The Countryside After Brexit

BY BEN EAGLE

Last week I travelled down to the west country to speak to a group of National Trust staff and volunteers about communications in the countryside. In short, the message I was giving went thus: from rural homelessness to internet connectivity to biodiversity loss the countryside faces a wide range of challenges and with an increasingly urban population it is vital that people everywhere are engaged about these challenges so that we can allocate funding to do something about them.

The Brexit process has been a distraction that has taken much needed resources away from tackling many of these challenges as effectively as we might have if it wasn’t happening.

If we really think about it, how many of these challenges does the EU lie at the heart of? I would argue that tackling several, especially those connected to the environment, and especially tackling climate change, would have been made easier by remaining in the EU. This is not the time for that debate though. As we all know the referendum passed in favour of Brexit many months ago. For now, the politicians need to figure out a way of leaving the EU as quickly as possible and then we can move on to tackle the issues that really impact on lives.

 It might be useful to outline some of the challenges below:

  • Climate change
  • Plastic pollution
  • Soil erosion and degradation
  • Flooding / Drought
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Pollinator decline
  • The debate over GM
  • Public Access
  • Fly Tipping
  • Bovine TB and Badger cull
  • Hare coursing and badger baiting
  • Cost of housing
  • Poverty
  • Mental health
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • The closure of pubs and village shops
  • Rural homelessness
  • Limited services
  • Digital connectivity
  • Social care
  • Ageing Population

This list is far from exhaustive but includes some of the more significant issues, or those with a higher profile. I have written about the subject fairly widely before but one of the symptoms behind a growing anxiety over the collection of issues in the countryside is the issue of mental health. Take farming and mental health for example. Recent research by the Farm Safety Foundation found 81 per cent of farmers under the age of 40 saw mental health as the biggest hidden problem facing the sector. Cases of depression are on the rise and the Office for National Statistics has said that suicide rates in agricultural workers are among the highest of any occupational group. This is the reality of farming today, and yet most people outside of farming (and perhaps even within it) wouldn’t recognise it. A lot of that is down to stigma and the stereotypical image of who and what a farmer should be. It is up to all of us to break that image down by painting the real picture of the countryside and being honest about the issues that we face.

When I travelled down to Devon one of the most refreshing things was to experience a large room full of people who were actively working each day to make a difference, in however small a way, to the lives of people and to the benefit of the natural environment. It is sometimes easy to forget that this good work is continuing, beneath the surface, away from the chatter of Whitehall, Fleet Street and Westminster. Is it supported enough or given sufficient profile? I would argue probably not. Brexit has become so much part of a national conversation that it is now difficult to imagine politics without it. However, it is vital, for the health of our national politics and our political institutions that we imagine a better, more cohesive future, where division breaks down and we become a far more cohesive society. We need to learn lessons from the Brexit process. One of which must be the realisation of how fragile society can really be. I don’t often find myself following in the footsteps of Mrs Thatcher, but in the words of Francis of Assisi:

‘’Where there is discord may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. Where there is despair, may we bring hope.’’