We now come to the next debate. Hon. Members who were not present for the previous debate will be unaware that the Chairman of Ways and Means has granted me the power to impose time limits on speeches. I notice that a significant number of hon. Members are present for the debate. Seven have already indicated to Mr Speaker that they want to participate, and others who have not written in may well want to contribute. I will therefore say now that I am imposing a six-minute time limit on all speeches, other than of course the speech of the hon. Member introducing the debate. That will carry with it a penalty of one minute per intervention for the first two interventions. Hon. Members can do the maths and work out how many of their colleagues are likely to be able to participate in the debate on that basis. It will be the intention of my successor in the Chair to start to call those on the Front Benches for the winding-up speeches not less than 25 minutes before the end of the debate.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I will keep my comments as brief as I can, given what you have told us. I begin the debate by thanking a number of organisations for making contributions that have been very useful not only to me, but to other colleagues—in particular, the National Farmers Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Countryside Alliance, the Dispensing Doctors Association and BT.
We have been told that the election in 2015 will be fought largely on urban ground, but I hope that in these opening remarks, I can persuade my hon. Friend the Minister that although we might be small in number in rural areas, we are certainly large in political significance. These days, 20% of the population either live or work in rural areas.
As good Conservatives and, I suspect, good Liberal Democrats, we are always pretty sceptical about the concept of an urban-rural divide, just as we are sceptical about a north-south divide. As good Conservatives, good Liberal Democrats and, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), would no doubt claim, good socialists, we embrace cultures and traditions—[Interruption.] He is objecting to being described as a socialist, I suspect. Even some of the more quirky and weird traditions, we welcome and embrace and, hopefully, champion.
However, although rural isolation is a dream or an aspiration for some people, it is unquestionably a challenge or even a nightmare for others. I say that because the challenges facing rural communities are often the same as those facing urban communities; they just emerge in a slightly different way. Those challenges include deprivation, poverty—particularly fuel poverty, which I know other hon. Members want to touch on—the perhaps more limited choice of educational opportunities in rural areas and the cost of fuel, particularly as that applies to medical needs or basic provisions. Let us not forget that rural fuel can be up to 5p a litre more expensive than the fuel that people can buy in urban areas.
There are also challenges in relation to the availability of rural transport and affordable housing, particularly in national parks. I know that one or two hon. Members are lucky enough to live in or near very beautiful parts of Britain. Not surprisingly, the house prices in those areas are much higher and therefore much further out of reach of those who perhaps were born and bred there and want to remain there for the purposes of their job or family life. The availability of health care is often much more of a challenge in rural areas than it is in urban areas, and the fear of crime—not necessarily crime itself, because the incidence of crime is lower in rural areas—is higher, particularly among elderly people. The last challenge is access to financial services. That is a given if people are lucky enough to live in an urban area, but can become and is increasingly becoming a nightmare for people in rural areas. About 300,000 people in rural England do not even have access to a bank account.
There are also challenges for businesses in rural areas. We can take my own constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire as an example. Someone might want to make relatively minor modifications—minute improvements—to the infrastructure of their factory or depot. They might want to engage in some rather limited activity. However, if they are in a national park or another sensitive area, they have to prepare themselves for a long and expensive fight with the local planning authority, which in so many cases has as its default setting “You must be joking,” rather than “How can we help your business?”
In some places, if people want to compete with their European colleagues by means of an internet-based business, they can forget it. The same is true in relation to mobile phone coverage. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) mentioning that mobile phone coverage was better in Uzbekistan than in Cumbria. That is ludicrous. As I think I have mentioned in this Chamber before, I cannot talk to hon. Friends in adjacent constituencies because I cannot get mobile phone reception in west Wales. That is a ludicrous disadvantage, and we suffer because of it.
If a company is, as many companies are, a haulage-based business located in rural areas, often around the ports on the coast of England and Wales, what can it do about its overheads when its only two overheads are fuel and people? When it comes to its lorry fleet, what can it do to address the costs that current fuel prices are imposing on those important businesses?
This is an opportunity for the Minister to lay out the Government’s achievements—that will probably include the achievements of Departments other than his own, because this debate is deliberately wide ranging—and to ask himself, as we have asked ourselves, this question. Is rural patience being stretched at the moment? The Government have done well on broadband, food labelling, red tape in farming, and planning, certainly in England—not as yet in Wales, regrettably, thanks to the Welsh Government. I think that, in time, the Government will be seen to have done well on health and health provision, too. However, the rural jury is still out on affordable housing, post offices, mobile phone coverage, fear of crime and, more recently, on VAT on caravans, fuel poverty and transport costs as well. It is therefore not necessarily a rosy picture of Government enthusiasts in rural areas, but they are there for the picking.
My hon. Friend is giving us a most interesting tour d’horizon of problems in rural areas. None the less, he has not touched for the moment on one important area—local government finance. Does he agree that the Government’s forthcoming review of local government finance across England should enable us to change the situation—to correct the anomaly whereby the Government spend about £200 per head in rural areas and about £400 per head in urban areas? Surely that is wrong and the forthcoming review of local government finance and, incidentally, of health finance as well should correct that anomaly.
My hon. Friend is spot-on. He also highlights some of the difficulties that arise from the definitions of rural and urban. In the past, not just the previous Government but probably the Government before them struggled to get a proper definition that enables that anomaly to be ironed out.
We probably all agree, on both sides of the House, that rural people are entrepreneurial, innovative and, above all, patient. They feel that they perform well despite government, rather than because of it. That does not necessarily apply specifically to the current Government. It is just a general feeling on the part of rural people that they have the skill and determination to overcome the obstacles that sometimes the Government inadvertently put in their path.
Rural people are unquestionably the key to economic regeneration and job creation in rural areas. There is the statistic, which some people might say is trite, that if every small or medium-sized enterprise in Wales hired just one person, there would be no unemployment in Wales at all. That is the raw statistic. Of course it is simplistic, but we are not talking about anything that is out of the reach of most people who have aspirations for their business. Such people epitomise the strivers politicians from all quarters always talk about. We refer to them as if they were our friends. They are the people who are there to bring the country out of recession, and that, indeed, is what they are doing. Sometimes, however, I question whether we quite recognise the additional challenges people in rural areas face in running their businesses.
As the shadow Minister will recall, we used to accuse Labour of doing things to, rather than for, the countryside. That is the nub of my opening remarks, from which my questions arise. I hope the Minister will be able to describe to us how he will be part of a re-energisation of rural communities. I hope he will remind rural communities not only of the fact that the Government are on their side, but of how they are on their side.
I hope the Minister will also be able to tell us about the Government’s plans for broadband and mobile phone coverage in not only rural areas, but isolated rural areas. If the Government’s plans for 95% of the country go ahead, as I hope they will, the few people left in the furthest retreats of rural Britain—the other 5%—will, through a fairly obvious logic, be put at a further disadvantage.
