Rural Areas: Public Services - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 6:31 pm on 9th July 2018.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 6:31 pm, 9th July 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the provision of public services in rural areas.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to have secured this debate and I look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords, in particular my noble friend Lord Haselhurst, who is making his maiden speech. I welcome my noble friend the Minister to his place. I refer to my interests on the register: I work with the Dispensing Doctors’ Association; I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for five years; I grew up in Teesdale, one of the most rural areas in the Pennines, and represented another in north Yorkshire for 18 years in the House of Commons; I am an honorary vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities; and I a member of the Rural Affairs Committee of the Church of England synod.

Living and working in the countryside is the envy of many, yet rural dwellers face challenges of which their urban counterparts are blissfully unaware. That is why I am delighted to have secured this debate on the challenges and costs of providing public services in rural areas. Public services are coming under increasing pressure in rural areas. Delivering health and social care, affordable housing, adequate transport to work or to visit the doctor or dentist, and accessing the digital economy via broadband and mobile phones are major challenges facing rural dwellers. For years, successive Governments have failed to tackle these issues. Officials appear to be metro-centric and urban based, and in many cases have never been exposed to the challenges of rural life.

Funding per head of population for education, health and other sectors is less in rural areas than in urban areas. For example, taxpayers in North Yorkshire pay two and a half times more council tax than residents of Westminster yet receive less government funding, have 29% less core spending power per capita and receive fewer services. Average weekly wages, however, are 86% higher in Westminster than in North Yorkshire. Rurality is poorly reflected in the current formula for council funding. Population density is given eight times more weighting than rurality. North Yorkshire has 707 parishes with populations below 5,000, with the majority of these below 350. This demonstrates the very sparse and dispersed nature of the county’s population.

There is often a higher proportion of middle-aged and older people living in rural areas. They can suffer fuel poverty because of the higher costs of vehicle and heating fuel. There are clear pockets of rural deprivation given the background of low pay, higher living costs and a lack of affordable homes. Finding an affordable home, travelling to a job some distance away, using the electronic prescription service in rural GP practices, reporting an emergency with a poor mobile phone signal, and access to local post offices and banks for individuals and small businesses are some of the everyday challenges that rural communities face.

Planning decisions can throw up perverse consequences in rural areas. The Campaign to Protect Rural England notes a failure to recognise the views of local communities and the value of open countryside. In my view, there is no good reason to prefer garden cities taking rafts of rural area for housing over sites in urban areas with established infrastructure and brownfield land. We must protect areas of outstanding natural beauty and our national parks but be mindful of the needs of those who live and work there.

The Government rightly laud their policy for a digital economy. However, they must grasp the fact that digital access in the countryside, which represents the 5% hardest-to-reach broadband access, precludes rural GPs accessing electronic prescriptions to the benefit of the patient and precludes farmers downloading and completing farm payment claims online.

The recruitment and retention of new GP partners in rural areas is of concern. I should confess here that I am the daughter of a GP and the sister of a GP. Poor mobile signals and poor internet access will hamper the new NHS app and the use of smartphone technology for interacting with the NHS. Dispensing doctors face an increasing number of perverse incentives in the drug reimbursement systems, and the forthcoming implementation of the EU falsified medicines directive will add costs to practices via the workload and costs associated with the scanning technology used to verify these medicines.

In the recently published report Bricks and Water, we concluded that there was only limited and patchy co-ordination on planning for housing and water at a catchment scale, with a current lack of sustainable drainage to prevent flooding. We urge neighbouring local authorities to co-operate more and call for the new environmental watchdog to be truly independent yet accountable to Parliament, facing both Defra and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and giving strategic advice on housing growth and water management issues.

As far back as July 2013, in its report on rural communities, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee identified local authority funding, rural broadband, not-spots in mobile phone coverage, affordable housing, access to public transport and developing the rural economy as crucial factors that needed to be addressed. That was five years ago, but the issues are still so familiar today.

In early July of this year, the Post-Brexit England Commission published an interim report on threats to rural areas after leaving the EU. It found a deepening divide between rural and urban areas, unaffordable homes, an increasing skills gap and poor connectivity to the internet—I think there is a theme here. The commission recommends greater powers to local authorities to tackle the problems; to give all councils the ability to borrow to build new homes; to devolve funding and control over skills and employment schemes to local areas; and to plug the adult social care funding gap, which is expected to reach £3.5 billion by 2025.

Recently, the House of Lords ad hoc committee reported on the implementation of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. It criticised the Government for abolishing the Rural Communities Commission and ceasing to rural proof policies. It recommended that the Cabinet Office oversee the rural proofing of policy in all departments.

This week sees the 160th Great Yorkshire Show, celebrating the countryside and showcasing farm produce and livestock. From deliciouslyorkshire food to the cattle lines to the craft goods to the fur and feather, producers across the region take great pride and joy in showing their produce at the height of the season. As we marvel at the craftsmanship and husbandry of the produce on display, I urge the Government to be mindful of the everyday needs of country folk.

