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Cost of Living (Rural Britain)

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 June 2015

Reducing the cost of living in rural areas depends primarily on overcoming the challenges of distance and sparsity. That means boosting productivity and investing in a strong economy and infrastructure, such as road, rail and high-speed broadband. The rural fuel rebate means that some of the most rural areas now benefit from a 5p per litre fuel discount.

People in villages such as Stillington, Carlton, Thorpe Thewles and Redmarshall in my constituency have seen their buses reduced to the odd one here and there, or they have gone altogether, as private companies have pulled out because local authorities no longer have the money to subsidise them. I am sure the Minister agrees that affordable transport links are essential for rural areas, so what can I tell my constituents that the Government will do to connect them to the rest of the area?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that connections of any sort, whether digital or bus connections, are vital for isolated rural areas. Some councils have found solutions to that and there is a community bus fund, championed by the Department for Transport. I look forward to talking in detail to the hon. Gentleman, if he is interested, about the problems in his constituency.

The Minister mentions the rural economy in the context of broadband. I quite agree that we need to boost broadband, but does he agree that we really need to send a signal to BT to enhance its efforts to ensure that we are properly connected in rural areas?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Working with BT involves the work of every single constituency MP to ensure that we get the information on which areas will be connected and we hold British Telecom to account for the more than £700 million of public money that the Government are investing in a highly impressive programme in rural broadband roll-out.

Is the Minister, like me, a compulsive listener to “Farming Today”? Is he aware that many experts are saying on “Farming Today” that the cost of living in rural communities will be affected in the long term by climate change and how it impacts on the crops we can grow successfully in the rural economy? Is he worried about that? Is he talking about it, or have this Government given up on climate change worries?

Climate change is baked into every aspect of this Department’s work. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the risk assessment conducted in 2012 on climate change adaptation focused specifically on flood risk, but he is correct that there are other issues we need to look at—and look at relentlessly—which is why we look forward to providing a full response to the assessment provided by the climate change adaptation sub-committee.

There can be no question about it: it does cost more to live in rural areas compared with urban areas, so I very much welcome the reduction in fuel duty, the cap on petrol prices and equalising the council tax. All these things are extremely helpful, but transport must be central to this. Twenty-five per cent. of people in my constituency do not have cars. Will the Minister take steps to look into community bus services, such as Bradies taxis, which I launched last week in my constituency? They are at the end of a telephone and will go and pick people up from their rural locations.

My hon. Friend is a great champion of the issues of rural areas. The Department for Transport launched an interesting scheme towards the end of the last Parliament to provide support for community transport schemes. If he wishes to discuss it in more detail, I would encourage the council to apply to the Department for Transport for that fund.