My hon. Friend makes a fabulous point for rural communities. I view broadband as the fourth utility nowadays. Does he agree that companies will start to go back to urban areas unless we get broadband right? That would further exacerbate the difficulties rural communities face in surviving.
My hon. Friend makes a good point well. The struggle to compete with their urban neighbours has already put that question in the minds of some companies and organisations. What a tragedy it would be if the things my hon. Friend talks about happened. That would go against every one of the principles of not only the Conservative party, but the Liberal Democrats and Labour, too. We should not go down that road.
I hope the Minister will set out the real prospects for fuel costs. I hope he will not say what various people who send us briefs from time to time tell us—that fuel would have been more expensive under Labour. That argument does not work in west Wales or, I suspect, anywhere else. We will start convincing fuel and transport-dependent rural businesses that we take their plight seriously only when the price of fuel comes down. I am not going to say to businesses in my area, “I don’t know what you’re complaining about. It would have been much worse had there been another Government.” Let us not deploy that argument; it does not work, it is disingenuous and it is disrespectful to companies worried about whether they can get through to the end of next month, let alone the end of next year.
I hope the Minister can persuade us that young families will be able to afford to buy a house in the area they wish to work in, the area they were born and brought up in or the area they want to stay in and continue to make a contribution in. Perhaps he can tell us how they will be able to do that.
Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to, and comment on, the opportunities rural communities have under the community right to build scheme to become developers? Small developments can help the affordable housing situation in villages, but many small villages have been prevented from undertaking any development in the past.
That proposal is welcome. In some areas, of course, it has been subject to bigger planning obstacles than predicted, notwithstanding the improvements that have been made to the planning process, certainly in England. If my community is anything to go by—this is particularly true in the national park, although I do not want to get personal about the national park—even small developers have to pay a significant sum, almost by way of a hidden tax, to undertake such development, and that is a disincentive. I fully recognise my hon. Friend’s positive message, but there are some negative ones, too, and we need to address them if such proposals are to be universally fair.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a fundamental need to distinguish between protecting and preserving the countryside, which are two different things? To protect the countryside, we need development and change so that communities can expand and look after their schools and shops.
I wish I had thought of that myself because it is such an important point. We are sometimes distracted by the preservation argument, but the countryside is actually all about people, jobs and communities, and the landscape, which we are sometimes fixated by, is only a consequence of the tender stewardship of generations of dedicated enthusiasts of the rural big society. My hon. Friend is right to point out that unless we have the conditions and facilities to encourage that, everything else we, the nation and our foreign visitors admire about the countryside will be compromised.
My next question for the Minister—it is not a sarcastic question—is which bits of the recent Budget does he believe give hope and encouragement to businesses in rural areas? Which bits remind them that they should welcome life under the coalition and let them see some sort of vision arising out of the Chancellor’s recent comments?
In drawing to a conclusion, I want to refer to the views of voters and constituents in west Wales. I do not know whether I am unique in this respect, but voters in my area do not really give a damn where the Prime Minister went to school. They have no interest whatever in who he might or might not have to dinner, and they certainly have no interest in what might or might not be on his tax return. All they want to know is whether the Government are bold, trustworthy and competent, and whether the Government’s values are the same as theirs. Those are the things I get asked about—not all the other fluff and nonsense that floats around this place from time to time—and they probably reflect the views of rural, and indeed urban, people across Britain.
In my short opening remarks, I hope I have been able to provide an absolutely open goal for the Minister to aim at. I hope he can convince us that we can continue proudly to defend the reputation of the Conservative party as the party of the countryside.
Order. The reason for the slight pause is that I was looking to see who had risen to speak. [Interruption.] Okay, please sit down. Ten Members are seeking to speak, and others may seek to intervene. That being so, and despite the fact that I announced at the start of the debate that I wanted to curtail speeches to six minutes, I will actually curtail them to five minutes. That will allow the Front-Bench spokesmen to start at about 12.5 pm. It will also allow a little injury time for interventions. For those who came in slightly late, let me explain that the system is exactly as it is in the main Chamber. For each of the first two interventions, there will be an extra minute, so a five-minute speech could turn into a seven-minute speech. We do not have the same advanced technology as we do in the main Chamber, so I will indicate when Members have one minute left to go by ringing the bell in front of me.
I will be brief, as you requested, Sir Roger.
This is a very worthy and great subject for debate, but we have not debated it often enough. Had there been time, I would have talked about a large number of issues, including fuel, taxation, transportation, post offices, broadband and much else. I will, however, confine myself to two issues that are particularly important to my constituents and, indeed, to constituents elsewhere in north Wales: health care and unfit housing.
I am glad the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has raised this issue, and I warmly congratulate him on securing the debate. He has a fine record in Wales and, indeed, throughout the UK, on standing up for rural communities, and he is to be praised for that.
As I said, a couple of issues are particularly important in my constituency. The first is health care, which is very problematic. Some hon. Members might wonder why I, as a Welsh Member, am raising the issue of health, given that it is devolved. During the recent debate on health, however, sufficient attention was not given to the fact that many people in north Wales and mid-Wales access treatment on the other side of the border. I have raised the issue with Health Ministers over the past few weeks, but I am unsatisfied by their response. I have also raised it with the Secretary of State for Wales, who had a better understanding of it, but I still do not think it has been tackled properly.
The issue of health impacts on people in rural areas. Most of north Wales, and particularly north-west Wales, is rural. People from north-west Wales travel two and, sometimes, three hours just to access specialist treatment. Most of us will have had briefings on the debate, with references, for example, to an ambulance response time of just a few minutes. The reality in the area I represent is travel of two or three hours. I had a response from the Minister suggesting that we need to think of the issue as a problem of people registering with GPs just the other side of the border; but it is a great deal more than that. I ask him to bear that in mind. He will have a great many points to respond to, but I wish that the Government would take the matter more seriously. I see that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) will speak for the Opposition, and I wish that the Welsh Labour Government would take the matter more seriously too.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate. Before leaving the question of health, does the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) agree with me on the importance of dispensing doctors practices in rural communities? They are particularly important for getting treatments to elderly and infirm people in rural communities such as the towns and villages south of Scunthorpe, which are served by the Riverside practice in my area. That is an important part of health care provision in rural areas.
Briefly, there are GP surgeries in my area that dispense, and that has been a vital part of the service to the population. It does not take two or three hours to travel to a pharmacy, but it is highly inconvenient, especially when bus services are so patchy.