There must be more joined-up, cross-departmental policy, and rural dwellers should be treated equally with their urban cousins. I urge the Government to come forward with a way and means of rural proofing all policies, alive to the challenges of public services and the cost of delivering these in rural communities. I can think of no better person to deliver on this issue than my noble friend the Minister, who will wind up the debate today.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:41 pm, 9th July 2018

My Lords, I live in the beautiful county of North Yorkshire, in the famous and equally beautiful town of Richmond. It is not to be confused with its southern namesake, because my Richmond is the original Richmond of all the Richmonds in the world—currently 56 of them. Four Members of your Lordships’ House have taken this title in the past 20 years, each of us acknowledging our good fortune to live there. With a population of 8,413 at the last count, our nearest large town is Darlington, some 12 miles away as the crow flies. We are at the head of the Yorkshire Dales, with small hamlets and villages scattered over a huge area, where farming is the predominant industry, closely followed by tourism.

I declare an interest as a former councillor in Richmond for many years, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on securing this important debate. We have known each other for many years.

Public services in my part of the world have been decimated since I first joined the county council in 1981 and are now in crisis. We hear much up north about the northern powerhouse, but any benefits accruing to this so far have been generally in the cities and urban areas of this region and have yet to percolate to those of us who live in the vast rural areas of North Yorkshire. Our local enterprise partnership, which is a pale shadow of the former Yorkshire Forward regional development agency, works hard to deliver the benefits through many projects in its strategic economic plan. I wish it well, but the deep rural areas in which our communities live need greater attention and commitment in order that they, too, may achieve their potential.

The Select Committee’s report in the session 2017 to 2019, The Countryside at a Crossroads: Is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 Still Fit for Purpose, states:

“Each and every Government department should be seeking to take account of the circumstances facing rural communities when developing policies”— as the noble Baroness said. It goes on to suggest that Defra, being the responsible government department for these matters, does not have the cross-government influence or capacity required to embed rural proofing more widely. Will the Minister comment on this? Are there any plans to introduce this essential work? Does he feel that Defra should be empowered to do so?

In considering our small rural schools—many of which have had to close, ensuring that children have longer journeys to travel—Rural England, in its State of Rural Services 2016 report, states that rural FE students face particular barriers with transport, with fewer than 40% of them able to get to a secondary school by public transport in reasonable travel time. They also have less choice of which school or college to attend. In North Yorkshire—disgracefully—parents are charged for transport for their children when they reach 16-plus.

Fuel costs are greater, and for North Yorkshire this is a major consideration as it takes well over two hours to drive from one end of our county to the other, and much longer in the summer months. This also means, of course, that there are hundreds of miles of roads that need upkeep, with potholes to fill and verges to clear. The county council’s network report shows huge variations in school transport costs, with North Yorkshire spending £207 per head, while Leeds spends £15 and Bradford £30. It goes on to state:

“On average, county councils received £650 per person for public services in 2017/18, such as adult social care, buses, libraries, bin collections, pothole repairs and children’s social services. In contrast, a city or Metropolitan borough resident, receives £825 for their services, whilst those who live in inner London enjoy £1,190 per person”.

It is grossly unfair that we receive £3.2 billion less than other parts of the country for services to which we have an equal right. We need a fairer funding settlement and so I ask the Minister: when are we likely to get this?

With health provision in rural areas—in particular where I live in Richmond—the key problem is access to services, and the frustration for the people who live there is the lack of democratic accountability. The main trust for our area is the James Cook University Trust in Middlesbrough, which is a good hour from where I live and much longer for Dales people. Do not have a heart attack in Hawes. That trust has gradually run down one of our treasured hospitals—the Friarage in Northallerton. There is a veneer of apparent consultation, such as the current one over the potential closure of the access and emergency unit there, but we all know what the outcome of the consultation will be.

The alternative for inhabitants of the two most northern Dales is to travel to Darlington, where the emergency services are in constant fear of closure, or to the well-provided James Cook University Hospital. Behind many of the closure decisions is the mantra, “We can’t get the staff we need”. This particularly applies to anaesthetist posts. The professional body, the deanery, should address this problem.

Recruitment problems and the possible measures that could be taken are well discussed in the 2016 report Training in Smaller Places, commissioned by Health Education England. Is the Minister aware of this document? If so, does he support its recommendations? If the answer is that he is not aware of the document, will he ensure that his colleagues in the Department of Health read it? There is no reason why a training programme for all potential consultants should not include two years at a smaller hospital, such as the one at the Friarage in Northallerton.

