Rural Communities in Cumbria: Levelling Up

– in the House of Commons at 6:46 pm on 23rd February 2022.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Dines.)

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border 7:12 pm, 23rd February 2022

It is a great honour to be able to open this debate on support for levelling up rural communities in Cumbria. The backdrop to this is that I very much welcome the Government’s White Paper on levelling up, but I want to highlight and stress that this is not just about towns and cities, and shine a light on some important issues facing our rural communities that the levelling-up agenda can address. There are laudable aims in the White Paper, but I say to the Minister, and to the Government, that this is about not just his Department but other Departments. I really plead with the Government to work cross-departmentally to deliver some of the aims for our rural communities.

Sadly, rural isolation and poor connectivity are endemic issues in many parts of our country, and particularly in my constituency. In addition, there are significant physical connectivity issues. Penrith and the Border is the largest constituency by land mass in England, and that has significant issues for both road and rail connectivity. I very much welcome the A66 northern trans-Pennine project. This major infrastructure project is much needed due to congestion issues, traffic issues, and very importantly, safety issues. I really urge the Government to listen to local communities, and I have been voicing these concerns on their behalf. We need to get this project right. I have raised this with the Prime Minister. We need to make sure that communities such as Warcop, Musgrave and Sandford are listened to with regard to the correct route.

The major infrastructure projects that are going on up and down the land are very important; they are the major arteries. That is very good, but we also need to consider the veins and capillaries. In rural areas, the capillaries are things like rural buses and rural roads, and we very much need to address that. For buses, we need to look at the funding structure. I very much welcome the rural mobility fund, which Cumbria will benefit from. Sadly, in 2014, Cumbria County Council took the decision to stop using central Government moneys to subsidise commercial services, and unfortunately some services had to close because of that. It left a big gap. We need to revisit that at central Government and local government levels.

We have fantastic volunteer schemes in Cumbria. We have the Fellrunner bus and the Border Rambler bus, and we have council-run schemes such as Rural Wheels, Village Wheels and Community Wheels in Alston Moor, but I want central Government and local government to work together with local operators. I have met many private operators that stand ready and waiting to reinstate many of the services that were cut. If we get the funding structure right and if local government spends sensibly the money given to it by central Government, we can fulfil that need.

Sadly, a lot of the positive agenda from the Government is London-centric. We talk about buses and hailing buses with apps and things like that, but if someone is in rural Cumbria and they do not have a signal on their mobile phone, these London-based apps with good connectivity will not work. I am an equine vet by background, so it has to be horses for courses. We have to get it right in our rural settings. I stress to the Government and the Minister that Cumbria is not London.

On that note, we need support for road transport. As I have said, rural areas are very different. We have different needs in rural parts of the world in terms of fuel and diesel vehicles and so on. We are very much shifting to more electric vehicles, but if we are going to do that, we need a fast roll-out of the charging mechanisms, too. We have to ensure that it is tailored for rural communities.

With rail connectivity, I would like to see some joined-up thinking across our United Kingdom and in the borderlands region, with the Scottish Government working with the UK Government and local authorities to extend the Borders railway down to Carlisle. That would be fantastic for our region and the United Kingdom. On a smaller note, but a very important one for a northern community such as my constituency, I would very much like to see Gisland station reopened, and we have been working with the Department for Transport on that. Opening up stations and connecting train lines are very important to get people connected to each other.

That is a bit on physical connectivity, but I want to touch on virtual connectivity, too. That has been brought into sharp relief during the pandemic with people working at home, isolating at home and their kids being taught at home. If people have poor broadband or poor internet, that comes into sharp relief. For farmers trying to file their payments, it has come into sharp relief, too.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, Devon has much in common with Cumbria when we look at the topography and the need to get rural broadband. It is great that my hon. Friend is standing up for Cumbria, but if there is one thing we need to fix across the country, it is rural broadband and broadband generally, because of everything else follows that. The pandemic has shown how much we need it and how much more we can do. Sometimes, broadband stops the need for physical movement, too. I very much support my hon. Friend’s great drive for rural Cumbria, but may I make a plea for rural Devon, too?

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on which I am privileged to sit. He makes a fantastic point. It is about connectivity across our great country, and rural Devon is the same as rural Cornwall and the same as rural Cumbria, and we need to get it right. We have to ensure that everyone gets good broadband and a good mobile phone signal. It is a point well made.