I want to refer to housing, and to mention that we have many unfit houses in Wales. However, the repair and renovation of housing is subject to VAT, and I think that that is wrong. VAT is charged on repair and renovation, but it is not charged in the same way on new build. Plaid Cymru has repeatedly called for a tax cut. It might surprise some hon. Members to hear that a usually left-of-centre party has called for tax cuts, but that is a particularly useful one. It is a matter of equality between people, such as a young couple renovating their first house—adding a kitchen and bathroom to the back of a pre-1919 terraced house, and being charged VAT for it—and someone retiring, say, from the City to the home counties, and building a retirement home, free of VAT.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some particularly unfortunate small print in the Budget was about VAT on the restoration of historic churches and houses? Because of that, it will be necessary to do away with the restoration of the church at Castle Combe in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point. I had a hugely confusing conversation with the Welsh Government, some time ago, about historic and listed buildings being free of VAT. The conclusion, after 20 minutes of discussion, was agreement that they were free of VAT—but only for new build. Given that we were talking about historic and listed properties, the idea of building them anew seemed somewhat peculiar to me, to say the least.
I will conclude by saying that we have social housing in Wales, as elsewhere. Social housing is extremely valuable, but often it is of the wrong type, and in the wrong place. The ability of social landlords and local authorities to let houses in rural areas has been severely curtailed. In many villages in my area, social housing has been sold. It is not available. The proposed changes in housing benefit are unlikely to help. More people under 35 will be looking for houses in multiple occupation, of which we have few in rural Wales.
Order. Before we proceed, I now have a fairly definitive list of hon. Members who have applied to speak. Although it is exceptional to do so, it may help if I give the names of those people, so that hon. Members not on the list may consider whether to intervene. From the Government Benches, in the order of application, speakers will be Mr Rory Stewart, Caroline Nokes, Sheryll Murray, Glyn Davies, Roger Williams and Neil Parish; and now that Mr Hywel Williams has spoken the only name I have from the Opposition Benches is Mr Ian Paisley. Any hon. Member not on the list has not so far indicated a wish to speak.
I join everyone in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this important debate. The enormous number of people here is testimony to the importance of the subject.
Speaking on behalf of Cumbria, I want to say that we need to recognise, when we talk about Government support for rural areas, that there is already significant Government support for them. We cannot start the debate pretending that rural areas are somehow entirely neglected or forgotten. It is correct that there should be Government support for them, but we should recognise that in per capita terms—and of course, it is driven by our need—Government support can be considerable. In our part of Cumbria, for example, we run two district hospitals for a population of 300,000 people. We have the smallest high school and the smallest sixth form in England. That means that the per capita costs of running those services are high. That is a form of cross-subsidy from other parts of the country.
Therefore, we should not over-push the argument. We should not stand up again and again in the House of Commons and present ourselves as victims. To do so is dangerous. If we present ourselves as victims and demand more and more transfer payments, and start to take on board the arguments about productivity and the connection between rural areas and the City of London, for example, we will create unpleasant tensions. We will end up with people in London saying “Why should we subsidise rural areas?” We do not want to get into that conversation. We will, in short, find that we are having the same conversation that we are now having with Scotland, which has become poisoned by the question of how much money is moving north of the border, and how much is moving south.
Nor should rural areas try to imitate cities. One of the most dangerous things that we have been doing in Cumbria has been to pursue industrialisation policies that are entirely unsuitable for rural areas. Of course it is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) said, that we need to be sure that the economy flourishes in rural areas. However, that does not mean going into an area such as Penrith and The Border, where currently we have close to full employment, and building businesses for which we have no workers, shipping them in from other parts of the country, then saying we have a housing shortage and building another 400 houses, and then saying we do not have jobs for the people in those 400 houses, and building more businesses. That may be convenient for district councils that could generate money from that kind of operation, but it is not what is demanded by our area, our population, or our economy.
Instead, we need to look at the country as a single complementary unit—complementary in the sense that city and rural needs are different, but also in the sense that we are one community, one country and one nation. We are not about transfer payments. We cannot allow people in London to see themselves as some city state that is paying for the rest of the country. We must understand that our contribution is valuable.
I suspect that many people in London would, however, be surprised to find out that in rural areas such as mine people cannot get a school bus. I am thinking specifically of the 7.55 am bus from Sutton in Ashfield to Tibshelf, which has been removed, throwing mums’ lives into chaos. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that getting a school bus is not just desirable but essential?
Absolutely, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point.
With the caveat that we do not want to present ourselves as victims, it is essential to demand the basic services that other people in the country take for granted. Those could be buses, or access to hospitals or schools.
I am so pleased that my hon. Friend is happy with the funding of education in Cumbria. As a Leicestershire MP I am not happy with the funding settlement for Leicestershire, which is the lowest-funded county, per capita, in the whole of Great Britain. We are in the bizarre situation, with no indication of any movement by the Government to repair the damage, in which the education of every pupil in the city of Leicester is valued at a stunning £800 a year more than that of every pupil in Leicestershire. That is untenable and cannot be perpetuated. To say that is not to plead poverty: there is a clear disparity between the education funding for rural areas such as Leicestershire and that for cities.
I am certainly not going to stand up in the House of Commons and say that I am happy with Government funding for education in Cumbria. There is not a single person in this Chamber who would say that they feel happy with the funding for their local area, but we need to strike a balance that is sustainable for the nation. There are two things that we need to do. Instead of focusing on money we should consider what the Government can provide—above all, I am thinking about infrastructure and getting the broadband in the ground and sufficient mobile coverage—and we must understand that Government could provide a lot more for rural areas if they gave space to rural communities to fill in the gaps. In our case, for example, the first responders enormously help the ambulance service, but they are not allowed to deal with children, which takes out a whole chunk of the population who could be served by volunteers within our communities.
In relation to our air ambulance service, the Government could do an enormous amount by exempting VAT on fuel. However, in relation to broadband, which is the most exciting area of all, it is about assigning responsibility. It is about the Government saying to communities, “This is what you ought to do and this is what the Government will not do.”
We should see rural communities not as victims but as the vanguard of Britain; as miraculous places that produce things that other parts of the country do not. In Cumbria, we have a magic alchemy that turns wet grass into productive protein, which we can sell around the world. If we get the broadband right, small and medium-sized enterprises from rural communities can challenge the rest of the world, but that involves education, focus and confidence. Importantly, we can provide an image for the 21st century on how to live in rural areas, and we no longer need to present ourselves as victims.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate. We should celebrate the fact that this Parliament has been more rural centric in its attitude than previous Parliaments for a long period of time. Parliament is now starting to speak up for the countryside, which possibly reflects the fact that we are lobbied strongly by our countryside constituents who want a fair crack of the whip and that is something that should be encouraged. There needs to be a voice rising from the countryside for a vibrant, healthy agricultural industry, from the farmer, to the processer, to the consumer. That is what our countryside should be all about. We need policies that sustain our agricultural industry so that our living, breathing rural communities continue to contribute the most important thing—sustainable food produce.
My own constituency in Northern Ireland has an agricultural economy that employs some 20% of our workers. As the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) mentioned, we must move away from the public sector and towards a more balanced economy. That is happening; agricultural productivity is growing, which is positive, but it can only be sustained if this place starts to put in place some very strong policies to keep young people on our land; to encourage young farmers to stay in the industry; and to ensure that the key area increases in pillar two of the common agricultural policy should not be at the direct expense of pillar one, which supports agricultural productivity. Supporting agricultural productivity is the most important thing that can be achieved by EU and CAP policies. What the Westminster Government should be doing is putting money where it matters most to assist the farmer to produce sustainable, good, traceable food which is what our consumers want and need. That is the critical issue that out rural policies should be driving at.
