[Relevant documents: Letter from the Chair to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities regarding the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, dated 24 August 2022, HC 309; Oral evidence taken before the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee on 28 February 2022, on the Levelling Up White Paper, HC 1158.]
Before I call the hon. Member for North Devon to move the motion, it is obvious that a great many people are seeking to catch my eye and that we have a limited amount of time this afternoon. I expect there to be a time limit in the region of six minutes for Back-Bench speeches. I hope that will allow people to prepare accordingly.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of levelling up rural Britain.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. I am delighted to see one of the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities team here today, as in my mind far too much of levelling up rural Britain is seen to be the home of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, yet the economic challenges of rural communities are immense, and the increase in the cost of living disproportionately impacts these communities, with their reliance on private cars for transport, longer journeys and older, poorly insulated housing stock, often in exposed and windy locations. I am going to call on my own experience in Devon to illustrate my words today, but I recognise that these issues are replicated around the country.
Much of rural Britain also has productivity issues. The excellent “Levelling up the rural economy”, produced in conjunction with the Country Land and Business Association, goes into great detail on these issues, many of which relate to connectivity. I took the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for broadband and digital communication there when I arrived in Westminster, because getting broadband done was second only to getting Brexit done for my rural North Devon constituency. It is hard for a community to be as productive as it might be if it has to wait for the circle of doom to clear before being able to connect to the internet.
Devon and Somerset have been blighted by many issues with the connection programme, but I take this chance to thank Connecting Devon and Somerset for improving our connectivity. I am delighted to see more improvements and more policy areas, and I also thank Openreach for its roll-out of broadband in rural Britain. However, the road map for rolling out broadband simply does not work in a rural environment in the same way as it does in an urban one. Our policies need a reality check before being released into the countryside.
I am grateful particularly to Openreach for the work it has done in connecting my constituency, but the magnitude of the task is huge. The Openreach senior team met me in Barnstaple early in my time as an MP and asked for a challenging part of my patch to connect, and it has done a sterling job connecting the stunning Lynton and Lynmouth, with fibre now running down the funicular railway. While residents and I are hugely grateful, what Openreach describes as a “rural project” is my fourth largest town. In rural Britain, the expectation is that everything is small, but the distances certainly are not, and connecting remote farms remains a huge challenge that the current schemes will not deliver in the timeframe we need for rural productivity gains to drive our rural economy.
I take this opportunity to thank the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport team and Building Digital UK for their engagement on this topic. I know that solutions are not easy, and while I sound like a record stuck in a groove talking about rural broadband, it is not right that the countryside is left behind in this way. We are aware that we have a productivity gap across all the south-west, with large numbers of part-time workers, partly driven by an ageing population, the seasonality of our tourism industry and in particular by a skills gap. We are desperately short of skilled workers. Devon has the lowest proportion of degree-educated 20 to 30-year-olds in the country, and much of that is driven by the extreme house prices and the cost of getting to work from somewhere cheaper.
Low aspiration is also a feature of much of northern Devon, generating low social mobility. When we peer into why that might be the case, so much to my mind comes back to distance. We are more than 60 miles from a university, and there is also the challenge of just getting to school or college. When rural schools have a catchment area the size of Birmingham, it is no wonder that the policies that work well in Birmingham, for example, might not translate so well to North Devon.
For example, school transport is the only way that most children can get to school, so after-school activities are not accessible to far too many of them. Schools would like to extend the school day, but that is seemingly not possible. One very rural school aspired to have a sixth form that offered only science, technology, engineering and maths, so students could continue to access 16-plus education using the school transport network, but that was not allowed because city-centric education policies determine that a school has to have 12 subjects—and so it goes on.
We have to adapt our policies to rural locations. We must listen to the excellent headteachers who run those schools and who believe that they are better placed to manage budgets and deliver services, such as special educational needs and school transport, than our distant and disinterested county council. Levelling up is all about equality of opportunity, but that simply does not exist for far too many youngsters growing up in the country, given the lack of flexibility afforded to too many rural schools.
The sheer size of Devon makes it look generally average in many areas, but as I have described in the House before, that hides huge disparities, particularly between north and south. The average that is applied to education for large education authorities has a disproportionate impact on remote rural communities trying to access additional funding and drive up skills, which would hopefully begin to tackle some of the too-often-seen rural poverty.
Devon has the longest road network in the country by 2,000 miles. Everyone who lives in rural Britain travels huge distances, which has an impact on many other services. Social care in particular, following an urban model, costs a fortune in rural locations because teams have to travel huge distances between visits. With fuel costs soaring, councils urgently need help with budgets.
Having spoken with the chief exec of my hospital on Friday, however, we both feel that it is not just money that is needed; we need to rethink social care in rural communities. Even if we had the money, we do not have any staff to work in social care, mostly because of the complete lack of affordable housing. Our health service has 20% vacancies for similar reasons. We are aware of surgeons unable to take up posts at our hospital because of the lack of housing that even they can afford. There is the frustration of being home to what is defined as a small—it is also the most remote—mainland hospital. It is detailed in our manifesto as one of the 40 in the hospital programme and the first phase is to deliver key worker housing. For that project not to be progressing at pace is hugely disappointing.
There is a lack of joined-up thinking across Departments when tackling rural issues. About a quarter of hospital beds in my patch are taken up by those in need of social care, but no one is available to provide it, so they cannot go home. It is hard to deliver health in such a vast setting. I know that ambulance wait times are a challenge, but when the distances that ambulances have to travel are so great, just getting to people takes time. For people to then get to hospital and find that they cannot get in—I have no words.
Similarly, I cannot build the houses that we desperately need or ensure that the properties we have are not left empty for half the year as second homes or holiday lets. I would be doing my constituents a disservice if, while talking about health, I did not mention that Devon is a dental desert, as are many other parts of rural Britain. Despite forwarding numerous innovative solutions, we have heard nothing back. This is not the place to go into that in detail, but the Department of Health and Social Care should also look at how rural health outcomes can be levelled up.
Rurality plays out in many other ways. Many Westminster decisions are based on the density of population, which means that we will always miss out on funding decisions. Active travel is a case in point. My county council submitted six schemes to the last round of funding, the second ranked of which was the Tarka trail in my patch. Although that is more for leisure than commuter journeys, the scheme is considered vital for the safety of cyclists on the trail and is the missing link in a hugely popular tourist destination, because it would connect the north and south coasts of Devon. Despite being my county council’s second choice, the Department for Transport gave funding to the five other schemes, which are in towns and cities, and excluded the only rural one.
Buses are also tricky and we are desperately short of public transport. If the county council has its way and the threats made by its leader come to pass, it will cut all our services. Again, this is about not just funding: buses are too big for the number of passengers in many villages who want to use them. We need to find innovative solutions beyond funding to rural transport if we ever want to decarbonise our journeys and facilitate affordable routes to work. We also need to recognise that urban models do not always translate to rural journeys.
I worry that many of the potential solutions to levelling up rural Britain lie with our local councils. Unfortunately, in Devon, there are many issues in this space. To my mind, the urban policy of mayors does not translate well to rural Britain. From listening to what some of them get up to when I am up here, I am not sure how well the policy works full stop. What we really need to help level up rural Britain is more local decision making.
In Devon, we have far too many councils, with one county council, two unitaries, eight districts and, in North Devon alone, 58 town and parish councils. Trying to get something as simple as painting a lamp post done is near impossible in some town centres, as no one knows who owns it and it is always a different council’s problem. The separation of highways from planning decisions is so fundamentally flawed it is desperate. We need devolution of decision making, and we need it more locally. Our county council is so big and distant, and it takes decisions with no consultation of local communities or their MP—I found out yesterday that part of my road scheme is being cancelled.
Might I urge on my hon. Friend and Devon colleagues what we did in Dorset? Creating two unitaries has made decision making far more streamlined, and it has made the connection between Members of Parliament, councillors and officers much easier. We know exactly who is doing what, and we can get things done.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I hope that such discussions might be forthcoming in my county.
My district council officers, like so many, worked their socks off to try to deliver levelling-up bids. It was the smaller bids in rural locations that so often missed out in the first round of funding. I will take this opportunity to plug Ilfracombe’s bid, against a planning backdrop of no staff and multiple district councils all battling the same issues.
Why is this important? Of the 10 most economically vulnerable parts of Devon, five are in my North Devon constituency—three in Ilfracombe and two in Barnstaple. The response of the county council leader when discussing possible unitary groupings was that no one wanted Barnstaple. That is entirely clear from the way we are treated by our county council.
However, let me take this opportunity to thank the numerous councillors who do such great work in our local communities. Fifty-eight councils is a lot. Many of them are marvellous, with great rural solutions from hard-working volunteers; others make Dibley look well-functioning and progressive. Changes we made to the monitoring of parish councils make it near impossible to remove a parish councillor, whatever they do. I hope that can be revisited. If only we could remove some of the layers of bureaucracy and avoid duplication, and find better ways to share best practice in a rural environment, we could achieve so much more.
I have touched on the housing challenges in North Devon and so many rural and coastal communities. The influx of second homes and short-term holiday lets, and the lack of regulation in the market, makes housing the No. 1 challenge for so many communities like North Devon. Doing nothing is simply no longer an option. The fabric of our society cannot survive with no one available to work because there is nowhere for them to live. I covered this issue in detail only last week, so I will spare the House today, but I very much hope that the proposed amendments to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will be adopted to begin to tackle these issues, alongside the long-awaited Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport consultation on registration schemes for Airbnbs.
I have chosen not to speak today about our beautiful environment and our fabulous farmers, who have numerous levelling-up challenges of their own. I very much hope that next week’s announcement on environmental land management schemes will be favourable to their finances, and I hope that colleagues will tackle these issues. I wanted to highlight some of the realities of rural living, behind the chocolate-box façade. We have to find ways to join up our thinking here at Westminster and recognise that, if we want to level up rural Britain, it is not just the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that can deliver that. Not only do councils clearly need funding to tackle the additional costs that rurality brings, but their structures need urgent reform.
The now Prime Minister was a signatory to the application for the debate while he was in between jobs, so to speak. From speaking with him last night, I have confidence that rural Britain will be better cared for, and that levelling up will reach into our remote, beautiful communities. When I came to this place in 2019 and first spoke about levelling up Ilfracombe, which is home to two of the poorest wards in Devon, I hoped that levelling up would, by this point, have delivered more than just an asylum hotel. I will continue to champion the need for levelling up rural Britain.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), who set out an important case.
It is to be blessed to live in a community such as Cumbria and Westmorland, and to enjoy the beautiful scenery of South Lakeland, Eden, the dales and the Lake district. It is something I feel hugely privileged to be able to enjoy. Nevertheless, it is important to say—it is a bit of a cliché—“You cannot eat the view.” Many people in our communities are struggling, now more than ever, to make ends meet. Public services are struggling to do the same because, as we know, in rural communities public services cost more money to run. We are running them over much larger areas, serving a smaller number of people. It is clear that this Government, in terms of the funding given to our rural communities, do not yet get that in any practical way. Those living in communities such as Cumbria feel overlooked and taken for granted by this Government and that must end. The Rural Services Network looked at the Government’s own metrics for levelling up and applied them region by region. It noted that, on the Government’s own metrics, rural England is the poorest region of England.
Let us start on housing. In my community, over the past two years, the number of holiday lets has increased by more than a third. We can see a clearing out of the long-term private rented sector, which means that families and individuals are being not just evicted from their homes, but ejected from their communities. That means hundreds and hundreds of people who are coming to me for help are unable to work and have to take their children out of school. They move out of the area altogether. Without action to tackle excessive second home ownership and excessive numbers of holiday lets in communities such as ours, the community will cease to exist.
We have a bed-blocking rate of 32% in our local hospital trust at present, because the places where care workers would have been able to live are no longer available or affordable for them. So it is more than high time that the Government accept amendments I introduced in the Bill Committee, and will put again on the Floor of this House, for local authorities and national parks to have powers to decide that second homes, holiday lets and domestic residences are three separate categories of planning use to control and preserve homes for local people and families. Words will not cut it—action is what is needed.