The Government aim to have gigabit-capable broadband to 85% of the United Kingdom by 2025. I hope that we can still move that way, but in my constituency, gigabit availability unfortunately languishes at a low 7.2% and the download speed is just over half the national average, so we are well behind. My plea is that we can have some help with that. In our part of the world, the mobile signal is poor. Sadly, there are many notspots in my part of the world.

The Government have taken some positive steps. I welcome Project Gigabit. The shared rural network will have a key impact, too, as will the voucher schemes. Communities are partnering with fantastic companies, such as Broadband for the Rural North. I have seen that first hand in communities such as Kirkoswald, Mallerstang and Ravenstonedale. I pay tribute to companies such as B4RN, its chief executive Michael Lee, the teams and the volunteers who do fantastic work to connect people in isolated communities. I make a plea to the Minister for more help from his Department, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and indeed the Home Office in terms of shared mobile phone masts for emergencies.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, for securing this important debate and I congratulate him on a good speech. Does he agree that the communities of which he rightly speaks are at huge risk as affordable and family homes collapse into the Airbnb and second homes sector? There cannot really be levelling up for rural Cumbria if the Government will not take action to ensure that those communities are protected and that a limit is put on the number of Airbnbs and second homes that there can be in our communities.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I note. If he can temper his patience, I will get on to that topic shortly. I am surprised to see him here; I expected to see him in my constituency perhaps where he has been a frequent and regular visitor in recent weeks. Anyone might wonder whether boundary changes were imminent. I gently and respectfully remind him that we share similar issues in our two constituencies, but we do not share the same constituency.

I put it to the Government that we need to be cautious about future changes to things such as the BBC. In rural parts of the world, terrestrial TV is ever important and the BBC and public service broadcasters are a treasured national asset that deliver news, education and drama. Again, that came into sharp relief in the pandemic when kids at home were delivered a fantastic education through it. For rural areas, where we depend on terrestrial TV and where many homes do not have the internet at all, we cannot be thinking at a Government level about moving to a subscription-based model. I caution the Government that we need to be careful when we are making decisions about the treasured asset that is the BBC.

I turn now to interactions and local democracy. In the pandemic, our vital parish councils, which do such wonderful things for our communities, could meet in virtual or hybrid formats. Sadly, that modality is not now available. That is important and I have raised it with the Secretary of State on a number of occasions. I urge the Government to allow parish councils to continue to meet in virtual or hybrid formats. There are issues with rural isolation and the weather, with people’s jobs or caring responsibilities and with farmers. If we can empower local people to contribute to local democracy through that, we can learn the positive lessons of the pandemic.

In Cumbria, we are facing significant reform at a local government level with the changes to unitary councils. I am on public record as being against that, as I do not think now is the time for us to be doing it, and the groupings go against the natural geography and the community bonds. That said, we are where we are and we have to make the best of it and make it work. I make a plea to the Department, however, that ongoing projects should not be paralysed by that reshuffling and that we should certainly ensure that local democratic changes do not compromise local communities.

I turn now to the farming and agricultural sector, which is an important aspect of my constituency economically, as came into sharp relief during the pandemic because of food security. I pay tribute to our fantastic UK farmers and Cumbria farmers who deliver food to us and put food on our tables. Anyone in the food processing and marketing sectors needs to be thanked for what they have done. They are key workers.

The farming community faces many challenges, such as the changes to the funding system with the new environmental land management schemes. We also face challenges from trade deals. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I sit, is now looking at the Israel trade deal. There are significant challenges to our farming communities and we have to ensure that the Government get it right and do not undermine or undercut our farmers so that we can stand up for our values on high environmental and animal welfare standards and can be a beacon for the rest of the world. I ask the Levelling Up Department to work with DEFRA to support that sector.

That sector has also been significantly challenged by seasonal labour issues—we have been looking at that on the EFRA Committee as well—and there are serious issues in the food processing sector. Again, the farming community now has a crisis that has been ongoing in the pig sector. Currently, in excess of 40,000 pigs have been slaughtered on farm that have not subsequently gone into the food supply chain, and I really urge the Government to work cross-Government to mitigate and avert this crisis.

