My Lords, it was both a pleasure and a privilege to serve on this committee, so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Foster, whom I warmly congratulate. I pass my sincere thanks to my fellow committee members for their wisdom, insight and experience, and for the fun we shared. My thanks also go to our very able clerk, Simon Keal, and his colleagues, and to our excellent specialist advisers, for their wonderful servicing.
The visits that we made out of London were challenging for the staff to organise but they did an exemplary job, and those visits were particularly informative and helpful to our deliberations and eventual conclusions. I was very pleased to visit my home county of Herefordshire and see some of the innovative work going on there, although my local contacts—especially in my role as patron of Herefordshire Carers Support—give me grave concern about the resources available to the local authority to support the health and care needs of their population.
The ageing population and rural health services were a particular concern to me and to some other members of the committee. Our strong recommendation was that the higher than average age of rural dwellers, which is of course increasing, should be reflected in policy and funding allocations, especially in view of the additional costs associated with things such as transport in rural areas. The availability of staff is an issue too, particularly those on low wages. Very few health and care workers will be able to afford a house in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Rural people understand that they will never have a major general hospital in every market town, but they should not be further disadvantaged by their rurality and asked to accept inequity of access to facilities by thoughtlessness—simply assuming access, as many agencies do—or deliberate use of resources to service only those in urban areas because these services are easier to plan. Loneliness and isolation must also be taken into account, especially where mental health in rural areas is concerned. I hope the Minister will confirm that the Government will take steps to support rural mental health more widely.
The title of our report indicates, as have other Members, that we discussed the issue of a rural strategy widely, and we very much hope the Government will follow our recommendations on this. We had most valuable contributions from our many excellent and knowledgeable witnesses and notably from Action with Communities in Rural England. I must declare an interest as my husband chairs this organisation. Its analysis helps us conclude that rural people are not some kind of exception, to be thought about only after we have made the major decisions for our society with cities and towns in mind. Some 17% of the UK’s population live in rural areas and they enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else; they must be thought about as part of the whole. That is why ACRE believes that nobody from a rural area should be unreasonably disadvantaged by where they live.
Living in a rural area may be a choice for some, and I am one of those for whom it is a very welcome choice. However, it should never be considered just a lifestyle choice for anyone. Beautiful surroundings are less of a privilege when low incomes and disadvantage mean you cannot access the necessities of life or when your family have had to move away for jobs and income and are therefore unable to care for you when you are unwell.
When it comes to the complex and sophisticated requirements of a modern society, rural residents require public administrators and politicians to be innovative about how access is created for them. We know that solutions to the problems facing society will become increasingly dependent on digital hyper-connectivity. It is essential that rural areas are enabled to play a full part in these solutions, as well as benefiting from truly nationwide digital initiatives. Public investment in these must be assessed on an appropriate long-term basis, with equity for rural people firmly in mind. As one who had to make 87 separate phone calls to get broadband established, I feel that very strongly.
The issue of connectivity, whether for business or social purposes, came up time and again, and other committee members will cover this with more expertise than I can. Any assumption that people can access everything online is dangerous. If you live in a rural community, you are constantly reminded that the delivery of the parish magazine on paper by someone on foot is still very important.
I hope that our call for a strategy emphasises that we have been too prone to see rural and urban issues as separate. While acknowledging, as my noble friends have, the distinctive nature of our rural areas, we must acknowledge that the urban and rural parts of the English regions are much more interdependent than we have perhaps realised. As far as the economy is concerned, food production, waste management, the provision of clean water, flood prevention and so on are all interlinked, as the Minister has often acknowledged. I hope he will confirm that in his response tonight. Public investment must reflect this interdependence and ensure a fair future for all a region’s residents, both urban and rural.