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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Election Issues: Rural Affairs
Analysis
By Tom Heap
BBC News rural affairs correspondent

Fields
Farming issues still dominate the countryside
Rural affairs moved up the political agenda in the past few years with the mass demonstrations against the fox hunting ban led by the Countryside Alliance.

There were accusations that the government was out of touch with feelings in rural areas.

But as we approach a general election there are a number of misconceptions that need knocking down.

QUICK GUIDE

The view out of your window doesn't dictate the way you vote - it is not even a major influence.

Hunting is not a major vote decider even in rural Britain.

Rural areas are not dominated by the Conservative Party.

IS IT DEVOLVED?
Scotland: Partly Devolved
Wales: Partly Devolved
NI: Partly Devolved
Devolved issues are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, or NI Assembly. The Common Agricultural Policy is set by the EU after negotiation with UK.

And the quarter of our population who live in the countryside are, on average, healthier, wealthier and have access to better schools.

But there are issues which have particular weight and relevance in rural Britain.

Many of them are trends and developments within society that do not respond readily to government policy.

So while we may see the parties publishing rural manifestos, expect them to be long on understanding adjectives and short on legislative promises.

Hunting

Among a small core of those who own land or work closely with it, the ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales has entrenched a sense of being ignored and oppressed by the urban elite - in effect the Labour Party.

Huntsman
The ban on hunting with hounds has stirred controversy

This discontent has spawned a new election campaigning organisation - Vote-OK.

Their remit is to recruit the disgruntled to provide volunteer support for any candidate who is standing against an MP who voted for the ban, with the most pressure in the most marginal seats.

Labour will keep the ban on hunting with dogs if re-elected.

There may be pressure to outlaw commercial shooting, but given the grief over hunting, it is unlikely that the leadership would agree to pick this fight.

The Conservatives would repeal the ban, protect other field sports and consider a Wildlife Management Bill to protect habitats and the rights of people to hunt in them responsibly.

The Liberal Democrats would not officially back a repeal of the ban and their MPs would have a free vote.

They appear to consider the issue largely irrelevant, and it does not appear in their recent Rural Future policy document.

In Wales, however, Plaid Cymru MPs voted against the hunting ban.

And in Scotland, hunting with dogs has already been banned.

Housing

The growing gap between the average house price in rural Britain and the average wage leading to an affordability gulf is emerging as the dominant concern.

Many people who were brought up in the countryside can't afford to buy a house there.

Near towns, this is due to wealthy commuters; in more remote areas, the pressure comes from holiday homes.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The quality of life people associated with living in the country has gone
Andy D, Oxford, UK

There is also a flipside worry about concreting over the countryside, especially in the South East where there are proposals for more than one million new homes in the next decade.

The Liberal Democrats want to promote shared-ownership schemes for local buyers and reform VAT to encourage repair and re-use of empty buildings. They also want planning permission required before permanent home are turned into holiday lets.

Labour wants more favourable planning laws to encourage affordable homes rather than market-rate properties. It is backing big building projects in commuter zones especially around London, believing that greater supply will satiate the demand and soften the price.

The Conservatives back shared-equity schemes to enable people to get on to the housing ladder. They would give more power to small towns and villages to protect the green belt and prevent urban sprawl. They criticise the government's housebuilding plans for the South East as excessive and damaging to the environment.

Affordable housing is also an issue that both the SNP and Plaid Cymru campaign on, although rural house prices are still relatively low in Scotland compared to the rest of Britain.

Farming

There have been big changes to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Farmers used to be paid for what they produced; but now they get paid a fixed amount for their land, regardless of how much they produce, with the emphasis on environmental improvements.

There are also growing concerns over supermarket dominance and declining farm incomes, especially in less productive areas.

The Conservatives want less red tape for farmers, matching their regulatory burden with others in Europe. They have also called for honest food labelling, and they want to encourage schools and hospitals to buy local produce.

The Liberal Democrats want further subsidy reforms to help family farms, organic production and local markets.

They have made a specific pledge to get tough with the supermarkets by introducing a legal duty to trade fairly enforced by the Office of Fair trading.

Labour wants to encourage farmers to produce food for the market and better landscape for the taxpayer.

It recently said that supermarkets "engage in practices which would not be tolerated in other industries".

Travellers and Gypsies

A spate of cases involving high-profile friction between travellers' sites and nearby villages has been in the national press recently.

Conflicts with travellers has been increasing
And there is the perception of unequal enforcement of planning laws in England.

Labour has said that local authorities must earmark more potential traveller sites. But balancing this, councils must act faster to remove illegal camps while respecting their human rights.

The Conservatives, in contrast, want more eviction powers for local authorities, and want to make sure that the human rights act will not be allowed to override planning laws.

They have also been sounding hostile to new greenfield sites for travellers.

The Liberal Democrats believe central government should get tougher with all local authorities so they share equally the political discomfort of allowing sites.

Wales and Scotland

Although many of the key decisions that affect rural communities, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, are decided at UK or even international level, rural affairs are of great concern in Scotland and Wales, and planning and economic development are devolved issues.

In Scotland there is also considerable concern about the effect of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, which the SNP says "deprives fisherman of their birthright" due to restrictions on fishing. They want to withdraw entirely from that agreement, a plan supported by the Conservatives but denounced by the other parties as impractical.

In Wales there are particular worries about the lack of affordable housing in rural areas as better-off people from urban areas relocate there, and a lack of economic opportunity. Plaid Cymru in particular has been campaigning for further aid to help job creation in rural areas.





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