Labour minister targets rural vote

ENVIRONMENT secretary Hilary Benn has visited Suffolk in a search for that most elusive commodity – the rural Labour vote.

Mr Benn visited Ipswich after the launch of his party’s rural manifesto on the Norfolk Broads.

And he insisted that Labour – which often struggles to attract votes in the countryside – had answers to many rural problems.

He said: “We want go give rural communities the opportunity to develop. We support schemes to protect local pubs and shops and make it more difficult to close them and turn them into executive homes.

“We are promoting the ‘Pub is the hub’ scheme to help make them the centre of the rural community.”

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Mr Benn was keen to allow local authorities ease planning restrictions to make it easier to build affordable homes in rural areas.

He said: “You have to make it possible for people to live in these communities – there has to be homes that are affordable for the teacher at the local village school or the shopkeeper.”

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And it was vital that the government’s scheme to expand broadband to rural areas was promoted, he said.

“Broadband is vital to bring rural areas into line with towns and cities – it is like the expansion of the road network in the 20th Century, the railways in Victorian times and the canals before that.”

After launching the manifesto Mr Benn joined local Labour candidate Chris Mole canvassing in Nacton Road and the Ravenswood estate in the town. But his attempts to win rural backing did not go down well with his political rivals.

Mr Benn’s Tory shadow Nick Herbert said: “We are the party of the countryside, the party that wants to represent the countryside, towns and cities and speak to people equally. People in rural areas have felt they are second class citizens for the last 13 years.”

And Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman David Heath said: “Rural areas have been ignored in policy terms for the best part of 30 years. The fact is, if you are not very well off in a rural area you will find life very difficult.”

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