On health, in our community in South Lakeland, we have seen a 16% reduction and in Eden a 17% reduction in the number of GPs serving in the last six years. When we see huge waiting times for people to see a GP, that is not the fault of GPs—let us not level it at their door. It may be the fault of the Government, who removed the minimum practice income guarantee, which makes surgeries such as the Central Lakes surgery in Ambleside and Hawkshead unsustainable, with GPs handing back their contract. Unless the Government consider proposals such as mine for the sustainable small surgeries fund that will allow small surgeries to survive, we will see more and more GPs leaving our area and more and more rural communities without a GP.
There is not a single NHS dentist place in the whole of Cumbria at this moment. Only a third of adults and barely a half of children have seen a dentist in the last two years. It is obvious that the unit of dental activity treadmill that is applied is pushing dentists out of the NHS, particularly in rural communities such as mine.
On cancer services, in South Lakeland, 41% of people with a cancer diagnosis are not getting treatment for more than two months, and in Eden in the north of Cumbria 59% of people with a cancer diagnosis are not being seen within 62 days. That is in no small part down to the Government’s failure to invest in the diagnostics and treatment needed. We have been asking for years for a satellite radiotherapy unit at the Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal that would meet those people’s needs and save lives. The Government could easily provide that. Levelling up means nothing if it does not deliver services that will save the lives of the people who live in rural communities.
On transport, in rural communities, one of the features that unites us is that there are huge distances between where people live, work and study and the services they use. It just takes a long time. Therefore, it is all the more important that the Government take action to ensure that we do not have failing rail services. One of the reasons many of us are still here at this time on a Wednesday is that we could not reasonably get home because of the failure of west coast rail, the Avanti service, at present.
Let us look at what levelling up means for rural stations. The footfall for rural stations such as Staveley, Grange, Windermere, Oxenholme and Penrith, Appleby, and Cark and Cartmel is relatively small and, therefore, funding is hard to get hold of. Staveley station has 28 steps to get up to it. It is totally and utterly inaccessible for anyone with a pram or disability, yet no form of funding pot that exists already will ever give a station of that kind the funding needed to make it accessible to the people who live close by. Levelling up means the Government recognising that they have to provide funding for those kinds of services, or else we will not get them.
Let us think of the threat to our ticket offices at Oxenholme, Penrith on the main line and places such as Grange, Windermere and Appleby. Those are vital ticket offices for the people who use those stations, yet because they are relatively small and because the Department for Transport continues to give sanction to the rail companies to look at scaling back those ticket offices, they are under threat. If the Government were committed to levelling up rural communities, they would recognise that communities such as ours are a special case and put an end to that.
I will say something about farming. The movement towards the environmental land management scheme is a positive thing, or at least the aim is. But the fact that only 1% of farmers have the sustainable farming incentive so far shows that the transition is bogged down and is forcing farmers out of the industry altogether. That is why the Government need to plough ahead with ELMS but make it fair and accessible to everyone, ensuring that active farmers get the money, not wealthy landowners who do not farm. They must ensure that we do not have a situation where people lose their basic payment before they get the new payment.
It is a wonderful thing to be a farmer. What do they do every morning? They wake up and have on their to-do list to feed the country and save the planet. What an awesome task it is that we give our farmers. We should be grateful to them, yet the Government’s botching of the transition to the new system and their signing of unfair trade deals that throw our farmers under the bus show how little they value our farmers.
Finally, rural schools are smaller. Their budgets are smaller to start off with and the unfunded pay rises and unfunded increases in energy costs mean that every single one of the schools I have spoken to in my constituency over the last week are planning staff reductions. That will only hurt our children. The Government do not understand that they need to support rural school funding, and it is only the children who will suffer.
We have fewer than half a million full-time residents in Cumbria, and more than 20 million visitors. We are not funded to pay for the services that those visitors use. We are delighted that the visitors come, but if levelling up is to mean anything, the Government must respect places such as Westmorland, the lakes and dales—the whole of Cumbria—so that we have the resources to meet the needs of the community that lives there full time and those who visit.
Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker for the opportunity to make a contribution to this vital debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing it.
Many of my constituents may wonder why I am speaking in a debate about rural Britain. I am blessed with a diverse constituency, of which the wonderful town of Redditch constitutes only one part. I am privileged to represent parts of the Wychavon district including the Lenches, Cookhill, Abbots Morton, Inkberrow, Stock and Bradley Green, Hanbury and parts of Feckenham. Assuming the boundary changes go ahead as set out this week, in future the constituency will also include the wards of Harvington and Norton, and Dodderhill, which will mean that the MP for Redditch will represent Lenchwick, Upton Warren, Wychbold and Stoke Works.
It is vital that when we speak about levelling up we do not confine ourselves to a mythical north-south divide, but consider inequalities within constituencies and the rural-urban divide. Even areas that look prosperous and, in fact, are prosperous on the surface can hide considerable deprivation that we ought not to be afraid to care about. It is right to help the most vulnerable in my constituency, wherever they live. Within the new constituency boundary there is a ward that is in the most deprived 20% nationally, in Harvington and Norton.
Although my remarks could cover a plethora of subjects important to my rural constituents, such as healthcare, the environment, planning, crime, education, speeding, agriculture and nature to name but a few, as I have only limited time, I will concentrate on three key pledges that I made to my constituents.
First, on rural transport, bus services are absolutely vital for my constituents to access work, leisure and education, and these services are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic all over the country. That is why I strongly welcome the actions of the Government and Conservative-run Worcestershire County Council, which has, with the help of the bus recovery grant, safeguarded more than 200 routes across Worcestershire that were on the verge of collapse. Unfortunately, that intervention clearly cannot be sustained forever, which is why I think that demand-responsive transport is a vital link in this jigsaw.
The plans are to expand demand-responsive transport to include rural areas in 2023, but unfortunately the county council does not have any specific support from the Government to do that, so it will have to be a trade-off between subsidising services and investing in demand-responsive transport. It would be really helpful if the Government were able to revisit the bus service improvement plan funding, as Worcestershire got nothing, but the urban West Midlands, just up the road, got more than £86 million, and it already benefits from higher passenger numbers. There are rumours of a second round for BSIP, but nothing concrete as yet, so I would be grateful if the Minister said in his concluding remarks if he is aware of any further funding that could be made available.
Secondly, broadband is an ongoing issue, as we have already heard from other colleagues, and it affects my rural constituents as well. In fact, I live in a rural area of my constituency and often need to work from home, and like many of my constituents I know the impact this has. It is not only professionals who are impacted by poor broadband access, but children and young people who need to complete homework, access education, or get involved in local community and youth groups.
I really welcome the progress that the Government have made in rolling out broadband across the country under the £5 billion Project Gigabit programme, together with the £500 million investment in the shared rural network. In fact, figures from the House of Commons Library show that more than 96% of households and businesses in my constituency do have access to superfast broadband. The data show that Redditch is one of the best-connected constituencies in the country, with average broadband speeds 28% higher than the national average.
Of course, this is great news, but as in all things, the details show that there is patchy coverage. My recent broadband survey, which I sent to 3,000 homes in the villages, demonstrated that there is still more to do. Hundreds of residents completed the survey, which was sent to villagers in Feckenham, Bradley Green, Stock Green, Cookhill, Inkberrow, the Lenches, Hanbury and the surrounding areas. I heard of many who are still living with the consequences of being in a hard-to-reach area. I am determined to continue pressing for better connectivity for all my constituents, whether they live in a hotspot or a notspot.
Thirdly, on planning and housing, it is right that we always seek to balance the two potentially competing demands of building the new homes our communities and young people need, and of seeking to preserve the reason why people live here in the first place, which is the unique and beautiful character of the Worcestershire environment. I pay tribute to Wychavon District Council, which is working with the renowned organisation Create Streets with an aspiration for Wychavon to become a leading rural authority for good urban design.
However, I must say a word about the proposed solar farm development at Roundhill, which I am afraid is not an example of good design, placemaking or sustainability. This proposal would plonk 287 acres—140 football pitches—of solar panels on good agricultural land. I have worked closely with the members of the Roundhill Wood solar farm opposition group, and as a result of hearing their concerns, I carried out a survey of hundreds of residents living in the local area to gauge their views. The overwhelming majority of course support renewable energy, but they are opposed or strongly opposed to the development for many reasons, including the in my view very good reason that this land ought to be used to grow food, especially at this time of war in Ukraine when we as a nation should be shoring up our food security. No one is opposed to such renewable energy, but it should be installed on rooftops, car parks, office buildings or brownfield land. I want to thank the campaigners for all the hard work they are doing and to let them know that I will continue to stand up for them. I do not believe that our levelling-up agenda will be served by solar farms of this scale and size.
Finally, whether people live in Redditch or the villages, everyone is worried about the cost of living and the impact on the most vulnerable, so I welcome the investment from Wychavon District Council in the form of targeted interventions for the most disadvantaged children, including speech and language hubs, after-school clubs, specialist help with maths, breakfast clubs and social mobility grants, which help those not in education, employment or training with opportunities to progress and enter the jobs market.
As we look to the Budget next week, I urge the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to continue their commitment to levelling up in rural Worcestershire as well as our town centre. Levelling up rural Worcestershire and the villages of my constituency is not done to the detriment of Redditch town centre. It is not a zero sum game—quite the contrary. By making our wonderful villages attractive, accessible and desirable, we encourage people to come to our county and use the facilities in Redditch town centre. It is a win-win that creates a virtuous circle of growth and prosperity, with more business for local shops and leisure facilities, and more residents paying taxes to fund the vital public services that we all rely on, such as the Alex in particular.
Rural local authorities still receive 37% less in settlement funding assessment per head than urban areas. So it is clear that we must focus on levelling up the whole country and ensuring that rural Worcestershire is not left behind in this essential mission.
North Shropshire is a lovely place to live, with beautiful countryside, historic market towns and warm, welcoming people. I encourage everybody to come and visit. But behind the bucolic scenes, North Shropshire and indeed large parts of the rest of rural Britain are beginning to fall behind their urban counterparts.
Levelling up was the second most popular catchphrase of 2019. While it had not a lot of meaning for the northern towns that it was aimed at, it had virtually none at all for rural Britain. If we want our rural communities on a level playing field with the towns in the north, and indeed the south, we need to address the causes of the problems that have led to dysfunction in many sectors of the economy and society.
We have young people leaving rural areas in search of work at the same time that local employers from all sectors are struggling to fill vacancies. Our hospitals are full to capacity, with ambulances queuing outside the front, while beds are taken up by people who could be cared for at home. We have pensioners and young people desperate to get out into the towns to spend their money, but they have no cars and no alternative way to get there.
On Friday, I visited the excellent Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Gobowen near Oswestry. It is a good example of how dysfunction can affect a place. It is undoubtedly one of the best hospitals in the country, with a fantastic reputation, excellent patient satisfaction and some of the world’s finest surgeons. Most medics would be honoured to work there, and yet it has a vacancy rate of 14%. Two key reasons behind that are a lack of affordable housing and a lack of public transport to the hospital. The nurses who work there are unable to get home after a 12-hour shift because a hospital with world-class facilities is being let down by a fourth-class public transport system. If they make the move to work in that top-class hospital environment, they will struggle to find a flat to rent not because they are too expensive but simply because not enough furnished flats are available on the market.
People of working age obviously need to be able to find a secure home in the area where they want to live and to be able to access all the public services that will give them a decent quality of life, but those services are being cut because local government budgets are taking the strain of the pandemic and of Conservative chaos. Our councils need to be properly funded, but the Local Government Association reports that local authorities face a funding gap of £3.4 billion next year and £4.5 billion in 2024-25 just to stand still, so improving services seems a distant prospect.
Shropshire council is reportedly spending 84% of its budget on social care. As the population gets older, the pressure on services gets higher and more young people leave—and the cycle continues. If rural Britain is going to thrive, that cycle needs to be reversed. It should start with the industry that is already the success story of rural Britain: farming. However, the Conservatives have taken our farmers for granted by bargaining away their level trading field for one pitched firmly in favour of their Australian and New Zealand competitors.
