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Revitalising Rural Britain: The Liberal Democrat plan for our Countryside
Revitalising Rural Britain: The Liberal Democrat plan for our Countryside

Presented by Alex Cardigan, MP for Montgomery, Leader of the Liberal Democrats. 

Speaking in a barn with a large audience, just outside of St Ives, Cornwall, at an event hosted by the Countryside Movement and Countryside Business Group.

Britain has some of the world’s most wonderful countryside. I know that this is not the typical way for one to start a think-tank speech, but having had the honour of travelling the world with a British institution, the BBC, I hope I can make that claim with some authority. We do not quite know how lucky we are; more pertinently, Government after Government has not understood how to represent the countryside, and do good for our rural areas.

Representing one of the most rural constituencies, I understand how disconnected residents are from national politics. Elections are fought in two key places, at the moment. Firstly, in Westminster, where most MPs are most at home. Secondly, in key urban battlegrounds, an inevitable reality of our electoral system, where seats with both a strong Labour trade-union tradition and affluent Conservative areas become the national focus. Seats like my own are too often ignored - as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, I want to do all I can to stop this from happening.

That is why I am proud to today announce a new set of proposals: Revitalising Rural Britain: The Liberal Democrat plan for our Countryside. 

Whether you live at the foot of the Stiperstones in Shropshire, the Lakes in Cumbria, off Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor, or anywhere rural across our fine isles, you will be facing different problems to the urban majority. Why is it that for us, bus services are a luxury? Why is it that NHS provision must be so much more distant and inconvenient? Why is it that farmers are seeing such a reduction in profits, and such feckless governance? Labour have never even tried to represent the countryside; worse than this, the Conservatives have betrayed those they do represent. It is time for a real alternative.

I am proposing, and promising, should the Democrats be in a real position to influence Government policy after the next election, a set of pledges to rural Britain. These can be summed up as part of our five point plan for the countryside:

  1. Reversing key Beeching Axe cuts to rural railway station numbers, creating a Rural Railways Commission aimed at finding 50 stations to re-open in the first wave.
  2. Supporting fundamental reform to the Common Agricultural Policy, and implementing domestic policies aimed at refocusing on direct support, especially for family farms and crofts.
  3. Developing a British Rural Development Agency, with £1 billion in funding, tasked with investing in key infrastructure and transport (especially bus services), as well as backing businesses set up in the countryside.
  4. Drawing up a new Countryside Code, including a right-to-roam, encouraging rural tourism and rambling, as well as making our natural beauty accessible for all.
  5. Protecting Post Offices, community centres, local pubs, and other essential rural institutions, which form the bedrock of our communities.
We cannot go on being ignored like this. I am fiercely proud to live in the countryside, and represent a rural constituency. Too many of my colleagues in the House of Commons are simply content to represent the countryside as it has provided an easy route into Parliament, and a safe-seat that allows them their own personal fiefdoms. I am committed to making the Liberal Democrats the party of the countryside, and our five-point plan to revitalise rural Britain is the first step to doing so.

By re-opening 50 railway stations axed under Beeching, we will reconnect communities into the national mainframe. That will be a radical difference to the status quo alone. In working with the NFU and our friends in Europe to reform the CAP, we will be spearheading change that across the continent, it is agreed is necessary - but that our Government has been too distracted and disinterested in recent years to have worked on fixing properly.

Committing £1 billion to a Rural Development Agency is not a party-political pledge. It is offering serious money to the communities that have been deprived of investment for years and years. Conservatives have been complacent about their bedrock of support in the countryside, and as a result, offer little; Labour have never tried. I am arguing for serious money and serious investment, if we want a change to the current state of decline that many rural areas - sadly, I am afraid to say, including my own - find themselves in.

A new Countryside Code with a right-to-roam is a policy which the Ramblers’ Association have championed for years. I have walked across much of the world, and we are quite unique in having a system whereby the countryside is so inaccessible. Working to improve rural tourism as well as real awareness of how one is to act in the country is a way of improving rural economies, getting people in the countryside back into work, and making our beautiful areas more accessible for all. That is a huge set of wins, in my eyes, especially at a time when unemployment is such a pressing issue.

Lastly, I want to champion real rural community institutions. Village halls, Post Offices, local pubs, cricket pavilions… to many, especially in Westminster, these are provincial, outdated, silly sounding concepts. I could not disagree more. These are the roots from which our communities grow, and the bedrock of rural Britain. I am fiercely proud to be part of such a strong community, based in these simple British institutions. I want a Government which takes note, and understands rural Britain, and not one that simply takes us for granted.

The Conservative Party is facing unprecedented carnage at the moment. They are not standing up for rural Britain, they are not standing up for anyone but their own insular interests - and they’re not even doing a good job of that. Under the Tories, we have seen a clear decrease in rural investment, a clear decrease in the availability of rural services from buses to GPs, and a clear fecklessness. We need stronger representation.

Over the next months and years, expect a call from your local Liberal Democrats. Expect us to be at the centre of your community. Expect more Councillors and more MPs who actually care about their local area, about the countryside, and are committed to these five radical changes. We need to undo the damage that has been done by years of neglect by our wider, urban-centric political system. I am immensely proud to have drawn up these plans by consultation with the National Farmers’ Union and Ramblers’ Association, and I hope they form the bedrock of future policy debate.

Finally, if I may, I want a simple message to every MP who lives in London, represents a rural seat they rarely visit, and feels they will be elected for life - look out. The most British of all rebellions is coming your way - in local pubs, thatched cottages, Post Offices, abandoned railway stations, and from the tip of the Cornish coast to the crofts of the Highlands, there is discontent. I hope that our policy announcement today provides some hope, and leads to change for good.
It's a nice speech on a relatively niche topic that happens to affect a fair number of voters in your important seats. Gets you some nice write-ups in the rural press, but the 90% or so of the country that live in towns and cities won't hear much about it.

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Steve | A-Team

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