[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Rural Communities, HC 602, and the Government response, HC 764.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rural communities.
I am delighted to have secured this debate, and I should like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us this opportunity to debate rural communities. I am honoured to represent what must be one of the most beautiful rural parts of the kingdom, so I feel particularly well placed to speak in the debate today. I should like to take this opportunity to thank all members of the Select Committee, past and present, and its staff for their help in preparing the report. When we started the inquiry, we were joined on the Committee by the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), who have now been called to do greater things on the Opposition Front Bench. More recently, the Committee lost my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am delighted to see him in his place today. We also lost my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) when he became the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
It is true that many in rural communities live in relative comfort and prosperity, particularly in my area, but there are also enormous challenges. There are pockets of rural poverty and isolation, as well as poor public services. Public services cost more to deliver in sparsely populated rural areas, where there is also a high concentration of the elderly population. All those factors represent a challenge to the delivery of public services. The extra cost of providing these services to rural communities is evident across the public sector, yet in 2012-13 rural local authorities received less than half of the per head funding that urban authorities received. If we look at areas such as education, we find that the Government are reducing local authorities’ flexibility to allocate extra funding to small rural schools with higher running costs. We urge the Government to recognise that the current system of calculating local government finance is deeply unfair to rural areas in comparison with their urban counterparts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, who is now a Minister in the Department and was one of the co-chairs of the Rural Fair Share campaign, whose work I would wish to recognise. The Committee concluded:
“The Government needs to recognise that the current system of calculating the local government finance settlement is unfair to rural areas”
in comparison with urban areas.
I wish to take the opportunity to highlight some areas where that is the case and go on to discuss them in more detail. The cost of heating homes and filling car fuel tanks in rural areas is very high, yet rural public transport is infrequent and, as we know, the bus subsidy is under threat. Off-grid households are currently prevented from accessing the same incentives and finance to improve their properties as are available to on-grid households. I am delighted to see that the Treasury is extending the ability of rural areas such as Thirsk, Malton and Filey to apply for rural fuel duty discount, and obviously we will look to make sure that the EU funding under the state aid rules criteria will apply equally across the board to such rural and sparsely populated areas as mine.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee on allowing it. She is making an important point, because her community, like mine, has to make an application, which is not straightforward to do, and the criteria are not clear. I welcome the steps the Government have taken in other areas, but surely they should examine this issue, do this detailed work themselves and set the criteria so that rural communities across the United Kingdom can benefit from the rebate on fuel.
Indeed. Obviously, the purpose of today’s debate, as the hon. Gentleman is highlighting, is the “Rural Communities” report and the Government response to it. We published our report in July and they responded in October. It is a source of disappointment that the Government are leaving it to rural communities to make their own arrangements; some will be better placed than others to do so.
Let me go back to the report’s highlights. We believe that school funds should revert back to varied lump sum payments going to rural schools according to their need. We also looked at the rolling-out of superfast broadband to rural areas, finding that it should be prioritised to those with the slowest speed. We urge the Department to impress upon BT that it must refocus its priorities. It is pointless giving those who have a fast speed an even faster speed; we believe that we should improve access for communities that have no, or extremely slow, broadband. We also urge BT to indicate which areas will be covered by 2015 under the rural broadband programme, thus allowing the areas that will not be covered to make alternative arrangements.
The Department is proceeding to “digital by default” when the next round of the common agricultural policy comes into effect, but we urge the Department to ensure that all rural areas will have fast broadband. We must ensure that the Department is able to provide the outlying farms that are too far from the cabinet and do not have fast broadband with paper copies of things in the interim. Incredibly, when I try to use my mobile phone at home in a rural area, I find that I do not have mobile phone coverage; voice not spots should also urgently be addressed.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point about the so-called last 10% in rural areas, such as Devon and Somerset, where roll-out has taken place. Unless we achieve 100% accessibility for high-speed broadband, we will do an immense disservice to people in very rural areas. Does she agree that when those areas or properties are identified, the Government should make funds available to ensure such accessibility? We want not a bidding system or matched funding, which is not available in rural areas, but the Government to finish the job.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention, and I will come back and say more on that point.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must address the matter of higher than average house prices and the lack of affordable housing in rural areas. Allowing the rural economy to grow, overcoming barriers to growth and improving rural businesses’ access to finance should be among its top priorities. We ask local enterprise partnerships to address the needs of rural businesses, and we urge the Government to ensure that financial support is offered to the business sector. The business bank, the single local growth fund and other such funds are available to rural businesses. We recognise the needs of rural communities. Currently, deprivation, affordability and provision of public services need to be addressed.
Let me explain why we called for this report. In 2010, the Government abolished the rural watchdog, the Commission for Rural Communities, and replaced it with a beefed-up rural communities policy unit in DEFRA that operates as a centre of rural expertise, supporting and co-ordinating activity within and beyond the Department. It champions rural issues across the Government. We were told that the unit would play an important role in helping all Government Departments ensure that their policies are effectively rural-proofed before decisions are made.
Earlier this year, we commenced an inquiry into rural communities to assess how successful DEFRA and the new unit have been at championing rural issues across Government to achieve their target of fair, practical and affordable outcomes for rural residents, businesses and communities. Our findings led us to conclude that the rural communities policy unit faces a difficult task if it is to meet that ambition. Too often, Government policy has failed to take account of the challenges that exist in providing services to a rural population that is often sparsely distributed and lacks access to basic infrastructure.
I have mentioned the local government settlement and how rural communities pay higher council tax bills per dwelling yet receive less Government grant and have access to fewer public services than their urban counterparts. I will not go over all our conclusions in that regard, but the Government have, in part, recognised their misjudgment by announcing an extra £8.5 million efficiency support payment for one year only for the most rural councils. Some payments are as small as £650. As welcome as any extra funding is, that is clearly not the long-term solution to the problem of rural councils not getting their fair share. Regrettably, the Government rejected our call for the gap in funding between rural and urban councils to be reduced. We must and we will continue to press the case.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on this debate. In Cornwall, the reality is that we have higher than average council tax, lower than average earnings and less money spent per head in the rural areas than in the urban areas. Closing that gap by just 10% a year for the next five years would mean an additional £16 million of income for people in Cornwall. Does she not agree that the Government should push ahead with this idea of getting a fair share for rural areas?
Indeed, and I, as an individual, am part of the rural fair share campaign. The reason for calling this debate is to lend support to that campaign, which goes to the heart of delivering public services in rural areas. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to make that point.
Let me turn now to housing, another key part of the report. Parts of rural England are among the most unaffordable places to live in the country. Ryedale, in my area, stands out as the people working there earn less on average than those working in urban areas or in other parts of Thirsk, Malton and Filey. Rural homes are more expensive than urban ones. The average house price in the countryside is equivalent to 6.3 times gross annual average earnings, compared with 4.9 in urban areas. Potential first-time buyers are particularly hard hit by high property prices and are increasingly frozen out of rural areas. If we do not address those problems, the consequences for rural communities will be grave. If young people are priced out of rural areas, we lose the pool of labour for the local economy and the service sector, and demand for services, schools, shops and pubs will also decrease, making their existence less viable. Rather than addressing the problems on the demand side, we urge the Government to do much more to increase the supply of housing in rural areas.
We recommended that small rural communities should be exempt from the bedroom tax. In my area, there is a chronic shortage of one and two-bedroom homes. Until such time as we can rehouse those who wish to downsize, allowing larger families to move into larger properties, housing will remain a problem. Sadly, the Government rejected that recommendation. In their response, they suggested that those affected by the bedroom tax should simply work more hours to make up the shortfall or should move into the private sector. When I visited the food bank in my area, run by the local church, volunteers and the Trussell Trust, I found the story of one lady who volunteers there very affecting: she wants to work more hours for her employer, but the work is simply not there.
Regrettably, there are also planning issues—the elephant in the room that no one wants to mention. Whenever a planning authority in a nice area makes a proposal for social housing or smaller units, people always write to their MP—I do not think I am an exception in this regard—to say, “I know just the place for that development: at the other end of the village from where I live.” Until we can get over that barrier, we will have a smaller stock of social homes. The bedroom tax means that tenants are expected to move greater distances, away from friends, family and schools. We must have a policy that allows key workers to live in the areas where they perform a vital role. When the Minister sums up, will he explain what input his Department had into that policy from a different Department, and why he believes that it is suitable for rural communities that lack the variety and volume of social housing stock on which the policy depends?
Let me turn in more detail to rural broadband. It is crucial to rural businesses, allowing economic growth in rural areas and allowing rural businesses to compete with their urban counterparts. I have mentioned digital by default, and we must ensure that any new computer system the Government bring into effect is fit for purpose before it is introduced and that it reaches every farm on which the Department is relying to fill in a digital form. Rural communities and their businesses, schools and households have fallen behind their urban counterparts on broadband access. The roll-out of superfast broadband to 90% of rural areas will, I am sorry to say, be delivered late and it is unclear when the target to which we all aspire of universal access to basic broadband will be achieved.
It seems that some communities, including some in Thirsk, Malton and Filey—the Minister is living very dangerously there—might have to wait up to three years before they see any benefit. That is unacceptable, particularly as the Government are making ever more services digital by default, as I have mentioned. A recent and notable example is the new CAP deal, which will come into force in January 2015.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose experience reinforces the point I am trying to make. We must ensure that universal access is prioritised over increasing speeds for those who already have an adequate service. Will the Minister therefore tell us the date by which all rural homes will have access to 2 megabit basic broadband?
The roll-out of broadband is being funded largely from the public purse, yet many constituents cannot find out whether they will benefit from improved broadband. The Committee insists that communities are told whether they will be covered by rural broadband so that they can seek alternative means if they are not. Some local authorities are now publishing projected coverage maps, but many are not.
The Government have committed to spending £300 million that they are receiving from the BBC on rural broadband. Some rural communities might be hoping that even if they are not included in the initial roll-out, they might benefit from additional funding. We need clarity, which is sadly lacking. Will the Minister therefore tell us how rural communities can find out whether they will benefit from extra funding?
With regard to rural communities going it alone, one source of funding might have been the rural community broadband fund, but last week disturbing reports suggested that it will be wound down in March and that much of the available funding will be returned to Brussels. It aimed to deliver £20 million in funding and to connect 70,000 homes, but so far—I hope that the Minister can correct me—only three projects have been approved, claiming less than £1 million in total, and they will connect just 2,500 homes. A member of the public behind a proposed broadband scheme in Dorset said last week that although funding existed, officials had made it impossible to spend and that therefore the rural community broadband fund was dead. Another member of the public said:
“The officials running it got so tied up in their own process it was impossible to deliver. This has happened because of the incompetence and ineptitude in central government.”
The need exists and the funding exists, so how has DEFRA managed to make such a mess of administering the rural community broadband fund that much-needed financial support might be returned to the European Union unspent? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that that is not the case, because that would be serious and regrettable.
I will briefly mention schools. There are concerns about school transport, the extent to which the pupil premium reaches rural areas and falling school rolls, which is partly the result of the lack of affordable housing, which I mentioned earlier. The problem with rural funding is not limited to the finance settlement. The Government are reducing local authorities’ flexibility to allocate extra funding to schools with higher running costs, a move that will affect smaller rural schools in particular. The Government are demanding that all primary schools receive the same level of lump sum funding, regardless of size, location or other circumstances. That also applies to middle and secondary schools. The recent Ofsted report on the achievement of the poorest children in education states:
“The areas where the most disadvantaged children are being let down by the education system in 2013 are no longer deprived inner city areas, instead the focus has shifted to deprived coastal towns and rural, less populous regions of the country”.
I hope that the Minister will use his good offices to liaise with his opposite number in the Department for Education to correct that situation. Will he today explain the benefits that will be gained by removing local authorities’ ability to target funding where it is most needed, and whether his Department was consulted on that?
I commend all the conclusions that I have not been able to cover, particularly those that look more closely at housing, the rural economy, community rights and transport; I briefly mentioned the bus subsidy. I commend the entire report and our recommendations to the House and to the Minister. Again, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity for this debate.
I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister summing up what steps his Department is taking to ensure that pockets of rural deprivation that might otherwise be overlooked in the official statistics are recognised across Government. I urge him to state what is being done to redress the balance between rural and urban spending and to ensure that we eliminate these pockets of rural deprivation. We look forward to receiving the review that the Government have ordered to be conducted by the noble Lord Cameron of Dillington. We are told in the Government’s response that the findings will be included in DEFRA’s annual report and accounts.
I leave the Minister with this question: is not the whole subject of rural communities worthy of an annual statement or update in its own right, giving the Department the opportunity to report to this place on exactly how rural policy is being co-ordinated through the rural communities policy unit?
May I begin, Mr Deputy Speaker, by wishing you and Members of the House a belated happy new year?
I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), for securing this debate and for giving a very measured speech with references to the document that we are considering. It is important to stick to that document, because many of us in the Chamber represent areas that are not covered by DEFRA and have devolved Administrations who deal with many rural issues. However, the House of Commons still retains some reserved matters, and it is very important that Members from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are present. Obviously, I make particular reference to Wales. It is good to see here representatives from Wales from three of the four parties. Without making any partisan point, Plaid Cymru Members often have a knock when Labour Members do not turn up for debates, and they need to look in the mirror on this occasion.
I will adopt the hon. Lady’s tone in debating these issues, but I will make one partisan point in saying—I will go further than her—that my constituency is the most beautiful area of the United Kingdom. If Members do not believe me, they need only visit the Isle of Anglesey—I know you have been a regular visitor in the past, Mr Deputy Speaker—to see one of the most beautiful areas, if not in the whole world, then certainly in the United Kingdom. It is blessed with rural and coastal communities, and it is those two aspects that make it such a unique place for people to visit. I am sure that many will take me up on that offer.