I very much hope that the hon. Lady will talk about the three cases in Shropshire up for assessment for levelling-up funding. The one for modernising Shrewsbury town centre in my constituency is extremely important. Will she welcome that project? As she knows, a thriving county town is good for the whole of our county.
I supported a levelling-up bid in my own constituency as well, but I will come on to the nature of bidding for small pots of money.
The Government have implemented a new subsidy scheme so complex and tedious to access that only 2,000 out of 83,000 farmers nationally have applied to join it, despite the aims of the scheme being good. Unable to plan ahead through the constant chaos, many farmers are leaving the industry, taking local jobs, and indeed food security, with them. Grand schemes and big infrastructure projects are all very well, and they benefit the towns that win them, but they are no use to the people who cannot get to those towns in the first place. I will come on to that shortly, but before I do I want to talk about digital infrastructure.
It is not surprising that the UK is one of the least efficient countries in Europe when, in 2022, one in 10 of my constituents still cannot get internet speeds above 10 megabytes per second. It is not fair to expect rural businesses to compete with their urban counterparts when they cannot connect with their customers or suppliers. Connecting rural areas both digitally and physically is key to improving their futures.
Last week, I heard from a pensioner near Market Drayton who was without a driving licence for 18 months —a Government failing for another day—and was therefore effectively under house arrest, only allowed out on day release once a week when the local charity bus passed by. He and his wife wanted to contribute to the local economy but were held back from doing so because they could not get to the high street. We live in a country where nearly £18 billion has been spent on a rail service in one of the best-connected cities in the world, but in Shropshire on a Sunday there is only one bus service running in the whole of the county, and Market Drayton is at risk of losing its one-hourly service on a Saturday as well. Boosting bus services will reconnect communities, enable young people to access work and social opportunities, and benefit healthcare, the economy and the environment.
The reality is that the Conservatives have taken the votes of rural Britain for granted for so long they have just stopped listening to its needs. Take the cost of living crisis, which is undoubtedly worse in rural areas. Housing costs are higher, food costs are higher and transport costs are higher. Houses are often older and more expensive to heat and wages are lower, but if your home is off-grid the support available is a measly £100, to which access is the best-kept secret in Britain.
We need to fund our councils fairly so they can provide not only the social care to free up our hospitals and ambulance services, but the other services taxpayers expect to improve the quality of life of all residents. We need to invest in our digital infrastructure for businesses, and to encourage young people to stay and work in the local area. We need to allow councils to develop and deliver housing plans that meet the specific requirements of their economies and communities. Councils bidding for small pots of money to spend on isolated projects that will go way over budget because of the economic chaos will not deliver that. Giving the power to our councils, properly funded to be able to deliver them, will deliver for our communities. We really need to address this point now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing the debate.
Whether we come from the north of England, the Lakes, Shropshire, Devon or Oxfordshire, many of the issues being discussed are common to all of us. Rural areas may not get the focus from Governments that they feel they ought to have because only 17% of the population of England live in rural areas. Alternatively, it may be because of the phenomenon many of us have alluded to: rural areas are the places where we go on holiday; they look beautiful and the countryside is fantastic. My part of the world—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) will agree with many of the things I say about Oxfordshire—might have fantastic countryside and Cotswold stone houses, but that can mask some real challenges. The house might be beautiful, but the person who lives in it might be suffering from rural isolation; they might be suffering because they heat their home with heating oil, the price of which has gone up. It is important that we start to look at the particular challenges that areas face.
I will make only one point that I would like the Minister to address in his response. We could debate many things—housing, connectivity, health services, education—but I want to concentrate on levelling up. We all agree that levelling up must mean not just the north and the south, but rural areas as well as urban areas. It must mean, essentially, that wherever someone live or comes from, they can have their fair crack of the whip and make the most of their opportunities, and that their area has a chance to grow. I will focus on the incredible economic opportunities in some rural areas.
According to the House of Commons Library, first, productivity tends to be lower in rural areas—we need to consider in detail why—and secondly, some of the differences in productivity are ones where there should not necessarily be any difference between a rural and an urban area. The Library states that
“for example, financial and insurance activities make up 6% of output in predominantly urban areas outside London, but just 2% of output in predominantly rural areas. Information and communication businesses show a similar difference (7% in urban areas, 3% in rural areas).”
There is an incredible untapped resource, which the Government need to look into. We need to ensure that the people living in those areas who show incredible innovation—those who have come up with an idea, become an entrepreneur, taken a chance and grown a business—can make absolutely everything of it. That is what we should look at. All of us will say that funding must be given fairly to rural areas, much as it is to urban areas, but I want to start looking at what we can do to ensure that we unlock those businesses.
One or two things would be transformative in unlocking those economic opportunities. The first is rural transport. In West Oxfordshire, someone in one of the areas a bit further away from Witney—perhaps in the Wychwoods or out past Burford—might rely on a car to go to a doctor’s appointment, for example. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) said, it is possible to have demand-responsive rural transport, and we should see more of that. Let us start acting in a smarter way so that people can help the environment and travel more cost-effectively, but not by having one policy that appertains to an urban area and another that appertains to a rural area. Let us make sure that people in these incredible, beautiful villages, which are home to some of the most innovative, imaginative, daring, bold and creative people in the world, can get to our market towns and into our cities.
Secondly, communication of the non-physical kind is also key. Thankfully, due to some of the policies that the Government have rolled out over the past few years, West Oxfordshire is much better connected by broadband than it was when I was first elected, so there has been huge progress. However, we must have real connectivity for mobile phones—those small devices that all of us carry in our pockets, and which are utterly essential to the way we live our lives—to ensure that wherever people are, they can make contact with the people they are working with, can connect with others and can grow their areas.
There are challenges in rural areas, and areas where we need to make sure that people are not left behind. Wherever someone lives—in a relatively remote Oxfordshire village or further afield in a much more remote part of the United Kingdom—they should be able to get all the benefits of living in the UK. More than that, there is enormous untapped economic potential in these villages that can be unlocked, if we are strategic and smart about the policies that we as central Government have. It seems to me that connectivity of both the digital and physical kinds is key to making sure that our rural areas—
Does my hon. Friend agree that light rail also has a part to play in many rural areas? In Hertfordshire, we are looking at putting in a light railway between Welwyn Garden City and Harlow, and I am arguing that, in north Hertfordshire, we should eventually have a link between Buntingford and Stevenage. Those are not as expensive in a rural context as they would be in a city.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point. Rail of all kinds can have real importance in connecting rural areas. It depends; the point of being smart about what we do is that each area is different, so what may be right for his area may not be right for mine or another Member’s.
In my area, I am keen to see a further redoubling of the Cotswold line, which hon. Members have heard me speak about before. If we ensure that Hanborough, my local station, has faster and more frequent services to Oxford and London, we could use it as a hub for West Oxfordshire’s transport, with regular bus services in the area and cycle paths to the station. What will work in the area is faster transport to Oxford, the nearest major city, and then through to London. My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Flexibility and smart policy will ensure that our rural areas have all the many economic and social benefits of being part of modern Britain.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). He has been such a powerful campaigner for improvements to the quality of water in our rivers and in his West Oxfordshire constituency, so it is great to hear him speak about the subject. My constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), also made a powerful speech.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), who is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on rural services, which I chair, on securing the debate. It will not surprise the House that I will focus my brief remarks on the role that the Government have to play in improving the allocation of funding to rural areas.
The metrics for measuring rural deprivation in the funding formula are regrettably flawed, as the Prime Minister recognised when he toured the country this summer. He was roundly criticised for pointing out that even in seemingly more affluent areas of the countryside, there is real rural deprivation. Our political opponents tried to make fun of him for being out of touch, but he represents one of the largest rural constituencies in England and what he said revealed that he is completely in touch with what is going on in real rural Britain. At present, the indices used to measure multiple deprivation do not adequately take his point into account. The Rural Services Network, which supports the all-party group I chair, has provided a useful briefing on this debate for colleagues. It has found that rural areas receive 37%—£105—less per head in Government funding than their urban counterparts.
Rural communities not only receive poorer services, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon pointed out, but suffer as a result of lower wages—£2,500 less per head, on average—and face significantly higher costs. Rural residents pay 21%, or some £104, more per head in council tax bills than their urban counterparts because the Government grant is distributed in favour of urban areas. Weekly transport costs are about £40 higher; rural families spend 4% more of their disposable income on transport each week. In many larger rural areas, and particularly in Shropshire, public transport is very thin on the ground, so people have to rely on cars. The way energy prices have been going, the £40 figure, which predates the energy crisis, will be an underestimate.
Nowhere are these issues more apparent than in my constituency. Ludlow is geographically the sixth largest constituency in England; following the proposals announced yesterday by the Boundary Commission, it will become the fifth largest by gaining 100 square miles from my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), whom I am pleased to see supporting the debate. Rural areas have their own inherent beauty, and the lack of people—the sparsity of population—is one of the reasons why they are pleasant places to live and why people choose to live there. However, population density is a fundamental problem because the allocation of funding from central Government is based on people. With just 56 people per square kilometre, Ludlow has one of the lowest population densities of any constituency in England.
The size of Shropshire’s elderly population is disproportionate, and our social care costs are going through the roof. Our council spends 83p in each pound of its budget on adult social care costs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as well as levelling up, the Government need to do more to support our councils in this regard?
The pressures of social care costs in areas whose demographics make them particularly acute are reaching crisis level. We notice that in Shrewsbury in particular, and the same point was made by the hon. Member for North Shropshire.
As others have pointed out, we also suffer from poor broadband provision speeds. Although broadband accessibility may be there as a result of the Government’s gigabit programme, the speeds in rural areas are about a third slower than those in urban areas. We also have problems with access to public transport, as I have already mentioned. Fewer than 50% of rural residents have access to a further education site within 30 minutes of their homes via public transport. Access to both employment and education is a challenge. Rural residents are now more reliant on off-grid energy generation; many face huge rises in the cost of domestic heating oil this winter as about a third of Shropshire households are not connected to the gas grid.
It is therefore critical that the Government continue to connect rural homes to superfast broadband, support rural transport provision, and, as a matter of urgency, clarify the way in which those in off-grid homes—including residents of park homes and others who do not pay their own electricity bills—can gain access to help with their energy bills.
I strongly encourage the Minister to look again at the funding formula. Although Shropshire is an objectively affluent county, two of its lower-layer super output areas fall within the 10% most deprived in the country, including one in Ludlow. However, they are unlikely to be highlighted by any of the national indices of deprivation that the Minister’s officials will draw to his attention.
The Rural Services Network is offering some suggestions to encourage closer alignment of funding formulas with the reality of rural living, and to ensure that they reflect the increased cost of delivery in rural areas. I should be happy to discuss these issues with the Minister, through the all-party parliamentary group. In addition to the metrics already included in the White Paper, metrics such as the proportion of those in fuel poverty, the frequency of public transport services, the percentage of premises with superfast broadband and the distance to further education providers would all supply a more accurate snapshot of inequality in rural areas.
Finally, let me add to the comments of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, and encourage the Minister to look favourably on the levelling-up bids from Shropshire Council, including the Craven Arms “gateway to growth” bid, which I have been pleased to support. The bid would deliver a major transport infrastructure project in the heart of south Shropshire, and would unlock undeveloped employment land. This would provide up to 50,000 square metres of space for jobs, and a further 500 residential dwellings in a future phase. Unlocking new jobs, and opportunities for training and skills, ticks many of the boxes in the Minister’s criteria. I urge him to consider accepting some of the bids in rural areas, so that those areas are not left behind in the levelling-up round that falls under his careful stewardship.
As a Member of Parliament for a very rural constituency, albeit one in the home counties, I see all too clearly how our system of government tends to focus on the problems and needs of urban society in the UK and tends to neglect rural communities, which are so important to sustaining those urban environments. I therefore welcome the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing it.
Rather than issuing a shopping list on behalf of my constituents, I am going to say something a bit more general about how we design, or do not design, rural policy in this country that will affect levelling up. We have had too many changes of DEFRA Ministers. I mean no offence to the new incumbent who will reply to this debate, but those Ministers have had differing priorities, and have experienced difficulty in holding other Departments to account for the effects of their decisions on rural areas. Local stakeholders are left feeling disengaged, and there is confusion among those who look after our rural areas, who tend to be the people who work there. Levelling up will not succeed unless this changes.
