Westminster is overlooking rural communities at its peril

With less than a week to go to European and Local Elections, the UK Independence Party looks set to edge pole position in what Nigel Farage has predicted to be an “earthquake” for British politics. While many will disagree with the rhetoric of Ukip, few would argue that their growth is filling a void in British politics. Whilst Ukip do have strong support in many urban areas, a significant number of those rallying to the Ukip cause come from the rural communities of England, who feel that Westminster is ignorant of or insensitive to their concerns.

These communities have not enjoyed the investment and attention which their urban counterparts, particularly in London, have enjoyed over the past ten years or so. When Tony Blair spearheaded a campaign to tackle poverty and inequality in the cities, which continued to some extent under Cameron’s drive to fix ‘Broken Britain’, the rural poor were overlooked. Urban neighbourhoods which were once a hotbed of crime have seen their streets become safer – the London Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester and West Midlands have seen their crime rate fall by 34% since 2008 – but for the rest of the country the progress has been much slower, with a fall of only 7% within the same time period.

Urban areas have received the best investment in schools and social care, with academies driving up educational standards in poor urban areas. Children in one of the poorest London boroughs, Tower Hamlets, now perform as well as the average schools in England for GCSEs. However, rural schools across the country are now slipping down the league tables into the bottom 50. Investment may give us an idea as to why. For example, schools in Dorset, where GCSE standards have fallen, receive just over £4,000 per pupil, while in Tower Hamlets schools receive more than £7,000 per pupil. This disparity in investment is made worse by the attractiveness of urban opportunities for the best and brightest graduate teachers, where the pay is better and progression is usually faster. The same problem is true with children’s social workers. A recent Government scheme which aims to tackle areas with acute social problems is currently only focusing on the cities. Key indicators such as teenage pregnancy rates point to a knock on effect in the allocation in investment and expertise, with the teenage pregnancy rate falling in large cities, while in rural areas the rate is stagnant and in some areas like West Devon it is on the increase.

Now these communities must contend with unconsented social change and housing expansion in their local area. In the past many rural residents could have forgiven sparser local service provision as a compromise for the privilege of living in scenic and peaceful area. However, more rural towns and villages will witness an increasing number of houses and inhabitants without a sufficient increase in investment in local services and infrastructure. Accused of NIMBY-ism by the majority of Westminster, and a large section of the British media, many rural-dwellers feel marginalised and ignored by the establishment. Many also feel their concerns over immigration have also gone unaddressed and unlike urban centres they do not directly benefit from the dynamism, skills and expertise of migrants, but they do encounter the overspill of pressure on local services. People in these communities want a straight-talking politician who listens to their concerns and appears ready to act. In Nigel Farage they have found their champion.

George Paterson