Rural Economy (Rural Economy Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 5:06 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for his very good chairmanship of the committee. He had a diverse group of Peers with different interests to handle, but we all managed to come up with a report with which we agreed unanimously. I also thank our clerk and his staff, as well as the two special advisers, Mark Shucksmith and Brian Wilson, for their support.

Examining the rural economy was a huge and diverse remit, possibly too big for the structure and timetable imposed upon us. Our report makes recommendations for not only the Government but various other organisations, as appendix 8 makes clear. I wish to focus on our main recommendation for the Government, which is also the title of our report: Time for a Strategy for the Rural Economy.

I have never sat on a committee where so many—often positive—policy changes by different departments were announced during our consideration. That these were not co-ordinated merely confirmed the overwhelming evidence we received that a strategy for how land is used is essential for understanding change in a multifunctional landscape. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have spatial policies to take stock of land use, setting out a vision for how the country could make better use of land, whether for development, farming, energy, recreation, conservation or other uses. It is long overdue that England should have one too.

We are not the first to recommend such to a Government, nor will we be the last. We had high hopes that the Government would be more sympathetic this time, especially after the very good evidence session that we had with the previous Secretary of State and my noble friend Lord Gardiner, but no—the same negative and disappointing reply was forthcoming.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the recently published Glover report on national parks only adds to our arguments? It states that:

“There is no common ambition and a culture which has neither kept pace with changes in our society nor responded with vigour to the decline in the diversity of the natural environment”.

I agree. I would merely extend the criticism to the rural economy. A quarter of England is already covered by national landscapes. If the Government implement the Glover recommendations, with the extra costs, at a time when government borrowing is expected to rise to levels last seen in the 1960s if we leave the EU without a deal, I fear for the rural economy in areas outside the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. They will suffer disproportionately and become increasingly neglected without a rural strategy.

While on the subject of landscapes, there is a concern that the focus on climate change and net zero, welcome though it is, may override other policy objectives such as biodiversity and agriculture productivity. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the key is to consider mitigation strategies across the land management system rather than dramatic landscape transformations resulting in changes to ecological balance that affect biodiversity? Can he also tell us how he sees the role of agroforestry in meeting woodland planting objectives?

The evidence we took on rural-proofing merely confirmed that which we had received in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 Select Committee a year earlier. It is still not working satisfactorily. It is nearly 20 years since the recommendation that rural-proofing should be formally established. Therefore, I wonder if “congratulations” is the right word in response to Defra finally setting up a rural affairs board of senior civil servants from various departments. This is just not enough. What Whitehall needs is the enthusiasm and vision of my noble friend the Minister. It needs to bring that focus both at the early stages of policy development and during implementation of those policies, because rural-proofing is an ongoing process.

We made other recommendations. I move quickly on to broadband and have just one question for the Minister. Does the Prime Minister’s commitment to deliver full broadband to every home in the land by 2025 still hold good? Recent announcements seem to weaken that promise.

Crime is a key issue for rural communities and is growing rapidly. It is also underreported in rural areas, as confidence is low in the ability and willingness of the police to solve a crime. Does the Minister agree that fear of crime has a debilitating effect on the quality of life, and that the number of people worried about becoming a victim of crime in rural areas is twice that of those in urban areas? This needs attention.

I turn next to local enterprise partnerships. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, is unable to take part today as he would wax much more lyrical than me on our concerns about them. Clearly, most are not taking the rural economy into consideration in the way that they should. It is all very well to say that they must work with local authorities but, as their boundaries are often not coterminous, there are in-built difficulties from the start. With 25% of all registered businesses in rural areas, the Government will have to ensure that some LEPs revise how they work.

Finally, I turn to rural services, which the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, also covered. These are the glue which hold communities together and thus play a more significant social role than in towns and cities, yet they are in more comparative decline than in urban areas. As he—our chairman—said, this needs addressing urgently to rectify the balance.

In conclusion, I come back to where I started. We appreciate that Defra is nearly submerged by the very pressing problems and opportunities of Brexit, especially if it is with no deal. I ask the Minister to think again about the need for a rural strategy; this would be the basis for all subsequent decisions, which could be taken in a much more coherent and satisfactory way than has been the case to date.