Local Government: Community Empowerment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:39 pm on 10th January 2008.

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Photo of The Bishop of Ely The Bishop of Ely Bishop 3:39 pm, 10th January 2008

My Lords, I am very honoured to make a contribution to this debate. I am told that your Lordships' House is a place of welcome and hospitality, and I have found it so. I come from a rural and a farming background. I am proud to say that my family, despite all the things that have happened in the past few years, are still farming. All my ministry has been spent in small country parishes and I bring that experience to this House. In addition, I have spent 15 years at the National Agricultural Centre and with the Royal Agricultural Society dealing in a sense with the socio-economic issues that underline the report. The diocese I now serve comprises Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk. Ely looks out on some of the most fertile and consequently the most expensive land in England. A third of it is below sea level; part of the diocese is at 25 feet below sea level, so there are issues there that the House could address at some stage.

Like the previous speaker, I welcome the report, not least for the range of issues that it raises—localism and the devolution of responsibility to local people is of the greatest importance. The concerns of rural areas were once much higher on the agenda than they are today. It is now almost forgotten that the post-war Mansholt plan of 1947, the foundation document of the common agricultural policy, was conceived of by virtually all the contributors as a social document. It said a lot about agriculture, but it was basically a social document and the countries that read it that way—France and Germany particularly—have therefore made great progress in those areas.

Those who live in rural areas suffer from being on the margins. In recent years that has been exacerbated by planning policies and social policies based on the concept of city regions, which is an American concept, and central place theory. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentions community. "Community" is a central word but it is difficult to define. It can apply equally to the European Community and to a small religious house. A former academic colleague listed 94 definitions of community—that was of undoubted academic interest but not of a great deal of practical help as we looked at the problems of rural areas. In reality, community is known by its absence—we know when it is not present, but it is difficult to define by its presence.

Endless government and other documents have spoken about the ideal size of rural settlements. I like the definition of a Fenland parishioner in the area that I now serve. She said that such a settlement has to be large enough for a good deal to be going on and small enough so that she misses none of it. The whole of the eastern region is experiencing extraordinary population growth, the fastest of any part of the country. Cambridgeshire is a region that is growing enormously and many people are responding to the challenges that that throws up.

It is constantly brought home to those of us who live there that while it is easy to build houses, creating community is significantly more difficult, so much so that people are leaving the new settlements—Cambourne and so on—around Cambridge at a much faster rate than had been anticipated, and there is a danger of them acquiring a reputation for simply being acres of housing with no meaningful community. Whether good or bad local government happens in that area, that is not in a sense the point. The point is the indefinable sense of community in those places, which does not depend on the frequency of rubbish collections or the availability of children's playgrounds. Once again we can be trapped into believing that what we cannot measure does not exist.

In rural areas few would deny the importance of voluntary organisations, and I pay tribute to all those who support them—the large army of volunteers themselves and those who argue their case in central and local government. I speak with personal experience as I served as a commissioner on the Rural Development Commission for 10 years until it ended in 1999. The Commission for Rural Communities—the new body that has taken over its work—together with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Arthur Rank Centre at Stoneleigh have all recently published papers which point to the significance of churches and faith communities in the development of what is now called social capital, but we would understand as local community. In this we recognise the way in which communities are created and sustained, and the clergy find that they recognise their roles and functions, the work of their buildings and of their congregations in the new and unfamiliar terminology of social capital, anchor organisations and so on.

I welcome this report and the good things that no doubt will flow from it. I hope that the single reference to rural communities in the 12 examples that have been given in the report does not indicate a disposition to ignore that part of the country, where 20 per cent of the population live. I hope that the role of voluntary organisations in urban and rural areas will be deeply understood, well resourced and widely recognised.