However, this debate is more about rural communities and remoteness. I represent a constituency that also includes the inhabited island of Rathlin.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on bringing this matter forward. It is a really good issue and we are all supportive of it. My hon. Friend mentions the island of Rathlin and has also talked about agriculture. Sometimes a poor relation in rural communities is the fishing industry. Does he think that the fishing industry needs help from Government, and that the fishing villages initiative is one way of getting money to those communities? It is important to create jobs at this critical time.
Absolutely. When we talk about agricultural productivity, we must not forget our fishermen who produce a harvest from our seas and who must form part of this important debate.
Nothing could be more remote than living on an island, off an island, off an island, and that is what happens in my constituency. Those people on Rathlin know what remoteness really means. They have to travel by boat to get to their mainland in Ulster. It is critical that we address the needs of that community. When rural post offices close or a bank closes in Ballycastle or Bushmills, it has an even bigger impact on a place such as Rathlin. Whenever fuel costs go up, the knock-on effect in Rathlin is twice as big as it is on the mainland. Whenever we speak about rural communities, we must understand that there is level of remoteness that is doubly remote and we must take that on board whenever we address this issue.
Some hon. Members have mentioned broadband. Broadband does not operate appropriately in areas such as Rathlin island. A GP comes over once a week by boat to see his patients, and when he finds that the computer does not work, he cannot order the prescription from the mainland of Ulster. What happens next? Those people who are already remote feel the real sudden impact of living on that island, off an island, off an island. We must ensure that the issue of broadband is properly addressed for our rural communities because it makes a difference. It allows young entrepreneurs who live in remote areas to create businesses. It also enables our tourism industry to flourish and our community to be driven forward.
I leave one thought with the Minister: rural proofing should be a golden thread running through all policy. Whatever Department is involved, it must consider how a policy affects the people in the rural United Kingdom, because they matter most.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this important debate. I will keep my remarks brief. In the spirit of alliteration that we saw throughout the Easter recess, I will focus on the two p’s—planning and pubs. I am a little surprised that so far we have not had any comment on rural pubs. In my constituency, village pubs close frequently. In rural areas across the country, they close at a rate of six per week. In my constituency, we have seen the phenomenon of pub companies, where a leaseholder will have several pubs, one of which might be very successful, but most of which are failing. The failing pubs are dragging down the popular, well liked village pubs. This is a classic case for the community right-to-buy policy, whereby a village can step in and rescue a critical and important asset that provides not just a place to meet and have a drink, but a number of other services such as post office facilities and cash points. Without such services, that community might be very isolated.
I spent an entire day last summer recess with a pub company, visiting various pubs across the Romsey and Southampton North constituency. It may sound like a pub crawl, but I can assure hon. Members that it was not. Representing a constituency that has both rural and urban areas, I was struck by the stark differences between the two. I saw how easy and possible it was to run a successful and thriving pub in a suburb or in a city compared with running a pub in a village, where there is a much smaller customer base. I welcome the community right to buy policy, and I hope that we will see some progress in helping to preserve pubs in my constituency in the future.
Planning, the second area on which I wish to focus, is always something of a political hot potato. What I have seen in my constituency over the past six weeks or so, certainly as the local authority produces its core strategy, is the emphasis placed by local people on having a greater say in planning and more control. Test Valley borough council was at the vanguard—this will mean nothing to most people—of policy ESN 05. The clue is in the 05. Some years ago, the council introduced a policy that allowed local communities to propose small affordable housing developments that were specifically designed for local people. People had to prove that they had a coherent link to a village, to gain access to one of the affordable homes being built there. It is an excellent policy and I am pleased to see that, through the Localism Act 2011, it is being widened and used across the country. But of course, it produces something of a conflict, because ties to local areas generally have to be very current and we have a lot of people living in our towns and on the edges of the city of Southampton who may have been forced out of the villages years ago and now have great aspirations to move back to them. There also tends to be a little bit of conflict between villages, as people who live in a nearby village will try to claim that they have a good link to a village that has introduced an affordable scheme, so there is—as ever—an enormous balancing act to be done.
The key issue that I want to highlight is that of productive land. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) talk about the importance of productive agricultural land, because that issue is certainly a huge concern around the edges of Romsey, where significant farm land could be brought into agricultural use very easily and would be very productive. But of course, landowners tend to look towards the opportunities that they can gain by providing their land for future housing development.
My big plea to the Government is to ask them to consider changing the rules to make the green belt easier to establish. Currently, it is very tricky to establish what is green belt. Many people in rural Hampshire actually believe that the county has many areas of green-belt land; it does not, and there is only one small corner of green-belt land in the county. Much of the countryside in Hampshire is just deemed to be ordinary countryside, without any special designation whatsoever.
I have a final plea to the Minister. Will he please give greater consideration to the beautiful River Test, from which an enormous amount of water is abstracted, to ensure that we have enough water for the new houses that are being built?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this important and timely debate today. The concerns of rural communities and how the Government can best support those communities is a very broad issue. Many of my hon. Friends have already mentioned the importance of rural communities in their constituencies, and I just want to focus on a few issues that affect my constituents in South East Cornwall.
Rural transport is very important. The Commission for Rural Communities noted that rural residents placed public transport as a top priority for improving their quality of life. In my constituency, four out of five electors use their own motorised transport. Around 80% of households in South East Cornwall own a car or van, with about half of those households owning more than one vehicle. In South East Cornwall, a car is not a luxury; it is a necessity.
There is no doubt that changes in taxation and legislation relating to the car hit the person living in a rural area much harder than people in a city, who frequently have transport choice. Also, having a 4x4 vehicle in a rural area is often a necessity, particularly for farmers, but it is penalised under green taxation. We accept that the Chancellor has changed Labour’s plans to introduce heavy fuel duty, which were in its forward budget; indeed, the cost of a litre of fuel would have increased by an additional 5p under Labour. The Chancellor has delayed the extra 3p per litre increase.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in places such as her constituency or mine, we have a real problem with fuel price competition? Just a few miles—perhaps four or five miles—down the road from my constituency, fuel can be several pence a litre cheaper than in my constituency. I have raised that issue with large retailers, including supermarkets, but they have said that they look at a small geographical area to set the price. Does that policy not mean that we have a problem in our fuel market for rural residents?
We certainly do. I happened to travel to the midlands at the weekend and the price of fuel in South East Cornwall was 10p per litre higher than in Bristol. I wrote a letter to the Chancellor last night, outlining my constituents’ worries about fuel prices. I said that I appreciated the terrible economic situation that the previous Government had left us in, and I fully understand that there is little room for manoeuvre. However, the fuel situation is getting worse and causing many of my constituents great hardship.
