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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:47 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Rock Baroness Rock Conservative 6:47 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, it has been a privilege to serve on the Select Committee on the Rural Economy and to contribute to the report we are debating. I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for his enthusiastic and engaging chairmanship and to my fellow committee members for thoughtful discussions. I also thank our clerk, Simon Keal, and the special advisers for their invaluable support.

The Government’s embrace of a sophisticated approach to an industrial strategy was welcome recognition that a modern economy, competing in a globalised world, requires partnership between the public and private sectors. Nowhere is this more the case than in the rural economy. This is why I fully support the committee’s conclusion that a comprehensive rural strategy is the antidote to today’s world of rural poverty, decline in agriculture and poor connectivity, both physical and digital.

To be clear, this is not about success subsidising failure. Indeed, when it comes to the give and take of tax and spend—and as we have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Foster of Bath and Lord Cameron of Dillington—urban areas in 2017-18 received about 45% more per head for local government services than their rural counterparts, despite rural residents paying 17% more per head in council tax. This is actually about realising the potential of all our assets and skills. A strong economy, increased productivity and thriving communities cannot be achieved without realising the vital role of our countryside. As we have heard, the Government reject the idea of a distinct rural strategy while agreeing with the need for more placed-based initiatives and the rural-proofing of all policy. Let us hope that this is a semantic difference and instead focus on some key areas of policy that require a sharp focus on rural affairs.

First, with Brexit stalking their every move, we should start with the plight of our farmers. I refer the House to my interest set out in the register as a director of a farming enterprise. I am certainly no defender of the common agricultural policy. It represents poor value for money and creates perverse incentives up and down the farming value chain. However, it is the system into which our farmers are currently locked so, like the rest of the business community, they are still wondering what will come next. The Agriculture Bill has no date for Report or Third Reading, despite the Public Bill Committee having completed its scrutiny. I share the Defra Secretary of State’s view, given most recently at the Conservative Party conference, that we must release our farmers from the rigidity and bureaucracy of the common agricultural policy, but we need as much clarity and certainty on this as possible, not least about the fate of the Bill in this or any future Parliament.

I shall make one small comment on policy. It was eloquently made by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. Tenanted agricultural land makes up more than one-third of all farmland in the country. Presently, many tenant farmers are restricted in the use of their holdings to agricultural purposes only. This means that they may well be disfranchised if landlords do not give consent for tenants to access new financial support schemes to provide the public goods the Government intend. It is important that landlords do not take advantage of tenants under these circumstances, and indeed that tenants are given the right to seek consent that the landlord cannot unreasonably delay or deny. I know that representations have been made to include agricultural tenancy reform provisions in the Agriculture Bill. Will the Minister give assurances that when the Bill moves from the back burner to the front burner such provisions will be included? It is vital that tenant farmers are provided with the necessary and reasonable tools to be sustainable and resilient in the long term.

As we all know, the rural economy is not just farming, but is a diverse, dynamic and innovative community of small businesses. These businesses need the support that rural-proofing might bring. I shall highlight two specific areas. The first is, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, stated, a key responsibility of any Government: digital infrastructure. Some 70% of respondents to a Countryside Alliance survey cited digital infrastructure as the most important issue facing the rural economy. Our committee found that in the rollout of full fibre and 5G technology, policy and funding announcements were encouraging. The Government agreed that mobile operators bidding in the 700 megahertz spectrum auction would ensure that rural areas were prioritised. However, we now see that Ofcom has committed to only 90% coverage over four years. We must hope that the sharing of spectrum bands and the discussions between the Government and operators to create a shared rural network bear fruit. If they deliver the coverage our rural economy needs without resorting to coverage obligations, so much the better, although I note that the Countryside Alliance believes that coverage obligations remain essential.

Finally, as a complement to infrastructure, rural SMEs also need access to world-class skills and talent if they are to grow and succeed in the global economy. There is much in existing policy frameworks to give encouragement, but we must ensure there is throughput. The business productivity review should benefit rural communities, given the significant numbers of rural SMEs, but only if the Government follow through on rural-proofing it. We talk a lot in this place and elsewhere about innovation and productivity as the means to continue to succeed as a global economic power. Let us not forget the role of the rural economy in helping us do this because in it there are innovation, creativity, jobs and opportunity. All we have to do is empower.