Mike Howkins (LPRC 2002) at the Labour Rural Conference

Labour Party Rural Conference 2002

Working for Rural Communities

Friday 19th - Sunday 21st July 2002

Harper Adams University College, Newport, Shropshire

..the conference was supported by a wide range of government ministers, MPs, representatives from the Co-op and trade union movements and business people

Over the weekend of 19th - 21st July 2002, the Labour Party held its first conference concerning rural affairs. In deed, probably the first conference by any political party discussing and debating such issues. There were about 200 delegates present. Because of the location most of the delegates stayed for the weekend on the college campus, which lead to an excellent atmosphere, having the college to ourselves.

The route to the conference was easy to follow as it was lined with pro-hunting posters and we were suitably greeted by this lobby on the Friday evening.

As well as the delegates, the conference was supported by a wide range of government ministers, M.P.s, representatives from the Co-op and trade union movements and business people, many of whom stayed for the weekend in the halls of residence with the delegates. They all contributed to the plenaries; The Future of Farming, Rural Revival - Economies and Communities, Jobs and Services in Rural Communities. These included Peter Bradley, David Drew, Lord Larry Whitty, David Gardner (Co-op Group), Lord Chris Haskins (Chair Northern Foods), Paddy Tipping, Alun Michael, Lord JeffRooker, John Spellar, Peter Hunt (Co-op Party), Nick Brown, Barry Leathwood (TGWU), Hazel Blears, Bob Ainsworth, Prof Philip Lowe (University of Newcastle), Diana Holland (TGWU), Elliot Morley, Pauline Green (Co-op Union) and David Triesman. All an indicator of the importance put on the conference.

We were welcomed by Prof Wynne Jones (Harper Adams) and Cllr Phil Davies (Telford & Wrekin Borough Council). A video contribution from Tony Blair noted the importance of this first rural conference.

On Friday evening the keynote address was given by Margaret Beckett. She noted that there were now 180 Labour M.P.s covering rural and semi-rural constituencies. In many ways we all have the same problems and aspirations, but often they have to be put in a rural context. Rural areas have suffered from years of Tory neglect of public services. Today there are many stakeholders working for a healthy countryside. The Common Agricultural Policy leaves many people unsatisfied and there is a need for a reform for a sustainable and vibrant rural economy.

During the plenaries there were many issues that were identified as items for development. These included alienation of the agricultural community, young people working in agriculture and the countryside, planning requirements for a living countryside, together with moving from an unsustainable to a sustainable countryside.

We must note that the countryside is not just a 'chocolate box' place and in the past planning had created dormitory villages. We need to work towards sustainable and vibrant communities. There are a variety of issues that need to be addressed including lack of affordable rural housing and low levels of wages in rural areas.

Solutions to transport problems must be tailored to local needs. Standard timetabled bus services may work in urban areas, but adapting services to local needs was essential in rural areas.

In certain areas the economic market may not deliver services. Access to the internet, via broadband services, could be supported by local infra-structure (hospitals, local authorities, etc)

Genetically Modified crops are a contentious issue. The government view is that we have to be cautious about new technology, with the biotechnology industry needing to prove safety. Some of the arguments will not be answered without field trials. Lots of issues for debate and disagreement to be had here.

It is to be noted that in some areas more money goes into farming by subsidies than is input through local authority spending. The approach should be moving from agricultural production subsidies (which depressed prices) towards a system of supported environmental management.

In was noted that the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak had an extreme adverse effect on both the agricultural and tourism sectors.

Rural Post Offices could move towards becoming access points to wide variety of government services. They could also grouped together with a variety of services supporting the local community (shop, meeting room, parish council office, small business unit, etc) to reinforce each other.

A well as the plenary sessions, which tended to be presentation of the panels' views and ideas, followed by question and answer sessions, there were a wide range of small group seminars on the themes of Partnership in Practice, Innovative Solutions and Campaigning in the Countryside.

The pre-dinner receptions and dinners were sponsored by Shropshire Chamber of Commerce, National Express Group, NFU West Midlands, and the Country Land & Business Association. After dinner speakers were David Fursdon (Country Land & Business) and Ewen Cameron (Countryside Agency). This might have seemed strange to 'Old Labour' delegates, but 'New Labour - New Friends!'.

Many congratulations to the Labour Party and Rural Group of Labour M.P.s for organising such an excellent event. May it find its way in the Labour Party calendar as an annual occasion.

Mike Howkins

LPRC 2002

25th July 2002