I shall finish on a more positive note. Innovative ideas are coming forward from one of our rural police officers. He manages to keep crime rates in his area right down by having an excellent relationship with local farmers and linking them together with radios so that they can report directly to each other and to the police any crime suspected of being committed. There is a huge success story in Richmond that has little to do with public services because of the small amount of public money given but has a great deal to do with the lifeblood of rural areas: volunteers. We renovated and rejuvenated our old station building a few years ago into a film, food and arts centre. The station has two cinemas, an art gallery, a heritage centre, a superb award-winning bakery, a microbrewery and a fantastic ice cream parlour, which is very good in this weather.

The Richmond Building Preservation Trust looks after the building, which has won many awards and has 300,000 visitors a year. Moreover, we are looking to develop more special buildings in our town for community use. We have the Green Howards Museum and the superb Richmondshire Museum, which was voted one of the best small attractions in Great Britain. That is an absolutely fantastic achievement. Again, it was built and is run by a hugely committed group of volunteers. And, of course, we have our famous Georgian Theatre Royal, which gets a very small amount of public funding. So, despite our services crumbling, local people are proud of our town and area, and I warmly invite noble Lords to pay us a visit.

Photo of Lord Haselhurst Lord Haselhurst Conservative 6:50 pm, 9th July 2018

My Lords, in rising to make my maiden speech within a week of my introduction, I risk being thought very impulsive, but the subject put forward for debate by my noble friend Lady McIntosh was too tempting. She and I share something of the same approach to what life is like in the rural parts of our country. I can but seek encouragement from the words of the late Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, who at the outset of his maiden speech in 1965 said:

“I have been singularly well trained in parliamentary manners and etiquette, having been for some considerable time a Member of another place”.—[Official Report, 15/11/1965; col. 258.]

I pray that my similar but not nearly so distinguished background will protect me from any lapses of courtesy and custom in your Lordships’ House.

I also learned very early in my parliamentary life that we are well supported by attentive staff and officials. That has been amply evidenced to me once again since the start of my pre-introduction period. I wish to record my very grateful thanks to those who have already helped me so much, not least my mentor and my whip.

On 10 December 1966, a young man rose in the Royal Festival Hall to make a keynote speech at a crowded gathering of Conservative youth. A political star was born. His public life and mine have been intertwined in friendship, and just occasionally rivalry, since that time, so I am especially grateful to my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral for acting as my senior supporter. In his maiden speech he expressed his concern for the careers and well-being of young people. But just before the end he added:

“We must also ensure we make greater use of older people”.—[Official Report, 1/4/1998; col. 296.]

I draw some comfort from that sentiment.

A very high proportion of my previous service at the other end benefited from the tutelage of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane. Our respective roles connected at many points: the European legislation Committee, the Deputy Speakership, the Administration Committee, the Estimate Audit Committee, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and restoration and renewal. In his maiden speech, the noble Lord spoke feelingly about,

“the condition of this wonderful building”.—[Official Report,1/6/15; col. 217.]

I share his passion. Above all, the service paid to me by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, was the fact that he was the person who revealed the value of a smartphone in providing full ball-by-ball updates for all first class cricket matches. I feel greatly honoured that the noble Lord agreed to be my second supporter.

In 1970 I became the Member of Parliament for Middleton and Prestwich in Greater Manchester. I was a Yorkshireman representing a Lancashire seat; perhaps that was at least a nod in the direction of diversity in those days. In that Parliament I had the opportunity to introduce the Youth and Community Bill. It had its Second Reading on 1 February 1974 and the dissolution of Parliament took place one week later. There has been controversy lately about blocking Private Members’ Bills, but it seems to me that dissolving Parliament is taking it a bit far. Some 44 years on, I note that the honourable Member for Brighton Kemptown is trying to introduce a youth services Bill—which rather suggests that time has stood still on that subject.

When I was chosen for Saffron Walden, I was already persuaded from both a northern and an environmental perspective that a third London airport should not be in a rural inland site. On election, I have to say, partly at the expense of the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham of Droxford, that I found myself campaigning against major development at Stansted. Up to that point, I had thought that marching up Whitehall and orating in Trafalgar Square was for others and not for me, but circumstances forced that extreme action. The battle was lost and I have accepted the reality, but what I have not accepted so easily is the lack of connectivity that has occurred in its wake. In some bigger countries airports may be seen as welcome for the benefits they can bring, but in this country the opposite happens. Roads become more congested: junction 8 on the M11 is notorious. Who, after all, would decide to put a motorway services area there after making it the point of access to a major airport? And rail travel gets worse, because the decision taken in the wake of Dr Beeching’s report in the 1960s, leading to two rail tracks being ripped up, means that we have a totally inadequate railway from Liverpool Street to Cambridge when an airport has to be served, as well as many other extremely important businesses that are vital to the future of this country. So we get to a state where even the principal beneficiaries—the owners, the airlines and the employees—of a major development such as an airport, needed no doubt in the national interest, gradually become just as upset as the local communities in which they have been implanted by the absence of adequate infrastructure.

