Nick Clegg: Rural Recession
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.
I am delighted to welcome you all to Sheffield…
My part of the world.
And – if you’ll forgive my bias – the perfect place for us to talk about our visions for the countryside.
When I get back to Sheffield from London I always feel much calmer.
Like I have time to think.
Who wouldn’t when round the corner in the Peak District the backdrop is rolling moors, woodland, caves, rocky peaks?
I’m hardly the first to notice…
The beauty of these surroundings is so impressive.
Countless of our most famous authors and poets have written about them.
Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen did.
Wordsworth visited. And actually so did Sherlock Homes.
So I’m in good company when I say that these landscapes are an important part of our heritage.
Across England, and the rest of Britain.
In Ireland, the Highlands and in Wales too.
Every time I take my boys to clamber on the rocks at Stanage Edge I’m struck by how good it is to show them the breathtaking beauty on our doorstep…
By how generations of children have played on those rocks.
And how generations to come must be allowed to do so as well.
I think the people in this room probably understand what I mean better than anywhere.
It is after all the spirit on which you were founded.
The local CPRE branch – the Sheffield and Peaks Branch has been a truly admirable force in championing access to the countryside…
Since the famous Kinder Scout Trespass.
You understand, as do we, the Liberal Democrats, that we must not squander this wonderful inheritance.
Our rich and diverse natural environment.
But you also understand, as do we, that they have come under threat.
The threat of neglect, of bad planning, of pollution.
Today I would like to talk about these threats.
And about what we can do to overcome them.
You see I believe the pressures on rural communities are going to get worse.
We are facing difficult times.
When I say that I don’t mean fewer bonuses for freewheeling bankers.
I mean real recession, for real people.
It’s going to mean more service cuts.
More lost jobs, more repossessed homes.
Recession means tougher times for rural communities and tougher decisions for how we use land.
So more than ever we need a vision for rural England.
To make sure we make the right decisions.
Our vision, the Liberal Democrat vision, has three parts.
We believe that our plans for land must always be green.
Fixing the economy must never come at the expense of protecting the environment…
The two must go hand in hand.
We believe that rural communities should be accessible.
The most stunning parts of our country should not be the enclaves of the rich and retired…
They should be communities for everyone
And we believe our countryside should be vibrant.
Villages and towns should not be denied vital services…
Rural enterprise, jobs and prosperity, should be encouraged to flourish.
So before I give some of the detail to this vision, what will “rural recession” look like?
Well, you have to start from the fact that rural England already contains some of this nation’s starkest poverty.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s not all Range Rovers and country getaways.
It’s also ordinary families struggling with high bills – fuel, council tax, water.
It’s an ageing population: hard pressed pensioners having to choose between heating or eating.
It’s high numbers of hidden homeless: young men and women unable to get on the housing ladder, living from night to night on the charity of others.
Did you know that on average people working in the most rural areas earn over £7000 less each year than people working in cities?
But rural homes are on average £30,000 more expensive?
Rural areas have a higher proportion of small businesses than urban areas.
With many more people self-employed or working from home.
Recession, rising unemployment and high living costs are going to hit these people hard.
And all rural communities are going to see even more cutbacks on the services they need.
This Government has already hacked away at them:
They’ve starved local hospitals of money…
Undermined small schools…
Devastated the rural post office network.
This may have been the decade that saw Gordon Brown double public spending…
But rural England hasn’t seen the benefits.
And I’m afraid anyone who thinks that falling house prices are going to fix rural housing need are going to be sorely disappointed.
With wages so low…
With mortgages so hard to get…
With repossessions up and more families out on the street…
The number of people needing homes is going to be more, not less.
Landowners are going to hold onto sites to ride out the downturn…
And the number of homes available won’t necessarily increase.
My overriding fear is that we have a two tier countryside which is only going to get worse.
So we need a new vision.
A vision I believe my party is ideally placed to deliver.
Over half of our MPs represent rural constituencies.
Your heartlands are our heartlands.
We have a green backbone running through everything we do.
We believe in communities – in putting power in local hands.
And we believe that as times get harder it is more urgent than ever to end the rural raw deal.
So how do we do that?
How do we protect our landscapes and help our rural communities?
We need to be ambitious – let’s decide what we want rural Britain to look like and let’s make it happen.
That’s what the urban regeneration drive is all about, why not our countryside communities too?
Don’t get me wrong, I know this won’t be easy.
Although we all have a shared interest in the countryside…
There are a lot of competing interests too.
But if we are going to alleviate rural poverty…
If we are going to cherish land whilst supporting thriving communities…
We must now drive forward a vision for rural England that is environmentally sustainable, socially sustainable, and economically sustainable.
