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My Lords, I commend the Rural Economy Committee on the strength of this report, and the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for calling this debate. However, I am also disappointed, not with the report, but with its finding that,
“successive governments have underrated the contribution rural economies can make to the nation’s prosperity and wellbeing”.
The Government’s recent response to this report reinforced my disappointment, in that it rejected a key recommendation of the report that a comprehensive rural strategy is needed. I hope that, in his reply to the debate, the Minister will set out more clearly the Government’s strategy and vision.
There have been a number of recent reports on the rural economy, from this House and the other place, to say nothing of the many interest groups and scholars who regularly conduct and publish research on issues relating to rural life. These reports all reinforce the analysis in the noble Lord’s report of the importance of the rural economy, the challenges it faces and its vast potential. None of these three things can be in doubt. The overwhelming majority—over 90%—of land in England is rural. Nearly 10 million people live in rural areas, and they contribute £246 billion to the economy. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, reminded us that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said, only recently, that,
“some of the biggest economic opportunities are in the rural parts of the United Kingdom”.
For many, to think of England is to think of rural land. It is vital that we in this House keep our rural communities front and centre in our deliberations, to support them in overcoming the challenges they face. They certainly do face a set of challenges, distinct from our urban communities. The committee’s report describes many of these. They face problems of physical connectivity, in the form of poor and irregular public transport. They face problems of digital connectivity, with slow broadband speeds making it frustratingly difficult to take an active role in the digital world. Of particular interest to me, they face a shortage of affordable housing. I declare an interest as the chair of the National Housing Federation.
Housing affordability, or lack of it, is not unique to rural areas. Many of the root causes are the same as those being experienced by all our communities: the high price of land; underresourced local authorities navigating a planning system in need of reform; and the need for greater funding for social housing. These are all issues which, in the long run, it is in the Government’s gift to resolve. It is vital for smaller towns and villages across England that the Government do resolve them. While the root causes may be the same, their impact is felt more acutely by our rural communities, and particularly by younger generations. Young people struggle to afford to live in these areas and choose instead to move to more affordable urban communities. The knock-on effects on our rural communities are made clear in the report. Rural businesses lose potential workers and customers of the future; public services become less sustainable; and our buses have fewer passengers as our schools and hospitals face recruitment crises. The community as a whole loses some of the vibrancy associated with different generations living side by side.
The lack of affordable housing is driving these issues at just the time when our rural communities should be experiencing a renaissance. Modern technology presents a fantastic opportunity for towns and villages across England, as a greater number of companies embrace new ways of working. The flexibility given by virtual working gives us a unique opportunity to create a sustainable environment in which geography is no barrier to achievement. Soon it will be the norm for workers to have a real choice about where they live and build their lives, unconstrained by physical proximity to a workplace. Rural economies should be beneficiaries as these new practices become standard, but the growing unaffordability of housing risks squandering the opportunity that technology presents.
Our rural communities are already valuable contributors to the national economy, but they want to do more. They seek to overcome the challenges imposed on them by lack of affordable housing. Housing associations are at the forefront of this activity, working with communities and residents to make rural communities more sustainable. Through such partnerships, we now have such organisations as the Rural Housing Alliance—a coalition of rural housing associations sharing innovation, good practice and ideas. Its rural housing pledge presents a set of commitments to work with rural communities delivering good quality, well-designed homes that prioritise local people in housing need. But as this report finds, there is more to be done if we are to unlock the true potential of rural economies.
We need to ensure that we have the right skills, now and in the future, to build the homes we need. We need to support emerging technologies relating to construction and design, not least modern methods of construction. We need greater levels of funding to deliver homes for affordable and social rent. In particular, we need a planning system that supports the delivery of suitable affordable housing, and local authorities with the resources to facilitate it. By their very nature, many rural schemes are small, and this can lead to them not getting the priority and attention of larger schemes. This is a mistake, because a small number does not mean a small impact when it comes to rural affordable housing. I give the example of west Dorset and the village of Toller Porcorum, where residents have lost their local pub and shop. In 2015, their post office was similarly under threat. Residents worked with the housing association Aster to build six new homes for affordable rent and in the process provided a new, sustainable site for the post office. A vital community hub was kept open thanks to a development of six homes.
That is just one of many examples demonstrating how tackling the issue of affordable housing in our communities can empower the rural economy and make villages and towns sustainable, but so much more could be done with the right government support. So does the Minister agree that we have a duty to support our rural economies? Does he agree that the Government must take action to support the delivery of affordable homes, whether in rural or urban areas? Like others, I urge the Minister to reconsider the need for a strategy. I hope, perhaps above all, that he will re-energise the rural-proofing process, to ensure that all domestic policies take account of rural circumstances and that the needs of the 9.5 million people in rural communities are reflected in government policy and legislation.