The Labour Party are currently carrying out a Rural England policy review and have asked local constituencies to consider how Labour rural policy could be improved and feed back their ideas. The letter below is the result of Meon Valley Labour listening to constituents and the Meon Valley CLP leadership team meeting and discussing policy ideas.
Meon Valley Labour Party
Meon Valley Constituency,
2nd June 2021
Luke Pollard MP
13 Frankfort Gate,
Dear Mr Pollard,
I am writing to you in regards to the Rural England Policy Review. Our CLP held a members’ meeting based on the policy review, and we would like to pass on our thoughts. Meon Valley in Hampshire is a predominantly rural constituency covering a large area between the conurbations of Portsmouth, Southampton and Winchester. It is largely composed of small villages and farmland, with the occasional historic market town providing relative urbanism. We hope that our perspective is useful to you in the development of Labour policy for rural England.
What is a ‘rural community’? It is the people who live in the out-of-town areas, which constitutes a large amount of the Meon Valley constituency. Particularly parts of central Meon Valley and out towards Alresford and Alton. Typically they are places poorly served by public services.
It was stressed that public transport is something that has very noticeably deteriorated within the last 30 years. It used to be possible for people to travel from Denmead to Bishop’s Waltham by bus, but that is no longer an option (unless you travel on 4 buses, with a journey time of 7 hours for a return trip). The failing of the bus service isolates people who cannot otherwise get around, by denying them the ability to get to a town or to visit family and friends. Older people are particularly affected by this, but so are younger people. In a time when it is so expensive to become a driver— paying for lessons and tests, buying a car, insurance (!), tax and MOT— public transport could help them get to a job or to a college, thereby helping the local economy. During the pandemic, these challenges of isolation have only increased in rural areas, where the demographic is ageing relative to towns and cities.
One cause of this latter trend may be in part caused by the lack of genuinely affordable housing in rural areas. Younger people find it very difficult to get a house in the area they grew up in.
The metric of what is ‘affordable’ is skewed upwards due to the high average house price. The point was made that developers may sometimes renege on their commitments to build affordable housing and council houses by offering consolatory money to the council at the end of a project, which cash-strapped councils cannot afford to turn down. Of the houses that are built, it is the big many-bedroomed homes that yield the most profit and are therefore the developments of choice.
Another consequence of the rural isolation of the elderly and the dispersal of extended families is a keener reliance on social care. Profiteering can mean- at best- variable standards of care, and at worst scandalously poor care. It was suggested that there should be the possibility for social services to take over private care homes that fail to meet basic standards. Also, the point was made that charities and volunteer groups are relied on by councils, when really they should be acting as an extra boost rather than making up for shortfalls.
A positive trend that has been seen in the countryside is the popularity of cycling. However, the provision of town-to-town cycle lanes is severely lacking. These can be some of the most dangerous roads for cyclists. Bridleways are an alternative, but in many areas they are not wide enough to accommodate both cyclists, horse-riders and walkers, and are sometimes poorly maintained. We have also had feedback about footpaths; that they fail to connect up without leading onto a busy road, and that they are sometimes deliberately obscured by landowners who are compensated for their provision and maintenance.
It seems that rural crime is on the rise, whilst many local police stations have all but ceased operating. Meon Valley Police Station is now appointment-only. Victims of crime do not have confidence that their case will be looked into at all. Besides the restoration of police resources, a suggested solution is to improve education in schools with the aid of police liaison. There is a polarised system between those who do well and continue on to good careers and those who get left behind. Children need hope for the future, founded upon the awareness that there is an alternative out there to drugs, crime and a life reliant on the welfare state.
The promotion of community groups could assist with the provision of amenities in rural areas. Organisations such as not-for-profit businesses, co-operatives, community interest businesses, charitable incorporated organisations and social enterprises are run for the benefit of the community, with any profits being put back into the business rather than going to an owner or shareholders. This removes the ‘profit motive’ from small businesses which only need to be self-sustaining and can therefore survive on a small scale. Grant schemes need to be developed to encourage these activities, particularly to replace assistance from the EU.
Rounding up the Rural England Policy Review, we discussed the challenges to rural businesses- particularly farms- following the departure of the UK from the European Union. Many farms use low-wage labourers who are predominantly EU citizens, and have crafted their business models around these employment possibilities. As a net importer of food, we need to ensure that our farms can produce more of the UK’s food. This would require long-term investment in agriculture, which would also stimulate the rural economy. The imbalanced relationship between supermarkets and the farming industry must also be addressed.
Thank you for leading this review Mr Pollard, we hope to have provided some applicable perspective.
Meon Valley Labour Party
(Contributors: Daniel Reid, Paul Sony, Susan Maskell, James Bickle, Steve Haines, Tony McNally)