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Rural Communities: Government Support

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for rural communities.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. This is the first debate that I have held. I feel it is important to highlight the challenges facing many of our rural communities. The Government must recognise the financial support needed, especially for local authorities to deliver essential frontline services.

To begin, I will explain the challenges that affect rural communities, and how their rurality provides specific complications that are often missed or ignored by central Government. People who live in rural areas face added living costs known as the rural premium. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that they typically need to spend around 10% to 20% more on everyday essentials than their urban counterparts. The rural economy is 19% less productive per worker than the national average, which is reported to cost the UK economy £43 billion per year. Employers face difficulties recruiting staff as rural areas generally have poorer public transport connections, resulting in employees relying on private vehicles and facing higher fuel expenditure.

The Government recognised the need to assist rural areas with the cost of travel and introduced the rural fuel duty relief in 2001, and it was extended again in 2015. However, it extends only to the most remote parts of the UK. I urge the Government to listen to Liberal Democrat calls for the scheme to be extended to cover most rural areas in the UK, including Somerset.

Fifty-three thousand people live within 10 km of Langport and Somerton, yet they are without access to a train station. Travellers have to drive 24 km to Taunton or 25km to Castle Cary. For those without access to private transport, the travel time by bus between Langport and Taunton is 51 minutes, and for Somerton it is 62 minutes. There is no direct connection to the rail by bus between Langport and Somerton and Castle Cary, with public transport requiring an interchange. The shortest journey time is therefore around one hour and 17 minutes. Bus routes in my constituency are also under threat, with four routes currently without guaranteed long-term funding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing her first Westminster Hall debate. She is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that bus services are important not only for getting people to train stations but for preventing social isolation and getting people to school and to the doctors and so on?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that rural isolation is a very important matter.

I received a phone call today from a constituent who cannot get to their medical appointments. The 58 bus service is currently under threat, and if that closes they will not be able to move around the constituency and access the vital services they need. It is clear that sparse public transport is a constant constraint to regeneration of the local economy.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. She is doing a wonderful job raising many of the issues that I also see in Bosworth, which is an 85% rural community. She has hit on the issue of sparsity and its impact on the delivery of services that need to be able to reach people, such as care workers. Does she agree that the Government should consider changing the local authority funding formula such that it takes sparsity into account? That would make a real difference, because it is a real problem when it comes to hidden rural poverty.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is very important for very rural areas such as Somerset, so I thank him for that.

Moving on to broadband, poor levels of rural connectivity and broadband impact rural economies, limiting growth and inhibiting people’s lives. New research by Vodafone UK revealed the extent of the rural digital divide across the UK. Somerton and Frome is in the bottom 6% of constituencies for mobile coverage, and nearly a quarter of the constituency is in a total 5G notspot. This has a significant impact on attracting businesses to the area, with rural businesses already struggling with online sales, services and accepting credit card payments.

For these reasons, many rural businesses rely on cash, meaning that access to cash is even more important in rural areas. Three banks have closed in Somerton and Frome in the last year alone, and the sharp drop in Government services through post offices has exacerbated the problem of post offices closing. Since 2010, Government services through post offices have declined by over 75%, as provision has been withdrawn. That affects the profitability of post offices and withdraws a valuable front-facing public asset from rural communities.

While the Government may brag about bringing inflation down to 4.6%, food inflation remains very high, at around 10%. The impact of food inflation can hit rural communities harder than their urban counterparts. Research by Which? found that people who rely on small local supermarket stores will almost never be able to buy essential budget-line items. Those types of stores are more prevalent in rural communities, with access to larger supermarkets more likely to be close to the urban centres.

Data from the Association of Convenience Stores shows that rural consumer visits to local convenience stores dropped from 3.4 times a week in 2018 to 2.5 times in 2022, suggesting that people are feeling the effects of food inflation acutely, which will hurt these convenience stores. When local convenience stores fail, they leave behind an empty space, which is often unfilled, depriving the community of vital provisions and forcing people to travel further for goods. Over the last two years, food prices have risen by more than a quarter. Examples of food prices now compared with 12 months ago reveal the extent to which people are struggling. In Tesco 12 months ago, 10 large eggs were sold at £2.70; now, they cost £3.85. The cost is 42% higher in just one year.

To tackle food prices and ensure food security, the Government need to provide support to those who grow our food. We need sustainable food production here at home. The common agricultural policy reform was welcomed, but the Government have botched that, leaving many farmers on the brink. The farming budget for England has not increased in line with inflation, despite the cost of farmers’ inputs and energy costs increasing significantly. Also, the latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that the average farm in England is £5,000 down this year because of departmental underspend.