It is inevitable that the costs of providing the same range of public services to people are higher in rural areas than in towns and cities. But we are now in an era when technology can help us to bridge the gap. Distance can be made less of a problem by mobile telephony and broadband providing information, combating loneliness and dealing, as we now know, with health needs—and there will be other means, too. We ought therefore to recognise and espouse the principle of equality of entitlement. If you do business in the countryside, if you study in your rural home or if you farm, you need broadband and mobile telephony in order to function. The distinction between town and country has blurred to the extent where a great deal of business and industry now takes place in country areas. It is a growing political issue and it can be dealt with at a cheaper cost than many other projects which are seen as necessary—and, frankly, there is no downside.

I welcome what the Government have done to date so far as the spread of broadband is concerned, but I would urge them to look at two things in particular. One is the delays caused by companies taking on bespoke territory and then not moving fast to provide the service for which they get locals to sign up. That creates an enormous amount of ill will—and still communities wait for connection. There is also now the possibility of self-build, as we have learned from a community in Wales. If people can build the network for themselves, perhaps we should think of giving them incentives to do so. I believe that new technology can go a long way to help us bridge the gap between town and country.

The late Lord Butler in his maiden speech, albeit on a major issue that had prompted an emergency debate, spoke for 21 minutes. I have always felt that brevity rarely offends, and I hope that today it has not.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 6:59 pm, 9th July 2018

My Lords, it is a great privilege to be the first to congratulate my noble friend Lord Haselhurst on his maiden speech. In his non-parliamentary parlance, he was batting at number three today and he played some beautiful shots that my noble friend will have to field. He is obviously going to test my noble friend on a number of occasions.

It was quite right that my noble friend quoted from Lord Butler of Saffron Walden’s speech, because my noble friend served that constituency very carefully and well for 40 years. But that was not his first experience in Parliament, as he mentioned: he had the happy experience of being defeated at a general election and having to start again outside before coming back to Parliament. What he did not tell your Lordships was that he spent 13 years as Deputy Speaker and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, serving under three Speakers. We will not ask him to put them in batting order, but I am sure that at some time, in the bar, he may tell us a few stories about them. There is another thing that my noble friend did, before I move on to the debate: he was the first British parliamentary Member to hold the position of chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association since Colin Shepherd in 1996. He will be a great benefit to the House, and I congratulate him on his speech.

I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh for introducing this debate. It is the second Monday in a row that we are cantering around this course—we discussed the NERC report a week ago, which touched quite heavily on rural policies. All the points that she mentioned will be covered by the Rural Economy Committee, on which I have the pleasure to sit. Its chairman is the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, who I am pleased to see in his place paying great attention to what has been said.

As my noble friend said, rural policy is a diverse problem, and I shall break it down into three little areas. One is rural proofing, which my noble friend mentioned. This is different from rural policy: rural proofing is about getting government to think about rural policies in advance. It is hugely important, and every department is involved. For instance, why has the Department of Health stopped GPs getting payment for holidaymakers in their area? That seems to me to be something that will affect GPs in rural communities, and it should have been tackled. Then we come to the courts, which are being revised. What about access? How are people going to get there when they live in the country? The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, mentioned schools, so I shall not say anything more about that.

We were told at a meeting of the Rural Economy Committee last week that Defra’s permanent secretary, Clare Moriarty, had written to all permanent secretaries. Can my noble friend tell me when she did that? It was given to us as an example of good government policy. Noble Lords might look at it the other way: it was actually an indictment that the permanent secretary had to write to all the other permanent secretaries in 2018. It should not be necessary. As a result of this letter, can my noble friend tell me how many specialists in all the other departments are looking at rural proofing, now that they have been told that a senior official needs to be in charge of it?

I move on to rural policy, a lot of which has been covered. The key to rural policy is inevitably money. Unless one has the necessary finances, services suffer. We all get used to services when times are good; when times are not so good and services have to be cut, we all pay the price. However, that is a cyclical event; it has happened before, and I remember when rural policies were very badly funded. They have got better badly funded, but it seems to be getting worse again. In the 2018-19 provisional settlement, urban areas received from central government some £123 per head more than their rural counterparts in settlement funding assessment grant. Can my noble friend explain why that has happened and why rural residents pay, on average, 20% more per head in council tax than their urban counterparts, while receiving less in government grants? It seems there is a lack of equality here that we on the committee will certainly want to look into, but perhaps my noble friend could help to start that ball rolling today.