Communities that are green.
Communities that are accessible.
And communities that are vibrant.
Let’s start with green.
It’s a shorthand way of saying that our commitment to the natural environment is unwavering.
That every decision about land use must begin from the premise that land is intrinsically valuable.
Now, I’m sorry to labour the point, but I want to be really clear here, because lots of people say this but they don’t always mean it:
For me, and my party, land is valuable for land’s own sake.
Not for what we can use it for, or how much money we can make out of it.
But simply because we value our natural environment.
That’s why we think it is vital that we map Britain’s biodiversity.
How can we decide where and how to develop unless we can assess the environmental value of land?
It’s why we understand the importance of greenfield land.
My party has a genuine commitment to green space
We don’t just mean monoculture fields.
We mean space that is rich in biodiversity…
That is accessible and open to our communities.
That could mean parks, gardens, woodlands, greenbelts…
We all have a right to the countryside.
And of course with that right comes responsibility.
Your own “Stop the Drop” anti-litter campaign is a reminder of that.
Our children and our grandchildren won’t respect natural England unless they grow up feeling that they have a stake in it.
Let’s treasure these spaces and teach future generations to treasure them too.
Re-engagement. Reconnection with our surroundings.
This is central to the work being undertaken by my Natural Environment Working Group.
Their findings will be the centrepiece of our Autumn conference next year.
“Greeness” also means that rural England plays its part in fighting climate change.
Tiny hamlets have as great a duty here as heaving metropolises.
All communities need to cut down on damaging carbon emissions.
And all communities need to help the shift away from harmful and precarious fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.
I know that onshore wind is hugely contentious in some parts of the country.
But what makes it worse is that we don’t have the debate.
Local communities aren’t given a voice, they aren’t listened to.
It’s wrong of this Government to exclude people from the decisions that affect them.
It breeds resentment and antagonism.
The fact is a new generation of nuclear power stations or more dirty coal isn’t good for anyone.
A sustainable, renewable future does mean some onshore wind, but it also means offshore wind, marine and tidal power, biogas and carbon capture…
And crucially, it means a revolution in energy efficiency in the home and in the work place.
So let’s make the right decisions.
Let’s engage local people in a planning system that does more than just pay lip service to the natural environment…
But that also champions the protection of the planet.
These aren’t easy balances to strike.
But they are not beyond us.
The next balance we need to think about is social balance.
Let’s make rural communities accessible and fair.
I travel the country for my job.
I see very often how expensive some rural communities have become.
The Chilterns, Waverley, Uttlesford, East Hertfordshire…
The good life.
Unfortunately, completely inaccessible to most people.
Not so much ‘living the dream’, as ‘pipe dream’.
House prices have risen without control while rural wages have stayed low.
On average rural homes are 7 times yearly earnings.
More in places like East Devon, Kerrier, Penwith, North Norfolk, and across the South East.
That creates gated communities.
The preserve of wealthy second home owners.
I’ll bet many of you have sons and daughters who have struggled, or are still struggling, to get on the ladder?
The figures show that in some rural areas the numbers of first time buyers are dismal, like Bridgnorth and the Derbyshire dales.
Local people are forced to move away – that means the teacher from the local primary school, or staff from the local care home.
And when they go the village becomes little more than a dormitory.
These aren’t communities.
And this isn’t fair.
Rural England belongs to all of England.
Not just the best off…the people who can afford the privilege.
Everyone should have access to tranquillity…
Something you know all about…
Something your tranquillity mapping and campaigning has put on the political agenda.
Rural communities should be accessible communities.
Diverse, cohesive, open communities.
The only way that is going to happen is through housing.
The Conservatives’ Right-to-Buy programme saw over a million rural homes sold off.
The profits were banked by government instead of reinvested into new stock.
Now waiting lists are already 1.7m families long…
And tens of thousands more are facing repossession.
Rural England doesn’t have anywhere near enough social housing.
But the Treasury ties the hands of councils that want to provide more.
We need this stranglehold removed, immediately…
So that local authorities can build up the stock of social housing needed in their area.
And the answer isn’t just social housing.
True diversity, real accessibility, means communities that are made up of more than just the super rich on one hand and the very deprived on the other.
What about everyone in between?
Local firemen, the family who run the pub or the couple who own the post office?
They need homes they can afford.
But they don’t have the option.
I get annoyed when I hear people blame local planners.
I know from mine, here in Sheffield, how thankless their job can be.
Can you imagine how frustrating it must be to constantly have unrealistic targets barked at you from Whitehall and the region?
While you’re given no support to achieve them?
Our planning system, set up after the war, has achieved many things.
But it is being held back by this Government’s obsession with centralised power.