I want to mention two of my predecessors. Brigadier-General Sir Owen Thomas was the first rural Labour MP to sit in the House of Commons. He won the seat in 1918. He was very independent-minded and fell out with the parliamentary Labour party on a number of occasions, but he did stand as a Labour candidate. The second and only other Labour Member of Parliament for my constituency was Lord Cledwyn Hughes, who was a Secretary of State for agriculture. They were both great champions of rural issues in Parliament.
I know the hon. Lady’s area very well. I often tirelessly promote my own constituency, as I have just done, but it is Yorkshire that I visit in my downtime. I say to those who live in Anglesey that if they want a break in the United Kingdom, Yorkshire is the place to visit.
I am a little disturbed by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Given that so many members of the public from and residents of Macclesfield and Cheshire visit Anglesey, would it not be entirely appropriate for him to come to Macclesfield and enjoy the Cheshire Peak district rather than travel even further to the Yorkshire dales?
I would welcome people from Lancashire, the Lake district and other areas to debate that question in my constituency.
I am very proud of my constituency and that it is both rural and urban and that there is interdependency between both communities. When we talk about rural communities, we need to point out the interdependency between them and nearby large market towns, villages and larger conurbations. The new A55 means that Lancashire is very close to north Wales. We need that connectivity with other parts of the United Kingdom.
Many rightly say that people choose to live in a rural area, but the challenges mentioned by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton often lead to many people choosing to leave rural areas due to a lack of work opportunities and facilities. I say genuinely to the Minister that it is a challenge to us all and to all governments—local government, the Welsh Government and the UK Government—to work with the European Union and others to ensure that we get the balance right between industry and tourism. It is not a question of either/or—we can have both. Rural areas can have quality industrial jobs alongside farming and food production and tourism. That is the challenge for us all and I appreciate the way in which the hon. Lady and her Committee have shadowed the Department.
I am at a slight disadvantage because, although I have read the report, I have not read the Government’s response to it. I shall do so after this debate, because some of the issues raised by the hon. Lady are disturbing and I wish that the Government would look more positively at some of the recommendations. We need to get the balance right.
Depopulation is one of the big issues. When an area loses many people, capital grants are reduced and that makes it even more difficult to sustain and regenerate local communities. In the 1980s and 1990s, our county—which is coterminous with my constituency—was the only one to lose population during the two census periods from 1981 to 2001. We lost a lot of talent and a lot of families who had been there for many years. Economic decline is an issue in rural and periphery areas. We have the double whammy of being on the periphery, which has made it very difficult for people to travel to visit in the past. I am pleased with the great improvement in road and rail infrastructure, but a lot more needs to be done to help areas on the periphery such as north-west Wales and Anglesey.
I want to concentrate on an issue that the hon. Lady and her Committee have not addressed on this occasion: energy. I also want to discuss tourism, farming and food and infrastructure, but energy is rightly a dominant issue for debate. As a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, I have raised many of these issues for some time.
My area—the facts and statistics bear this out—is a net producer of energy and a net generator of electricity. Wales as a country is a net producer of energy and a net generator of electricity, but it is also a huge, main hub for imported gas. Areas of west and north-west Wales, Pembrokeshire and various other areas actually supply a lot of the United Kingdom with its energy, electricity and liquefied petroleum gas imports, and yet we pay some of the highest electricity prices in the country, which is hugely unfair. Much of that—I raised this issue during business questions and have raised it for many years—is due to the energy market’s failure to provide a level playing field for the distribution and transmission of electricity, particularly to rural areas. We produce the bulk of the energy, yet we have to pay more for it. I hope the Government will look seriously at that issue.
We have highlighted the problems with power outage in rural areas, some of which are blighted by power transmission lines running through their communities. The figures clearly show that households and businesses in north-west and south Wales are paying higher prices for their energy. I stress that businesses are paying more as well. As Members throughout the House will know, energy costs are one of the biggest factors for businesses. Their margins are squeezed in very difficult and austere times and, on top of that, high energy costs are having a huge negative impact on rural communities.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point about energy costs in rural areas. He will know—he may intend to go on to say this—that the issue is about not just electricity, but LPG, fuel oil and the fact that houses in rural areas are often much more difficult, if not impossible, to insulate because they do not have cavity walls; they have solid walls and are in damp areas. All those things put together mean that people living in rural areas face very high and unsustainable bills simply to keep warm.
Absolutely. It is good to have the hon. Gentleman back on-side. He and I debated this issue during the previous Parliament and my arguments were very consistent when I sat on the Government Benches. I am glad to see that, now he does not have ministerial responsibility, he is again championing those off-grid, which is the next topic I wish to address.
Energy Ministers are taking the off-grid issue seriously, but not enough practical steps have been taken. I am very pleased that my party is now calling for something for which I have been campaigning for some time: for the energy regulator to take responsibility for those not on the mains grid. This is an historic element of privatisation. When the energy markets for gas and electricity were set up, they encompassed the old generators that were on-grid and left an unregulated off-grid, which means that many people are paying a lot more in energy costs for their gas supplements.
When the Government, the energy companies and, indeed, the regulator talk about discounts and dual-fuel discounts—this issue affects every Member who represents a rural community—that does not apply to people who do not have mains gas. They are paying considerably more for their energy. The average price is a luxury for many people in rural areas. They pay considerably more, not only for the distribution and transmission cost, but for not benefiting from the energy companies.
I have been pressing for many years, with some albeit limited success, for the energy companies—the electricity companies, in this case—to give loyalty bonuses to people who stay with them. It is perverse that the energy market encourages switching and gives dual-fuel deals when it could and should give loyalty bonuses and help those in rural areas who do not have access to dual fuel.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman about the off-grid situation in rural areas. There also does not seem to be enough competition between oil companies to deliver heating oil. Many constituents of ours will probably never get on to mains gas, but heating oil is an alternative. We have to get more competition and get the prices down for people in rural areas who use oil for their heating.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Many Members, including those from the Cornwall and Devon area, have been campaigning on that issue for some time. The Office of Fair Trading called for a number of inquiries into it and made a recommendation to the Competition Commission. Unfortunately, it did not find that there is no competition, but I think that is blindingly obvious. That is why I welcome—I am not just making a party political point—the Labour party’s intention that Ofgem, the regulator, look at off-grid as well, because it could give the same protection to off-grid customers. It is there to champion consumers and businesses, and that would be a good, positive step forward.
Hon. Members from rural areas will know that many of their constituents try to buy their fuel before winter. In line with a cross-party campaign, I urge the Government to look at mechanisms to allow people in rural areas to get their winter fuel payments earlier, so that they can buy in advance and do not have to pay premium prices for coal, oil and other energy sources. I have pressed my party on that important point, and it has agreed, if it comes into government in 2015, to bring that measure in. I know there are IT issues, but I am sure that postcodes could be used to distribute payments earlier than happens now.
I raise the issue of winter fuel payments because there have been lots of delays and glitches, including in non-rural areas, with people receiving their payments. That is certainly the case in my constituency and those of colleagues I have spoken to about the issue. If the software was amended, people in rural areas would have the advantage of receiving payments earlier so that they can buy in bulk earlier, at prices that suit them.
I have covered the issues relating to off-grid customers and the distribution companies, but I welcome the important energy investment that will be made in my constituency in north-west Wales. I am not someone who stands here and picks winners. There is a nuclear power station in my constituency, and I support moves to low carbon as well as the new build there. However, we have to have the right balance of biomass and other forms of renewables—it is important to have gas and clean coal in that balance—and my constituency is certainly playing its part. I make no apology for repeating that it is unfair that people in our areas pay more for the end product.
Having highlighted energy issues, I want to move on to fuel—petrol and diesel—which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. In previous decades in this House, many people were encouraged to buy diesel, because it was more energy efficient, with cars able to do a greater mileage on diesel than on petrol. The price of diesel has now of course gone up considerably, which is hampering businesses and individuals in rural areas. There is a massive difference in the price of petrol and diesel on some independent and supermarket forecourts.
I very much welcome the Government’s moving the fuel rebate forward, but it does not cover all rural areas. When they brought it in, there should have been a rule for the whole United Kingdom; it should not have been done piecemeal. I am sorry to make a slightly partisan point, but Scottish Liberal Democrat seats should not have been in the first wave, with other areas having to play catch-up and make applications. There should have been proper criteria covering the whole of rural Britain and Northern Ireland.
Is the hon. Gentleman as worried as I am that one of the criteria, about which there is some concern, is distance from an oil refinery? My area was not included in the consultation, while his was; but that means that no areas would be considered because none fits the criteria.
Yes, I agree; that is absolutely ridiculous. I do not think that has come from the EU, but from the Government and the Treasury. I have asked for a meeting with the Economic Secretary and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to deal with just such problems.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said that her Committee has put pressure on DEFRA, but other Departments have to work with DEFRA to resolve the issue. I am not talking about luxury journeys but essential journeys—people bringing their families to visit relatives, or taking carers, schoolchildren and anybody else who needs to get from A to B in rural areas. They need to have private transport because public transport is not available. They have been penalised not only by the very high energy prices, as I have said, but by fuel prices for transportation. We can all unite on the issue and work towards a solution, and I hope the Government change their mind.
Governments—including mine when they were in office; I make no bones about that—at first resisted taking forward the rebate scheme because of European issues. Now that it is up and running in certain areas, we have a responsibility to introduce fairer criteria so that all rural areas are covered. I do not buy the idea that people will come from towns to buy their petrol in such areas: if they do, that would be good, but it is unlikely to happen. People currently have to travel great distances to get cheaper fuel in rural areas, which is obviously counter-productive from a carbon emissions perspective. We need to look at the issue very seriously, and I am pleased it has been highlighted by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
I want to move on to food and farming, because it is important to have a balance between industry and rural issues. I want to pay tribute to the farming industry—[Interruption.] No, I am not going to take note of the time, because I want to cover these significant issues. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) waves at me to sit down, but it is important to go through this dimension of the debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton that the Government should hold an annual debate on rural communities, as they do on fisheries, so that hon. Members can express their views. Not enough Government time is given to rural issues, which is why the Backbench Business Committee has given us this time. We should use it, so I make no apologies for extending my speech. I have taken several interventions, including from Government Members.
On food and farming, it is very important to have a brand: we should brand British goods and local goods. There have been a few hiccups with labelling issues, but I again give credit to the Government for moving in this direction. People want to know exactly what they are buying and where it comes from. Some bland labels just say, “British” or “European”, and I want labelling to be more localised, so that local farmers can sell their produce in their area and have marketing opportunities if they choose to export it to other areas. Food is a very important industry, and we should take a greater lead on labelling issues, including clear labelling and transparency. Those issues are important, and I welcome the progress that has been made.
My final point is about broadband and infrastructure, which is also important. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that although the Welsh Government have certain responsibilities, the provider is British Telecom: Wales is a monopoly area in which there is no competition. It is a fallacy to say that, since privatisation, there is competition, because there is not; there is a mass monopoly called BT. In my view, BT Openreach has not been rolled out to rural communities as quickly as it should have.
Let me give an example. In the last century, everybody in the United Kingdom, wherever they were located, could have a telephone line and telephone poles—including in some very remote areas in my constituency, and I am sure in others—so it is important that, in the 21st century, the same communities should get fast broadband at equal speeds to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. We need to work towards that position. Unfortunately, the market does not help, because many companies start off in urban areas where there is a large customer base, while rural areas very much have second-class status when it comes to broadband.
Broadband is of course more important in rural areas, because it can cut down on the need for transportation. Many people locate businesses in rural areas because that is where they want to be, but they cannot access broadband. I will certainly push the Welsh Government on this, and Governments at all levels should work together to get the best broadband connectivity and high-speed broadband across all rural communities.
It has been a great pleasure to participate in this debate, and I again thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place. I agree wholeheartedly with the Chair of the Select Committee that there should be an annual debate on rural communities, as there is on fishing, on the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) has done the House a great service in ensuring that we have a debate on rural affairs—a subject we do not talk about enough.
There is an altogether too rosy picture of rural life, particularly in metropolitan circles. Some of the people who write our national newspapers seem to think that we all live in lovely stone houses in Cotswold villages inhabited by media moguls and retired admirals having country lunches. That is not to say that retired admirals can afford to live in the Cotswolds any more—it is probably only retired hedge fund managers who can. However, the reality of life in remote rural areas that are, dare I say it, less fashionable than the Cotswolds or Buckinghamshire, such as the part of north Lincolnshire that I represent, which is three and a half hours from London whatever form of transport one takes, is often very tough indeed. That is why this debate is important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) outlined in a very measured way some of the extra costs of living in rural Britain. I will deal with those costs in a few moments, but first I will talk about planning and localism.
If I walk out of my cottage on the edge of the Lincolnshire wolds, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty, I can walk up the hill and have an uninterrupted view over the vale of Lincoln to the Lincoln edge. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) knows that view very well. It is a fantastic view. Perhaps it is not as good as the view that you have, Mr Deputy Speaker, in the forest of Bowland, but we do almost as well in Lincolnshire as you do in Lancashire. We are very proud of that.
It is likely, however, that local people will soon be ignored by the planning authorities and that vast wind farms, higher than Lincoln cathedral, will be built along the Lincoln edge. This is not a debate about wind farms, but it is a debate about rural areas and surely it is a debate about the right of local people to have a say. The planning committee of West Lindsey district council has opposed unanimously the application for those vast wind farms. I believe that the planning process should respect the views of local people, particularly given that there are good planning reasons relating to local archaeology and the proximity to RAF Scampton, as well as the famous view that I have mentioned.
Localism affects other parts of the planning process. If Members read the front page of The Daily Telegraph today, they will see a banner headline that contains remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who sits in the No. 10 policy unit and is therefore a man of some influence. He talks about the national planning policy framework and makes the point that the views of local people about new housing must not be overridden by central Government.
Local councils are not naturally nimbyist. The people who sit on them are democratically elected. They recognise the need for new housing and for new affordable housing in particular. Surely we believe in localism. I thought that localism was a primary undertaking of the coalition Government. It does not behove central Government to impose their views about the nature of house building on rural councils. I am all in favour of encouragement and of a broad framework. However, if people of worth and ability are to be encouraged to serve on councils in Lincolnshire and other rural areas, they must believe that they will have some influence and power, and that knowing their local areas gives them some right, in broad terms, to determine how much new housing should be built.
