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A Rural Future: Time to Act

March 22, 2018 4:12 PM

Even though 70% of Britain's land is given over to farming, Rural Communities are often ignored by politicians which is why we were delighted to see the Lib Dems approve a policy on Rural Communities at our national Spring Conference last weekend.

Whilst there is much to discuss about the impact of Brexit on farming - for example, up to 90% of farms will go bankrupt if "single farm payments" are removed - rural Britain is about much more than this.

Our vision for rural Britain is one where every community has the power and autonomy to be resilient, diverse and thriving.

Every village, hamlet and small town in Britain has a unique character that is worth preserving, and the role of Government should be to provide support where it's asked for through public services, infrastructure and investment, not just dictate from above.

This vision will need a series of measures to become a reality in many rural areas. We need to fund rural infrastructure properly, and ensure that it is fit for the future, invest in affordable housing, provide local communities with greater power to make decisions, support rural workers to develop more flexible skills and review agricultural policy so that support is targeted at smaller farms and efficient land management practices. So how would this work in practise?

In more detail

Affordable Housing

  1. Housing

Housing is a particular issue for rural communities. There is a fundamental lack of provision at an affordable price where this is most needed. Affordable housing is in particularly short supply, with house prices in rural areas being, on average, 26% higher than in urban areas.

This problem is exacerbated by the average wage in rural areas being substantially lower than the average wage in urban areas. At the same time, 12% of the rural housing stock is social housing, compared with 19% in urban areas.

So the Liberal Democrats would increase the availability of affordable housing in rural communities by:

a) Easing planning restrictions to allow agricultural buildings no longer suitable for agriculture to be converted to homes.

b) Building affordable homes on all developments by having a provision of affordable housing on developments of two or more properties in very rural areas and four or more properties in rural areas.

c) Reducing second home ownership in rural areas by increasing local authorities' powers to tax second home ownership through a stamp duty surcharge or increase in council tax.

Kids bus

  1. Travel

Travelling around rural areas remains a challenge, with less than half of rural premises having access to public transport and car journeys remaining the primary means of transport. This poses a particular issue to children, young adults, and adults who are unable to drive.

30% of bus journeys outside London are made by those with elderly or concessionary passes - highlighting the need for public transport for these people. But public transport is also necessary for young people, particularly aged 16-21, who are travelling to college, apprenticeships and further education - where alternative travel arrangements may not be available, the costs of public transport are high, and the service provided is often insufficient.

So the Liberal Democrats would improve public transport by:

a) introducing a new Young Person's Bus Discount Card, for people aged 16-21, giving a two-thirds discount on bus travel;

b) giving local authorities greater control over their transport network; and,

c) planning for the future by preparing for a greater number of electric vehicles.

Community Hubs

  1. Access to Services

For the economy and communities in rural areas to thrive, it is essential that adequate services and employment are available. People need to be able to access health and social care services, banking services, schools and post offices wherever they live.

So the Liberal Democrats would develop key community hubs to deliver key community services that bring services together around medical centres, post offices, libraries and pubs that are well-served by public and accessible transport.

Rural broadband

  1. Broadband

Digital infrastructure remains patchy and incomplete, with internet speeds low, and a sizeable proportion of properties unable to access even 2G mobile phone coverage. Compared to connected urban conurbations, rural areas and inhabitants too often lose out.

So the Liberal democrats would ensure that superfast broadband (over 30Mbps download speeds and 6Mbps upload speeds) is provided to all households and businesses. This is unachievable by relying on BT Openreach alone so we would open up broadband infrastructure development so hundreds more organisations could play their part. In rural areas, community broadband organisations like B4RN have a particularly important role to play.

Cromer Pier

  1. Support for the rural economy and tourism

Rural and coastal communities both show high levels of entrepreneurial small businesses and the success of these is critical to development in these areas. To support this type of business we must seek to build and support the skills development, assets, industries, networks and institutional capacity that will enable rural communities to thrive.

Tourism is already important to the rural economy and coastal communities. Tourists are drawn to areas with strong transport links and multiple areas of interest. Neither of these are present in the vast majority of rural areas, most obvious in the lack of rural transport to enable those without access to a car to travel around less populated areas.

The rural economy could be boosted by a further devolution of power to local authorities in order that they can invest in local areas, being responsive to the needs and priorities of local people.

So the Liberal Democrats would:

a) devolve further power to local authorities, giving them the ability to raise money through local taxation and to reap the benefits of business rates.

b) expand the BritRail scheme to UK citizens to enable them to travel anywhere on the country's rail network for a set period of time to promote tourism and make it affordable for everyone to explore the country.

C) launch a National Fund for Coastal Change, to enable local authorities to properly manage their changing coastlines.

Flooded street

  1. Flood protection

There are still many rural communities suffering the consequences of severe flooding in recent years, with inadequate support to recover and a lack of funding to build the protections that are needed for homes and businesses.

It is essential to look at comprehensive, whole-systems approaches to flood prevention. For far too long, the government has sought to make short-term savings at the expense of long-term investment which would have helped to provide protection from floods. Building on flood plains and other areas at risk of flooding is commonplace and homes are often constructed without sustainable drainage systems.

Effective flood defences need to consider the whole system and introduce measures - away from floodplains and other areas at risk of flooding - that enhance, restore or mimic natural flood prevention processes.

So the Liberal Democrats would:

a) Require new developments in areas at risk of flooding to include flood-prevention measures and incentivize flood protection for existing at-threat properties.

b) Invest in flood defences that work with natural processes.

Steffan Aquarone

Steff Aquarone, Deputy Group leader said:

"This new Rural Communities policy gives us a great set of ideas to talk to people about when we're out campaigning, and lots of ideas to explore as we approach the next set of elections here in rural Norfolk.

No other parties are really committed to rural communities. This is a great start in the right direction. Please let us know what you think of these ideas."