The House might be aware that I have long taken an interest in the need for Whitehall to develop a greater capability for strategic thinking in order to address the huge challenges that we face as a country, in domestic and environmental policy as well as foreign and security policy. I was Chair of the Public Administration Committee and then the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and we did three inquiries on this topic over a period of nine years. I continue to take in interest in the subject with an informal group that held a conference at Ditchley Park recently, attended by the Cabinet Secretary.
Rural policy is crying out for a long-term strategic approach that will be sustained on a cross-party basis and so remain stable. It is slightly unfortunate—well, it is nice for us that there are not many Labour MPs cluttering up this debate, but it is unfortunate that there is not more engagement from them—[Interruption.] There is one Front-Bench spokesman, and I hope he will rise to the—
I think this counts as an intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker. It should be added to my time. I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) will rise to the occasion.
The Ukraine war has exposed how vulnerable the global food supply system is to disruption. We cannot rely on our ability to buy food cheaply on the global market. Given today’s labour shortage in agriculture and the impact of natural problems such as avian flu, we must expect more serious shortages and even more acute price rises this winter. Food security is fundamental, but it is frequently neglected and should now be addressed by the Government. In passing, I would add that the Rural Services Network recently reported that the cost of living crisis is worst in rural areas. Food and energy price increases are already putting rural food banks under huge strain. Brightlingsea food bank in my constituency is extremely well led and co-ordinated by Win Pomroy and offers incredible support to the most vulnerable people, but let us be clear that this is a fire engine dealing with a crisis on behalf of our constituents. I am sure that every Member will want to support their local food banks.
The main point, however, is that the changing nature of life in rural communities is outpacing the ability of our relevant institutions and policy processes to adapt and stay fit for purpose. Rural areas need a responsive, adaptable policy making and strategy process to handle the complexity caused by a combination of the increasingly rapid and profound changes in the wider world and the competing demands that we place on our countryside. These include the need to optimise food production, improve food security, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, increase carbon sequestration, adapt to cope with climate change threats such as drought and flooding, enhance the wellbeing of the whole UK population by improving leisure and supporting access to the countryside, and improve conditions for wildlife and biodiversity, leaving a better natural environment and landscape for future generations.
In coastal constituencies such as mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, who opened the debate, there is also a need to rewild our coastal waters, revive fish stocks and restore saltings and seagrass and kelp forests to revive their massive capacity for carbon sequestration. I recommend a book by my constituent Charles Clover of the Blue Marine Foundation entitled “Rewilding the Sea”, which was launched in the House of Commons yesterday. It is incredibly ambitious, but it is important for the whole country to reconcile these often competing demands. It is not only essential but well within our grasp to achieve it. Governments must, however, take the trouble to work with rural communities across the UK rather than prescribing for them, which is how most rural inhabitants see their situation today. Rural communities, in their turn, need better processes to make their voices heard in Whitehall, and to ensure that Whitehall draws on their unique local knowledge and expertise in formulating and delivering policy.
DEFRA’s forthcoming environmental land management scheme—ELMS—replaces payments from the EU common agricultural policy, and it is due to be fully implemented in 2024. Its success is crucial to the effective functioning of rural policy and levelling up. I am afraid that the handouts from the Government for levelling up are a sticking plaster. What we need is a compressive approach to the rural economy. During its current trial phase, ELMS has been taken up by only a tiny percentage of farmers because what it offers is not very attractive to farmers. DEFRA needs to work closely with individual farm businesses to ensure that ELMS becomes fit for purpose.
That is precisely why the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is starting a report on the implementation of ELMS and how it could be delivered more effectively.
I am delighted, and I will recommend that a friend of mine submits evidence to the Committee. I will refer to his work later.
The Government need to empower and support farmers to undertake a wide range of practical routine tasks that are currently the responsibility of national agencies but that those agencies are unable to deliver because they do not have local expertise and knowledge. For example, the Environment Agency used to clear watercourses annually on lowland floodplains, but it has now abandoned the practice, resulting in disastrous flooding on what is often the most productive agricultural land in the UK. Farmers could be paid to do the work, subject to effective regulation.
Local groups should also be encouraged to take charge and work in collaboration with each other, and with the appropriate central and regional authorities. For example, the encouragement of wildlife is frequently focused on transforming, flooding or wilding separate individual locations. It would be far more effective to recruit farmers and landowners across an area to collaborate on creating wildlife oases linked by wooded, hedged or specially planted corridors, for which they could be appropriately reimbursed.
Now is the time to improve the policy delivery process by harnessing local knowledge and ability in conjunction with scientific expertise, bringing them together with the responsible Government bodies. The top of the civil service should work on enhancing cross-departmental governance processes in Whitehall, including by repairing Whitehall’s broken policy and strategy-making mechanisms. I can vouch that permanent secretaries are keen on this.
From the bottom up, we need to encourage pilot projects that, if successful, can be scaled up and applied nationwide, appropriately amended to local conditions. One such pilot is being developed in south Cumbria, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), by local farmer and businessman John Geldard, whom the hon. Gentleman is giving appropriate support. Mr Geldard is best known for championing the sale of high-quality local produce in supermarkets. Spurred on by the damage done by Storm Desmond, by the pandemic and by the current inflationary economic threat, Mr Geldard has built a multiskilled team that is now addressing a range of challenges with increasing success. As part of this project, for example, he has a senior policeman improving local policing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this point. The area Mr Geldard farms in the Lyth valley is often subject to flooding, which is a reminder that sometimes we need to invest in infrastructure to allow good-quality agricultural land to operate as good-quality agricultural land, otherwise we will not be able to feed ourselves as a country or to do the good work that is needed on biodiversity, of which Mr Geldard is such a good example.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
The policing initiative is being led by a retired local police officer, and it is transforming the countryside’s ability to police itself and to deal with rural crime more effectively. I have been trialling such initiatives in my constituency, too.
We are not scrapping all the regulations. Of course, there has to be regulation. Some of the rhetoric has been overtaken by politics. Our population may be overwhelmingly urban, but England and the whole UK sees its countryside as its shire, embodying an ideal of harmony between humankind and nature. This national feeling is a force to be reckoned with, and Governments who trifle with it do so at their peril.
As the Member with the largest rural constituency outside the highlands—it is larger than any in England or Wales—I am pleased to be called to speak. I will not take up the eight minutes by reading out the more than 100 communities that make up that large and diverse constituency, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for bringing to the Floor of the House a debate on rural issues across Britain. In my experience, this House debates rural issues too rarely and has become far too metropolitan and urban-focused, which is a facet of our society generally. Sadly, I find things little different in our Scottish Parliament.
It is important that Members across Britain can debate these issues. The ones my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) raised are equally applicable in Leadhills in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) set out the right prognosis: we need to have a strategic approach if we are to maintain rural communities and a rural way of life. The one thing I did not think either really touched on—although they did in relation to funding—is that the most important Department we could have had represented here today is the Treasury. My experience is that the Treasury is the greatest impediment to investment in the rural parts of the UK. That flows into the welcome levelling-up initiatives that are being taken by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and I will touch on those in my constituency.
I have raised this before, but many smaller rural local authorities are ill placed to put forward complex bids. The Treasury came forward with an initiative to put certain moneys into certain local authorities to allow them to take that forward, but their capacity is limited, as is their experience of doing so and their direct contact with Whitehall. If we are to go through these processes, it is important that rural and small local authorities are supported.
It is difficult to spend £20 million on a single project in a rural area, when we come to do the analysis. On levelling up and other proposals, there has been a lack of flexibility. Ultimately, I was able to negotiate, partly because my constituency, unusually, covers three county areas, for the project that was put forward to be in three separate parts, but there was a lot of resistance to that type of project.
Even when projects go forward, the usual suspects tend to be favoured. Although I welcome the community renewal funding that came to the south of Scotland, the organisations that ultimately received that funding had the capacity to make professional bids for it. I say to the Minister that they would not have been the choice of my constituents for that funding. If we are going to say that we have community renewal funding, we have to listen more to communities and what they want to do. Ultimately, that needs a loosening of the Green Book rules. Various announcements have been made at various times that the Green Book rules from the Treasury were to be loosened. They need to be if we are successfully to invest in rural areas.
I was struck by what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) had to say, because his constituency in Cumbria is similar to mine in the south of Scotland, which is why I very much welcome the Borderlands initiative, which has brought the south of Scotland, Cumbria and Northumberland together to try to create capacity to take forward important rural projects. For example, Carlisle, although in the north of England, is very economically important to my constituency, so the initiative is important.
I recognise many of the problems that have been mentioned. Although I am sure that we will hear from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) that there is some sort of Utopia in Scotland, I can confirm that a resident in Dumfries and Galloway has no access to an NHS dentist. Indeed, 10 days ago, NHS Dumfries and Galloway was so overwhelmed by patients that it could not manage the situation. Many of the issues are very much the same in Scotland and need the same innovative approaches that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex spoke about. If we want to sustain rural communities, we have to think innovatively about how to do that.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you would expect me to mention the three projects in my constituency that are going forward as part of the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale levelling-up bid. They include the rejuvenation of Annan Harbour. I congratulate the Annan Harbour action group on its innovative work over a long period. It will see the rejuvenation of the Ministers’ Merse and the creation of a bunk house and café. It will revitalise that part of Annan. There is the rejuvenation of the Chambers Institute, the equivalent of the town hall, in the heart of Peebles, and the Clydesdale walkway, which will look to bring together various existing walking and cycling trails in the south of Scotland to create the possibility for people to walk from Stranraer to Eyemouth, which I am sure appeals, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to take advantage of the rural tourism opportunities in the area. I also commend the Dumfries and Galloway transport bid, which is to bring electric buses to the area for those who perhaps find the walking a little too much.
In summary, the important point is that, across Britain, we need to take a new and more urgent approach to tackling rural issues. It is not just about single, one-off bids and funding. They are welcome, but if we are to sustain rural communities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, we need a different approach, and the Treasury and changing its attitudes is central to that.
On the Conservative Benches at least, there has been some competition over who has the biggest constituency. I cannot compete on size, but I believe that I have the most beautiful constituency. From the rugged splendour of the Midhope Moors, to the picturesque village of Cawthorne, the classical setting of Wentworth castle and the stunning landscapes of the Derwent valley, my Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency is a wonderful place in which to live.
Rural life has many advantages. It retains a sense of community that is often absent in big cities, and a connection with the physical realm—the seasons, the nature, the weather—that remind us of important realities and natural limits that can sometimes be forgotten in an increasingly virtual world. However, for many people, rural life is not an idyllic existence. My constituents share many of the challenges of urban areas, such as the rising cost of living and access to affordable family housing, but we also face some unique disadvantages that highlight the pressing need to include rural Britain in the levelling-up agenda. To state the obvious, and as other Members have said, the lower population density of rural places means that service models that work in urban areas are much less viable in our communities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) put this eloquently. The metrics that are used to describe the viability of urban services just do not work in rural areas; they have to have special cases.
I want to speak particularly about bus services, which over recent months have declined significantly in my constituency. Residents of Stocksbridge, Grenoside, Chapeltown, High Green, Ecclesfield, Wharncliffe Side, Oughtibridge and other villages have seen services reduced or even disappearing altogether, cutting people off from jobs, education, training, healthcare and leisure.
The impact on everyday life cannot be overstated. The old are left stranded at bus stops, the young arrive late for school and workers are forced to pay for taxis to get to work. Local employers offering good jobs have told me of their difficulty in recruiting because their premises are no longer served by bus. The vision of levelling up is to spread opportunity evenly around the country, but it really does not matter how much opportunity there is if people cannot get to it.
What has gone wrong in South Yorkshire, particularly rural South Yorkshire, and how can we fix it? Services were struggling even before covid, but the post-pandemic environment has been a perfect storm for rural bus services in South Yorkshire. From my meetings with Stagecoach and First Bus, it is clear that patronage has fallen sharply at the same time as fuel costs have increased.
