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My Lords, I declare my farming interests as stated in the register. I thank the committee for its report and for the opportunity to give evidence earlier this year. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, and all members of the committee on such a wide-ranging and thorough inquiry. All of us who care for the future of our rural communities must welcome the report as a thoughtful and constructive contribution.
At the heart of our debate this afternoon is the question of how best to nurture rural communities. It is a goal we all share. We all want to see flourishing rural communities where people thrive, businesses prosper and the rural way of life continues in all its richness and diversity.
As the committee’s report acknowledged, strong foundations are already in place. Indeed, the noble Lords, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Grantchester, referred to the great contribution rural areas make—nearly £250 billion to England’s economy. Half a million businesses are registered in rural areas, which is one-quarter of the total. Employment rates in rural areas are higher than the UK average. Many people choose to live in rural areas because of the quality of life. Net migration to rural areas has increased since 2008. Life expectancy and well-being are deemed higher. As the committee expressed, there is much to be said for rural life.
However, we must not forget that the very characteristics that make life in rural areas so attractive also present challenges for those who live and work there, as many of your Lordships have described. Rural areas are more geographically dispersed and more sparsely populated. While these features are among the key attractions, they bring challenges all too familiar to those who live there. Digital connectivity and public transport are poorer. Affordable housing is in short supply. People have to travel further to access essential services such as schools, colleges and hospitals. Distance makes many public services more costly to deliver. There is a higher proportion of older people, which places pressure on health and social services. As we know, there are pockets of extreme deprivation.
My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned Julian Glover, who I am very much looking forward to working with. It is important that we work on this in cherishing landscapes—it is a vital part of what the countryside can do for all of us.
I return to the committee’s recommendation. Many of your Lordships have expressed disappointment in the Government’s response. I want to spend a little time on this. As we set out in our response to the report, while we agree about objectives, we think there is a different way forward. I am mindful of what my noble friend Lord Haselhurst and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said about this matter. We want to place rural areas at the heart of policy development, not treat them as a land apart. We want to ensure that policy can respond effectively and flexibly to a rapidly changing world and is not caged within a fixed framework. Although the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, may not think he said it, I think he was going along on some of those themes of needing flexibility and effectiveness.
One of the privileges of my role is to see many parts of the countryside. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, and his committee’s report were absolutely right to say that each is distinct and many need different solutions. We therefore want to empower rural communities to define their own ambitions and decide what is right for their circumstances, not to impose a central template on them. In short, as I have always said, I want us to be the helping hand, not a heavy one.
That is why our strategic approach is based on rural-proofing. This offers a flexible and dynamic way to keep rural concerns at the heart of policy development across government. Many of your Lordships raised this, including the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and my noble friend Lord Caithness. I will particularly emphasise what the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said, as he has had so much to do with rural-proofing and helped us with earlier versions.
I have said before that rural-proofing is not an academic exercise. It is about achieving real benefits for those who live and work in rural areas. It ensures that policies are designed with the needs and challenges of rural areas in mind, so as to deliver the best possible outcomes. I think that is very much what the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, raised. As the committee’s report noted and the Government set out in its evidence, there are good examples of rural-proofing. However, we accept that more needs to be done, which is why we are taking further action to strengthen it.
We have now nominated rural leads in each department. These departmental leads regularly meet Defra officials to ensure that rural-proofing is at the heart of the policy agenda. We are looking to improve the rural-proofing guidance for departments and we are building up the evidence base on rural needs through research projects, the work of our in-house statisticians, and our rural academic panel.
When the previous Secretary of State and I gave evidence to the committee earlier this year, we were quite rightly challenged on the effectiveness of rural-proofing. This led us to think about how we could improve the governance around it. In our response to the committee, we therefore said that we would set up a rural affairs board. This is now up and running and held its first meeting last month. Chaired by Lizzie Noel, a Defra non-executive director, with whom I look forward to working closely, the board will support and steer our work on rural-proofing. This approach clearly requires effective engagement with rural stakeholders. I would like to see a good, two-way flow of information. As has been raised, we shall publish an annual report on rural proofing to improve transparency.
I hope I can reassure not only the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, but the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London: our aim is to publish this report a year after our response to the committee. I place enormous importance on rural-proofing—it is the route to getting this right. We believe that, together, these measures will ensure that it works more effectively.
The committee’s report touched on all aspects of rural life: skills, education, housing, health services, tourism, transport and crime. I am afraid so many points were raised that I will not be able to do full justice to them, with respect to the breadth of the report.
My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned crime. Tomorrow, I will be visiting farms that are concerned about rural crime. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, spoke of health, transport, age, Acre—I am so pleased to be part of that team—and the rural community councils. I am very pleased that the noble Baroness also mentioned loneliness, as I am the ministerial representative on that ministerial task force.
The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, mentioned post offices as did the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. I place great importance on the work of post offices and of having hubs in every village. This matter was also raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London in relation to the importance of health.
Many of your Lordships mentioned connectivity. We all know that it is one of the most important features to get right. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and others raised that this is an area on which we have to work. I am horrified by the 87 calls that the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, had to endure, knowing her part of Herefordshire. We want to improve digital connectivity and have introduced the “outside-in” approach as part of a future telecoms infrastructure review precisely because we want to ensure that rural communities do not continue to be disadvantaged.
There are many points to make on hard-to-reach areas. We have introduced the USO—universal service obligation—from next March for those premises that do not have access to decent broadband. I want to place on record—I hope it will please the right reverend Prelate—the great work of DCMS, Defra and the Bishops and others who I have been working with; the Church of England accord has meant that many villages have been able to use church infrastructure to help improve connectivity.
