[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email firstname.lastname@example.org. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Welsh rural economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I am honoured to lead today’s debate on the future of the Welsh rural economy, itself an integral and culturally vital component of the very identity of Wales. This year, 2021, has been one of extraordinary challenges for the Welsh rural economy. Agriculture is awakening to the cold long dawning of a new restrictive trading agreement with our largest export market, the European Union, while tourism and hospitality are enduring the sudden deep freeze and slow defrosting of covid-19 restrictions.
Our communities are facing a series of interlinked crises and interwoven threads of inequalities. There is an environmental and climate change crisis, there is a public health crisis and there is an economic crisis. More than a decade of Tory austerity casts a shadow over our communities’ capacity to respond and to develop resilience. Communities such as mine in Dwyfor Meirionnydd suffer from youth depopulation, while the young people who wish to stay can no longer afford to get on the housing ladder. Wages are among the lowest in the UK. Meanwhile, former family homes become luxury second properties or investment holiday rentals in a febrile market.
Today’s debate is therefore a timely opportunity to consider how the political tectonic shifts of the last five years are changing the Welsh economic landscape, even as their legacy becomes intertwined with the unprecedented and thus unpredictable social and economic results of a global pandemic in a world dependent on global trade. I hope that all of us here will be able to take just a step back and consider what success looks like and to have the humility to recognise that, mere politicians as we are, we will have failed in our duty to our constituencies in the here and now, and to the future children of Wales, if we are satisfied with short-term glories that leave no lasting legacy while failing to remedy the evident injustices of the present.
The Welsh rural economy plays a pivotal role in the wider Welsh economy, accounting for 28% of the economic output across Wales in 2019. It is the heartland of key export industries, including Wales’s highly successful food and drink sector. Yet such economic successes have failed to translate into real economic gains for rural communities or attention by both UK and Welsh policy makers. If this is trickle-down economics in action, we are experiencing a drought. The gross value added per capita of Welsh rural areas was just £18,000 in 2019, significantly below the Welsh average of £21,295 in 2019, and also far behind the UK average of £29,599. That is reflected in low pay, with my home county of Gwynedd a rural area where 31.4% of employees—the highest proportion in Wales—earn below the real living wage.
Disturbingly, this is being translated into worse life outcomes for our youth. The spectre of child poverty, which has risen in 20 of Wales’s 22 local authorities, is particularly acute in rural areas such as Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Powys and Carmarthenshire, and a recent report by the Rural Youth Project suggested that 68% of Welsh rural youths struggle to find work in their local communities. We do our communities a deep disservice if we just shrug our metaphorical shoulders and say, “Well, that’s how it has always been”—that somehow we in Wales should be resigned to our children leaving, because all the glittering prizes have always been elsewhere, and that we had better knuckle down and accept that, to Westminster, some places are just more deserving than others.
As I have already mentioned, the combined disruption of Brexit and the covid-19 pandemic has hit key sectors of the Welsh rural economy disproportionately hard. In my role as a commissioner on the UK Trade and Business Commission, I have heard at first hand how Welsh small and medium-sized enterprises located in rural communities have lost market share, and whole export markets in some cases, due to the trade disruption caused by Brexit. Equally, the pandemic has caused untold hardship for hospitality businesses across the UK, but especially in rural areas such as Dwyfor Meirionnydd, where hospitality and accommodation employ 27% of the total local workforce.
Policy makers therefore have a key role to play in ensuring that the Welsh rural economy is at the forefront of Wales’s economic recovery. Plaid Cymru local authorities, such as Carmarthenshire County Council, have led in that regard, implementing clear strategies such as furthering business scale-ups and improving transport links and access to housing. However, the UK Government are hampering our efforts to develop a more vibrant and sustainable rural economy. Time and again, Plaid Cymru has tabled amendments to Finance Bills, asking the Treasury to consider how to channel investment into Wales and its rural economy more effectively and coherently and, perhaps most importantly, with a long-term vision. Instead, the UK Government have replaced the needs-based funding investment formula adopted by the EU, which was formerly a significant investor in the Welsh rural economy, with competitive UK-wide schemes that ignore rural need and disadvantage Wales. Such schemes not only fail to honour Conservative manifesto promises to Wales, but lack a collaborative and future-focused strategy to further Welsh economic development.
Let us go back to the word “competitive”, because it is a word that the Tories like—winner-takes-all, macho stuff to make headlines. Let us unpick the meaning of “competitive” in this context. It is setting communities against each other—winners and losers in a political popularity contest—and does not begin to recognise need. This is about the Tories wanting to have their cake and eat it—every last crumb. Adding to the injury is the fundamentally flawed United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which acts as a vortex deliberately set in motion to dismember the principle of subsidiarity. It is a terribly long word, but it means pulling apart the integrity of Welsh devolution, which the people have supported again and again whenever they have had the opportunity. After vesting Westminster with powers that previously were clearly and exclusively at the disposal of our Parliament, we now even see limitations on how Welsh public bodies can purchase from local Welsh companies, removing a key pillar of support from local Welsh food producers and hospitality businesses.
The Conservatives’ austerity has indirectly resulted in local authority budgets in Wales shrinking by 17% and led to the loss of public services that are so central to our communities in rural areas, and the UK Government are now actively encumbering Welsh rural authorities. Consequently, although many key drivers of the Welsh rural economy are devolved, Westminster is failing where it is encroaching. That is why I urge the Government to work with, rather than against, Welsh institutions to help them deliver locally informed economic strategies that will further, rather than hamper, the Welsh rural economy. Anything else will ensure only that stagnating rural incomes, rising rural poverty and youth migration will continue unabated.
No issue better encapsulates the consequences of such an outcome than the worsening second home crisis in Wales. The low incomes and poor economic prospects of rural communities have left them unfairly exposed to the rapid increase in house prices and second home ownership across the UK. It is not an overstatement to say that this has created a situation of pervasive exclusion of local workers and younger members of communities from their local housing markets.
In Gwynedd, for instance, approximately 40% of houses that go on the market every year are now bought as second homes. In the village of Cwm-yr-Eglwys, Pembrokeshire, there are now only two permanent residents—the rest of the 50 houses are holiday homes. This not only has dire ramifications for local public services and distortionary implications for the local economy, but fundamentally means that local workers, especially the young, find it almost impossible to stay in their local communities. That is why I welcome action by Plaid Cymru-led local authorities, such as those in Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, to increase revenue through second home council tax premiums to fund local housing initiatives, and I urge the Welsh Government to work with Plaid Cymru to address this issue urgently.
