rose to call attention to the state of the countryside and to the provision of public services in rural areas; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, now that the Minister has stopped talking rubbish, I am delighted to call attention to the state of the countryside and the provision of public services in rural areas. In doing so, I declare myriad interests: financial and emotional, past and present, direct and indirect. They are in the Register of Members’ Interests, and I leave it to your Lordships to decide whether I am simply an advocate of self-serving self-interest or whether I know a little bit of what I am talking about. I must explain that I both enjoy and am interested in cities. In the remarks that I am about to make, I shall be quite deliberately general.
I think that it was about nine months ago that I was asked by a Member of your Lordships' House to attend a dinner of the Hansard Society. We spoke about a number of things, including, inter alia, the problems associated with the common agricultural policy. I dropped in the remark that I thought that whatever else happens, one must have some sort of policy for farming and the countryside. My interlocutor, who was a Member of the other place, on the opposite Benches from me, looked absolutely blank. That was a terrible indictment, because in the countryside and rural Britain, we are talking about 80 to 90 per cent of the surface area of the country. One cannot simply abandon it. If one does, it leads to dereliction, and there is nothing more expensive to put right than that. If one looks at the amount of money that has been spent in inner-city areas since the war, it makes what has been spent on the countryside pale into insignificance.
Against that background, what is needed? There are three parts to this: first, we need a good policy; secondly, we need sound means of delivering that policy; and, thirdly, we will require social measures as appropriate to deal with some of the problems that are left. When one thinks about the countryside and those who live in it, it is important to make one distinction: between the many people who are living and working in the countryside with the benefit of money that has been earned and made elsewhere and the second section of the rural community—perhaps I may call it “indigenous”—which is living and working in a low-wage, low-wealth-creating part of the economy. They are the people on whom we should be concentrating in our remarks today.
In thinking about the countryside, one has to start with agriculture and forestry, because, even if they are not the biggest economic sector in large parts of rural Britain, they are nevertheless at the heart of it. Certainly, in my own home area of Cumbria, tourism is worth more money to the community than agriculture, but when there is no agriculture, there is no tourism.
When thinking about farming and agriculture, one has to remember also that we have a common agricultural policy. I should have thought that it is a policy that no one in this Chamber, or anywhere, would invent from scratch, but it is what we have and we have to work with it. Moreover, it is getting better. It is an improvement that we do not now find that we are paying for public goods through a mechanism which is coupled with production. However, the policy fails. It fails the test contained in the Treaty of Rome which states inter alia that one of purposes of the common agricultural policy is to ensure a fair standard of living for the agriculture community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture. It also fails the test of fair trade, which, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, at Question Time about a fortnight ago, is a principle that also lies at the heart of domestic agricultural policy.
I am afraid that some of this will be old ground for the Minister, but the real immediate problem is the collapse of the delivery system of the policy that we have. Of course, the Minister himself is not as an individual directly responsible for that. However, as the Minister standing at the Dispatch Box, the buck stops with him. The sins of the father are being visited on the son. I pay tribute to the Minister, as my noble friend Lord Marlesford did. I was talking to one his colleagues on the Benches opposite the other day who said, “What a marvellous Minister he is—he gets away with murder week after week”. But he need not worry about the reshuffle because, if my experience and that of my noble friend is anything to go by, the Government will not pay any attention to anything we think.
What has happened as a result of this is that infection has spread through the department. I know of an instance when, despite having had the proper information for two years, it is simply not possible to get hold of the proper digital map. The public are entitled to expect competent delivery of public policy, but is it happening? No. The European Commission, in agreeing to the form of the common agricultural policy in this country, will expect it to be delivered effectively. Is that happening? No, it is not. Finally, those directly affected in their livelihoods by the system, for better or worse, whatever the details of the policy, are entitled to a degree of competence in its delivery. It is not happening. We have a course of systemic maladministration.
As I and other noble Lords will have heard the Minister say, the system that we have for delivering the single farm payment in England is intellectually superior to the model employed in the other home countries. I concur with that. The problem is that we have been too clever by half—it is as simple as that. As I have said before, in the department it is a case of lions being led by donkeys. But it goes wider than the straightforward agricultural problem. All the other public goods coming through agricultural policy, such as environmental activities, climate change issues, landscape considerations and as a framework for tourism are all affected as a consequence.
When I look back to the Second World War, I believe that one of the great mistakes made in this country was in the thinking inherent in the 1949 planning legislation. The vision of the future was that the countryside would be for agriculture and forestry and almost every other activity was going to take place in the built-up areas. That historically had never been the case, but the effect has been to see an elimination from the countryside of all kinds of industrial, semi-industrial and commercial activities, which had traditionally been there. Now, as the world has moved on, we are trying to see—and I think rightly—a shift back. One problem that we face in this regard is that much of the move back is in practice being driven by the rural development agencies, which are essentially emanations of central government. They are the contemporary successors of Oliver Cromwell’s rule of the Major Generals. We know that the underlying framework in which they were originally conceived has not come into being because of a change of tack in regional policy, but it is a problem for those intended as the beneficiaries of the policy that it has been delivered in a very corporate and dirigiste way.
The other difficulty that is damaging the impact of the move back is that we are always looking for a bolt-on series of social outcomes, which in turn are getting in the way of getting things done on the ground. I also make a plea for the Country Land and Business Association’s proposal that in its treatment of rural activities it should look at the revenue from the perspective of rural business use. That would make it infinitely easier for those who are business people in the countryside to diversify their activities. That contrasts with the market-driven approach that we adopted in government, in things like the enterprise zones and the initiatives of my noble friend Lord Heseltine. When public money is involved we need to pump-prime businesses which of their own volition and with their own energy will then become sustainable. That is crucial; we must have a light touch. What we must not do is micro-manage.
With services in the countryside, we would all agree that we want equivalence between the town and country and rich and poor. Things cannot be identical: some things are going to be more expensive and some cheaper, depending on where one is. That is why things like calculations about sparsity are so important—and my local authority, Eden District Council, felt very hard done by in that regard. Post offices, public transport and hospitals are networks; each relate to the other. Public transport is self-evidently important with regard to hospitals and post offices. If everyone has a post office within three miles of them, for example, it is fine; but if you are 80 years old, it also matters whether there is public transport. Where I lived as a child, if you wanted to go to Carlisle by bus you could go on a Tuesday but you could not get back until the following Friday, which was not very helpful.
When you are thinking about hospitals it is important to realise that it is not only the patient who is important, but also his family—both sides of the equation. People want to see their families and friends if the latter are ill, just as the people who are ill want to see their families and friends to be encouraged by them. What you cannot do is salami cut pieces off networks because that goes to the very heart of the network itself.
I should like to spend a moment or two talking about housing. Much earlier in my life I had the good fortune to be on what was then called the Lake District Special Planning Board. I became aware of the housing problems of local people, or affordable housing as it is rather unattractively known. I have been interested in and concerned about that for a long time. One of the mistakes we have made in this country in looking at this has been to try to look at it too much from the demand side and not enough from the supply side. The thing that strikes me very forcefully in the Lake District is not the shortage of houses but the shortage of houses that can satisfy the particular needs which need filling. As the Minister may know, I have talked to his colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about this. In a world where owner occupation is becoming increasingly accepted as a norm, we must try to find ways to put conditions on existing houses—what I might call second-hand houses—so that they remain available for people who are normally perceived as falling within the scope of affordable housing. We ought to be much more imaginative in looking at vehicles such as building preservation trusts. I know that the Government are working on shared equity. In the longer run there is much more advantage in trying to unlock the problem through utilising existing houses than through building more and more new houses, which over time only marginally reduces the price of second homes.
