh start and the Rural Manifesto points the way.
If you want to be part of it, please sign up at the Countryside Alliance website.