Who cares about the countryside?

THE BBC’s Today programme is doing an interesting and valuable exercise in the run-up to the general election, sending reporters to 100 constituencies around the country to find out what “ordinary people” think. It is finding the predictable shared concerns about jobs, the NHS, immigration, policing, education, housing and benefits – but it is uncovering differences too.

It is good to see the BBC fulfilling its national remit by going outside the capital and the south east, and even beyond the northern base in Salford. And it is important, because of the gaps it exposes between north and south and between urban and rural. You probably know about the north-south divide. We’ve heard about it so often, and those of us who actually travel much around Britain have seen it for ourselves. But the urban/rural split is less known and not one that any political party wants to address. We all know why that is. There are fewer votes in rural areas.

One day last week, the broadcast was from Penrith in Cumbria, a sparsely populated and spectacularly beautiful area just south of the Scottish border. The reporter talked to a man who had lost his job because the cash-strapped county council had cut back on bus subsidies, so the bus service was withdrawn and he could no longer get to work. There was also a very revealing interview with a local member of the Country Landowners Association. Now, you would tend to assume CLA = Tory, and perhaps he is a Tory voter. But what he said was interesting. He had looked through all the election materials delivered to his farm and not one of them had anything to say about rural issues.

There is occasionally a tipping point at which people who have little in common in terms of lifestyle, interests or political allegiance find themselves on the same side, and this was one of those moments. The landowner understands the problems of the man who lost his job when the bus service closed – and he is angry that no aspiring local politician is addressing these local, rural issues.

I thought it might be interesting to see how much attention is being given to rural issues on some of the political sites on the internet. It was a random selection, including social and communication organisations, newspapers and political parties. It was rather depressing, albeit not surprising. Here are a few examples:

The JRF (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) website (sub-heading: Inspiring social change) has three themes on its general election channel – housing, living standards, work. Nothing about the countryside, the environment, farming or food.

The King’s Fund is an independent charity working to improve health and health care in England. So its election focus obviously is on the NHS, with a health and social care election tracker and specific sections on the main parties’ promises and policies.

The BBC has a website called “Manifesto watch: Where parties stand on key issues.” Guess what? The lives  and concerns of people living in rural areas are not a key issue. The issues identified on this website are: Immigration. Taxes and the economy. The NHS. Security, defence and foreign affairs. Jobs. Education. Housing. Law and order. Benefits/poverty. All good solid important topics. But nothing on farming, the countryside, rural communities, rural poverty, rural isolation, the collapse of rural services.

I scrolled down through the Guardian’s election coverage. Countryside issues? Food production, food security, healthy eating issues? Farming? Nada.

I tried Conservative Home, which calls itself the “home of conservatism” (you probably worked that out).  The Tories traditionally have been the party of the shires. Nothing here about the countryside, farming or rural communities. So I tried their Local Government section (the clue is “local” – surely that would include a bit of shire county news?) What do we get: “Labour’s mixed message on free schools.” “Only the Conservatives will give more Londoners the opportunity to buy their home.” “What would a Miliband government mean for motorists?” Finally, half-way down: “Cambridgeshire shows there is no excuse to close libraries.”

The Telegraph, predictably, criticises the policies and manifesto commitments of the Labour, LibDem and Green parties. Rubbishing Nick Clegg, demonising Ed Miliband and mocking Natalie Bennett are the current fave sport of most of the right wing papers. UKIP gets plenty of mentions, but mostly it’s pictures of Mr Toad-Farage with a mug of beer, or yet another UKIP hopeful making a racist/sexist/incompetent fool of him/herself.  The disappointment is how little serious comment there is on actual policies.

The Telegraph also advises readers/voters to “read between the lines” of the manifestos. That is to assume that voters will read the manifestos at all – the generally accepted view is that nobody, apart from candidates, agents and political journalists, actually reads them.

A website called Vote For Policies – slogan “vote for policies not personalities” – encourages readers to compare policies from each party in their own words, and make an informed decision about who to vote for at the 2015 general election. It then offers a survey and says: “The results may surprise you.” The first section of the survey asks which issues are important to you and offers a lengthy selection of topics. Guess what’s missing? Yup. No food and farming, no rural transport, no countryside issues.

After a couple of hours, I gave up, convinced that the man from the CLA in Cumbria was right. This failure of the main parties and so many of their candidates to address the actual concerns of people in rural constituencies can only add to the cynicism felt by so many voters and the conviction that most politicians simply want to get to London and take their seat in the bear-pit of the House of Commons.

Here in South Somerset we have a very active Green candidate, who lives and works in the constituency, a Tory (also local) who has been putting himself about and finding out what is worrying people, and a LibDem former MP who some feel has been parachuted in to try to save what has been a strong LibDem seat under retiring MP David Heath. There are apparently Labour and UKIP candidates but as I write we have neither seen nor heard anything of them.

This constituency (Somerton and Frome) has all the problems and the good things that you expect in a rural area. We have beautiful scenery, interesting historic old towns (one of which – Bruton – has been rated No 1 as the most desirable place in the country to live), some good state schools and good hospitals, and our farmers produce some of the finest food in the world (the three greatest traditional farmhouse cheddars – Keens, Montgomerys and Westcombe – and Somerset Cider Brandy, for starters). We also have struggling dairy farmers, underfunded social care, poor public transport, libraries closing, hard-pressed GPs, roads full of pot-holes, traffic congestion, a grotesque lack of affordable housing and jobs for local young people but a constant pressure from opportunist developers to snatch up every last bit of green to build pattern-book estates with inadequate infrastructure and no investment in employment.

No national politician is addressing the concerns of rural communities, the harsh facts of rural poverty and the reality of life for family farms. They are quick to use the term “sustainable” but blind to the deep-rooted problems of sustainability in terms of rural infrastructure, food security and long term provision of affordable homes and employment prospects to keep local young people in the area.

Whichever party wins on 7th May, we should not expect anything to change.

Fanny Charles

* As an antidote to politics and a wonderful portrait of real country life, I recommend James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, a recent BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. James is the Lake District farmer whose tweets and photos of his Herdwick sheep and the shepherd’s year have won him more than 40,000 followers on Twitter (@herdyshepherd1). I have followed him for years, and am thrilled he is now sharing his story with readers around the country. This is the reality of country life – it’s not pretty, it’s hard, but it is what made our landscape.