Short-staffed countryside needs homes, phones and hope

The countryside is desperately short of young, skilled people.Every year around 200,000 young people leave the fresh country air to pursue their dream of riches in the bright city lights. They blame the lack of infrastructure in the countryside – not enough affordable homes, no broadband internet connection, poor transport networks, closing schools, pubs and village shops – and the lack of decent jobs. They are forced out, and they leave a crumbling rural community behind. Over the past decade 200 rural schools have closed, 1,400 rural post offices have been lost and 384 police stations have been closed. One in four rural residents says the sense of community has diminished in the countryside. Rural communities have lost their glue – those people best suited to generate rural wealth are now earning and spending their money in the cities. The whole community is suffering and the Government doesn’t seem to care. Agriculture is suffering more than most.The industry is already drastically short-staffed and it is estimated it will need a further 60,000 entrants over the next decade just to stand still. It’s a tall order. A skilled workforce is absolutely vital if the UK is going to increase food production for a growing population and tackle environmental challenges such as climate change. A disaster looms where the average age of farmers is fast approaching 60 and the replacement stock is non-existent. Small family farms – the bedrock of our community for hundreds of years – are becoming extinct as family succession lines come to an end. People often talk about the scarcity of natural resources such as land, water and energy – all essential to fill the nation’s shelves with delicious food – but all equally irrelevant if there is nobody around to do the farming. Unlike land, water and energy – the human resource is not really in short supply, however. There are plenty of unemployed people knocking around the country who could, potentially, fill the gap.Nearly 8 per cent of the British workforce is unemployed.There are around 2.5 million people actively looking for a way to earn their daily bread. And 40 per cent of 18-24-year-olds are out of work – the highest figure since the 1990s recession. And it is not as if people just don’t like the countryside either, many actually find the idea quite appealing. A recent survey revealed one in four rat-racers would give up a stressful city life to while away their days in the rolling, green countryside. Of those around half said they would ditch their job and a quarter said they would take a pay cut to be within touching distance of a hedge, a river and a village pub. The rhetoric is all very well though. Rural communities simply cannot hold onto, or entice, young, skilled professionals. The Government’s rural tsar (I think tsar sounds better than Advocate) says it is down to homes and phones. It is, in part. But I would go one step further – it is because this Government has little faith in the rural economy and is loathe to invest in it. It is obvious (but often overlooked) that if young people are going to live and work in the countryside they need an affordable home. Affordable homes will necessarily bring young people closer to farming and traditional rural industries. But there is a dearth of affordable housing in this country. Young people need homes to give them the stability they need to set up life in rural areas. That’s why the Conservatives will allow villages and towns to create entirely new community-led bodies – Local Housing Trusts – with planning powers to develop local, affordable homes for local people. So instead of a system that blocks a community’s wishes and prevents them building for its future, Local Housing Trusts will give villages all over the country the right to do it themselves.Another major reason why many young people leave, or are put off the countryside, is down to the lack of communications. Almost 60 per cent of urban areas are able to receive a cable-based broadband service but in villages and hamlets this drops to 1.5 per cent.Lack of broadband access stifles rural business diversification – be it selling farm products on the internet or running a consultancy firm out of a converted barn – and it impedes competitiveness with the urban centres. That’s why the Conservatives have promised to deliver a nationwide, super-fast broadband by 2017. Only then will rural areas be able to fully support serious business. We also need to make sure that young people are given the skills necessary to undertake careers farming, conservation and tourism.Investment in key skills is crucial to prop up a rural community that is wobbling. Young people think the countryside is boring and backward. They see a rural society that has been neglected for too many years. They see a big-Government, top-down approach that fails to understand the intricacies of rural life with decisions from Whitehall and no idea of the fine tuning rural areas need. That’s why I want to give power back to the people. That’s why I want to devolve more power back to local government and to individuals. Locals need to have more discretion over planning, they need to be consulted over key service requirements like post offices, pubs and schools and they need to decide how money is spent.We need a countryside where people can afford to live, are able to work and have the power of their own destiny.Then the countryside can be revitalised and quality of life will improve. Then we will have the infrastructure necessary to provide an ongoing supply of locally produced and high quality food.