Pablo John discusses the impact of austerity on rural communities and how Labour can win rural Britain back
Public services are a lifeline for rural Britain. If you live in a major city and your bus route is cut, it might be inconvenient, but there is probably an alternate route. If you live in a village of a few hundred and your only bus route is cut, that's a lifeline gone, that's children who can no longer get to school on their own, that's elderly people unable to pop to the shops, that’s adults without a car unable to get to work.
Poorer people in rural communities also face a difficult job market. If your local pub landlord is abusive, breaks labour laws or doesn’t pay a decent wage, your choice is to either take it, or walk several miles to the next village in the hope that its only employer is a bit nicer. You can’t vote with your feet if the bus doesn’t turn up.
This isn’t to downplay the very real effect of urban poverty in our major cities, especially amongst ethnic minority communities, nor the strain on urban councils beset by the same cuts as their rural counterparts, but it is to demonstrate the dependency, and life-changing effects of public services in rural communities.
The countryside has been romanticised greatly, especially with locked-down city dwellers dreaming of rolling hills and pastoral idyll. But with national lockdown two in full effect, with offices and schools once again pushed back into the home, broadband and wifi will become more important than ever. It will be rural communities, without internet infrastructure that will suffer the most.
There’s also the simple fact that administering services in rural areas costs more, your bin men have to drive further, your Dial-a-Ride might get lost in winding country roads, this all costs time, money and resources that local authorities don’t have.
Sobering research by Queen Mary’s’ Jon May and others shows how austerity, implemented by a mix of central Government and mostly Tory rural authorities, compounds service and transport deprivation in rural communities. If you are on low income in a rural area, you are more likely to end up in poverty than if you lived in a city; and the proportion of benefit take-up is much lower than in urban areas; and the number of benefit sanctions are much higher. Of course they would be, it's hard to report to the jobcentre for an assessment if your local centre was shut down, the bus is gone and the nearest centre is miles away in the county town.
It’s not just money rural Britain is missing, but powers too. In Scotland and Wales, the countryside is given a voice in their Parliaments, but English devolution focused on city-region deals leaves rural areas powerless and at the mercy of central Government.
This of course poses difficult questions for Labour. It needs rural Britain’s voters in order to return to Government. In 1997 Labour won 14 seats in Kent and Essex (compared to just one in 2019), and four seats in Devon and Cornwall (halved to two in 2019). Despite this, some figures in Labour have suggested “responsible spending” and cuts is the way to win back sceptical small town and rural voters. But this would be an unmitigated disaster for rural communities already on the brink.
Labour needs to make the pitch for public services, in rural areas as well as urban areas, Labour needs to rebuild our shattered rural infrastructure and prove that things can be better. Academic work like May’s and others has shown how austerity has destroyed rural Britain, now Labour needs to bring that to the political sphere. We need to end the myth of the wealthy quaint village, shine a spotlight on rural poverty, and give rural Britain it’s public services back and a political voice. Labour needs the countryside, but the countryside also needs Labour.
Pablo John is Co-Chair of Leeds Labour Students.