Fundamentally, however, we need to improve the resilience of the Welsh rural economy itself. Last week’s headlines alone were an unwelcome reminder of the urgency of doing so, as they announced a bad trade deal with Australia. This could well establish a disastrous precedent for Welsh agriculture, as well as increase the growing risks posed by climate change, as described by the Climate Change Committee.
On the subject of trade, I urge the UK Government to involve the Welsh and other devolved Governments closely in the negotiation of new trade deals, particularly as economic development in key sectors such as agriculture are devolved competencies. As my Plaid Cymru colleagues, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), have argued, the deal with Australia threatens to undercut our local farmers, hollow out our rural communities and damage our climate.
Equally, our net zero pledges require urgent action to decarbonise our rural economy and build upon its key strengths. Wales is an energy-rich nation, yet we lack not only the borrowing powers to finance nationwide developments, but a modern energy transmission grid that would allow local renewable energy developments to feed electricity into it. That hampers the ability of actors ranging from farmers to local authorities to decarbonise and make the best use of Wales’s natural resources for our common good. Those are just two issues, but I hope that today’s debate will further this much-needed discussion on improving the rural economy’s resilience.
The Welsh rural economy has a pivotal role to play not only in ensuring Wales’s post-pandemic recovery, but in ensuring that we meet our net zero obligations as sustainably and rapidly as possible. The Welsh rural economy is a vital component not only of the wider Welsh economy, but of Wales as a nation. It is the heartland of the Welsh language; the origin of some of our finest food and drink; the guardian of the sustainable use of our environment; and, of course, the destination for tourists worldwide.
Plaid Cymru is calling for the UK Government to work with, rather than against, the devolved Governments, by involving and engaging with them, whether on regional and rural development funds or in trade negotiations. We urge both the UK and Welsh Governments to support Plaid Cymru’s proposals to address the second home crisis and, in order to meet our net zero objectives, to give us the borrowing and regulatory powers needed to develop Welsh renewable energy projects and connect them to a newly upgraded electricity transmission network.
Not only are these goals achievable; they are undeniably necessary to support our Welsh rural economy and allow it to flourish. If our communities are to withstand the unprecedented and interlinked crises ahead, resilience must be built into our economy in the long term. The Westminster Government have failed time and again to show they have the ambition or the ideas to do so, but today’s debate provides them an opportunity to set out a coherent strategy for supporting the future of the Welsh economy. I look forward to a constructive debate. Diolch yn fawr.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing this important debate on the future of the Welsh rural economy.
My constituency of Ynys Môn has one of the lowest GVA rates in the UK. It is heavily dependent on tourism, and haemorrhages young people when they leave school because of the limited local employment opportunities. Frankly, if any part of Wales needs an economic revival, it is Anglesey. In the past 21 years, since the Senedd was established, and with a Labour Welsh Government, the island has systematically lost major employers, including Anglesey Aluminium, the Wylfa nuclear power station, Octel and Rehau, with huge job losses. We have seen next to nothing from the Welsh Government to address these issues. As such, I am campaigning to bring a freeport to Anglesey.
The benefits incumbent with freeport status would encourage inward investment and employment on the island. I already have businesses, such as Tratos, keen to set up on Anglesey, should we get freeport status. This would mean hundreds of jobs waiting to be created, yet the Welsh Labour Government are digging in their heels and refusing to launch the Welsh freeport bid prospectus. The people of north Wales can only look on as Liverpool establishes itself as a freeport and businesses that could have come to us go instead to England.
Even our farming community suffers when the Senedd votes in legislation creating a whole-Wales nitrate vulnerable zone at an estimated £360 million cost to Welsh farmers, putting local farms at risk of financial ruin.
Anglesey has been sidelined by a Welsh Government who have no concept of the issues facing the island and no local presence. It therefore falls to the UK Government to pick up the pieces of the Welsh rural economy—a job that they are taking on with gusto. Let me give a few examples of the support being given to Ynys Môn. The Secretary of State for Wales was very clear when he gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee last week: if the Welsh Government will not commit to setting up a freeport in Wales, then the UK Government will. There is massive support locally for a freeport on Anglesey and we are putting together an exciting and innovative bid, led by Stena, which has the potential to transform the future of our island. I urge the UK Government to take this forward as quickly as possible.
The levelling-up and community renewal funds have been opened by the UK Government with millions of pounds available for investment. The community renewal fund gave me the opportunity to work directly with the Isle of Anglesey County Council and to build relationships with them. The island’s head of regulation and economic development, Christian Branch, and his team submitted a fantastic range of projects last week, which will generate local jobs and boost the economy directly and indirectly. Our council will also receive over £140,000 in capacity funding to help it generate excellent quality bids for these funds.
We are working hard to bring new opportunities here. In his March Budget speech, the Chancellor announced £4.8 million of funding for the new Holyhead hydrogen hub. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be on the island next week to meet M-SParc and the Minister for Science to discuss bringing the cutting-edge thermo-hydraulic facility here. I am also in talks with Rolls-Royce about bringing SMRs to the island as well as continuing discussions about potential developers for Wylfa Newydd.
The trade deals that the UK Government are working on will open up new and exciting markets for our farmers. Countries keen for our high-quality produce are coming online. Earlier this month, the Minister for Trade Policy spent 50 minutes speaking to farmers on Anglesey, in English and in Welsh, about those opportunities. He was also happy to reassure them that scaremongering on food standards is incorrect and that standards will not be compromised by imports.
The UK Government are also committed to levelling up communications and transport infrastructure. They are delivering the shared rural network to improve 4G coverage and have committed £5 billion to support the roll-out of broadband through Project Gigabit. The Union connectivity review by Sir Peter Hendy highlighted the need for investment in road and rail infrastructure right across north Wales. All these moves by the UK Government will contribute to levelling up our rural community on Anglesey by giving businesses and individuals better access where they have been failed in the past.
