Productivity: Rural Areas

Part of RAF Valley: Funding and Employment – in Westminster Hall at 5:26 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury) 5:26 pm, 14th October 2020

It is a pleasure to be here for your debut in the Chair, Ms Ghani. I congratulate Scott Mann on securing this very good debate. I also congratulate all those Members who were elected for the first time at the most recent general election—not for the election victory, I hasten to add; we would rather that had not happened—on having already learned the fine parliamentary art form of squeezing a five-minute speech into two minutes. As a result, we heard a wide range of important points.

When I read the room, I was not sure about whether I should have more trepidation about addressing this gathering as a Labour MP or as a London MP. I want to explain why both of those things are complementary to what we have just heard. First, the regional imbalance in the UK economy is not working for London and the south-east, either. This city—one where I am a suburban MP—is overheating and overcrowded. It is in the interests of London and the south-east that we are rebalancing the economy across England and the rest of the UK. The concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in London and the south-east does not work for London, for the rest of England or for the rest of the UK. I hope we can achieve genuine consensus about how we redistribute power, wealth and opportunity from London and the south-east to the rest of the UK to create a genuinely balanced economy that benefits everyone and strengthens our country as a whole.

The Opposition not only not disagree with so much of what we heard in the debate but strongly support it. We understand the diversity of the rural economy in this country. Jobs and businesses in farming, forestry and fishing are important for the people who work in them, the communities who benefit from them and, of course, the consumers who enjoy them too. However, they are not the grand total of rural businesses; in fact, 85% of rural businesses are unrelated to farming, forestry and fishing. It is really important that public policy makers, whether in Government or around the Westminster village, understand that point and think about the diversity of the rural economy and how we support those businesses to succeed.

It is also a really important point that, in the context of the productivity challenge we have in the economy as a whole, rural economies in the UK are less productive. The hon. Member for North Cornwall made the point well that that reflects not on the workforce but on the conditions in which those businesses operate. It is also true that employment is generally higher in rural areas but pay is lower. We heard some illustrations of why that was, with people holding down a number of jobs—in fact, running a number of businesses—to make ends meet. That point was made powerfully during the debate.

What are the conditions in the wider environment that are causing some of these challenges? Of course, some challenges arise out of business size and density, and there are not the same conglomeration effects as in urban areas.

We have heard contributions on the challenges of accessing finance and the closure of bank branches. We ought to think, in the context of the connectivity that we have had to create during the course of covid, about how to better connect rural businesses with each other. We need to make sure that we are investing in our people, which is about access to skills and making sure that people do not need to leave the places where they grew up in order to have a successful career or to build a successful business. It is important that we invest in infrastructure, whether that is buses, rail or other forms of public transport. There are also ongoing issues of digital connectivity—this country is a digital laggard. We only have to look at the report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to see that we are so far behind other European countries on digital connectivity.

Notwithstanding all the other challenges that our country faces at the moment, I really hope that, as we think about how to break the back of this covid crisis, we think about how we build a better, stronger, more resilient economy beyond the crisis, making sure that we invest in rural communities and their people, businesses and infrastructure. I hope we can build a cross-party consensus in this area to generate good ideas for the next Labour Government to take forward.