As regards letting, we must try to find ways of getting existing housing stock into the hands of forms of social landlords. I am president of the Lakeland Housing Trust, a very small charity, which has been doing this now for 70 years on its own terms. It is run by professional volunteers—a tradition which goes back originally to Mrs Rawnsley, the wife of Canon Rawnsley who founded the National Trust. If you keep the organisation small and local you can do a lot of good.
As a person who is active in public life, I always keep an eye on the party political weathervane. I ask the Minister to cast his mind back to a memory which I should think is rather happier for him than it is for me; namely, the general election of 1997. It struck me then that for the first time in my adult life the Labour Party had made real inroads into the rural vote. But since then—I cannot say that I am entirely unhappy about this but it is a concern—it seems to me that it has lost an awful lot of support. Part of that was caused by the foot and mouth outbreak and part of it was to do with the hunting ban. Not everybody likes hunting. I have never hunted to hounds with a horse although I have done a bit of fell hunting in the Lake District. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the legislation, it seems to me that the argument behind the change in the law has not commanded the hearts and minds of much of the rural population. The only argument that they really understand that is left is a metaphysical one—that somehow it is wrong to hunt foxes with hounds. Yet in almost every other aspect of contemporary life we are being told to be tolerant and that we must understand and accept other people’s way of doing things. Country people ask, “Why have we been singled out to be treated differently?”
Country people are tolerant, albeit they are often politically incorrect. It is very important to understand that because if people feel generally unwanted, unloved and on the defensive, they will become alienated. With alienation there is a risk of fragmentation in society. We have seen in Scotland how that is beginning to put tension on the union. In the north of England my party has had problems because apparently real Northerners do not vote Tory. We have seen problems and pressures and stresses and strains in the immigrant communities. I am not the only one who has noticed this. On the countryside march an apparently respectable young man was handing out newspapers, but when you looked at the bottom of them you found the imprint of the British National Party.
Some years ago I went to the annual Asian Businessmen’s Dinner in Blackburn organised by the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Blackburn, shortly after a BNP breakthrough. One of my hosts told me that he understood why people vote for the BNP. He said, “They need it more than we do. We get all that is on offer”.
If we are trying to take this country forward in a one-nation way, we need to have everyone bound into that. If that does not happen, and people do not get a fair crack at the whip, we will get fragmentation. There is a real risk of that in the countryside. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for initiating this debate, which I regard as extremely important, even though it is on a Thursday before we break up for the Recess. It is an interesting topic:
“the state of the countryside and ... the provision of public services in rural areas”.
I will try to analyse how one assesses the state of the countryside at present. First, it is connected with the quality and sustainability of the environment. Secondly, it is to do with the economic viability of rural communities, and that includes the state of agriculture, to which the noble Lord referred. Thirdly, it is about the social cohesion of rural communities and, fourthly, it is related to the availability of rural services, both public and private, which are provided by local councils, the development agencies, transport networks, private enterprise and the voluntary sector, which in some rural areas plays a very important part.
The quality of the environment seriously deteriorated in the 40 years between 1960 and 2000. Since then, there is no doubt that environmental schemes have kicked in, such as the planting of deciduous trees, river clean-ups, hedge reinstatement, CAP farm environmental support schemes, set-aside and many other issues, which have improved, over the past five or six years in particular, the quality of the environment. We have had a huge loss, which is seen most acutely in our rivers and streams. Ecological damage has reduced fish life, and crayfish is practically unknown these days. Fly life in freshwaters has declined, and industrial pollution has played its part, as has run-off from agricultural land, pesticides, sheep dip and so on. The Environment Agency is addressing many of those problems, but there is much more acute awareness than there used to be of the insidiousness of some of those chemicals. We used to get grants for drainage, and now we have rivers with half the summer flow that they used to have. There must be some relationship between the two, and that has to be put right.
We are changing our forestry from soft wood to more hard wood, and that needs to accelerate. The impact of climate change is accelerating, and it is already overtaking many of those developments. In 2006, in the area that I live in, central Wales, we got 70 per cent of the average rainfall of the previous 20 years. In April 2007, only a month or so ago, we had only 1 per cent of our normal rainfall for April. Those are very serious matters.
Is the countryside sustainable to withstand climate change? My answer would be, “Not yet”. We must, for example, monitor the water table, which in many rural areas has a serious deficit. This week’s EFRA Select Committee report on the Government’s vision for the CAP, which I have here, is a constructive analysis of the future of CAP reform, and it provides some of the answers. For example, before any attempt is made to abandon by 2013 Pillar 1 of the CAP, which is basically single farm payments, the Treasury must, in conjunction with the EU, provide certainty. The EFRA committee report states:
“The only long-term justification for future expenditure of taxpayers’ money in the agricultural sector is the provision of … public ‘goods’—environmental, rural, social—it wishes to enjoy”.
This philosophy must be backed by hard cash to produce a sustainable rural policy. It is no good attacking Pillar 1 if you do not have a proper Pillar 2 for the CAP that can concentrate on rural development. The record is not good. Just over a year ago the British Government lobbied the EU presidency to reduce Pillar 2. I know that money was in short supply, but that was not the right way to go about it.
The economic viability of many rural communities is seriously in decline. Shops, post offices, even pubs and garages have closed without replacement. Small farms have vanished and some 2,500 post offices are now threatened with closure. They should not be closed, but converted into community resource centres for business start-ups, information technology and innovation, and there should be initiatives in marketing co-operatives for the community, community regeneration and promotion of tourism. If the post offices are to be closed, the buildings should be used for something that would benefit the communities.
Our rural areas need assistance, training and capital for young entrepreneurs. For example, it would be helpful if younger people could receive business rate discounts for business start-ups. Agriculture and local food production must be incentivised to produce greater self-sufficiency, as must the outlets for it. On social cohesion, the demography of many rural communities has been stood on its head. There are far too many older people compared with the young. The demise of council housing is of particular regret to me, because I was brought up next to a large council estate, which in those days contained families with 10, 12 or 14 children. One such child was Geoff Lewis, the jockey who won the Derby on Mill Reef. He was in my school form; good luck to him.
The sale of those council houses has been a disaster for the demography of our rural areas. We need affordable homes, and councils must be able, not necessarily as providers, to allocate land, initiate shared equity schemes and provide houses to rent for younger members of the community. Councils used to be able to provide for much more measured communities in terms of age. Younger families lived in many of the houses and the village schools automatically stayed open because there were many children. That very much needs to be encouraged.
We need to concentrate on many issues of this kind, because we must be positive about rural areas. At present, not enough resources are provided to support them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for providing an opportunity to debate this matter. Instead of starting with my usual tirade against the Rural Payments Agency, I shall consider other people in the countryside and other issues.
Everyone seems to think in terms of the urban proletariat and the country peasant, or whatever, but there is a huge mix of people in the countryside. Who will use these rural services? There is a mixture of old people, young people, some very well paid executives and some poor people. Their main common characteristic is that they are more spread out than in towns, which gives rise to infrastructure problems. Some commute to cities and towns, others work locally, but they probably need to commute for some distance in some way.
What is our objective as government in the broadest sense in looking at this? Is it administrative efficiency or are we trying to create the right environment for people to live there? I refer not only to the environment at the Natural England end of the spectrum but also to the infrastructure and how that affects people who live and work in the countryside.