Before the autumn statement, the National Farmers Union president was clear that British farming needs more investment. That is something that I, as someone from a farming family, fully agree with. It is also something that my party fully agrees with. The Liberal Democrats want to boost the farming budget by £1 billion to provide farmers with the relief that they so desperately need, alongside giving food producers more energy support.

Our rural communities have an intrinsic relationship with farming; 91% of land in Somerton and Frome is agricultural. Farming and its supply chain are major employers throughout rural communities, but they are struggling to get the workers that they need, which points to the major workforce problems in the sector. A report last year by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that covid and Brexit had had a huge impact on the sector. A lack of workers severely affects the productivity of our farms, resulting in higher food prices. The Liberal Democrats want to act on that by ensuring that we provide visas for agricultural workers and allow our farms to produce the food that they so desperately want to produce.

Farms have also been heavily affected by increases in energy costs. The Government reduced energy support for farms drastically—by 85%—in replacing the energy bill relief scheme with the energy bills discount scheme, and with farms not being classified as an energy and trade-intensive industry, farmers have been denied extra support, despite the industry being highly energy intensive.

The high costs of energy have also massively impacted domestic consumers. The higher likelihood of rural communities not having a direct relationship with their energy supplier has posed different difficulties for rural consumers from those faced by their urban counterparts. A quarter of homes in Somerton and Frome are off the gas grid and rely on alternative sources of fuel. Between 2021 and 2023, heating oil prices rose by 77% and the price of liquid gas doubled. The energy price guarantee introduced by the Government to cap people’s energy costs did not cover off-grid homes. They were forced to wait for the Government’s alternative fuels payment. It was initially £100, but after extensive lobbying, including by some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, the Government increased that to £200. However, it was not rolled out for those completely off grid until March 2023. Those who are off grid are still suffering high fuel costs, with liquified petroleum gas twice the price it was two years ago. I believe that the Government need to introduce a cap on domestic heating oil to support rural areas.

The rural premium applied in rural areas needs to be recognised by the Government, and support needs to be in place to alleviate the current high cost of living. The Liberal Democrats have a plan to help rural people. This Government have shown that they do not.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on securing this debate.

The United Kingdom boasts a rich tapestry of rural communities, each with its unique charm, heritage and challenges. Over the years the UK Government have strongly recognised the significance of these communities and have implemented various measures to support their growth, sustainability and resilience.

Earlier this year, when I was the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I wrote the foreword for, and indeed owned the whole document called “Unleashing rural opportunity”, in which we set out really important ways to ensure that our rural communities thrive. Whether it was about investing in the rural economy, removing barriers to enterprise or improving connections, we have already seen significant improvements in digital connection, and under Project Gigabit we will go even further.

There have also been connections on transport. I recognise what the hon. Lady said in that regard. Particularly in some rural areas, the sparsity of communities is challenging when it comes to providing a consistent public transport service. However, I hope that she welcomed the £2 bus fare cap, which I know has significantly improved the use of bus services in Suffolk. There has also been other support, which can often go towards things such as community volunteer transport or transport on demand, which, to be candid, I think is still going to be the most likely way to have an on-demand service for most of our very rural communities.

I also believe that there is more that we need to do on aspects of affordable housing and on aspects of energy. A decade ago, I was strongly involved in the fuel poverty challenge for properties off the gas grid. In fact, the Government changed the law under the Digital Economy Act 2017, a change that I helped to secure. That was to allow the opportunity to get information that the Government had but which was collected with certain powers that restricted its use, in order to open up that information to energy companies, so that they were able to go and identify the communities, or people in the community, who were off the gas grid, to try to help with the energy company obligation support. However, it was not unique to people who were off the gas grid.

I believe that it is that sort of thing where we probably need to put some more momentum behind what the energy companies are actually doing to be able to distribute that sort of support. It is there, but too often quite a lot of the money still goes, as I think the National Energy Association has said, into trying to identify people who might be eligible for support rather than going into delivering the solutions. I think the willingness is there. Now that I am back on the Back Benches, I perhaps have the opportunity to say that we should get that sort of connectivity going again and challenge things in that regard.

Regarding connectivity more broadly, enhanced connectivity lies at the heart of empowering rural areas, and I think that the UK Government have been dedicated to bridging the digital divide, ensuring that even the remotest villages have access to high-speed internet. The rural gigabit connectivity programme aims to deliver lightning-fast broadband to over 1 million homes and businesses in rural areas. That will bring economic opportunities and facilitate remote working, online education and, I hope, online healthcare, so that instead of having to travel long distances to get specialist care, people in rural areas might be able to receive such care online.