Anglesey needs good-quality, well-paid jobs. This is how we stop our young people leaving; how we stop the decimation of the Welsh language; and how we preserve our local communities, our language and our heritage. I see great opportunities for the Welsh rural economy with the moves being made by the UK Government, and I look forward to seeing the fortunes of Anglesey reversed as a result. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch, Mrs Cummins; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I would first like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing the debate, and commend her for such a passionate speech—I agree with the sentiments wholeheartedly. A particular challenge that rural Wales faces, and on which I would like to focus my remarks this afternoon, is a lack of connectivity, in digital and in transport, between our rural economy and the rest of the UK, and the wider global market.
Digital connectivity remains a tremendous challenge for the rural economy of Wales. Ofcom’s “Connected Nations” report in 2020 noted that nearly 9,000 premises in Wales cannot access a decent fixed broadband service or get good 4G coverage indoors, with almost all those premises in rural areas. More recently, NFU Cymru and others found that less than 50% of those who lived in rural areas said they had standard broadband, only 36% had superfast broadband, and 66% said that they or their household had been impacted by poor broadband.
That has dire consequences for constituencies such as mine, where only 20% of the population live in an urban area. In the rural areas, it is estimated that 26.5% do not receive a decent broadband connection—by that, I mean a download speed of 10 megabits per second—compared with the Wales average of 11.9% and the UK average of 9.3%.
That is largely to do with the UK Government’s difficulties in delivering a digital infrastructure strategy that works for rural communities in Wales. The Government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review proposed an “outside in” approach, to ensure that gigabit-capable connectivity across all areas of the UK is achieved at the same time, so that no area is systematically left behind. However, the UK Government’s reduced target of gigabit broadband coverage of 85% by 2025 is to the detriment of rural communities, which yet again will have to wait for improved connectivity.
The original plan would have been a big boost to people living in rural communities struggling on speeds below 30 megabits per second and the Government have already admitted that reaching the final 1% of very remote homes could be prohibitively expensive. That is without even addressing the excess costs facing rural communities under the universal service obligation, which offers a maximum of £3,004 to a single premises, well below the costs being quoted to connect some of my constituents in Ceredigion. To make matters worse, schemes that exist to address rural connectivity, such as the broadband upgrade scheme, need greater co-ordination between the Welsh Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if their potential is to be realised.
Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire were included in the pilot broadband upgrade scheme, which proved successful locally in aggregating community demand for better broadband in such a way as to encourage alternative network providers to bid to undertake upgrade work in some of our most rural communities. A number of these companies have shown an interest in connecting communities across Ceredigion. However, despite working successfully with local residents, they have encountered a range of difficulties, foremost among which were data problems that saw entire communities being deemed ineligible for gigabit voucher support due to their sharing a postcode area with a solitary premises that had benefited from broadband upgrade work, despite the fact that they themselves were struggling on less than 3 megabits per second.
More recently, a number of proposals to connect communities have been thrown into uncertainty due to the announcement that commercial roll-outs might be possible in these areas in the next four or five years. No detailed plans have been announced, but the eligibility criteria for gigabit voucher funding means that, due to this announcement, proposals already under development as part of the broadband upgrade fund may no longer be viable. So the communities affected are thrown into yet another limbo in their quest for decent broadband.
Compounding this debacle is the fact that the Government’s policies for addressing better mobile connectivity in rural areas are also not delivering. The shared rural network, for instance, uses many of the emergency services network sites run by the Home Office. The delay by the Home Office in constructing new masts and connecting existing masts is denying rural communities in Wales the opportunity of improved connectivity now.
Just as important as digitally connecting our rural economy is the need to decarbonise our transport system rapidly and responsibly reduce private car use. Local authorities in Wales have a vital role to play in developing and supporting local bus networks, such as Bookabus. However, such services do not come cheap. In Carmarthenshire alone, over 85% of local transport routes in rural areas are subsidised to some degree, with the average subsidy in 2019 in Carmarthenshire per passenger being £3.63. As such, it is simply not enough for the Governments on either end of the M4 to call for improved active travel or the adoption of electric vehicles if they are not also prepared to invest in the necessary infrastructure and improved public transport.
In sum, better supporting our rural communities’ connectivity, both digital and transport, is pivotal to securing the future and resilience of the Welsh rural economy. All areas, all communities—indeed, all nations of the UK—deserve equal treatment, so I hope the UK and Welsh Governments will do their utmost to secure the investment and, where necessary, the policy reform to allow our rural communities to fulfil their potential.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mrs Cummins. It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, I believe for the first time.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on bringing forward this important debate and setting out so well in her opening remarks the many challenges facing rural communities in Wales. Needless to say, I agreed with everything she said. It was a pleasure to listen to her opening remarks.
Levelling up has acted as a convenient smokescreen for the UK Government on these matters, but we have yet to see a credible strategy underpinning the slogan. In my first Parliament here, in 2010, there used to be “geographical rebalancing”. There was not much geographical rebalancing in the past 10 years, but now we have levelling up. What discussions is the Minister having with the Treasury about how issues facing rural communities will be factored into the metrics used to measure the success of levelling up? We know that work is going on, and we hope that there will be more than just words behind the strategy on this occasion.
One of the key measures must surely be improved connectivity through better transport and broadband infrastructure. On broadband, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). The pandemic has proved beyond any doubt that access to broadband is critical, both for economic prosperity and individual wellbeing.
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of maintaining our physical fitness and provided an opportunity to enable more active travel. In Carmarthenshire, the county council is about to submit a shovel-ready levelling-up fund application for an exciting Tywi valley cycle pathway, linking the towns of Carmarthen and Llandeilo. It has my full support, and I ask the Minister to look into the submission and give his support to what we are trying to achieve in Carmarthenshire.
Moving towards more sustainable models of travel is critical if Wales is to meet our climate targets, yet currently 87% of all journeys in mid-Wales are undertaken by car. To reduce that figure, we must drastically improve our railways. It will come as no surprise to anyone who frequently travels by train in Wales that we have historically received only 1% of rail investment, despite having 11% of the track. I encourage the Minister to look at the submission by the renowned transport expert, Professor Stuart Cole, to the UK Government’s connectivity review. He makes the case for a £20 million investment in the beautiful Heart of Wales line, which connects Swansea and Shrewsbury, and links three of the main market towns in Carmarthenshire, all of which reside within my constituency: Ammanford, Llandeilo and Llandovery. Professor Cole outlines how that investment would improve and increase service provision on the line and bring substantial economic and social benefits.