One characteristic of people being more spread out is that they end up driving more because there is no easy method of getting from A to B using public transport. It is probably totally uneconomical to provide widespread public transport in rural areas because, nowadays, people have more freedom of choice. Unless we go back to having a centrally controlled, Communist-style authoritarian Government who say, “You will work there and do it efficiently”, people will criss-cross all over the place. So individual transport solutions will be required, certainly for the local links.
People commute and the ideal solution is to get them to use public transport, such as trains, when travelling longer distances. However, one problem there is capacity. In many areas, trains are already operating well over capacity. For example, in the north, it all comes down to two tracks that run over a big viaduct—it may be the Watford viaduct. There is a limit to how much that can be expanded. Then you have to leave your local form of transport at the station, because it is likely that on the way back a bus will not run from the station to get you home at the end of the day.
You can probably predict how you will get to where you are going but you cannot always predict when your work will end. Therefore, you take your car, but where are you going to leave it? If you leave it in a side street, the neighbours get very cross because there are never enough parking spaces. The spaces that are available are overpriced, because parking is privatised and a profit has to be made. No one is looking at the problem globally and asking what the greater benefit entails. Perhaps we should provide free parking, as happens in Biggleswade, to stop people parking outside other people’s houses and to encourage them to travel by train.
It is all very well giving pensioners free bus passes, but that is not much good if there are no buses available when they want to travel. I am not sure that that is viable. I remember the African taxis running around Nigeria and Kenya. They were Peugeots that held about nine passengers, and people piled in and out all over the place. It was all very entrepreneurial, but that would never be allowed here. It would be considered too risky on health and safety grounds; the Department for Transport would say that it could not be done; and someone else would point out the insurance consequences of running such a business. We are so regulated that it is impossible to do anything to tackle most of these problems.
Then there is the question of distances—for example, how far is the nearest hospital or post office? The post office is not just somewhere to post letters. You can now download stamps from the internet. You just print them out, stick them on your letters and post them. We can obtain a lot of things without visiting the post office, but in the countryside post offices are part of the social infrastructure and social environment. When the departments said, “I can deliver my departmental silo more efficiently by doing something else”, no one thought to say on behalf of UK plc, “You have nibbled away at all the bits of the thing that we really wanted to keep—the post office—until it is no longer viable”. That was a huge mistake. No one had the guts to say to all the departmental silos, “Sorry, there is a bigger social issue here, so don’t all go off and do your own thing”. Anyway, it is too late now, and I do not know what we are going to do about it. It is a terribly sad situation and I think that there will be huge social costs and social services costs as a result.
Then we get to the towns, where people have been packed in efficiently. A lot of rubbish is generated because the Food Standards Agency insists that the supermarkets wrap items to a certain standard. Whether people like it or not, they have to take home a lot of waste, but we do not want them to put it in their bins, so we charge them by the amount they dispose of. Therefore, we have a problem. What will you do if you live in a council house in the middle of a town and you have too much rubbish? You will put it into a plastic bag, which will be banned by then, and take it to the nearest bit of the countryside and heave it over a hedge. At that point, it becomes the responsibility of the local farmer or someone else to clear it up.
Of course, that farmer may not have registered an exemption for that type of rubbish under the new waste regulations because it is someone else’s rubbish and, unless he has permission to move it and has registered an exemption to do so, some other agency will come along and fine him. That may seem a ridiculous statement but it is the sort of thinking that goes on and an example of the confrontational approach between those who live in, and try to manage, the countryside and those who try to tell them what to do.
Some of the people who commute to London by train are highly paid executives. When people make lots of money, they like to get away from the towns and buy somewhere out in the countryside. Some young people in the countryside also want to start up local businesses, and rely on a critical local infrastructure. Lots of people think about critical national infrastructure for broadband and communications, but we need to get high-speed services out, reliably, all over the countryside. There are huge EU finds for this: look at what Barcelona is doing. Are we doing it? No, it goes through an RDA. I do not know; I am trying to find out how you get the paperwork together to put a business case to the RDA to get EU money—which is sitting there, waiting for us to apply for it—to get some mesh radio, wireless or other technologies across the countryside, allowing people to work from home rather than commute into London the whole time. You get a green benefit from that, because people are sitting at home or working in a local office instead of having to commute to a population centre.
This comes down to people: the sort of people who stay in the country and live and work there, such as farmers. I know a little about farmers because I married one—that is my declaration of interest. The average farmer farms because they hate paperwork. What are we doing now? We are making them farm paperwork. No longer can they use their judgment about anything. Everything is process-driven. It is not a factory out there; you do not know what the weather is going to be like or if the season is going to be early. You know that if you do not cut your hedges for three years, they will get leggy and the English partridge, a biodiversity action species, will be wiped out trying to nest under them. But the environmentalists do not know that, so they want you to grow your hedges tall for some other songbird. It is all balance and judgment, and you must work it out.
You now need quite a seriously high education standard to fill in all these forms. What are we going to do with all the people who live in the country who do not want to be educated to that standard? Presumably they have their 10 per cent adult illiteracy rate like everyone else. How do you deal with deadlines when you are ill? The real problems come with the confrontational approach of the RPA and others. Instead of ringing up and saying that there is a 0.4 discrepancy—to which the response would be, “Oh God. I am sorry, I wrote 0.7 and not 0.3, but the net area is correct”—they say “We are going to fine you if we can under the penalties in section P”, when you know that they do not even have the right to do so. It is the wrong approach; it leads to mistakes, confrontation and disaster. I leave noble Lords with that thought.
My Lords, I welcome this debate. Britain is a relatively crowded country, and the state of our country areas is a vital subject for town and countryside dwellers alike. The great majority of our people who live in urban areas value the contrasting amenities that the countryside provides, and those who live in the countryside easily feel the pressure of nearby urban areas. The countryside itself has changed greatly with the impact of technology, leading to fewer people working on the land and fewer who do so being directly employed.
The Diocese of Chester, from which I come, contains both the broad swathe of rural Cheshire and the continuous industrial band on the south side of the Mersey, from Birkenhead through Warrington to Stockport, so I see both sides. I shall indicate the areas of concern that I hear from the more rural areas. In doing so, and notwithstanding the hiatus over the single farm payments, I pay tribute to how Defra has sought to develop a proper strategy for rural areas with the White Paper in 2000, which was followed so swiftly by the foot and mouth epidemic and the rural recession. That made the national planning process rather difficult.
I begin with the recession itself. Agricultural recessions tend to be long and deep because of the general inflexibility involved in working the land. Falling prices put inefficient producers out of business, and the assets are often taken over by more efficient producers. That tends to exacerbate the problem of overproduction, depressing prices even more. With a bit of luck and judgment, arable farmers can switch crops, but livestock farmers are less able to make such changes, especially in the dairy industry, which is prominent in Cheshire, with its large capital investment in milking equipment and herds. The price of milk has been at a disastrously low level in recent years—below the level of production in many cases—and the present recovery in other areas of agriculture has not yet had much impact on that. Many dairy farmers have simply given up. Only this week, we heard the news that Her Majesty the Queen’s pedigree herd of Ayrshires at Windsor is to be sold.
