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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Carter of Coles Lord Carter of Coles Labour 6:15 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, it was a delight to be a member of the Select Committee on the Rural Economy. We are a diverse group, there were some strong views and we took evidence from a number of organisations which were similar. It was a very good process and it is great credit to our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, that he managed to corral us—or guide us, whatever the word is—to produce what another noble Lord called this mammoth and, I think, comprehensive report. We were also extremely well served by our clerk, his assistants and our two advisers.

Essentially, the report is about fairness. It is about what should be the division of government expenditure and influence between the various sections of society. Many aspects of rural life are disadvantaged by the unwillingness of successive Governments of all parties to take steps to secure those who live and work in the country—which, despite its charms, is disadvantaged in receipt of key services. I shall cite what I think is the guts of the report. It states:

“No resident or business should be disadvantaged unreasonably by their rural location”.

The report is wide-ranging and covers many subjects—housing, healthcare, training et cetera—but I should like to focus on three: transport, digital connectivity and economic development.

Those of us who use the transport system in London are used to a train a minute on the Jubilee line. Sometimes we get frustrated on other lines when we have to wait for seven minutes. Contrast that with other parts of the country, where sometimes you have to wait seven days for a bus, if it comes at all. Bus services, and trains to a degree, in rural areas are characterised by low frequency, limited hours of operation, indirect routes—they tend to wriggle around—and inconsistent connections with other modes. Other countries have done somewhat better. In certain cantons in Switzerland, they have what is called pulse timetabling: it is regular, every hour. In many communities in Switzerland, there is a bus or a train every hour between 6 am and midnight. That means that people can count on it and, not surprisingly, the public transport system is widely used and serves the function of holding things together.

If you look at how these things are financed, there is no greater disparity than the subsidy that we in London and the south-east receive, which is practically £2,000 a head, contrasted with the north of England, where people are getting just £427 towards transport. That is then reflected in fares. If you have to pay, you can get a five-mile trip on a London bus for £1.50. If you go to parts of Hampshire, you will pay £5.65 for the same distance journey. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, I think, the sad story of the boy in Cornwall who was offered a tremendous training opportunity—a course. When he asked, “How am I going to get there?”, they said, “Take the bus”. “But”, he said, “it is every two days and I have to attend daily”. That is a real failure of policy to deliver. It would be interesting to see, if we took the London subsidy per capita and applied it to rural areas, what a tremendous transport system we could get.

We have heard a lot about digital connectivity. It is very straightforward, but it has been patchy, which is a great disappointment. It is ironic that farmers and the people who serve them are now, in this time of great uncertainty, being told to diversify. Here I declare an interest as a farmer. We have been told to look at other things. Digitally, we need to be enabled, yet it is patchy and inconsistent. For instance, where I live in rural Hertfordshire, recently a group of three houses were quoted £25,000 to be connected to high-speed broadband. The only saving grace is that now they will get £3,400 a head to compensate for it. Looking forward in the digital age, the Government require us to be digital. Healthcare will become digital, and all those things need good connectivity. I hope the Minister can reassure us that the Government will meet the timetable that they have laid down for high-speed connectivity throughout the rural economy.

I turn now to economic development. We had the RDAs; I think their disappearance had a mixed reaction. They have been replaced by LEPs. It is very important that we pay attention to the evidence we heard in the committee. The evidence is that the representation of rural needs around the country, both in membership of LEPs and the economic benefits flowing from them, is inconsistent. There are examples of good practice. The South West Rural Productivity Commission clearly shows how four LEPs joining together can do this. But, in a sense, the key to the rural economy are SMEs. How do we help them become formed? Above all, how do we help them sustain themselves in the early years in what are very difficult times? Clearly, they need broadband. You cannot now develop a business nationally or internationally from some remote part of Britain unless you have adequate broadband, and it is the responsibility of the Government to make sure that is available.

Over and above that is the issue of physical support. In the evidence we took, we heard that there was a shortage of small workplaces and small offices around the country. One reason is because these are often bad for investors. SMEs are notoriously prone to failure, and therefore there tends to be a market failure of providing for them. In certain parts of the country we have seen local authorities pick up the baton. North Kesteven is a very good example in Lincolnshire, where they have picked up the baton and built small workshops and small offices, and over time these become very successful and self-sustaining. So we need two things: electronic connectivity and physical presence to allow people to come together and do this.

Other noble Lords have mentioned that successive Governments have disregarded the place of the rural economy in our country. It is rather strange, given that it involves 17% of the population—getting on for one in five people—yet I feel that they feel unrepresented. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, can tell us that there will be a more determined, active and pace-driven approach to this, because it is a very important sector, which will come under pressure. Whatever happens with Brexit now, undoubtedly there will be great change in the countryside, and it is critical that we have a clear rural policy.

I was reflecting that the approach of successive Governments has been like the legendary dog watching television; you know what they say: “He can see it, but he doesn’t get it”. There is something like that in all these successive government policies, and I hope that the report, complete with its recommendations on rural-proofing, gives this Government some means of actually getting it.