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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 6:32 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to participate in this debate and add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, and the whole committee on the excellent work and the conclusions they reached in their report. I have come to a slightly different conclusion, which is entirely complementary to the recommendations and conclusions that the committee reached. The conclusion I have reached is that most of the policies we have discussed in this debate were devised by many who enjoyed an urban upbringing, went to an urban-based university and then went into one of the main departments of state. One tweak to the report that does not encompass just the work of Defra could be that any new civil servant and government official who commences working for the Government should spend three months embedded in a rural environment, going round and experiencing at first hand how the policies they are going to implement will impact on the rural economy.

Why did I reach that conclusion? I grew up in the Pennines. I worked for a number of years as an MEP. In fact, I was my noble friend Lord Haselhurst’s MEP; he was my MP. More recently, I spent years in North Yorkshire as a local MP. I was also educated in Harrogate. I was sorry to hear how few shops there are in Harrogate and ashamed to remember how much I enjoyed visiting them as a schoolgirl, which I was not meant to do during school hours.

I will declare other interests. I was privileged to serve as chairman of the Defra committee in the other place. I am currently patron of the Institute of Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators. I sit on the Rural Affairs Group of the Church of England. I am an honorary associate fellow of the British Veterinary Association and an honorary president of the Huby and Sutton agricultural show. Part of the work that I undertake outside is working for the Dispensing Doctors’ Association. My father and brother were both dispensing doctors in their time. This is one area that goes to the heart of how those in the Department of Health and Social Care fail to understand the role of dispensing doctors and pharmacies in rural areas, as opposed to those who work in urban areas. We just need to look— as has been rehearsed this afternoon—at how delivering healthcare in rural areas is more expensive: running ambulances is more expensive, and obviously it is more challenging for patients to reach their GP and hospital appointments. If they do not have a car, they have to rely on neighbours or very erratic bus services.

However, what the Government often seek to do is almost cut the money in primary healthcare in favour of secondary healthcare, which is normally delivered in an urban area. How many times do people now go to hospital as an emergency rather than having a GP appointment because it takes three weeks to get a GP appointment, both in rural and urban areas?

So I hope that the Government might reverse their priorities and look to give more funds to delivering healthcare in rural areas through dispensing doctors, because they are the first line of patient care. If we fail the dispensing GPs and reduce their resources, it will make life more difficult for hospitals. The number of closures of community hospitals has, again, had an impact on acute hospitals, because there is nowhere else for people to go to recover after an operation or stroke—which is one of the roles of community healthcare.

To me, the heart of a rural economy is the farm and rural businesses, among which farms are obviously pre-eminent. Then there is the mart, where animals and livestock are taken. North Yorkshire is one of the excellent livestock production parts of the country. If farmers are doing well, market towns will do well. I see marts as having both an economic and a social function. When we had the foot and mouth crisis, to which the noble Earl, Lord Devon, referred, farmers could no longer go to the mart—and that was where churches in rural parts of North Yorkshire came into their own, because they were able to assemble farmers and their families on a Sunday for a form of worship.

The farmers are coming under unprecedented pressure, because we know that European Union funds will go. We do not know whether they will go at the next election, which is imminent, or will be phased out from 2020 over a seven-year period. I do know that the North Yorkshire Moors National Park has benefited to the tune of £2.3 million under the LEADER programme, which has had to be wound up early because we are leaving the European Union. It helped create 54 jobs and 69 businesses, attracted 65,000 more visitors to the park and aided more than 6,000 rural residents in the park. Some £138 million across the whole of England has benefited rural areas through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

The point has to be made: if we are taking access to direct payments and countryside stewardship schemes away from farmers and are going to have environmental schemes, ELMs, which have not been trialled and tested—we do not know what they will look like and the farmers do not know what criteria they will have to meet—we have to be aware that the only people who will benefit from many of the environmental benefits such as planting trees and creating bogs and dams will be the owners of the land.

In this country we have a long tradition, not understood in the rest of Europe, of tenant farmers. Particularly in North Yorkshire, County Durham, Northumbria and other parts, tenant farmers are graziers on common land. I urge the department, through my noble friend the Minister, to have particular regard to the future of these graziers on common land—tenant farmers and those who do not own the land but nevertheless look after it. I also hope we will look to increase food production to make sure we remain mindful of food security and, if anything, become more self-sufficient.

I have reached the conclusion I have because all rural services are intertwined: access to rural transport, affordable homes, rural schools, the health service, good communications—both broadband and mobile phone coverage, which is woeful and dangerous in parts of North Yorkshire—and, as others have mentioned, access to a post office, bank, community shop and the local church. It is obvious that many across government departments do not understand rural areas. I make this plea: perhaps a three-month period at the start of a new person taking up a role will enable them to understand rural life and the rural economy better.