I was pleased to be successful over the summer in persuading the Government to release a third round of the covid bus recovery grant. But, crucially, the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority’s bus service improvement plan bid failed completely, which resulted in our region’s receiving not a single penny while neighbouring authorities in Manchester, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire received tens of millions of pounds.
I am grateful to the Bus Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), for meeting me this morning to discuss the issue, but I urge the Minister responding to this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), to press this matter with his Government colleagues. My constituents pay the same taxes as everybody else. It is not their fault that our combined authority’s bid did not meet an acceptable standard.
Things may look bleak, but I believe there are some glimmers of hope. We have had local successes with the new No. 25 and No. 26 routes around Penistone and a new service connecting Northern College with Barnsley. Those services have reconnected isolated villages and are based on an innovative small bus model pioneered by the excellent South Pennine Community Transport.
In Stocksbridge and Deepcar, we have plans to use our towns fund to commission new buses to help residents to travel around our towns—for anyone who has not been there, Stocksbridge is incredibly steep and people absolutely need a bus to get back up the hill. We are also progressing with plans to restore a passenger rail service along the Upper Don valley and we have a levelling-up fund bid to improve the Penistone line.
However, we need to accept that a one-size-fits-all approach to public transport just does not work. Rural services will never be as profitable as urban routes, but, if they are designed sensibly around what communities actually want, if they are regular and reliable with easy-to-understand timetables, they can be self-sustaining, as we have seen with our new routes. Ultimately, levelling up rural transport requires a localism agenda, putting commissioning in the hands of local people—our town, parish and local councils—and with a funding model that recognises the unique challenges of rural life.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and to listen to her excellent speech—all the speeches have been excellent, I must say—and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this debate.
I see that two of my colleagues from Dorset are here and longing to speak, so no doubt they will have a similar message to give the Minister. It is nice to see him in his place; I will target my seven minutes at him specifically and the Treasury even more so regarding the levelling-up bid that we have done once and we are now hoping to do again.
I would like to conjure up the picture of a cake—a chocolate cake, because that is my favourite. At school, when we had birthdays, a cake used to arrive and the teacher used to cut up the cake into the appropriate slices. My eye always fell on the slice that was slightly bigger because the teacher got it slightly wrong when he or she tried to divide the cake. We always hoped that we would get that slightly bigger slice, but of course we got the smaller one.
The point I am trying to make is that cutting up the cake is incredibly difficult, and the Government face all kinds of financial problems right now, but on behalf of South Dorset I ask for at least a slice of the cake. I do not want all of it, I do not want half of it but, for my constituents, can we please at last have a fair share of the cake? We have lost out again and again.
While it is true that Dorset as a whole is relatively prosperous, that perception masks significant pockets of deprivation. Weymouth, its largest urban area, hosts some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the county. My South Dorset parliamentary constituency, the vast majority of whose constituents are residents of Weymouth and Portland, is ranked as having the lowest level of social mobility in the country. Huge efforts are going in to try and improve that. We are trying to attract more businesses to raise the incomes, salaries, expectations, aspirations and education. We have heard about buses, broadband and all the other things with which I entirely agree. I am asking the Minister for just a little bit of money, so that the private sector can invest on the back of the investment by the Government. We know that the Government cannot give us all the money we want—that would just be impossible, and the country would be even worse off than it is now. What we want is enough money to try to attract the private sector into places such as Weymouth, Portland and Swanage, and other rural constituencies, so that the private sector can do all the hard work. However, it cannot do it unless the Government create the infrastructure so that the private sector is attracted.
I will give the House an example. In Weymouth, we have the most attractive harbour, a peninsula and a marina. The walls of those facilities have not been touched for 50 or 60 years and they are in poor repair. The Environment Agency will not allow us to regenerate around those areas until the walls have been repaired, which will cost millions of pounds. A large part of our bid for the second round of the levelling-up fund will go towards repairing those walls. Once they have been repaired, we can regenerate. Once we regenerate, the private sector will come in and do all of this, and then we will get the jobs and the investment that we desperately need.
I am not asking the Government on behalf of my constituents for multi-millions of pounds, nice though that would be; I am asking for targeted money at Weymouth—a seaside resort that like so many seaside resorts is struggling to cope. It is struggling because so many people now go abroad for holidays. Flying abroad is so cheap and fewer people are going to resorts such as ours, beautiful though they are. We have lost the naval base, the Royal Naval air station, the ferry terminal and local government offices, so we need to replace those with other investments from private business.
I thank the Government for the Dorset enterprise zone, which is in Winfrith, not far from Wool. That has been a huge success. With the help of Government funding, we have now attracted some very big companies, including Atlas Elektronik, which is a huge company that deals with submarine warfare. The new BattleLab, which the Army has put in there, is generating huge amounts of business. Local small businesses work together with the Ministry of Defence to come up with solutions to problems, and it is proving a huge success.
We are asking for some targeted money, please, from the Government so that private enterprise will come and invest in South Dorset. My final point, in addition to the Government money, is to please not forget us. I think we have heard that from every speaker in the debate so far. Rural constituencies are so easy to forget because such a small number of people, in effect, live in them compared with all the urban and major metropolitan areas in this country. The Government tend to forget that the rural constituencies and rural areas are just as important and significant.
Rurality, as I am sure we will hear from my two Dorset colleagues, is not taken into account. Buses, if they exist, take longer. People are trapped in their homes. I think we heard from one Member about someone imprisoned in their home, because the bus came only once a week. That is not uncommon in Dorset or South Dorset. More connectivity and, as we heard from another Member, more joined-up thinking for rural communities are exactly what are needed.
I conclude on this point. I am aiming my comments in the main at the bid for the second round of the levelling-up fund. We were category 3, and we have now gone to category 2. I urge that, in the Government’s mind, we need to be category 1. For all the reasons I have explained, we would be most grateful if when round 2 is announced we are definitely in it.
It is a pleasure to follow my friend and neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), and I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on instigating this welcome debate. As several hon. Members have noted—I do not mean this as knocking copy—the only Labour voice that we will hear is from the Front Bench, although I have no doubt it will be able and articulate. I gently make the point to the Minister—hon. Members will recognise this—that Conservative Members and our party cannot forever take for granted the support of our rural communities. We need to pay back their support.
Levelling up is of course welcome, but it needs to be broken into digestible chunks. We need a set of levelling-up initiatives for post-industrial urban areas and a set that features the coastal areas that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset mentioned and the rural areas that are clearly the kernel of the debate. I also strongly echo the cri de coeur of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon that it is time the Minister’s Department put in place regulations whereby town and parish councillors can be removed from office if they are not doing their job. I have a case in my constituency that is a perpetual headache and the council can do nothing about it.
As hon. Members have said, many people visiting rural areas across our country would be forgiven for thinking that all is well. We do have deprivation and need but it is not located in one area or ward, and because we cannot do that—we cannot take people to one place—it makes the delivery of improvements harder. We need some sort of rural tsar, or perhaps a rural squire might be better, to co-ordinate cross-Government rural proofing.
On the funding formula, this is not a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul debate. It was Mr Blair’s Government who took money away from the county shires and gave it to the urban areas. We need additional funds, a fairer formula or a rural proof formula to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset gets the slice of chocolate cake that he desires; I must say that seed cake is my favourite and I would like a large slice. We need a review of the funding rubric and of the assessment of rural deprivation. We must strive for parity or equality—who could be against that? A child educated in my constituency requires as much money to be spent on their primary or secondary education as one in central Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham or Southampton, because education is a UK plc initiative.
I turn briefly to the Dorset Council area. Some 29.4% of its population is over 65, compared with 18.5% across England. One in 12 of the population are over 80 and that is due to increase by 10% by 2032. Being rural, as many hon. Members have mentioned, the cost of delivering services, such as school and care travel, is higher than in urban areas. Some 46% of its residents live in the most-deprived areas for access to services in England.
Despite all that, Dorset Council receives only £2.5 million a year in the rural services delivery grant. Some 85% of the council’s expenditure is generated directly by council tax, compared with the average unitary authority, which has to find only 65%. It receives no revenue support grant where others get 4%. In 2019, the adult social care costs of hospital discharges were £4.1 million; this year, they are £15 million with no concomitant increase.
It is not just in local government that we need to take rurality more into account; the rubrics for the Environment Agency, road funding, the police and, as I have mentioned, schools also need to be refreshed. To take the Environment Agency, it is easy to make the business case stand up for spending £200,000 on a flood relief project that will benefit 10,000 people in the community. A scheme that has the same costs and delivers the same qualitative benefits for a community, albeit a much smaller or more sparsely populated and further flung one, however, will never pass the rubric assessment because it has been written in Whitehall by people who—dare I say?—have experience of living only in and around central London.
Many have mentioned that rural plc needs broadband and phone signal. We also need grid capacity. If anything is holding up development, it is the grid. It is a sad indictment that there is not a single consented business park in the Dorset Council area that could be fully developed out today, only because there is not capacity in the grid to provide electricity. Sturminster Newton in my constituency would like some sustainable new housing, but it cannot be delivered because of an absence of electricity.
Finally, probably the thorniest issue—I do not touch on it now because I am in my last few seconds and no one can intervene—is access to workforce. I have already said that we have an older workforce. We have virtually zero unemployment in North Dorset; fortunately, that has been the case for many years. Will the Minister make sure that, when the Home Office is sculpting immigration policy, over which we perfectly properly have control in this place, it has a focus on the needs of the rural economy, to ensure that farming, innovation and the entrepreneurs of our rural areas can create investment, make jobs, pay into the Exchequer, create the opportunity of aspiration, and therefore level up rural Britain?
It is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbours, my hon. Friends the Members for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax). I hope that the House will allow me to make some comments, although I am at risk of repeating what they said. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), whose quest to hold this important debate we all thoroughly backed.
It is clear to me that this House does not give enough time to debate and discuss the rural issues of the day. We have some important questions to ask ourselves. Why is levelling up not focused on rural areas in the same way it is on urban areas? Why does rural hardship not seem to matter in the same way as urban poverty? Why do rural jobs attract less pay than those in urban areas? Why does Transport for London get £1.7 billion of Government money to bail it out yet Dorset Council gets hardly anything—especially when we have the worst frequency rail line in the country? I just wanted to let the Minister know that.
I do not want the Treasury Green Book to prioritise rural areas; I want it to be fair to all parts of the United Kingdom, including rural Dorset. Why do sixth-formers— 16 and 17-year-olds—in rural Dorset have to pay to get on the school bus, when those youngsters do not have to do so in urban areas? In certain pockets of West Dorset and, indeed, the wider Dorset area, social mobility is among the worst in the country. The real levelling up required in this country is in rural Britain, which is why I am so delighted to contribute to the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset clearly articulated some good statistics. I also have them in my speech—he has pinched them—but let me focus on a couple. It is totally unacceptable to me and my constituents —and, I think, to my constituency neighbours—that we have one of the highest council taxes in the country but zero revenue support grant, yet in places such as inner London there are boroughs with the lowest council tax in the country that receive some £24 million in revenue support grant.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we also have hanging over us the spectre of negative revenue support grant, whereby the Government might actually tell Dorset Council that it needs to pay some money back? Where that money would come from I have no idea. Does he agree that that would just add, for want of a better phrase, insult to injury?
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend and want to relay that message to the Minister as well: I hope we do not get into the territory of negative RSG as there would be mass rebellions from the Dorset MPs if that were the case.
Covid was hugely damaging to the economy of West Dorset; we are not starting from a level playing field. I lost 18% of my businesses in West Dorset during the covid period: some 1,200 businesses shut. So we are already starting from a lower place, but it is very difficult to make the case on this because it feels as though we are always starting from behind the line.
My hon. Friends and constituency neighbours have talked about adult social care and I want to reiterate the point. Dorset County Hospital, in Dorchester in my constituency, is very challenged: to put the problem into perspective, the number of patients discharged into social care, at the expense of the council, has risen threefold over the last three years. The situation with police funding, fire funding and other areas is equally difficult, yet it is still hard to get any real understanding of that from the Government.
