Friday, 2 May 2014

A One Nation deal for rural Britain

An unlikely Labour/Tory marginal; North East Somerset.
For too long, the rural shires have been a no-go area for the Labour movement – vast swathes of Britain have been written off from centre-left politics with whom the rhetoric doesn’t resonate. Even in the success years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, progressive politics didn’t fully make inroads into the hearts and minds of rural voters; this is perhaps fair enough when looked at in context. The big issues when Labour came to power in 1997 were lack of investment in key services like the NHS, inner-city schools, greater transparency in politics and the minimum wage.

The Tories have largely had a monopoly on countryside constituencies, with a naturally conservative culture and lifestyle being flippantly transposed to the ballot box. But slowly our villages have been on the decline throughout recent decades; in truth, the Conservatives have let these people down.

In this political void is a space for ‘One Nation Labour’ to fill. Indeed, with that very slogan, Ed Miliband has set out a vision for a party which has popular appeal with all voters in every corner of the country. It’s an appeal that should include people who live in rural areas and wouldn’t normally ever even consider voting Labour, giving us a real mandate for change.

That’s why I’m calling for a rural tourism fund, worth around £50 million, to be made available to rural Local Authorities to spend encouraging visitors to enjoy more of rural Britain and promote the countryside it has to offer. The shires are a truly unique place; the scenery and environment that we have in this country are undoubtedly amongst some of the best in the world.

However, at the moment, we aren’t taking full advantage of our seaside resorts, national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). There is a lot of potential for greater levels of tourism in rural areas from people who live in cities and urban areas. There are pragmatic benefits for everyone with this approach.

Getting more city workers and families into the British countryside for weekend breaks or summer holidays would improve quality of life. Spending more time in quieter, relaxed environments like Somerset and Devon reduces stress and mental health problems. Rural areas like the one I live in are notorious for having poor signal and slow internet; but for many office dwellers, a weekend away from emails could do a lot for improving general happiness.

Furthermore, many young people in villages and small towns feel that in order to find work they have to migrate to cities like London. This increases pressure on public services and particularly housing stock – again, this is a significant problem for London, as well as places like Birmingham and Manchester. If there were more jobs in tourism in rural areas, then this would not only alleviate the stress on our big cities but significantly reduce youth unemployment along too.

There is even a case to be made that there would be fewer immigration strains if there were more jobs available in sparsely populated communities. A migrant worker from abroad might not be chasing construction jobs in Peterborough, for example, if there’s work at a campsite in Cornwall.

Moreover, increased visitors would mean better investment in transport links. This could be incredibly useful for some of the most remote areas where a bus service is as frequent as a sensible Ukip policy.

Critics of a rural tourism fund might argue that it would merely provide weekend trips for wealthy people with disposable incomes, and that the new jobs for young people would be insecure and require unsociable hours. However, holidays in the countryside are perhaps more attainable for struggling families from London, compared with a summer break in the Bahamas – our Great British countryside would be truly inclusive.

As for younger workers who may have to work unsociable hours, the reality is that there simply aren’t enough jobs in our cities anyway. A job in tourism in a village is far more attractive than being one of over a thousand applicants for a job at a coffee shop in Nottingham.

If more people are spending money allocated for seasonal holidays in Britain, rather than overseas, it means that more money stays in Britain – this is good for economy. There are environment benefits as well, with fewer long-haul flights needed. A robust tourism industry would draw more tourists from other countries too. For example, an American who lives in an apartment block and works in a skyscraper could easily be drawn to the charms of the English countryside.

The list of recurring rewards from boosting rural tourism goes on. A basic investment in advertising and signposting of countryside attractions could have incredible knock-on effects. This is the sort of policy that Labour should be shouting about from the rooftops in order to be genuinely One Nation.

It would outflank the Tories in their heartlands, and send out a message that Labour has real ideas to get Britain moving and govern creatively. Tony Blair once talked about boosting arts funding to enable “the liberation of human potential not just as workers but as citizens”. Ed Miliband should be arguing the same for rural Britain.

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