Every year, or at least every normal year, the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival takes place in the village of Tolpuddle, in Dorset, where trade unionists from across the UK gather to commemorate one of the first instances of trade unionism in the UK.
It’s a picturesque area of the country, but its natural beauty hides the ugly reality of a region blighted by poverty. Little more than half an hour’s drive from where the traditional Tolpuddle festivities take place is Weymouth, which is among the 10 per cent of most deprived communities in the UK.
Further afield from Dorset, Cornwall isn’t simply poor by UK standards – it’s the second most deprived area in northern Europe. In fact, the county of Cornwall, an enclave of poverty in the sixth richest country in the world, is poorer than the post-Soviet bloc nation of Lithuania.
Like many regions in the UK that are predominantly rural, the South West has been massively left behind after decades of underinvestment in its infrastructure and its people. And all it takes is one catastrophe, like the one we witness now, to risk total economic destruction of entire communities.
Unite south west regional officer Steve Preddy explains.
“Rural areas have historically had poor industrial output. We also must contend with poor transport infrastructure, lack of sectoral support across all areas of industry, and poor health and social care funding because it excludes rurality as a criteria.”
“Most work in rural communities is low-paid,” he adds. “For example, more than a fifth of all jobs in the South West are below the real living wage. Average real terms wages in the region have decreased by £19 per week since 2010; over the same period, child poverty has risen in the region by a fifth.”
For the South West, what has brought a certain level of wealth – and subsequently investment – in an area otherwise blighted by rural poverty is the one sector that now sees imminent collapse.
“Our greatest performing sector – aerospace – which has the largest UK-based cluster here in the South West has been incredibly damaged by the dramatic downturn of air traffic and the lack of government intervention compared to countries like Spain, Germany, France and the US,” Preddy explained.
“We have already received in excess of two dozen significant company HR1 notices of multiple redundancies in the aerospace sector. It’s a major contributor to our regional financial stability. That will have a serious and long-term damaging impact on the region’s economy.”
Preddy points out that the impact on the civil aviation sector will also have massive consequences for the region.
“People of wealth tend to settle in the South West because of regional connectivity,” he notes. “But two of our four regional airports are in genuine danger of closure. If we cannot connect with areas like the Channel Islands which are part of the South West region where we have interactivity in the financial markets, people will relocate elsewhere.”
Another major contributor to the South West’s economy – and indeed rural and coastal economies in the UK in general – is hospitality and tourism.
Unite Community co-ordinator for the South West Brett Sparkes notes most of this hospitality work is seasonal.
“Obviously with the pandemic effectively the entire 2020 season has been wiped off the face of the earth,” he said. “Unemployment has already skyrocketed and it’s only going to get worse.”
“Many small businesses are going bust which is devastating since In the South West the majority of employment is in SMEs,” he added. “We’re going to see unemployment levels like we saw in the early 80s return by the end of the year. It’s not a short-term blip; it becomes a long-term stain on the economy.”
“Our seaside towns are flooding with people on benefits who would normally be working on summer jobs,” he noted. “They haven’t got their summer jobs this year and the evidence suggests that there is an increase in crime, an increase in drug use and that will only get worse.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities rural communities have already faced for years, Brett adds.
“We have very poor transport links to where only the major cities and towns are serviced by rail links. Two out of six counties in the region, Cornwall and Devon, have no motorways at all. The M5 ends at Exeter and then there’s only A roads from there for the next 150 miles till the end of the region.
“Local bus services are being slashed and we don’t even know if bus companies are going to survive this crisis and if they do we suspect that the non-profitable routes will disappear further cutting off rural areas.”
Brett highlights what he sees as the main difference between urban and rural poverty, and what makes the latter more challenging to tackle.
“There’s an isolation aspect to it,” he said. “There isn’t the support you get in urban communities. For instance, there’ll be a Job Centre Plus in a rural area which covers a similar population size to one in a city but because it’s rural it’s covers quite a large geographical area so it’s more difficult to access for many people.”
“The recovery will also take much longer in rural areas because there’s no attraction to bring in big companies especially heavy industry or major industry. It’s much easier to build a car factory in the Midlands rather than in North Devon.
“Property prices are extremely high so many young people leave the area because they can’t afford to live there. Add low wages to the high cost of living – it’s a combination for disaster.”
Steve believes the answer to the problems rural communities face is strategic, region-specific planning of the sort that is now working well in cities in the North West such as in Liverpool and Manchester.
“We need a regional board to represent sectors in the region,” he said. “There needs to be huge focus on skills training, adult education and restructuring. We are perfectly placed as a region for a green convergence. Our ability to use wind and land to develop agriculture and food production in the region and of course our ability to use our huge coastal area for marine technologies as well is hugely promising. But that needs government intervention with a regional focus.”
“Our regional office is based in Bristol and we have a very engaging mayor; we have lots of exciting ideas about reducing poverty and increasing the reading and writing standards of young children, particularly in ethnic minority areas. These projects are possible because of political engagement with all interested parties including trade unions on the local board. Unite is a major player in that. That’s the kind of enterprise that’s needed on a regional level – so that not just the urban areas benefit from that but the underlying rural areas benefit from it too.”
For Brett, Unite Community and the wider union have a huge role to play in reinvigorating rural areas that have been left behind.
“One of the major roles we have to play is education, lobbying and highlighting the issues that are unique to rural communities. We know that Westminster lives in its own bubble. The only time you see a minister west of Newbury is on the election trail or on a photo shoot.”
“They’re not really interested in rural communities or what goes on in them. People realise that and they feel disengaged. They feel disenfranchised and I think it’s the role of Unite Community and the wider trade union movement really to make sure these people have their voices heard – especially in the corridors of power.”
Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture Bev Clarkson agrees.
“More than one in five people in the UK live in rural as opposed to urban areas – that’s over 13.5m people in total. And yet investment in such areas is abysmally low. It’s no wonder that our rural residents, from farmworkers to shop workers, small business owners to meat factory workers and many more in between feel left behind – that’s because they have been left behind.
“Unite as the only union with any sort of density in rural communities has and will continue to push for the investment that is so desperately needed – investment in infrastructure, such as public transport and broadband, investment in affordable housing, to stem the ‘brain drain’ of young people from country to city, and investment in training as well as green technology to revolutionise agriculture and food production – to make the sector a high-skill and high-wage one that people actually want to work in, not just because it’s their only option that consigns them to a life of poverty.”
“Key to this is reinstating the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in England and ramping up regulation of the sector. The food and agriculture sector has for too long been rife with exploitation of mainly migrant workers who live in appalling conditions and in practice work for wages far below the legal minimum wage. The only way we’ll eradicate rural poverty as a whole is if we take seriously the struggles of those at the very bottom.”
Stay tuned on UNITElive for the second part of our two-part story on rural poverty, where we further explore the AWB and the plight of migrant farm workers.
By Hajera Blagg @hajeranblagg