Another huge part of the rural economy in Cumbria is tourism and hospitality. Again, they are facing similar labour issues. That has been exacerbated by covid, but Brexit has certainly been a factor, and we need to make sure that we can supply the labour that our vital businesses need locally. This sector needs ongoing support, and I urge the Minister to work with the Treasury to make sure that we can keep some of the measures in place, such as the VAT cut for tourism and hospitality businesses, that will make things better for them. We need to think about tax relief for small rural businesses as well.

Tim Farron talked about the pressure on housing in local communities. We are a fantastic tourism part of the world up in Cumbria, and we have seen huge numbers of people come during the pandemic and when we started to open up. The pressure on local people to find local affordable housing has again come into sharp relief. With the increasing number of second homes in the area, locals are basically being priced out of their own local community. I really urge the Government to look at and address that with affordable housing, sensible planning and sensible measures, so that people can get on the housing ladder and it is not to their detriment when people come in and take second homes. I really urge the Government to look at that. Housing in our part of the world is very different from that in London. Again, when the Government are making changes and talking about changing boilers and such things, we have to bear in mind that many people in rural parts of the world have oil boilers, and we have to make sure we adapt. It is horses for courses.

Schools, pubs, shops and churches are the lifeblood of our local communities, and they need support. Many local communities are stepping up and acting together, such as the Kirkoswald community shop, and Bampton Valley community pub has now put together a shared programme to set up the pub again. However, we should not have to rely on the community stepping forward. We must get central Government working with local government and local communities, so I really urge the local government Department to offer more small grants so that we can put the life back into local communities.

Education is so important, and it plays a huge role in levelling up, with opportunities for young and old. We have had a very difficult time in Cumbria, and we have lost Newton Rigg College, the only land-based college in Cumbria. We worked very hard to try to save the college, but unfortunately that was unsuccessful. We now have pieces of the jigsaw coming together to try to rebuild land-based education in our community. I pay tribute to Newton Rigg Ltd, Newton Rigg Equestrian, Ullswater Community College and Myerscough College, which are working together with the Ernest Cook Trust and local stakeholders to see if we can get pieces of the jigsaw together. It is important that we rebuild land-based education in Cumbria.

To give an example, Ullswater Community College is a local high school with over 1,500 pupils, led brilliantly by headteacher Stephen Gilby, with a 600 square mile catchment area. I have raised this with the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary, but it urgently needs a rebuild, and I really press that message home to the Government. Outdoor education in Cumbria is a blessing for us, and that sector also needs to be supported. We have fantastic outdoor education centres, such as Blencathra outward bound centre. This is part of the recovery, it is about the life chances of young folk and it is very important for mental health.

Health underpins levelling up, so I really urge the Government to support rural healthcare. We welcome the fact that we have a new cancer centre that has opened up in Carlisle and a new diagnostic centre in Penrith, but on mental health we need to make sure that the message of parity with physical health comes through loud and clear. In the EFRA Committee, we have triggered an inquiry on rural mental health looking at the key issues and the key stressors. We have significant risk factors in our rural communities. We get shock events; we get floods, we get storms. Professions such as my own—the veterinary profession, but farmers as well—are over-represented with a risk of mental health and suicide, and there are the pressures of running businesses in our isolated communities. I urge the Government to try to address many of those issues at cross-Government level, and to support the communities that we live in and we love. We want to ensure that the people’s voice is heard down here in Westminster and in Whitehall.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Glorious Ribble Valley is not London either, so I wait with eager anticipation, Minister, for your response.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 7:30 pm, 23rd February 2022

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Hudson on securing this important debate. He is a relentless champion for his community, and the many different issues that he touched on this evening are a small selection of the matters he has raised with us. He always makes important and serious contributions to driving forward the different policy agendas he has raised.

Let me address some of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. One of the themes of his speech—appropriately enough for a vet, horses for courses—was about how the levelling-up agenda must be shaped to the needs of rural communities such as the one he represents in Cumbria. He raised the issue of second homes, and I am acutely conscious of the strong feelings held by him and his constituents about that. He will know that we recently closed the second homes tax loophole, which was being abused. That was a serious part of the problem, and a serious contribution to tackling it. Partly as a result of my hon. Friend’s work on this issue, we are considering what further steps we can take to address it. Many local people have a sense of their children not being able to live where they grew up, or of not being able to stay in their own community because it is a wonderfully attractive place. We all love those places, but we must not kill the thing we love by local people not being able to live there. My hon. Friend is completely correct, and it is something we are actively looking at.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Given the urgency of this, I cannot stress how important it is that action is taken, well, yesterday really. In the South Lakeland District, there has been a 32% rise in the number of holiday lets in one single year. That is the private rented sector collapsing into the “not lived in” market. We need action now. Let us please not have another inquiry.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I completely agree with that, and we have the same sense of urgency about this issue.