Notwithstanding my points about decarbonising transport, I believe that there is still an important role to be played by investing in road transport. I cannot miss the opportunity to highlight the very damaging announcement today by the Welsh Government that they will not invest in the Llandeilo bypass—there is a moratorium on bypass developments. There was a cast-iron guarantee for the communities I serve in Carmarthenshire that it would be built by now. There has been obstacle after obstacle, and today’s news will be a hammer blow for the Tywi valley.
All too often, rural Wales finds itself at the back of the queue for investment in infrastructure. Our farmers are bearing the brunt of Wales being an afterthought in the UK Government’s trade policy. The lamb and beef tariff rate quotas in the proposed trade deal with Australia have confirmed the worst fears that many of us had about the trajectory of trade policy post Brexit. It sets a precedent, and not only for the agriculture sector. Trade deals with far bigger economies than Australia will undoubtedly be more problematic, not just for food but for other sectors such as steel and manufacturing.
Meanwhile, the consequences of Brexit are beginning to bite. Analysis by the Food and Drink Federation of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs data shows that British food and drink exports to the EU fell by £2 billion in the first three months of 2021, with sales of dairy products falling by a staggering 90%. It is time to give up on the spin that those are just teething troubles, and acknowledge that the latest figures show that wholescale dentistry is required in the Trade and Agriculture Commission. An urgent veterinary agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary rules would be one way to remove barriers for Welsh farming exports created by the current Brexit deal, as well as alleviating friction caused by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Reports indicate that at the G7, President Biden offered a trade deal—which I suspect did not include food products—with the US, even if the UK aligned with the EU on food standards. Surely that is too good to turn down, considering the current shambles. Has the Minister made any assessment of whether reports of reduced checks in the Australian trade deal would prevent such an agreement with the EU?
Before I bring my remarks to a close, I would like to touch on another issue that threatens not only to undermine the long-term sustainability of Welsh agriculture and the unique linguistic and cultural traditions maintained by farmers in our country, but completely to change the local landscape. There is growing evidence of Welsh farms being bought by large multinational companies from outside Wales for unregulated woodland planting in order to offset their carbon emissions. Furthermore, rich people from outside Wales are buying up productive Welsh farms and planting them, while coining Glastir support.
Once an agricultural holding is lost to woodland, it will not return. Anyone who recognises the challenges of the climate crisis will support a policy of increased woodland. However, the debate on the issue far too often fails to recognise the contribution that grassland systems play in providing an important carbon sink. I am delighted to see my colleague the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) here. In Scotland, they have managed to increase woodland planting without supplanting agriculture, working with their farmers. We need that approach in Wales.
This is a matter for the Welsh Government, which in my view should set a maximum limit based on the national woodland target for tree planting in each farm holding, and ensure that Glastir and woodland planting schemes are available only to actual, active farmers. I am interested to know whether the Minister has come across this issue in Sir Fynwy. I would like to use the debate to call on the Welsh Government to revise their planning technical advice notes, to ensure that woodland planting is done in a manner that preserves our agricultural heritage.
There is also a wider question. Carbon offsets may present a very attractive shortcut for companies to reduce their emissions, but we need to cut emissions in the first place. The UK Government are due to publish a net zero strategy before COP26. Will that address the question of corporations using carbon capture, rather than reducing their carbon emissions?
To tackle the many issues faced by rural communities, the Welsh Government must be empowered with the fiscal levers required to deliver an effective post-covid recovery strategy. That includes reforming the funding formula, greater tax freedoms and increasing the cap on borrowing. Only in that way can we deliver tangible benefits for those living in rural communities throughout Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing the debate. I speak today as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Wales. I am sure Members will join me in welcoming my newest colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) to the House, a proud Welsh woman, as she made clear with her affirmation in Welsh yesterday.
Moving on from yesterday’s news to today’s debate and the future of the Welsh rural economy, the Welsh high street, like much of the UK, has suffered over the past 15 months. It is obviously right that shops had to close during the pandemic, but now they must be supported in the recovery. When talking about the rural economy, people often assume that it is just agriculture. Although I will turn to that, it also includes those businesses that serve rural communities, for example, local shops. It is vital that those businesses are supported during the recovery, something that my colleague, the Liberal Democrat Member of the Senedd for Mid and West Wales has been championing since her recent election.
I ask the Minister to detail what consideration has been given to rural retail generally. In the face of strong competition from online retailers, what measures will be considered to level the playing field in the recovery from the pandemic? As part of that recovery, and as businesses and communities respond to having left the EU, it is vital that communities throughout Wales, particularly those in rural areas, receive investment.
It is only two weeks since I last spoke in a debate in Westminster Hall about the importance of the community renewal and levelling-up funds. Then I asked whether the Minister responding would commit to a meaningful relationship with the Welsh Government on the formation and administration of those funds and, going forward, of the shared prosperity fund. I also asked for assurances that Wales would not lose out on the funding it used to receive. Today, I add to those questions by asking whether the first meeting of the promised inter-ministerial group with the Welsh Government has taken place and whether a statement can be made as to its outcome. If it has not, when will such a meeting take place?
In the previous debate, we were reassured that the stated figure of 5% of allocated funding coming to Wales represented a funding floor, not a ceiling, but I understand from my colleagues in Welsh local government and from my own experience in my constituency of North East Fife in Scotland that it has been arguably more challenging for local authorities under the devolved Administrations to put together bids for both funds, the deadlines for which passed last week, so again I ask the Minister what steps will be taken to ensure that the floor is met even if fewer bids from Wales are received than expected.
Finally, I turn to agriculture. As colleagues have mentioned, there are significant concerns that the Australia trade deal will put the Welsh rural economy at risk. I say “concerns”, but perhaps I should say “suspicions”, because full details are still awaited. There were recent reports in the media that there will be no tariffs on Australian beef imports until they rise above 35,000 tonnes —six times the current level of imports—or on lamb imports until they go above 25,000 tonnes, which is three times the current imports. Australian animal welfare standards are significantly below ours, which means that people there can produce cheaper products.
This Government say that they support Welsh farmers, but if those reports are true and Welsh farmers are undercut by such produce, how can they be doing anything other than breaking that promise? How does the Minister plan to support Welsh farmers in the light of the Australia trade deal? Sadly, parliamentarians will not be given a vote on the deal when it comes to Parliament, so what opportunities will we have to scrutinise it? I am sure that Welsh farmers, like farmers in North East Fife, have worked very hard over the last few years to diversify their economies. I would hate to see that hard work undone by that trade deal.