Huge reform is required in housing in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon articulated very well in her speech some of the difficulties she faces with second homes and properties set aside often for full-time Airbnb lettings, and that has caused enormous difficulty in parts of West Dorset, too. Visitors could walk through some villages on a winter evening and almost think they are in a ghost town because so few properties are occupied. We cannot go on in that way and expect doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers to be able to live and work in the community.
We have gone on for too long without real action and progress in this area. Parts of rural Britain are being held economically hostage by unfair bureaucracies, and not just Government Departments. I have mentioned the Treasury Green Book and fairness between rural Britain and urban areas in the assessment of infrastructure investment, but I could also mention the Environment Agency, the Rural Payments Agency—I could keep going. Rural Britain finds the level of bureaucracy very difficult. That constrains our ability to make real economic progress and contribute to the wider economic growth of the country. I ask the Minister to take due note of that.
I understand that at next week’s Prime Minister’s questions I will have the opportunity to speak to the Prime Minister, and I tell the Minister in advance that I will ask the Prime Minister to set up a rural taskforce so that we do not need to continually share, in debates of this nature, the difficulties that we face. I want rural Britain to get turbocharged and to lead the way. We are very fortunate in rural Britain today: some of the most entrepreneurial, creative, innovative solutions are found in this country’s rural areas. We need those solutions to help the wider country—indeed, some urban areas would do well to take them.
In addition to the rural taskforce that I will ask the Prime Minister to set up, the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset that there should be a rural tsar is well made. I hope the Minister will consider those points in winding up the debate.
It is a great pleasure to follow the jazz odyssey that is three Dorset contributions on the bounce. May I take the House from the deep south up to rural Cumbria? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this vital debate. As we have heard, levelling up is not just about towns and cities; it has to include rural areas. Rural communities need support more than ever now; the cost of living crisis has become even more acute than when I raised the issue of levelling up rural Cumbria in an Adjournment debate a few months ago.
At the heart of the issue is the potential of our rural communities, which we can unlock if we level them up. The key theme is that rural areas are not London; Cumbria is not London. Their unique nature puts them on the front line of the cost of living crisis. We have spoken about people, households and businesses off grid. At home in Brampton I am on heating oil, and the £100 supplement does not even touch the sides, because people have to make minimum orders of sometimes 500 litres. I urge the Government to review that.
It is not just households that are off the grid but businesses as well. Hospitality and tourism are crucial to Cumbria and Penrith and the Border. I firmly believe that those businesses need the emergency support measures that this Government brought in during the pandemic. I am very pleased to be working with Eden District Council and supporting the levelling up bid for the Inspiring Eden Enterprise Hub near Penrith, which I hope the Government look at favourably.
As we have heard from many colleagues across the House, housing is pivotal for rural communities. That is very much the case in rural Cumbria; it is so important for families and young people to get homes and for those who work in agriculture, tourism and hospitality to be able to live in the areas where they work. We desperately need more accommodation in rural areas, and we need Government to look at amending planning processes to tackle the issue of second homes and short-term lets.
On agriculture, I am proud to stand up for our Cumbrian and British farmers, who are the best in the world and farm to the highest animal welfare standards. The agriculture sector is on the front line in the crisis of fuel, animal feed and fertiliser costs. We as a Government need to look favourably on our farmers who produce food for us, while also supporting our environment. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has been looking at that in its food security inquiry and, as we have heard, the ELMS transition inquiry. I firmly believe that the Government need to look at that, review the schemes and make sure that our hard-working farmers who produce fantastic food for us are supported.
We have heard much about connectivity. Transport links are vital in rural areas. We need to support railway development, such as the borders railway coming down through Longtown in my constituency and on to Carlisle, and reopen stations such as Gilsland. We need to improve the train services that come up to rural Cumbria. The Avanti West Coast service is in special measures now; it has been looked at and it has six months’ notice. I firmly believe that we need strong action on that.
We have heard about ticket offices. We must protect our ticket offices in stations such as Penrith and Appleby. We have heard a lot about buses as well. In rural parts of the world, volunteer groups often step up where there are gaps in provision, such as the Fellrunner service or the Border Rambler service. I urge central Government to work with local government to use moneys sensibly. I urge Cumbria County Council to review its decision and the new unitary authorities to look at using central Government moneys to subsidise rural bus routes. That is an important point.
Hon. Members have spoken about education. It is so important that young people post 16 are able to get to their next place of training or education. I have been working with communities in Alston to help provide that. I urge the sensible use of central Government moneys. I hope that local government can put in provision. I want policy change that mandates local authorities to provide post-16 transport for our young people. Education is pivotal in my part of the world. We have fantastic schools. I urge central Government to look at rebuilding some of our important rural schools. Ullswater Community College in Penrith in the heart of my constituency is in need of a radical rebuild.
We have heard much about virtual connectivity, and Project Gigabit and the shared rural network are welcome. We have rays of light in Cumbria with B4RN—Broadband for the Rural North—providing services and working with the Government vouchers. We need to support communities to stay connected, we need to support our local radio stations and we need to support the terrestrial TV that people rely on. I firmly believe that we need to have policies made in London that reflect rural areas. We need to allow rural parish councils to meet virtually or in hybrid format so that local democracy can take place in areas where there are challenges. I firmly believe that rural areas need to be looked out for. Cumbria is not the same as London.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this debate. I know that much of what she spoke about is common in rural areas around the country, so I urge everybody to read her contribution in the first place. It is a pleasure to speak on a matter that is very important to many residents in Meon Valley. It is a constituency fringed on three sides by dense urban areas, but a lot of it is deeply rural. Because we are limited on time, I will focus on just two levelling-up issues.
The Minister will not be surprised that the first issue is public transport. Bus services in rural communities have proven very vulnerable to commercial pressures in the wake of covid. There are issues with higher business costs, and difficulties with recruiting and retaining drivers. Additionally, Hampshire County Council is facing enormous financial challenges, and this is affecting its ability to support the services that vulnerable people depend on. As others have mentioned, there is a lack of transport particularly for young people getting to school, but also getting to their Saturday jobs. For instance, going from Bishop’s Waltham to Whiteley in my constituency is proving incredibly difficult. May I ask the Minister to look urgently at the support for transport authorities such as Hampshire? Hampshire County Council is already doing as much as it can, but budgets have steadily reduced, and there is no more fat to trim or salami to slice.
The second priority, as others have mentioned, is broadband and telephone. I was pleased that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport intervened over the plans to cut off the existing public switched telephone network as part of the digital switchover, because like many of my constituents, I was concerned about proper safeguards for isolated households in the event of a power cut. May we ensure that we have a proper solution to these issues? I would like to give an assurance to my constituents well before any further move is made to switch off the PSTN.
However, I fully understand that the future is digital and wireless. I was delighted that the gigabit broadband scheme is enabling places such as Owslebury in my constituency to get up to speed. I know there is work going on with a scheme in Cheriton and a few other villages to help the residents there, too. It is another area where Hampshire County Council has provided brilliant support for residents through its broadband voucher scheme. However, there are still some remaining pockets of very slow speed in Meon Valley, and I hope the procurement that DCMS is engaged in at present can quickly bring all the benefits of better broadband to them.
I welcome everything that has been done so far. However, we are going to need to fill the gaps in 4G mobile phone coverage, as well as to roll out 5G as far as possible into rural areas such as mine. We must support our rural communities, especially our farms. Farming is increasingly a high-tech, data-driven business, and farms need better broadband connections and good mobile coverage to make the most of such opportunities. There are also small businesses, some of which in my constituency are world class, that are dotted around the constituency, and they would benefit from fast broadband. I hope the Minister will prioritise those as well.
If we are truly to level up those who live in rural areas, we need to make sure that they have access to transport and broadband technology. If we do not, we run the risk that these areas will be left behind. As others have said, many people think of the countryside as an idyll, but there are pockets of deprivation that are just as serious as those in inner cities. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) mentioned, they are just not as obvious or as big. Any Government policy regarding levelling up in rural areas must have this reality front and centre if it is to be successful.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on successfully bringing the debate and her excellent speech. There is no doubt that the Government are delivering for rural communities, including £5 billion for Project Gigabit and the £1 billion shared rural network deal with mobile operators, and my constituency —beautiful Hastings and Rye—has benefited from those investments. However, there is more to do.
The productivity rate in rural areas has fallen behind the England average. Digital connectivity remains worse than in urban areas. Rural public transport is bitty and expensive to run, impacting on residents’ access to education or work—and even GP and NHS services. Median earnings are lower for those working in rural areas, and house prices tend to be more expensive than their urban counterparts relative to local earnings. Poverty is also more dispersed—it is hidden among the better off—making it more difficult to identify and tackle, especially as regards fuel poverty.
Research commissioned in 2021 by the Rural Services Network showed that wages are lower in the countryside, but that many living costs—fuel, travel and heating costs—are higher. It is also more expensive for local authorities to provide statutory services due to geography, demographics and density of population. Local authority funding formulas do need to be reconsidered.
It is not just about targeting more money to rural communities. Financial constraints are an issue globally, so we need to be much cannier about how taxpayers’ money is spent. Less must go further. Much more can be achieved if local authorities work with local enterprise partnerships, the voluntary or civic sector, local businesses and local colleges and schools. Partnership working across our social infrastructure rather than working in silos prevents the doubling or quadrupling of efforts and resources. Communities can drive levelling up.
Rural and coastal areas have many similarities as regards levelling up. The “Levelling Up” White Paper followed the inquiry into rural health and care, which launched on 1 February and highlighted the significant problems experienced by many rural communities in accessing health and social care services and the factors that contribute to them, which range from poor digital connectivity to a lack of public transport services and lack of affordable rural housing. In the same way, the chief medical officer’s report on health disparities in coastal communities highlighted similar underlying issues. It is the underlying factors of poverty and deprivation that need to be sorted out, especially housing, education, skills and connectivity, including transport. I echo hon. Members’ calls on bus services.
Affordable housing for residents who live and work locally is vital in rural areas, including more homes for social rent. The levelling up of rural areas economically and socially will not happen without addressing the housing issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon highlighted.
The tourism and hospitality sector plays an important role in rural communities. Tourism is vital, but it adds to pressure on local authorities and police services. For example, in beautiful Hastings and Rye, we see thousands of people arrive at Camber Sands in the summer months and Rother District Council needs extra resources to deal with the extra rubbish collections and security guards needed. Sussex police also need extra resources to deal with what is in effect a Wembley-sized football match about 15 times a year in the summer months. The all-party parliamentary group for the south-east recently produced a report on levelling up the south-east, with one recommendation being that local authorities should be able to raise, for example, a local tourism tax. We should consider that carefully to help local authorities to pay for those extra services so that the cost does not fall on local council tax payers.
Reducing hospitality VAT would help lower prices and protect businesses, especially in coastal communities such as Hastings and Rye. In the last Budget, the Government reduced VAT on draught beer and cider. Following discussions with many of my local hospitality businesses, I ask the Government to consider further the impact of VAT not only on pubs but on restaurants. Reducing VAT back to 5% or even 12.5%, as they did during the pandemic, would be really helpful. Many businesses are struggling with increases in energy costs and supply chains, and they cannot pass the costs on to their customers. If they do not have customers, there will be no pubs or restaurants and jobs will be lost. But levelling up is not just about solving problems. It is about finding solutions and opportunities, and rural Britain has so much potential to unleash if given the opportunity to do so. Rural levelling up is an economic, environmental and social opportunity which will benefit the whole of the UK. Our rural areas possess a wealth of natural capital which can underpin rural levelling up. Nature-based solutions to climate change can make the most of this, as well as farmland providing our food.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recognised the huge potential for environmental services to drive rural levelling up, noting that rural areas account for the majority—74%—of the UK’s £1.2 billion natural capital. The rural business and the rural powerhouse all-party parliamentary group highlighted the potential for natural capital markets to help level up rural areas, such as payments for carbon, biodiversity and food projects. If wetlands, peat, trees and soil are restored, maintained and protected, they can help to boost our rural economies by providing jobs, food, eco-tourism, leisure and health benefits, as well as protection against flooding. Investing in restoration and adaptation projects offers opportunities for low-income rural communities that yield financial returns on investments, create jobs, stimulate local economies, and regenerate and revitalise the health of ecosystems.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this important debate for rural communities across our whole United Kingdom, not least the 335 square miles of rural north Buckinghamshire that I have the privilege of representing in this place.
