Rural issues can no longer be ignored by the political class following recent by-elections

Rural issues can no longer be ignored by the political class following recent by-elections

We’re sharing this blog written by Jeremy Leggett, ACRE’s Policy Adviser, on the need for politicians to engage with and address the very real problems faced by those living in the countryside.

Parliament has wilted into a long hot summer recess and Government limps on whilst the Conservative Party seeks a new leader. Climate change doesn’t only bring a hot summer, but also some hard choices for the final two contenders in the Conservative leadership race. Both represent constituencies outside of the major cities, but will either of them ‘think rural’ if they are charged with forming a new Government?

History suggests that political parties only take notice of rural areas when they have to. It is widely believed that the Blair administration took notice of rural issues as a result of the countryside marches, the heated fox-hunting debate and the aftermath of both BSE and foot & mouth disease. This was true in part, but the more substantial reason was that many rural constituencies had become marginal, and the governing party wanted to retain them at the next election.

Fuel prices, cost of living, affordable housing, post-Brexit agricultural policy and the special challenge of net-zero in rural areas are all contributing to rural constituencies becoming contested territory. With Shropshire North and Tiverton casting long shadows, both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak need to listen to their rural constituents and up their rural game accordingly. The current opposition parties are certainly upping theirs, and it feels like they are preparing for Government; perhaps one that will have a clear and discernible rural policy – something we have lacked since 2010.

The two groups of people with power over who becomes the new Prime Minister have been Conservative MPs, many of whom represent rural constituencies, and now members of the party. So, what should be on the minds of these voters as they decide the direction of Government for the next two years? What should they be discussing among themselves, and with the candidates, as they decide where to cast their votes?

First, they must commit to helping rural communities, as well as urban ones, achieve a ‘just-transition’ to net-zero. There is no lack of will in rural areas, but the challenges are different and will need thoughtful support and investment, not least in relation to energy, heating, insulation, and transport. Coercion will be counter-productive; however it is presented. As highlighted in the proposals for a National Food Strategy, rural areas hold many of the keys to achieving net-zero, but without a coherent plan, including a national land-use strategy, there is a real risk of different elements of the rural economy pulling in different directions. Community-led action must be a major part of the plan.

Second, they need to think about future generations that will live in rural areas. We need national policies that will deliver affordable housing in rural communities, at the scale that is needed. These must be built in all rural areas, including communities located in protected landscapes. Housing needs to be delivered in tandem with economic and life opportunities that can make it a realistic possibility for young people to live and thrive in rural areas. It is essential that there is investment in all aspects of a new rural economy, one that is not just founded on farming and tourism, but also on new higher value businesses and services that will, in turn, help meet the net-zero challenge. To sustain this new economy, it is essential that we ensure rural young people can access post-16 education easily, and with the same choice and quality, as their urban peers. This will not happen without making a conscious decision to direct resources accordingly, including equal access to public transport for rural young people.

Finally, rural areas need a commitment to fairness. Both public and commercial organisations understand that delivering to rural populations is more expensive than delivering to concentrated urban ones. This is why the NHS always seeks to save money by consolidating specialist services into a limited number of locations, delivery companies try to charge extra in rural areas and commercially delivered broadband has had to be subsidised by the public purse for rural people to get a reasonable service. Rural proofing all public services is not just essential for fairness, it also guides the way in which delivery can be adapted to fit rural circumstances. Done well, and with investment in the infrastructure of rural communities, people who live in rural areas can work with Government to make the rural tax pound stretch further.

So, members of the Conservative Party must demand of their prospective leaders a commitment that ‘rural proofing’ of all policy is hardwired into Government. Having done so, a fair allocation of resources should also be provided to the 17% of the population that live there. If this is combined with an active policy of working with rural communities and devolving power down to the closest practical level, then the people living in these places can properly fulfil their potential to contribute to the challenges of the next few years.

ACRE is a member of the Rural Coalition and many of these ‘asks’ are echoed in letters being sent to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss by the Coalition’s Chair, Margaret Clark. With its reach across all of Rural England, the ACRE Network is well placed to make sure rural constituency associations of the Conservative Party also raise these same questions with both candidates.


Stephanie Baxter


Stephanie joined the Board of Cambridgeshire ACRE in February 2022.

Stephanie is a strategic thinker, utilising housing policy to deliver social justice and poverty alleviation. She is passionate about community led housing and how this can enable local communities to be part of their own solutions. Stephanie has worked in rural local authorities for the past 16 years, with knowledge of planning and housing policy. She is a Trustee with her local foodbank and an active member of her local church.

David Gibbs


Dave became a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2017. In his professional life, he was a community development worker specialising in finance and external funding. Since moving to the Fens, Dave has taken on a number of parish clerk roles, as well as being a trustee of Newton Village Hall.

Kirsten Bennett

Chief Executive

Kirsten joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2000 and then quickly assumed the role of Chief Executive from 2001. She oversees the work of the charity and puts in place our plans and strategies for the future. Day-to-day, Kirsten develops our relationships with new partners, explores new opportunities and oversees all aspects of the charity’s work.