To turn to a vexed issue, I want to disagree with one of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, because there is no bedroom tax—it really is a spare room subsidy. In rural areas, we have to try to find a way—she was feeling her way towards this point—to distribute low-cost housing and to move people on from housing that is under-occupied so that younger families can get into it. As she said, this is a complex issue because there is not enough low-cost, single-bedroom social housing in rural areas. Local councils such as East Lindsey and West Lindsey district councils in my area are working on the problem and the local housing associations are very aware of it. I agree with her to the extent that localism comes into this. In this complicated area, central Government must work with local councils to ensure a good supply of low-cost housing.
The cost of living in rural areas is often not recognised. One can get bogged down in statistics and details, but it is important that we, as Members of Parliament who represent rural areas, put on the record the sheer cost of living in rural Britain, compared with living in urban Britain. People who live in entirely rural seats a long way from the capital are very under-represented in this city. Often, our voice does not get through. That affects all essential public services. In policing, despite high rural crime—I am a victim of rural crime myself—Lincolnshire is bottom of the heap for funding per head. It affects transport and hospital services. Again and again, despite the fact that incomes are lower in rural areas, the funding that we receive from central Government is inadequate. Our political voice is not powerful enough. We do not have a sufficient number of Members of Parliament or, dare I say it, Members in marginal seats, but we have a right to speak out because there is a clear injustice in the national funding formulas against rural people, who are often living in poverty.
That is not just rhetoric; it is fact. There have been a number of academic studies on the minimum income standard. That concept was invented by researchers and is carefully worked out. It is based on what members of the public think people need in order to have the minimum acceptable standard of living. There is no doubt that people in rural areas tend to have to spend 10% to 20% more on everyday requirements than those in urban areas, even though they often have lower wages or salaries. To reach a minimum living standard on 2010 levels, the research indicates that single working adults need to earn at least £15,600 a year in rural towns, £17,900 in villages and £18,000 in hamlets or remote countryside. Those in urban areas need earn only £14,400. For couples with two children, the annual earnings requirement is much higher at about £33,000 to £42,000, depending on the circumstances. I assure the House that many people who live in rural areas do not earn anything like £42,000 a year. The Minister, who is an excellent Member of Parliament, knows the scale of the problem in Cornwall. Rural poverty is a real problem.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn mentioned fuel poverty. The Government’s statistical digest of rural England for 2013 notes that, proportionally, more households in rural areas are in fuel poverty than the national average. That is obvious—it is a clear fact. Fuel poverty is even greater in sparse villages and hamlets than it is in rural towns. Some 36% of rural households are off the gas grid, as the hon. Gentleman said, as opposed to only 8% in urban areas. As we all know to our personal cost, those households are reliant on much more expensive domestic fuels than others. I do not pretend that I know the answer to that problem, but I know that the Minister will address it when he sums up.
Average weekly household expenditure on transport in urban areas is £55. In rural towns and their fringes it is £62, in villages it is £78, and in hamlets and isolated dwellings it is £90. The average for England is £58. In rural areas, the highest proportion of income that is spent on an individual commodity or service goes on transport. We should consider the sort of wages that people in rural areas earn. There are a lot of retired people on relatively modest pensions. They have to spend an average of no less than £90 a week on transport if they live in hamlets or isolated dwellings, which is an enormous burden.
It is obvious that most people who live in rural areas travel further than other people—45% further per year than the English average and 53% further than those who live in urban areas. Plainly, the very DNA of rural existence requires travel over longer distances. We in Lincolnshire know all about long distances. Some 96% of urban households have a regular bus service, and the 72 Members of Parliament who represent constituencies in Greater London have fantastic tube and bus services. Only 42% of households in rural areas have a regular bus service. Famously, in my constituency in north Lincolnshire, we have the train service between Gainsborough, which I represent, and Cleethorpes, which runs once a week. Imagine a train that runs once a week—it is truly bizarre.
We cannot assume that everybody in a rural area, in the type of village in which I live, has access to a car, although there have been tremendously impressive efforts such as dial-a-bus services. Even if they do have access to a car, the cost that I have mentioned—£90 a week—may be truly prohibitive. There was a local couple from north Lincolnshire on television who could not even afford to go on holiday in England, because they could not afford the petrol to get where they wanted to go on the coast. People are having real difficulty in affording petrol, and some people in rural areas do not have a car and so have virtually no transport.
I do not want to say a great deal about access to broadband internet, because my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton dealt with the matter so skilfully. However, we all know that average broadband speeds are much slower in rural areas than in cities, and that a higher proportion of rural households have slow or no broadband. I am a bit technophobic, I admit, but when I am sitting in my cottage trying to use my local wi-fi and get on to broadband to do my parliamentary business, it is ridiculously slow. It is absurd—if I were trying to run a business, I would be out of business by now. I simply could not work in my own rural area. I have to do all my work from a computer in London. The internet simply does not work fast enough in rural areas.
In 2010—again, this is fact, not rhetoric—only 5% of urban areas had broadband speeds lower than 2 megabits a second, whereas the figure was 23% of rural areas. Surely that must be a priority for the Government. We are going to encourage people to avoid heavy transport costs and so on by working at home, are we not? How can we charge the rural economy if we have such slow broadband speeds?
I turn briefly to support for farming. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s announcement that the Government will reduce the planned common agricultural policy modulation rate from 15% to 12%, which shows that the Government are listening. Like many rural Members of Parliament, I have been approached on the matter by farmers, and the National Farmers Union has rightly been concerned about it.
I know it is a matter for Europe rather than for us, but my personal view is that we should still try to transfer more agricultural subsidies from larger farms and estates and towards working farmers, many of whom are struggling. We need to help them more.
It is obvious that we have a problem of poverty in rural areas, and that there is not sufficient political weight to address it. The idea of minimum income standards is, in some ways, tied to that of the living wage. There has been a lot of debate about the living wage, but mainly focusing on areas such as London and the other big cities. I believe that the concept applies even more powerfully to the countryside. The social teaching of the Churches, which is a rich vein of thought and very much to be recommended as a read, puts strong emphasis on justice in the relationship between employers and their employees. For an employer to deprive a worker of his justly earned wage is traditionally described as “a sin crying out to heaven for vengeance”. It is that important. Provided that an individual is working full time, it is basic justice that he or she be paid enough to support himself or herself and their family.
We Conservatives would be foolish to concede the forum of debate on economic justice to Opposition Members. Conservatism has never existed, and should never exist, in some hyper-capitalist vacuum. Of course, we know the value of economic freedom and the marketplace, because we can see the unimaginable leaps in prosperity and the reduction of poverty that have taken place under free market economies over the past 200 years.
That is an interesting point, but we cannot go back in time to a structure created under the Attlee Government whereby agricultural wages boards determined what wages were paid in the agriculture sector. Let us look at the farming economy in Lincolnshire. I live on an estate of 5,000 acres—I do not own it, I hasten to say. When the boards were created, there would probably have been 40 or 50 agricultural labourers working the estate. Now, there are only one or two. Although the hon. Lady’s point is fair, I do not believe that agricultural labourers’ wages are quite the problem in current rural Britain that they were in the immediate post-war period. I am thinking more of the problems that are loaded on to the great majority of people in the countryside, who are not farmers and do not work for farmers but who are living in fuel poverty, are retired or find difficulty with their transport costs. Their children have difficulty in getting housing, and they perhaps work in low-paid jobs in the catering industry in local towns. That is more typically the structure of the current rural economy than the historic structure of large numbers of people working in agriculture.
I was talking about economic freedom and the value of the marketplace, but also about the common good, and I want to finish on that point. The freedom of the marketplace must be protected within an orderly context, with the best being conserved and the important and vital things that might otherwise be destroyed by the cold calculations of mere profit being preserved. In rural areas such as mine in Lincolnshire, that means businesses, farmers, employers and local and central Government coming together to co-operate for the common good, whether on agricultural subsidies, flood defences, the price of petrol or many other matters.
I am sure the Government are trying to listen to country people, but it is important that we speak out and put pressure on the Government. We need action on fuel poverty, the cost of living and disparities between rural and urban areas, particularly with regard to Government funding, which is in the Government’s control. I hope and trust that the Minister will give us good news in those regards when he responds.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and her Committee on their report and the issues raised in it.
I believe that all Members taking part in today’s debate represent rural communities, and I am no exception. In fact, Banff and Buchan has one of the highest proportions of any constituency in these islands of people living in the countryside or in very small settlements. Although there are many positive things to be said about rural life, it undoubtedly presents day-to-day challenges and generates a lot of extra costs, not all of which are justifiable. Those costs put huge pressure on the household finances of people on low and middle incomes who live in rural areas.
This is an extremely broad topic to debate in limited time, but I wish to touch on a range of public policy issues where rural communities have distinct needs and where I believe Westminster is currently letting them down. Many of those concerns echo the issues that other Members have raised, and the first is the cost of getting about.
Petrol and diesel prices are significantly higher in my constituency than in urban areas or less remote rural areas. People in areas such as Aberdeenshire and Banffshire are much more dependent on private cars than those in other parts of the country. They have further to travel and very few public transport options—we have no trains at all in my constituency, and as one would expect in a remote and not densely populated area, bus services are not particularly frequent.
I am concerned about the fact that more than 60p in every pound spent at the pump goes straight to the Exchequer. That means that there is a disproportionate, largely invisible and unavoidable extra tax on people who live in rural areas and have to cover long distances to access shops, amenities and public services and often to get to their work. Those people often have no option other than to use a private car. That places an additional tax burden on rural businesses and households alike, which will not be fully mitigated by the Government’s fuel rebate measures.
It is not only the cost of road fuel that adds to household expenses. It is a supreme irony that although North sea gas comes ashore at St Fergus in my constituency, many people living in the surrounding rural area—including, probably, some who work at the gas terminal—are not on the gas grid and have to depend on more expensive forms of domestic heating. My part of the world is one of the colder and more exposed parts of Scotland during the winter months, and everyone, without exception, has taken the hit of soaring energy prices in recent months. The points raised earlier about that issue by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) were salient, particularly on the energy market.
People who are off the gas grid tend to spend a higher proportion of their income heating their homes and are more susceptible to fuel poverty. Even those on respectable incomes, who one would think are doing quite well financially, find that they are not because it costs so much to heat their homes through the winter. One simple and cost-neutral way the Government could help low-income households that are off the gas grid to stay warm in winter is by making winter fuel payments to those households in advance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr Weir) recently brought forward the Winter Fuel Allowance Payments (Off Gas Grid Claimants) Bill, which would provide for the early payment of the winter fuel allowance to pensioners whose homes are not connected to the mains gas grid, and whose principal source of fuel is home fuel oil, liquid petroleum gas or propane gas. Bringing forward payment of the winter fuel allowance would allow low-income consumers who have no access to reduced tariffs and no possibility of changing supplier, to fill their tanks prior to the onset of winter, at a time when prices tend to be a little lower. Unlike those of us who get quarterly bills, those with oil tanks have to pay large four figure sums up front to fill them, and it would cost nothing for the Government to simply re-sequence payments for those affected.
Another key issue for our rural communities is postal services. Our post office network has shrunk dramatically over the past 10 years, and it is critical to protect our remaining post offices in rural areas. Often the post office will be the last business in a village, and the last vestige of any accessible financial services. A reliable universal mail service is essential to businesses in rural areas and to efforts that encourage the growth of such businesses, particularly as online retail continues to expand and create new opportunities. If we are to re-energise small businesses in the rural economy, they must have access to a full, reliable and—above all—reasonably priced postal service that will ensure they can send and receive packages quickly and efficiently. We must recognise that post offices are an essential piece of our economic infrastructure in the digital age. Despite all the good intentions and words, however, the reality is that postal services continue to decline. Until we see the establishment of more Government and financial services in post offices, the future does not look all that bright.
Given that the regulator has already removed price caps from every service apart from second-class mail, I have little confidence that it will provide rural consumers and those in remote areas with protection against big price increases in postal services. The record of regulators in other privatised industries has shown how ineffective a protection they can be—we need only look at the energy market to see that in action.
Another aspect of our essential rural infrastructure is broadband and mobile connectivity, and a lot of attention has been paid to that today. Parts of my constituency are still black holes for phone reception, and many households in rural areas have wholly inadequate broadband speeds, if they have it at all. Sizeable areas of my constituency are simply not online. Moreover, in areas where broadband is available, it is comparatively expensive and people will pay around £40 or £50 a month for a service that they would easily get for less than £10 a month in London. As somebody who pays phone bills in both areas, I know that there can sometimes be a £45 difference in the monthly charge. That hidden cost for people in rural and remote areas does not necessarily come to the fore very often, but even when they have access to the internet, they are likely to pay through the nose for it.
To my mind, the underlying problem is the way that spectrum licences have been issued. It is all very well to say that 90% or 95% of the UK will have broadband by a certain date, but if the remaining 5% is mostly in rural Scotland, that is a problem. As Government services increasingly move online, digital exclusion is becoming an ever more pressing problem in rural areas, compounding economic exclusion and the existing challenges of rural life that already create a lot of hurdles for people in our rural communities. Other countries in Europe with similar geographical challenges have done a much better job than the UK of delivering access to mobile and broadband connectivity, and we could—and should—learn a great deal from them.
I will conclude by touching on agriculture. The economic vitality of our rural communities is underpinned by our agricultural industries and the food and drink processing and distribution sectors that derive from them. In many parts of rural Scotland, common agricultural policy support is essential to the viability of primary producers and the sustainable development of our rural areas. CAP rural development funding has played a crucial role in enabling the 52% rise in exports of food and drink since 2007, mainly by investing in the facilities and infrastructure that those businesses need to grow.
