At the beginning of January, Oxford became the capital for food and farming in the UK, with two conferences considering the path ahead. The Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference took place as usual at the same time, with both hearing rallying cries for change and for a new direction to be taken for our rural communities, land and agriculture with the right support from government.
Also in January, the Young Fabians society, a youth policy think-tank, saw their Economics and Finance Network publish a pamphlet setting out potential economic policies for different UK regions, nations and demographics. This included my own essay on a set of policies for rural communities in the South West. Much of my essay was written in 2021 when my interest in food and farming policy was in full swing, making my essay a little farming heavy although farming is a small segment of rural communities. However there are some key cornerstones and values within the essay that should be taken forward in new plans for rural communities and prevent half-measures.
Structure of rural communities
Firstly, there has to be a recognition that the structure of rural communities must change from their current unplanned and disjointed state. A recent report by the Fabians on rural communities ‘Green and Pleasant: Rebuilding Rural Britain’ failed to acknowledge this structural issue. It offered half-measures and token concessions particularly on rural crime and limited changes in land-use planning. The focus on rural crime is concerning, since it reinforces the exclusivity of rural areas and emphasises the power of landowners at the cost of normal residents and marginalized communities like the Gypsy, Romani and Traveller communities. These marginalised communities are regularly targeted in rural areas without any support such as the provision of more pitches allowing the movement of families across counties. Now they face criminal prosecution for simply staying on land for short-periods of time.
There is a lack of planning for rural communities in the form of recognizing who needs to live and work in rural areas. Without this recognition, there is no appropriate consideration of what services are needed to support these communities and empower them to help mitigate and adapt to the climate and ecological crisis. This is especially clear around the issue of housing and public transport.
On the issue of housing, rural areas are heavily exposed to developers building houses to meet local authority targets, some of which may be labelled as ‘affordable’ but are patently not. They do not provide homes for those who need to live and work in rural areas, but fill the demand of the urban middle-classes seeking to ‘Work From Home’ (WFH) or commute from quiet and quaint rural locations rather than cater for local workers. People who are needed to work in rural areas, from NHS nurses and social care workers, to farm workers and craftspeople, all are pushed further and further from their place of work. The data on where people live and work highlights this rift between the urban and rural. The average income of those who live in rural areas is higher than those who live in urban areas. However the average income of those who work in rural areas is lower than those who work in urban areas. As my father has quipped about the Cotswolds, its “agricultural wages for London prices”, but it can be applied to many rural communities.
There has to be a move towards a council/social house-first planning policy in rural areas, particularly in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and National Parks, with the quota-based affordable housing policy failing to deliver housing for those who need it. When I campaigned as a council-candidate last year, I met someone in Burford who was living in an ‘affordable home’ who had downsized but was just about managing to pay the same rent as they had been paying when they had been living in a larger ‘affordable’ house elsewhere. In West Oxfordshire, over 3,000 people are on the council-house waiting list, with several individuals requiring emergency or urgent provision of council-housing in Burford alone.
Second-homes are also a strain on housing in certain rural areas, like the South West and Cornwall. Stricter taxation and the ending of the tax-loophole of Airbnbs and holiday-lets being classed as businesses is needed immediately. Also consideration is needed to reduce the renting or selling of property to people outside of a locality for a higher price instead of it being offered at a fair price to people working within the locality.
Design is also key. Currently we continue to see the failure of planning policy to support carbon-neutral housing, with West Oxfordshire District Council seeing their net-zero carbon demands for a new housing site rejected by the Planning Inspectorate. This further reinforces the little attention to detail given in the design of housing developments within rural landscapes. The recent death of a two-year old child from mould living in social housing in Rochdale highlighted the importance of quality designed and maintained housing. Rural houses are often prone to damp and mould with exposure to cold and wet environments, and now exacerbated by peoples’ need to lower heating bills.
In 1947, the small Loddon Rural District Council commissioned architects David Green and Herbert Tayler to design rural council housing for the district. These homes saw real attention to detail in their design and their being ‘in keeping’ with the area. Green and Tayler recognised the need to provide homes that catered for the particular needs of those working and living in rural areas and differing from those of urban landscapes. They built porch areas to allow agricultural workers to remove their wet and muddy-work gear before entering the house. This thought appears all-too-often to be ignored in today’s design. Now simply building a house with mock Cotswold stone is viewed as enough to make it ‘in keeping’ within the Cotswolds. Of course cost and time has to be considered. Green and Tayler showed back in 1947 during a period of building material shortages and an austere post-war economy, that thoughtful rural housing design did not need to be expensive and time-consuming.