Before the right hon. Member gives way, may I just say something to her? I am sorry, but I forgot to ask her if she could sit down at 4.48 pm, so that I can get the other speakers in.

And I will just repeat that the motion is:

“That this House has considered Government support for rural communities”,

because I am failing miserably in the Chair. Sorry. [Laughter.]

Sir Charles, your failure is met by enthusiasm and has been offset as a result.

I thank my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for the point she is making. On digital connectivity, the percentage of my constituency of Bosworth with 1 gigabit has increased from 0.1% to 67%. This kind of thing gives huge opportunity to businesses and folk in my community. Is that not exactly the kind of thing that the Government want to do, in order to unlock opportunities for businesses, so that they can create new reasons for people to be in a rural constituency, apart from the beautiful countryside?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. About a decade ago our ambition was to get to 10 megabits as the universal service obligation. We have much greater ambition that that now. Of course it is about delivery, and quite a lot of legislation in the past few years has been about unblocking some of the barriers to making delivery happen, but it is good that the process is under way.

However, I share the concerns about mobile phones. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) has undertaken an assessment, and will be working with DEFRA and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Ofcom needs to look again when it says an area is covered for mobile phones. All of us have examples from our constituencies of that not being the case. It is particularly distressing when I think about the removal of copper-line communications that is due to happen this decade and the impact that could have if Ofcom is working off not totally reliable communication points.

The shared rural network is obviously designed to address that issue, but in many cases the equipment that providers have is not shared by other providers. Does the right hon. Member agree that either the equipment needs to be shared by all the main mobile providers or there needs to be rural roaming?

That is a good point. I do not know enough about the detail of what the hon. Lady suggests, but I know there are two sets of providers because they already share connection masts, but I appreciate that is not totally comprehensive.

I want to say a bit more about the importance of farming to our countryside and in our rural communities. Over the past year, I have made a lot of effort to try to ensure that that is recognised and that farmers are seen as the custodians of the countryside. Perhaps that speech will have to wait for another time, given the variety of issues that rural affairs covers, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome set out extensively.

One of the things that will continue to be of interest to me is school transport. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) has a debate tomorrow on funding for rural councils. There is no doubt that young people miss some opportunities because they cannot necessarily get to their college, which is a long distance away. More broadly, hon. Members who represent urban constituencies may not understand that children leave home very early in the morning, have quite long days--although those days seem to get shorter—and often may miss out on the regular opportunities that others have for sports, debate and similar.

I am afraid that I just do not have the time, but I am sure the hon. Member will be making a speech soon.

The right hon. Lady is extremely kind for giving way, and I apologise for missing the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke). I want to build on the point about transport, because there are massive issues in my constituency for transport for children with special educational needs. Children have to go from Selby up to Harrogate or Scarborough to receive the education they need. Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need more funding and investment to transport those children who need that extra help in a way that better respects the fact that they are getting up very early in the morning and not enjoying school in the way that other young people are able to?

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. The situation varies around the country, but I know it is a challenge that councils have. We could actually have an all-day debate in the Chamber or in here to discuss the plethora of issues covered by the brief held by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), whom I welcome to his well-deserved ministerial role. Being from a rural Yorkshire constituency, he will know a lot of the challenges that are faced, but he will also know of the opportunities and what a special place it is.

In terms of Government support, we need to keep that funding going for post offices, and we need ongoing investment in rural access programmes, whether that is for health or the internet. I commend the Government for the progress they have made. Of course, I would say that because a couple of weeks ago I was in charge of the Department doing it, but I assure the House that there is a genuine passion there. We need to ensure that the rural proofing that operates right across Government is still done and gets the scrutiny it deserves.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on securing the debate. It is such an important debate for many of us here because, while we recognise that urban areas have issues specific to their communities, everyone in this room understands the specific challenges that exist for our constituents living in rural areas.

Often these challenges are not adequately considered by the Government when the finer details of policy delivery are decided, and it is to the detriment of our constituents. Special educational needs, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Keir Mather) referred, is a perfect example. With smaller and more disparate populations in villages and towns in my constituency, children with special educational needs and disabilities are at risk of slipping through the net. Being students in smaller rural cohorts should not prevent them from accessing the same services as their peers in urban areas. I had hoped that the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan published in March would address some of the unique challenges in rural SEND provision, but it failed to do so. None of the proposals related specifically to SEND in rural communities but spoke simply in generalisations, assuming that all geographies have the same concerns.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. One of the issues mentioned beforehand, to which the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Keir Mather) also referred, is that children with disabilities, whether emotional or physical, are up at half-past 4 in the morning to catch a bus at half-past 7. Their parents are up; their families are up; the whole house is disrupted. Those are special circumstances: a bus arrives at half-past 7 and there is no other choice, even though school does not start until 9 am or half-past 9. Those are real problems.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member. The big question is how the Government can possibly expect to address those issues when we see no sign of their recognising them.