However, keeping up with our neighbours in Europe is increasingly difficult. Historically, Scotland has had low levels of CAP support relative to the area of land in agricultural use. Currently, we receive an average of €130 per hectare, compared with an EU average of €196. Within the UK, Scotland’s €130 per hectare compares with an English average of €265 per hectare, a Welsh average of €247 per hectare, and a Northern Irish average of €335 per hectare. Therefore, compared to other parts of the EU and UK, Scotland has been short changed on the CAP for a long time, putting our agricultural sector at a competitive disadvantage. In that respect, moves towards convergence are an important step in the right direction, but Scotland’s rural communities will not benefit from that process because the UK Government have decided to use the £230 million convergence uplift they received because of Scotland’s historically low levels of support to plug gaps in CAP funding elsewhere in the UK, instead of using it as intended.
By 2019, Scotland will have the lowest levels of CAP funding per hectare of any country in the EU—money that could be used to make tremendous investments in our rural communities, improve our rural environment, and support jobs and economic growth in rural areas. Scottish farmers, those living in rural areas and running rural businesses do not want special treatment, but they do want equitable treatment and parity with their neighbours in the UK and the rest of the EU.
Around 30% of Scotland’s economic output is generated by the rural economy, so the issue is critical for our future development. With better support, we could do a whole lot better and on all those issues—rural development funding, fuel costs, heating costs, postal services and broadband—the UK could, and should, be doing a lot more to support rural communities such as the one I represent. I hope Ministers will use their opportunities in the remainder of this Parliament to give the issue the priority it deserves.
This hugely important debate is of great interest. I often speak in debates in the House, but if I raise an issue about rural areas or rural policy, it is usually tangential or an add-on to another debate. A debate wholly about rural affairs is, therefore, hugely welcome and I am pleased to take part.
I have always lived in rural Wales. I was born on a hill farm in rural Montgomeryshire, where I have always lived, and nearly all my relations are still from there. Throughout my public life—now decades old—my interest has been the promotion of the economy of rural areas, and that involves not only farming, which was my occupation, but the recognition that rural areas must change and develop other forms of employment if they are to thrive.
The report, which was so ably presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), covers a huge range of issues. One could probably speak for days on this topic, but I want to consider those areas that have an impact on my constituency. Inevitably, most of those issues are related to policy in England, but they have a big impact on Wales and particularly on my constituency. Montgomeryshire is a beautiful constituency that marches alongside another beautiful constituency in Shropshire, and many policies in mid-Wales depend on what is happening there. Wales is developing as its own nation in a great and welcome way that I support. The reality, however, is that the economy of mid-Wales is still connected and dependent on Shropshire and the west midlands, so the link between Shropshire and Montgomeryshire is important.
The four headings I want to speak on briefly relate to the cross-border issue: health care; transport infrastructure; rural community empowerment, touching on onshore wind farms; and farming, which is not covered massively in the report but is important to all of us.
The report covers the difficulty of access to health care for people living in rural areas. Strokes and heart attacks in particular require quick access, and that is problem for those living in rural areas, especially when the ambulance service is nothing like as good as it should be. Although a relatively small number of people in the west of my constituency depend on Bronglais general hospital, we depend substantially for specialist services, including obstetrics and paediatrics, on those in England, in Shropshire. A £38 million development is going ahead in Telford, which will serve my constituency of Montgomeryshire. The situation is the same in relation to orthopaedics and elective care, which are crucial.
Devolution affects how the Governments in Westminster and Wales work together. There has been a tendency, certainly with some Ministers in Wales, to want to develop a Wales solution, and that influences policy in Shropshire to the huge detriment of my constituents in Montgomeryshire. If the people developing services in Shropshire are seeking to serve their community of Shropshire, that almost inevitably points to the middle of it, which is Telford. Although the £38 million development is going ahead at Telford hospital, the area served is Shropshire and mid-Wales, so Shrewsbury should be the centre. Any sensible consideration, which looked not at two separate Governments but at the people they serve, would make investment in Shrewsbury hospital more likely. That point needs to be made here and in the National Assembly for Wales.
The second issue, which I have touched on previously, is transport infrastructure. Transport is largely devolved, but investment in cross-border issues depends on commitment from both sides of the border. There are schemes where the Welsh Government are keen to go ahead and would make the commitment to go ahead, but they require a commitment from England. When the Welsh Government are making their assessment of the value of a scheme, they know how important it is to have access to markets. From an English perspective, there is no access to markets consideration. Devolution is, therefore, resulting in schemes that would have gone ahead, because the Welsh Government want them to, falling with no prospect of going ahead at all. That is not the way devolution is supposed to work. In relation to cross-border road schemes, it is causing great disbenefit to my community. I have mentioned this on a number of occasions and I will probably do so on a number of occasions again. I hope that in the next few months, as we consider the Silk commission, we will have opportunities to return to the matter.
The third issue is tangential to the onshore wind debate. Mid-Wales and Shropshire are again linked together by the Mid Wales Connection. I should say briefly that the Mid Wales Connection takes in north Shropshire and Montgomeryshire and amounts to between 500 and 600 wind turbines on top of what is there now—there are probably more in Montgomeryshire than anywhere else. It is a monster, with about 100 miles of cable, that will completely transform the whole area. Politicians of all parties, including my two Liberal Democrats colleagues in mid-Wales, have exactly the same view as me.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) is here and is nodding in agreement, and I am sure that my opponent in the forthcoming election will be of the same view. We know the massive impact it will have and it is exactly the same for north Shropshire.
One important point is how the communities feel. Having a public meeting in Montgomeryshire is difficult to organise because people have to travel big distances and make a big effort—they cannot just walk down the road. Despite that, 1,500 people not only turned up at meetings I organised, but travelled, in 38 buses, all the way from Montgomeryshire to Cardiff to emphasise their point. They feel that their opinion has been completely sidelined. We sometimes read, usually in The Telegraph, that the Government are listening and that perhaps more weight will be given to local opinion and that there might be some change to the way in which planning policy works, but it is not happening. Rather than promises to secure favourable headlines, we want something real delivered. The people of mid-Wales and north Shropshire have a sense of hopelessness and helplessness about how central Government, both in Cardiff and in Westminster, are responding to the views of people living in cities and other urban areas by imposing something on rural areas that they do not want. We have to be very careful that we do not just look at numbers and the big populations, and ignore the opinion of rural areas.
The final point I want to touch on relates to farming. There is not a huge amount in the report on farming, but I want to touch on the impact of bovine TB on farming communities, which is not properly understood. This has always been a difficult issue for me. I have a good understanding of the farming industry, but I have always been involved in the local Wildlife Trust and understand the implications and sensitivities. We must, however, have a policy that deals with the issue. Most of my eight years at the National Assembly for Wales was spent as Chairman of the agriculture Committee. The position was that the Welsh Government wished to go ahead with a cull, but the United Kingdom did not. There was a mistake in introducing the legislation, so that did not happen. The Minister was removed and a new Government came in and pursued a vaccination policy, which is a reversal of the position here. We must consider all the ways of dealing with the issue to find the most effective and best way of going forward. If we can recognise that we must deal with the issue in the most effective way, there will not be so much sensitivity about it.
I would have liked to raise a number of other issues on farming, but I am conscious of time, so I will just mention how the levy is distributed for promoting food. The promotion of food in England and Wales depends on the levy for slaughter. A lot of the livestock in Wales is slaughtered in England, so the levy is available to the Meat and Livestock Commission in England, not Wales, so we are probably about £1 million down and at a huge disadvantage. We should look seriously at how to introduce a degree of fairness in the system for distributing the levy so that food promotion can follow where the animals are farmed and bred, rather than where they are slaughtered. In my constituency, an awful lot of animals go over the border to Shropshire to be slaughtered.
Finally, to reinforce the point made by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs earlier in the week, it is important for everybody to eat British food wherever possible. I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to eat Welsh lamb. Why go anywhere else? Why eat anything but British beef or British dairy products? It seems crazy not to do that. If we want beer, there are microbreweries dotted all over the country, and there are two in Montgomeryshire. Why import when we have wonderful stuff at home? I appeal to everybody in Britain to help our rural areas by, whenever possible, using British produce.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on her excellent work as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and her very good exposé today.
My constituency is a mix of rural, semi-rural and urban. Some choose to live in the countryside, some go for more space, some were born and brought up there, but there is a real problem of rural poverty. Some of the hardest-hit areas are former mining areas, places nobody would ever have dreamt of building houses had there not been mines there. We have people from mining families who were born and brought up there, many in old terraced or social housing, and the difficulty for them is that costs escalate, it is hard to find work, transport costs are high and all the local costs, such as buying in the local shop rather than a supermarket in town, are much higher, yet their incomes are not comparable to those of the sort of people who can commute, have two cars and all the rest of it. Rural poverty is a major issue, therefore, particularly in many of the former mining areas of south and west Wales.
On social housing, in the past people were allocated rooms, bedrooms and homes on the basis of what was available in their village. I am pleased that the EFRA Committee has identified the bedroom tax as a major problem for these areas, but I am disappointed in the Government’s response, which repeats a fallacy peddled by Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions: that a person needs only two or three hours’ work at the minimum wage to make up the £15. Worryingly, given that these are DWP Ministers, this completely misunderstands how housing benefit is calculated and the idea of clawback. Things such as housing benefit and tax credits depend on a person’s income, so extra hours do not simply equal extra income because there is a clawback; they do not get the extra housing benefit when they do the extra work, so they actually have to do an awful lot more hours, which obviously is a major problem for people in rural areas, where sometimes even getting the bus to do an extra day’s work can be almost counter-productive. Unless they do six, seven, eight hours’ work, the price of a bus, if they only do three or four hours or have a split shift, makes it completely impractical. There are some particular difficulties in rural areas, therefore, and I am pleased that we are committed to repealing the appalling legislation that has brought in the bedroom tax.
In rural areas there is very little employment. Interestingly, there was recently a campaign to keep open Pontyates fire station, which was run by retained firefighters—people who work in other jobs but get called out when there is an emergency. Obviously, whereas there used to be many miners and other people working in the villages and valleys, some of those areas now have nobody there in the daytime, because people commute out. One of the problems facing the fire station, which I am pleased to say we convinced the fire authority to keep open, is that it now needs a major recruitment campaign to identify people it can train up as retained firefighters. That is symptomatic of the lack of working-age adults in the community during the day.
That brings me to the issue of transport out of the villages and how much more difficult that is for people in rural areas. As more and more people have acquired cars, it has become even more difficult because bus services have become less and less viable. If it were not for the pensioners with their passes, some buses would not have any passengers on them. That is a major issue we have to consider, particularly when transport costs make it difficult for people to take up work opportunities.
Rural areas face much higher fuel bills—both types of fuel: the fuel people put into their vehicle, if they have one, and the fuel they use to heat their home. As hon. Members have said, there is much less choice in rural areas. If someone is not on mains gas, they cannot benefit from dual fuel deals, and many areas in my constituency are not on mains gas and so face either higher oil prices or even higher coal prices. On liquid petroleum gas, there are real problems with tied deals, where groups of houses have to order and switch at the same time, which raises competition issues. How can anyone escape from the provider they are forced to take on when they move into a property? I raised this matter with the former Member Chris Huhne and with the regulator, but it was not entirely sorted out. We need a regulator that can deal with these off-grid issues, which is something Labour is committed to doing. As was mentioned, Wales also has particularly high electricity costs—electricity usage in rural areas tends to be higher because of the lack of gas, and again, a tough new regulator could look into that and make much sharper recommendations.
I welcome Labour’s decision that the winter fuel allowance should be paid earlier, and if we get into government, we will certainly implement that proposal. It is important that people be able to buy when prices are low in the summer months and prepare for the winter, but of course, the Government have cut the winter fuel allowance—we had forgotten that. One of the very early cuts, it took £100 off the over-80s’ allowance and £50 off the over-60s’ allowance. It is a significant cut that has affected many people, particularly in rural areas, over the past few years, as prices have rocketed.
I wish to repeat my dismay at the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, which was supported by the Farmers Union of Wales because it provided a framework for settling disputes and enabling farmers to calculate how much to pay neighbours, friends and relatives—people it is sometimes difficult to bargain with—for the work they did. Furthermore, there was its “standard of accommodation” clause for workers working on agricultural premises. Especially disappointing have been the Government’s efforts to prevent Wales from retaining an equivalent board. Having spent £150,000 going to the Supreme Court to dispute Wales’ right to pass the byelaw legislation, they have spent more money this year going to court over the board. All this could have been easily sorted out through discussions between the Welsh Government and the Government here and need not have cost the taxpayer all that money. It is a real shame, particularly as it obviously went against the will of people in Wales.
I turn now to Royal Mail. In my Christmas visit to Royal Mail, it was interesting to learn that the big rush now takes place in November, not December, because so many people shop on the internet. The preference for internet shopping is even higher in rural areas. I was told that proportionately, more packages were going to rural areas than to urban areas, because obviously—it all makes sense—if it costs someone too much to get in the car and drive to the shops, they will be more tempted to go on the internet and pay the postage costs. But, of course, those postage costs are also an important issue for rural businesses, many of which rely on postal services, particularly where internet access is not as fast as it might be.
It is worrying, therefore, that with the privatisation of Royal Mail, we might see the erosion of the universal service obligation. Moya Greene has openly said, “Well, in Canada, a delivery once every two or three days is sufficient in rural areas.” Given that she is the head of Royal Mail, we can see the direction of travel, and it is worrying because it could affect the many rural businesses that depend on Royal Mail. The other problem is whether Royal Mail will keep its link with the post office network, because without that link, the network will be much weakened. While I welcome a recent announcement on safeguarding several rural post offices in my constituency, others have not benefited from any safeguard.
Whatever issue we are considering, right across the board, it is important to think about the impact on people in rural areas. We must continue, time and again, to look at how to decentralise our employment opportunities—whether it be through better broadband or investment in small villages and communities— and we must not let everything become centralised. Decentralisation is the key to building more prosperous rural communities.
