Wednesday, 17 June 2015

What future for rural areas under the Tories?

This is a slightly edited version of an article for the Landworker magazine of Unite. It was written three weeks ago. 

It took just eight days for the Conservative-run Hertfordshire County Council to demonstrate that the Tories are going to use their general election success to continue bashing ordinary people in rural communities. 

On 15 May, all 42 Tory County Councillors agreed to cut a further £1.47 million from its bus budget. This was up from the originally proposed £887,000 last year. It means during their 5 year term at county hall the Conservatives have slashed the supported bus budget by almost two-thirds from £7.1 million to £2.4 million. 

The cuts were made despite a 22,000 signature petition opposing them, which pointed out that they would impact on people in towns and in rural areas. According to Community Development Action Herts there are “people in rural areas facing problems relating to unemployment and low income. There are also additional barriers and issues, particularly around access to services and resources.” As the Tories would say; “tough.” 

Labour leader Leon Reefe branded the cuts as “devastating.” Bus operator, Sullivan Buses, were recorded in council documents as stating “Disappointed that these are additional to proposals to remove funding from evening and Sunday services. Very disappointed that proposed savings are now double that of the previous consultation despite the opposing responses.  

“Cuts impact on people going to and from work; many are on low pay and/or young.”

When the Tories came to power five years ago, Caroline Spelman, the DEFRA secretary, claimed Labour had "run down rural areas" during its 13 years in government from 1997. Although the number of rural businesses had risen under Labour, whilst food and farming had been put at the heart of the economy, Spelman claimed the Tories would need to make up for "lost time."

Spelman, of course, proved unfit for office. She was swiftly chopped following the crass attempts to sell off the English public forests, which ran into massive public opposition and forced a climbdown - although possibly not permanently as the direct link that has lasted for decades between the Forestry Commission and the government was later cut.

Yet anyone unlucky enough to have read the 2015 Conservative Election manifesto would have noticed that the Tories, far from making up for ‘lost time’, couldn’t even make up an imaginary list of rural successes. It's not that the Tories were unable to invent utterly laughable claims such as 'the Great Recession has given way to a Great Revival' and 'we are fixing the economy so that everyone feels the benefit' and even 'we have been the greenest government ever!’, Yet they really did have very little to say on their countryside record since 2010. Consequently, they have promised very little over the next five years and have been reduced to stating they will support ' the rural economy and strengthen local communities' whilst also promising a free vote on the Hunting Act such that the rich can legally roam round on horseback in search of foxes. 

More horses, of course, may well be needed as a means of rural transport as between 2010 and 2015 accessible bus services collapsed in many locations. And as the example in Hertfordshire shows then the Tories really do love swinging the axe!

Similar cuts in other services will leave many residents, especially the elderly, fearing a trip to their local GP surgery. Less than 65 per cent of rural residents live within 4km of a surgery and many do not possess a car. Meanwhile, the government is pushing ahead with phasing out the minimum practice income, which subsidises small GP surgeries, and this may force many rural practices to close. 

There was also little in the manifesto to suspect the Tories are going to act to resolve the housing crisis affecting local people in rural communities. 

The Tories oversaw the lowest levels of peacetime housebuilding in almost a century. As the better off bought second homes in the countryside this made houses completely unaffordable for the majority. The number of new, affordable rented homes being built by councils and housing associations was far too low. Yet now the Tories are threatening to force these associations to make them available for sale at heavily discounted prices. Even the Liberal Democrats were opposed at this idea when it was proposed during the general election with Lord Paddick saying the move would result in "longer waiting lists for homes and fewer social houses."

The Lib Dems, of course, rarely, perhaps ever, offer a serious threat to the Tories. It was Nick Clegg’s lot that assisted the Tories with their biggest attack on the countryside. The long-standing Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) was the best protection that rural workers had against poor wages and conditions. Whilst it will continue in Scotland, Northern Ireland and, thanks to Welsh Labour, in a slightly revised form, in Wales, English workers wages are no longer protected. 

It is estimated that the AWB abolition will see farm workers in England annually lose around £24 million. This was money that would have been spent locally to boost local trade and businesses. 

The long-term damage of the AWB going cannot be underestimated. Why would young people decide on a career in farming or agriculture when all they can expect is rotten pay, poor working conditions and no decent, on-ongoing training? Yet the average age of farmers is already in the late 50s. 

Meanwhile, of course, cuts to staffing levels at the Forestry Commission (FC) have been severe and have reduced the services this great institution provides at just 39p per person. Are further cuts part of a plan to eventually convince the public that the FC should go? Let’s hope not. Yet, somewhere in the near future who would bet against the Tories returning to plans to sell off our forests?

The coalition government during its term in office attacked agricultural workers' heath and safety conditions with business secretary Vince Cable outlawing proactive Health and Safety Executive inspections in many areas of the economy including agriculture. Cable claimed this would "remove unnecessary red tape and put common sense back into health and safety whilst reducing business costs." All it did do was help ensure that agriculture continued as the most dangerous and deadly sector to work in and that Britain's green fields remained the killing fields.

This is certainly now going to be the case as many Tory MPs are also keen fox hunters and desperately want to see the animal ripped apart in the name of sport. Cameron has thus promised them blood. He will be introducing a free vote on repealing the ban on hunting with dogs that was introduced by the Labour government at the start of the twentieth century. The struggle to prevent fox hunting returning may lay down a marker as to whether the Tories can expect significant opposition to their reactionary plans to attack ordinary people in rural communities. Instead of Tally Ho, how about HERE WE GO! 

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