Rural voters feel abandoned by our urban government

Rural poll shows that rural communities in Wales and England are disaffected by the lack of support by their respective governments
Polling station Wales

New polling from the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) has revealed a major shift in the political allegiances of rural voters, with data demonstrating a widespread disaffection with the governing political parties in both Wales and England.

The survey, commissioned by the CLA in partnership with polling and market research agency Survation, polled 1,000 individuals in five of the UK’s most rural counties by population density: Cornwall, Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Norfolk and Gwynedd.

Results show that most respondents voted Conservative (46%) in the 2019 General Election, while 29% voted Labour, and 13% Liberal Democrats. In Wales, the 2021 Senedd election saw Welsh Labour win one more seat to win 30 seats, most of them in urban areas. The Conservatives in Wales increased their representation by 5 to 16 seats. Plaid Cymru also gained one more seat.

Barely two and a half years following the last UK general election, over a third of the same voters now intend to vote Labour (36%) at the next election. While only 38% intend to vote Conservative, a 7.5-point swing.

Speaking on the polling, Nigel Hollett, Director CLA Cymru, commented:

“Too often good policy-making falls between the cracks in government departments. Everybody assumes that the Welsh Government’s Department for Rural Affairs is responsible for managing countryside, but it doesn’t really have the remit to deliver policies designed to support businesses in the rural economy.

We have long called-for the Welsh Government to develop a rural economic task force. This could still ensure the Welsh countryside community receives a fair deal from the regional growth deals and the Westminster government’s Levelling-Up strategy. Both of these are yet to make impact in most Welsh rural areas.

No party should take rural voters for granted. The results of the poll raises questions about a widening divide between the urban and rural community. Any party that comes up with a genuinely ambitious plan to grow the economy in rural areas would, I suspect, win a great deal of support.”

The poll showed that large gains were also seen for the Green Party, whose percentage share of the rural vote grew from 3% to 8%, while the Liberal Democrats lost 3 percentage points, moving from 13% to 10%.

Further responses show that almost three-quarters of countryside voters (71%) believe opportunities for young people in rural areas have either decreased or remained stagnant in the last 5 years.

Furthermore, almost half of respondents (42%) stated that there had been an economic decline in their community over the last 5 years, while the vast majority (79%) blamed the lack of affordable housing in rural areas for driving young people out of the countryside.

Nigel Hollett continued:

“Wales can’t carry on missing out on the economic potential of rural areas. UK figures show that the rural economy is 18% less productive than the UK economy but closing that gap would generate as much as £43bn of activity.

We have so many businesses that could expand, that could grow and create good new jobs, but government too often gets in the way. The planning regime, as just one example, is almost designed to hold back the rural economy, treating the countryside as a sort of museum. Sensible small-scale housing developments are often rejected out-of-hand, and applications to convert disused farm buildings into office or workshop space can often take years. As a result, fewer jobs get created and housing becomes less affordable, so young people just move away.”

The British countryside provides a key economic and voting bloc. 12 million voters live in rural areas, representing a significant proportion (16%) of the UK economy.

Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer and chairman of the influential All Party Parliamentary Group on the Rural Powerhouse, added:

“The truth is that for decades governments of all colours have failed to develop an ambitious plan for the rural economy in England and Wales.

Farming is obviously hugely important to the countryside, but 85% of rural businesses have nothing to do with farming or forestry. We need to recognise the potential of these businesses in creating broader opportunity and prosperity. Then we need to identify the barriers to their success and begin to remove them.

People rightly want a good job and an affordable home. The regional growth initiatives and the Levelling Up White Paper have offered a perfect opportunity to uncover why they can be so hard to find in the countryside. I think this has been noticed by people and needs to be addressed urgently.”