I associate myself with the points multiple hon. Members made to quash the myth that rural communities are all universally wealthy without pockets of deprivation. In my constituency, there are certainly communities that are struggling and need support. The energy crisis has really highlighted that, following on from the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) made about off-grid households. It took until September for Whitehall to acknowledge that off grid existed. The £100 scheme is too universal and does not address the real fuel poverty that exists in off-grid households, not least those that are not on oil and do not have the space to have a liquefied petroleum gas tank but are on the 47 kg LPG bottles, which I believe are up to something like £88 plus VAT a bottle now and, on full burn, only last for 19 hours. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take that point back to the Treasury, because if we do not get the basics right for rural communities it is very difficult to level up rural communities and deliver for everyone.
I was struck by the figures my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) gave that rural communities receive for their public services 37% less than their urban counterparts. Clearly, that is not right and we absolutely need to address it to ensure that every community across our United Kingdom gets, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, their fair slice of the cake. For communities like mine, when it comes to public services it is not just the core funding that is a challenge. It is also the way we remunerate the expenses of some of the lowest paid but most vital and important public servants. Carers often have to go in their own cars to visit patients and those they are caring for. Often, they do not even get the 45p a mile set out by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which, as we all know with rising prices at the fuel pumps, does not actually cover costs in the first place. That needs to be addressed urgently.
For my constituency, there is something that needs to be tackled very, very urgently: projects that are done in the name of levelling up, but do anything but level up north Buckinghamshire. I have two railways being built through my constituency. One is HS2. It is totally toxic—a destroyer of farms, countryside and our very way of life—and I have spoken in total opposition to it many times in this House. The other is East West Rail. While we welcome that railway, which will bring vital connectivity, those responsible have made, if I may put it in such a way, a bit of a hash of building it.
The unintended consequences need to be resolved through cross-governmental work to ensure that where big infrastructure projects are being built, whether they are welcome or not, they are not allowed to disrupt the day-to-day lives of communities. Only this morning, for example, I learned that the Crooked Billet pub in Newton Longville has closed its doors for the last time and is being handed back to the brewery, because the endless road closures from East West Rail have starved them of their trade. When the Addison Road bridge in Steeple Claydon was closed for months on end earlier this year, the Prince of Wales pub’s takings were £2,000 a week down. That is a devastating amount for a rural village pub to lose. There was no compensation—nothing whatever. W. G. Hill & Son just outside Marsh Gibbon has effectively been shut down by East West Rail replacing a bridge next to that business, as it cannot now legally get its HGVs underneath the bridge.
All those businesses have essentially been allowed to fail in the name of levelling-up projects. I urge the Minister to look at that very carefully to ensure that, in the future when infrastructure projects are built, we do not allow communities and businesses to suffer in that way—not to mention the state of our roads, which have literally been ripped up by the sheer volume of HGV movements around the large infrastructure projects. Buckinghamshire Council is doing its best; it has a £100 million programme to resurface roads across the county. However, when others are doing the damage, it is not fair that council tax payers have to pick up the bill.
I welcome the infrastructure first moves that the Government are introducing, but there needs to be some retrospective action on GP access in my constituency. Long Crendon lost its surgery last year. It secured land through a development, but it desperately needs the funds to build the new surgery; that needs attention. Likewise, on the Kingsbrook development just to the east of Aylesbury, the integrated care board is trying to claw back the section 106 money to spend it on other surgeries. I urge the Minister to take urgent action to ensure that infrastructure first can be retrospective, too.
It is always very good to be called last in debates because it means that I get to listen to everybody else’s speeches. I have enjoyed the debate enormously and it has been very edifying, particularly to listen to everybody boasting about how big and beautiful their constituency is. My Devizes constituency is as big and beautiful as any, but more importantly, I suggest that it is the oldest place in England—[Interruption.] My goodness me, 1066—in my part of Wiltshire, we were trading in the fourth millennium BC, as evidenced by recently discovered archaeology. In Amesbury near Stonehenge, there was the discovery of the body of an archer, who—carbon dating and testing demonstrates—came from somewhere in central Europe in about 2000 BC. They obviously had some freedom of movement arrangements, which some disapprove of. It did not turn out well for the Amesbury archer, who died near Salisbury.
I mention that because we have been an economic entrepôt since the dawn of time. Through the middle ages in particular, my part of Wiltshire was incredibly prosperous. The great wave of prosperity arose from the wool trade, particularly, and then by about 1800, when the town of Devizes was a very important centre of the wool trade, it started slowly to decline as industrialisation happened, as the Kennet and Avon canal that comes through the town was dug and as Brunel was building his railway out to Bristol. Those amazing industrial innovations were actually the harbinger of the economic decline of our area, as people moved from the land into the cities. However, even through the 19th century, all sorts of important innovations and technological developments happened in our area. I pay particular tribute to one of my favourite local firms, the agricultural engineers T. H. White, which has been going since 1832 and has a £100 million turnover. It is still based in Devizes and is still a family firm, employing people all over the country and, indeed, the world. I have seen some of its amazing agricultural machines in use in our area.
Places left behind by industrialisation are becoming viable again. Our rural economies are becoming viable and thriving. Brilliant companies are hidden up almost every farm track and in every little backwater. In all our towns and industrial estates, there are brilliant, modern, high-tech firms such as Varivane, which makes kit for the Royal Navy. Most of our frigates have been kitted out by this little firm on an industrial estate in Devizes.
The other day, I visited a firm just outside Marlborough called Design 360, which makes amazing writing. It is run by a man who noticed when he was growing up in the area that everything seemed to be made in China. He said, “Why does everything have to be made in China?” and dedicated himself to developing a business in Wiltshire that makes the best possible kit at good prices and employs local people.
We have all sorts of other amazing industries, particularly in the agritech space. We have artificial intelligence that can monitor a multitude of crops in a field, so we can get away from the monoculture model of farming and have a variety of crops being grown in the same place. The health of millions of plants is being monitored through AI. We have vertical farming industries and are developing proteins that can be a massive British export and feed the urban populations of the world.
It is not all high tech. We should not think of the rural economy of the future as being all about whizzy new technologies. Actually, the future could and should look much like the past. I particularly want to see a revival of local food processing. That should be one of our great ambitions in this space, because it feels all wrong that farmers have to send their produce miles away for processing. It disappears into other regions of the country, and if it comes back to Wiltshire at all, it is packaged by some other firm. Why should we not have shorter food journeys and good local processing, as other countries do?
I totally endorse everything that has been said about the importance of food security and about the opportunity that environmental land management schemes bring to enhance the production of food as part of our public goods regime. There is no conflict between supporting the environment and supporting growth, but we need to recognise that the production of food is farmers’ primary objective. I would say that food security is more important than enhancing global trade, so I would prioritise it over trade deals.
How can we help? I agree with everything that has been said about the importance of support with energy and about VAT and rates relief, particularly for pubs and brewers. I want to mention a few other things quickly, beginning with skills. We export too many young people. We have a culture of higher education; we should invest more in further education. Wiltshire College is a brilliant local institution. I would like to see more support there.
I echo everything that has been said about housing. We need more housing in our local villages. We should say no to the five-year land supply rule; every village should be able to build more houses without having to use that rule.
I turn to connectivity. We need more broadband. Thankfully, I am confident that we will get a railway station in Devizes. I agree about demand-responsive buses. We must say no to HGVs. I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith): we have to improve the situation.
Lastly, I turn to planning. I must mention a brilliant firm, Poulton Technologies, which is run by the Coplestone family. They want to build an amazing factory to create undersea technology for fixing pipes, but they cannot do it here. They are having to do it in Saudi Arabia, because the planning system does not allow the space in the UK. That is what we need.
It is a real pleasure to sum up for the Scottish National party. It has been a fine debate and an important one, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing it, but I have to say that I do not know where to start in summing it up. Hon. Members actually still believe that something called levelling up is going on across the United Kingdom and that it will somehow be part of the rural economy. They still believe that there is some sort of agenda that will pour vast sums of money into some of the most under-resourced regions and sectors across the UK, without even more being taken out.
I suppose levelling up is a little like the emperor’s new clothes, but with the emperor starting the whole process entirely naked. At best, it is pork barrel politics at its most gratuitous. In fact, it gives porcine containers a bad name. How dare this Government talk about levelling up when the latest House of Commons Library figures that I found this morning show that benefit claimants in Scotland have seen their income slashed by 16% as a result of a decade of Tory austerity?
It is not levelling up that is going on across the whole United Kingdom. In fact, it is levelling down—a razing to the ground of the living standards of everybody across this country. We are now entering austerity 2.0, with cuts in budgets, and poverty and inequality growing. We can only really laugh at the suggestion of levelling up, while feeling grossly insulted by this fiction on behalf of our constituents.
One word is missing from this whole debate. I do not know whether Members know what it is, but I will give them a clue: it begins with “Brex” and ends with “it”. While levelling up may be a fiction in terms of how it is applied to the rural economy, Brexit most definitely is not: Brexit is having an impact on every single rural constituency in the United Kingdom. This disastrous hard Brexit has hammered rural Britain, costing it millions of pounds, causing exports to plunge, and imposing labour shortages on every business in the rural economy. We cannot get people to work in our hospitality businesses because of what the Tories have done to freedom of movement. This is causing real difficulty and damage, and causing good rural businesses to close down. And the fact is that it will only get worse. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that only two fifths of the Brexit damage has been inflicted so far, and that every person in the United Kingdom will face a bill of about £1,200 because of what the Tories have done.
Instead of perpetuating the myth of levelling up, let us look at the real issues facing our countryside. I am disappointed that the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill), is not here at the moment, because we heard from the National Farmers Union yesterday that the real issue is the cost of fertilisers and energy costs and the difficulty that those are causing. I have listened today to Members representing constituencies in counties such as Dorset, Shropshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Sussex. I do not presume that those are the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom. I represent a prosperous area in Perthshire. I have pockets of deprivation, but for all these Tories to come here today asking for more money for their communities, when people in rural constituencies are suffering so much—
I cannot; I have no time.
Let us look at where this largesse is going. I do not know whether anyone is surprised by this, but of the 49 council areas in England that were considered to be the most developed but are now priority places, no fewer than 35 are represented by Conservative MPs, or a majority of Conservative MPs. Finally, let us look at how this will affect Scotland. Levelling up is not about levelling up when it comes to Scotland; it is about taking powers away from the Scottish Government. Under the EU structural funding system, the Scottish Government, together with the European Union and local authorities, designed projects that now depend on the whim of Whitehall.
Levelling up is an utter myth in these days of austerity and the Tory cost of living crisis, and the sooner the Tories get the message about that, the better we shall all be.
It is a pleasure to wind up this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing it, and on the characteristic power with which she spoke. I think it important to say at the outset—and this has been a theme of the debate—that levelling up must never be north versus south, or London versus the rest of the country. There is a clear need to tackle inequalities across all our nations and regions and to recognise that, as in rural communities, they can manifest themselves in many different ways, and it is good that we have had a chance to discuss that today.
The points that the hon. Lady made about productivity, especially in relation to connectivity, were very well made, and were echoed by the hon. Members for Witney (Robert Courts) and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean). Her points about holiday lets—which I will cover shortly—were echoed by the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) and for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson). There were many other interesting contributions. Treasury reform, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), and by all three of the Members from Dorset, is an important issue. The reason levelling up has failed so far is that it has met the Treasury, and the Treasury—in the person of the now Prime Minister—has rejected it. I fear that that may portend the future of levelling up.
I thank the hon. Member for his kind words about the speeches made by many of my colleagues. He may remember, however, that when the present Prime Minister was Chancellor, he granted a number of levelling-up fund town deals. All these levelling-up funds have already had a significant impact in the constituencies of Members on both sides of the House.
I have news for the hon. Lady. If we add all these funds together—high street funds and brownfield funds, for instance—we see that all but four of the 150 upper-tier local authorities are worse off because of the cuts that have been made to the council. So the reality is that even the winners have been losers so far. If what we are getting is more of the same, we will regret it—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady can shake her head, but it is true.
