My Lords, I add my thanks to our chair, clerks, advisers, the expert witnesses who appeared before us—and especially to the community members who hosted our committee’s visits. Mainly, however, I thank my fellow Peers for their collegiality on the committee.
Like our chairman and others who sat on the committee, I am disappointed that the Government have declined to accept our recommendation that they initiate a rural strategy to outline the future they see for rural communities. As committee members and advisers analysed our evidence-taking sessions and examined documents we had received, we concluded that the Government’s present reliance on policy priorities leads to inconsistencies in delivery as current priorities are inevitably replaced by others.
Calling for a government strategy is, I believe, appropriate. We set out our definition of such a strategy as,
“an over-arching framework document which would set out the Government’s vision, aim and objectives over a multi-year period”.
Such an approach would allow government departments to feed into the framework and, crucially, would provide the long-term certainty that our rural areas need.
I will highlight three issues. The first has already been referred to by our chair. One of the most common complaints we heard in our witness sessions was the lack of consistency in the quality of the rural-proofing process at both government and local levels. This was highlighted for me when, earlier this year, I paid a visit to Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire and was fortunate to meet the pupils and staff of the community college there. The college is a highly successful rural LEA secondary school situated in the idyllic countryside of the Long Mynd in the south of the county. Last year it was failed, probably as a result of the law of unintended consequences. Nevertheless, it was failed.
Since the 2014-15 financial year, the college had received sparsity funding of £100,000 per annum, the maximum allocation available, but for the 2018-19 financial year changes to the funding formula were introduced. The maximum allowance was reduced to £60,000 per annum, and schools with more than 300 pupils on roll suddenly found that this was to be reduced on a falling pro rata basis. The consequence was that the school’s allowance was reduced by £66,200 to £33,800—a massive drop in income for a school of this size. In the words of the head teacher, “the formula just doesn’t support rural schools”. So much for rural-proofing. It also begs the question: what is the Government’s strategy for rural schools? How do they ensure that policies or formulae that support rural schools cannot be changed to the detriment of the very schools they were designed to help?
My membership of your Lordships’ Rural Economy Select Committee coincided with news of the closure of the last bank in the small market town where I live, and it became obvious that access to cash would be a burning issue for our rural community in north Wales, as it is for many communities throughout the UK. It is an issue that the committee took very seriously. Throughout the UK, many of our shops, cafés and other businesses still deal only in cash, and many people prefer to use cash for small transactions. Indeed, there are up to 1.2 million people in the UK who do not have access to a bank account.
Access to cash is only one side of the coin: cash circulating in a community needs to be deposited by businesses. The Post Office, as it has done in many communities, has stepped in to fill the gap. I certainly welcome the co-operation between the Post Office and the UK high street banks, which led to the establishment of the banking framework in 2017 and which has enabled customers to carry out day-to-day banking at Post Office branches. I welcome their commitment to banking framework 2, which will see a significant increase in the fees paid to the Post Office by banks for processing transactions.
The coalition Government began a programme to maintain and modernise the Post Office network in 2010 and I welcome and acknowledge the £2 billion that Governments have committed since then, but could the Minister assure me that there will be continued government investment in the maintenance and modernisation of the network? What strategy are the Government intending to put into place to ensure the future of post offices in our rural areas?
As a committee, and as individuals within it, we are very aware of the problems of loneliness and social isolation in rural areas. I was particularly impressed by the scheme we heard about when we visited Fownhope in Herefordshire. Its compassionate community scheme has 18 companions, who make weekly or fortnightly visits to those who need company and support, based on referrals from the local medical centre. These visits help reduce hospital visits, encourage sociability and combat isolation.
One of the major contributary factors to rural social isolation is the worsening situation regarding rural transport. Indeed, in many areas the rural transport system has virtually collapsed. The system in Wales is no exception. Rural areas throughout the UK have similar problems, but devolution allows the devolved Administrations to tackle problems in a different way or at different paces.
Earlier this year, the Welsh Transport Minister announced £1 million of funding for pilot projects that, together with Transport for Wales, will test innovative forms of demand-responsive bus travel across Wales. Conwy County Borough Council, where I live, was one of the three project winners and the county will stage a three-year trial based on the Conwy valley area, aiming to give those who live in a six-mile radius of Llanrwst, our market town, access to all our facilities. It is an exciting project that, if successful, will see demand-responsive transport available to everyone, whatever their age, free for those with bus passes and £1 per journey for others.
The Chancellor’s recent infrastructure funding announcement that a national bus strategy will be initiated in England begs the question: why cannot the rural element of that strategy for buses contribute towards a rural strategy framework document covering all the issues that the committee has raised?