Thank you, Mrs Cummins, for your indulgence, given my slightly late appearance at this debate. I apologise to colleagues in the debate and especially to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for being slightly late—demonstrating to colleagues that it is literally impossible to be in two places at once.
I am very pleased to take part in this debate, but I will proceed with caution because, despite a very happy 18 months living and working in the Vale of Glamorgan, I recognise my limited knowledge of matters Welsh, and there is nothing more irritating to a Member of Parliament than somebody talking about our part of the world with less than comprehensive knowledge. But there are very many similarities between the situation that the rural Welsh economy finds itself in and the rural Scottish economy.
I represent a rural ward in Angus in Scotland. There is not so much difference between the Welsh valleys and the Angus glens. I would contend that neither are being particularly well served by the UK Government at the current time, a classic example of that being the Australia trade deal. I will not labour this point. It is a hot topic in the Chamber and in the media. Suffice it to say that the reassurances—if we can call them that—coming from the Department for International Trade and, to a significantly and tellingly lesser extent, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are very hollow indeed. The supposed safeguards for Welsh producers, Scottish producers and Cumbrian producers of lamb are paper thin. There is also the fact that, watery as they are, they are timebound over a maximum period of 15 years. I wonder what the Government will tell Welsh farmers is going to happen after 15 years. Is the scale of Welsh farming suddenly going to increase after 15 years to the extent that farmers will be able to compete with the colossal enterprises in Australia and, by that time of course, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and many other colossal producers?
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns about the anticipated trade agreement with New Zealand, which we expect to be announced in August? It has seen the precedent set with Australia and, in terms of lamb, this deal looks even more damaging than the present agreement.
The right hon. Member is exactly right. We are looking at the thin end of the wedge. I will come on to why this is a function of a disconnect in the current set-up of the United Kingdom, but of course she is right. With my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), I met the Australian high commissioner to the UK about a year ago, and we were assured by him that Australia was not particularly interested in bulk volumes, in terms of exporting lamb to the UK. I did not believe it then and I do not believe it now; it is inconsistent.
New Zealand will follow where Australia leads. Such is the unseemly haste with which the UK Government are pursuing any and all opportunities for international trade, as though it somehow validates the ridiculous and reckless Brexit course, they will do deals with New Zealand and we will see further attrition in the markets that we currently satisfy from domestic production. It is a very damaging prospect that faces us now.
Yesterday I met NFU Scotland members in Angus. Their issues include the arbitrary discussions around journey times for animals; the trade deals we have touched on today; welfare standards that we must adhere to in this country but that our competitors are not similarly held to; and the availability of seasonal agricultural workers because of the Conservative Government’s fundamental ideology of not wanting people to come from outside to support our industries and enhance our communities, despite the negative effect that that has on the rural economies of the constituent nations of the UK. Likewise food standards are now a lottery, depending on the food we buy and the market it comes from.
I had an interesting meeting recently with a renewable energy company that has floating wind farms. It has a tremendous pilot project off the Pembrokeshire coast, and it wants to do something similar off the North sea coast, off Peterhead. The dialogue that it had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was so slow that it represents a golden opportunity lost by the Government to open up rural and very rural parts of our economy and to meet our net zero and renewable energy targets. There is a level of disconnect. Even if the company did get the project going, like many renewable projects in mid and west Wales, the feed-in tariffs, although not so bad in Wales, are still appalling, whereas we have energy producers around London paid to connect to the grid. In Wales they will have to pay a couple of pounds per unit, and in Caithness in Scotland, very, very rural communities will have to pay £6 or £7 per unit. BEIS just holds up its hands—“It’s not us. It is Ofgem.” Such levels of disconnect from central Government in London are not acceptable. They hold our economies back.
As a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I take part in good faith and in good spirit when discussing issues that are of no consequence to my constituents because I am a Member of the UK Parliament. I would rather not be, but I am—I wish I was a member of a sovereign Scottish Parliament. What has come through loud and clear is the disconnect and the asymmetry in the representation of the people of the United Kingdom. There is no English Government, but DEFRA is little more than an English Government Department. It has very little locus in the United Kingdom at large, and where it does, it exercises it with indifference and ambivalence. It is a great impediment to our rural communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Cummins.
I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing today’s debate. At the start of her speech, she talked about the combined challenges of Brexit, covid and 10 years of austerity, which have had a real negative impact on the Welsh economy, including the Welsh rural economy, and she talked about the pivotal role that the rural economy plays in Wales. She also spoke about the levelling-up fund and the competitive nature of the fund, which was the subject of a recent debate, and her concern—shared by some Opposition Members—about the focus of that funding, which should be based on need and deprivation and issues other than the competitive funding stream that we have seen in recent weeks. As other Members have, the right hon. Lady voiced her concerns about the Australia trade deal and spoke about the need to involve the devolved Governments in this and future trade negotiations, which some of us have been calling for in recent weeks.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) talked about the freeports. I agree that it would be a positive step, but I gently ask her to convince her colleagues to offer financial support for Welsh freeports similar to that provided for English ones. I understand Wales gets just a third of the funding available for freeports in England; that difference is clearly not acceptable.
I also beg the Government to give us some clarity about exactly which freeport they are talking about in Wales. Holyhead is much mentioned, but there is also mention of Pembrokeshire and the ports there as well, with Milford Haven. It is one thing to praise the virtues of freeports—although we are concerned that they may cause economic displacement—but we could also have greater clarity about exactly which freeport and which place they are talking about in Wales?
We do indeed need clarity from the UK Government on freeports, not least on funding but on other issues as well.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) talked about a subject that is close to my heart: the digital connectivity challenges across rural areas of Wales and that striving for broadband upgrade. It is right to recognise that, these days, decent broadband regarded as a necessity, not a luxury.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) talked about sustainability and the need for sufficient investment in railways, comparing the 1% of investment with the 11% of track. He also raised concerns about trade deals and the involvement of devolved Governments in those.
The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) talked about rural shops and retail. She also spoke about the levelling-up fund, which we discussed in this Chamber just two weeks ago, and the assurances that the fund will address the obvious need of our communities in Wales.