It is a privilege to be called in this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing the opportunity and, of course, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Chair of the Select Committee, for her report. Many Members with Welsh constituencies, as well as friends from Scotland and, of course, Cornwall, are present today, so the Celtic nations are well represented here. Speaking as a Welsh Member, I note that many areas of the Select Committee report relate to the responsibilities of our National Assembly Government—and rightly so—but there are some specific issues relating to UK Government responsibility that I shall also mention.
One of the messages in the Select Committee report is about rural education, which will resonate in the communities of Dihewyd, Llanafan and Llanddewi Brefi in my constituency, whose village schools are under threat. Another issue is funding for rural health care, which affects the Cardigan and Bronglais hospitals in my constituency. There will be a huge public meeting in Aberystwyth tomorrow night on the challenges of delivering rural health care. There is thus huge commonality between the issues identified in England and in Wales.
Let me deal with the specific issue of the derogation of rural fuel duty and some of the experiences we have had—or, rather, not had—in Ceredigion in trying to get included in the list of areas to be considered for it. As the Select Committee report notes, those who live in a rural area are likely to travel 10,000 miles a year, whereas those who live in urban areas travel 6,400 miles. That, along with poor access to public transport, means that our cars are a necessity, not a luxury. There is simply no other means of getting around, as the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) both argued: there is simply no alternative. A single rail line comes into the top of Ceredigion, passing through beautiful Montgomeryshire and the beautiful parts of my constituency, ending in Aberystwyth, which is very much the end of the line. There are no other rail lines across the constituency and we have somewhat fragmented bus routes. There is no choice other than having a car for oneself and one’s family, so the cost of fuel has a huge impact on household expenditure. As the Select Committee report also notes, average expenditure on transport accounts for 17.7% of total expenditure for rural residents, compared with 14.5% for urban residents.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan talked about travel costs to work. The Countryside Alliance did some useful work, and I am pleased to see in his place the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart)—whatever his association with it. The Countryside Alliance showed that in Ceredigion, people were travelling 540 miles a month just to get to work. We are not talking about a little trip around the corner; we can be talking about long distances and round trips of 100 miles a day across large rural areas. That has been recognised in part by our Government, who have abolished the fuel duty escalator, made cuts at the pump of 20p a litre—over and above what the previous Government were planning—during the last three and a half years and frozen fuel duty, which has been welcomed.
The Government have talked specifically about the challenges of living in rural areas. My party has long supported proposals for a rural fuel duty rebate from the EU, and I am glad that the Government said in their response to the report that they would consider extending it. Indeed, when questioned on the issue at the end of the comprehensive spending review statement on 5 December, the Chancellor said:
“We would like to extend the scheme more widely, but we are constrained by European Union rules, which we are challenging.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 1123.]
I very much welcome that. It was immensely frustrating when, on 1 August, the Treasury set the wheels in motion to gather data from different areas, but my county of Ceredigion was not included. There was a lack of clarity about the collection of that data, which the hon. Member for Ynys Môn mentioned. I have been disappointed by the breadth of evidence being gathered and by the lack of clarity about how it was to be collected.
A call for evidence went out, although I am not sure whether it was directed at the retailers themselves, at county councils, at the Welsh Assembly Government or at the Scottish Government. It was so unclear that I took on the initiative myself in my constituency and contacted all 27 fuel stations, trying to gather data that could then be submitted on their behalf during the allotted time frame. I did that, despite not being included in the list. Very late in the day, the Treasury said it would welcome any data for Ceredigion, but there was this lack of clarity, as I say. When the list was published by the Treasury, 10 areas in the UK were included, seven of them in Scotland, one in North Devon, another in Yorkshire and the other in Cumbria—sadly, none in Wales.
Then, in November last year, we had an unexpected second call for evidence, which this time included additional criteria—not just price, as before, but additional criteria about population density. I was confident that Ceredigion could be included because it is sparse, with 147 communities scattered across a large area and 600 farming families. We could meet those criteria. The additional part, however, was that it did not allow for data gathered from an area situated 100 miles from an oil refinery.
If we look at the location of oil refineries, we find them on Merseyside and in south Wales, for example. There is Milford Haven, and the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) will recollect that the Select Committee visited the refinery there. That criterion automatically excludes Wales from consideration, giving rise to the question why in the initial consultation there was a call for evidence from the good counties of Gwynedd, Powys, Monmouthshire and the Isle of Anglesey.
In response to questions to the Treasury and to Wales Office colleagues, it has been asserted that the criterion has been directed from Europe. I remain unclear about its origins. However, if, as the Chancellor says, we are constrained by European Union rules, I am confident that our Government will challenge them robustly to encourage the breadth of the scheme. On the other hand, might this be not so much an EU instruction as the Treasury’s interpretation of what is more likely to be successful? If that is the case, I understand it, but it does not address the many concerns we have about rural areas. I believe that the criteria being pursued are too tight and too much focused on proximity to an oil refinery. Ceredigion is an incredibly sparse area. I have no doubt that the initial criteria used the first time the Government applied to gain the derogation for the islands in west Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, and for the Scottish islands were appropriate. I have frequently been to the Scillies, so I understand the cost of transporting fuel by boat from Penzance over to the solitary pump in St Mary’s. I understand the criteria used there, but I hope that in this new round and for future rounds, we can be much more flexible so that the large tracts of rural England represented here today, rural parts of Scotland and rural Wales can be included.
It may not sound like it, but I commend the Government for what they have done so far. We waited a long time. I remember sitting in Westminster Hall debates in the last Parliament making the case for rural fuel derogation; we did not get very far and we have not gone far enough. We have certainly not gone far enough if we look at the proportion of income being spent, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) reminded us, on travelling to work, taking children to school, going to the dreaded supermarket because the village shop or the post office shut some years ago or getting a friend to drive to a pub elsewhere because the local pub shut some time ago. Those are the challenges that face my communities. I hope that the scheme can be extended to encompass large parts of rural Wales.
This has been a good debate in which, as ever, we have observed a huge amount of commonality between different parts of United Kingdom. Let me give two anecdotal examples from my constituency. The first concerns a couple whom I met in the village of Penrhiwllan. They were forced to decide whether it was more worth their while to pay an extra fiver to get Tesco to deliver their shopping to them, or to pay for petrol so that they could take the car and do it themselves. The second concerns a farmer who was required to submit his VAT return to HMRC online. Of course, he had no internet provision, so he rang HMRC and asked whether he could submit it on paper. HMRC said yes, and he did not expect to receive the £100 fine that was subsequently delivered to him. He had no alternative: HMRC advised him to submit his return from a library in future, but he would have to travel many miles to find a library in Ceredigion.
Let me end by making a more general point. We should put ourselves in the place of people who move into our village communities in Wales. Will someone who has a young family and is lucky enough to have a job, go and live in a village if the school, post office, pub or shop has shut, if public transport is minimal, and if he cannot afford to put petrol in his tank? That is the reality for many of us in rural parts of Britain.
I want to change the tone slightly, because many of the points I wanted to make have already been made by other Members.
As we all know, “rural communities” is a broad term that covers many issues. It is easy to envisage every rural community in an idyllic picture-book setting, and admittedly that is true of my constituency—now that you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, we can go back to saying that ours are the most beautiful constituencies; Mr Deputy Speaker has left, so he cannot tell us off—but no matter how desirable my constituency and, no doubt, many others may be, they face challenges that are very different from those faced by inner-city areas.
I was born and bred in High Peak, and grew up in a rural community. When I was elected to this place, I moved to London and lived in a city for the first time. I am not ashamed to admit that, and indeed in many ways I appreciate High Peak even more when I go home on a Thursday evening or a Friday. Living in a city during the week—as all Members do—made me realise how many things are much more available than they are in rural areas.
Examples have been given today by Members in all parts of the House, one of which is public transport. I know that a bus will arrive every five or 10 minutes in the city, whereas in High Peak they are nowhere near as frequent. Another example is broadband. Urban areas have superfast broadband and fibre but rural areas do not, and the potential impact of that is huge, as I have often observed in the House. I consider broadband to be the fourth utility, because it is vital to businesses. That is of concern to me in High Peak, because broadband can not only attract new businesses into the area to create employment, but enable us to retain the businesses that we already have.
Another example is the cost of fuel. I applaud the Government for what they have done with fuel duty, because, as others have pointed out, a car is not a luxury but a necessity in rural areas.
I have made many of those points in other debates, so I shall not expand on them on this occasion. Let me instead say something about the power of rural communities, and what people within them can achieve when they come together and work together. High Peak contains many rural communities, and every one of them has a tale to tell. Good things are happening throughout the constituency. I could stand here and talk about all of them for the entire length of the debate, but as I am conscious of the time, I shall focus on just two .
The village of Furness Vale sits in the middle of my constituency, between the larger towns of New Mills and Whaley Bridge. It contains a football field that has been close to the hearts of the local community for many years, but is not level and has had dreadful drainage problems. People have wondered what to do about that for a long time.
Six years ago, some of the villagers got together and decided to make the field usable again, so that it could benefit the community. They formed a group called Furness Community Organising Green Space, or COGS, with the aim of turning a dream into a reality. They approached the local authority, the county council and me; they consulted local residents; they had plans drawn up; they worked out a budget; and they even produced a 3D model of what the field would look like eventually. They encountered some difficulties along the way—there was, for instance, an obstacle involving land use notifications—but they stuck at it, and, as a result of their own tenacity and their work with elected representatives at all levels, an outbreak of common sense enabled them to keep their dream alive.
The group’s aim, stated on its website, is simple: it is
“to provide a much needed recreational and sporting facility that can be used all year round”.
Last June COGS was awarded £50,000 by Sport England, which provided a huge boost. Moreover, the field has now been granted QE2 status, which means that it will be protected for ever. Through its work, its fundraising, its energy and its commitment, the group has made a huge amount of progress. I am proud of those people, and I want to place on record my tribute to the way in which they came together as volunteers. That is the power of the rural community as we have seen it working in Furness Vale.
At the other end of my constituency is the village of Bamford, which is in the Hope valley and is part of the Peak District national park. It is a truly beautiful village. In Bamford sat an empty pub, the Anglers Rest, which was put up for sale. Fearing that the pub would be sold to developers and redeveloped, a group of residents formed the Bamford Community Society with the aim of securing its future by bringing it into community ownership. At the time, the post office was looking for a new home. The BCS saw an opportunity to bring the post office into a newly operating Anglers Rest and help to make it a viable proposition.
The BCS used the Localism Act 2011 to register the pub as an asset of community value, which gave it time to work towards purchasing it from its current owners, Admiral Taverns. Like COGS, it developed a business plan. It launched a share issue, and embarked on discussions with the Post Office about the transfer of the local branch to the newly opened Anglers Rest. I met the group’s members, looked at their plans, and listened to what they had to say. It was apparent that a great deal of work and thought had gone into their business plan, which had been professionally prepared. The share issue among the villagers raised nearly £200,000, which, along with some further finance, made the purchase of the pub a reality.
At the eleventh hour there was a hiccup that threatened the whole deal, but I am glad to say that we managed to work around it, and the pub was duly purchased in the autumn. A few things had to be pulled out of the fire, but again, following discussions between the BCS, Admiral Taverns and me, an element of common sense broke out, and the post office will be opening in the Anglers Rest soon. This week saw a development that appeared to be problematic as recently as yesterday, but that difficulty was ironed out as well.
I pay tribute to Post Office Ltd, which, following rapid discussions over the last 48 hours between its representative Adrian Wales, representatives of the BSC and me, considered its position and, despite recognising that the project might involve problems, concluded that having a branch in the Anglers Rest could be of advantage to it. I must emphasise, to be fair to the Post Office, that it has done the right thing, gone the extra mile, and made this project possible.
So, yet again, the power of the community has yielded great results. The big companies, Admiral Taverns and Post Office, have seen the potential benefits of the project, and—after their initial hesitation and, it may be said, some mistakes—adopted a flexible approach. They are dealing with the community, and they have played their part in making the dream of the Bamford Community Society a reality. I pay tribute to the residents of Bamford, as I paid tribute to those in Furness Vale, for all their efforts: they have provided us with a fantastic example.
We have heard a great deal today about the challenges facing rural communities, and I agree with most of what has been said about, for instance, fuel, access, roads and transport. However, I have made numerous comments about those issues in the past. What we must never underestimate is the feeling of community in rural areas. As I said at the outset, I was born and bred in a rural area, and I know that better than anyone. The power of the rural community has ensured that the Yeardsley Lane playing field in Furness is being improved and remains available to all, and that is thanks to the community of Furness Vale. The Anglers Rest in Bamford is saved, the village post office will open soon, and the new café that operates in the Anglers Rest during the day is going great guns. That, too, is thanks to the local community.
On occasions such as this it is very easy for elected representatives to clamour for the opportunity to bask in the reflected limelight, but we should never forget that the progress made in those two instances was due to the enthusiasm, work, drive and commitment of a local community. Nowhere are the power, drive and potential of a rural community more apparent than in the two areas in the High Peak about which I have spoken today.
May I add my congratulations to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on its work on this report and the issues it raises? I cannot deny that I am slightly underwhelmed by the turnout in the Chamber this afternoon. The manifestos of all the political parties have always over the past few years stressed the importance we attach to rural communities and rural voters. When we have an opportunity to express that support, albeit on a one-line Whip Thursday, I think we should all reflect on the fact that we mustered a maximum of 15 Members—I could probably have fitted them into my office—and at our worst, at the moment, about 11, and at least 50% of the representation has come from Wales, as has been said. It is important to have debates such as this, however, because minorities are important and the fact that the rural community represents a small voice at times—and a numerically small one when it comes to elections—is all the more reason we should treat it with the greatest respect, and with enhanced respect in our political deliberations in this Chamber.
