Updated: Aug 21, 2019
It is great to see farming and the environment become the most recent hot topic in the Brexit debate. Given that Whitehall ceded almost all responsibility for these areas of government to the EU over the past few decades, it’s hardly surprising they are important in the discussions around 'taking back control'.
Michael Gove as Secretary of State for DEFRA has for once placed some aspects of rural life at the centre of debate with some radical and broadly well received policy changes.
The real question here is what do we want from the countryside or rural areas? And perhaps fundamentally, what is the countryside for?
A playground for everyone? A carbon sink to placate our guilt at pumping out pollution? If these are the answers then go ahead pay farmers to plant trees. But, that is not what rural life really is.
London is one of the world's growing number of mega-cities and provincial cities are also growing or even merging. Take the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge region, recognised as a world beating intellectual and economic region. These areas are all surrounded by the countryside yet the UK is different to other parts of the world which have huge distances between city regions. Our lowland countryside areas are links between our cities rather than distinct areas.
I am the Leader of the most rural local authority in England, Eden District Council. We sit between the Tees Valley combined authority to the east, the nuclear developments on the industrial coast of Cumbria to the west , the 'string of pearls' of Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool to the south and the new 'Borderlands' cross border initiative and the Scottish central belt to the north. All these areas are around 1.5 to 2 hours travel time from each other. A true hinterland wedged between two National Parks, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales.
I spend a good deal of my time fighting for better funding for our local services, consistently underfunded compared to our urban neighbours. I struggle with an outdated local government structure which is paralysed in a groundhog day of debate on whether to be unitary, combined or devolved. It sometimes feels like a battle between rural areas and our new metropolitan city regions who are often first in the queue for funding.
Government (of all different party colours) sometimes seems to have forgotten that people live and work and thrive in our rural areas, and we have so much to offer by way of our people, our resources (water and power), lifestyle and housing delivery. I don't blame them, as part of the EU it was Brussels who set the rural agenda for the past thirty years.
Many of you will pass through my council area as you travel to Scotland or visit the Lakes or Dales via the west coast rail-line or the M6 motorway. We have amongst the lowest average wages in the UK, yet were reported as one of the happiest areas in the country both of these from ONS surveys, so it's true money isn't everything!