Has the hon. Lady reflected on the position of a lot of the smaller, independent, family-run filling stations? We are losing those stations by the hundreds every year, and in the process we often lose other valuable village facilities, such as a shop or post office, which are often incorporated in the business.
The hon. Gentleman will accept that that is not a trend that has just begun under this Government. It started in the early 2000s, when we saw petrol stations in rural areas haemorrhage, which demonstrates that there was very little support for our rural communities under the last Government.
Public transport is weak in South East Cornwall; there are very few buses and there is little access to the railways. It is clear that the majority of the rural population drive, but it is also important to have some kind of alternative. Everyone has periods when they cannot drive, whether because of age, medical reasons or the car has broken down. Unlike in towns, where the local GP’s surgery can be a few hundred metres from someone’s home, in the country it can be a few miles away.
Similarly, in rural areas, train stations are often a great distance away from people’s homes and transport is needed to get to the station. So railways cannot be seen as a solution in their own right. However, we need to encourage people on to the railways and other forms of public transport. The train is often the best method for commuting to the cities, thus avoiding the congested roads that buses also travel along.
The March 2012 report, “Reforming our Railways: Putting the Customer First” said that the Government are allocating funding for additional capacity for people to commute to cities at peak times, including faster journey times, more frequent trains, more through-journeys, more reliable journeys and more cost-efficient journeys. I hope that the South West Trains franchise will make some of those improvements.
The lack of public transport and the increase in the price of fuel are major concerns for people in South East Cornwall. Wages in Cornwall are very low in relation to both the south-west as a whole and the rest of the country. In 2001, the average income per household in South East Cornwall was around £23,000. Since then, the figure has not changed significantly. Any increase in fuel prices is disproportionately felt in my constituency, as are increases to many other household bills. In my constituency, the average house price is around 10 times the average household income.
Transport is important in supporting our rural communities, and it has a knock-on effect on people’s standards of living. I am glad that the Government are committed to helping our rural poor. There are initiatives such as the Cott Yard community resource centre in St Neot in my constituency, where £330,000 was provided under the community and social enterprise, or CASE, initiative, which is a funding stream in Cornwall that was part of the rural development plan for England. That project is one such example of the Government helping rural areas. It provides rural workshops, a post office and a library run by volunteers, to deliver services in rural areas. Another such example is the fisheries local action group, or FLAG, initiative, whereby substantial funding is provided under the European fisheries fund. It has been enlarged to support coastal communities as a whole, extending out to one mile from the coast. I am really pleased that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has introduced those initiatives, and long may they continue and be built on.
We all accept the economic legacy left by Labour’s maxing out of our credit cards, and I hope that the two examples that I have just given will be built on, so that we have faster positive changes to help our constituents living in rural areas.
Thank you, Sir Roger, for calling me to speak in this debate. Yet again, it is a pleasure to serve under your respected control.
I want to take a Welsh perspective and in particular a rural Welsh perspective. Rural Wales is where I have always lived and where I always want to live, and above all else I try to represent its interests in the House of Commons. That is why I am really pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has secured the debate.
I have been involved in rural development for—frighteningly—about half a century, beginning with the local young farmers club. One of my proudest achievements was winning the bardic chair at a YFC eisteddfod and the speech that I made was on the future of rural Wales. The essay that I wrote advocated building a new town of 70,000 in the village of Caersws, smack in the middle of my current constituency. I would not continue to advocate that as a policy, but the underlying principle is much the same—a recognition that the traditional land-based industries in rural areas could no longer sustain a social economy. They did not employ enough people, and other forms of industry had to come in, which during the time that I have been involved have principally been manufacturing and tourism, although of course there are many others, which depend a lot on the development of broadband and on not falling behind urban areas, a point that other Members have made.
Many important issues are involved in developing these different forms of employment, but I want to talk about just two of them today, one of which, planning policy, has already been raised. We need an efficient planning services policy, and we must have attitudinal change. I was the chairman of a planning authority for about seven years, and at that time the purpose was to encourage development and do what we could to make it acceptable. Today, the position seems to be almost one of “How can we stop development?” It seems to be about making developers go through a whole series of hoops that cost them a fortune—making the process as difficult as possible. In my constituency, good projects that would provide employment are sitting in the planning department’s in-trays, and at a time when we are suffering recession and high unemployment across Britain such absolutely outrageous behaviour desperately needs to be changed.
[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]
My other point is relevant to those of us who live near the England-Wales border. If we are to have development in rural areas, roads and efficient transport links are important. Between England and Wales there are at least three or four places where the advent of devolution has meant that projects have not gone forward. On the England-Wales border between Shrewsbury and Welshpool in my constituency a bad stretch of road is hugely inhibiting development, but because it is cross-border and committing money to its improvement is not a priority for the west midlands highways authority, the work cannot go ahead. We have to focus on Welsh and English Governments working together to overcome problems that inhibit development.
Rural Wales is a beautiful place, and that beauty is a great economic driver. To take full advantage of it, however, we must recognise its value and consider a wide definition of tourism rather than just the traditional ones. Where I live, in the village of Bettws there is a hatchery—a game shooting development—which employs 100 people. It is amazing. The income that shooting brings into Montgomeryshire and rural Wales is absolutely enormous—many tens of millions of pounds.
Last week I visited a new fish pass in Felindre near Llanidloes, which people might say is a small development; it cost £152,000, and was built by the Environment Agency, but it has hugely increased the size of the salmon spawning area in Wales. The Welsh salmon fishing industry contributes £150 million to the economy. The fish pass is a small development. It fits in. It is beautiful to look at and has a massive economic benefit. It is not just public authorities that are doing such things. On the same day, I called in on an osprey observation point close by. Nora and Monty, two ospreys that arrived many years ago, came back last week. I was the 350th person to visit that day, and 700 people had visited during the previous weekend. When the ospreys nest and have chicks, visitor numbers will increase. The development is a huge economic driver because of all the people coming in. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) nodding in agreement. On the same day, I travelled a little further into his constituency, stopping at Bwlch Nant yr Arian to watch the red kites feeding, as do hundreds of other people. Forty years ago I spent half a day in his constituency, at Pontrhydfendigaid and Cwmystwyth—this could be testing the Hansard people; I might have to check the report later. I sat there for half a day to watch one red kite half a mile away—
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate. I have fond memories of his constituency. Back in 1999, I stood in the first Assembly elections and managed to come fifth. The good people of his constituency were not ready for me then, but I enjoyed the experience and the fantastic countryside there.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire has made the topic of this conversation deliberately wide, and Members have taken advantage of that. I want to mention one or two issues that perhaps have not been covered. First, I congratulate the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on its determined efforts to eradicate bovine TB in this country, which I know are appreciated by the farming people here. They do not bear comparison, however, with what is happening in Wales, where the farmers are almost despairing about what can be done to alleviate their problems.