Of course, more must be done. The Prime Minister has set out his ambition very strongly. The Government are now working out the policy and regulatory changes that are necessary to enable faster deployment of broadband across the country. That includes my noble friend Lord Colgrain in Kent. I am mindful of that, and mindful that the Chancellor has already announced that £5 billion will be spent on gigabit connectivity to underpin that “outside-in” approach.
I was very struck, interestingly, by the fact that I think my noble friend Lady McIntosh was the only speaker to specifically mention mobile. Again, this is an area where we need to improve connectivity. We are committed to extending geographical mobile coverage to 95% of the UK, as well as providing an uninterrupted mobile signal on all major roads, and we are considering all of the options available to facilitate this. We clearly need to do more. The Government believe firmly that rural areas should not be left behind during the rollout of 5G services. Two of the six projects that were selected last year in the first phase of funding for 5G trials focused on rural areas.
On housing, I declare a personal interest in so far as I facilitated a rural housing scheme at Kimble many years ago, so this is strongly in my thoughts. I am delighted that the noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and others emphasised that decent, affordable homes are the bedrock of any community, but especially of small rural communities where even a handful of new homes can make a difference. I remember opening a rural housing scheme in Buckinghamshire. That rural housing scheme next to the village school ensured that six children were immediately on the school roll. What more could any parish council want than to encourage that? I say to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that during Rural Housing Week I held a discussion with leading stakeholders and senior officials from MHCLG because we need to work in seeking to remove continuing barriers to progress
I turn now to business support. It is essential that rural businesses are able to access easily the support, skills and finance that they need. The committee was concerned that not all LEPs took their rural interests seriously. One point has very much come up in my discussions. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, referred to positivity in relation to what was happening in Devon. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, referred to concerns about other local enterprise partnerships. We expect LEP boards to ensure that their growth strategies are relevant, representative and widely supported across their whole geography—I emphasise, their whole geography. It is worth noting that 12 local enterprise partnerships have now appointed a board member with explicit responsibility for rural issues. Furthermore, Defra officials are working closely with BEIS, MHCLG and other departments to support the LEPs’ analysis of opportunities for their rural areas. With respect to the UK’s shared prosperity fund, rural-proofing means that it is shared. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Grantchester, that we all know that SMEs are the lifeblood of the rural economy. They are where many of our great enterprises have been established. I do not have time to talk about the agri-drinks sector, but we all know what that sector presents.
I am under the cosh of time, but I want to say that your Lordships have highlighted the strength and diversity of rural England as well as the profound challenges our rural areas face. Having been to the Kent County Show, I was struck by my noble friend Lord Colgrain talking about “agri, horti and viti” cultural matters. I was pleased to have a positive meeting with a former Minister in the Department for Education about the importance of traditional rural skills. His commentary has triggered me to have a further conversation about those matters.
I say to my noble friends Lady Rock and Lady McIntosh that, on tenancy reforms, Defra has published a consultation in April this year. We seek views on options. The consultation closed in July and we are analysing the response.
I return to rurality in its more heady sense. This place provides treasured landscapes. Each rural community is unique and they all have great potential. The Government, and all of us, want to boost their best efforts. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, with her housing expertise will identify with what I want to emphasise, as indeed may all your Lordships: we want our villages to be multigenerational. They work best when they are multigenerational, when people look out for each other, whether within families or not. I believe that is the way we can pursue prosperity, not only of a financial nature, but in terms of well-being, contentment and the best approach to ensuring that people are physically and mentally well; it is the way to ensure that people in the countryside have fulfilling lives, wherever in that great diversity they live, whether in the very sparsely populated areas of Northumberland or the Welsh Marches, or whether closer, as in west Kent. All these are places we should cherish because of their diversity.
We would all do well to remember how much we depend on our rural communities—the noble Earl, Lord Devon, the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in particular raised this. Across the country, whether people live in towns or suburban areas, it is essential that we recognise what rural communities do, and what they can do, to protect and improve our environment, from securing clean and abundant water on which all life depends to supplying the high-welfare, high-quality, nutritious British food, which is prized at home and abroad.
My noble friend the Duke of Montrose mentioned the food strategy. This is something that Henry Dimbleby is progressing and it is about from farm to fork. The review is currently asking for evidence and the call for evidence closes on
So many points were raised and—candidly—I have not done them justice. We should have had a five-hour debate to go through all these things. I reiterate my acknowledgement of the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, and all the committee most warmly. Giving evidence to the committee was rather like playing tennis with someone much better than one; it raises one’s game. The former Secretary of State and I really found it compelling. It was quality time, even though it was quite challenging. I want to acknowledge that, because it is terribly important that these committees, their reports and their work do not gather dust. I assure your Lordships that the rural affairs board had a lot to do with the grilling we received, and it is very important that I should acknowledge that.
I hope this debate will have left no one in any doubt about the importance of the rural economy for our national quality of life. That is why the Government are committed to supporting vibrant rural economies and the businesses that are at the beating heart of our rural economy. I have not mentioned Brexit, candidly because your Lordships have had many discussions about Brexit, this week and before, and I am sure they will continue. As a farmer, I am well aware of the challenges and of what may happen. That is why the Government will be standing by and will act to help. As the Rural Affairs Minister, I want to do all I can to ensure that rural communities continue to grow and flourish and I know that your Lordships share that ambition.