Rural Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:01 pm on 2nd February 2006.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative 12:01 pm, 2nd February 2006

My Lords, this is not the first time that I have followed the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, yet it is as much a pleasure today as it was previously. Hers was a model contribution to the debate on today's subject, for which we congratulate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. Seven- or eight-minute speeches make for cameos and telegraphic ones at that. I have lived part of my life in rural Wiltshire for the past 30 years; 18 years north of Salisbury Plain and 12 years south of it. The saying "chalk and cheese" comes from Wiltshire, and the plain is a cordon sanitaire in terms of pace of life, but the valley in which we live is not a bad microcosm from which to extrapolate. In one of AG Street's Wiltshire books, he takes the villages of Sutton Mandeville and Teffont Evias and turns them into Sutton Evias and Teffont Mandeville, as being typical of the villages around us.

The established Church in Wiltshire is more given to team ministries than most other dioceses, and last Sunday we finally became one, after negotiations worthy of Barchester, at least from where our valley river rises as far as Salisbury's outskirts, where Wilton was the ancient capital of Wessex. Tisbury church, which gets into Simon Jenkins's book in the junior grade, is the cathedral of the valley, and Tisbury is the largest and equidistant village in the 25 miles between Salisbury and Shaftesbury. Its origins are mediaeval, but it has a well served railway station and at least 20 shops for a population of 2,000, apart from the radial outlying villages.

In the days when I used to sit annually at the feet of the futurologist, the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute, I also used to read Norman Macrae, the deputy editor of the Economist, which released him for a six-month sabbatical every five years to go round the world to find out how it was likely to change. One of his earlier forecasts was the growth of one-person or two-person businesses working from home, inspired by the new opportunities that technology would offer. We have one such, some 100 yards from our cottage, where a husband and wife team do automotive engineering design for clients around the world from their home in the hamlet's former chapel. Rural areas spawn such units more prevalently than urban ones, with a higher number per capita than in towns and cities. In our case, the normal rural deficit of IT literacy is counterbalanced by a website specialist a village away, though, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, broadband facilities are dramatically less available. Only 7 per cent of rural villages and 1 per cent of remote rural areas have access to affordable Internet connections, compared with 95 per cent of the urban population.

Not everything in the garden is lovely. Historically, rural poverty has been assuaged by personal vegetable plots. It will be interesting to see how far that survives the relative disappearance of the agricultural labourer, one of whom lives next door to us. CAMRA says that there are fewer pubs now in rural areas than during the Norman Conquest. At least two such pubs have become private houses in our valley in the past decade. That is also an index, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, of the crisis in affordable housing.

The growth in rural homelessness since 1997 has been three times that in urban areas. Government emphasis on the quality of life in the countryside in part masks a lower standard of living. Rural Britain has the highest proportion of working-age adults receiving in-work tax credits. The Social Exclusion Unit is still without a section specifically dealing with rural poverty. The paucity of accessible citizens advice bureaux makes rural tax credit clients more reliant on helplines, and, as emerged from a supplementary answer to a Starred Question and subsequent ministerial correspondence last year, the Revenue helpline is not universally reliable.

It all comes down to the reduced effect of the sparsity criteria in the past decade under the standard spending assessment rules per capita, and it looks like it will get worse. Our admirable local GP envisages that the NHS will reduce local facilities over the coming decade, so the under-resourced transport facilities will be under further pressure. Of the increased funding of the national transport budget, less than 0.02 per cent will go towards the rural transport fund for the extension of rural bus services.

When Lloyds TSB closed its branch in Tisbury, the announcement on the door implied that there would be a warm welcome in Wilton, nine miles away, for its former customers. One of the valley's local post offices, which are candidates to inherit financial services opportunities, has just won the Post Office's prize for the best post office in the region, but there is a continuing threat of post office closures. Council tax problems threaten the closure of Tisbury sports centre, and the resolution of those problems will still see cuts to the arts budget.

These modest observations are not the utterances of a pessimist or a cavalier caviller, but those of a realist. Potentially, rural areas have ground for optimism in their capacity for community spirit. In our valley, the eventual creation of the team ministry last weekend is itself a beacon, not just for Christian reasons, but for that sense of community for which the Church at its best stands.

Within the past 18 months, in the debate on an Unstarred Question on church buildings asked by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, who happily is in his place, I described how Sutton Mandeville, our eponymous village, was raising £65,000 over three years to restore a mediaeval church tower in a parish of fewer than 100 souls. Your Lordships' House would not normally expect an update on so microcosmic an event, but we raised £54,000 in the first two years entirely by our own efforts, without institutional aid, and so have a relatively soft landing for the final year. The significant victory has been that this was the work of the whole valley and not just of the village. Two of your Lordships' House have generously given lectures to packed audiences within the church. In seven weeks' time we shall have an Ashes celebration cricket dinner with an ex-president of the MCC as speaker.

Self-help is not dead and the spirit that the valley engenders is redolent of Burke's small platoons. I do not want to rub salt in the wound of the defeat of the Government's referendum for regional government in the north-east, but opportunities for rural areas lie best on a local, not a wider, basis that is almost contradictory to local chances.