I want to talk a little about financial services in rural areas. I have recently had the honour of introducing two debates in this Chamber on the closure of banks in rural areas, which is an important issue because rural communities want to attract not only tourists but businesses, and without banking facilities that can be difficult. I think that not just in rural areas or in Wales but more widely, the relationship between small businesses and banks has never been at a lower ebb.
Will my hon. Friend also reflect on the banks’ usual retort when asked about the diminishing number of branches, which is that online banking is a growing occurrence? In some parts of our constituencies that is not a reality because we have no broadband at all, let alone the superfast type.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and it is not only the absence of broadband. Sometimes, older people do not have the facility or the aptitude to take advantage of online banking, so we still need the face-to-face presence and advice that bank customers greatly value.
The issue also goes a little further. Today, I was sad to see that the number of complaints about banks made by small businesses to the Financial Ombudsman Service has gone up by 10% in the past year. It is only very small businesses that can use the ombudsman facility, so we have a number of such businesses being badly treated by their banks. For instance, not only are overdraft or loan requests turned down but the terms and conditions of such facilities are changed midway through. The Government once again need to sit down with the banks and say, “If we are all in this together and we are going for growth, you have to play your part.”
I think that the Government sometimes do not really understand the structure of business in this country. Whenever they trumpet support for business they talk about reducing corporation tax. That is much valued, but out of the nearly 4 million businesses in England only one third are incorporated, so the other two thirds will not benefit from the reduction in the tax, and the £100,000 reduction in capital allowances will particularly weigh on businesses that pay their tax through self-assessment—sole traders and partners.
On the role of independent filling stations, one operator in Sennybridge in my constituency has brought me evidence that the wholesale operation of the petrol supply chain is concentrated in a small number of hands, which could lead to difficulties with competition and access. He has sent information to the Office of Fair Trading, and I will send a copy to the Minister. This is a dangerous situation. Many of our independent filling stations have already closed, and if the process continues, a lot more could do so.
I am looking at the time, Mr Hood. The clock says that I have spoken for 11 minutes already, so I am not sure how much longer I have.
I commend the legislation introduced in England by the Government on small businesses’ right to buy. I point to two examples in my constituency. The Shoemakers’ Arms, a pub in Pentre Bach that was closed, has been taken over by the local community and is now flourishing. The community in Llanbadarn Fynydd have done the same with their village shop and filling station. Those are examples not of short-termism but of sustained success. They show what communities can do if given the opportunity.
I promised to mention the traditional makers of cider in my speech, so I will do so in the last 10 seconds. For goodness’ sake, do not let us push them out of business in trying to deal with alcohol abuse in our society.
It is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate on rural poverty and the rural countryside.
We must talk up the countryside, because we are sometimes victims of our own success. One reason why house prices are so high in the countryside is that people who come on holiday to Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and other places—they even venture into Wales occasionally—retire there. Of course, we welcome retired people, but they do drive up the price of houses. Then people who work in the countryside, where wages are usually about 12% to 15% lower, have great difficulty buying properties. That is why affordable homes and planning are important. We must enable local villages, hamlets and communities to have affordable homes. I would like not only affordable homes but shared ownership, which gives people a chance to buy a share in a property and later, perhaps, to buy the whole property. It allows more people into home ownership.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the average age in rural communities is seven years older than in urban communities? Is it not an option for exception sites—I will be pushing for my parishes in North West Leicestershire—to provide retirement bungalows for people, with qualifications? Often, a widow or widower who has lived in the village all their life may own a large family house. They no longer require all that space, but they do not want to lose their friends and relations in the village. If they moved to a retirement bungalow, they could free up a house so that a new family could move into the village.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Managing housing stock effectively is absolutely right. We need a supply of retirement bungalows so that people can move out of three or four-bedroom houses and live in their own area. I am a great believer in encouraging people to move, not browbeating them. It is essential to have such housing in an area.
I congratulate the Minister on what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been doing about red tape in farming and agriculture. We want to extend that beyond farming to all small businesses. We are a nation of shopkeepers and small businesses, and nowhere are they more essential than in the countryside. We need much less regulation so that businesses can thrive.
Food prices are rising. Although many people might not welcome that, it is a stimulus to the countryside in many respects. It stimulates not only agriculture but food processing. I would welcome the Government announcement that we hope for in the Queen’s Speech of a grocery trade adjudicator to ensure that the right proportion of the prices that we pay in shops returns to those who produce and process the food. That is absolutely essential.
I know that I will not make myself entirely popular with those who represent constituencies involved with the oil industry when I say that what has driven up the price of petrol at the pumps is the fact that crude oil prices have risen. If crude oil prices have risen globally, the companies are making vast profits, because their investment has not increased. We should tap into that a little more in order to reduce fuel prices in the countryside. Fuel is not a luxury; it is a necessity. I do not care how much money the Government invest in rural bus services; in many places in my constituency, if one waited for a bus, it would never come, and if it came, it would probably be going in the wrong direction. That might be facetious, but it is absolutely true. We must face up to the reality that in many small rural areas, bus companies will never run efficiently. Where we can make that happen, we must, but we need to consider it.
Tourism is hugely valued and is linked with agriculture and the countryside, and we must help it. I welcome the Government money for that in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.
I return to the start of my hon. Friend’s speech, which is positive about our rural communities. I agree that they are absolutely thriving. Over the Easter period, I visited an engineering business in my constituency that is expanding so fast—it has 70 workers now—that it cannot find premises. We have 11 micro-breweries in my Yorkshire constituency, and a new dye house—so there is lots of vibrancy in our rural communities.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. I want to ensure that we do not leave this debate thinking that everything in the countryside is doom and gloom. There is much going on. That leads me to broadband and superfast broadband. The Government have invested £30 million in Devon and Somerset. We want to ensure that that delivers broadband to isolated areas as well, so that the easiest areas to get at are not picked off and the rest left. That is essential.
My final point involves school funding. Devon is 247th in the league; it is among the least funded in the country. We talk about fairness. I am not griping or grouching. We need fair delivery of funding throughout the country. Rural schools are small and cost more to run, so we need a fairer system.
I welcome this debate. The presence of Members from all parties shows how strongly we feel that the rural community deserves great support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart)—whose constituency might, sadly, disappear, like many others—on securing this debate. It is a fine opportunity to ask the Minister for an update on the Government’s progress or otherwise towards sustainable rural communities.
I congratulate all the Members who have made speeches and interventions; I am afraid that to mention them all would take my whole contribution, but they include the hon. Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, for Arfon (Hywel Williams), for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). They spoke splendidly on behalf of their constituents and about constituency matters. I particularly want to mention the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who introduced a new concept to the parliamentary lexicon: an island off an island off an island. That is an extreme example of rurality.
The Minister and others here today will undoubtedly have received a sound schooling in the classics and will be familiar with the words of the esteemed Roman poet Virgil, who wrote 2,000 years ago—I apologise in advance for my limited Latin—“Quo moriture ruis?”, or
“Whither art thou rushing to destruction?”
