by David Bean

The Countryside Alliance held its first fringe event of the abbreviated party conference season in Liverpool on Sunday 25th September at the Labour Party Conference, Sustaining Rural Communities in the Carbon Trading Age. The event was livestreamed on Facebook and you can view the full session here.

Under Tim Bonner’s chairmanship, the panel discussed the question of how rural communities can remain sustainable at a time when land is increasingly being diverted away from productive agricultural use to support decarbonisation policies such as solar farms and tree planting for the sake of carbon abatement.

Daniel Zeichner MP, the Member of Parliament for Cambridge and Shadow Defra Minister, argued for a framework for land use: in its absence there is a free-for-all allowing land to be bought up and taken out of agricultural production. He raised concerns about long-term deals being signed that would take land use out of food production at a time of growing worry over food security. Highlighting reports of uncertainty over the planned environmental land management funding schemes, he suggested it would be an ‘act of vandalism’ to tear up all the work that has been done on them so far. He also criticised the Government’s intentions to liberalise the planning system, arguing there should instead be more local planning officers underpinned by more funding for local government. Lastly, he maintained that rural proofing is not really happening, and this has hurt efforts to tackle rural crime, and pointed to Labour’s more generous energy plan.

Abi Kay, the News Editor of the Farmers Guardian, noted that the event was taking place three days after the 20th anniversary of the Liberty and Livelihood March, which began as a protest against the hunting ban but evolved into a reaction to a widespread feeling that rural communities had come under existential threat. Today, she said, some farmers feel their productive land is being stolen from beneath them to serve other demands on land use. Tenant farmers especially are worried about a dash to afforest the country to meet net zero targets. They also think large-scale decarbonisation projects are greenwashing, letting companies avoid taking more difficult steps to reduce their carbon use at source. She argued that there is real concern that we are sleep-walking into a food security crisis, while China is stockpiling large proportions of the global corn and wheat supply; we cannot expect food to be always available to import.

Hywell Lloyd, founder member of Labour: Coast & Country, said that so far, the Government has set out a net zero target but no actual plan, with organisations and businesses having to work out for themselves how to meet it. He argued for recognising the importance of economic sustainability for rural communities, suggesting there should be a greater flow of resources back from urban to rural areas through carbon pricing. He highlighted the view of Anna Jones that urban and rural people lack mutual understanding, saying that people living in urban areas should get to know rural dwellers. Lastly, he criticised the lack of joined up thinking on rural issues between government departments, supporting a strengthened voice for the countryside. Who, he asked, is Labour’s voice for the countryside?

Eleanor Langford, Curation Editor for PoliticsHome and The House magazine, summed up the implications of the discussion for Labour Party politics. Labour’s big question, she said, is how to win back rural communities, since for too long it has been viewed as a metropolitan party. It faces an opportunity with farmers feeling let down by the Government, but to grasp it would require a coherent plan involving more than just re-packaging policies aimed at urban communities, or imposing policy on them. She later elaborated that constantly raising divisive issues connected to animal welfare every time rural policy comes up was overshadowing the concerns of farmers, alienating them.

There followed a lively discussion of questions from the audience, including about how Labour might improve its electoral prospects in rural areas. As Tim Bonner noted, that is a conversation the Countryside Alliance stands ready to help facilitate.

To support our vital work engaging with policymakers and ensuring that the rural voice continues to get a hearing, please consider joining the Countryside Alliance today.

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