Those farmers who remain do so under considerable pressure. One farmer’s wife said to me recently at her son’s confirmation, “It was always hard work, but now it’s even harder work for hardly any return”. With the isolation that comes from working with fewer colleagues, one can understand the growth of stress-related problems and the tragedy of suicide in the farming community. In Cheshire, the churches acting ecumenically have gathered together to employ an additional full-time agricultural chaplain to provide pastoral support and encouragement to farmers in these circumstances. Some farmers have diversified—rightly so—and sought other income streams. In Cheshire, with large urban populations nearby, that has been relatively possible, but it can be only part of the solution and brings its own distortions to rural life.
I shall say a word about the environmental issue of trees. Partly due to the general recession in agriculture in recent years, farmers have tended to neglect the wider issues of stewardship even more than before, unless a direct economic incentive has been offered. As one drives around, most of the trees ones sees in hedgerows are relatively mature and are often dead or dying. Imagine the countryside with trees largely confined to defined woods and coppices or plantations. I wonder whether more should be done to encourage individual tree planting, largely for aesthetic reasons. One needs a long-term vision for that to succeed. It takes decades for most trees to grow to a decent height, and the best trees take many decades. In today’s society, we sometimes simply prefer schemes with a shorter-term impact.
Tree planting is also an underdeveloped theme in responding to climate change. The Stern report told us that the worldwide increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is as much due to ongoing deforestation as to transport, which is an astonishing fact. Across the world, we need to promote an ethos of reafforestation. While an individual tree counts for relatively little in that, an imaginative programme of tree planting across our countryside would be symbolically very important. Beyond its aesthetic value, it would symbolise the wider commitments that we rightly seek to make at the present time.
I shall turn briefly to the role and place of the churches in the countryside, in relation to the provision of rural and local services in particular. A recent research study, helpfully supported by Defra, into the contribution of faith bodies to rural communities identified five local facilities that are of particular importance to rural people: the village hall, the pub, the primary school, the shop and the church. In some interesting developments, country churches have been exploring a role in supporting some of these other facilities, although we have not yet opened a church and pub as a dual-purpose entity—maybe that will come. The Millennium Commission, using lottery money, gave substantial grants to enable churches to convert space, usually at the back of the church, into a flexible meeting area with a kitchenette, toilets and so forth. That has proved to be extremely creative and effective in my diocese and beyond. Churches elsewhere have provided space for farmers’ markets—we are just about at the 10th anniversary of the first farmers’ market in the modern era—visiting post offices and visiting advice centres that deal with a range of matters. This is one of the ways in which we must respond to the closure of permanent post offices.
Provided that the primary purpose of a church as a place of worship is safeguarded, I entirely welcome these Dibleyesque developments. A church has to seek to take a place at the heart of its community and be ready to adapt to the needs of that community. Churches always used to be like that; it is very much a Victorian and modern development to think that they can be used for strictly religious purposes only. Indeed, the legal framework surrounding the use of churches is now loosening to respond to these new opportunities.
Finally, I shall say a word about planning issues, which are again coming to the forefront of the Government’s attention. Much has been said about the need for affordable housing, and there has been real progress on that front, but it is a long-term issue and is vital to the health of rural communities. There must be no let-up in seeking to establish a broad range of affordable housing in our rural areas. We have tended to have highly restrictive planning policies, with a good deal of artificiality accompanying them; for example, barn conversions often have very artificial outcomes.
The countryside needs people. I often think that our villages would benefit from a slightly more open planning regime. In that regard, I welcome the prospect of more taxing of planning gains, provided that the gains are used for social purposes. It could be seen as though, rather like the fields and the hedgerows with which I began, everything is a bit too stuck in the past, or at least in the status quo, in some of our villages. There is a need to trust local people more in the decisions over their own lives and their local area. Overall, I am not too pessimistic. I see a lot of resilience and determination in the rural communities that I know to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
My Lords, like many others who have spoken, I feel that rural areas have changed in many aspects over the past decade. The council houses have been sold off, the agricultural workers have largely disappeared and the rural people have kept the bank manager happy by selling off houses to more wealthy people from the towns, usually older people or those wishing for second homes. The local young have found that there is limited opportunity and less housing, and so the older generation is left behind.
The current crisis in the dairy industry, alluded to by the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Chester, has meant that more than 2,000 dairy farms have closed down since 2002. That is more than one a day. The latest information is that, in 2006, at less than £14,000 per annum, one in three farmers is living below the Government’s low-income threshold. In Scotland’s less favoured areas, the average income was published as £8,400. That, along with the deluge of regulations, causes a worry for all those who wish to stay in rural areas and in agricultural production.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, agriculture is coming to fulfil a role as a rural service, and the support systems are geared to providing a public benefit. As my noble friend Lord Inglewood was hinting, the single farm payment in England has been a nightmare for all concerned, compared with what I and others have experienced north of the Border. Rather than trying to introduce new mapping requirements at the start, the Scottish Environment and Rural Affairs Department is now carrying out its inspections and, as here, checking field boundaries by satellite. I was lucky: it found that I had underclaimed by 0.4 per cent and so did not earn a penalty. Unlike the 220,000 farmers in England who are still waiting, in Scotland almost all the payments have gone out on time.
The great idea on which the single farm payment was sold to the industry was that it would be a great simplification and would mean that fewer pieces of paper would need to be submitted to the Government if you wanted to keep the business afloat. What has happened is that you have to fill out what appears to be 10 times the amount of computer and paper records to comply with all the requirements. These are required to be kept for anything up to 10 years. It has been a fairly radical shift for those who considered themselves to be the horny-handed sons of soil to find that several hours a day has to be spent in administration and that Jack of all trades has to be accompanied by Jill of all regulations, or some other person, all rolled into one.
Until recent years, as noble Lords are aware, farming and forestry provided employment, stability, an appealing countryside and the basis for rural communities. This Government have a great passion for going out on their own in the hope that they can get other countries to follow. They are now trying to achieve some of these aspects through what is called “voluntary modulation” of up to 14 per cent of the support available to farmers. That must be looked on with amazement by most of the 26 other member states from their offices in Brussels that do not want to go down that road. The money is due to be channelled back through the devolved Administrations and the England Rural Development Programme.
In order to benefit, farmers will be required to look to and provide new and different aspects of land management. The effect of these measures in more remote areas is rapidly revealing itself. I must admit to being more familiar with the situation in Scotland, although I am sure that the same must be reflected in many of the communities that we are considering today.
In a period of seven years, the breeding flock of sheep in Scotland has reduced by 70,000—or 20 per cent—and the number of farms by 10 per cent, to the extent that the Royal Society of Edinburgh has just instituted an inquiry into the future of the hill and island areas. At the same time, the Scottish Executive have commissioned an inquiry into crofting and its system of land tenure. The puzzle is: what sort of environmental management can you have once the farmers leave? Can the money be accessed to the same effective extent by a community made up of bed-and-breakfast owners—not that I have anything against bed-and-breakfast owners? Are studies being carried out on similar situations in England? What is the Government’s attitude to the problem?
Another issue that is very much to the fore at the moment is the implementation of the European directive on nitrate-vulnerable zones. It is somewhat reassuring to hear that the new water director in Defra is questioning to what extent the rules that have been envisaged as full compliance are really necessary and how much is likely to be gold-plating of a rule that has been redefined in translation. I am told that the present understanding is that the whole policy is predicated on the 15 millilitre drinking water standard, when many of the rivers affected are not used for drinking water. It would be interesting to know how long the sampling regime on which the selection of rivers has been based has gone on, and whether account has been taken of the conditions in the 1980s and 1990s, when fertilisers were much cheaper and farmers were much more profligate with their materials. Is the current situation really as worrying as the records would lead one to believe?