There is also what is called the additional unit cost, because of the sparsity of population and the longer time taken commuting as rural roads get busier and urban roads get less busy. It is the delivery times: people have to take time off work to receive a parcel that is going to be delivered either am or pm, if you can get that slot rather than the whole day. There is also the older population problem. The population in the countryside is getting older: the proportion has moved up from about 24% in 2001 to 29% now. That is going to add considerable costs to local authorities and put extra strain on old people’s services and on GPs. These are issues that have to be tackled at an early stage if they are going to be handled successfully.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh said she is the sister of a GP. I thought she produced a slightly gloomy picture of the countryside. When I lived in Caithness not so long ago, our GP was an Englishman who had come up to the north coast of Caithness for a better quality of life in the true countryside, not the urban areas of north Yorkshire. There is a huge benefit in the countryside. Bus services have been cut: Cumbria does not support any bus services now, and that is a problem. Rural broadband has been touched upon. Last year, 17% of rural premises could not access a 10 megabits per second connection, which is the minimum necessary for efficient online activities. As ever more public services require everything to be done on the internet, this is an area on which we have to continually push. I know that my noble friend is fully seized of the point, but we have to be relentless to make certain that those in the most remote areas get connected, and connected quickly.

My third point concerns research and statistics. It is something that I mentioned last week. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, mentioned the State of Rural Services report from Rural England. She will know that at the end of that, Brian Wilson, who was its author and is an adviser to the Rural Economy Committee, says how difficult it was to get accurate figures, because of lack of research. This is an area that needs looking at. Since all the changes in the way that Defra handles country policies, one of the most common complaints is about the lack of research. It needs to be tackled because one of the great things that the Countryside Agency and its successor did was to provide a database independent of outside bodies. I hope that my noble friend will agree that something like that needs to happen again.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:08 pm, 9th July 2018

My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for securing this important debate. I declare my interests as a district councillor and a vice-president of the LGA. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, on his maiden speech. I am sure that this will be the first of many contributions that he will make to debates in this Chamber.

As noble Lords will know, I live in a delightful rural area in Somerset, close to the Dorset boundary and, therefore, close to the south Jurassic coast, with its fishing ports, its pebble beaches and swannery. All this is, indeed, an idyllic situation which many city dwellers envy. However, this masks the lack of public services which many of those living in populated urban areas take for granted: they would feel deprived if they had to exist without their benefit. Local authorities of all sizes and types across the country have suffered severe cuts since 2015 and have made alterations to the way in which they deliver services, to try to bridge the gap between spending and dwindling income from central government. In some cases, this has led to very innovative and successful ways of service delivery. In others, it has led to outsourcing to private companies, which has also been successful. Regrettably, this is not always the case. Sometimes the level of service delivery has been far less than when provided by the local authority itself. Staff, despite TUPE, have been laid off and service users have been left distressed and unhappy. Then the private provider, finding that it is unable to make the level of profit it thought possible, has handed back the contract causing further upset and change for service users. When the contract involved is one providing day-centre services to adults with learning disabilities, this is doubly upsetting for those involved.

Cash-strapped local authorities are finding it increasingly hard to deliver the level of service that residents require. Libraries are closing or open for only very limited hours, often making it impossible for those at work during the day to use them. For more and more people on zero-hours contracts, earning the minimum wage and with no certainty about the hours they will be offered to work, buying a paperback is a luxury. Libraries were provided for just such people to be able to enjoy the pleasure that reading books can bring. With broadband extremely patchy and unreliable in rural areas, as we have heard, it is often to the library that people turn to fill in their job applications online as they seek employment.

The rural economy is struggling. Connectivity is poor, broadband is non-existent in some areas and, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, businesses and farmers are finding it extremely difficult to function without a reliable internet connection. Businesses rely on being able to make regular contact with their supply chains and their customers. There are more SMEs per head of the population in rural areas than in urban areas. These businesses deserve a decent broadband speed in order to survive.

Not only are libraries becoming a scarcity; the local bus is also becoming an endangered species. Bus companies find it more profitable, understandably, to provide services in and around urban areas where there will be plenty of ticket-paying passengers to cover their costs, but this leaves those in villages and hamlets stranded. I know that I have spoken about this before in the Chamber but, unfortunately, the situation has not improved. Weekend bus services have been axed and weekday services drastically reduced. Even where there are buses they pick up in the morning, take their passengers on a circuitous route to the town and drop them off, returning far too quickly to allow them to complete their personal shopping, visit the opticians or dentist and carry out their business at the bank before returning. Some may wish to visit the council offices to discuss housing benefit; perhaps they have a hospital appointment. The alternative is an expensive taxi home or a long wait for the only other bus that day, in what may be a draughty bus shelter or station, encumbered with their shopping.

