Author Archives: Peter Cleasby

About Peter Cleasby

Current interests. I’m: •an active Exeter Green Party member, •an openness campaigner •a contributing editor at Exeter Observer •a volunteer watchkeeper at the National Coastwatch Institution’s Exmouth station, •a blogger, mostly on Exeter, environment, society and public policy, and Formerly: •Chairman, Plunkett Foundation •Vice-Chairman, CPRE Devon (Campaign to Protect Rural England)o •member, CPRE national Policy Committee •board member, Community Council of Devon (now Devon Communities Together) •board member, ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England); •Deputy Director at Defra, MAFF, Department of Social Security (and other types of civil servant) •Standards Committee member at Thames Valley Police Authority •secretary of a village community association when we lived in Bucks.

Irish elections and the visual impact of the personality cult

Waterville, Co Kerry

You always know when an election is in prospect in Ireland. You see it the moment you leave the Rosslare ferry terminal. Large, really large, poster-size photographs of grinning candidates attached to what seems like every available lamppost or telephone pole. It gives a new dimension to the meaning of roadside clutter.

This month, it’s a double dose: elections to the European Parliament and to Ireland’s county councils. It’s far from clear, at least to the outsider, which candidate is standing for which election. By driving from Wexford to Co Kerry via Limerick City – to take a random but real journey – the keen observer can deduce who the European candidates are because their faces recur and recur and recur. Just when you think you are safe from the enthusiastic youth who resembles a wannabe TV presenter, he pops up again at a remote crossroads in Kerry.

Party labels are visible but not prominent. The candidate’s face and name are everything. There must be a PR firm that teaches election candidates how to try to look earnest, honest, responsible, caring and cheerful in a single facial expression. I’d ask for my money back. One or two of them bring it off, but most don’t. As we drove past a smiling avuncular-looking figure my (Irish) wife said she wouldn’t trust him an inch. My favourite is the candidate whose expression looks as if her idea of a good time would be pulling the limbs off small animals, or worse.

Poster sites are myriad. Heavily used sections of road, both in town and country, find posters from different candidates competing for the best positions. Barely used country tracks are not exempt, since there may be a farmer or two living there. My award for the worst-taste location goes to a Kerry County Council candidate who placed a giant sized poster of herself at the top of Ballaghisheen Pass in the Dunkerron Mountains, right at the viewing point for a stunning rugged landscape and visible for miles. Since most of those pausing, or even passing, are likely to be foreign tourists it seems a waste of money and an unnecessary eyesore in the natural environment.

It may be advancing years, but despite five days’ incessant exposure to the candidates’ posters, I can’t remember a single name. Ireland, like the UK, has what passes for a “mature” democracy, and almost all electors will vote on party lines. So why the focus on what individual candidates look like?

One reason may be that candidates’ photos now appear on ballot papers alongside their names. This measure was introduced in 1999, partly to assist voters with reading and literacy difficulties but also to address the problem – held to be peculiar to Ireland – of distinguishing between candidates with similar or identical surnames. Subsequent research(1) produced evidence to suggest that some voters were influenced by candidates’ photographs rather than by their political affiliation.

This is a bit worrying. Tuesday’s The Irish Times carried a photograph(2) which illustrates how judgement by appearance can mislead. I have no views at all on the competence of either the Irish or Finnish finance ministers, but if I were being asked who looks the more trustworthy it’s a no-brainer.

More seriously, the Irish system seems to me to reinforce the gulf between politicians and the rest of us. Politicians are allowed extensive high profile publicity in spaces that would be denied to anyone else. Are we meant to gaze on them and admire a new form of celebrity? Why should they disfigure landscapes and townscapes with official sanction?

Of course we should respect the Irish people’s right to determine their electoral system. And there are many things about Ireland that Britain can and should admire. But the proliferation of photographic election posters is not one of them. However much I might respect my home city and county councillors, I don’t want to see the streets plastered with their mugshots at election time.

(1) Buckley, F., Collins, N., Reidy, T., 2007. Ballot paper photographs and low-information elections in Ireland. Available in an open access version at https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/31/FB_BallotAV2007.pdf?sequence=3 (accessed 7 May 2014).

(2) http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/european-commission-cuts-2014-irish-growth-forecast-by-0-1-1.1784453 (accessed 7 May 2014)

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.