The challenges in rural educational provision differ from the provision of SEND in urban areas. In spread-out communities, often with non-existent public transport, it is far more difficult for SEND children to access those services. Thirty children in an urban area with a small geographical footprint and a bus every 20 minutes find it much easier than do 30 children spread over a vast geographical footprint with no public transport.

Flooding also brings challenges particular to rural areas. Of course, such challenges can occur in any part of the country—they are not unique to rural areas—but some of the issues are wide-ranging. The farmers of West Lancashire are proud to be the growers and feeders of our nation, but when their fields are flooded and their produce is written off, it does not just impact farmers and their incomes; it reduces the availability of food in our shops and it drives up prices, hitting consumers in the pocket all over the country. How can the Government support the growers and food providers of West Lancashire when they do not even have a recognised definition of flooding, and no one is recording how many floods take place each year?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that although this is an important issue, a lot of the debate on flood risk in this country centres on the number of chimney pots—houses—that will be affected rather than on the high-quality arable land that our farmers use to feed the nation in the way that she suggests?

I agree with that. Talking to farmers in my community is fascinating: they cannot understand why the Environment Agency attaches a value of zero to farmland when it measures the impact of flood defences. We really need to talk about that, because without protecting that agricultural land, we are damaging not only the economics of our food providers but access to food and food sustainability across the whole country.

It is not just farmland that is affected. Flooding on roads is a major inconvenience for people in urban communities, but it brings communities like mine to a standstill. In Skelmersdale, we have been without a train station for 65 years, despite the Government supposedly freeing up £36 billion for transport projects through the cancellation of the northern leg of High Speed 2. The Rail Minister has told me in writing that it is not possible to connect Skem to the rail network, because money has already been committed to other projects, a number of which are either recycled announcements or already operational. Projects such as a station for Skem do not only support our rural communities; they unlock the potential within them. It is difficult for me to go back to my constituency and tell residents on their doorstep that the Government are supporting rural communities, when time and time again, people in West Lancashire tell me that they do not feel they are being heard.

The theme running through all these issues is that the Government simply do not understand the needs of rural communities. It is time that the people of West Lancashire had a Government who are on their side and support them by meeting the ambition out there with a bold and ambitious strategy in this place that recognises the specific needs of rural areas, but for now I fear that such a strategy is sadly lacking.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. As an MP representing rural Devon, every day I see at first hand the impact on my constituents of decisions made in Westminster. The Conservative party was pretty canny in 2019 to include in its manifesto the term “levelling up”, because what people in my constituency heard was that the historical imbalance between the west country and other parts of the country—the south-east, in particular—would be addressed. What I have been hearing in the past 18 months is that that illusion has been utterly shattered. Rural communities feel more left out and ignored than ever, and that applies to public services, local businesses and individuals.

I will talk about some of the challenges relating to rural health, rural housing and rural education. Healthcare services in areas such as my part of east Devon are patchy at best. The distances from people’s homes to the nearest acute hospital are huge, and the network of small community hospitals that used to play a vital role has been diminished. Rehabilitation used to go on in community hospitals, but that is no longer the case. In 2017, acute beds were taken out of hospitals in places such as Ottery St Mary and Seaton. Such facilities used to be part of the character of the village or small market town, but people no longer feel they are there to support them.

It would be a huge blow for us to lose a wing from Seaton community hospital, which is severely under threat. I am working with community campaigners to turn that wing into a new care hub so that we can continue to support the ageing population in that part of Devon.

The housing stock in rural areas tends to be draughty and poorly insulated, and frankly there is a lack of it. Who would not want to move from this part of the country to Devon? But that is creating a shortage of housing in towns such as Honiton. Just before I joined this debate, I took a look online and there are just six properties in the whole of Honiton available for private rent. They have three or four large bedrooms, which means that they cost way in excess of £1,000 per month, which, given Devon salaries, is out of range for a lot of key workers in the area. I appreciate that there is pressure on housing across the country, including in urban areas, but we need to take into account the fact that people in Devon travel much longer distances to go to school or work, so they have to extend their search for housing much further. Constituents sometimes come to my surgeries in tears because they simply cannot afford to live in the patch where they grew up.

Providing education in rural areas is particularly difficult, and there is a huge catchment for many schools. Mrs Ethelston’s Church of England Primary Academy in Uplyme has such a large catchment, and so many people want to send their children to it, that the space pressure is acute. The teachers and children desperately look forward to the warmer months, when they will be able to open the doors and have some of the classes taught outside, such is the pressure on space. I think of Tiverton High School, for which I fought a campaign during the by-election last summer. We have heard nothing on when we might see spades in the ground and action taken to replace that crumbling high school with something the people of Tiverton deserve.