Finally, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) expressed concerns about the trade deals and how the current discussions do not bode well for future trade deals, not least the New Zealand trade deal, which the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd also mentioned. He also spoke about the level of disconnect with the UK Government.
We all know that Wales has some of the most stunning natural and rural areas of any nation in the world, but we all have a part to play if we are to ensure that those areas can continue to thrive and are protected for future generations. The Labour Welsh Government have used the tools available to them to take action against practices that threaten our environment and rural areas. They have used planning powers on land and sea to oppose fossil fuel extraction, including by maintaining the ban on fracking. They have also pursued ambitious policies to protect the environment, bringing forward a net zero target for Wales, creating a new national forest for Wales and driving forward major renewable energy projects, such as the Awel y Môr offshore wind farm and the world-class centre for marine engineering at Pembroke Dock. In Wales, we have reached the milestone of generating more than 50% of our energy from renewable sources.
As we have heard in the debate today, farmers are on the frontline in the climate emergency. The Welsh Government’s sustainable farming scheme will credit farmers for good environmental practices that have not been valued in the market in the past, such as improved soil, clean water and actions to tackle climate change. In Wales, we have protected the terms and conditions of agricultural workers by retaining our agricultural workers’ board, in contrast to the Government’s decision to abolish it in England. As we have left the European Union, farming subsidy schemes are being amended. The Welsh Government are committed to ensuring that all funding coming from the UK Government to replace the common agricultural policy and other EU subsidy schemes is retained for that purpose. Yet the UK Government have removed more than £130 million in rural development funding for Wales, which threatens our rural economies.
Finally, we know that the effects of the pandemic continue to be felt across all communities in Wales, right across the UK and further afield. Our rural areas in Wales are no different. Farms and other agricultural businesses have faced extreme pressures. For obvious reasons, a number of rural events have been cancelled over the last 15 months. Agricultural shows, such as the Vaynor show in my constituency and many others, provide an integral opportunity for farmers and agricultural workers to celebrate together our heritage, language and rural communities.
I am pleased that the Welsh Government’s Wales farm support group has met throughout the pandemic to consider what can be done to support our farmers and agricultural businesses. Bespoke support has been provided to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society to support preparations to reinstate shows when it is safe. I welcome this debate and the ongoing discussions with the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Cummins. Diolch yn fawr iawn i’r Aelod gwir anrhydeddus dros Dwyfor Meirionnydd. Although we obviously disagree and see things slightly differently politically, I acknowledge many of the issues raised by the right hon. Lady for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and their importance. I am pleased we are having this discussion on a subject that is of importance to all, regardless of our political persuasions.
I begin by assuring the right hon. Lady, and other Members, that the recovery and renewal of our rural economy is a central part of our strategy to build back better from the pandemic, but also to strengthen the Union—a matter for which the hon. Lady may not share my enthusiasm. The passion evident through all the contributions shows we can agree on other things. We agree that the countryside of Wales is close to the hearts of everyone who lives there, and because of the large proportion accounted for by land classified as rural, it is essential that local businesses in those areas are able to flourish, drive up the economy and create jobs for local people. From the mountains of Snowdonia to the beaches of Ceredigion in Pembrokeshire and the rolling hills of Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Monmouthshire, there is a special place in the national consciousness of Wales for its rural locations.
If Wales is to continue to thrive, it is essential that the local economies of rural Wales are able to create good, sustainable jobs—not just jobs, but careers to drive up growth, as I heard on a tour of north Wales. We are committed to levelling up in every part of the United Kingdom, and Wales is certainly no exception. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have undertaken visits, and my first visit after lockdown was to north Wales to discuss the growth deals and look at the issues the right hon. Lady for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has rightly raised today.
The importance of tourism to the area was underlined by the Tourism Network, which says that people do not want jobs; they want careers. The network tells young people to not go into a minimum wage job and stay there until they are sick of it and leave for England or elsewhere. They want people to be offered a career, so that they can go in doing a low-wage job, and at the same time undertake training for bookkeeping, personnel, or whatever, allowing them to become the leaders of tomorrow. That is something we would all want to support.
Before I go into the detail of the UK Government’s commitments to Wales, I will reflect on the unprecedented support they provided to businesses and individuals during the covid pandemic. More than 500,000 jobs were protected by the UK Government’s support schemes, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme. Billions were provided in Government loans to Welsh firms, and an extra £8.6 billion has provided to the Welsh Government through the Barnett formula since the start of the pandemic. I was left scratching my head when I heard the First Minister suggest that we had taken money away from the Welsh Government. I am surprised that when he suggested that in an interview he was not asked how much money he received two years ago—the difference is absolutely huge.
The Minister mentioned the levelling-up fund and that the Welsh Government have said they now receive less than they previously did. What does he make of the Welsh Government’s estimation that they are set to receive as little as £50 million a year, instead of the £375 million they previously got from the EU, under levelling-up agreements?
There is a very simple answer to the right hon. Lady on that point: £375 million a year is the average that the Welsh Government received in structural funds throughout the programme period, and £375 million is what they will continue to receive. In fact, I think it is slightly over that in the next year. That money will continue to come from the European Union over the next two or three financial years, so the extra money she refers to does not replace the structural funds; it is additional to the structural funds, which they will continue to receive. As for tail ends—to use a term that I hear a lot—and that EU money gradually dissipates, it will be replaced by the shared prosperity fund. We are absolutely standing by our manifesto commitment to ensure that Wales receives exactly the same amount after Brexit as it did before Brexit. I am delighted to make that clear.
As right hon. and hon. Members will undoubtedly be aware, the Secretary of State for Wales launched “The UK Government’s Plan for Wales” on 20 May. It sets out how we intend to build back from the pandemic by investing in digital and transport infrastructure, providing the right financial backing for green industry, and supporting jobs and growth right across Wales in the coming months and years. As one would expect, the plan had a thread of ambitious projects and initiatives for rural Wales, and I will turn to some of those commitments.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) rightly raised the issue of broadband, as did the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and many others. Yes, it is a traditional bugbear for our rural communities and, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) rightly said, we have realised just how important it is during the pandemic. I entirely agree with most of what has been said in this Chamber. Members are right to hold the Government to account for not quite reaching the speeds in rural areas that we would like, including in my Monmouthshire constituency. I welcome that Ministers are being held to account and being put under pressure on this issue.
