Most eyes were in the House of Commons Chamber last Wednesday when George Osborne delivered his autumn statement. But shortly after he sat down, at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, I, along with several Ministers, Peers, MPs and a room full of people with an interest in rural issues were at the launch of The Rural Challenge 2015.
The Rural Challenge 2015
To link these two stories it’s worth considering a statistic from the report: in 2013 there were nearly 486,000 registered rural businesses in England with a turnover of some £369 billion. Alongside the so-called "northern powerhouse", the Government needs to recognise the potential of the "rural powerhouse" in contributing to the national economy - while safeguarding the special qualities of our treasured countryside.
The Rural Coalition was established in 2010, bringing together six countryside interest groups, to challenge the notion that the Government can afford to pay little attention to the British countryside on the basis that few of us live and work there. Our coalition has more than doubled in size in the past four years, now boasting 13 national organisations as members, representing social, economic and environmental rural interests. We believe strongly that the countryside is of huge value to the whole nation, whether we are based there or simply visit it from time to time. Crucially, it provides our food, and supports our physical and mental wellbeing, as well as being home to a fifth of the population.
As a group we produced The Rural Challenge 2010, which set out a vision for rural communities in advance of the last election. Over the four years since then we have seen some progress made in response to our recommendations: for example, neighbourhood planning has empowered local communities, and positive strides have been taken towards increasing rural broadband connectivity. Nonetheless, more must be done for rural areas; many believe that the lack of affordable housing and declining accessibility of services for rural communities is at crisis point.
As the general election approaches, we felt that the time was right to set out a Rural Challenge for 2015, to engage the next Government, whichever party (or parties) are in a position to form it. We hope to reach the key decision-makers and manifesto writers with our message. The Rural Challenge 2015 urges all parties to adopt policies that address the needs of rural communities. The main areas the report explores are the need to:
- grow and sustain the rural economy
- provide affordable housing for local people
- work for healthy rural communities
Ministers George Eustice and Dan Rogerson, as well as Lord Whitty representing Labour, welcomed the challenge laid down by the Rural Coalition. They recognised that more needs to be done to respond to the needs of rural areas. I hope that over the next parliament significant progress can be made. If you want to hear more on the launch and the priorities for the Rural Coalition you can listen to my interview on Farming Today (starts at 07:20).
Find out more
Download The Rural Challenge 2015 (953K PDF)