The regulations will cause most disruption in limiting the seasons for the spreading of manures. In any western and high-rainfall areas, to which the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred, that will require huge extension to storage capacity and will severely restrict the few existing opportunities to get out on the land without causing damage. In Scotland, the Executive propose to bring in the full rigour of the rules. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which is known under the acronym of SEPA, has been given the title “Screw Every Penny out of Agriculture”. In one survey undertaken by NFU Scotland, 11 of the 16 respondents said that they would give up farming if that level of control was introduced. We hope that Defra will arrive at a better solution.
The brave new world that is coming into shape in the countryside combines biodiversity, wind farms, biofuels, broadband and tourism—all ways offered to bring an economic rationale and employment to rural areas—but it will still need the basic care and maintenance of the resource to make it a place that is pleasing to the eye and in which we can all take satisfaction.
My Lords, much attention has been paid to the role of agriculture. I shall speak about a different type of countryside. I shall contrast it from the beginning. When we look at the problems in our cities and our larger conurbations, we see that we need to return to a community feel and a community structure where people feel that they belong to one another and have responsibilities to one another—to build a sort of family within our cities. We already have that family in our rural communities. The tragedy is that so many of our actions today are undermining those communities and the relationships within them.
It is not wholly fictional, but I think of a village called Llareggub Bach. I thought of making it Llareggub Minor, but in Wales you would only get that in Gwent; in my part of Wales, it would be Little Llareggub. It is not fictional. I know of the places that I am speaking of. It used to have a good population of quarrymen and agricultural workers, but the quarry closed about 40 years ago. Then the quarrymen and their families had to move out. I was there on the Sunday after the quarry closed and they were packing, ready to leave that area. There are far fewer agricultural workers today than there were 40 years ago. Then the wool mill closed, so everything that sustained that particular community now belongs to the past.
One then has the problem of what one does with the various community institutions. The right reverend Prelate spoke of the role of the church. In the part of Wales that I am speaking about—it might be Llareggub Bach—there were nine places of worship; in Wales, we believe in doing things wholeheartedly. All but one closed one after the other. The one that remains is attended by between 10 and 20 people on a Sunday evening. Not only have the buildings gone, but so has the vicar, as well as the two nonconformist ministers. These were the people who kept that community together.
There were two schools in the village at one time; one in the upper valley, the other in the lower valley. One closed some years ago and the other is struggling to meet the targets necessary to make it viable for the children of today. The schoolmistress does not live in the village, nor does the assistant or the nursery assistant. The doctor will come if someone is ill, but the village has no surgery. The policeman will occasionally call in a panda car—if they still call them that—to see what is going on in the village, but the crime rate is pretty low so we do not see the policeman very often. The policeman does not walk around the village and hear the gossip of the people, so he does not really know what is going on or know the people in that area.
The village has become desolate, remote and isolated. There was a time when we had 39 shops in the village. My uncle ran the post office there. It was a busy post office, but now that has gone. People say, “If you want your pension, you can go to the bank”. The bank used to come on a Friday morning, but it does not come any longer. If you tell the pensioners that they can get banking online, they ask what online means and what a website is. We must travel to another village or town some miles away to get our pensions, car tax or television licence. None of those things is available in the village any more. This was once a viable community.
So much that we are doing in villages today is undermining their viability. The scheme to close 2,500 largely rural post offices will destroy communities. We must somehow get to grips with this. We have community support officers. They are not the same thing that I am thinking of, but could we not have some sort of support for rural communities? People could go into villages and help with the parish or community council, which might find it difficult to get a clerk or a treasurer. The band has gone, as has the choir; very few local organisations are left. There should be some organisation that could come in and help the organisations that remain. I do not know whether we are now at crisis point and need a royal commission on the countryside to look at the massive changes that have taken place and are taking place. We should remember that if we lose rural communities, or indeed any communities, we are adding to our problems in the years ahead.
My Lords, I, too, shall talk about the delivery of rural services. The first thing that I shall do is stamp on the heresy, which seems to be prevalent, that rural communities have less need of public services because they are on average slightly more affluent than urban ones. An even worse mantra doing the rounds says that if people choose to live in rural areas, they should expect worse public services. Frankly, that is disgraceful. The poor of the countryside have not chosen to live there; they are almost certainly born there. They live and work there among their family and friends, and probably contribute enormously to their rural community. They could not possibly move to the towns, in any case. Such a mantra is equivalent to saying to the people of, say, Hackney, “Your health and education services are not very good, but we the Government are not going to do anything about that, because, frankly, why don’t you move to Canterbury or Reading?”. It is exactly the same idea. That is a very bad starting place, which I have heard in government and Civil Service circles.
It goes without saying that services cost more to deliver to rural areas, which is fairly obvious. Refuse collection in rural areas costs 70 per cent to 90 per cent more than in urban areas because there is more distance between the bins. Therefore, more fuel is required and the three or four people on the lorry require more time. A recent report indicated that primary school education per head in remote rural areas costs 24 per cent more than in urban areas. Of course it does: there have to be more buildings and more heads so that the very young do not have to travel an excessive distance to their first school. At the other end of the scale, domiciliary care for elderly adults costs an extra 5 per cent if they receive one visit a week, up to 163 per cent more if they have five visits a week, and so on and so forth.
In highlighting the problems of rural communities, I do not want to deny that the most deprived urban areas face profound problems of poverty and social exclusion. I do not even deny that they should have additional resources. But it has been brought to my attention by Professor Asthana of Plymouth University that the focus on area-based initiatives, notably the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, and the tendency for mainstream funding now being targeted by area-based deprivation indicators means that the problems of disadvantaged people not living in disadvantaged areas—for example, rural people—are largely being ignored. If the Government truly wish to target poverty and social exclusion they must realise that more deprived people live outside deprived areas than live in them. It is a somewhat sobering thought that this year the London Borough of Islington, which I have always thought of as a fairly mixed community, will receive more from the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund alone than the total budget of many rural district councils.
To my mind, the funding allocation for health in England has gone very wrong. In my response to last November’s Queen’s Speech I drew your Lordships’ attention to the fact that the allocation of NHS budgets makes no real allowance for the extra costs of rural delivery. A recent NAO report has pointed out that to deliver out-of-hours cover costs 70 per cent more in rural areas than in urban ones. This, combined with the extra cost of having more health centres, more transport costs, training and even extra housing for staff explains why, for instance, in Scotland rurality adjustments have been made to the funding formula, with some rural areas receiving more than 30 per cent extra. However, in England it is the other way around. The primary care trusts serving the most urban populations receive the highest average per capita funding, whereas PCTs in rural areas receive the lowest.
In addition to these points, Professor Asthana and those assisting her argue that in the health sector the really critical issue is the relative importance given to age in the calculation of funding. She cites the example of Manchester, which has a much higher standardised mortality ratio than east Devon. Very loosely speaking, in layman’s terms, a standardised mortality ratio means that the people of Manchester have a lower life expectancy than the people of east Devon. Thus, the interpretation is that Manchester is perceived to have greater health needs, whereas the reality is very different. Manchester has a much lower proportion of people aged more than 65 than east Devon; that is, 13 per cent compared with 27 per cent. Of course, older people make far higher demands on the health service than the young, owing to the degenerative illnesses of the elderly. It is not surprising that a greater percentage of the east Devon population died in 2003 compared with Manchester—proportionately, one and a half times more. Therefore, although Manchester has a much higher standardised mortality ratio, a smaller percentage of its population requires the very expensive, high-intensity care associated with proximity to death.
