The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:20 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Dean of Harptree Lord Dean of Harptree Conservative 5:20 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, as a countryman born and bred and living in a village, I very much welcome this debate and, like other noble Lords, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ferrers for introducing it. I also welcome the Countryside Alliance, which is successfully focusing people's attention--above all, the Government's--on the many problems that are faced in the countryside. It is not normal for country people to demonstrate. The fact that they are doing so shows that there is deep disquiet and that many believe that their way of life is threatened by an urban-minded government who do not understand or sympathise. It is true that this disquiet was triggered by the threat to hunting, but there are many other problems which have already been mentioned.

All noble Lords who have spoken have mentioned farming. Those of us who are familiar with that activity are aware of the traditional phrase "up horn, down corn"--or the other way round. That illustrates that there always have been, and always will be, ups and downs in farming, but the trouble is that at the moment particularly for agriculture they are virtually all "downs" and the situation is getting worse. As my noble friend Lord Jopling said, this affects a whole series of enterprises in the countryside: farm workers who are laid off; seed and feed merchants; the suppliers of agricultural machinery; shops; garages and vets. Only last weekend a leading expert told me of the troubles that we are laying in store in threats to animal health. We also have the bureaucratic nightmares that are closing down rural abattoirs. The response of the Government to the farming problems has been slow and inadequate. So often it has been too little and too late. The Government must do more to help farmers out of the trough in which they are sinking.

My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to law and order. It is an unhappy fact that rural crime is on the increase, particularly burglary and vandalism. In the country the cry continues to go up, "We never see a policeman". There is no substitute for the regular presence of a policeman who knows people and is known by them. We now have a number of community policemen and school policemen in various parts of the country, and that is a step in the right direction. In many villages there is Neighbourhood Watch, where local volunteers are prepared to help the police rather than pass by on the other side. While these developments are welcome, country people will not be reassured until there is a stronger local police presence.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham mentioned local schools and churches. In many of our villages the church is the pride and joy of the community, but the burden of maintenance must be borne by very small congregations. Expensive repairs are required. Those repairs are made more burdensome because of the imposition of VAT. I can assure the Government, as I did the previous one, that we shall go on pressing for the exemption of church repairs until they stop making excuses and do something. Many of our local schools have closed under governments of both colours. That is a big loss to village life. As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, many of these are Church schools. When such a school closes it breaks the link between the Church and education which is so important in this secular age. I welcome the Government's announcement that there will now be a presumption against the closure of village schools. That is good news, and I hope that the policy will be effective.

I turn to housing. The right to buy on favourable terms has converted many families in the countryside from council tenants to home owners, but that can be done only once. There is now an acute shortage of affordable housing. In many instances when young couples gets married they must either move away or live with their in-laws. In part that is because in-comers have forced up the price of houses in villages. I do not suggest that we need a new generation of council houses to deal with this problem. I believe that these days it is more appropriate to give additional help to housing associations and the like which can provide houses for rent that are within the means of country people.

Shops and post offices are vital to villages. They provide not only goods but a service. Those of us who live in the country are familiar with many conversations that take place in village shops. "Charlie hasn't been in this week for his ounce of tobacco. I wonder if he's all right. We must find out"--and they do so. That important service which the village shop provides is certainly not available at a supermarket. The Government have done something to relieve the burden on village shops. While that is very welcome, the fact remains that they are fighting a losing battle. So far as concern post offices, they may face a new threat. If payment of benefit is removed from them it is absolutely essential that they are given encouragement to diversify; otherwise, the closure of village post offices will be substantially accelerated.

There is a whole series of other problems related to health, transport and work, but I do not intend to bore your Lordships by going any further. I summarise the position by saying that these problems do not involve a vast increase in expenditure. Most problems need a change of atmosphere in which decisions are made, pump priming to encourage voluntary effort or a modest reallocation of resources to countryside projects. I hope that we shall have a favourable response from the noble Baroness when she comes to reply.