Public transport is another major issue that those of us from rural areas either complain about or ignore. It is concerning that even potential visions for the sustainable future of rural communities have concluded that ‘the car will remain the predominant form of travel in rural areas. Even the move to electric cars, which will continue to be out of reach of many working families, does not offer a sustainable future for rural communities. The continued use of the private car cannot be sustainable, especially when it is reliant on non-renewable resources.
Lithium in particular, is not renewable and is largely found in the global south, notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the triangle of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Extraction of lithium by the global north (the UK, USA, EU etc.) from the global south is increasingly becoming a globally contested operation and lacks transparency or fairness, with indigenous communities facing their land being destroyed and removed, child labour exploited and ecosystems mauled in the process. West England Bylines highlighted this issue in January 2022.
A move towards a ‘public transport first’ approach in the allocation of non-renewable minerals for vehicles and the consumption of transport, can help reduce the contests and demands upon fragile resources and ecosystems. A new report in the US has highlighted how increasing access to public transport and ‘shifting more … car trips to walking and biking’ is the best thing a country can do to reduce emissions, increase mobility and limit mining. Such an approach would also reduce the need for competition between those making electric vehicles and encourage transport and just mineral supply-chains. Also this can support the emphasis on supporting rural communities involving those who work and live in rural areas. It will lower the costs of transport, especially the impact of volatile oil prices that have affected rural communities recently.
For too long rural public transport has been degraded from Beeching’s rail cuts in the 1960s to the deregulation of public bus services in the 1980s, and the cutting of over 3,000 bus routes in the 2010s (I have discussed rural buses before for West England Bylines). The recent £2 national bus fare cap has been a step forward. My single fare from Burford to Cheltenham is usually £6, but currently is just £2. Unfortunately it is only a short-term action (it ends in March) by the government to tackle the cost-of-living crisis which is unlikely to subside anytime soon, and will continue to leave many isolated.
In altering the structure of rural communities there has to be real moves to heal the rift between rural and urban communities. While it appears that the focus on rural housing and transport is prioritising rural communities, in improving the planning of rural communities with ‘council housing first’ and ‘public transport first’ approaches, this can reduce the antagonism between rural and urban areas. It can help end rural areas becoming the playground and escapism for urban wealth with the associated asset-stripping and maintenance of gentrification of rural areas. In planning just and sustainable rural communities, opportunities for those in urban areas with a wish to work on the land, in nature and in rural areas can be created.
Also there needs to be a transformation of our food systems which do not just empower farmers but also genuinely offer urban communities a new connection to land, nature and nutritious food. Right to Food legislation is needed immediately to renew dignity for families and communities, both urban and rural. Ensuring that welfare payments are fair, but also through a right to food systems ensure that accessible food is just and healthy.
Local food systems which support both Accessible Local Food Markets (ALFMs) which make local, sustainable and healthy food accessible to all communities, and those in urban areas who want to engage in local food production through urban agriculture and green spaces. These local food systems require space and facilities to do this from local abattoirs to expanded allotments. There also has to be an ending of the divide between wealthy and poor food consumers. Instead, public spaces for all to produce, process and eat food together are needed such as Community Restaurants providing hot lunches for all at a low-cost around town and city centres, and rural village halls, using locally-sourced and nature-friendly produce prepared by living-waged staff.
Finally, land has to be truly considered in plans for rural communities. Difficult questions have to be asked now:
- Who owns it, manages it, and ‘stewards’ it?
- Who has a say and does not have a say on how it is used?
- Who gets to use it and who does not?
- What do we as communities and society need land for?
- How do we enfranchise everyone to have access to the benefits of land?
The upcoming government land-use strategy will not deliver this and the new agricultural payments in the form of the Environmental Land Management Scheme will not either. They ignore the direct need not just to give everyone a voice but actually ensure that marginalised communities are genuinely given ‘public goods’ which includes a voice on land and rural communities. The voices of disabled, People of Colour, Gypsy, Romani and Traveller peoples, and others have all too often been excluded from any plans for rural communities.
Land Commissions are key to answering some of these questions, while new powers for communities to take ownership and have a say and use of land around them is needed. This is potentially offered in the form of Public-Common Partnerships as recommended by Common Wealth. It could do so alongside publicly-owned financing vehicles like a National Institute for Agroecology Development providing advice, research and mobilising communities around land.
These cornerstones can help ensure that there is genuine change in the structure and design of our rural communities, end division and offer a future to communities that supports them in the face of crises. They would make sure that rural plans are not just half-measures.