However, we have invested £5 billion to support the deployment of gigabit-capable broadband in the hardest-to-reach areas of the United Kingdom, including in Wales. We will be investing £1.2 billion over the next four years. BT Openreach recently announced plans to deliver full-fibre broadband to about 415,000 homes and businesses across Wales over a five-year period. The shared rural network programme, of which the hon. Member for Ceredigion was a bit critical, will deliver 33 new masts, which will hopefully mean that 95% of Wales is covered by 4G by 2026. I make one genuine suggestion to the hon. Gentleman in particular, whom I met recently to discuss the growth deals in mid and west Wales, and the potential projects that may come forward. On a recent visit to Swansea, I saw that connectivity has been made one of the major project areas of the Swansea city deal, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr will be aware. When we return shortly, we will look at how the Swansea digital village is developing. My suggestion to the hon. Member for Ceredigion is very simple: encourage the local authorities in the area to make connectivity one of the planks of their growth deals.
In my constituency, we are waiting for the Home Office to switch on 10 masts for the emergency services network. That is something the Government could do immediately in the here and now. I urge the Minister to use his good office to good effect, and ensure that we get improved connectivity along those lines.
My officials are following that specific issue with interest at the moment. I suggest that they may wish to draft the right hon. Lady a response, because it seems a perfectly reasonable point to be making.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr also mentioned the importance of physical fitness during the pandemic. He is a fine exemplar of that, given that the last time I met him he was just coming out of the gym in the hotel that I had also been in. He practises what he preaches, which is very good.
I shall move on to the support the Government have given to farmers—the bedrock of our rural community. Various Members raised the Australian trade deal, so I will come on to that in a second. I believe that some misinformation has been put out about agricultural funding. Like EU structural funding, it will of course continue to come from the EU for the next couple of years. The UK Government have rightly made the commitment to match the agricultural funding we received before we left the European Union and to ensure that the same amount is received going forward.
The hon. Members for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and for Angus (Dave Doogan) raised the Australian trade deal, along with various other Members, and I have written down a couple of notes about it. Of course, we received beef imports from Australia as members of the European Union and the total amount that came in last year was about 560 tonnes. According to the AHDB, the amount that we imported in total was around 238,000 tonnes—about 400 times the amount that was coming from Australia. Most of that came from the Republic of Ireland. So if anyone is starting to get a little bit worried about an Australian trade deal, it should be the Irish Government, not British beef farmers. I think the hon. Member for Angus suggested that it could go up six times if we sign the trade deal. Well, we will sign the trade deal, and even if it did go up six times—even if it went up 10 times—it would still be an absolutely tiny fraction of the total amount of beef that we import from Ireland each year.
The hon. Gentleman says that, and I have also heard it, but I am not sure I entirely accept it. He appears to have a smartphone in front of him, and I suggest he has a look at the prices for cuts of beef in Coles or Woolworths, which are the two major supermarkets in Australia, and compare them with Tesco. To be honest, by and large the same cuts of beef cost more in Australia. Australian beef costs more on the shelves of Australian supermarkets than British beef does on the shelves of British supermarkets. The idea that Australian beef is ridiculously cheap does not really stand up to much scrutiny.
I anticipated that the Minister would make this argument on the price. Will he recognise that Australia has suffered two droughts in recent years? Previously Australian lamb was extremely cheap, at 300 cents per kilo. With the markets in China being as fragile as they are, and Australia perhaps seeking alternative markets, the prices may not remain as high as they are at present. Looking into the future and in the long term, that is perhaps a disingenuous argument.
Looking into the future and the long term, of course that is the case. The level of sterling or the Australian dollar could vary or the markets in China may not be the same, but there is generally seen to be a drive towards greater wealth, not just in China but across the whole of the Asia-Pacific rim, which is driving an increase in the demand for beef and sheep meat. I cannot pretend to look into the future and guess what currency and stock prices might do—if I was any good at that, I probably would not be an MP, as I would be making millions in the City. Based on 560 tonnes coming in at the moment, I do not see that there is anything very much for anyone to worry about, even the Irish farmers, and especially not considering the very high-quality beef that we produce in Wales, and in Scotland, if I may say so to the hon. Member for Angus.
The danger of ad-libbing means that I have probably used half my speech on that issue, so I will now turn to tourism. It is another area that is of great interest and importance to us in Wales—I think it was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I was absolutely delighted when I was in north Wales to be able to sample the first-class tourism that north Wales has to offer. I did so by staying at the brand-spanking-new Hilton Garden Inn, the first Hilton in north Wales, and visiting Surf Snowdonia, which certainly was no hardship for me. I also looked at some of the other tourism projects that are taking place in north Wales, which are all coming about as a result of the growth deals that have been funded jointly by the UK Government and the Welsh Government. We have put £120 million into the north Wales growth deal. We will support the mid-Wales growth deal with £55 million across the region, and I hope tourism will play a part in that and in the other regions of Wales.
We are also very, very ambitious as to what the growth deals can do in helping to support our efforts to become net zero by 2050. The hon. Member for Angus mentioned floating offshore wind. I suspect I know which company he met with and I know it is very enthusiastic about getting floating offshore wind into Scotland and off the coast of Wales. I do not know what is going on in Scotland, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I personally signed off a cheque for some of the money for the Swansea Bay city deal, which will help build infrastructure at Pembroke Dock to enable floating offshore wind companies to trial their products there.
I believe I know which company it is, and I fully support its enthusiasm for dealing with BEIS. However, BEIS is already saying that it will ensure, when the new contract for difference auctions come forward, that offshore wind is part of that mix, so it may be reluctant to talk to specific companies. I can understand why that might be, because BEIS will not want to be seen to be lobbied by or to give preference to any single company, but it has made it very clear that floating offshore wind will be supported through a strike price. That should enable those industries to thrive, which is a very good thing.
Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Angus for Scotland, I would like to say that there is indeed huge potential in the coastal areas of Wales. We are absolutely blessed with marine energy potential and we are seeing a number of early-stage schemes looking into that. As well as Pembrokeshire, I should mention the Morlais project in north Wales, which is more about hydro energy than floating offshore energy. I believe that might be one of the first projects that comes forward in the North Wales growth deal—I very much hope so. It is one that I was certainly enthused by, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has done a great deal to lobby me and BEIS Ministers to ensure that that project goes ahead
Finally, I shall turn to transport, which has also been mentioned by various Members present. I would never underestimate its importance to the rural economy. It is only fitting that the global centre of rail excellence will be on the site of the Nant Helen opencast mine in Onllwyn; that facility will support innovation in the UK rail industry, including the testing of cutting-edge green technology. That is a real vote of confidence in rural Wales, and one that the Secretary of State for Wales was absolutely instrumental in making a reality. I know how many meetings he personally held with various officials and other Ministers to make sure that that happened.