All those facts explain why in 2004-05, 3 per cent of PCTs serving urban areas failed to break even while 68 per cent of PCTs serving populations in rural England ended the year in deficit. Noble Lords will recall that these PCTs respectively receive the highest and the lowest per capita funding allocation. Taking a more common newspaper headline, it is not surprising to find that the average waiting time for an inpatient appointment at Caradon in Cornwall in 2004-05 was 145 days compared with around 54 days in Hackney. So those residents do not have to move after all.
As health funding continues to shift towards deprived areas, there is a real danger that by the end of the current funding round we will have two National Health Services, one predominantly urban that is increasingly well resourced, while the other serving rural England becomes ever more hard-pressed and struggles to adjust to lower levels of per capita funding. One has to ask whether this is compatible with social justice and equity for the rural poor.
The health sector is just one good example of what is happening in other areas. Local government funding is also strongly weighted for area deprivation. As a result, London boroughs and metropolitan areas receive two to three times the amount per head as shire counties. For instance, twice more London pensioners receive home care than those in rural counties. At the other end of the age spectrum, while I know that Sure Start has tried hard to rural-proof its activities, it still does not reach out to most of the three and four year-olds living in poverty in rural areas. There also seems to be some sort of postcode lottery provision for pupils with special educational needs.
I do not have all the answers, but one thing is clear: we must find a better way to assess and respond to the needs of all our population. Rather than using complex geographical formulae which rather dubiously suggest that there is only real need where there is mass deprivation, why can we not set eligibility and assessment criteria on a national basis and ensure that the needy and disadvantaged are protected irrespective of where they live?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the chance to consider these issues in a debate. Whatever the solution is to the problems facing our rural areas, I am sure that it is not subsidy. Subsidy saps the strength of whatever community it is given to because it distorts priorities. In the end, communities become totally reliant on and subservient to those providing the subsidy, who in this case would be town dwellers. If we want anything for our rural communities, we ought to want them to be independent and to have their own voice in their own affairs. So we have to resist the siren voices that say that rural post offices, housing and services should be subsidised and that people in the countryside should get more than is available to those living in towns because it costs more to live in the country.
There are immense virtues to living in the country not enjoyed by people stuck in towns. I live half my life in a two-up, two-down in Battersea. One has to balance these things. To live on subsidy would be a dangerous thing, particularly when there is a good alternative. If we have a vision of countryside communities as being much more than they are today, in charge of what they do and where they are going—I am a great believer in localism because much of virtue to rural communities can be seen down that road—we must give local people power over what happens in their locality. We must ask them to bear their true costs, not to be subsidised, but to choose with the money at their disposal what they receive and on what terms, balancing what is worse than it would be if they were in town and what they spend their money on. That is a reasonable quid pro quo to go with independence.
To make that possible, we need to provide a decent revenue stream. That cannot be done just by upping council tax, which has been pushed to its limit anyway. If you want rural communities to be independent and to pay for themselves, you have to give them access to a decent revenue stream, and the best proposal I have seen yet for that comes from Dr Tim Leunig of the LSE in his pamphlet In My Back Yard. It suggests that local communities should take charge of planning in their areas and choose where development should take place. If you took a village such as mine, Hawkley in Hampshire, which comprises about 100 households scattered about, and allowed them to choose where one new dwelling each year was to be situated, I think that the local people would be able to do a pretty good deal with the landowners to secure a plot for perhaps £100,000 and, in our particular area, sell it on for something close to £1 million. That is a very large sum of money for expanding the village at the rate of one house a year and would give the community a great deal of resource.
That applies not only in the affluent south; any village, anywhere, could do so. It might not be possible just to add a village house in some of the poorer parts of the country, but they could choose to use part of the surrounding countryside to add a big house. There is an enormous shortage of big houses in this country; bids for them reach the most extraordinary prices. If we allow villages the choice of what they build under their allowance, wherever they are in the country they will have access to a very large sum of money for selling their birthright—not our birthright—in a way which pleases and benefits them; or, indeed, if they choose not to do it, bearing the additional costs of living in a rural location.
We can give the communities the responsibility and then expect them to take charge of their own destinies. That may seem hard but it is much better that rural communities should decide what happens, how they develop and whether they wish to expand enough to afford a new shop or keep the village school viable. If the communities are in charge and get the benefits flowing through them, we will have a much more vibrant, assertive and confident countryside than has been displayed today. Frankly, I have found most of the speeches fairly defeatist and sorry. We have all been looking at the misery of living in the countryside. It ought not to be that; it ought to be a pleasure and a privilege.
My Lords, I declare interests as a member of both the Countryside Alliance and of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, and as a trustee of the Country Trust, a charity which introduces children from deprived inner-city areas into the life and workings of the country.
The truth is that probably only during the Great War and the Second World War has this nation really valued its own countryside and has the rural economy flourished. From behind the plethora of soft-focus television nature programmes, quite recently the truth was finally exposed in a programme called “The Lie of the Land”, brilliantly presented by Molly Dineen, which graphically portrayed the plight of modern dairy farming.
There remains a massive ignorance and even a lack of interest in the problems of rural areas. As social conditions change, so, too, of course, will farming and country life. But if that way of life is not to be destroyed by harsh and unfair policies and economics, an infrastructure of rural services is vital to its survival. For that reason I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on securing this debate and I am grateful for the opportunity to participate.
Rural services are a crucial component of life in rural areas, particularly in the more remote regions. Those services should provide a network that sustains and consolidates the community. They are, in effect, the reinforcing rods of rural life, without which the whole edifice will come tumbling down. Yet metropolitan areas receive on average 20 per cent more SSA—standard spending assessment—funding per capita than rural areas, and in rural areas council taxes are higher for a lower level of public services.
Staying with the generality, the sparsity of rural communities, which has already been mentioned several times in the debate, in comparison to urban ones puts them at a further disadvantage in any comparison of per capita public investment. For example, a single urban police station may be able to protect 100,000 people within a five-minute call-out time. In a rural area, that same number of people will be very widely dispersed and it will probably take 40 minutes or so to reach them. The point of the example is that many forms of services in rural areas require far greater per capita investment to provide anything like an equivalent service to that given in an urban community. At present, investment for rural people per capita is invariably lower.
Today I want to touch on only two issues that affect rural life, transport and retail outlets. I shall not go into the current vexed question of the closure of post offices. First, I shall use some statistics, in much the same way as has been done already to great effect by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. Seventy per cent of rural parishes do not have a general store. Four thousand rural banks have closed in the past 10 years, and another 4,000 are expected to close in the next five years—a decline of one-quarter. Some 53 per cent of all rural settlements do not have a public house. Around 8,500 independent grocery stores have closed within the past five years, most of them in rural areas.
The causes for such a seismic and rapid change are of course conjectural, but I suggest that the effects are partly due to domestic migration. First of all there is the immigration into an area by the retired, the wealthy and second-homeowners, all of whom can well afford to travel to the nearest town and shop in bigger retail outlets. Second-homeowners, as I often observe in my own village, often spend little or nothing locally but bring all that they need with them from the city, where it is cheaper. To arrive with a box of groceries and a full tank of petrol is commonplace. Secondly, there is the emigration out by the young for education and employment. That changes the overall demographic base, which in turn is bound to affect trading patterns.