To conclude, the idea of levelling up for a lot of people in rural areas—certainly in the west country and my part of Devon—is a great concept. But people think this is now a tool being used to win over marginal constituencies in urban areas in the midlands and the north. They have not seen it. Frankly, if I go and talk with people in my patch about levelling up, they say “Levelling up? The Government can’t even level up the pothole outside my house.” This Government say they want level up. Instead, they need to start by ensuring rural areas get a fair deal and a fair shot at success.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance once again, Sir Charles. It is a real privilege to follow everybody in this debate, but especially my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who succeeded in securing this debate and made an outstanding speech at the beginning.

I want to cover many issues we have already talked about, and I will start with farming. Farming is crucial to feeding our country, protecting and restoring our environment, tackling climate change, promoting biodiversity and underpinning the landscape that our tourism economy depends on, but it has been badly let down. Farmers across my community feel angry with this Government for many reasons—including the trade deals with New Zealand and Australia that threw them under the bus—but specifically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned, the botched transition from the old scheme to the new scheme.

We believe in environmental land management schemes, and we think the project is one worth supporting. However, the Government promised £2.4 billion in their manifesto for farming in England, and the latest figures for 2022-23 show £1.97 billion for agriculture in England. Environmental schemes have increased in their expenditure to farmers by £145 million a year—great—but basic payments have fallen by £490 million. We see upland livestock farm incomes down by 44% and lowland livestock farm incomes down by 41%.

I remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. If the Government find it so difficult to put money into farming in the way my hon. Friend describes, could they not perhaps give a bit more attention to ensuring that farmers get a fair price for their product at the farm gate? The Groceries Code Adjudicator has not achieved what we wanted it to, but surely somebody, at some point, has got to address the fact that that market is failing, and it fails to the disadvantage of our farmers and rural communities.

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point; he is absolutely right. The Groceries Code Adjudicator has the capacity to potentially make a big difference for farmers and growers—producers of all kinds. But the reality is that it does not have the sanctions and remit. It is not allowed to take third-party referrals from the likes of us or the NFU on behalf of farmers who are being stitched up by processors or retailers. It is absolutely right that the Government support farming, but the market should be fixed so it does not exploit our farmers either.

We already have a situation where we are only 58% self-sufficient in farming in this country. We are never going to deliver the environmental goods we need if we do not have those expert hands on the land delivering those environmental policies. Our landscapes are at risk of changing radically, dramatically and negatively to undermine—for example—the £3.5 billion-a-year tourism economy of the English Lake district.

Moving on to broadband, Project Gigabit is a good idea, but there will be many people who miss out. Thousands of homes in my part of Cumbria are outside the scope, or in deferred scope, of Project Gigabit. B4RN—the Minister may be aware of it—or Broadband for the Rural North is an excellent local community interest company. It could absolutely connect all of those homes in—I am going to mention them now—parts of Sedbergh, Kaber, Murton, Long Marton, Winton, Warcop, Ormside, Hilton, Hartley and Bleatarn.

I mention those places because, if the broadband voucher system were still available, they could be connected now through B4RN, if it was not for the fact that Project Gigabit is trying to only ride one horse, and is not prepared to accept that not every issue has to be dealt with in the same way—one size does not fit all. I ask the Minister to look specifically at those communities and consider restoring the vouchers to them so that they can be connected well and connected now.

I want to briefly move on to buses. The right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) rightly points out the importance and value of the £2 bus fare, which I think has increased footfall or “busfall” by about 10%—it certainly has in my community. The £2 bus fare does a fat load of good if there is no bus. I want this Government to give local authorities like mine the power to run their own bus companies and the funding to ensure that they work. Buses often do not make a profit, but they are the oil that ensures that the economy works in communities to keep people connected and to ensure that people can get to work and school, or make use of leisure facilities. Back our buses.

In which case, I really apologise—I will not give way. I apologise, Sir Charles. I do not want to be ungenerous to the mover especially.

I will finish on health, and I want to talk about cancer in particular. The reality in a community like mine is that, throughout south Cumbria, there are around 700 people having to travel each year for radiotherapy treatment to their nearest radiotherapy centre—the Rosemere Cancer Centre in Preston in Lancashire, which is excellent. That is a two, three or four hour round trip for those 700 people. Swindon has recently been allocated a satellite unit on the basis of 600 patients who would use that centre. My call is for a satellite radiotherapy centre to be placed at the Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal to serve south Cumbria and to ensure that those people receive the treatment they need.