To move on to a couple of points of my own, we have seen the weakening of the foundations of our rural communities through unaffordable housing for younger generations, cuts to transport funding, GPs and dentists stretched to breaking point and community hubs such as village shops, post offices and pubs closing. These issues have plagued rural areas. In many ways, they reflect the problems being faced across the country, but the impact is more harshly felt in our rural towns and villages because, if they lose their cash machine and it is the only cash machine, for example, that has a very significant impact.
The net result is that young people have had to get out to get on, moving far away from their homes and loved ones to find decent opportunities. They take their spending power away from the towns and villages, which costs us our high streets, pubs, banks and post offices—the social fabric that binds us. That has left people growing old hundreds of miles away from their children and grandchildren, and they are feeling the aftershocks in every part of their life: declining prosperity, an eroded sense of community and a growing sense of insecurity.
The evidence is clear that we need a levelling-up settlement that works for rural Britain. We know that 50% of the rural population live in areas that have the poorest accessibility to services based on minimum travel times, compared with just 2% of the urban population. The average weekly household expenditure on transport costs in rural areas is £114, compared with £76 in urban areas. As the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) said, median workplace earnings are £2,500 a year lower in rural areas than in urban areas.
The case for change is strong, and we on these Benches argue that the problem has been a model that has involved flying the aeroplane on one engine; we have backed one small part of this country and not invested enough in our communities across the country to build thriving cities, towns, villages and coastal communities so that they can all reach their potential. That important point was made by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) with regard to coastal communities.
I know that time is short, and I am keen to hear the Minister’s response, so I am going to make three suggestions that we believe would make a significant difference to rural communities and provide a bit of an alternative between us and the Government. First, we have pledged the introduction of a licensing system for holiday lets—along the lines of what we are already doing in Wales—in coastal and rural communities, so that we can protect communities’ local character but still allow them to reap the rewards of thriving tourism. A stronger licensing system will allow genuine holiday lets to be identified while ending the injustice of young people being priced out of their own neighbourhoods, only for those homes to stand empty for months on end.
The hon. Members for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) made points about transport in rural communities, and we know that the loss of bus services has affected rural communities particularly hard. Our second proposal is to prioritise addressing the rural transport crisis by ensuring that councils can improve bus services by regulating and taking public ownership of bus networks while also extending the powers to re-regulate local bus services to all areas that want them, not just to combined authorities with elected Mayors. Having heard what the hon. Member for North Devon said about elected Mayors at the beginning, I am hoping that that will be music to her ears.
I happened to be shadow Transport Secretary when the great John Prescott was Secretary of State for Transport, Environment and the Regions. He said that he was going to do all sorts of things to revive rural buses, but rural bus services still went into decline. Can the hon. Gentleman not move forward and think about the community bus services and the digitised hopper mobile bus services? We need to completely rethink rural transport, and going back to regulated bus services is not the future of bus services in rural areas.
We have a point of difference on that. Yes, those models and that creativity in local communities is an important aspect of this, as are enhancements in technology, but I think that local oversight and control to ensure that there is full coverage would enhance services, rather than leaving them to the market as we have done.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for the status quo, but frankly the status quo does not work.
Finally, we will put local people back in charge with a new community right to buy, giving communities the opportunity to take control of pubs, historic buildings and football clubs that come up for sale or fall into disrepair. At the moment, local groups have a right to bid for such assets but it is clear that that has not worked. We will augment that to ensure that communities can make the most of the new right by improving the community ownership fund to ensure that seed capital is available for communities to generate revenues so that they can invest in their town, village or city and ensure that the proceeds of growth benefit those who live there. These are meaningful interventions that will have a meaningful impact on our rural communities. This lies in stark contrast to the Government’s levelling-up plans, which are so inconsequential that Ministers will not even release the impact assessment.
Again, I appeal to Conservative Back Benchers, many of whom I know to be independent-minded people who believe in the importance of doing things right in this place. The impact assessment on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill has been ready since July, but the Government will not release it. We have had all the Bill’s stages up to the end of Committee without the impact assessment. If we are serious about levelling-up rural Britain, let us have a conversation on the facts. My efforts to get the Minister to change his position on releasing the impact assessment have not worked. I ask Conservative Back Benchers to help, because we need a proper conversation on the facts.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech from what I have heard.
We are losing pubs and shops in our rural areas. We have a fantastic community shop in the village of Barford and a community pub in Norton Lindsey, and they bring their communities together. When I saw the title of this debate, I was concerned it was about the prospect of Barford being literally levelled for a quarry—
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) said, and it is why a community right to buy would add to the tools that enable communities to shape their future.
I understand the cynicism on the SNP Benches, but tackling regional inequality should be a national priority. People in our rural communities need to know that this place is delivering meaningful change across all our nations and regions. I do not think that case can be made at the moment, as is clear from the debate. They deserve better. We have made a series of suggestions, and I hope the Minister is minded to address them and the other points raised in this debate.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), as all my colleagues have, on securing this debate, given the importance and the salience of the issues that she and all colleagues have highlighted.
We have had a good debate that shows the breadth and depth of the discussion and the importance of levelling up to so many colleagues across the country. We have had contributions from the middle of Scotland all the way down to the bottom of the south-west, which demonstrates the importance of this subject to so many people and communities across the country.
The Government agree, and in February—I was not in the Department at the time—we published the levelling-up White Paper, the common consensus on which is that it is one of the deepest and most profound analyses of the challenges of improving communities across the country. The White Paper has been welcomed by most independent commentators as a serious piece of work on which serious policy can be and is being delivered for the long-term good of all our communities.
The White Paper’s central thesis accepts that talent is distributed equally across the communities of all hon. Members who have spoken today, and beyond, but that opportunity is not necessarily equally distributed. It is the role of Government to seek to rebalance that distribution reasonably and proportionately to offer opportunity, prosperity and pride across all communities.
We have been clear that change will not come overnight. This is a long-term issue that has been at the fore for many Governments, of all rosette colours, over many decades. The point of the levelling-up White Paper, and of all the work done before, during and after it, is to show that the Government are absolutely serious about making progress. The contributions of my hon. Friends demonstrate the seriousness of the work already being done on levelling up not only in rural communities but elsewhere. We will remain committed to that work. Within that paper, for rural communities and for others, we have committed by 2030 to improve living standards, research and development in all regions, transport infrastructure, digital connectivity, education and skills, health, wellbeing, pride in place—this is about the vital importance people place on and the attachment people feel to their communities—and housing, and to reduce crime and ensure there are devolution opportunities. So many of my colleagues have referred to that and it is so important.
This debate is also important to me as a representative of a semi-rural constituency. I understand many of the issues and the points highlighted by colleagues because I have the pleasure and privilege of representing so many colleagues in rural areas. The beauty that those areas offer and the challenges they face have been articulated by colleagues from across the House in the past few hours. I represent part of a national park, 41 different towns, villages and hamlets, and dozens of parish councils, so I understand the challenges and opportunities that rural areas offer—so many colleagues have articulated those so well. Let me continue my five-and-a-half-year quest to read into the Hansard record the names of all of my towns, villages and hamlets by saying that only on Saturday I visited the hamlet of Wigley, which has one of the smallest schools in Derbyshire, if not in the whole of the UK. It has just been successful, thanks to the headteacher and all the staff, in opening some additional space that will allow it to increase the number of pupils it supports every year going forward. I congratulate it on that.
This demonstrates that we must talk about levelling up not just in the traditional areas where there has been more discussion about it—places such as North East Derbyshire or areas northward—but, as has been highlighted by colleagues, in every part of the country. We need to have this discussion in rural areas, semi-rural areas and elsewhere, because there will be pockets of deprivation in every part of our communities and it is vital that we try to resolve, improve and mitigate those.
I could not disagree more profoundly with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) when he seemed to be indicating that simply because colleagues come from an affluent geography they are unable to make any statements about this whatsoever. That could not be more wrong, and it shows a complete misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the distribution of the challenges in the UK. It also shows a lack of understanding of what the UK Government are trying to do through their levelling-up initiatives—this is something that the Scottish National party has failed to do repeatedly while it has been in government since 2007.
Will the Minister also confirm that nobody on our side of the House urged that we should be robbing Peter to pay Paul? It was not a question of taking money away from urban and giving it to rural areas; it was a cri de coeur for potentially more money or a more equitable and rurally sensitive funding rubric. It was not about taking money away; the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has raised a most frightful slur.
I hope the Minister will also agree that the real problem with the Scottish nationalist party is that it does not want the British Government to have any relationship with the Scottish citizen and that the ability of the British Government to assist in levelling up in Scotland is why they have such resentment on this. It is because there are many people in Scotland who voted to be British citizens in the referendum, which we won and the SNP lost.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point.
I have only three and a half minutes left, so I will try to address a number of the points that have been highlighted by colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), along with my hon. Friends the Members for Witney (Robert Courts), for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), among others, raised the point about connectivity, be it of the physical kind, in terms of buses and public transport, or the virtual kind, in terms of broadband. They are absolutely right to advocate on the challenges that this brings. We all know that there have been challenges associated with buses in the past few years. When the level of decrease of passenger use is so profound as it has been with covid, of course we want to try to work through how we can support rural communities. That is no different in my constituency. We have to try to look at the innovative solutions that my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch highlighted with regards to a demand response to travel, while also ensuring that people have good quality bus services over the long term.
I had the pleasure of discussing many of these things with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), along with the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris)—the representative of that rural idyll—during the Committee stage of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made some strong points about the importance of skills, which is the subject of one of the missions in our White Paper, demonstrating our commitment to that and highlighting the importance of trying to make progress on public transport connectivity and accessibility.
Sadly, I will not as I have further points to cover.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) mentioned funding formulas. Although I am only 10 days into the job, I am very happy to talk to more colleagues about local government finance in general. I am keen to understand, to learn and to take the expertise that the all-party group and others have demonstrated over so many years to assist me in my role in the months ahead. He is absolutely right to raise the issue of park homes, as it is so important to many of us with rural and semi-rural constituencies.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) highlighted the importance of trying to get some of these points right both in terms of application processes to make applications for improvements and of making sure that central Government evaluate those in a way that works. His points on that were very strong. The triple tag team of my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax), for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and for West Dorset (Chris Loder) made some very good points about the importance of enabling the input of the private sector, about ensuring that we have parish and town councils that work for the communities that they serve and also about negative revenue support grant. I have heard all of those points and would be happy to talk to my colleagues about them. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), who is an important and doughty campaigner, made a strong point about trains in his area, particularly about the Avanti Service.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), for Buckingham (Greg Smith), and for Devizes (Danny Kruger) demonstrated the importance of tourism and hospitality and the importance of consideration of communities when large infrastructure projects take place in local areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes highlighted the immense importance from a rural perspective of remembering the long-term history and the reasons why these communities have developed in the way they have. As he said, the recollection and the acknowledgement of that history is so important in helping us to understand how we develop policy in the future.
In the moment that I have left, I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions today. It has been an incredibly interesting and important debate, which demonstrates our ability to have a nuanced, detailed and open conversation about the challenges and opportunities that face our rural communities. By doing that, we have the opportunity to make progress in the long-term to support these communities as we develop in the decades ahead.
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon, the Minister for his ongoing engagement with me in this role and in his previous roles and for listening to me about my rural issues, and the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this important debate.
It seems bewildering that the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), still cannot grasp the concept of pockets of deprivation. As a former maths teacher, I can tell him that he clearly needs a lesson in averages and variants. Indeed, many of the innovative solutions suggested by my Conservative colleagues cost nothing at all. As we look to lift up our communities, the SNP policies and rhetoric look to drag theirs down.
I very much hope that word will reach the Chancellor about this afternoon’s debate ahead of next week’s autumn statement and that our rural councils will receive the funds needed to continue to deliver vital services, which, quite simply, cost more in rural Britain.
As the number of Conservative colleagues in the Chamber this afternoon demonstrates, we are quite clearly the party of rural Britain. I hope that under our new Prime Minister and our new ministerial teams we will work harder, faster and smarter cross-Department to level up rural Britain.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of levelling up rural Britain.