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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 6:01 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster, and his committee for an excellent report. It has a good broad approach, and above all, the case the committee makes for a new overall rural strategy is very convincing. But it is disappointing that Defra has not picked up on that, and, like other noble Lords, I want to focus on the importance of this integrated agenda. I realise that Defra now has its hands full with the replanning of agriculture, fishing and the environmental infrastructure in this country post Brexit. However, rural prosperity continues to be important to the prosperity of the UK as a whole and needs the attention of government, and that rural prosperity involves not only Defra but all departments. As the report recognises, rural prosperity depends on housing, transport, law and order, health, education and training, so it is a multidepartmental issue as far as government is concerned. In this speech, I want to make the point that Governments do not treat the countryside with any degree of equality or fairness, and thus we do indeed need some general focus, across government, on how to make things work better.

In terms of the disparity, I will start with local authorities. Obviously, the delivery of services costs more per head in rural areas because of the distances and sparsity involved—social services, refuse collection, school transport, et cetera—and yet, in terms of central government support, urban areas get 48% more per head than rural, which means that rural council tax payers pay on average 17% more than their urban cousins—my figures are slightly more conservative than those of the noble Lord, Lord Foster.

In education, too, the lower educational results of our coastal and market towns are almost certainly due to the unfair distribution of educational resources, as the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, has already referred to. On transport, rural residents take one-third as many bus journeys as their urban cousins. This is not surprising, as, due to the 25% cut in local authority funding over the last four years, hundreds of shire bus services have disappeared. A car is now absolutely essential to the rural household. Meanwhile, jobcentre closures all over England mean they get further and further away from the rural population—as do our courts.

It is not only public services. Banks are closing all over the countryside, and there is a shortage of ATMs in rural England. I learned the other day that there is now not a single bank in the whole of Dartmoor National Park, and mostly you can get cash only from post offices. Without cash, of course, your tourist and rural retail economy is severely disadvantaged, which of course makes the rural post office a vital service. But the bureaucracy of post office counters still does not allow local post offices to provide all the services they wish to, including banking services.

On health, the situation here is probably best summed up by two facts and one illogical consequence: the most expensive age cohort to treat medically is from 65 to death; and those aged over 65 represent 16% of the urban population compared to 23% of the rural population. In an attractive county like Devon that figure is 26%— nearly twice as high as some of our large cities. People like to retire to the countryside. Therefore illogically, funding for public health services, for instance in the county of Devon, is 40% lower per head than the national average and nearly 80% lower than in London, and that ignores the extra costs of actually running a rural health service.

One of the overall problems—this is a general point—is the lack of proper data collection. The health service does not produce rural datasets. The Home Office does not collect rural data on the police service. MHCLG admits to not separating out statistics about housing in rural communities of under 3,000, thus having no real understanding of the effects of its pretty disastrous policies. Since the demise of the CRC there has been very little effective rural research, although last year Defra announced a fresh programme of research, which I hope will prove revealing. I hope so, because the only recent relevant rural research was by the Social Mobility Commission, which found that rural social mobility and intergenerational poverty was now as bad, if not worse, in rural England than in our urban slums. But no one seems to be concerned about this poverty and lack of opportunity.

The reason for my moans about the wider problems of rural living and the rural economy is to show that these issues are multidepartmental. I am not expecting Defra, nor indeed the Government as a whole, to put right the inequalities I have mentioned. There is no extra money. Our national debt is now £1,800 billion—do your Lordships remember the shock and horror when it was £500 billion in 2010?—and, from what we hear today, it is going up by £50 billion per annum. So, as I say, there is no extra money. You cannot alter the formulae for the distribution of existing funds, because that would mean that urban man would lose out—and they have more votes and thus more clout. But this makes the need for a cross-departmental rural strategy even more important. The Government need to find other ways to reach out to their rural constituents.

From my point of view, I still think that rural-proofing, if properly applied, is a key solution. It is the way that services are delivered to rural England that matters, along with the understanding of the rural issues by the civil servants of all departments, such as poverty, transport, housing, training and broadband problems. Rural-proofing is a relatively cheap way of reaching out to rural communities, but unless the civil servants are trained on a regular basis as to what it means and involves, it will never properly happen. Without training, rural-proofing means nothing. As we said in our report on the NERC Act last year, it would be much the best if this agenda was driven from the heart of government, namely the Cabinet Office, although it is to be hoped that the new Defra board will be a step in the right direction. We shall see.

There is huge potential in rural communities, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said, and we should always emphasise that. Given the chance, we can help ourselves. There are far more VATable businesses per head in rural England than in urban England, and more manufacturing businesses in rural than in urban England. We are an entrepreneurial lot. Of those in work, there is a higher rate of self-employment: I believe that in urban England the figure is 5%, but in rural England it is on average 9%—in Cornwall, the rate of self-employment is 28%—although unfortunately, they are not always successful. For that reason, we need help. We really do need a long-term strategy for growth. The Government need to pay attention to their rural constituents, and if because of Brexit they cannot take action now, I still believe that, as soon as the post-Brexit systems have bedded down, they should look again at setting up a multifaceted and cross-departmental panel to produce a rural strategy to ensure equal opportunities for all, no matter where they live. Post-Brexit Britain cannot afford to waste its rural potential.