I turn to rural transport, which is perhaps even more important. The first point to make here is that transport infrastructure needs to be created with reference to the social and economic needs of the local areas, not simply around the needs of visitors to the area. Given the paucity of rural services and facilities and the dispersed nature that exists, a significant minority of residents, especially those without a car, face real hardship and social exclusion. Car ownership and use in rural areas is high: 40 per cent of rural households have two or more cars, and three-quarters of all their journeys are made by car. For the 16 per cent of rural residents who do not have a car at all, however, hardship is acute.
National indicators of deprivation used by the Government are urban-based. They do not always reflect the picture in rural areas, and they can distort the reality. For example, current indicators of deprivation include car ownership as a measure of wealth, but in rural areas that is not appropriate when many poor families are forced to own a car to enable them to travel. Rural residents travel on average 40 per cent further than urban residents each week, because facilities and services are likely to be further away. That is because 75 per cent of villages do not have a daily bus service. Rural motorists drive further to buy their petrol, because 600 filling stations are closing each year and the closures are leaving some households in rural areas 30 miles or more away from their filling stations. When eventually they get there, they are necessarily charged more for fuel because rural prices are higher.
What can be done? Local authorities could and should undertake accessibility planning to examine what access different communities have to a range of services. Local transport plans should consider the potential for bringing services to rural settlements, as well as looking for improved public transport. There is a need for more flexibility for the type of transport that is provided for more responsive services, such as bespoke minibus routes, for individuals in remote areas. Providers of healthcare and other services also need to pay more attention to the needs of rural areas. This is an important issue, going to the heart of many of the current problems. Appropriate planning of transport schemes in rural areas can rejuvenate communities and provide an essential lifeline. The obverse of that coin is that without it, communities will fail.
Not all the examples I have cited are the responsibility of Government—of course not. Many are the result of market forces. But we all have a responsibility to ensure that the rural way of life and the rural economy is not allowed to wither by default, a responsibility to see that one of this country’s most prized assets continues as a vibrant way of life; and a responsibility to ensure that the emigration to the towns does not cause irreparable damage.
My Lords, one of the great joys of winding up a debate is being able to throw away half your notes when you agree with a previous speaker and do not have to cover the same ground. The noble Lord, Lord Dear, spoke about immigration and emigration to the countryside through second homes. We will see that tomorrow, with the great clogging of the roads as everybody disappears to their second home for half-term, and London will be emptied.
One of the problems with this debate is the cornucopia of issues on problems in rural society. We can direct many of them at the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who I am sure will give a forthright and direct response, as always. It would be easy to say that many of the problems in rural society are the result of government mismanagement, when instead they are down to simple economics—wealth creation, people in cities moving to the countryside and the fact that much of the primary production of agriculture and the price of produce is being driven down by the supermarkets.
Another problem is that such a small minority of the population lives in the countryside. The 2001 census showed that only 19 per cent of the population lives in the countryside. Many of the rural services are in decline because of the shrinkage in the number of people living in the local area. I was looking through local village historical records. At one time, more than 200 children from Rochester and the surrounding area turned up for the local picnic. Five years ago, there was only one child of school age in the same village. It is a simple problem which has been exacerbated by the fact that the property price is based on second home ownership prices rather than local need or income. In addition, there has been an influx of older people; as people become older and lose the use of their vehicle, they have major problems. In an area such as mine, which is one of the remotest parts of the country, you need a car to get around. If you cannot, you have to sell your house and move to somewhere which has better access to local services.
Many noble Lords pointed out that the countryside has many problems. There is great wealth in the countryside too, and very vibrant communities. To paint a picture of depression and economic hardship would be wrong, but the problem is hidden. I have worked with young people from YMCAs in Yeovil and other parts of the country who paint a picture which is very close to the urban situation faced by their contemporaries—homelessness, drug abuse and lack of access to social services. But because their numbers are fewer and they are spread out over larger areas, the problem is largely hidden.
I was particularly taken with the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and his wonderful Dibleyesque view of the church. With the ordination of women and the number of women vicars we have in Northumberland, there has been a great resurgence of interest in the Church of England. Our local church was packed at Christmas carol time—not at all other times of the year, of course—but it showed the value of all the churches in rural areas as a social amenity. I very much welcome the work that the church is undertaking, especially with regard to suicide in the agricultural community. Farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide of any profession in the country. This must be due not just to economic hardship but also to the fact that the industrialisation and mechanisation of farming have meant that it is possible to maintain only one, perhaps two, people in work on a farm, thereby making it a very isolated existence.
The Minister will be glad to hear that I have only two questions for him. I left them until last, thinking that I would then sit down and give other speakers extra minutes. The first is about squirrels, which the Minister knew I could not avoid. As the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, initiated the debate, it would be wrong of me not to raise the issue. I run the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, which is trying to kill grey squirrels to protect red squirrels, but that is not the issue. We have recently come across a problem that is affecting a large number of wildlife trusts and those who are trying to conserve different species of animals. With the formation of Natural England and the new grant schemes, it is almost impossible to raise money for a single, easy objective of protecting a particular species without having to fit it in with a multiple approach in the grant regime. One has to fit it in, for example, with tourism or agriculture. If one fails to do that, to fit a square peg into a round hole, one has real difficulties. Will the department undertake some research? I know that many wildlife trusts and many of those who are attempting to conserve single species of animal are having a problem. It is a growing problem which, if it is not resolved, will within a couple of years do a great deal of damage to conservation in this country.
The second question relates to the provision of health services in rural areas. I could make an extremely long speech about that. The issue was brought home to me by the problems faced by a friend who had difficulty with her pregnancy. I live on the border with Scotland. As it was a difficult pregnancy, the ambulance in which she was travelling was diverted from Hexham, 26 miles away. She was told that she would have to wait until they could find her a bed either in Newcastle, Darlington or Sunderland. That is an enormous distance to travel, especially given the situation that she was in. I understand from the NHS that the provision of excellent, centralised care can help, especially in urban areas, to prevent many complications. The problem is that this policy of centralisation is being led by those people who live in urban areas and does not take into account the travel time required to reach those centralised systems. I shall present the Minister with a paper entitled Ensuring Equitable Access to Health and Social Care for Rural and Remote Communities, which was written by a team of experts in rural health. It outlines some of the problems. I hope that his department will feed back to the NHS some of the difficulties that rural communities have identified. It is a cross-departmental issue that should be looked at.
My Lords, this debate, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, has reflected its participants’ great knowledge of the difficulties and opportunities faced by those who live in rural areas. I congratulate him on securing it at the 11th hour before we leave for a week’s break.
Much as I would like to spend quite a bit of the time available to me speaking on farming and farming-related matters—I should again remind the House of my family farming background and interest—those issues have been well covered by colleagues. I should like to touch on them further but this debate goes wider than agriculture and deals with the state of the countryside and the way things are today.
I have to say to my noble friend Lord Lucas that I do not think that any of us is calling for extra subsidies. We are reflecting that as things currently stand, rural people are disadvantaged in the system, in local and national government spending across the public services, including policing, health provision, housing, medical facilities, IT infrastructure, transport and schools. The 2004 report by SPARSE—the Sparsity Partnership for Authorities Delivering Rural Services—highlighted the disparity between council tax rates and the delivery of local services in rural England. Metropolitan areas receive 20 per cent more on their SSA than do rural areas, while rural areas have fewer public services to enjoy.
There have been ongoing reductions in the availability of key services such as banks, job centres, petrol stations and pubs, to say nothing of post offices. Last week we had it confirmed that another 2,500 post offices will be compulsorily closed, and others may close as well. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how many of the 2,500 compulsory closures are in rural areas. Last week I asked how many of those 4,000 free ATM units will be fitted in rural areas but I did not get an answer.