Before working at Cambridgeshire ACRE, Kirsten attended Writtle Agricultural College gaining a BSc in Agriculture and then completed a Masters in Countryside Recreation Management at Sheffield Hallam University.

Jenna Brame

Rural and Community Led Housing Development Officer

Jenna joined the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2020. Her role involves leading our rural housing partnership, developing affordable schemes on rural exception sites and delivering housing enabling and co-ordination support for community-led housing through Eastern Community Homes.

Jenna has a BSc in Geography from University of East Anglia and prior to join the organisation worked as a Graduate Housing Strategy and Enabling Officer at West Suffolk Council. Since joining Cambridgeshire ACRE she has become an accredited Community Led Housing Advisor.

Alison Brown

Head of Business Services

Alison has been Head of Business Services at Cambridgeshire ACRE since 2007. Day-to-day Alison is involved in everything from developing new opportunities for Cambridgeshire ACRE, shaping the direction of existing projects, overseeing the delivery of advice and information to our members and working with our Board.

Prior to joining Cambridgeshire ACRE, Alison worked in the private sector holding roles in executive support and facilities management. Alison has BSc in Sociology from University of Southampton. 

Rachael Brown

Community Development Manager

Rachael became part of the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2006, initially running a gardening project and then moving to her current role as our Community Development Manager where she leads a number of our environmental projects and use her skills in volunteer management.

Rachael has a BSc in Horticulture from Bath University and, upon leaving there, put her skills to work in the private sector before becoming a primary school teacher for several years.

Kieran Carr

Economic Programmes Manager

Kieran joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2014 following 15 years spent working at Director and Senior Manager level for charities including Deafblind UK and Papworth Trust. At Cambridgeshire ACRE he has responsibility for overseeing our economic programmes, including some large grant-funded programmes and our housing projects.

Kieran has a BA in Business Studies from Manchester Polytechnic and holds a post-graduate diploma in management and leadership from Henley Business School. 

Olivia Carr

Administration Assistant

Olivia joined the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2020. Her role involves providing administration and customer support to all our economic programmes.

Olivia has a BSc in Human and Physical Geography from Reading University. Since joining Cambridgeshire ACRE she has become an accredited Community Led Housing Advisor. 

Lisa Chambers

Community Development Officer

Lisa became part of the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2015 taking on the role of Community Development Officer. The greater part of her week is spent providing expert support and advice to the County’s community-run buildings with the remainder being spent supporting our community health and wellbeing project dealing with fuel poverty.

Prior to joining Cambridgeshire ACRE, Lisa was the County Councillor and Cabinet Member for Education and Skills at Suffolk County Council. 

Howard Jones

New Life on the Old West Project Manager

Howard joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in early 2021. As the New Life on the Old West Project Manager he is responsible for the successful delivery of our three year Natural Lottery Heritage Fund-financed landscape-scale natural heritage project focusing on the area surrounding the Old West river.

Prior to joining Cambridgeshire ACRE, Howard worked at the University of East Anglia where he delivered another successful Natural Lottery Heritage Fund project focusing on understanding, restoring and renewing the region’s orchard heritage. Howard has a degree in law from University of Wales, Aberystwyth (practising as a solicitor from 1998 to 2012) before changing career direction and gaining an MSc in Environmental Conservation and Management from Swansea Metropolitan University. 

Linda Watson

Finance Officer

Linda joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2005. Her role as Finance Officer sees her administer all the financial processes of Cambridgeshire ACRE, ensuring up-to-date and accurate financial information is available at all times.

Prior to joining the organisation, Linda spent over 20 years working within the charity and the commercial sector gaining wide-ranging financial administration experience.

Annie Blair

Chairperson and Trustee

Annie became a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2017 and took on the Chairperson role shortly afterwards. She has been a volunteer for community and parish organisations in the village of Folksworth and the surrounding area for over 30 years.

Professionally, she had a career in the financial and insurance sectors before changing vocation and training in the educational sector as an arts educator / practitioner working for both Anglian Ruskin University and Peterborough Regional College.

Brian Hayes


Brian has been a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE since 1999. Prior to retirement, Brian was an engineer and ran his own consultancy service specialising in infrastructure design and contract management.

Helena Schofield BA (Hons) (Ebor), MA (Ang Rus)


Helena joined the Board of Cambridgeshire ACRE in February 2022. She moved to Cambridgeshire in 2017 to undertake an MA in Intercultural Communication at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, following a BA in French and Linguistics at University of York. After a brief period teaching foreign languages and volunteering in Cambridge, she decided to pursue a career in the non-profit sector, having held fundraising and operations positions at Cambridge and District Citizens Advice Bureau, Cambridgeshire Community Foundation, and Magpas Air Ambulance.

She currently works as a fundraiser for The Ramblers Association and lives in Huntingdonshire – where she is also a Parish Councillor for her village – with her partner and their dog.

