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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:28 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Chartres Lord Chartres Crossbench 5:28 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, you may well ask what the Bishop of London is doing adding her voice to a debate on our strategy for the rural economy. Despite having spent most of my adult life in London, my five years in the West Country and latterly as the Bishop of Crediton in Devon demonstrated to me the challenges of rural life. I also know how, as a country, the strength of our economy as a whole is interrelated with the rural economy. The World Bank has said that the rural environment is often the country’s “growth engine”, and, particularly relevant in the light of this week’s events,

“the food supply and the rural population are custodians of the environment and ecosystems”.

As co-chair of the All-Party Group on Rural Health, I am grateful for the excellent work of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy. I thank it for its hard work. I also support the need for rural strategy to be taken seriously by the Government.

As already indicated in this debate, the rural economy has its roots in many interrelated aspects, IT, education, healthcare and transport being four. If we want a strong rural economy, we need to ensure that strong infrastructure is in place. The report comments on the need for strong IT infrastructure. With more people working at home in our rural communities than in our urban centres, and with the increased need for digital health, the rollout of broadband is essential. Where there should be hot-spots, rural-proofing reveals that there are not-spots. Cornwall is much better for digital access than where I was in Devon. Why? Because of EU funding in Cornwall.

When I was in Devon, I saw the challenge of maintaining quality education and healthcare when the road infrastructure in some areas was so difficult. Ensuring the recruitment and retention of teachers, nurses and doctors depended as much on transport accessibility as it did on the quality of organisations. I have been encouraged over recent months by campaigns to encourage people to train as nurses. Primary school children have access to mini nurses’ uniforms. Apprenticeships and cadet schemes have been introduced, but more could be done to tailor these to rural communities. Three avenues that I believe should be explored further are direct entry into community nursing courses, just as we have direct entry into midwifery; increased distance learning for healthcare professionals; and improving the understanding of the nature of rural healthcare within our training organisations.

We must also be honest. In some of our more isolated rural communities, providing healthcare and education will cost more than providing the same service in our urban centres. Yet the report highlights that despite the population in rural areas being older, there is less spending per head of population on healthcare. Yes, this is good investment, because it contributes to our rural economy, but fundamentally it is a mark of our Christian hospitality to seek to include all of society in its flourishing.

I also welcome the Government’s commitment to the role of volunteers in building community life. The church continues to be at the very heart of the rural community, often there after the post office, the bank, the library and the pub have left. There are over 10,000 Church of England churches in Defra-defined rural areas. Many who go to church are also involved in other activities in their communities. This makes a real difference to the whole vibrancy of place. As part of our evidence for this report and written submissions, the Church highlighted the importance of our community action, our buildings and the Church’s involvement in social enterprise. In its 2018 survey, the Rural Community Action Network found that of the rural parishes surveyed, 80% were involved in running community events; 65% provided lunch clubs or similar activities for older people; 31% had community cafes; 49% offered a parent and toddler group; 17% provided activities for people with dementia; and 23% had active youth work. All of these contribute to the rural economy.

We have also extended the use of our church buildings. For example, St Giles, Langford, in the Diocese of Chelmsford, turned its vestry into the village shop, without significant adaptation of the rest of the building. St Mary the Virgin, Stannington, in the diocese of Newcastle, adapted its buildings to create a community meeting space and an IT room, much needed by the local community. The Arthur Rank Centre and the Plunkett Foundation found that social enterprises in churches make a significant contribution to the provision of the much-needed services in rural communities, as well as improving the sustainability of the building itself.

I am pleased that in their response, the Government illustrated their support for rural communities through their investment in the Plunkett Foundation, which supports the development of rural community businesses owned and run by residents. I also welcome the Government’s expressing an interest in working further with the foundation to host community businesses. Can the Minister explain what practical help the Government intend to provide it with to take this work forward?

Additionally, what is the Minister’s response to some of the issues that I have outlined, specifically on the Government’s commitment to increasing community-driven digital infrastructure in rural areas to help bridge the digital divide; improving transport links in these areas; and taking into account geographical factors in healthcare funding differentials?

Given the level of complexity, it is clear that a strategy for the rural economy is a cross-government agenda. As such, I welcome the promise made in the Government’s response that Defra will produce an annual evidence-based report on rural-proofing, which is taking place across departments. I hope the Government will confirm that this report will include evidence of rural-proofing in LEPs’ industrial strategies and give a clear indication of when the first report will be published.

I am grateful that this report highlights the need for a comprehensive approach. I hope it proves a catalyst for the policy changes that are desperately needed to ensure the flourishing of our rural communities, for the benefit not just of the rural economy but the country as a whole.