I want to touch on a few matters that I have extracted from the report and which to some extent are treated differently in Wales thanks to the devolution settlement, but first I want to comment briefly on the definitions that are tucked away in an appendix towards the back of the report. The definition of “rural areas” we would have come up with 20 years ago would have been very different from the current definition. That is in part down to the fact that there is no longer an area we can describe as exclusively or truly rural, any more than we can describe an area of London as exclusively urban. The fact is that we have a much more dynamic population that spends a lot of its time, if it possibly can, in other areas. The—almost geographical—line that used to exist separating city centre from suburb and suburb from countryside does not really exist any longer and we need to be very careful not to isolate elements of the community and describe them as being different from other parts. That contributes to what can be an unhelpful element of this debate, when people say, for instance, “Townspeople do not understand us” and some sort of cultural distinction is drawn between those who live in the countryside and derive their living from it and those who love and respect the countryside and wish to visit it from time to time. If through our loose use of words in this Chamber we create a distinction between those two valuable contributors to the rural economy, we will do ourselves harm rather than good.
The first subject I want to discuss is broadband, which all contributors have mentioned. It is seen as almost essential when people are buying or renting their house that it has a decent electricity or gas supply, and estate and letting agents say that one of the first things a client will now do when walking into a house is look at their mobile phone and see what the reception is like and ask what the broadband provision is like, and if it is not up to the standard they expect or require there is a pretty good chance they will look at other properties instead.
The role of BT and the broadband roll-out has been mentioned, and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is not in his place, rightly pointed out that the situation is slightly different in Wales. We need from BT, through the relevant Minister, a little clarity about exactly what criteria BT is applying to its roll-out because that is not immediately obvious to the average customer and voter. This is not a selfish request, and there is also the encouraging news that in Wales the 100,000th household has been connected to superfast broadband this week, so thumbs-up to the Government for having achieved that milestone. The clarity we require from BT is not a selfish request because we want to enable those people who may be further down the priority list and who may not be due superfast roll-out for a number of years to make sensible decisions in investing in alternative providers, whether wireless or satellite. At present they feel restricted in doing that because they do not know where they sit in the list of BT priorities. A perfectly straightforward and justified commercial interest is being expressed by businesses across the UK and, I suspect, especially in Wales: that they should be able to make some sensible decisions based on BT being a little more open about its criteria. For BT to cite commercial sensitivities as a reason not to do that—as I believe it has done—is not a satisfactory answer because it creates a two-tier society, particularly in Wales, with those who know they are going to get it and know when they are going to get it and those who have absolutely no idea and have no idea how much they can spend on alternative provisions.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and I have previously exchanged comments in the Chamber and Westminster Hall about mobile phones because it does seem ludicrous that in parts of our two constituencies we seem to be somewhat behind the Alps, Norway, parts of Africa and, indeed, Kazakhstan in people being able to communicate with one another via mobiles. Again, this is not about kids being able to have a laugh by texting each other; it is about sensible, commercial, contemporary requirements. Indeed, the emergency services are a whole lot more dependent on decent mobile coverage for providing the protection we expect from them than they were five or 10 years ago. Mobile fingerprinting machines will not even work in certain parts of rural Wales because there is not a mobile signal to support them. This is not about luxuries, therefore; it is about an everyday essential commercial requirement for people going about the sorts of businesses we want and need and providing the services that keep us safe. There are economic consequences of our lacking the mobile coverage that in other countries is seen to be absolutely standard.
I have been raising for some time the topic of planning and affordable housing, particularly in the context of the national parks. In a Westminster Hall debate just before Christmas I raised the problem of affordable housing provision in my own national park on the basis that the affordable housing subsidy—a policy that is not universal across all national parks in the UK, but is certainly adopted by some—was acting as a deterrent to people developing affordable housing, rather than encouraging it. I am pleased to say that that has resulted in an internal review of this policy by Pembrokeshire coast national park. It accepts that the policy has not worked as well as it would like and that there was a distinction between rural and urban, and, most encouragingly, this month it is engaging with all rural stakeholders and interested stakeholders in my area to see if the policy can be improved so that the landscape can be enhanced and protected at the same time as kick-starting the currently flagging affordable housing building and provision in the county. The message, therefore, is a thumbs-up and full marks to Pembrokeshire coast national park for recognising in the first instance that there was a problem and, secondly, for doing something about it, not through its own auspices but by inviting all those in the area with an interest in this topic to engage in a process. I hope other Members will take some encouragement from that and perhaps try to persuade their own national parks to undertake a similar exercise if there is a similar problem, because that returns influence and power to the communities where it should be held and where these decisions can have a huge benefit if decided correctly—or a huge negative impact if not.
My penultimate subject is fuel and fuel costs. Other Members have made quite a lot of this, but one point has not yet, I think, been mentioned: the steady decline in the number of filling stations in rural areas over several years. Slowly but surely where there was once one five miles away there is now one 10 miles away or even 15 miles away, and each and every closure not only imposes greater expense and inconvenience on rural communities, but some other services often go, too—a shop, or an outlet where people can buy their gas canisters or whatever. This has been another little difficulty layered on top of all the other difficulties of living in rural areas.
When we talk about rural-proofing, we sometimes overlook the fact that Treasury decisions on fuel duty for independent fuel retailers can have a disproportionately hard-hitting effect on rural areas. I believe that, at present, the duty is payable within 28 days of the moment the fuel leaves the refinery. A small independent fuel retailer in a rural area will therefore have to fork out a significant amount—80% of the value of the load—before they have a chance to sell any of it on to the customer. Consequently, they are uncompetitive. They place small orders, and their supplies often run out when the weather is bad. This can contribute to a delicate and fragile situation with regard to fuel resilience.
That problem could easily be rectified by altering the date by which the fuel duty became payable. The Treasury would be no worse off, and the independent fuel retailers in rural areas would be much more competitive. They could buy more, and they could compete better against the bigger suppliers. To coin a phrase, everyone would be a winner. I wonder whether the Minister or anyone else here today could persuade the Treasury to do that in a way that came as close as possible to being cost neutral. I suspect that that is a matter for the Department rather than for those on the Back Benches. Such a change would make a significant difference to the ability of those independent retailers to run sustainable businesses and support rural communities.
Almost no legislation is passed here or in the House of Lords that does not have a significant consequence for rural dwellers. We might not think that that is the case, but it almost invariably is. As I said earlier, there is no longer a big black line between rural and urban communities; we are not as diverse a society as we once were in that respect. I urge the Government to pay as much attention as they can—perhaps even more than they already do—to the unintended consequences of their legislation on rural communities. Fuel duty is but one example; there are countless others.
The latest statistic I have seen suggests that rural Members of Parliament represent only 2% of the electorate, but we represent a great deal more than 2% of the national value of the UK, and of Wales in particular. We rightly champion rural communities and rural landscapes, but when it comes to double-checking and rural-proofing the legislation that affects them, we sometimes fall short of the standards that we should attain. I hope that the Government will refocus their attention on the unintended consequences of their legislation.
The Government’s commitment to doing things for rural Britain, rather than to rural Britain, is largely welcome. I was pleased to hear the examples from my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) just now; he illustrated how things can go well. We are all accused of moaning like mad and complaining about everything, but there are lots of success stories in rural Britain at the moment, even if some of them are happening despite the Government rather than because of them. By and large, we can commend the EFRA Select Committee for the balanced way in which it has addressed these issues, and commend the Government for the progress they have made so far.
It is a great privilege to be able to speak in the debate. I represent Salisbury, which I always think of as a constituency of two halves: one half is a suburban area; the other is full of rural communities. The two work closely together. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). He hit the nail on the head when he said that it is unhelpful to make too clear a distinction between the interests of rural and urban communities.
I want to focus today on the challenges to rural businesses. Those businesses in Salisbury and south Wiltshire are growing, and they form a vibrant and wholly necessary part of the economy, which is now doing better. The jobs that they provide are also really welcomed by members of the local community. Those people tell me that the most significant challenge they face is what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report calls a “key barrier to growth” for the rural economy—namely, the lack of superfast broadband provision. As other Members have said, it is no longer a luxury but a necessity for everyday life, and certainly for everyday business life.
Significant challenges relating to flows of information have still not been overcome. We wholly welcome the substantial investment to ensure that 95% of households will have access to superfast broadband, but there is a real sense of frustration among those in the most rural parts of my constituency about when that is going to happen and whether they will be included. If they will not be included, what alternatives exist?
I want to mention the Dun Valley Broadband Group, a well organised and well motivated group located primarily around the village of Pitton. Members of the group first approached me more than six months ago, when they were unsure whether they would fall within the zone or which phase of the roll-out they would be included in. We have had meetings with Wiltshire council, which has been excellent in trying to move things forward and pressing BT for more clarity. The maps and the postcode check-up have been mentioned today, but we have found them quite inadequate for identifying specific communities. People do not want general answers about 95% coverage; they want specific information on whether they will be able to access superfast broadband and when they will be able to do so. Those communities that are unable to access it want to be able to take steps to move forward with alternatives. This particular group has been working with Gigaclear, a wholly commercial scheme, and it has been challenged to reach a certain threshold of applicants.
As the report states, the biggest challenge faced by smaller companies is the ability to meet up-front costs. I am also concerned about the challenge to poorer households that fall outside the 95%. What will they do if a well motivated group reaches the threshold for alternative provision that is outside the protection of the regulator in regard to the escalation of costs in subsequent years? They will have no option but to sign up and go along with the alternative provision that the rest of the community has put in place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) suggested that we should start by concentrating on the communities with the greatest eligibility. I am not an expert on these matters, but I would urge caution with regard to the “spidering out” process. As I understand it, BT will work out the logical location for hubs, stations and bases. If any of that were then skewed according to deviations of speed within those communities, there could be a massive escalation in costs, which could undermine the end result for the community.
The information flows should be improved, so that communities can get organised and find alternatives. It is important that those who are outside the current intervention areas should have access to a superfast service, but that must not be at the expense of those who cannot afford to pay an additional subsidy. If the smaller schemes are to be commercially viable and accessible to the whole population, we need to look at how public subsidy can effectively address the initial costs for small businesses and poorer rural householders.
The other thing I wish to mention is my concern about the plans to extend to 95% coverage for superfast broadband by 2017. My local authority is concerned about not wasting time planning for that when there is a lack of clarity about whether and when the money will be delivered, and how it will be delivered. Wiltshire council has invested considerable time and money in an outstanding programme, but it wants clarity about what is going to happen. It is keen to extend its existing contract arrangements with BT so that it can bring more households into the remit of the roll-out, but it does not want to spend hours of council time and lots of resources on tendering, and it does not want to spend months dealing with the state aid issues and so on. We need to ensure real clarity and that things do not get lost in conversations which seem to go quiet when we get within 12 months of a general election. We must be clear about what local authorities can expect until 2017, so that rural communities in my part of Wiltshire know what is going to happen.
There is no doubt that local authorities and villages are working hard to secure superfast broadband. It will be the measure of the Government’s success or otherwise when going into the next election. Small businesses will not be able to function reliably without it. If they need to transfer lots of data to clients abroad or in London, there must be no doubt about the quality of the provision in their rural business. I welcome the steps that have been taken so far, but I hope that the Minister will address the point about the resources that will be available. I hope that he will also address improved information flows and the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire about commercial confidence and sensitivities, which prevent a good deal of progress from being made in the most rural areas. I hope we can ensure that this happens because this is all that rural businesses want to talk to me about, and I am anxious to ensure that we deliver.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this debate, and I recognise the important work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and her Committee, which enables us to have this debate. It is much appreciated, because rural life is vital. It is a mix of tradition and innovation, and it is such a distinctive part of English and British culture. We need to protect and nurture it. Most importantly, all of us here, and the Government in their work, need to enable it to thrive and flourish for decades to come.
One of the greatest privileges in my role is working with rural communities, from prime Cheshire dairy farms to those in the hills of the Peak district; there are real contrasts in such a beautiful part of the world, which adjoins the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham). I hold regular farmers forums with the Macclesfield branch of the National Farmers Union. The work that our farmers do is essential. Despite the fact that their number has been declining in recent decades, it is clear that they punch well above their weight in ensuring that our communities thrive and flourish, and we need to support them. To have a vibrant future, we need to ensure that these communities are able to innovate and diversify to seize the opportunities before them. That is what this debate is about: making sure that we can shape the future, as that will be vital.
Last year, I was able to participate in four fell races. I needed to do that because the work we do here is not particularly conducive to physical fitness. I also thought I would do what I could to support local community events. The Wincle trout run is to be commended, with its 350 participating runners each getting a trout at the end of the race—so there is an added incentive if anyone wants to participate. I should also mention the Macclesfield sheep dog trials, which also has a wonderful fell race. The organisation that runs it is wonderful and I am proud to be a supporter, although the race is particularly gruelling. All the events in which I participated brought home to me the fact that even our traditional village fêtes are adapting to new trends, and to increased interest in physical and outdoor activities, and how important physical pursuits are to our rural communities. I co-chair the all-party group on mountaineering—I will avoid doing the usual thing of saying that it is the summit of all APPGs. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the register of interests for APPGs, and to the benefits of rural diversification and of getting involved with these vital outdoor pursuits, be it walking, fell running, climbing, mountaineering, cycling or kayaking.
I was not going to draw attention to that memorable event, but it is true that potholing is another outdoor pursuit that should be remembered.
It is a privilege for me to be able to work with these organisations, be it the Outdoor Industries Association or the British Mountaineering Council. The economic benefits of these pursuits are clear. The Ramblers organisation has recently produced evidence to support that, which says that in 2010 alone £7.2 billion was spent on visiting the countryside. In England walkers spend about £6 billion a year and thus support 245,000 jobs in the rural community. The figures are staggering, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently reminded the Oxford farming conference that in rural England £33 billion is spent on tourism, which accounts for 14% of employment and more than 10% of businesses.
So the contribution made by these outdoor pursuits should not go unnoticed; it should be encouraged. These pursuits have health and well-being benefits, not only for me when I participate in the occasional fell race. It is clear that physical inactivity is one of the public health challenges faced by this country. It leads to long-term health conditions; it is estimated that 37,000 premature deaths result from this lack of activity; and it costs the NHS and the wider community about £10 billion a year. So real action is required, and this is a good debate in which to point to that.
