David Drew MP
David Drew MP for the Stroud constituency has been involved in the issues of rural communities for many years. In his article he outlines a plan for reform and the importance of being committed to the development of rural Britain.
When Labour was elected in 1997 Peter Bradley then MP for the Wrekin was instrumental in setting up the Rural Group of Labour MPs. For that Parliament and the next it remained true that there were more Labour MPs representing rural areas than the other two parties combined. The Group has now been in existence for a decade and continues to flourish under the leadership of David Kidney.
One of the first activities that Peter set in motion was a series of face to face meetings with those organisations which best understand and represent the heartbeats of rural Britain. This took many months, all the more surprising as there were so many groups who mattered and out of courtesy we tried to give, and get, a hearing from as many of those as possible.
The result of this was the excellent handbook later edited by Professor Mark Shucksmith, which set out the main features of our rural domain. Each chapter was assigned to different academics who were given full reign to report on a whole range of issues including agriculture, services, transport, housing, health, education and employment. The handbook still stands as a very useful reminder of the problems we face and how they can be overcome.
In our opinion a decade ago the overwhelming problem facing rural Britain was the lack of public transport. We witnessed group after group informing us how following de-regulation bus services had declined particularly in rural areas. For those families without a car, or those partners left without a car in the daytime as their spouse used it to travel to work, life was hard. Thus MPs made no apology for continually raising this with Ministers and this has resulted in some major changes in strategy with more buses, more people travelling on them and greater flexibility in provision.
Nowadays all the evidence is that the number one priority has moved from transport to affordable housing. In this respect rural Britain is no different from urban Britain as we now share a housing landscape very different from the one the Rural Group was faced with a decade ago. This requires even more dexterity and commitment in finding solutions. With ratios of 5:1 in many rural districts, in terms of the level of average annual income needed to start paying a mortgage because of rising house prices, this provides a severe challenge to any government.
Admittedly with the government committed to pumping up the supply of housing, a result of the evidence from the two Barker reports, there are new resources coming into play. However, due to a mixture of shortage of appropriate land and the threat of ‘NIMBYism’ we have to be capable of innovative and different solutions in the countryside. I have long argued the need for the planning system to be more flexible to permit more affordable housing in rural areas. We need to look into ideas such as community land trusts (CLTs) to be truly responsive to what is required. We are pioneering one of these in the Stroud constituency.
CLTs have the advantage of taking land costs out of the equation, as these remain in common ownership, but households can take shares in the actual property which allows them to gain capital appreciation if and when the home rises in value. CLTs have the very special benefit of fairness and equity as shares can be accrued according to income and as wealth increases they can gradually step up the number of shares they own. They are ideal in rural areas because it frees up land that would not otherwise become available, as landowners do not have to fear that land leaking out into the private sector thus overcoming speculative pressures.
If and when we can get CLTs into villages, and other smaller communities, this will start to end the unfairness and inequity of who can currently live there. However, this can also solve a number of other key difficulties facing rural areas such as providing labour for the care industry, and bolstering the customer base for local services such as the Post Office and local shop, as people of lower incomes are much more likely to fill these requirements.
What one must not do is run away with the idea that rural areas are disproportionately disadvantaged at present. They represent the same microcosm of society as in the cities but the scale of problems may, of course, be different. Employment in the countryside is often misunderstood as despite the obvious decline in agricultural jobs, other forms of employment are flourishing. These jobs are often invisible because they are so dispersed and many people will work from home. Nevertheless it does mean that there is plenty of investment going into the rurality of the country.
What is crucial is that there is no artificial limitation on population within the countryside. Rural communities must be cosmopolitan and any failure to provide affordable and social housing must be challenged. That is why the government’s forthcoming planning legislation is important as it could restore even more vitality to our villages if promoted properly.
There is a growing realisation that the key to that vitality lies within villages themselves. There is a need for growing responsibility and power to be grabbed by Parish and Town Councils, the most appropriate level for effective decision-making, within more strategic and better organised unitary authorities above them. They have so much to look forward to including, of course, the beauty of their environment. However they must also play their part in bearing down on global warming by becoming less dependent upon the car, using local food chains and shopping in the locality. Of course renewable energy including bio-fuels has much to recommend it, both in their production and application in the countryside.
If these and allied features come home to roost then rural Britain has much to look forward to, but it must develop more confidence in its own ability to succeed and communicate what it is capable of.