Is rural policy a con trick?

Last week I listened to the writer Michael Morpurgo speak to a packed hall in Devon. His aim was not to talk about “War Horse”, nor to make crowd-pleasing attacks on the industrial-scale wind turbines now disfiguring the landscapes in our county. Instead, he set out his interpretation of what rural life really is and explained why the charity Farms for City Children – which he set up with his wife – is important. In doing so he made me revisit my own conception of rurality.

For those who want to know what Morpurgo said, the estimable Martin Hesp of the Western Morning News wrote it up. But the key point for me – not emphasised in the article – was Morpurgo’s insistence on young people experiencing the true nature of rural life at first hand by taking part in the work of a farm, getting up at five in the morning for a 14-hour day, feeding livestock, harvesting crops, and so on.

His central thesis was that a true rural community has a direct connection to the land because most of its members make their livings from it. Hence the centrality of farming to rural life. He argued that people are best capable of absorbing the nature of working on the land if they participate in the real thing when young. And it has to be the real thing: patting a sheep at a county show is nowhere near the mark. This thesis about the nature of a rural community can be disputed, but it deserves consideration.

It is beyond argument that the proportion of people living in rural areas who are engaged in farming has declined in recent decades. Government policymakers – of whom I was once one – have therefore developed the construct of a rural community in which farming plays a marginal role. There is much talk and even analysis of the disconnect between farmers and their local communities. That disconnect exists, but it exists not just between farming and rural communities but between farming and society as a whole.

This prompts the thought: if farming, or living off the land, is the true essence of rurality (as I think Michael Morpurgo is arguing) and if farming is disconnected from communities both urban and rural, is there any meaning in the definitions of “rural” community as espoused by policymakers and their analysts? Are not urban and rural communities simply variations of a single entity – the community disconnected from the land?

The “rural policy industry” makes great play of the special nature of rural communities. It’s true that small and remote rural communities have population numbers and spatial characteristics that differentiate them from urban areas. But is what goes on in those communities all that different? People live in their homes, watch television, use computers, take holidays, walk dogs, travel to work, work from home, shop at supermarkets. There are clear differences within each of these exemplar activities – type of TV programmes watched, holiday destination – but does the evidence exist to show that these differences depend on whether people live in rural or urban settings? The Carnegie UK Trust’s Commission on Rural Development adopted a framework to describe the assets available to rural communities: financial, built, social, human, natural, cultural, political. With the partial exception of “natural” all these categories apply equally well to urban areas.

Much play is made of the strength of community cohesion in rural areas. Again, there are plentiful examples to support this, although much of this cohesion has traditionally relied on so-called incomers setting up community associations, getting funds for village halls, arranging new communal activities and so on. Is this really different from urban areas? The part of central Exeter where I live has a strong community association, operating from an old hut in the middle of a park, raising funds to replace it with a modern structure, arranging activities, and so on. Not everywhere in urban areas is so endowed, but those differences are not based on a rural/urban divide.

Access to services – or lack of it – is also a commonly claimed feature of rural distinctiveness. Yes, of course, it can take longer to get the supermarket, the GP surgery, the FE college. But this is not a problem unique to rural areas. Driving – or taking a bus – out of a central urban area to the supermarkets built in the urban/rural fringes can be just a time-consuming and a lot more harrowing. Living for 17 years in a Buckinghamshire village I found it a lot easier to get a non-urgent appointment with a GP than I do in urban Exeter. It’s not surprising that Rural Community Councils, for so long the main source of community development support in rural areas, are now finding a market for their services in urban areas.

So why do we have “rural policy”? At government level it entered its heyday in 2001 when a government department with the word “rural” in its title – Defra – was created out of the ashes of the Ministry of Agriculture, by then in terminal decline politically because of foot-and-mouth. A senior minister was assigned to focus solely on the rural affairs portfolio, against a background of seething but opportunistic discontent articulated through Countryside Alliance. To demonstrate the importance of the new rural policy (and so shoot itself in the foot), Defra’s Rural Strategy 2004 stated that one-fifth of England’s population lived in rural areas and that the make-up of rural and urban economies was converging. The same document committed the government to setting up what became the Commission for Rural Communities which spent its short life banging on that rural people were victims deprived of services by urban-driven policies and for which the only remedy was to spend more public money.

If Michael Morpurgo’s idea of a rural community is right – and I think, broadly, that it is – rural policy as we know it is predicated on a set of distinctions that either do not exist or are not important. What really distinguishes rural from urban is the land – to look at, to walk through, and to make use of its natural resources for food, water, energy, minerals. The socio-economic construct of public sector rural policy risks burying what is unique about rurality under a mound of prescriptions that could apply anywhere.

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