My Lords, I give my thanks and appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, and to the Rural Economy Select Committee for its mammoth report. The committee’s work raises so many important issues. It has been a busy weekend to consume, let alone digest, its 235 pages. I declare at the outset my interests as set down in the register. I manage an old, family-run SME that is impacted by almost every recommendation of this report. I live in a rural community and make daily use of rural services, including transport, schools and connectivity. I champion in this House the interests of Devon, notably a rural county that has been much mentioned and is keen to engage in this rural strategy debate. I pay tribute to the work of the local LEPs in Devon and, in particular, the South West Rural Productivity Commission.
While applauding the focus on the rural economy and rural interests, I think it is worth debating the benefits of a separate and distinct rural strategy. One of the real challenges faced by folks living in the countryside is a sense of separation from the urban majority. I am not yet clear on whether a focus on a specific rural strategy, as distinct from an urban strategy, does not risk encouraging a sense of separateness and of alienation from the mainstream. Indeed, it may have the countereffect of causing rural communities to be further marginalised. One lesson of the committee’s focus on rural life is the remarkable diversity of businesses, communities, environments and people that can be categorised as rural. All of these have different needs that may not be satisfied by a single strategy.
Historically, rural and urban communities were wholly and consciously interdependent. This is seen well in Devon, where medieval agriculture and rural production were fed down rivers and canals to be processed and milled in market towns, such as Tiverton and Honiton, before being traded and exported via urban centres, such as Exeter and Bristol. The interconnectedness and interdependence of rural and urban society were clear. While we do not see the relationship between urban and rural communities in nearly the same way today, that interconnectedness is very much still present, and it is only going to increase between now and 2050.
It is the rural economy that our urban population depends on for its water, food and fresh air and, increasingly, for the management of the nation’s reserves of natural capital. Indeed, at page 8 in the report, where the committee discusses the elements of a rural strategy, rather than considering,
“the contribution of rural economies to the wellbeing of rural communities”,
should it not equally focus on the contribution of rural economies to the well-being of urban communities? Does the Minister agree?
As the nation sets its world-leading climate mitigation targets and strategies, as well as ambitious, nationwide health and well-being policies, it is to the rural landscape and the rural economy that the nation will look to deliver these policies. It is only the countryside that can offset our carbon emissions; it is only the countryside that can provide locally sourced, ecologically sound and nutritious food; and it is only our rural communities that provide opportunity for well-managed amenity space for leisure and well-being.
Ideally, this interaction and interconnectedness between urban and rural communities should be driven by market forces, encouraged by national policy but informed and designed at the local level, with devolved decision-making powers allowing rural communities to determine their own rural needs, as well as how best to satisfy those urban demands.
Rural-proofing is a concept that I think remains ill defined. I know that my noble friend Lord Cameron has done much excellent work in this area, and I support the need to assess the impact of government policy on rural areas. I agree that rural-proofing needs to be better defined and better implemented if it is to be effective.
With respect to place-based approaches, I agree it is essential that rural policy, particularly at a local level, is driven by rural, not urban, decision-makers. If a sustainable solution is to work, it must surely be those who live and work in rural communities and who manage rural businesses who decide on how rural policies are to be developed. I am concerned to see the Government’s response stating explicitly that rural decision-making must be handled by local authorities because,
“local authorities are accountable to their own electorates and should decide their own priorities”.
This suggests that, if a local authority’s electorate is predominantly urban, that local authority is entitled to ignore the needs and demands of its rural constituencies—the tyranny of the democratic majority.
The digital revolution provides great opportunity for rural communities, particularly with respect to artificial intelligence, remote working and virtual businesses. But the greater the disparity in connectivity, the more economic disparities will increase. Devon has seen considerable challenges with its rural digital rollout in recent years, despite considerable focus from local government. Ofcom’s registration and authorisation processes need urgently to be reviewed and better articulated, as they are acting as a considerable brake on fibre connectivity.
I have been involved in our local village neighbourhood plan over the past three years and can speak with some authority on the way in which the neighbourhood planning process works. First, I can vouch for the fact that it is very hard work and demands a considerable amount of effort from the unpaid volunteers involved. This will be the reason why its uptake is restricted largely to affluent and older communities—because only they can afford the considerable time to commit to the process and adopt it.
Secondly, I note that, by natural selection, those who sit on such community-focused committees and engage with their processes tend to be older and retired, which means that the neighbourhood plans reflect the views of only part of the population—typically not those with school-age children or a need for affordable housing. I agree with the conclusions and recommendations on affordable housing. One of the notable characteristics of our local housing stock is how many older empty-nesters remain in large family houses, for want of alternative smaller homes in the local community. Affordable housing is essential both for those starting the journey up the property ladder and those moving gently down. I do not pretend to understand the complex relationship between land prices and government policy, but would expect that, with a simpler planning system and the increased supply that would result, the cost of small, mixed housing developments would decrease considerably.
The provision of services to rural populations needs renewed focus, and I support the committee’s efforts in this regard. The relative underfunding of schools, doctors, transport, social care, police and other essential services in our rural communities is a stain on our public life. It is often only the strength of rural communities, and the generosity of local volunteers, churches and neighbours, that keep these communities functioning, by stepping in where public services fail.
Finally, we are all well aware of the greatest challenge facing the rural economy now: the threat of a no-deal Brexit and the disastrous consequences that would follow. As I mentioned earlier, the LEP in Devon has said that it would be worse than foot and mouth. I wonder whether the Minister agrees with that statement, as the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, did earlier. The rural economy is living through a period of terrifying uncertainty, with no clarity whatever on the future of agriculture, fisheries or the environment. Prorogation is only hours away and a Queen’s Speech is due next week. I make a simple request of the Government: please get Brexit resolved and give rural communities the legislative framework they deserve to plan for and deliver a sustainable future.