RAY annual conference and AGM: Urban chatter makes way for the rural voice

RURAL communities took centre stage at an event organised by Rural Action Yorkshire last month, attended by MPs, the Bishop of Ripon, and charity and voluntary sector professionals.

People from across the width and breadth of Yorkshire attended ‘Rural Matters’ to hear about issues directly affecting their livelihoods, local towns and villages, including cuts to transport, affordable housing, fracking, the DEFRA 10-point plan, and broadband access.

MPs were invited from across the spectrum to represent their parties at the event, which was put on by charity Rural Action Yorkshire, with two accepting the challenge. Kevin Hollinrake, MP for Thirsk and Malton, and Graham Stuart, MP for Beverley and Holderness, were in attendance to engage in a Question and Answer panel aimed at giving everybody a chance to air their views and concerns for rural life. This comes at a crucial time when these discussions are easily lost amongst the dominant urban chatter.

Bishop James Bell, the Bishop of Ripon, also gave his time to address and engage with rural communities, as well as Libby Bateman of the CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses.  

 

Members of the panel introduced by RAY's Chair, Linda Lloyd

The day was a resounding success with positive feedback from all who attended, not only for the chance to speak with MPs and other influencers, but also for the chance to network and build connections with other communities and volunteers facing the same rural issues.

The DEFRA 10-point plan was a popular topic with the audience, as it was noted that the plan would need to be both measurable and also driven so that it will achieve its outcomes. Bishop James noted that the plan does not pay heed to farming, and that any plan will need to consider both farming and countryside management into its objectives.

Certain areas, such as bringing broadband to 95% of the county by 2018-19, are indeed measurable, but the final 5% would need to look towards alternative technologies such as wireless or satellite broadband.

Libby Bateman said, “Satellite technologies to me are not a long-term solution to the broadband access problem. Rural areas should look to the great wireless providers out there who are reaching their communities with fast speeds and competitive prices. Alternative methods of fixed line delivery should also be explored.”

Graham Stuart MP, who leads the national Rural Fair Share campaign, drew attention to its ability to move us all in the right direction to a fairer settlement for rural people and communities.

He also spoke on the topic of fracking, when questioned by the audience on its impact on the countryside and local tourism. He encouraged a calmer approach to the technology and said that all applications for fracking should be a matter for local people to decide. He emphasised that all aspects of the process would be stringently monitored and regulated by independent bodies.

The Bishop of Ripon, James Bell, said, “We must think now about how we produce the energy we need in order to live, or how we change our lifestyles so that future generations are not exhausted of natural resources. Do we need to live in such an energy-dependent way?”

‘Rural Matters’ also gave a platform for discussions around devolution and transport.

The notion of a ‘Greater Yorkshire’ and what this would mean left the audience with a clear idea that any form of devolution would need to be gradual and thoughtfully planned out, with a strong steer, investment and vision.

Libby said, “Devolution is often talked about but devolve to who? Some areas are hiding behind devolution when there is a need for a governance review first. Rural will always be in the minority and devolution must respond to the needs of rural communities.”

The cuts to transport are a pressing issue in rural areas and the event provided an opportunity to tackle this head-on. The issue of transport also ties into the reduction in or challenging nature of delivering services to rural areas, especially health and social care to the elderly.

Kevin Hollinrake, MP for Thirsk and Malton, said, “Rather than cutting services we should look at more cost-effective ways of managing governance. In terms of older people, we should look at what the government can do, alongside communities, to ease the demand for services.

“Greater integration of health and social care, as well as encouraging and sustaining friendship lunches, local groups, and support to rural GPs can make for a more efficient process.

“Devolution presents us with an opportunity to do all of this.”

Bishop James, who is also a patron of Dementia Forward, talked of the ‘ageing congregation’ which he so often hears mentioned. He noted that it is important to remember the contributions that all people have to make to society and community.

James said, “People are a resource, not a problem. We should celebrate the knowledge, wisdom, and experience that older people have to give us, rather than talking about them in negative terms as a drain on our health services and a burden in our communities.”

Rural Action Yorkshire (RAY), who hosted the event, also held their AGM on the same day. Led by Chief Officer Leah Swain, the charity continues to undertake lobbying and campaigning on behalf of rural communities.

Leah said, “We were really pleased with the turn-out today which demonstrates that rural really does matter, and we want to give our thanks to the panel for giving time in their busy lives to speak to our members.

“RAY continues to campaign for the awareness of rural issues – the challenge for us and our members is that the rural voice is heard at all levels of government, regional and national.

“Our work is informed by the needs of our members and of rural communities. We are committed to the parish councils, village halls, churches and volunteers that we work with closely alongside, and look forward to replicating these conversations at all levels to ensure a fair deal for rural people.”