Simon Kelner: For rural, don't read 'smug and contented' any more

Kelner's view
  • @Simon_Kelner

When you get to my age, the obituaries columns of the newspapers are required reading. And, very often, my reaction to the news of someone's death is the same: I never realised he or she was alive in the first place.

I felt exactly the same when I heard that the Coalition government is to abolish the role of Rural Advocate. Who knew there was such a post? And what a very good job it was, travelling up and down the country, visiting some of the most tranquil places on God's earth, stopping for a pint of Shepherd and Neame here, having a Melton Mowbray pork pie there.

Of course, there was much more to it than that, and the serious purpose of the Rural Advocate – a role that has been around for more than a century – was to bring to the notice of government the real problems faced by remote communities.

In the past, this work, which comes under the auspices of the Commission for Rural Communities, has resulted in changes of policy in broadband access, transport and housing.

You'd think that the last thing the party of the shires would do is to kill off a body that protects the interests of their core voters, but they made a pledge to send as many quangos as they could to the slaughterhouse and the CRC was duly butchered, with the inevitable consequences for the Rural Advocate.

A letter has been sent to the Daily Telegraph (where else?), signed by three bishops and the High Sheriff of Cornwall, urging the government to reconsider their proposals, which have been seen by some as further evidence that David Cameron and his close advisers see the countryside as a place where people shop at Daylesford Organics, have their house painted in Farrow and Ball colours and generally live an unworried, bucolic existence.

The reality is, of course, very different: job insecurity, housing and associated social problems are just as much a feature of rural life as they are of urban life. City dwellers are prone to think that too much attention is paid to country matters – the inordinate amount of time in parliament spent discussing fox-hunting, for instance, or the soul-searching about the efficacy of a badger cull, or indeed the complaints about how The Archers has turned from an everyday story of country folk into a gritty drama where people are intimidated, houses are burnt down, and there is general indifference towards Tom's sausages.

But, in the same way as The Archers is attempting to reflect a new reality for rural Britain, so are many problems in modern life common to town and country. And the belief that general social concerns are not recognised by central government; that the voice of the people is not being heard; that politicians are out of touch with the exigencies of day-to-day life, is right up there as a major complaint whether you live in Stoke Newington or Stoke Poges.

The desire in Whitehall to cut spending on quangos is largely defensible and I don't know how effective the Rural Advocate really was, but it seems a little foolhardy, and even absent-minded, for a Conservative-led government to alienate the very people on whose patronage they depend.