The latest figures tell us that 38% of people in south Cumbria diagnosed with cancer wait more than two months for their first intervention, and 54% of those in places in north Cumbria, such as Appleby, Kirkby Stephen and Shap, have to wait more than two months for their first intervention. We know that, for every four weeks of delay in cancer treatment, one has 10% less chance of surviving. I believe that people in rural communities have as much right to have a life ahead of them than those who live elsewhere, yet we have a funding situation that does not treat them as such. I will finish there, Sir Charles, and thank you for overseeing this debate. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I commend the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on securing this debate today—the first of many excellent contributions in this Chamber, I am sure. The Scottish Government are committed to supporting farmers and agricultural communities all across Scotland. Unlike the Government here in Westminster, the Scottish Government understand the needs of the rural communities, and the unique and important roles they play in the make-up of not only our economy but our country and its health.

Brexit has been bad for all of these of course—-the economy, our country and its health—and EU withdrawal has damaged the UK’s farming industry. It has made trade with the EU more difficult, it has led to labour shortages and a reduction in standards, and it has resulted in a loss of funding to UK farmers. The Scottish Government are committed to maintaining direct payments to support the act of farming and food production in these communities. The Cabinet Secretary in Holyrood has offered assurances that the envelopes for tiers 1 and 2 —based and enhanced—will take up by far the majority of available funding. We are of course working closely with communities to ensure that there will also be no cliff edge between the current system and moving on to the newer systems, but people of course have to do a lot more in return for their payment.

Scottish farmers and rural communities require clarity and certainty from the UK Government about future funding after 2025, and they need that right now. As things stand, we have no idea what either a Labour or a Conservative Government might do in the future. We will be listening intently to what the Minister and the shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)—have to say on the future of funding, or perhaps on which U-turns might be undertaken next. Of course, if we were still in the European Union, we would have that funding certainty through the multi-year common agricultural policy framework, which is something else that we have lost thanks to Brexit, which is of course was supported by the two major parties here in Westminster.

As those in the Chamber will be aware, agricultural policy is devolved to Scotland, and it is crucial that the Scottish Government’s policies are unhindered by this place and the threats imposed upon it by the UK Internal Market Act 2020, subsidy control regimes and a lack of a long-term replacement for that structured EU funding. Those of us who sit on the EFRA Committee heard evidence from devolution experts last week, which is worth reinforcing here today: it is high time that the Westminster Government learned how to listen to devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales because it is not only farmers and rural communities that have been affected; the damage of decisions taken in this place goes far and it goes deep.

The Scottish Government have introduced an Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill to Parliament to establish a new payment framework, which will begin to reform our agricultural and our wider rural support systems. One area that I want to focus on is how the Scottish Government are acting to deliver improved infrastructure and connectivity for rural communities and islands. We have heard a lot about that already today. Work is ongoing to open a new railway station next to Inverness airport, offering better connectivity and initiatives made possible by the £40 million of Scottish Government investment as part of our commitment to a fairer, greener Scotland.

We are also pushing for connections to be established between the famous Caledonian sleeper service and the Eurostar at St Pancras International. That will help join the two key services linking the highlands of Scotland with major European cities. It will further support our strategic aims going forward. The Scottish Government have invested over £9 billion on rail infrastructure in Scotland.

Finally, I want to touch on how important good quality, affordable housing is to help attract and retain people in Scotland’s communities. Between 2016-17 and 2022-23 the Scottish Government have supported the delivery of more than 10,000 affordable homes in the rural and island areas, and we have much bigger ambitions yet. On 13 October we committed to deliver at least 10% of our 110,000 targets in rural and island communities, to meet housing needs and to retain and attract people to those communities.

The Scottish Government are fully committed to supporting farmers and our agricultural communities by delivering the funding, improved connectivity and infrastructure programmes and by building the homes that we so desperately need now in those locations.

It is always a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. As you may have noticed, I am not my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins). He is currently unavailable, so I am here in his place. I am sure he will catch up on the debate very quickly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on her first debate held here in Westminster Hall. She did well and made an excellent speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Ashley Dalton) for her passionate championing of children with special educational needs and how their particular needs need to be met in a very specific way in rural communities. That would have been felt and heard by everybody in this room.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Keir Mather) for mentioning the particular needs of children with special educational needs and how we need to make sure that they do not miss out on anything because of the area in which they live. I quickly want to thank the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for their contributions to this debate. We have had a really interesting discussion.

