The Countryside Alliance went across the country during a busy conference season, making the case for rural communities at the main party conferences.
Liberal Democrat Conference
The Liberal Democrat Conference took us to Bournemouth. There we met MPs and members of the House of Lords and raised important issues including the future of the Agriculture Bill, public money for public goods, rural crime and much more.
We then went to Brighton for the Labour Conference. We hosted our fringe event: Unpacking Environmentalism. Chaired by Abi Kay of the Farmers Guardian, we were joined by an incredibly knowledgeable panel - Shadow Fisheries, Flooding and Water Minister, Luke Pollard MP, the Executive Director of Green Alliance, Shaun Spiers, ORB International’s Johnny Heald and our own Tim Bonner.
The event provoked a stimulating discussion. Aided by ORB’s polling, we revealed that the issues that really matter to rural voters are not fox hunting or badger culling, or even the bee population. The issues that matter to rural voters are climate change, single-use plastics and air pollution. In fact, less than 1 per cent mentioned fox hunting as a priority.
We made the point that if Labour focused on environmental issues that really matter to people then there is real potential to grow their support in rural areas that, at 22 per cent, lags far behind the Conservatives. We would strongly encourage Labour to stop their obsession with animal rights and focus on the issues that really matter to the countryside.
Conservative Party Conference
At the Conservative Party Conference. We hosted three events - a joint drinks reception with Conservative Rural Forum, and two fringe events: Unpacking Environmentalism and Investing in Rural Britain, both chaired again by the excellent Abi Kay.
We were joined by government ministers, parliamentarians, local government officials, think tanks, pollsters and prospective parliamentary candidates.
The Rt Hon Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Defra, spoke at our drinks reception. She spoke passionately about resolving the issues the countryside faces, as well as the opportunities the countryside has post-Brexit.
Our second event took place the following morning: Unpacking Environmentalism. Our CEO, Tim Bonner, was joined by Defra Minister of State George Eustice, Neil Parish MP, Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Johnny Heald ORB International CEO and Onward’s Guy Miscampbell.
This event provoked another fascinating discussion based on ORB’s polling. The discussion explored reasons why single issues dominated the political debate at the expense of the issues that actually matter to rural voters. The panel, with an engaged audience, determined that we all must do better at spreading the word about the great work rural businesses do for the economy, and in maintaining the countryside.
We were joined at our third event, Investing in Rural Britain, by Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, James Palmer, Leader of Worthing Borough, Councillor Daniel Humphreys, and Countryside Alliance board member and prospective parliamentary candidate Caroline Squire.
The fringe covered post-Brexit opportunities, restructuring local government, rural crime and taking rural voters for granted. A crucial takeaway was from Phillip Dunne MP who said that all government departments should ‘rural proof’ to ensure that rural communities receive the services they deserve. Mayor Palmer and Councillor Humphreys went further and made calls for further devolution to allow local authorities to take control of what to prioritise spending on.
In both events each panel member, from government Ministers to local councillors, acknowledged that rural voters were being taken for granted. This is a message that all parties should pay attention to, and especially the Conservatives who currently receive 38 per cent of the rural vote. The Countryside Alliance will continue to be the voice of the countryside and ensure that all parties pay attention to the issues that actually matter.