I will refer now to children and young people and I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, on young people. Living in a rural setting can mean that they have more freedom to wander than their urban-dwelling equivalents. If old enough, they may be allowed to negotiate the roads safely, to visit the play park with their friends or to gather around the abandoned bus shelter. The rural bus shelters provided many years ago were often built of brick and stone, with proper tiled rooves. These make excellent meeting places for young people after school. After all, no one else will be using them since the buses do not run after 6 pm, if they run at all. Young people like to hang out with their contemporaries. They chat, laugh and support each other. Often, the bus shelter is the only place they have to congregate. The cinema or bowling alley is in the town and requires both a lift and money for the entrance. If they are lucky, there may be a youth club or some provision in a neighbouring village but that again requires one of their parents to provide transport. For those younger children coming home on the school bus, having their friend over for tea is not possible unless they travel on the same bus and live in the same village. Choice is limited and, despite the internet, some children can feel very isolated and lonely. So too can the elderly who, having lived all their lives in their village home, find that they can no longer drive. Some of their friends have passed away or moved to be nearer their families but they are left dependent on the weekly bus to meet a friend for coffee in the nearby town. All this is, unfortunately, very negative. Mercifully, people choose to live in rural areas and enjoy their lives to the full while they are able-bodied, fit and in well-paid employment.

I turn briefly to rural housing. Those who have a home are often reluctant to see large housing estates built but they welcome smaller developments to meet local people’s needs. Currently, housing developments of 10 or fewer dwellings do not have to provide affordable housing. This is a great mistake. I do not subscribe to the theory that only the well-off should live in rural areas. It is essential for society that a full range and mix of incomes, religions and people can live in rural areas and bring the richness to their communities that we all want from life. I fear, however, that the deadly squeeze on public services is making it increasingly difficult for this to happen. Can the Minister say whether the Government are thinking of abandoning the 10 dwellings policy for affordable homes in rural areas? I look forward to his response.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:16 pm, 9th July 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for tabling this debate and to all noble Lords who have contributed their expertise today. I particularly enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, who made a powerful case for tackling the issue of poor broadband and the contribution that doing so could make in bridging the gap between town and country. I know from the messages he is hearing from others around the Chamber that his words were very well taken. We look forward to campaigning with him, even if it involves a march down Whitehall in future on this issue.

I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond—and I think to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh—that, perhaps rather foolishly, I am going around Yorkshire in a campervan this summer. Indeed, I am booked to stop off in Richmond, so I am very grateful to her for suggesting all the tourist sites I can visit when I stay there. I hope that all your Lordships will pray for good weather when I am in the process of making that trip.

This is a really important issue and, as we discussed in last Monday’s debate on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, one that has been rather neglected by government. As a number of noble Lords have said, this was not helped by the closure of the Commission for Rural Communities, the reduced access to independent research and the lack of a strategy to implement rural proofing across other departments. The result is individual cuts and closures of public services, which are not measured to assess their combined impact on the viability of local communities. It is fair to say, from the debates both last week and today, that Defra is on notice that it must up its game on this issue. I hope that the Minister hears those comments.

By any measure, rural communities are struggling financially at the moment. They face a double whammy of higher council tax bills and fewer public services. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Harris, all talked about local government funding. In its response to the Government’s 2017-18 provisional funding settlement for local authorities, the Rural Services Network said that rural areas would lose over 31% of their central government funding while urban areas would lose only about 22%. It concluded that the proposed settlement risks,

“crippling public services in rural areas”,

and forcing local authorities to raise council tax to a significantly higher level than in urban areas. Does the Minister share my concern that these charges will hit rural communities hardest, when they are most in need of those public services?

The charges will penalise some of the poorest in our rural communities. It is tough for working people trying to bring up families in the countryside today. Average annual wages are more than £4,500 lower than in urban areas, and the gap between the two has grown by £1,000 a year since 2010. Employment opportunities tend to be low-skilled and low-paid, with limited opportunities for advancement. At the same time, rural areas contain a disproportionate number of older people, as noble Lords have said, with those aged 65 and over comprising 23% of the rural population—well above the 16% figure for the urban population. So does the Minister agree that these demographics are bound to place additional pressure on declining public services?

There are consequences for these trends, and I shall focus on a few examples of the way that they impact public services. First, as has been said, there is an acute shortage of affordable housing in rural areas. The latest IPPR report shows that rural housing is less affordable to local people than in most urban areas, with families in rural areas spending 31% of their income on rent, while rural houses to buy are around £19,000 above the average for England. Only 8% of housing stock in rural areas is classified as affordable, compared to 20% in urban areas. This exacerbates rural poverty and deprivation. It is also contributing to the exodus of economically active young people, creating further terminal decline in our communities. Does the Minister therefore agree that we need a specific strategy for rural homes with a ring-fenced rural grant to build new affordable homes, perhaps supported by a rural living rent based on local earnings? Does he also agree that local authorities should have the discretion to suspend the right to buy, greater powers to limit second homes and empty homes, and greater powers to specify a proportion of affordable homes as part of planning consent?

Secondly, as has also been said by others, the decline of rural bus services is having a devastating effect on those who live and work in rural areas. Young people are particularly affected, with more than 60% of pupils being unable to reach a secondary school by public transport, and access to further and higher education being restricted and requiring longer journeys. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, made the case that this is not just about education; it is also about young people having access to youth services and social facilities. This is not helped by the absence of statutory concessionary travel schemes for those aged over 16.