I want to comment on the issues around broadband. As I am sure the Minister is aware, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Latvia and Bulgaria already have at least 85% ultrafast full-fibre broadband coverage, so it is an embarrassment to us in this country that we are so far behind. In fact, we could say that if we were in the slow lane compared with the EU when it comes to our rural communities, we are in a traffic jam because the super-slow roll-out of ultrafast broadband in rural areas is genuinely putting communities at a disadvantage. We have more people working from home, which is something to be pleased and positive about, and more are choosing a rural life, but unfortunately I found out in this debate that only six homes are available in Tiverton, in case anyone wants to move there.

The broadband failure is a major loss. It impacts households and also businesses and productivity. When Project Gigabit was first announced, we were promised it would focus on harder-to-reach areas, but it is clear from Ofcom and DCMS data that the funding is being spent more on easier and cheaper-to-reach areas, many of which already have decent broadband connectivity. That is just because the Government want to be able to hit that figure of 85%. It feels as though the policy is driving what is good in terms of politics but not what is good in rural communities. Can the Minister tell me what proportion of areas not covered by gigabit-capable broadband are in rural areas and what action is being taken to address that?

We have heard from many people commenting on concerns around the availability of bus services. Someone used the phrase “rural isolation”. It is not just about getting to work: it is also about having a life, being able to connect with family and friends, and social activities. The lack of funding for local authorities has forced many communities to make tough decisions when it comes to road maintenance and the lack of availability of rural bus services. Roads are in a disgraceful state. Figures from the RAC say that there could be over 1.5 million potholes in England. I would gently say that election leaflets pointing at potholes, despite the impression they give, do not fix them. What will the Government do to deliver a solution to the potholes we have? Joking aside, 8,100 car breakdowns happen because of potholes.

Labour will act to support our rural communities where the Conservatives have failed. We will not sit back while more shops and local services disappear, while numbers dwindle in village schools so that they risk closure, and while farmers struggle to make ends meet and local people struggle with higher food and energy bills. The Government have failed to recognise that business and growth are not in competition with the environment, and that we can use the green agenda to promote business, increase skills and growth, and rebuild and protect our rural and farming communities. That is what the next Labour Government will do. We will embed rural proofing at the heart of Government and Labour policy and ensure that these areas thrive.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) for securing today’s debate and congratulate her on securing her first debate in the House. We have a number of firsts: it is my first debate responding as a Minister, and I am very pleased to be in the position to do so. I would also like to thank other hon. Members for their contributions today.

It gives me great pleasure to speak as the Minister for Rural Affairs, because Rural Affairs is one of those portfolios that cuts across multiple Government Departments. Representing the rural economy and the rural sector, I very much see it as my role to bring together some of the challenges that have been identified and that we are well aware of from other Government Departments, so that we can focus on driving forward the very best agenda for our rural communities.

The countryside makes up 90% of the UK’s land mass, is home to millions of people and is central to our economy, contributing £270 billion each year in England. This Government are absolutely committed to improving the quality of life for all businesses, farming communities and individuals living within the rural sector. We are ensuring that the needs of people and businesses in rural areas are at the heart of policymaking, and that absolutely sits right with me. Rural proofing policy and our levelling-up agenda are the very basis of what this Government are about when it comes to the rural community.

That is why, earlier this year, my Department published the “Unleashing rural opportunity” report under my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I thank her for her time and her service to the rural community while she was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That report was vital because it outlined how the Government are addressing the needs of people and businesses in rural areas. It included new commitments from across the Government to support rural communities to thrive and be more resilient.

I would like to canter through some of the topics that have been raised by many contributors to the debate. I will start with some of the points on farming. Our farming community is at the very heart of our rural community. The Government continue to support and invest in farming and have stood by our manifesto commitment to invest £2.4 billion a year for the rest of this Parliament. We are phasing out the EU’s bureaucratic land-based subsidies and introducing new schemes that work for farmers, food producers and the environment. We have accelerated the roll-out of the sustainable farming incentive and there are now a further 19 actions that can be accessed to grow food more sustainably. They include actions relating to soil health, hedgerow management, providing food and habitats for wildlife, and managing pests and nutrients. We have rolled out the farming investment fund, which has been very much welcomed by many in our farming community because it focuses on improving productivity and efficiency within farming business, animal health and welfare, and bringing forward more environmental benefits.

Another topic that has been raised is the levelling-up agenda, which of course is one of the Government’s core missions, particularly when it comes to rural areas. Rural areas face specific challenges: productivity is generally lower, access to services is sometimes more difficult, and connectivity can be more challenging than it is in urban environments. That is why the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, which enshrines the levelling-up missions in law, includes a duty for this Government and future Governments to have regard to rural areas. Delivery of the Government’s levelling-up agenda is underpinned by significant investment—notably, £4.8 billion through the UK shared prosperity fund. To address the challenges faced by rural areas, we have supplemented that funding with an additional £110 million through the rural England prosperity fund, which supports capital projects for small businesses and community infrastructure and helps to improve productivity and strengthen the rural economy across the country.

