It is a delight to be with you on your debut chairing of a Westminster Hall debate, Ms Ghani. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend Scott Mann on securing this important debate. As the Member of Parliament for Saffron Walden, a beautiful rural constituency in north Essex, I share many of the concerns raised today. In fact, if I was not a Treasury Minister, I would no doubt be here talking about the same things. I thank hon. Members for their many insightful and constructive contributions.
As recently as last week, the Prime Minister expressed his view that the only way to ensure true resilience and long-term prosperity is to raise the overall productivity of the country. In saying that, he was not talking only about our cities, as Wes Streeting referenced. When this Government talk about boosting productivity, levelling up and building back better, we are talking about the entire country—north and south, east and west, urban and rural.
Rural areas do not just make up most of this country by land area. They are integral to the commerce and culture of every nation and region of the UK. As my hon. Friend John Howell noted, our rural communities are diverse. In England alone, more than 9 million people live in rural towns, villages and hamlets, each a unique settlement with its own distinctive history and identity. These communities produce much of the food we eat and preserve the green spaces that we love to visit and that our wildlife relies on.
The Government are proud of the contribution that rural businesses make to our national economy, and we are determined to help rural areas harness their full economic potential. Rural areas typically have higher rates of employment and lower rates of unemployment and economic inactivity. The historic backbone of economies in rural areas has been British farms and their world-class produce, which is why the Government are committed to protecting farm budgets for the duration of this Parliament. In the years ahead, we will take advantage of leaving the common agricultural policy to transition away from area-based direct payments, which do little for the environment or productivity, and towards a new system based on giving public money for public goods, which will help our farmers to become more productive, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable.
Fishing, too, is crucial. It is the mainstay of many UK coastal communities, providing jobs and valued produce here at home and sending lucrative exports abroad. The Government have committed to maintaining funding for fisheries across the UK nations throughout this Parliament. My hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory asked me about apprenticeships for fishing. I can tell her that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education is working with employers to develop a range of courses for that.
I have already made the point about rural communities generating crucial economic capital. They are also home to much of our natural capital, which has not been mentioned so much in this debate. We want more private investment in that natural capital, which will in turn create jobs and support our world-leading target of reaching net zero by 2050.
Stronger transport links were raised by many Members. They play a particularly critical role in rural economies. We are spending more than £27 billion on strategic and local roads through the road investment strategy 2 from 2020 to 2025—the largest ever investment in England’s strategic roads. That includes the £2 billion committed at Budget to building the A303 tunnel, which I know several Members are interested in. We also confirmed at Budget the development funding for the A39 Camelford bypass, as part of the major roads programme.
Transport links must be levelled up across the country. That is why, earlier this year, the Prime Minister announced a £5 billion investment to transform bus and cycle links in every region of England, supported by the ambitious cycling and walking plan that was published in July and, as my hon. Friend Simon Baynes mentioned, by a national bus strategy, which will be delivered in the coming months. In the Budget, the Chancellor also announced a £2.5 billion potholes fund over this Parliament, to address the local road maintenance backlog.
We heard from many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and for Angus (Dave Doogan), and my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), about further education and degree-level apprenticeships. Higher and degree-level apprenticeships form an important part of our skills and education system, providing people of all backgrounds with a choice of high-value vocational training, alongside traditional academic routes. As part of our plan for jobs, the Government have introduced new payments to employers in England from
Many hon. Members mentioned digital infrastructure, including my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for Truro and Falmouth, and the hon. Member for South Antrim. It is the information superhighway that we need to support our rural economy. As my hon. Friend for Somerton and Frome said, it is not just about farming and infrastructure. We have announced landmark investments in digital connectivity, including £5 billion to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband in the hardest-to-reach areas, which I know will please my hon. Friend Fay Jones, and £500 million to extend 4G coverage to 95% of the UK’s landmass. As Tim Farron mentioned, that will keep people and businesses connected.
As we fulfil our manifesto commitment to boost productivity and level up the whole country, we will not forget that rural communities have their own needs and challenges, some the same as, and some different from, those faced by people in large towns and cities. For instance, second-home owners can leave a shortage of affordable housing, particularly for local workers. For that reason, nearly 165,000 affordable homes have been provided in rural local authorities since 2010, but the Government recognise the need for more. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, that is the only way that we will keep young people in our communities, which is why at least 10% of the new affordable homes programme will be delivered in rural locations, and why those homes will be exempt from the new right to shared ownership. Restrictions on shared-ownership homes are in place in rural protection areas to keep affordable home ownership options available.
The national planning policy framework allows entry-level exception sites in rural areas to be used in perpetuity for affordable housing where sites would not normally be used for housing. In the Government’s recent consultation on changes to the current planning system, we set out our intention to protect the important role that rural exception sites play in delivering affordable homes—I have seen for myself the difference that that is making. Local planning authorities are encouraged to support opportunities to bring forward such sites, but we recognise that that delivery mechanism is underused and we intent to update the planning guidance in due course.
Our rural economy was once dominated by the trade in natural commodities, but in 2020, it is much more than just farms, fish and fir trees. It is about the businesses and entrepreneurship that my hon. Friend Richard Drax quite rightly mentioned in his speech. Today, our rural communities are often as vibrant and economically diverse as our cities. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall asked if the countryside was ready for a new post-covid economy. I believe so, and the Government will do all they can to support that. The Government are committed to helping those communities to thrive over the long term, as we level up every region and nation of the UK, boosting productivity and spreading opportunity.