However, this is a much more widespread problem. Working-age people are forced to own a car even if they have low incomes, as that is the only way to get to work, while reducing bus services can of course have a devastating effect on elderly people, who have relied on public transport in the past. The closure of village shops, post offices and cash machines can leave older people effectively stranded and isolated, with implications for their health and well-being. We debated these issues at length during consideration of the Buses Bill, but many of our proposals fell on deaf ears. Does the Minister now agree that the provision of bus services should be looked at in a holistic way with reference to their full impact, rather than on a cost-driven basis and purely as a chance to save money? Does he agree that those commissioning bus services should consider the economic, social and environmental benefits to the community, rather than just focusing on the lowest-cost option? Does he also agree that remote rural communities should be able to delay the cancellation of bus routes to give them time to seek alternative funding sources where they provide a demonstrable lifeline for a local community?

Access to local health services is another huge challenge for rural communities. The campaign group Rural England found that only 56% of rural households have reasonable access to a GP surgery by public transport or walking. This access is getting worse as older GPs retire and younger ones cannot be recruited to replace them, leading to surgery closures. Often, access is limited to outreach surgeries with limited opening hours. Given that rural areas are expected to have the highest proportion of ageing populations, with people living longer, the squeeze on local health provision is bound to lead to poorer care and worse health outcomes. What steps are being taken to address the shortage of GPs in rural areas?

These are just a few examples of the decline in public services in rural areas. We could say the same about the decline of village schools or village halls, which have previously provided an important service in holding communities together. While front-line services decline, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and other noble Lords have said, people need to have good broadband to take advantage of internet banking, retail services and job opportunities, but so far it is failing them. Given that rural service users stand to gain so much from access to online services, what further steps are being taken to get broadband suppliers to prioritise investment in rural rollout?

We know that farmers are having a tough time too, with delays to rural payments and increased global competition putting pressure on their profits. The uncertainty of Brexit adds new worries about the distribution of future subsidies, access to markets and labour availability, which could further undermine the stability of rural communities. Can the Minister update us on what is being done to reassure farmers that future EU markets for British food will be retained and that permanent and seasonal EU workers will still be available to work on the land? I look forward to his response.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:26 pm, 9th July 2018

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady McIntosh on giving us the opportunity to debate public services in rural areas. Having chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for five years and represented a rural constituency for 18 years, her knowledge of and commitment to rural communities is undoubted. I was very much struck by her reference to “country folk”; this is very much how I consider the tribe that I know, and I thought it was interesting to hear from noble Lords from Somerset, North Yorkshire, Caithness and Essex talking about the experiences and concerns of country folk. My noble friend spoke of the Great Yorkshire Show. Having been the president of the Buckinghamshire County Show in 2007, I know how important the agricultural shows are to rural communities and beyond, and I wish the Great Yorkshire Show every success this year.

It has surely been a highlight of this debate to hear the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Haselhurst. As Member of Parliament for Saffron Walden from 1977, my noble friend has long been a passionate supporter of rural interest in a beautiful part of rural Essex. We are fortunate to have in your Lordships’ House such a distinguished parliamentarian, and I agree with him that infrastructure and connectivity are especially important. I know of his work on the West Anglia network and his report on how the railway network might be improved. In the next few years Greater Anglia will be carrying out a full fleet replacement, investing £1.4 billion in new trains. I am very much looking forward to the benefits that that will bring to customers.

As I said in last week’s debate on the NERC Act, this Government are committed to bringing sustainable growth to the rural economy and boosting rural areas so that people who live in the countryside have the same opportunities as those who live in towns and cities. I agree with my noble friend Lord Caithness that many people choose to live in rural areas because of the quality of life. As Minister for Rural Affairs, I strongly believe that the countryside is a great place to live and work, and official statistics reflect this. Since 2008 there has been an increase in net migration to predominantly rural areas in England. Those living in predominantly rural areas are likely to feel more positively about their neighbourhood. Life expectancy is higher. The employment rate in rural areas is higher than the UK average and the unemployment rate lower. Half a million businesses are registered in rural areas of England—one quarter of the total. Indeed, 14 enterprise zones have been established in rural areas and we are blessed with some of the most exceptional landscapes in the world, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, highlighted, underpin a tourism industry that accounts for 14% of rural employment and 11% of rural businesses in England.

The fundamental features of rurality—more geographically dispersed and more sparsely populated than urban areas—can be a key attraction of our rural towns, villages and hamlets, but all of us who live in rural areas know of the challenges of distance and sparsity and their impact on delivery of important services. As a number of your Lordships referred to, there is a higher proportion of older people in rural areas compared with urban areas, which places pressure on, for instance, health and social services. Of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said, and as we are all aware, there are hidden pockets of deprivation in the countryside that we must tackle.

