Drive down any country road during election season and you’ll see field after field of blue placards encouraging you to vote Conservative. Look at an electoral map, of England at least, and you will see almost every rural seat painted in the same colour.
But these days voters take pride in confounding expectations, and it appears that many in rural areas are planning to take a leaf out of the industrial north-east’s book and vote against tradition.
A poll we commissioned with Survation showed that support for the Conservatives in rural areas is collapsing. At the 2019 general election, the Conservatives enjoyed a 17-point lead over Labour. Now that lead has been slashed to just 2 points.
It is unlikely this swing to Labour is much to do with Sir Keir Starmer’s policy platform. Labour announced almost two years ago a comprehensive review of rural policy, but little work has been done to date and MPs openly say it won’t amount to much.
So what is going on?
It is easy of course to talk about so-called Partygate and so on, but it seems to me that the Government is paying the price for its complete lack of ambition for the rural economy.
After our poll was published a number of Conservative MPs emailed to say how much they supported farmers. That support is, of course, welcome – but it misses the point. Some 85% of businesses in the countryside have nothing to do with farming and forestry. It is these businesses that so often face structural barriers to their success, but who have suffered a near total lack of interest from successive governments in removing those barriers.
Our poll showed that 66% of people feel the Government is not doing enough to create prosperity in the countryside. Only 15% felt they were.
Almost 80% said that a lack of affordable housing is driving young people away from the countryside, whilst bad digital connectivity, poor access to skills training and an outdated planning regime were cited as key drivers of economic and social stagnation in rural areas.
What is clear is that can’t carry on as a country missing out on the economic potential of rural areas. The rural economy is 18% less productive than the national economy but closing that gap would generate £43bn of new activity.
We have so many businesses that could expand, that could grow and create good new jobs, but government too often gets in the way. The planning regime, as just one example, is almost designed to hold back the economy, treating the countryside as a sort of museum. Sensible small-scale housing developments are often rejected out-of-hand and applications to convert disused farm buildings into office or workshop space can often take years. As a result, fewer jobs get created and housing becomes less affordable, so young people just move away. This is how rural communities die.
I’m minded to be forgiving of the Government – Brexit, Covid and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine provide a legitimate explanation for their diverted attention. But the price they are paying for a lack of ambition in the rural economy is real, and needs to be addressed if they are to avoid the embarrassment of losing in their heartlands.
Later this month an influential cross-party group of MPs and Peers will publish a report, following one of the biggest parliamentary inquiries ever into productivity in the rural economy. The inquiry took evidence from over 50 different organisations and business leaders in the countryside – including my own. If Downing Street is looking for ideas to finally create growth, opportunity and prosperity for everyone in the countryside, it might want to find an advance copy.
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