At times in recent months, this Government, intent on the destruction of rural relationships built up over many years and of the countryside itself, have seemed to epitomise Virgil’s question. They have been seen to support rural communities only in the same way that Herod supported juvenile population control.
I refer of course to the national planning policy framework and its rushed, appallingly crass and ill-thought-out proposals for development. It seemed that the countryside, our green belt, our precious natural environment and our communities were set for destruction in a free for all, profit-driven rampage of executive homes, whereas the crying need in rural areas is for a range of homes, especially affordable homes for local people. The situation is worsening under this Government.
Concerns have been publicly and forcibly expressed by local authorities throughout the land, including Conservative-controlled authorities in the constituencies of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), the Minister for Housing and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and, for good measure, the Chancellor himself. The sorts of organisation that one would be happy to take home to meet one’s mother, such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, suddenly found themselves in complete opposition to the Government and vilified by them. It is not often that the National Trust is painted as a pinko, lefty, subversive group, but ConservativeHome, that megaphone for Tory tendencies on the web—if that is not mixing my technologies—described it as
“some demented Marxist agitprop outfit”,
while Government Ministers described its work as “risible”. Indeed, the eminently quotable and often-quoted Minister for the Cabinet Office weighed in by saying that
“our position is right. I think this idea that creating a presumption in favour of sustainable development is somehow a massive erosion of the ability to conserve, is—”.
The Minister then used an expletive that was deleted from reports. It was a vernacular term that I believe to be mid-18th century slang derived from the German for “balls.”
Those same Ministers have been forced by their own MPs and the voice of middle England into a series of humiliating U-turns. What was a seeming rush to destruction—not just of the countryside, but of the self-styled party of the countryside—has been barely rescued from disaster at the last moment. That is just one U-turn fiasco, which followed hot on the heels of the forestry sell-off fiasco. My advice to the Government and to Ministers is to think things through. If there are too many U-turns, the Government, not to mention the public, will not know which way they are facing on any issue.
I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire again for giving the Under-Secretary the opportunity to make clear where the Government stand on key areas of support for rural communities. Local enterprise partnerships have been noted for their variable quality and for their scant attention in many areas to rural economic development and farming. Does the Under-Secretary agree with those concerns and, if so, what is he doing about it?
The Government profess localism in every breath, so will the Under-Secretary guarantee that in the provision of housing on farms, local planning authorities will be given the flexibility to allow generational succession, in recognition of the worrying age profile of active farmers and the need to do everything possible to encourage new entrants? In response to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who made a good speech, it is a question of attitudinal changes on the ground and of positivism towards the development of agricultural holdings. The Welsh Government have delivered such localism. Will the Westminster coalition Government do the same?
In every other breath, Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs profess the critical need to enhance food security for the UK, so will the Under-Secretary explain why food production does not feature in the core principles of the national planning policy framework?
Rural living and working have many advantages, particularly if remote working and advances in remote communications can be harnessed. What assessment has the Under-Secretary made of the brake placed on rural economic development by the emerging digital divide, whereby the expansion potential of rural businesses is frequently inhibited, the productivity of home workers is affected, and farmers have difficulty completing online forms because of broadband not-spots and slow broadband speeds? In that respect, I commend the Farmers Weekly “Battling for broadband” campaign. Is the Under-Secretary worried about the potential for a growing digital divide between superfast urban areas and super-slow remote rural economies? The latter could benefit so much more from good broadband access.
When I was a DEFRA Minister, I had the privilege of visiting tremendous communities and people who had come together to save their village shop, pub or library, or who had filled a transport gap by creating diverse community transport schemes. Increasingly, local people are being asked to do more and more to sustain the vitality of their communities, but since this Government came to power, support from regional development authorities has been lost because they were unceremoniously scrapped, the community-owned pubs support programme has been cut and local authority budgets are under pressure. As has been said, cuts to local authority funding hit rural communities hardest, because of the added cost of provision of services in rural areas. What are the Government doing against that stark backdrop to help a greater proportion of communities to save their pubs, shops, banks, post offices, libraries and other services?
More than 4 million UK households—the majority of them in rural areas—are off the main gas grid and rely on heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas, solid fuels, mains electricity and microgeneration. The average cost of heating a typical three-bedroom home in the UK can be 50% higher when using heating oil, and as much as 100% higher when using LPG rather than mains gas. What are the Government doing to support home owners in our rural communities, who are more exposed to household poverty because of rising off-grid costs?
May I ask the Under-Secretary when or whether we will see firm proposals on petrol pricing in rural areas? He and his colleagues spoke eloquently and regularly about the issue in opposition, yet the very selective trials in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the islands in the Clyde, the Northern Isles and the Isles of Scilly, which offered a discount that was described at the time by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as
“terrific news for communities which have long suffered the effects of high fuel costs”,
are already jeopardised by the overall rising cost of fuel, which threatens to wipe out the discount. That view is not mine, but that of the Chief Secretary’s Lib Dem comrade, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). It is indeed “terrific news”, but I do not anticipate it appearing on Lib Dem fliers.
What has happened to wider plans on rural petrol pricing? Are they just another victim of the Chancellor’s relentless, one-eyed focus on deficit reduction above growth? What assessment has the Under-Secretary made of the impact on rural petrol retailers and of the warnings of Brian Madderson, chairman of Retail Motor Industry Petrol, the forecourt association, that with rural petrol already up to 8p a litre more expensive than at urban stations because of delivery costs, up to 250 of the current 1,900 rural forecourts could close in less than a decade, leaving “petrol deserts”? Does the Under-Secretary take that threat seriously and, if so, what specific discussions has he had with Ministers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, who have direct responsibility for ensuring adequate coverage of petrol stations for strategic purposes across the UK?
A fifth of all bus services in England face the axe this year, thanks to the Government’s cuts to funding for local bus services. The issue is affecting the elderly and the young, increasing social isolation and impacting negatively on employment and training opportunities. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is emphatically earning a deserved reputation as the Beeching of the buses.
This Government are out of touch with the reality of rural lives, rural jobs and businesses, and rural services. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Hood. Has DEFRA or the Under-Secretary made any assessment of the wider national impact of the withdrawal of Government support for UK-wide programmes, and of the deep, fast cuts agenda on rural communities? Will he confirm that all the cuts have a disproportionate effect on rural areas? Closures of court houses in small rural towns affect not only the individual, but local law firms. Will the NHS Commissioning Board take into account rurality when allocating resources? How does the much-vaunted—at least by the Lib Dems—pupil premium take into account the extra challenges of rural school provision? Costs for access to jobs and benefits advice and training are usually between 10% and 20% higher for those in rural areas. Any diminution in services or increased travel to work as a result of fewer job opportunities will worsen the effect, as will closures of Sure Start centres and poor access to child care and so on.
