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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:00 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, I add my thanks and congratulations to my colleague and noble friend Lord Foster of Bath on his excellent report into the state of the rural economy and on his all-embracing introduction. I declare my interest as the chair of the National Community Land Trust Network and as a vice-president of the LGA.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, eloquently illustrated the problems of rural areas. The state of the rural economy has been debated many times over recent years but nothing seems to happen. Back in March this year, I had the privilege of being a speaker at a conference in Taunton whose sole purpose was to call for a government strategy for the rural economy. We have strategies for industry and business and strategies for transport but there is nothing for the rural areas.

Those of us living in rural communities feel that we are the Cinderella service areas of the country. Sadly, unlike Cinderella, no handsome prince is going to come over the hill on his white horse to rescue us from our fate. It is up to us to make a noise about the huge disparity in the services that rural areas receive and those enjoyed by residents in more urban and city areas. I think that we have done a pretty good job of that today.

I was not surprised that the lack of digital connectivity came out top of the significant issues covered in the report. Broadband is essential, as nearly every speaker has demonstrated. I welcomed the comments about local enterprise partnerships. Their constitution and make-up mean that they are concentrated in centres of population. LEPs that operate in areas where two-tier local authorities exist only ever hear the view of a single district council, as only one seat is allocated between their districts. This can lead to investments being skewed. I share the concerns of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness—LEPs should embrace rural-proofing without delay.

I am also concerned about the lack of public transport and long journeys to school for children in deep rural areas. Noble Lords who have spoken in this very interesting debate have covered a great many of the aspects that those of us in rural areas encounter on a daily basis. The noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, spoke about bus services. My noble friend Lady Humphreys raised the issue of funding in rural schools and access to cash. With the closure of hundreds of small rural banks, it was essential that post offices were able to step forward. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, emphasised the need for rural-proofing, which is multidepartmental, covering health, education, transport, rural crime and business development. I am sure that most noble Lords agree with that.

As I was, sadly, not a member of the committee under the excellent chairmanship of my noble friend, I cannot comment in depth on this report. Instead, I shall concentrate on the lack of affordable housing. If young people, couples or families are unable to access decent housing that they can afford, their ability to thrive and enjoy access to employment and health provision will be severely diminished.

Many of us who walk around London on a regular basis are well used to seeing people sleeping and living on the streets. I assure the House that that is not confined to cities. It is a scene that can also be witnessed in market towns, where those who are unable to afford a home to rent are driven to desperate measures. A report published on 4 October indicated that 94% of homes for rent in the country are unaffordable for people in receipt of benefits and on low incomes. There will be numerous reasons why people “fall off the kerb” of housing and find themselves homeless. The tenant or home owner will not be at fault. They find themselves unable to pay their mortgage or rent and end up sleeping in shop doorways. If they are lucky, they might be offered bed and breakfast accommodation or find a bed in a hostel on a nightly basis but with no security for the future. Homelessness is a scourge on our society and needs to be tackled without delay.

Up and down the country, many rural communities have realised that they need a better mix of accommodation to meet the needs of their residents. Housing schemes that come from the efforts of the communities themselves are more likely to succeed. Currently over 280 community land trust schemes are running in the country. I am not pretending that this is a quick fix—far from it—but there are some significant successes, and CLTs are definitely place based.

During September, I was lucky enough to be at the opening of a CLT housing development of eight homes in Dorset. It consisted of very high-quality homes of mixed size. The occupants ranged from an elderly couple who had downsized to a bungalow to a single mother and her daughter, other families with children and a young adult with learning difficulties. This young man’s family were in the three-bedroom home and he was going into the one-bedroom home. He would have independence but his mother would be on site to keep an eye on him.

Understandably, villages do not want their size to be doubled by a single housing development but they are open to small, carefully planned housing that will meet the needs of their parish and carry them forward on a sustainable basis. The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, gave another excellent example of that.

Many speakers mentioned the lack of public transport. In my village the regular bus service has long since finished. It has been replaced by a dial-up service to divert a bus from the route along the A30. This means that planning ahead is essential, and there will be no second chance if you miss that bus. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London gave a wonderful list of the services that churches are providing to rural and other communities. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Devon, about the difficulties of neighbourhood plans, having been involved in one. The noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Rock, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, highlighted the problems facing farmers. We should not underestimate these problems.

We have had a very informative debate about the serious issues and difficulties that plague our rural communities. A government strategy for the rural economy in Britain is long overdue, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many questions that have been put to him.