Let me give some examples. The Britain on Foot campaign, brought about by the Outdoor Industries Association, in conjunction with the National Trust, the Ramblers and all the other organisations I have talked about, is helping to draw attention to the need to get active outdoors. The GREAT campaign, being taken forward by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, VisitBritain and VisitEngland, also helps to draw attention to our great outdoors, which is a part of our tourism mix. Sadly, it is under-appreciated by visitors from overseas, as it is sometimes by visitors from home. We could be supporting a vast array of other local initiatives, be they, as in my case, the Bollington walking festival or other such festivals across the country. Walkers are Welcome does vital work in trying to accredit local communities and welcome walkers in. The Peak District national park also provides walks for many people to access and enjoy. The Ramblers organisation has highlighted the case for the English coastal path. I know that Wales has benefited significantly from such a path, as have the communities along it. We in England need to take steps forward to ensure that our coastal communities get similar benefits.
Thinking a little more radically, there is a case for clinical commissioning groups and our general practitioners to recognise the role that walking plays and, on occasion, to prescribe walking for people as a way for them to improve their life; I agree that it may be difficult for grumpy teenagers, but there is a case to be made for encouraging more people to do this. I very much hope that in the year ahead we can make significant progress on walking and connecting that to our rural communities, just as the cycling lobby has been very successfully doing over the past couple of years. It has to be commended, and I support that fully, but we now need to get to the next level and bring that to walking, which is an important and sustainable form of transport.
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights walking and the coastal paths in Wales. Many voluntary organisations have taken things a step further and are merging with health bodies and local health groups. They are going “from the couch to the 5K” and are training people. These organisations have obesity, health and fitness in mind, and they are going that step further, whether we are talking about walking or running.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He spoke eloquently earlier, and I know that he feels passionately about these issues, too. We need to get behind these things, because not only are they good for society, for residents and for our citizens, but they are vital to our rural communities.
I want to say a few words about broadband. From having helped to prop up the back of a fell race, I know that it is not great to be left behind, and when we look at what is going on in our rural communities, particularly the isolated ones, we find that there is a sense that they are getting left behind. That is particularly the case in one of the most important parts of our infrastructure in the digital age—broadband. We have to make sure that it is provided across our communities, including in the rural areas. That was brought home to me recently when I was in the not-so rural area of Tytherington—the part of Macclesfield in which I live. For two days, I had no access to broadband. I could not do my work, access banking accounts, or keep in touch with friends and family, and my children could not do their homework. Broadband is now such a fundamental part of our everyday life that it just has to be made available to people.
When I was campaigning in Gawsworth recently, broadband was the issue raised at every other door—it was not the health service or the local economy. Everybody was saying, “What are you doing to improve rural broadband?” We all need to wake up to that concern in our rural communities. I recognise the work that the Government are doing in this area and that the Connecting Cheshire partnership and the council are doing in my part of the world. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), I encourage Ministers to accelerate the pace of the roll-out wherever possible. They should also make it clear where the roll-out will take place next, so that people can plan and prepare for what might take place and then be clearer about where the not spots are. Those communities that will not be part of the roll out will need to be able to work out what solutions are available to them.
I was encouraged to hear from my hon. Friend about the community-led solutions that are available in his part of the world. Since I have been working for communities in the Macclesfield area, I have been staggered by the lack of information out there—the lack of case studies and other best practice that is available for these communities. There is an important role for BT, Government and local authorities to communicate on what community-led solutions are available, and I urge them to do that as soon as possible.
As I am on my soap box, I will make one final point about rural broadband. If internet service providers such as BT charge for a particular broadband scheme and businesses or households receive a substantially slower speed than is advertised, it is down to the internet service providers to improve the quality of the service or revisit their pricing tariffs. Our rural communities should not be taken advantage of in that way. They should not be sold a product and then not receive the speeds that they have been promised.
In conclusion, there are some fantastic and vibrant opportunities out there. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak highlighted the power of rural communities. I cannot add anything to what he said; he made his speech incredibly well. The opportunities are about diversification, and outdoor pursuits are an important part of that. Innovation is critical, whether it is through encouraging entrepreneurialism among our local rural businesses or even in public services. The area between Port Shrigley and Bollington St John’s, for example, is home to a great federation of small local schools. We must be innovative in the way that we provide local services in a cost-effective way. The future must be underpinned by proper infrastructure and proper and adequate funding that recognises sparsity, which comes back to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton.
I support the principles that are being put forward on both sides of the House today. I hope that through the efforts in this debate, we can help shape and provide a future for our rural communities in the decades to come.
It is a pleasure to take part in this excellent and wide-ranging debate. There have been experienced and knowledgeable contributions from all Members who have taken part. I thank the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, under the sterling stewardship of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), for its sixth report on rural communities. There are 143 pages of recorded evidence—written and oral—from, among others, the Rural Coalition, the County Councils Network, BT, the Dispensing Doctors Association, Calor Gas, the Consumers Association, the Plunkett Foundation and all other groups with strong rural interests. It is a thorough piece of work that should be commended.
This has been a good debate, and I want to touch briefly on some of the contributions. First, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton summed up all the matters raised in the sixth report, which was a real tour de force, and I will return to some of them in a moment. Interestingly, her proposal for an annual debate on rural communities received good feedback from all parts of the House. In fact, there has been a great deal of support for it in the Chamber today. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will have noticed that, as will have the Leader of the House and the Minister. It is certainly something that we would support in line with other good debates we have on matters such as fisheries.
Let me turn to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). I can vouch for the beauty of his constituency, which he waxed lyrical about. It is second only to the beautiful hidden gem of the sources of the Rivers Ogmore and Llynfi and the surrounding acres of heaven.
My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that transmission costs of energy are much higher in rural areas such as north-west Wales. He also talked about off-grid energy costs. More than 126,000 people in Wales rely on off-grid energy, and they are not all in areas that we would customarily regard as peripherally rural. They are often in mining communities such as my own. I pay tribute to him for championing these off-grid energy issues for many years.
Like other Members, my hon. Friend raised the issue of petrol rebates. He made the interesting observation that the rebates seem to be going to those areas that are of a particular colour on the political map of this country. I am sure that that will change over time with his strong representations.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) spoke well for his constituents and highlighted the fact that poverty and deprivation can be hidden behind this idyllic rural image of thatched cottages and leafy lanes, or even, as he mentioned, hedge-fund millionaires’ mansions. He also talked about the additional costs of living in rural areas and of accessing services and said that 20% more is spent on everyday goods than in urban areas. That theme was picked up by other Members including the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), who also mentioned petrol costs.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) —we had a lot of Celts here today from the Celtic fringes, from the south-west of England, through Wales and elsewhere—talked about the costs of providing rural services such as health in places like Powys and the need for good cross-border work on this and on other aspects such as transport. I certainly subscribe to such a view as my wife works for the NHS in Powys. It is a very real issue.
The hon. Gentleman also talked interestingly about a potential review of the red meat levy and how it is properly allocated around the regions and nations of the UK. He recognised, though, the good work that is done centrally. His call on that matter is timely, and hopefully the Minister will have heard him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) powerfully reminded us that some rural communities, including my own, were previously at the heart of the industrial and extractive industries such as steel and coal. Curiously, they are often missed from these debates on rural areas. In a fairly short time frame, those areas have been exposed to all the problems characteristic of rural isolation and peripherality, so it is good to see them strongly represented today.
My hon. Friend also picked up on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, which was opposed in Wales not just by Labour but by the National Farmers Union in Wales, the Federation of Young Farmers and others, but I suspect that that matter is for another day. She also touched on the fears over the long-term future of rural post office deliveries and the link between Royal Mail and the health of the post office network.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) spoke well for his constituents, but was slightly derogatory about the fact that his area had not been included in the rural derogation for petrol proposals, and a few other Members picked up on that, and put in pitches for their area as well. He also talked about the additional costs of living in rural areas.
No one has talked specifically about the research that has been done to show the additional cost of food in rural areas, which was mentioned in the report. I am sure the Minister will remark on that matter when he comes to speak. The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) talked about the power of rural communities to come together to help and protect each other. It reminds me of much of the co-operative movement or even, dare I say it, the old slogan used by Labour and the union movement, which says, “In unity is strength.”
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) observed that the numbers in the Chamber were not as high as we would all like. Perhaps they will be in future debates. We may be in few in number, but we are among the best. He summed up well the false and dangerous metaphorical wall that we put up around “rural” issues and communities. In fact, the health and wealth of our cities, market towns, hamlets or crofts and all points in between are seamlessly interwoven, a point also made by the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen).
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire mentioned in closing that 2% had been suggested as the proportion of the electorate represented by rural MPs. I would challenge that, as it depends on how we define rurality. As I said earlier, a wide range of rural issues also affect places with industrial parts. My area is 20 miles from the M4 corridor and the main south Wales rail network, yet it has issues with off-grid energy, rurality, isolation and so on.
The hon. Member for Salisbury talked about the roll-out of superfast broadband and said that it would be the measure of success as the election approached. At that point, I looked across and I am sure that I saw the Minister gulp. I know that he is not at all worried about it—[Interruption.] The Minister is indicating from a sedentary position that he was smiling.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) talked with passion about his constituency and mentioned the Wincle trout races. He also mentioned the Macclesfield sheep dog trials—not guilty, say I. The old ones are the best. He talked with some fluency about the economic impact of the Ramblers, and I declare an interest as president of the Glamorgan Ramblers and vice-president of Ramblers Cymru. We need to do more and to see a speedy and resourced roll-out of the England coastal path. That will be a huge benefit for rural coastal communities.
As I was preparing for today’s debate over my breakfast, I picked up my daily breakfast reading. I was surprised by the fact that who knows what glorious conjunction of the stars had brought about, on the same day as we were to debate rural communities, the front-page headline, “Coalition’s legacy could be harm to the countryside.” I spluttered over my Weetabix. One might expect such a headline ripping into the coalition’s record from the Morning Star, or from revolutionary pamphleteers such as The Guardian or The Independent, but from the Telegraph—The Daily Telegraph, the voice of the Tory shires? Incidentally, I must say that the Telegraph’s rugby coverage is very good.
One might expect such a headline to have been generated by a clarion voice of the left—a flag-waving, “Red flag” singing, barricade-storming sentinel of socialism, attacking the serried ranks of landed privilege and wealth—but I spluttered again over my breakfast, this time toast and jam, when I read that it was inspired by the criticisms of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), a Conservative Member of Parliament and, apparently, an adviser to No. 10, too. I have cancelled my subscription to Socialist Worker, so taken am I by the successful attacks on the Government by this new revolutionary cell in No. 10 and our fourth estate. Rumours are circulating that the hon. Gentleman is what we term a “sleeper”, who has spent years burrowing into Tory high command and is now under instruction to tear the house of cards down from within. Time will tell.
Ultimately, the debate is set against a rural backdrop of tough times, including for working families. We know that across the UK working families are struggling because of the impact of the policies being pursued. A typical family will be £1,600 worse off at the end of the Prime Minister’s tenure, but research shows that there is an added impact on rural communities across the country, where wages fell in real terms by £1,300 between 2010 and 2012. The nature of rurality means that rural families are spending £2,700 more on everyday goods than their urban counterparts.
We know that the bedroom tax hits rural households disproportionately severely, as working families, who are already struggling to find affordable homes where they were brought up, close to where they work and to their families, are displaced further and further afield, weakening community ties, driving up the cost of living and working and ultimately undermining the sustainability of those rural communities.
The viability of rural communities is intimately tied up with their ability to access markets, to sell goods, to trade, to access services and to engage with Government and agencies remotely and digitally. Whether we are talking about a farmer sorting out forms for single farm payments on his handheld device or at the kitchen table on a laptop, a bed and breakfast or a field of yurts selling accommodation, a surf school in Cornwall, a school-child accessing online educational materials for homework, or just Mr and Mrs Jones trying to take up the Prime Minister’s advice to switch energy providers and save money or looking to make a fleecy purchase after taking up the Energy Secretary’s advice to wear a jumper to cut down on heating costs, they all need access to the internet. However, the National Audit Office damned the Government early last spring for being two years behind schedule and £200 million over budget, a point that has also been picked up by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in its work.
Things might be changing, but as the days of autumn closed in last year, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who was in the Chamber earlier, freed from the shackles of DEFRA ministerial office, said:
“A man with a stick would be quicker at delivering a message than my so-called broadband”
and as we approached Christmas, he further complained:
“The rural equivalent of waiting for Godot is waiting for high-speed broadband”.—[Official Report, 4 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 912.]
Those words came from a former Minister. At least with “Waiting for Godot” some deep philosophical point is being pondered—the wait is the very thing—and there is ultimately an end point as we all return home from the theatre. People in rural communities cannot see the end of the long-running broadband and mobile drama.
I realise I risk sounding a little negative about the Government’s record on rural communities, so let me be a little more positive by suggesting some ideas that would help the hard-stretched rural communities, businesses and households struggling under a prolonged cost of living crisis. We know that the Government have turned their back on one proposal that would help many rural households by refusing to accept a price freeze while the market is reset for the consumer—we will have to wait for the next election for that—but they could do something for off-grid energy users in two ways. First, they could bring off-grid under a regulatory structure to bring long-term thinking to the sector and give certainty to consumers and investors that their interests are being looked after. Secondly, they could bring forward payment of the winter fuel payment so that vulnerable elderly householders could purchase oil and gas outside autumn/winter when typical costs can increase by hundreds of pounds, as I know from experience. The Government could also look at the lamentable delivery to those same households of the energy company obligation and green deal installations on energy efficiency. Of 379,297 measures installed before the end of October 2013, how many have been delivered under the carbon saving community obligation rural sub-obligation? Only 51. That is not good enough.
