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Public services are, I believe, the bedrock of a civilised society, and I am very proud of the public services that we have in the United Kingdom. They enable work through good transport systems and through a good internet. They enable good health, which we all need, through a world-leading NHS and through social care provision, and they support communities to stay safe through good police forces and education.
I welcome the many Bills that the Government have put forward in this Queen’s Speech—in particular, overarchingly, the environment Bill, because that has implications for every single Government Department. However, today I would like to focus on rural communities and their specific needs, because historically we have not really paid attention to the specific challenges that they face. I certainly welcome the internet commitment—full speed ahead!—but I would like to see a focus very much on a commitment to address the needs of rural communities that have absolutely no internet as a priority, rather than focusing just on improving the internet facility that our urban areas already have. I would like to see 5G rolled out first in rural communities, because at least we will then have the internet, albeit through another route.
There is much that we could do to improve transport in rural areas. We would like to see a green agenda, so why do we not invest in bioethanol buses? It is not very practical to have electric buses in rural communities, and given the number of bioethanol units in rural areas, that seems to be a sustainable way forward. In terms of the rail services in my part of the west country, we effectively have one line in and one line out. If we are to have a sustainable community, we need a sustainable rail service that works. If we are going to reduce the number of cars on roads in rural communities, we need to reopen some of the stations that remain closed.
The contribution of the community and voluntary services to transport, taking people to doctor’s appointments and hospitals, is vital. One of the challenges we face with the EU is its ruling that our local volunteer services have to compete on the same basis as commercial providers. That will mean retraining, which is unaffordable for many. The flipside, bizarrely, is that that will put up the cost of local services, because our local authorities rely very much on those services to get children back and forth to school, and if they cannot use voluntary services at a subsidised rate, the commercial cost will be prohibitive.
With regard to the NHS, we should look at how we can reconfigure training and primary care so that it meets the needs of rural areas, which often have a disproportionate number of ageing residents. We need more generalists and fewer specialists to deal with the complex comorbidities that we face. We need individuals who have experience of rural working, because it is not the same as working in an urban area. That is understood in Australia, which is clearly a much bigger country with a much bigger problem, but there are things we could do differently here, because a one-size-fits-all system simply does not work. When it comes to trying to get social care and healthcare to work together, there are all sorts of regulatory barriers and duplicate reporting lines, and unless we fix that, it will be very difficult. We have a good example of how to do this well in Devon, but we are currently doing it despite, rather than with, support from Government.
In rural areas, it is not always possible for services to be available, so we need to create sustainable communities. North Devon was cut off the last time we had snow, and but for the community working together, they would have been very vulnerable, leaving elderly residents with no means of accessing social care or getting support from GPs. That is all in the context of very poor broadband connectivity. We must look at that route.
The use of technology would hugely improve services in rural areas. If we could use technology to diagnose and treat people in their homes, it would revolutionise the delivery of services in local areas. We also need to look at how we can reconfigure acute and urgent care. In parts of Devon, there is no point calling an ambulance because you will not get one. We have to look at a way of effectively triaging, whereby we use local GPs and other clinicians in rural areas to go out and deal with urgent situations.
In education, again, we need a level playing field. I am pleased to see the Prime Minister’s commitment to a level playing field, but this is not just about fair funding; it is about delivering aspiration, opportunity and parity of esteem between technical education and academic education. T-levels will be very welcome, but we need to ensure that they are seen as being as important and valuable as academic studies. We ought to mandate our universities to support primary and secondary schools in the roll-out of technical education, as the Russell Group has done.
We need to make this happen. If we are to see university technical colleges and others succeed, we need a proper aptitude test. They cannot be a dumping ground. They are like grammar schools—they are special schools, for those who can deliver the technical skills that we need. We know that digital skills are the way forward; it is the revolution that we cannot stop and we must embrace. That must be part of our training programme. In terms of our current workforce, these changes are coming so fast that proper thought needs to be given to how we deal with them. Our police force covers a larger area, and in Devon we have asked for further support for tourism, rurality and isolation. I hope the Minister will consider delivering that.
I welcome the investments that have been offered. I hope they will be invested wisely. I hope that we can look at improving systems and not just finances, and we need to recognise that local government in rural areas needs more funding than in urban areas.