In addition the UK Government are developing numerous other rail schemes, such as the £2.7 million Cambrian line signalling upgrade, which is due to be delivered by May 2022. The upgrade will enable the introduction of new trains and allow interoperability with other digital signalling schemes. There are also the investments that have been made in new stations, such as Bow Street in Ceredigion; I think the hon. Member for Ceredigion and I were there at the virtual opening of that in February 2021.
There is the £17 million being spent on the Conwy Valley line between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog to repair and restore it after multiple flood events in the past five years. We are also going through the outline business cases to develop the freight lines on the South Wales relief line, which will mean more trains going between Cardiff and Bristol and will have a beneficial impact on constituents of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, I am sure. In north Wales, we are beginning the process of the outline business case to improve the North Wales Coast line. So there is a great deal going on to improve transport in Wales.
I take slight issue with the mention by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr of the much-quoted figure of 11% of the railways and 1% of the funding, because that was simply looking at enhancements. I believe that page 20 of the same report—I may be wrong about that, but it is certainly in there somewhere—makes it clear that, actually, if you look at maintenance operations, renewals and enhancements, the overall figure is closer to around 4%, so it is not quite the headline that the hon. Gentleman states.
The Minister may not accept my argument on that point, but has he read the statement of funding policy that accompanied the last comprehensive spending review? It indicated that the Barnett consequential share for Wales is plummeting as a result of the Department for Transport spending on HS2, and showed the inequity that Wales faces compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland because of that.
I think the hon. Gentleman is right that HS2 was not Barnettised, and I would be heading off down a branch line myself in terms of this debate if I go into it. Very briefly, virtually everyone here has signed up to the view that we need to become carbon-neutral by 2050. If we are to do that, one of the things that we must do is get people out of their cars and on to trains. If we are to do that successfully, we need to build lines where they will get the maximum number of people out of cars and on to trains, and that happens to be along the HS2 route.
Some expert in the field said to me the other day that it was a pity it was called High Speed 2, because that gives the impression that it is all about delivering a high-speed train. But he said it is not at all; it is about delivering a huge amount of extra rail capacity that will get vast numbers of people out of their cars, off the roads and on to a train, which will be powered by electricity that should come from green sources. Possibly the name could have been slightly better chosen.
I may have exhausted your patience, Mrs Cummins, so if there are no further interventions, let me thank all hon. Members for an interesting, perceptive debate. If I have not responded to every question, I should be more than delighted to do so if I am reminded of what they are.
The UK Government’s commitment to the Welsh rural economy is not in any doubt. It is integral to building back better from the pandemic, as well as strengthening the Union. Our support for the Welsh rural economy is unwavering and I am sure will go from strength to strength in the coming months and years, driving local growth and creating jobs. As we come out of this pandemic as a result of the wonderful vaccine, that it was possible to deliver so quickly as a result of Brexit, the Secretary of State for Wales and I look forward to visiting Wales on many occasions over the coming months and hopefully even years—who knows—in order to see those growth deals in action and to watch levelling up happen before our eyes. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Cadeirydd. I am very grateful for the opportunity to wind up. Members have touched on many points that will be close to our hearts, and close to the hearts and the experiences of people who live in rural Wales.
I would like to return to three issues, the first being the question of connectivity, which many of my colleagues raised. Let us just take a step back. We talked about levelling up and about many of the wonderful, glittering projects that will happen. None the less, there are certain activities, certain functions, that only central Government can do. When it comes to infrastructure and connectivity—whether we are talking about the grid for electricity, or connectivity in terms of mobile signal and broadband—that is where government has to intervene, be that the UK Government or the Welsh Government. If government does not do that in rural areas, it will not happen, and that will not increase the salaries that people are able to draw down in rural areas—as I mentioned, almost a third of the people working in my constituency are under the real living wage. We are talking about raising those salaries to a level where people can afford mortgages, which surely we should use as a mark of success. If we are serious about that, we should be looking at government doing what only government can do.
Secondly, I would like to touch upon the significance of Welsh farmers and their excellent track record in upholding animal welfare standards and turning grassland into the highest standard of protein that we can imagine. We have to maintain food production alongside environmental diversity. Those should not be two contradictory points, but things that we must hold together.
Farmers will be disappointed that in the UK we only have two full-time agricultural counsellors, and farmers actually pay for them by a levy. That compares to, I think, 22 full-time for Australia. Extraordinarily, the Netherlands has 100. If we were looking at that, that really would be the Government putting farmers’ interests first. I always like to quote the president of the NFU, Minette Batters, who said:
“We need a Government that stops doing PR and starts doing policy.”
I will leave that there—it is a very appropriate quote.
A theme that I want to raise, although many aspects of it are devolved, is housing. Housing, for us in rural Wales, is such a symbol. In every street, in every family that I speak to with young people, children—my own children among them—are looking for homes in their own communities, looking for homes in the areas in which they grew up, and being utterly disheartened by the lack of availability, or even the prospect of availability. The market economy has failed them. Competition has failed them, and it is failing and undermining our communities.
That means, of course, that essential key workers cannot afford to live within many of those rural communities. We have care workers who have to keep a car, who cannot afford to keep a car, who then go and work in retail. Yet we have an ageing demographic and we need those workers, but they cannot afford to live in those areas. In the fire service, there are retained firefighters who are working out of the town in which the fire engine in which they work is located, who cannot be on shift when there is an emergency. In the here and now in rural Wales, that is the symbol of how those who seek to govern us are not dealing with the problems that face us every day.
Forgive me: Plaid Cymru MPs are inclined to do this. I will close with the line that sums up this issue for the area of Meirionnydd: “Fesul tŷ, nid fesul ton, bydd colli Meirion”—we will not lose Meirionnydd in one great swoop; we will lose it house by house by house. All that we stand for; all that we love. It is very vulnerable. It is our duty to protect it. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Welsh rural economy.