A People’s Charter for the Countryside

By Bill Greenshields, Chair of the National Commission of the People’s Charter

“Britain needs to wake up to the scale and extent of rural poverty. It is basically hidden poverty – it’s not in your face as much as it is in urban areas. They are, if you like, the forgotten people.” The words of Dr Stuart Burgess, the Government’s “Rural Advocate” – the Chair of the Commission for Rural Communities – in January 2010.

The incoming ConDem Coalition in June 2010 gave the Commission for Rural Communities an urgent response – they abolished it. And on April 1st of 2011, CRC was forced to substantially reduce its staffing and scale of operation, winding down towards full abolition.

In its place, Defra established the “Rural Communities Policy Unit”, with Richard Beynon, Defra Under-Secretary of State, making clear in Parliament that, “Much of the activity which helps rural communities to thrive takes place at a remove from central Government, often undertaken directly by people within the communities themselves. It is our intention that the RCPU’s evidence will promote the Government’s drive to decentralisation by supporting bodies operating sub-nationally better to understand and take proper account of rural needs and opportunities.”

In other words…”you’re on your own”. Richard Beynon is one of the wealthiest MPs in the House, and recently received £2 million in EU CAP subsidies to his family-trust run £125 million, 20,000 acre Englefield House estate.

Unlike him, many will not recognise rural communities as “thriving”. Lack of agricultural planning, development and sustainability, together with the decline of other types of work in the countryside and dependence on short term seasonal work has produced both unemployment for many, and long hours with low pay for others – including super-exploited imported workers – the chaotic and ruthless conditions of the “free market”.

The CRC will continue for a while longer in its much reduced form, and will focus on just two issues. Firstly, how the lack of training and jobs impacts on the lives of young people. Secondly, the depth and severe implications of rural isolation.

These build on its October 2010 report that one in five of the rural population live in poverty – 1.7 million people – and a quarter of rural children live below the poverty line, with all the known negative effects of this on their educational achievement.

The teaching union ATL estimates a total of 900,000 rural children throughout Britain have their lives blighted by economic and social deprivation, often not fully recognised in comparison to the 2.9 million poverty children in our towns and cities. Three quarters of teachers in rural schools in a recent survey reported frequent pupil absences as a result of family poverty and inadequate public transport. Only 10% of children live within 3 miles of school, as against 80% in towns. They are not the source of sufficient money to attract decent service in the world of privatised transport, and are often let down by it – reflecting the general crisis of public transport in the countryside.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies now predicts an increase of 300,000 children in poverty by 2014 as a result of the government’s “austerity measures”.

Their research pre-dated the imposition of the huge cuts to services, which are now closing or heavily restricting access to play groups, libraries, village halls, community centres, leisure centres, post offices, youth centres etc. Gary Craig, Professor of Social Justice at Hull University, says, “As well as income, one of the key measures of rural poverty is access to key services, things like bus services, a village hall and post offices” He predicts that further decline in public service spending, provision and quality will create a “spiral of decline effect”.

Against all this stands the growing voice of those who not only want to halt the decline and unemployment in the countryside, and the cuts which will accelerate this, but who want to develop a coherent plan for rural development, and for the well being of the people who live and work there.

The People’s Charter is part of that growing voice. The Charter is a 6 point program that states that, “There is no need for unemployment or cuts to public services, pay, pensions or benefits. There is an alternative, meeting the needs of millions, rather than feeding the greed of millionaires”. It provides a careful, detailed and costed alternative – progressive taxation, productive investment, protection and expansion of jobs, development of green sustainable technologies etc. The Charter is fully supported by the TUC as a result of unanimous vote at Congress in 2009, and it has 16 trade unions directly affiliated.

But, though the revival and development of our countryside is implicit in the Charter, it needs to be explicit! Who out there would bring their expertise to work in helping to develop a new section of The People’s Charter – “A Countryside Charter”? Please get in touch – http://country-standard.blogspot.com

This article has been taken from the July 2011 edition of Country Standard

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