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Rural Communities: Prince's Countryside Fund — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:13 pm on 7th October 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative 12:13 pm, 7th October 2010

My Lords, it is a privilege to stand here today, a Bradford councillor who has been accepted to take a seat in this wonderful, historic building, joining so many learned and talented individuals.

I shall begin my maiden speech by briefly paying tribute to the people who have made my first weeks here so pleasurable and informative. As a rural councillor, I am much more used to seeing wool markets than woolsacks, and am more experienced in village halls than in Westminster Hall. Nevertheless, the staff of this House have done everything possible to make me feel at home, and for that I am extremely grateful. I must also thank my sponsors, my noble friends Lady Hanham and Lord Bates, whose expertise and wise words will stand me in great stead for the future. I also thank my mentor, my noble friend Lady Sharples, for her instructive insights, as well as all the other Peers who have kindly given of their time and advice.

I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble on calling today's important debate. As a resident of Cottingley, in Bingley, West Yorkshire, and as an elected councillor for my ward of Bingley Rural, I hope that I may add some useful reflections to this highly topical debate on rural issues. People are often surprised when they find out that I am a councillor on the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council but that my ward consists of five beautiful villages in the glorious West Yorkshire countryside. Perhaps the misconception comes from too much television watching and possibly from comparing our cities and urban areas with Coronation Street. Coronation Street is not part of my ward, but Emmerdale almost is. The fact that rural villages sit within metropolitan boroughs shows the sheer variety and diversity of geography and population that councils cover.

My rural ward has its own unique character. The annual Bronte vintage gathering takes place in Cullingworth. In Denholme, the mill used to sustain the population; it no longer does and we have issues involving young people. In Cottingley, the famous wood where the fairies were still attracts many visitors. Wilsden is an old, beautiful stone village whereas Harden, by contrast, quite clearly sits in the commuter belt. It is all very far away from urban Bradford.

Of course, my ward faces a unique set of challenges. The local transport infrastructure and the problems that stem from increasing traffic congestion on small rural roads are constantly raised by my residents, as are questions about affordable housing and the overdevelopment to which my noble friend Lord Best referred. Local community groups, which currently do such fantastic work with groups of people suffering deprivation, are understandably worried about their future.

For example, the excellent Cornerstone Centre project in Cottingley was created through a unique collaboration among the council, the church, Futurebuilders England and local residents. This wonderful project has offered a focal point for the whole village and incorporates public services, a doctor surgery, social facilities, housing and a church. The Cornerstone Centre demonstrates clearly the enormous potential within our communities and the challenge that we face in ensuring that such excellent community schemes continue to gain support.

All the issues raised in my ward are echoed in rural areas across the country, although the specific problems require specific solutions. Like all councillors that I know, I became involved in local politics because I wanted to make a difference locally. I wanted to help to solve the problems that my ward faced. I saw the role of local government as being the mechanism for bringing different parts of the community together in the pursuit of a common goal. I saw that in 1986 when I was elected, and I still see it now.

However, when I became leader of Bradford council, I was increasingly frustrated by the constraints placed on local government by national government. We were constantly having to do an Oliver Twist and ask for more money, more funding, more powers and more freedoms to allow us to improve the lives of our residents. Those constraints have curtailed innovation, stifled creativity and made local people in rural areas feel that they are unable really to make their voices heard and their opinions count. Clearly, this needs to change.

As chairman of the national organisation the Local Government Association, my work as a local politician on the national stage has been to demonstrate clearly to national politicians that local works best and to show that Whitehall must remove the shackles that restrict councils from being the best that they can be for the people whom they serve. I am grateful that I will have the opportunity to continue that work with my noble colleagues in this House. It is fantastic to note that, on all Benches, there are confirmed localists who have done much to improve their areas and will need no persuading. I look forward to debating the best ways of progressing localism in the coming years.

It is inarguable that it is at the local level that services and policies truly touch on the lives of individuals. This is where people feel most able and willing to make a difference, whether through community action, volunteering or planning for the future of their neighbourhood. People passionately care about their neighbourhoods and it is right that our Government should seek to empower these people further. The more people feel involved, the more they will come forward with innovative and useful ideas.

It is equally important that local government remains at the heart of these reforms. The LGA's place survey showed that people trust their local council; they know that their democratically accountable councillors are there to take decisions based on what is best for the entire area and to offer their leadership and expertise. Councillors are practised in joining services together and in making a difference in projects that affect their communities.

I believe passionately that this new localism can make a lasting difference in Bingley Rural and in wards like it across the country, but it has to bring with it a real, sweeping reform to the way in which our systems work. I believe that this localism has three key attributes. First, localism is about giving all people the power to guide the development of their area. Secondly, it requires partnership working between business, charities, community groups and local service providers, which all have one thing in common: they want their local area to succeed. Thirdly, localism requires an understanding of how each local area fits into the wider picture. No community is an island and, inevitably, every decision made will have an impact across the area.

This radical work must be the goal of any truly localist Government. As a local councillor in the House of Lords, I look forward to playing my part in ensuring this freedom and to working with noble Lords on all sides of the House to make the idea a reality.