My Lords, I salute the noble Lord, Lord Foster, and his colleagues, for their work in producing this mammoth report. I was struck by the range of organisations that impinge on the rural economy and the host of funding bodies that have been created for particular reasons. That the acronyms occupy three and a half pages of the report gives an idea of the complexity involved.
However, defining a rural economy these days is becoming more difficult. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, referred to this. It seems to me that we are in a more mobile society, where the differences between certain urban and rural areas are starting to break down. There is an obvious division between the rural areas which are in the hinterland of our major cities and those which are not. To refer to the example of Uttlesford District Council, which I had the honour of representing in the other place for a number of years, if you fly over that district, you will see vistas of barley and wheat, and it is still designated as a hugely rural area. However, the operative word is “fly”, because most of the people who fly over Uttlesford are flying in and out of London’s third airport, which is situated in that district and has had a major impact.
Therefore, I am wary of having a single strategy for the rural economy. The Government must have an overall strategy for the country—notably to help cure the north-south divide, but also, I would also argue, the east-west divide that we have—but I favour the strategic plans being formed at a more local level. The question we have been thinking about for decades is just how local that should be. There is a danger that the units created could be too big or too small. I do not think we have got it right yet.
There is also an advantage in having some recognisable uniformity in the structure created. Otherwise, there is a patchwork quilt of authorities and not everybody recognises to whom to turn for their services and the advocates they need. A degree of uniformity in structure would help the transfer of best practice. We talk about that a lot, but we are not very good at doing it in this country. I may be sticking my neck out, but I have become attracted to the format of a mayor-led combined authority. These are early days, but there is some merit in the direction we are going in. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, referred to coterminosity. I am glad I was not the first person to mention that word. It would be helpful if we could try to ensure that everything is contained within whatever unit of government we are looking at.
I am not sure whether the business input should come from LEPs. They are not coterminous to a great extent. Could we have a much more effective network of chambers of commerce, as they do notably in Germany? It would help if all other stakeholders could similarly be brought within the circle. This might help to bring in more private finance than at the moment, when businesses are uncertain whether to commit themselves. It might be argued that larger authorities, of the kind we have seen pioneered in certain parts of the country, are taking power from the people, but I do not accept that argument. You could perfectly well delegate day-to-day responsibilities to parish councils—either singly or combined—much more than at present.
We have to get away from a culture of resistance to change, which is enveloping more and more of our communities. Change has to be packaged in an attractive way. At the moment, it seems to have too many negatives in the eyes of the population. To use the example of Uttlesford District Council again, after nearly four decades of argument—I was part of it—it became the home of London’s third airport. For all that that has become the district’s biggest employer, since its inception there has still been no railway upgrade between the airport and the capital city or branching out more to the north and the east. The dualling of the A120 has not yet been completed, despite my being assured, in 1977, that it was one of the key arteries to bring transport from the east coast ports to the Midlands and the north. Yet we are now flirting with the idea of an Oxford-Cambridge link. We might be better off completing the A120 first, as our contribution to east-west healing, rather than embarking on that wholly new idea.
We are seeing redundant farm buildings occupied by high-tech companies. People are migrating into the area, because they want somewhere nicer to live and to fill the many jobs being created. There is an acute housing need, but this is resisted by the population who fear that the consequences will make matters worse than they are at present. There is sufficient evidence that that is the case.
Like everyone else, I cannot avoid using the word, “digital”. There is a growing anger over poor or non-existent digital connectivity. Fewer people may live in rural districts, but they have exactly the same needs as those who live in the towns and cities. There is no clarity on when fibre will come. When David Cameron was Prime Minister, he talked of it being made a universal service obligation. The fact is that in many parts of rural England there is no universal service obligation in the provision of mains drainage or private water supply. We have a long way to go in some areas.
A neutral person, coming upon this country’s situation, might conclude that we have somehow muddled along in the way we have approached local or devolved government. We have done it in a way that has created more anger and frustration than satisfaction. Fresh thinking and dynamic leadership are required if we are to unite communities behind bold action. I agree with the authors of the report that the time has surely come.