My hon. Friend raised a point about the need for small grants in the kind of community he represents. That is exactly why we have set up the new £150 million community ownership fund, which is helping people across the country take control of assets that are of importance to the local community, from pubs to sports pitches to important cultural locations. We are at the start of allocating that fund, and I am sure my hon. Friend will be assiduous in helping us to identify fantastic projects in his constituency that are deserving of such support.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of how things work in the kind of area he represents, and about parish councils sitting virtually. He has made numerous representations to us on that point, and again today he made a powerful argument. The Government launched a call for evidence last year to gather views and inform our longer term decision about whether to make express provision for councils to meet remotely on a permanent basis. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is considering the responses to that consultation, and will respond shortly. I know that many local councillors found it extremely useful to have a wider range of voices able to attend, particularly in areas where the geography is large and the community is somewhat older. A decision has not been made, although once again my hon. Friend made a powerful case on behalf of his constituents.

Likewise, as part of my hon. Friend’s theme of how Cumbria is not London and has different challenges and different sorts of issues, he made important points about mental health. It is really a crusade for this Government to have true parity between the treatment of mental and physical diseases, of exactly the kind my hon. Friend called for. As part of that, one of the most exciting things that the Government are doing as part of the anti-loneliness agenda is rolling out social prescribing across the country. There is a target to have 900,000 people referred through the NHS to social prescribing by 2023-24. My hon. Friend is a vet, and a long time ago I was a medical student, and when I met patients I was struck how often both their medical needs in the traditional sense and many mental health issues were not being grappled with. Through the social prescribing agenda, we can start to have a proper plan to connect those people to the help that they need. He was right to raise that.

My hon. Friend was also right to raise terrestrial TV. There are places where people cannot just get on to an ultrafast fibre broadband connection, so that terrestrial TV signal will remain extremely important.

I will touch on some of the wider things that the Government are doing across the whole of Cumbria—of course, there are huge economic connections between all the parts of the county. Our levelling-up funds are making a big difference. Barrow, Carlisle, Cleator Moor, Millom and Workington are all getting a share of £110 million of investment through the towns fund to improve town centres and public services, which will also benefit my hon. Friend’s constituents. Through the first round of the levelling-up fund, £16 million is being invested, and there is much more of that £4.8 billion fund to come.

My hon. Friend will be acutely aware that the landmark and historic borderlands growth deal is helping both sides of the border—those in Cumbria and in southern Scotland. It is helping with projects such as the upgrade to Carlisle railway station and creating 5,000 new well-paying jobs. In total, I think it is bringing £452 million of fresh investment into Cumbria, Northumberland and southern Scotland.

The different funds are doing a lot, but there are also national programmes recognising the central importance of the connectivity issues that my hon. Friend raised—they have the potential to transform the economy of some rural areas—and addressing them. That is exactly why we did the £1 billion deal with mobile network operators. He talked about sharing masts, and that is exactly what we will be doing through the shared rural network. In Cumbria, the deal will mean that 4G coverage from all mobile network operators will rise to a minimum of 88%, up from 73%, and coverage from at least one network will go up from 94% to 98%. We are starting to close off those notspots that he correctly identified. Through Project Gigabit and our £5 billion investment, we will also be connecting broadband across Cumbria and driving up high-quality coverage.

My hon. Friend has been a brilliant champion on all these issues—he raised so many of them—but I am conscious of time and the need to bring my remarks to a close. He raised devolution and the future of local government in Cumbria. In the levelling-up White Paper we alluded to the prospect of a devolution deal for Cumbria, which is an exciting prospect that we can use to address many of the specific issues that he raised in this important debate.

My hon. Friend’s fundamental thesis is completely correct: we must have a levelling-up agenda that works with the grain of what is going on locally. When we go to Cumbria, we see its beauty, all the things that are fantastic about it and the new investment, but we are also conscious that, for many people, it is an area of low pay and one with a need for more high-quality jobs and new opportunities to learn and progress. He has been the most fantastic champion across all those issues and I look forward to working together with him as we drive them forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.