Labour would, with no additional spending commitment and within existing resources, transfer £75 million from the super-connected cities programme into a digital inclusion fund of clear and direct benefit to the businesses, communities and households in rural areas that could make the internet work better for them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), the shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Minister, has made clear, Labour’s proposals on business rates would lead to an average reduction of £410 in year one for the 1.5 million businesses with turnover below £50,000, a disproportionate number of which are in rural areas. That initial saving would be followed by a business rates freeze the following year.
Affordable housing has been talked about by many Members from all parties. As we have heard, purchasing a home in a rural community requires six and half times the rural average wage. More must be done.
The point raised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on funding allocations in rural and urban areas is interesting and merits consideration. There are pockets of deprivation.
The point I was making about affordable homes when the hon. Gentleman intervened is that we need to build more homes, but they need to be the right homes in the right place, well designed and with bottom-up input from communities. We need to get on with it. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made exactly that point: the obstacles to planning and providing affordable houses to rent and purchase are stopping those communities growing and forcing young people to move away from the area.
I do not have time to touch on the cultural, social and economic importance of farming, on the food and drink sector or on transport, education and so on. Other Members did.
If I have been provocative in parts, let me be consensual in conclusion. I think we can all agree that this has been a good and strong debate and we thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton and the Select Committee for securing it. Perhaps we can all support her call to make it a regular fixture in the parliamentary calendar.
I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), and indeed the other members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—I want to be inclusive—for the report. I thank the Committee, and all those who have an interest in these matters, for bringing forward evidence and engaging with the Government on a number of other areas.
I disagree with a number of the points that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) made, which I will come to later, but I agree that there is sometimes an artificial divide between urban and rural areas when it comes to service provision. The fact is that both rural and urban areas depend on each other for different services, whether outdoor activities, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), the natural capital that is cared for and provided, the food that is grown and all the opportunities provided in rural areas, or the economic and other activities provided in urban areas, such as industrial activities, which support rural areas. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right about that artificial divide, although I disagree with him on many other points and will come to them in due course.
Rural growth is a key priority for DEFRA, just as growth in general is for the Government. The Government have placed a strong emphasis on unlocking the potential of rural communities and businesses to allow them to grow and thrive sustainably. We have established five pilot rural growth networks aimed at tackling the barriers to economic growth in rural areas, such as the shortage of work premises, slow internet connectivity, fragmented business networks, competitiveness, skills and support for micro-enterprises.
Several hon. Members mentioned the resourcefulness and resilience of rural communities. For example, we heard about what is going on in High Peak to provide community facilities and safeguard resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) talked about rural life in general and the great contribution that people in rural areas make to the wider economy, something that I think we should all reflect on and celebrate in this debate.
The pilot rural growth networks expect to create up to 3,000 new jobs and support up to 700 new businesses through a local approach to local issues, but their legacy will go beyond that. We are evaluating the lessons they learn and will share them with local enterprise partnerships and local authorities. LEPs are working with local partners, including those with rural economic and social interests, to agree draft European structural investment fund strategies. DEFRA is discussing the development of those strategies to ensure that they give appropriate consideration to rural economies. It is absolutely right that some LEPs are very rural in focus while others have a balance between urban and rural. We must ensure that the rural interest is at the forefront as they introduce their strategies.
DEFRA’s rural development programme for England has invested more than £400 million in projects, created over 8,500 new jobs and safeguarded a further 9,700. An impressive area of delivery, and certainly one that has helped bring forward the local engagement that other Members have talked about, is the 64 LEADER local action groups in England. They were allocated £137.9 million from the total £3.7 billion of the current programme. They are on target to spend that in full by the end of the programme. Their key achievements include over 1,000 civil society representatives involved; over 4,200 projects approved; over 21,000 training days delivered; over 2,600 jobs created; 700 micro-enterprises supported; and nearly 200 new micro-enterprises created. There are other sources of funding from other routes, whether the public sector or charitable sources, that unlock the potential of the community schemes that hon. Members have talked about, which will make significant changes in their communities.
Under the new rural development programme, which will run from 2014 to 2019, we will transfer 12% from direct payments to go towards environmental, farming competitiveness and rural growth schemes in England. That is a significant change in the way we administer CAP money and it is important that we get the change right. In 2016 we will review the demand for agri-environment schemes and the competitiveness of English agriculture with the intention of moving to 15% for the final two years of this CAP period. The overall investment equates to £3.5 billion for environmental and rural development schemes over the next seven years. That means that, even with a smaller overall CAP budget, the Government will be spending a bigger proportion on the environment than before.
We want growing the economy to be an important part of that. There will be a meaningful role for LEPs to help deliver growth. Some 13% of the new rural development programme funds will be spent on growth-focused schemes. Some 5%—£177 million—will be allocated to LEPs through the growth programme, with LEADER and farming and forestry competitiveness being allocated around 4% each, or around £140 million.
Many hon. Members spoke about the delivery of rural broadband and mobile communications. Indeed, we must remember that the report was from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, not the Welsh Affairs Committee, because so many hon. Members from Wales spoke. There was a certain commonality in the contributions we heard from across the United Kingdom on connectivity and the need to ensure that we get the injection of investment absolutely right. It is important for unlocking the potential of rural economies and communities. We know, for instance, that online small businesses, whether rural or urban, grow between four and eight times faster than their offline counterparts, and broadband allows more services to be delivered directly into the home. We heard how important that is in many contributions from both sides of the House.
The Government are investing £530 million to 2015 through Broadband Delivery UK. BDUK’s rural broadband programme, which is being delivered by local bodies, will deliver superfast broadband of 24 megabits a second and above to 90% of premises in each local authority area. The remaining 10% hard-to-reach areas will receive standard speed broadband of at least 2 megabits a second.
A number of hon. Members asked how representatives can access more detailed aspects of those programmes. I urge those who have concerns about how the programme is running in general to write to me or to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). If there are specific issues, they should raise them with the local delivery bodies to ensure that their voices are heard. I think that BT, which has been mentioned, will welcome engagement with local representatives on how the programme will make a difference in those areas and what the expectations should be.
Under the rural broadband programme, the pace of progress is accelerating, as 42 out of 44 local projects are contracted, which accounts for 98% of the Government funding. We are currently connecting 10,000 rural properties a week. It is anticipated that the figure will rise to around 25,000 per week by the spring and 40,000 per week by the summer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton talked about the smaller rural community broadband fund and asked what progress DEFRA was making with delivering the scheme. We have approved five projects, starting with Rothbury in Northamptonshire, which got its first live cabinet in time for Christmas—the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), was there at the time. We continue to work hard with BDUK, local bodies and community groups to develop the remaining projects. Local authority-led projects have until 28 February to complete their applications. Of course, there are important things to consider to ensure that we get the best value for money in all those projects, so we need to consider each one carefully. Universal coverage of 2 megabit broadband is expected by 2016.
I will turn to local government finance settlements. The Committee, and indeed many hon. Members, highlighted their concerns about the system for calculating local government finance. Addressing the needs of rural and urban authorities is a difficult balancing act. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton pointed out, I have been very much engaged in that from the Back Benches and continue to be in government, talking with colleagues, communities and local government about how the funding formula works and the implications for rural communities.
The Efficiency Support for Services in Sparse Areas grant of £8.5 million during 2013-14 helped the top quartile of rural authorities by sparsity of population. The Government will be providing further support worth £9.5 million so that the most rural local authorities can drive forward efficiencies in their areas. That is an increase on the grant paid for this purpose in 2013-14, and it offers further protection. Let me be clear, however—I hope that my hon. Friend would not expect me to say anything else, given my past interest in this area prior to coming into Government—that we need to change the approach towards assessing the longer-term funding needs of rural local authorities, and we must bear that in mind as we move forward. We need to consider how we support rural local authorities in increasing their income from business rates retention, and we need to develop a longer-term solution to supporting the transition.
On rural-proofing, I want to leave the House under no illusion. The Government take rural-proofing incredibly seriously, and my ministerial colleagues and I champion it strongly across Government. We are supported in that role by DEFRA’s centre of rural expertise, the rural communities policy unit, which was mentioned extensively in the report. Lord Cameron’s review of rural-proofing will report separately from what we are doing in Government. In a new element, all Government Department annual reports and accounts will report on their rural-proofing activities. It is very important to DEFRA that we have that level of engagement in reporting back, and I welcome it. At our last count, we were actively assisting other Departments with over 60 different policy areas to ensure that rural dimensions are being appropriately and proportionately considered. Importantly, we do not do this in isolation from the rural communities and businesses we serve. I am grateful to the EFRA Committee for recognising DEFRA’s comprehensive engagement framework with key rural stakeholders and civil society groups and representatives.
I should like to highlight some particular examples of this. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned education funding. The Government recognise that in some areas, particularly where schools are small, it is unreasonable to require pupils to travel long distances to alternative schools. That is why, following a review of the funding arrangements conducted with DEFRA’s rural communities policy unit, the Department for Education announced in June that it would allow local authorities to use a new sparsity factor when allocating funding. The Government have made it clear that the sparsity factor will be kept under review to consider whether adjustments need to be made in 2014-15 and as we move towards a national funding formula in the longer term.
All the aspects that the Minister has mentioned so far will really help rural communities such as my constituency. On school transport, the Government have been generous in funding new places in rural schools, but the local authority has cut the transport budget allowing people to take advantage of those new places. Is there anything he can do to allow county councils to use that money to ensure that children get to school safely?
Local authorities have a statutory role in the provision of school transport, but there are a number of other ways in which they can engage with the wider transport infrastructure in their areas to provide opportunities not just for school transport but for all the other vital forms of transport that we have been debating.
I agree that providing affordable homes is crucial in allowing rural economies to grow and welcome the fact that this Government are investing in affordable housing. When the hon. Member for Ogmore discussed this, he did not say that under the previous Government the number of affordable socially rented homes that were available fell, a trend that this coalition Government will reverse through the investment that we are making. It is important to recognise that that applies in rural areas as well as in urban areas. The Government support rural exception sites, which, as hon. Members will know, are small sites that can be used for affordable housing in perpetuity, making a crucial difference.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) was the first speaker to refer to post offices and postal services in general—a very important matter. On 27 November, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced a further £640 million for the post office network to complete its network transformation programme. That programme is not suitable for about 3,000 post offices. Those branches predominantly serve small, often remote communities, and they may be the last shop in the village. For the first time in post office history, the updated programme specifically allocates £20 million to this part of the network. As a Member of Parliament during the previous Government’s period in office, I saw what happened when their network review closed so many rural post offices and the effect that that had on those communities. We are now looking at opportunities to secure the network that now exists to make sure that we are not dropping back into that territory.
Returning to rural transport, which I mentioned briefly in reply to the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who is no longer in his place, the Government have distributed £20 million to rural transport authorities in England to support the development of community transport schemes, which provide services that are vital in many rural areas. We are funding more than 20 Wheels to Work schemes through the local sustainable transport fund. Those schemes enable many young people to access employment and training opportunities. We have protected the statutory entitlement to concessionary bus travel, ensuring that older people can maintain greater freedom and independence. As we stated in the Government response to the EFRA report, the Department for Transport has committed to setting up a monitoring and evaluation framework to assess the changes to the bus service operators grant.
The issue of fuel was regularly raised, with regard to transport fuel and the fuel duty discount. I am pleased that hon. Members across the House acknowledged what the coalition Government have done in opening the door to the concept of recognising rurality and the challenges faced in relation to fuel prices. Many rural communities aspire to explore whether the scheme is a good fit for them, with processes that are appropriate for their areas. Several Members, particularly those from west Wales, suggested that it could operate slightly differently. I am sure that if they write to my colleagues in the Treasury about how they think it could be changed, their contributions can be borne in mind.
Several hon. Members talked about domestic fuel and the people in communities in rural areas who are off the gas grid. We are working with the Department of Energy and Climate Change to support the promotion of buying groups to bring down costs for gas and oil. On winter fuel payments, as part of the ministerial round table on heating oil and liquid petroleum gas, we are working with DECC and the Department for Work and Pensions to look into bringing payments forward. A number of hon. Members raised that issue.
I am afraid that I cannot. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and for extolling the virtues of his constituency; he set off a rash of such remarks around the Chamber, as was entirely justified.
I am afraid that, given the time available, I may have been unable to engage with all the issues in as much detail as I would have liked. I am happy, as always, to hear from the Select Committee, from all hon. Members who have been present, and from those who have not been able to join us, about how we can build on the work that the Government are doing to support rural communities, and how we can ensure that we are challenging, in a helpful, constructive and friendly way, all Government Departments to ensure that they are delivering for rural communities and having at the heart of their policy making the interests of those rural communities as well as urban ones. I hope that this debate demonstrates that the Government have strong rural credentials, that we are serious about advocating the needs of rural areas, and that we are driven towards unlocking the potential of rural communities and businesses.
I thank everybody who has participated for their positive and constructive contributions to this excellent debate, which has demonstrated that this matter is not just to do with DEFRA but relates to all the tentacles of Government—it is multi-agency and multi-departmental.
I very much enjoyed the beauty contest as to who has the best constituency, but no one has yet come close to Thirsk and Malton. I fell into a trap at one point, so to save any grief in any quarters, let me say that of course I meant to refer to the spare room subsidy in the context of the importance of affordable housing.
I welcomed the contributions on the sheer cost of living and the fact that rural communities are under-represented and underfunded. The examples given show that we look to rural communities to give the sort of help we need, but we expect the Government to remove some of the barriers. I referred briefly to the fact that off-grid energy households have to be able to access the same incentives and finance to improve their properties and reduce their heating bills as those on-grid.
No one can doubt after today’s debate the importance of rural growth, and in particular broadband, to farming and other rural businesses. We would have liked the Government to keep to 9% modulation—I will just throw that into the mix—but 12% is still less than 15%.
We now have a better understanding of what it is like for those of us who live in and represent rural communities and a better idea of how best to meet the challenges. I hope we can persuade the Government and the Backbench Business Committee to hold an annual debate to give the Department the say each year as to how we are bringing rural communities to the heart of Government, and that policy formation, whichever Department is responsible for a particular policy, will reflect the needs of rural communities.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered rural communities.