by Sarah Lee

Originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of My Countryside magazine, Sarah Lee explains why it's important to have your say at the upcoming elections on 6th May.

It has been an extraordinary year, with Covid-19 changing how we live, how we work, postponing events, and interrupting the democratic cycle. But as we slowly return to some form of normality, schools are returning, shops are re-opening and elections  will be held in May. 

With the delayed Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections, and the Scottish and Welsh Parliament elections being held this year, it means it will be a bumper 6th May, giving you the opportunity to have your say on the matters that are important to you. 

The Countryside Alliance will be busy in the run up to the elections as we will be engaging with all candidates, discussing our manifestoes, and making the case for the countryside, but we also need you to do your bit as well. When we launch our manifesto on rural crime, and the Scottish and Welsh Parliament manifestoes in early April, we will be calling on you to contact your candidates and to make the case for the countryside. You will be able to do this through our dedicated online platform. 

But first, let’s get to the nitty gritty of what matters to you and what we will be telling candidates over the coming months. 

You may remember this time last year we were running our rural crime survey which shone a light on your issues and concerns about policing in rural areas. The results were startling, with one in four of you not reporting crimes you were a victim of and almost half of you telling us that you don’t think the police take rural crime seriously, while over half of you don’t think that rural policing has improved since Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC)were introduced in 2012.

These are sobering statistics which we will be presenting to all PCC candidates making the case for rural crime to be taken seriously. You have made clear to us, whether it is illegal hare coursing, fly-tipping, trespass or theft – it all has a serious impact on you. Whether you are the victim of the crime or just the fear of crime, there is a detrimental effect on your quality of life, and this is one of the key messages we will be telling all candidates.

Moving on to the devolved parliaments who have differing priorities and challenges facing them; be in no doubt that all policies in the next five years will affect rural communities in some way as we try to re-build our fragile rural economies post-Covid. This is why rural proofing all policy will be central to our campaigns in Wales and Scotland. For example, the Scottish government recently withdrew legislation on short-term rentals after outcry from the rural tourism sector that such legislation, aimed to solve a problem in Edinburgh, would risk the sustainability of many rural tourism businesses. However, this legislation has only been postponed and will be introduced after the election. It is yet to be seen whether the message has been understood; clearly such a policy should be rural-proofed. 

Covid has also had a huge impact on rural communities and there is much to navigate now we have left the European Union, but the incoming governments must create opportunities for rural businesses to bounce back, encourage new rural start-ups and support for those who have struggled over the last 18 months. These businesses are part of the future, not the problem. 

In Scotland the SNP, if re-elected, will license grouse moors and restrict hunting activities. We believe any new policies must be evidenced and decisions related to country sports therefore must reflect that. Recent reports commissioned from the Scottish government have shown that grouse shooting disproportionately benefits the wider local community, despite being a loss-making enterprise itself. Therefore, any efforts to license grouse moors must consider the wider consequences that policy may have.

In Wales, the impact of Brexit and the future payment support structure for farmers and land managers will take centre stage along with proposals on the table for access reform to increase access to land and water. There are many challenges that come with the proposed changes on access and we will continue to be a strong voice on this issue. We will also be calling on a future government to continue their work based on sound evidence, proper scrutiny and debate, and not on opinions galvanised by mis-information from animal rights activists.

Whoever is elected on 6th May must understand that rural communities are an interwoven tapestry of cultural, economic, environmental and community issues and that a threat to any one aspect could lead to the unravelling of the whole. Rural communities matter, rural policy matters, and this is at the heart of all campaigns of the Countryside Alliance for England, Wales and Scotland alike.

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