Michael Hellowell

Vice Chairperson, Treasurer and Trustee

Mike joined the Board in 2006. He runs his own company specialising in supplying scientific instruments and complete technical/medical laboratories to research, industry and high educational establishments. 

Mike is also a trustee of the Horningsea Millennium Green Trust and Village Hall Trust, as well as a director of Horningsea CIC.

Terry Jordan

Vice Chairperson and Trustee

Terry became a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2011. Terry is currently the Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer for Wisbech Town Council in Fenland and has worked in local government in Cambridgeshire for more than 40 years. 

Terry is also a trustee of CP Learning Trust.

Hugh McCurdy


Hugh has been a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE since May 2009. Hugh leads the Diocese of Ely’s Living Ely 2025 and Market Towns Projects, having formerly been Archdeacon of Huntingdon and Wisbech from 2005  – 2022. 

Hugh is a trustee of Ridley Hall Theological College in Cambridge and a number of other local charities including Thomas Parsons Charity in Ely.

Elizabeth Stazicker


Elizabeth joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in September 2008. Her professional career was spent in English local government archives including being Head of Heritage and County Archivist for Cambridgeshire County Council for 11 years. She is a governor at Mepal and Witcham C of E Primary School, as well as churchwarden of her village church.

Hazel Williams MBE


Hazel joined the board of Cambridgeshire ACRE in 1994. She is a parish councillor in her village of Burwell, chairs the board of Age UK Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and sits on the boards of Burwell Community Print and Burwell Day Centre. 

Hazel was awarded the MBE in 2010 for services to charities in Cambridgeshire.

Right Reverend Stephen Conway


Cambridgeshire ACRE’s current President is the Right Reverend Stephen Conway, the 69th Bishop of Ely. Bishop Stephen is a great supporter of rural communities, particularly on issues such as education, mental health and disability. As well as being President of Cambridgeshire ACRE, he is also a patron of the Arthur Rank Hospice and of Romsey Mill in Cambridge, of Arts and Minds, the National Youth Arts Trust and of Kairos UK.

Bishop Stephen chairs our Annual General Meeting and shows a keen interest in the work we do supporting and strengthening rural communities to take action for themselves.

Julie Spence OBE CStJ QPM

Vice President

Cambridgeshire ACRE’s current Vice President is Julie Spence OBE QPM. In 2017, Julie was appointed by Her Majesty The Queen as the 37th Lord-Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, the Sovereign’s representative in the County.

Professionally, Julie trained as a teacher before joining the Police in 1978 and being appointed Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire in 2005. In the Queen’s 80th Birthday Honours, Julie was awarded an OBE for her management of complex and contentious organisational issues and leadership contribution. In 2008 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Anglia Ruskin University: then in the 2010 New Year’s Honours list she received the Queens Police Medal (QPM). In September 2010, after a 32 year career, she retired from policing.

Bev Vasey

Administration Assistant (Economic Programmes)

Bev joined the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2021. Her role involves providing administration and customer support to all our economic programmes.

Bev has a BA in Management and Business Administration from Reading University. Before joining Cambridgeshire ACRE, Bev worked in administration for local secondary schools.

Toby Frith

Digital Marketing Degree Apprentice

Toby joined the team in 2021. As our Digital Marketing Degree Apprentice, his role is to implement our digital marketing strategy  generating interest in our work and helping to build the organisation’s social presence.

From January 2022, Toby will be undertaking a Digital Marketing Degree at Anglia Ruskin University alongside working for Cambridgeshire ACRE.

Jessica Sellick BA (Hons), MSc, PhD


Jessica joined the Board of Cambridgeshire ACRE in February 2022. In her professional life, Jessica works at Rose Regeneration where she undertakes projects on behalf of Government, Local Authorities, charities and community groups across the UK. She is also a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Rural Health and Care (NCRHC).

She is a Chartered Geographer accredited by the Royal Geographical Society; a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce); and a member of the Institute of Economic Development. In her spare time she sits on the board of a housing association that supports older and vulnerable people across Lincolnshire.

Ray Vidler


Ray joined the Board of Cambridgeshire ACRE in February 2022. He has been a member of Weston Colville Parish Council, which he currently chairs, since 2008. He is a fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and holds an MBA.

He has enjoyed living in rural Cambridgeshire for over 35 years and is keen to be able to support an organisation that aims to sustain, support, and develop rural communities.

Prior to retirement, Ray was a general manager responsible for aspects of the operation of a large food company based at Histon, having previously been the site’s chief engineer. During his working life he gained lots of experience of managing large multi-million-pound projects and developed a good understanding of finance and human resource management.

Laura Allen

New Life on the Old West Natural Heritage and Communities Officer

Laura joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2021. Working exclusively on the New Life on the Old West project, Laura works to engage partners, communities and landowners in the project and to create opportunities for local people to learn about and connect with the diverse Fenland natural landscape. 

Prior to working at Cambridgeshire ACRE, Laura completed a Masters in Heritage Management at Bath Spa University and completed her first degree in Geography at Keele University.