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My Lords, my Christmas was increasingly dominated by the disruption, noise and trails of destruction caused by an army of grandchildren. My reaction to this was, of course, an attempt at tolerance and compassion. It was but an attempt, but it did make me reflect on what I could do for them to ensure that they are not just occasional visitors but have every reason to enjoy a bright and happy future in my home county of Devon. Successive Governments have failed to provide any meaningful policies to create abundant opportunities in our rural communities in order to ensure that those we are raising have good reason to want to remain and spend their lives building successful careers there.
The election result provides a platform for tackling policies we have sidestepped for the last 10 years. I passionately believe that we have a duty to lead on this challenge. The virtual depopulation from rural communities of young people continues at an alarming rate. By 2050, over two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in towns and cities. There are, of course, various genuine and perceived advantages and dis- advantages which may attract people—including youth —to live in rural areas. These include, on the one hand, more space, less pollution and closer proximity to nature. On the other hand, the reality is that there are fewer local education or job opportunities or choices, difficulties in accessing public services, including transportation, healthcare and broadband, a lack of cultural and social venues for leisure, significantly higher costs of living and, critically, chronic shortages of low-cost, affordable and first-time-buyer accommodation.
Is it surprising, therefore, that one of the most pressing issues for the sustainability of rural communities is the exodus of young people? Their migration from rural to urban areas is often an inevitable choice, as they search for better education and employment opportunities, and an enhanced quality of life. The depopulation of rural areas further erodes the social and economic fabric of these communities, while at the same time increasing the strain on overcrowded urban spaces.
Devon is a classic illustration of the problem. It has a diverse community, based on rural roots, with a social and economic environment which is both distinctive and challenging. Income levels tend to be lower and there is a greater incidence of poverty. Living costs are higher. Income is dependent on the ability to commute. There is a higher incidence of social exclusion, and there is restricted access to services such as rural health, and to affordable housing. Too often, self-employment is the only option.
In short, there exists a vicious cycle, where rural residents are drawn to urban centres for employment and rural businesses are forced to turn to the nearest town or city for a larger, more qualified labour pool. How therefore can we ensure that a central aim of the Government’s youth policy is to ensure that young people enjoy the same opportunities, benefits, access to services and rights, regardless of where they live? Are there any early wins for these problems?
Many believe that digital will save and indeed enhance rural businesses and communities, offsetting the difficulties of transport and access. There is no doubt that rural businesses should see digital as critical to their futures, yet more than half of rural businesses report that they cannot find staff with appropriate digital skills. However, the Prime Minister has promised that this will change, so help is on the way. We shall see.
My own agenda for Devon to resolve these issues would therefore include the following initiatives: enabling access to mobile and online services; raising the level of digital skills in SMEs; improved transport across rural areas; and tackling the shameful lack of affordable housing. My point is this: as concrete steals across the western world, currently at the alarming rate of 11% every 10 years, we must preserve and maintain our rural communities and, essentially, make employment available to those who live and work there. All this becomes increasingly pressing and so important in the interests of a kingdom united in equal opportunity for both town and country.