I beg to move,
That this House
has considered productivity in rural areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I understand this is your first outing in the Chair and it feels like a lifetime ago since I led a debate in this place, so I hope this will not be our last outing together.
I begin by posing a question to the House and to the Minister. It is abundantly clear that more people are considering living and working in rural and coastal communities. Many are choosing a better life balance, weighing up where they want to raise their children and taking advantage of some improved broadband connectivity —and covid has increased that trend. As the trend accelerates, this is my question to the House: is the countryside ready for that change? I have considered the question a lot and I think it could be, but addressing the productivity gap is vital in ensuring that rural communities are safeguarded as we go about those changes.
Cornwall is recognised as having the lowest productivity rate in the UK. According to Office for National Statistics figures released in February 2019, it was 32% below the national average. I know there are colleagues here today who have similar challenges in their areas. We should be very clear that the rural productivity gap is in no way the fault of hard-working people in all our communities, but the result of a combination of geographical and historical factors. I am committed to addressing that long-standing injustice; I know my friends in the House will be as well.
First, it is worth examining some of the reasons the productivity gap exists and what we can do to address it. In terms of local government and national Government, local government officers and UK civil servants are bound to a funding formula for infrastructure projects that means they have to seek best value for money. That has led to money being funnelled into already affluent areas, and, on paper, they see a greater return on that investment. However, that compounds and further widens the productivity gap we are here to discuss today. The first step on the road to levelling up the United Kingdom would be to change that model, recognise the potential value of investment for a specific area and establish how much improved value there would be over the baseline. For example, to get a 1% improvement in London’s economy, we would have to invest tens of billions of pounds, but a 1% investment in the Cornish economy would exponentially increase productivity in the area. So, £1 million invested in Cornwall would make a greater contribution to increasing productivity across the nation than £1 million invested, for example, in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor.
On education, for far too long, young people in North Cornwall have accessed higher education outside the county. Once they have qualified, the majority never return home. Many are old school friends of mine, who sought better paid work in other places around the country. I know Tony Blair had a big push on getting 50% of young people through university. My view is that that has compounded the problem, forcing many young people on to paths that are unsuited to them or to study degrees that are often of little benefit to the economy local to where they grew up.
I am pleased the Government are offering more vocation-based skills learning and degree-level apprenticeships. I hope we can do more to improve the life chances of young people in and around the country. In North Cornwall, our offer for young people has drastically improved. Callywith College in Bodmin was recently rated outstanding in six areas by Ofsted. I look forward to working with the college and expanding its future offer.
On housing, it is a sad fact that the gap between average wages and average house prices is the highest it has ever been in England. In Cornwall, that trend is particularly acute. The problem is worsened by high levels of second-home ownership, and many homes are beyond the reach of the local population. They are generally bought by buy-to-let landlords, which drives up rents. However, we are seeing an increase and a trend in second homes being occupied for longer periods of the year. Some families are choosing to relocate already to make their second home more permanent, and I welcome those moves. However, the under-supply of housing has already damaged many lives and communities in Cornwall. An increase in the rural population will exacerbate that issue, so we cannot avoid the need to build more homes in rural communities.
On supply and construction, Cornwall is leading the way on modular housing and newer forms of building to get the speed of builds up. I hope that the changes outlined in the planning White Paper will continue that roll-out and improve innovation and the solutions that we have to find to sort out the housing crisis. The planning Bill should also support economic development, business diversification, innovation and job creation in the countryside. I firmly believe that if we do that, we can address some of those rural challenges.
Moving on to health outcomes, the physical distance that some people have to drive to visit GPs and cottage and general hospitals often means that more people live with conditions and have to undergo lengthy surgery for treatment. They often rely on family members for that travel. For example, someone living in Bude in my constituency who has an appointment in nearby Barnstaple’s hospital might have to take half a day’s holiday from work just to run their relative to an appointment. That obviously has negative impacts on workplace productivity, but also on quality of life. The covid pandemic has proved that digital appointments with GPs can work, and some consulting can work. Further digitalisation of the NHS could mean rural and coastal communities accessing some of the best medical expertise in the country over Zoom or Skype without the need to travel vast distances.
I know lots of people will talk about physical infrastructure in their own communities, and we have seen a move from the Government to improve physical infrastructure distribution around the country, but it is clear that road and rail schemes often improve connectivity, productivity, journey times and people’s life chances. I have no doubt that colleagues will cover that topic, but I have a particular scheme in North Cornwall that the Treasury has already part funded, and it exemplifies how important infrastructure can be. The Camelford bypass has been talked about for more than 100 years. At its worst, the A39 through the town is gridlocked; at its best in the winter it can be tedious and extremely polluting. Camelford has one of the highest NOx emission rates in Cornwall. A bypass will improve health outcomes and connectivity, cut journey times on routes frequented by many workmen and traders, and in many cases will also improve people’s life chances because they will be able to access good quality employment. We recently saw improvements to the A30, which have led to improved journey times and created hundreds of jobs in the county.
Many colleagues will wish to raise digital connectivity. In many rural communities, improving broadband and mobile coverage is the single biggest step needed to address rural productivity issues. In Cornwall we have seen significant investment in speed, which has increased exponentially, but we still have far to go. Cafés, farms, white-collar workers and more can have more productivity, but are limited at the moment by poor internet speeds. It is crucial for tourism in Cornwall. Visit Cornwall recently did a survey that showed that the top two searches for holiday accommodation in Cornwall were broadband and hot tubs. Although I am absolutely convinced that hot tubs are important to people, I think we can agree that broadband is a necessity. Digital infrastructure should be the most important part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
We have also seen a move to remote working. A shift to remote and flexible working was happening pre-covid, and that is growing exponentially. I suspect many colleagues in the Chamber today will be aware of that trend. Legacy broadband and mobile investment can grow value added and support new employment opportunities in rural communities. We should encourage people to take advantage of the fantastic rural digital connectivity and to set up businesses in rural areas, giving them better quality of life and creating more and new opportunities for employment.
There have been a lot of efficiency savings in agriculture and farming in recent years, including robotics in milking parlours. Tractors are bigger and more efficient than they used to be. We have only scratched the surface of what we can do in terms of agricultural tech and robotics in our communities.
I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak, but it is worth making the point that the rural productivity gap is not a north-south divide, as it is sometimes reported. In my view, there are two economies in the UK: London and the south-east and the rest of us. I believe that the Government are committed to levelling up and will not lose sight of that focus, despite the challenges that we are undergoing with the covid-19 pandemic. People who live in rural communities are up for the challenge. The Cornish are entrepreneurial, hard-working and never miss an opportunity to make a few quid, so with the right support from the Treasury, I have no doubt that they can close the productivity gap.
I ask the Minister to respond on the following points. Will she continue to invest in technical colleges and degree level apprenticeships? Will she ensure that everyone in the UK has access to good-quality broadband and mobile? Will she support planning policies that are designed to promote economic growth for our rural and coastal communities? Will she continue to push for a bigger role for digital and virtual in our health service?
Will the Minister try to ensure that R&D funding is funnelled into innovation in the farming sector? Pilot schemes are often floated around the country. Will she consider the least productive areas for some of those pilot schemes and procurement things that happen in Government? I will leave it there as several hon. Members wish to speak. I am looking forward to hearing what they have to say as well.