A number of your Lordships raised rural proofing. My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to it being important and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, asked about it. All I can say is that it already takes place. That is why rural proofing is absolutely fundamental to government policy. We published revised guidance last year and we have put more statistical material on GOV.UK to provide a range of evidence for departments to draw on. I say to my noble friend Lord Caithness that the Permanent Secretary’s letter of 2 July was a reiteration, not a first step or the beginning of a journey. That is reflected in work across government to make sure there are fair and equitable services in rural areas. All the major funding formulas have components to take account of sparsity and rurality. In the Government’s consultation on fair funding for local government, rurality was identified as one of the three main cost drivers.

A number of your Lordships, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, and my noble friend Lord Caithness, referred to education. The revised schools funding formula for 2018-19 led to an increase in funding for rural schools of 3.9%, compared with an average of 3.8%. Indeed, schools in the more sparsely populated villages saw an average increase of 7.5%.

On health, clinical commissioning groups in predominantly rural areas in England receive 17% of funding, which is in line with the proportion of the population that they cover. I was aware of what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lord Caithness, said. On GPs, the Department of Health announced last year an extension of its targeted enhanced recruitment scheme, which provides a £20,000 salary supplement to attract newly trained GPs to harder-to-recruit areas. Some 238 GP training vacancies were filled by the end of January this year and 250 places are being made available for the rest of this year. That is clearly a very important part of these matters.

I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that the Government have increased the rural services delivery grant to £81 million—its highest level ever and an increase of £31 million on its original allocation. I have not read the report to which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, referred, but I assure her that it will be in my recess reading.

A number of your Lordships raised the subject of the Post Office. I place great importance in this as part of what I would call the community hub, which is so important for village communities. The post office network has remained relatively stable since 2009, with more than 11,600 post office branches at the end of March 2017, a small increase on the previous year. There are more post offices in rural areas than in urban areas, many collocated with the village shop. I have regular meetings with Paula Vennells, the chief executive of the Post Office, and her commitment to the network in rural areas is striking. We agreed on the need to improve awareness of the significant amount of personal and business banking that can now be undertaken in post offices, which helps rural areas.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bakewell, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh referred to housing. Indeed, I take a personal interest in these matters and facilitated an affordable housing scheme on the farm many years ago. The latest figures show that 119,000 affordable homes were built in rural areas between April 2010 and March 2017. On a per population basis, more new homes were built in rural than in urban areas. The Government have recently introduced changes to permitted development rights that mean that five new homes can be created from existing agricultural buildings on a farm, rather than the maximum three currently permitted. There is a strong rural narrative in the housing White Paper and a separate rural chapter in the draft National Planning Policy Framework, on which the Government have just consulted.

I agree absolutely with my noble friend Lady McIntosh that we should build the right houses in the right places and that new developments should be mindful of landscape and the character of the village. Indeed only last Friday, as part of Rural Housing Week I visited Mackmurdo Place in rural Essex—an excellent example, providing affordable housing for young and old with a multigenerational community, which I think a number of your Lordships raised and is absolutely important. It is, again, sensitive to the needs of the local area. I specifically asked: there is a SUDS scheme as part of that development.

Digital connectivity also is essential. A number of your Lordships mentioned electronic prescriptions. The Government met their target to provide superfast broadband to 95% of premises by the end of 2017, but that leaves still far too many people without a decent service. We have therefore legislated to bring in a universal service obligation so that no one is left behind. The forthcoming publication of the future telecoms infrastructure review will set out a plan to create the right market conditions to deliver nationwide full fibre and 5G. As my noble friend Lord Haselhurst mentioned, we must work to improve mobile coverage, and the Government are committed to that.

A number of your Lordships referred to buses. The community minibus fund has provided more than 300 local charities and community groups across England with more than 400 minibuses to use for the benefit of passengers. This has been successful particularly in remote rural communities.

My noble friend Lord Caithness raised research, which I agree is important. A panel of academics has been set up in Defra. We will develop a statement on research priorities, as this is clearly an important feature of ensuring that the dynamics of the rural economy are enhanced.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned libraries. All libraries now have free wi-fi and access to IT equipment. They provide access points to many services, which I very much endorse.

In the time I am permitted, I of course encourage visitors to Richmond. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has a rain-free period, although I hope that we have some rain before she goes.

A number of points were raised. I am struck by the richness of local initiatives. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, said, volunteers and the voluntary spirit in the countryside—as a complement, not a replacement—are an essential part of the vibrancy of the village. Whether it is the village shop, the person who raises the bulk purchasing of fuel or the running of a village hall, all this serves the community.

I am over time, but I want to say that, as rural champion, I will always champion the interests of rural Britain. This Government are determined to secure prosperity and well-being for rural communities and to grasp the undoubted challenges, but let us also celebrate the wonderful features of the countryside. I apologise to my noble friend on the Front Bench for overstepping the mark by a minute, but surely this debate is worthy of it.

House adjourned at 7.41 pm.