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My Lords, I begin my remarks this evening by thanking the usual channels for finding time, in these rather uncertain times, for us to have a debate on this report by the Rural Economy Select Committee, albeit at the second or third time of asking. From a personal point of view, it has been a privilege to serve on this committee. The subject matter is somewhat apart from my normal spheres of interest, but, as the declarations of interest show, I live in rural Norfolk, run the family arable farm and am a past president of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association. Moreover, it has been a pleasure to serve under the expert committee chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath. I have much valued the experience of being a member of this Select Committee, enjoyed the interaction with its other members, appreciated the advice of our clerks and advisers and been impressed by our witnesses.
After much discussion, our report was given the title, Time for a Strategy for the Rural Economy. We believe that the rural economy not only needs a strategy but needs it now. In our view, it is indeed time for a strategy for the rural economy. That is our conviction, even if we have so far failed to sell that to the Government. At the risk of repeating what has already been said this evening, I underline the imperative of our core objective: to make the case for a thriving rural economy, which, in our view, can best be achieved by an effective strategy underpinned by better rural-proofing and delivered through a place-based approach—an approach that fully reflects the diversity of our countryside and the capabilities and knowledge of those who live and work there. The report expands on how this can come about, and we are grateful to the Government for giving consideration to many of our recommendations.
However, I would like to underline one of our key recommendations that, in my view, has been rather lightly acknowledged and addressed by the Government. In paragraph 58 of our report, on the need for a comprehensive rural strategy, we said:
“Development … must involve all … Government departments and bodies who must then be responsible and accountable for its implementation. To enable scrutiny of performance, there should be an annual report to Parliament, coordinated by Defra and drawn from all Government departments, which would set out the Government’s performance against the strategy and include an update on how departments have fulfilled their rural proofing obligations”.
To the committee, this seemed potentially a most effective way to hold the Government to account to ensure that the intent of any given strategy was implemented in the way envisaged. It is therefore somewhat disappointing to note in paragraph 8 of the Government’s response that our recommendation for an annual report, while accepted implicitly, is not given the prominence that such a key scrutiny mechanism deserves. Instead, we are offered the rather limited statement:
“The impact of new policies on rural areas should be systematically and consistently monitored as they are implemented. This would include an update on the performance of rural proofing across government in the Government’s annual report on the implementation of the rural strategy”.
While I accept that these words acknowledge the need for an annual report, I remain concerned that the Government have not taken on board fully that this is a key recommendation. Moreover, it is a high-profile way to make sure that not just Defra but all government departments, whose services play a vital role in rural areas, have a shared responsibility—albeit co-ordinated by Defra—to report to Parliament annually on the delivery and implementation of the overall strategy. I would be grateful for confirmation from the Minister that this recommendation is fully understood and will be acted on.
Many other points could be addressed this evening, but I will highlight two other issues covered in the report: the challenges of building rural communities and the challenges surrounding loneliness in rural communities.
The report acknowledges that many of the elements that have traditionally bound communities together have been eroded. Many local shops and pubs have closed, as have post offices and bank branches. Local leaders, such as a priest in every parish, are a rarity. Finding volunteers to join parish councils is a challenge in many areas. While the report urges local authorities to do what they can to promote the development of communities, there is also a realisation that much of the initiative lies with local charities and individuals. In this regard, the Village Survival Guide published by the Prince’s Countryside Fund, which gives sound advice on how to build a strong community, is to be warmly welcomed.
Moreover, an effective community is an important element in reducing the sense of loneliness that many people experience in rural areas. Poor local transport services exacerbate a sense of isolation, especially among older people. Furthermore, modern farming methods often mean that individuals spend much time on their own. These circumstances combine to create mental health issues, which place great pressure on the delivery of healthcare services in rural areas.
The report welcomes the Government’s loneliness strategy, and it is pleasing to note in the Government’s response to the report that last year the Minister for Loneliness co-hosted a round-table discussion on rural loneliness with the Minister for Rural Affairs. But there is only so much the Government can do, and much of the initiative lies more effectively with the charitable sector. In Norwich Cathedral last Sunday, along with the harvest produce processed to the altar at the harvest festival service was a pair of work boots no longer needed by a farm worker who had just taken his own life. This sad sight was a sobering way of highlighting the loneliness issue by a charity called YANA: You Are Not Alone. Again, this illustrates that many of the solutions to pressing problems can best be found when the public, private and charitable sectors work effectively together.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to regard this comprehensive Select Committee report as an important baseline document on which to plan and build a proper strategy for the rural economy. I look forward to seeing the first annual report to Parliament at some point next year.