By arbitrary targets imposed from on high.
Centralised planning doesn’t work properly.
It’s inefficient and unaccountable.
You know that and so do we – that’s why we both made a stand against the Government’s Infrastructure Planning Commission.
The only way to get more affordable homes delivered is to give more power to the people who know best: local people.
We need much more participatory planning processes.
We need to empower a whole range of local groups, like parish councils, to lead affordable housing projects.
When it comes to centralised and to regional planning, we need to cut our losses.
Let’s suspend the ineffective target setting by unelected regional Government and Whitehall.
It doesn’t have local support.
If you talk to MPs from different regions across the different parties they’ll tell you it doesn’t have their backing.
And quite simply it isn’t delivering.
It’s very easy to bash the regions, I know that.
And all too frequently people have a pop without proposing an alternative.
But I am proposing an alternative.
Let’s empower and support local authorities working either alone or in clusters, and in meaningful consultation with local populations, to decide housing targets.
Let’s build our national housing target from local targets that reflect need on the ground.
That means trusting the people who know best rather than picking numbers out of the air.
Central government’s job then becomes avoiding national housing bubbles like the one that has just burst.
I’m a liberal, and I don’t believe politicians should control how markets grow.
But I do believe that the practices that underpin growth need to be regulated when they threaten the public good.
The present housing crisis shouldn’t just be a dip, a slump…
A hiccup after which we return to sky high prices.
We need a permanent end to irresponsible lending.
Monetary policy should be used to eradicate boom and bust in our housing market…
And the Bank of England should take house prices into account when calculating inflation.
Finally, I want to turn to this idea that rural communities should be vibrant.
There are a number of words I could use to describe what I mean.
Alive is one.
But I think vibrant is best.
It’s about activity that is in harmony with the tranquillity of the countryside.
Vibrant rural communities contain the services people need.
Local shops, GPs, job centres…
My party never underestimates the value of these services to the neighbourhoods they serve.
We understand that for pensioners and single parents living in isolated parts of the country they are a life line.
Vibrant rural communities are also those that are economically active.
They contain jobs, opportunities, prosperity.
It is a tragedy that the economic potential in rural England has not been harnessed.
That rural business hasn’t been supported…
That it hasn’t been allowed to flourish.
I don’t just mean our poor farmers…
Who have had to deal with one debacle after another.
But beyond farming, rural England is fertile ground for entrepreneurs.
The spread of broadband has given a huge boost to rural business.
But despite evidence showing more ambition amongst businesses in villages and small towns…
More of them fail.
Because they don’t get any real help from Government.
The same Government that provides a multi billion bailout for bankers…
But is not doing enough for small businesses across the country.
We need to support rural business and encourage rural prosperity.
We should be encouraging the conversion of disused workspaces for business, rather than letting perfectly good buildings stand empty.
And we should be supporting local industry.
Now I don’t believe in protectionism, at any level, on any scale.
But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with encouraging communities to support local produce.
I think people should take pride in local products: cabinets produced by local carpenters; or cheese that comes from their region; meat and vegetables from the local farm.
Local production networks don’t just create jobs…
They don’t just make money for local people…
But crucially they are better for the environment.
Fostering a culture of buying local supports local food webs.
Potentially much more sustainable because produce travels shorter distances.
I know that these are areas of research that CPRE is pioneering.
The kind of research that is crucial if we are to develop an overall strategy for food security.
We have wonderful natural resources in this country…
An incredible capacity to produce high quality food…
Let’s not waste that.
And let’s not waste the huge opportunities for tourism in the countryside.
Of course, the impacts on the local environment must always be considered.
But encouraging appropriate tourism doesn’t just make money for the local population, it feeds in to a sense of local pride.
National pride in fact.
This country has world class landscapes.
Have you heard that the Peak District is the second most visited national park in the world after Mount Fuji National Park in Japan?
I remember reading that somewhere, and it’s probably an appropriate point for me to wrap up.
I started by boasting about Sheffield so I’ll end on the same note.
Today I have tried to set out the Liberal Democrat vision for rural England.
And I hope I have made it clear that it is based on our values: our green goals, fairness and accessibility, and prosperity.
And underpinning it all is a central belief that local people know best.
This vision is how we want the countryside to look.
And these values are central to who we are.
We will never ignore the needs of rural Britain, especially not now as recession descends.
We will never imagine that Whitehall solutions for the inner cities will work in hamlets, villages and market towns.
We will never take our natural heritage for granted.
On behalf of my party, I look forward to working with you to uphold these values and to protect our countryside and its communities.
The time and energy you have devoted to their cause is deeply admirable…
And the nation is better off for it.
Thank you for listening.