Many Members, including the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, mentioned digital connectivity. Rural areas offer significant potential for growth, and the Government are committed to creating the right conditions to unleash that potential. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), who is no longer in his place, highlighted the extent to which the Government will improve rural digital connectivity, which will do more to support growth in rural areas than almost anything else. It is not only an economic necessity, but a matter of social justice. More services, both public and private, are being delivered electronically, so those living in rural areas must be able to get online. The Government recognise that and are doing something about it. Through Project Gigabit, we are investing £5 billion in hard-to-reach areas to achieve access to lightning-fast broadband. Our target is to reach 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, with nationwide coverage by 2030. Through the £1 billion shared rural network, in collaboration with industry, we will deliver 4G coverage to 95% of the UK’s land mass by 2025, which will help many people living in remote rural areas.

Many Members mentioned housing. I want to pick up the points raised by the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). We all know that a thriving, working countryside depends on having sufficient housing stock. People want to be able to earn a livelihood in their communities, near their family and friends, and employers want to recruit a locally based workforce. Small site developments can be an effective means of delivering the housing that is needed in rural areas. Developments of up to six units of well-located, affordable housing in villages can be transformational. We recognise that, and I have seen it elsewhere—particularly in remote areas of Northumberland. That is why we are taking action through our rural exception sites policy to allow the development of small affordable housing sites in rural areas where they would not normally be permitted.

Earlier this year, we announced £2.5 million of funding to support the national network of rural housing enablers across England to boost the supply of new affordable housing. They will help by identifying development opportunities, supporting site owners and community representatives to navigate the planning system, and securing the support of local communities for developments.

Reference was made to the challenges associated with getting homes better insulated. I assure the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that through the housing upgrade grant scheme, which supports low-income households, one-off grants can be made available to better insulate homes; £218 million has been made available, of which 67% is being ringfenced for rural areas. That will help to address some of the challenges that have been identified.

Of course, we all want thriving rural communities, so I want to mention some of the wider work the Government are doing to support rural communities to thrive through better access to transport, healthcare and community infrastructure. People living in rural areas often have further to travel to get to work or school, or to access personal and professional services such as healthcare and banking, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned. Ensuring that rural communities have access to effective transport options is vital. That is why I welcome, as I hope many Members do, the £300 million Government investment in protecting and capping bus fares. That was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal. The £2 bus fare cap has been extended to £2.50 until October 2024. That is helping my constituents across Keighley and Ilkley to get out and about at a much more affordable rate.

We are also trialling novel demand-responsive minibus services in 15 local authority areas, supported by the £20 million rural mobility fund. In October 2023, the Department for Transport published “Future of Transport”, which shows how emerging technologies could address some of the major challenges in rural communities. As part of this, the Department is making up to £3 million of funding available for rural innovation. That will help explore new solutions to long-term issues, such as loneliness and isolation, poor access to services and the financial challenges facing rural transport services.

We are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to good-quality health and social care wherever they live. That is why we are working better and faster to deliver more accessible care in rural areas. That includes rolling out 160 community diagnostic centres. Many are located in market town centres, which can reduce the distances that people need to travel. I am pleased that those diagnostic centres are being rolled out across England as I speak.

I also want to pick up on a point on satellite services made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. I have seen them work very well in certain parts of England. I recognise some of the specific challenges that he referenced in his speech. They are something I could take away to look at with the Department of Health and Social Care. My role as Minister for Rural Affairs is to try to bring together objectives that other Departments want to achieve and ensure that they can be rolled out in rural areas.

I also want to highlight the work that the Government are doing to support vital community infrastructure in community hubs, such as village halls, public libraries and places of play. Those places play a key role in sustaining rural community networks and services. DEFRA is investing £3 million to support improvements to village hall facilities across the country and the £150 million community ownership fund supports community ownership of pubs, shops, community centres and the like.

I reassure everyone that I want our rural areas to prosper and be a central part of the levelling-up ambitions. I want them to be places where people not only want to live and work, but where they have better access to the essential services that they need to go about their everyday lives.

I thank the Minister, and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy); and I thank all hon. Members for their passionate and valuable contributions. I close by reiterating the need for tailored support for our rural communities. They are so often forgotten, but we need to recognise their importance to our society. We need the Government to understand the specific issues that such communities face and heed the calls from hon. Members present regarding the ways that the Government can better assist.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government support for rural communities.

Sitting adjourned.