The fact is that as a party, we seem to be virtually non-existent in many rural constituencies. Of course, there are historical reasons behind this situation. We are a party who came in to existence fighting for the causes and needs of the urban working class, and our fortunes have remained closely tied to that cause. However, there are equal concerns about solidarity and poverty amongst rural constituencies as in urban, and yet we as a party are not seen as fighting these causes. Instead the Tories, Lib Dems and SNP are seen as being concerned with rural issues, pushing us out of the way.
Of course, specific policies have increased this feeling of neglect in the rural seats. The ban on fox hunting was seen as an attack by urban dwellers on rural inhabitants, underpinned by a snobbery on behalf of those in the cities. Now, I don't want to dwell on the issue of fox hunting itself, but the perception of the policy was very important, and very negative to the party. Added to feelings that we do not do enough for the Farming and Fishing industries, we are dismissed as irrelevant, and indeed hostile, to rural communities.
However, there are a variety of crucial issues challenging these communities which we should be championing as issues of social justice. I would like to explore some of these, and propose some policies which may help to demonstrate that we are a party for all, not just those in the industrialised centres.
The lack of affordable housing is a key issue affecting rural communities, particularly in areas where holiday homes have become prevalent and have forced prices unnaturally high. Some approaches are being tried out, but I would suggest:
- Implementing maximum numbers for holiday home purchases
- Ringfencing money for councils in rural areas to use for building affordable social housing
- Subsidies for young people purchasing homes in rural communities
- Suspension of right to buy
Loss of Young People
This is one of the most damaging challenges facing rural communities. For example, Dumfries and Galloway region is facing 28% drop in school leavers, and a 38% drop in working-age residents by 2013. This poses massive economic and social implications for the regions. I know, growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, that having left I would not return. I know that there are some attempts being made to encourage young people to either stay in the areas, or at least to return, but more must be done to ensure that opportunities exist that will encourage young people to decide to make their homes in the rural areas. This issue of course ties closely into the issue of housing outlined above, and the job creation issues that I will turn to next.
- Financial and technical support for rural colleges and centres of learning
- Widen access and support for distance learning in a variety of courses
- Council Tax subsidies for young people choosing to stay and work/study in the area
- School exchanges/link ups between schools in rural and urban locations
- Increase support and resources for sports and leisure facilities
- Create a youth forum for each rural area with support from Local Authorities and direct say in the provision of youth, leisure and other related issues
Employment and Enterprise
Job creation is key to vibrant rural communities, and to sustaining the policies implemented for the purposes of retaining young people and encouraging inward migration to our rural regions. We need to ensure support for the traditional industries such as farming and fishing in a sustainable fashion, whilst also rewarding businesses who create work in the rural regions.
- Subsidies/tax breaks for companies investing in job creation in rural communities
- Strong enterprise agencies with focus on rural communities, like the existing Highlands and Islands Enterprise
- Start-up funds for local people to create businesses that meet needs and gaps in their communities
- Support traditional industries, and work with them rather than against them in regards to modernisation and required changes to their structures.
- Support and develop co-operatives as a sustainable means for meeting needs of communities - this also encourages ownership and localised solutions
Immigration is currently a hot topic, but it has an additional relevance and importance to rural communities. There is a real need for immigration to rural areas to counterbalance population loss, however, due to the smaller communities live in rural areas changes and challenges presented by immigrant populations are more noticeable. Support is needed to ensure that the benefits of immigration are demonstrated to the existing communities, but with resources to help these immigrant communities become part of the regions, contributing to their future.
- Money made available for easily accessible English classes and cultural classes
- Money to make classes in immigrant languages (such as Polish) available for existing communities
- Support for Community/Parish Councils to allow them to play role in helping immigrants to successfully integrate
Culture and Tourism
We need to start actively promoting the vital role that rural tourism plays in the local and national economy. Programmes such as the Year of Highland Culture emphasised the desirability of the Highlands as both tourist and business locations, and were successful in demonstrating that rural regions are positive contributors to the country. Furthermore, rural communities posses distinct and important cultures and histories, all of which contribute to our national identity. The UK is about more than just the cities, and more pride in our rural heritage would be economically and socially beneficial.
- Follow-up concept of Highland Culture year to encourage further focus on rural communities
- Change of language in national and political debates - the UK is about more than just London/the big cities!
- Ensure that rural concerns are listened to in national debates - do not just dismiss them out of hand as being 'less sophisticated' than urban concerns and ideas
- Encourage investment in tourism - main forms of economic investment in many rural communities
Finally, the infrastructure available in rural communities is vital. Localism is a popular political concept just now - but in rural communities there is really no alternative. There must be investment in transport links for both the local populace and business purposes, with growing environmental concerns not automatically ruling out support for issues such as rural airports, which can be crucial to development of those areas.
- Commitment to local hospitals and health centres
- Support for air ambulance facilities for outlying areas
- Investment in road and rail links - i.e. expansion of A9 to Inverness into dual carriageway, as being proposed by the SNP
- Investment in rural airports - explore options for ensuring flights remain at reasonable prices
- Dialogue with transport firms who stop services to explore why - introduce support for companies who commit to sustaining links to rural communities
Well, I've rattled through a range of ideas and thoughts - I am keen to hear what others think. I believe that for Labour to be the progressive party that we aim to be, it is vital that we are not just a party for some, but rather for all. In regards to the areas that I have outlined above, I believe that we can introduce policies that sustain our progressive commitments, whilst encouraging vibrant rural communities. There is a danger that we view the rural constituencies in a similar way to how the Democrats view the 'Red States' (those voting Republican) in the South and Mid-West of the US - namely, un winnable and therefore not worth thinking about. If our aim is to create and sustain a country where every citizen is able to play as full a role as possible, then we must listen to rural concerns, and work to celebrate the contribution that these communities make.