The Under-Secretary is a member of a Government who are out of touch. Their policies are incoherent, as Baroness Warsi said on “Newsnight” last night. Nothing epitomises this out-of-touch Government more than what has become known infamously as the pasty tax. I pay tribute to the campaigning stance of local papers such as the Western Morning News, which has highlighted the potential impact on jobs and the economy in places such as Cornwall and the south-west. I ask the Under-Secretary directly, for the record: what representations did he or other DEFRA Ministers make to the Treasury on behalf of the food production sector and workers in Cornwall and elsewhere? Will he intervene to set the record straight? Were any representations made—a meeting, a letter or an e-mail?
I began my speech with a reference to Virgil, cautioning the impetuous against the dangers of undue haste and rushing headlong to destruction. I can only guess that this Conservative-led, Lib Dem-partnered Government are pinning their future on another of the Latin poet and philosopher’s maxims:
“Hope on, and save yourself for prosperous times.”
I think that we all enjoyed the comedy act put on by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). Listening to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman talking about rural matters is the absolute epitome of incoherence, which was a word that he used. It reminded me of the Judean People’s Front sitting around asking, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for giving me this great opportunity to talk about some of the things that the coalition is doing for rural areas. I pay tribute to him for securing the debate and for the powerful speech that he made.
I will put on the record the ambition that DEFRA Ministers and the Government have for rural communities. If someone who is elderly, sick, mentally ill, out of work or on a low income lives in a rural community, the problems imposed by rurality are increased by isolation. Those are obvious points that we all understand. Therefore, the Government’s policy must recognise that and ensure that we are delivering services fairly and equally, so that the rurality in which that those people live does not adversely discriminate against their circumstances.
There has been talk of the sense of victimhood being felt by those who live in the countryside. That is legitimate to an extent because one might see a village that in every other sense looks idyllic, but there may be three or four homes—or 30 or 40 in a larger village—that contain people who are suffering deprivation, which is less visible than in a gritty city environment. We have to be nuanced, clever and careful, and focus our policies like a laser beam on helping those people.
That is one side of the issue, but the other side is equally important if we want to raise the aspirations of those who are suffering deprivation. We need to have a positive view of how the countryside can provide a driver for the economy of the country, and we need an uplifting view of the contribution that rural communities and the rural economy can play. That is the view we in this Government have. An idyllic, rural landscape is not just about the trees, the fields and the beauty that we see; it is about the noises of activity, business and life. It is also about children playing in a village school yard, a shop that is operating and, if we can roll out broadband, a creative industry operating out of a set of redundant farm buildings. That is what a true rural landscape is about.
For too long, Governments have imposed policy on rural areas using what the Americans call an “inside the beltway”—or within the M25—mentality. The view has been that if something is right for inside the M25 or within an urban setting, it must be right for the countryside. That is why the previous Government lost the faith of those living in the countryside and why it is ridiculous to hear the hon. Member for Ogmore, who is better than the speech he just made, try to pretend that somehow rural communities were better before.
In the short time I have left, I will try to address as many points made in the excellent contributions to the debate as I can. DEFRA is the rural champion within the Government. Our role is to help Departments understand the rural context and the issues that face rural businesses and communities. We have set up the rural communities policy unit right at the heart of DEFRA to encourage Departments to ensure that their policies and programmes meet rural needs and interests. That unit has been in operation for a year and is engaging effectively at an early stage in the development of policy across the Government.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) rightly referred to rural proofing. That is a subject for a debate in itself and is something we are taking seriously in our cross-Government role of ensuring that policies are not just considered within the beltway and that the impact on rural areas is understood.
The RCPU is working hard to engage proactively and communicate with rural communities and their representative organisations and to stimulate debate about rural needs and propose solutions. That work is critical to ensuring that evidence and intelligence from our rural stakeholders informs Government policy and its delivery. After the debate, I will attend the first annual meeting of the new rural and farming network, which involves chairs of all the rural and farming networks that we have set up around the country coming to meet Ministers. That is a welcome change and something that Lord Taylor, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I thought up in opposition. We have now implemented the initiative right across England, so that there is a real direct connection to Ministers and a two-way street of communication. We can therefore ask those involved how policies are working in their area, and they can tell us about their problems as well. Those new networks are a welcome and important addition to communication and to trying to ensure that rural communities do not feel isolated and not listened to, as they have undoubtedly been in the past.
We also work closely with Action with Communities in Rural England, so that the Government benefit from regular access to up-to-date local intelligence about rural areas and from talking to experts who can offer practical advice on the design and delivery of programmes and policies. The RCPU also regularly meets the Rural Coalition, which is under Lord Teverson’s chairmanship, to facilitate strategic input into key policy areas across the Government.
On ensuring that policy is connected, let us consider one example of why the previous Government got it wrong. The Rural Payments Agency encouraged farmers to fill in their forms online. A lot of farmers live in areas where there is lamentable or no broadband signal, so they ended up having to take their forms down to the pub on a memory stick to download their data to the RPA. That is one of many past examples of how not to do policy, and it also shows why broadband is so important.
Let us consider broadband in the wider context. Broadband is much more than just a deliverer of jobs; it is about social inclusion. In this debate, we have talked about health, education and skills and about wanting to get more young people living and working in our rural communities. Broadband is about providing opportunities for those young people. However, it is also about an elderly person being able to shop online and someone being able to have access to information that can improve their needs if they are, for example, out of work.
It should be—and it will be and it is—our absolute ambition to ensure that someone who lives in a remote part of, for example, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) can set up and run a creative industry requiring a fast broadband speed as easily someone in one of our cities. That is our ambition. DEFRA has rolled out a rural broadband fund to try to get to those hardest-to-reach groups. Wonderful work has been done, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I visited recently. I saw the enthusiasm among local people to work with Broadband Delivery UK and other agencies to make sure that the roll-out of broadband is working. I entirely understand that when we make a bold announcement, people might feel frustrated and start to ask, “When is it going to happen? When will you start to deliver it?” Our commitment to have the best broadband across the country by 2015 is on track and it is important that we continue to maintain DEFRA’s role in reaching the hardest-to-reach groups of people. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) when he talked about broadband being the fourth utility.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire who initiated the debate asked whether we could make sure that the Government are doing things not to the countryside but for the countryside. That is how we see ourselves in DEFRA. We are a team of Ministers with a real commitment, and we are driving the issue forward with key groups of people, such as the RCPU, so that we can make a difference to how people live.
In the minute that I have left, I want to cover health care. Under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, there is a commitment—a duty—on NHS commissioning boards to prevent health inequalities in local areas, which is a concern for a lot of people. For example, it is much easier to deliver stroke care therapies in a large city than in rural areas, where doing so is more expensive. That is just one example of Government policy. We want to ensure, working across the Government, that we propose effective policies in rural areas.
Many hon. Members made other points, but I am afraid that I am running out of time. I want to give this commitment. What we are talking about in supporting rural communities is both a positive, optimistic view and the need to recognise that there are very serious problems. We will need to have frequent conversations in the House about how successful—