BY BEN EAGLE
They say that politics today is utterly unpredictable. However, unless I am very much mistaken, it’s looking increasingly likely that President May with her ‘hard’ Brexit Tory henchmen will be returned to Downing Street next month with quite a hefty majority of yes men and women on the green benches in the Commons, willing to pass Mrs May’s every wish. There will be another five years of Conservative wish list policies, which are set out for all to see in the very blue, ‘Forward Together’ manifesto. I don’t blame you if you haven’t read the whole thing. I admit that I skim read most of it. However, I found pp.25-26 of particular interest– ‘our countryside communities’.
What’s in it for the countryside? Will anything drastic change?
In reality, there is a lot of vague language within these pages. Take the first sentence for example:
‘’We will bring sustainable growth to the rural economy and boost our rural areas, so that people who live in the countryside have the same opportunities as those who live in our towns and cities.’’
This is just one of several quite flowery statements. What does this sentence even mean?
How about this for another:
‘’We have huge ambitions for our farming industry: we are determined to grow more, sell and export more great British food’’ (as opposed to the not so great food).
In fact, as you go through the section on ‘countryside communities’ you realise that there is very little indeed that is innovative, imaginative, or that recognises current problems in the countryside and solutions to those issues. You only need read through previous posts on CountrySquire Magazine to recognise some of the key issues faced by rural communities: fly tipping, broadband, services, transport, mental health, rural homelessness. How many of these are really addressed by the Tory manifesto?
Further, rarely do the authors back up the statements they make. I would dearly like to know what the Conservatives would actively do, but it’s certainly not clear by the manifesto.
What are the Conservatives promising?
There are some tangible things presented. For example, they commit to giving farmers the same amount of cash support (direct payments) until the end of the Parliament. This will come as a welcome relief to most farmers, who can expect a degree of much needed certainty, able to sustain their business models whilst the Brexit negotiations run their course.
We also learn from the document that some form of agri-environment scheme will be implemented, to be introduced in the following parliament. Whilst I breathe a sigh of relief that they are not discarding agri-environment all together, I question whether it is right to talk about moving away from the current system of countryside stewardship so soon. It has a lot to be desired about it in terms of administration and form filling, but like with all things, wouldn’t it be wise to leave it several years before we can analyse its effectiveness?
There is a nod to ancient woodland and publically owned forests, that they will be kept for the nation, and not sold off in the name of private interest.
CCTV will be mandatory in slaughterhouses (about time too).
There is a pledge to do more work on safeguarding post office services, but again little detail as to how this might be done. There is also a mention of ‘supporting’ village schools and pharmacies, but it’s unclear what that will mean in practice.
A free vote will be granted to Parliament on the future of the Hunting Act. In my view there are many more important things to give time to, not to mention the fact that well over 80% of the nation support the ban, but I’m sure that the Countryside Alliance will be thrilled.
Evidently, much of the rest of the manifesto, outside of these two pages, is relevant for people living in rural areas, from pensions to plans to invest in fracking and transport (including a commitment to providing more rural community minibuses on p24), but it is the points outlined above that the Conservatives list as being directly relevant for ‘countryside communities’. I would have liked to have seen more on improving rural broadband and more on supporting young people in the countryside to develop innovative rural businesses. I would also like to see a coherent commitment to tackling the issue of flytipping. For me, there is much left to be desired.
Of course, the Conservatives might not achieve the enormous majority that many are expecting, and from a Labour, Lib Dem or Green perspective I could be accused of being overwhelmingly defeatist in suggesting the win is in the bag for Mrs May and the Tories. However, I stand by my prediction, not based on what I want to happen, but what I believe will happen.
Of course, the terms of the Brexit deal will have a bigger impact on the countryside than anything outlined in the Tory manifesto. Not until be reach post Brexit will we really be able to shape the future of the countryside. In many ways therefore, the Conservative manifesto is the prequel to something much bigger and more radical. The course we take is impossible to predict. Such is the vagueness and uncertainty of modern Britain.
Ben blogs at thinkingcountry.com and you can follow him on twitter @benjy_eagle.