The Federation of Small Businesses estimates that approximately 26,000 of its members are based in rural wards. Its research demonstrates that despite the important role that small businesses play in the rural economy, poor delivery of service support remains the key barrier to growth. In his review, the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, concluded that too many government agencies are involved in delivering services to the countryside and that there is a lack of co-ordination between them.
Farming is a business like any other business and it depends on local services. Industry has gone through major changes, moving from a system of food subsidies to one of highly defined environmental requirements. The change has had a major impact on many farmers, but it is Defra’s failure to achieve delivery of the new payments on time that has been catastrophic. Many noble Lords have referred to that. Some 22,000 single farm payments for 2005 are still in dispute and those farmers are worse off now than they were a year ago. That was confirmed by the Minister last week. The situation is unlikely to improve for them until 2008. I hope that we hear something slightly more positive in his response today.
My noble friend the Duke of Montrose spoke particularly of farming issues and issues related to hill-farming. Clearly many farmers leave the hillside, and their future needs specific consideration. Other noble Lords referred to systematic maladministration—and I shall not add to that. In the past few years since Defra was formed, 750 general and local statutory instruments have been introduced. I asked last week how many had been updated and how many revoked and the Minister told me in a Written Answer that the department,
“does not have a central database of revoked regulations or which identifies those that are updated regulations, and collation of the data requested would involve disproportionate cost”.—[Official Report, 15/5/07; col. WA 20.]
I trust the Minister—which will be my folly at some stage. If these promises of deregulation and outcomes cannot be resolved, there is no way in which we can hold the Government to account, and that needs addressing.
We have heard many Statements this week, and we have heard that the Government intend to amend the planning laws to enable householders to put up porches and greenhouses, erect wind turbines and install solar panels without formal permission. That is good news. However, I am concerned that some big national projects will be approved of only by the new planning permission that has been set up, which is another unelected quango with responsibility for major development.
Living in the countryside is many people’s seventh heaven. When one is in full possession of one’s faculties and has sufficient earning capacity, it is indeed that. However, as we have heard, if one is elderly, ill or earning below the average wage, one can often feel that it is more like the other place—and I do not mean the Commons. The decline in government support for the rapidly rising cost of disability, nursing, care homes, day centres and adult learning has hit those living in the countryside the hardest. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, the fact that you may have been born in the countryside does not help. That is where you were born and where you have lived; you have not moved there.
Infants and toddlers do not need much outside the home but society demands that they should be vaccinated and counsels medical help with most ailments. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer single GP practices and the groups tend to put themselves in centres of population. Therefore, the rural mum has to take her youngster to town and pay to park on the street, if she can find somewhere to park.
As rural children grow up, only a few are able to attend a school within walking distance. That means their parents are faced with an extra dilemma. Should they let them walk or will they take them to school by car? After school comes higher education. For the rural family that means more transport. As we heard, bus services are often inadequate and the result is often a choice between acquiring a car for the young person or seeing them move away. In my opinion that is to be regretted because people from one age group are migrating to the countryside while young people are leaving. One of the biggest problems for young people trying to find a job in rural areas is that of housing, as other noble Lords said. Broadband is another key factor in the ability of young people to get jobs in such areas.
Most villages levy a parish precept—this has not been mentioned so far—on top of the universal council charges to fund the work of the parish council, which includes litter removal, street lighting and grass cutting. The precept rises depending on the size of the village, but a rate of £1 per week for a band D house is fairly common. This amounts to a large extra cost by the end of someone’s lifetime.
I draw the Minister’s attention to page 85 of the departmental report, which highlights certain issues. There is slippage against the rural productivity and services public service agreement target, mainly because Defra does not have the levers to ensure delivery. Secondly, there is a significant lag in gathering data to monitor progress on Defra’s rural PSA target. Thirdly, the Commission for Rural Communities has expressed concern over the availability of data to enable government departments to report the rural impact of policy decisions. I urge the Minister to respond to that.
My Lords, I start by quoting a speech on this issue made some time ago:
“Villages should be vibrant communities with a variety and richness equal to those in our urban villages. They should not be pushed into single-class pieces of detached suburbia surrounded by fields. Fewer than one in 10 now have a bank, a pharmacy or a permanent library … On health matters, I cite the joint survey last year by the Maternity Alliance and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, which found that pregnant women in rural areas face restricted choice, hospital closures and long journeys to clinics … It is clear that the closure of local shops, and particularly of post offices, which are little used by wealthier rural dwellers, is most likely to hit those on low incomes. Fewer than one third of the rural population use local shops, but a survey commissioned a few years ago by the Department of the Environment found that those who did were the poorest”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/4/90; cols. 1392-93.]
That was a flavour of the speech that I made on 5 April 1990 in a debate that I initiated in the other place. I gave all the problems and not the answers. I freely admit that I have refreshed my memory on that. It is my undying credential that as an urban person—not now so much; far from it—in 1990 I was concerned that those issues needed to be raised. Things have improved in some ways, but in other ways they have just got worse. As the noble Lord, Lord Dear, said, it is the force of economics and society that have made those changes. What you do not use, you lose. It is not always the case that local people are in control.
I will break the habit of a lifetime in this House by saying to noble Lords that I will ask officials to prepare a letter for me covering the points that I do not answer today. I know that a lot of work is involved in a Minister making that commitment, but with the range of issues raised today there is no way I can do justice to what noble Lords have said. I will briefly respond to some of the detailed points. I have a standard government text here, which does not say that everything is fine and dandy, but it gives a flavour of the changes in recent years.
It is true that, if one takes a survey, one finds that most people living in the countryside would prefer to do so and many people living in the cities would prefer to live in the countryside. There is no question about that. Some people are trapped in one and some are trapped in the other. The forces of economics and our electoral system mean that sometimes their voices are not heard. In the inner cities, some votes are taken for granted, and in rural areas other votes are taken for granted, which means that there is a group in both areas that is not listened to. There are some serious issues here, and change is going on all the while. I will attempt to respond to some of the points that have been raised in the debate, rather than give the standard government spiel, and I will respond to other points in a letter afterwards.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said that he was making a general speech as an introduction to the debate. It is important to set the scene. He talked about agriculture and forestry and he mentioned the RDAs. He also made the point, which has been a flavour through a lot of speeches, that this is not about a single factor; it is about a connection. The post offices, hospitals and transport are all inter-related. You might be okay for one, but if you do not have the other you have a problem. Therefore, you have to look at it as a whole.
The noble Lord rightly raised the point about housing for local people. There are detailed programmes for restrictions for new build for affordable housing that mean that the housing has to be passed on to local people and cannot go out into the market. It is a serious issue, and many people have taken account of that. When I was at the ODPM, I was at a meeting called by the Duke of Westminster at his base. He summoned every landowner in the country at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning to read the riot act about releasing small bits of land for half a dozen developments here and half a dozen there—not big developments—because the vibrancy of the villages needs to be maintained. That is serious and there are programmes. I pay tribute to the CLA and all the others involved.
I am not going down this route, but the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, made the point about hearts and minds. He touched on a point about the impression given from 1997 about what happened afterwards in the handling of foot and mouth and hunting. Perhaps I was elected in 1997 in favour of the ban, but before I got here I changed my mind anyway, born out of my experience in MAFF. It is as simple as that. It was a question of oppressiveness and not giving enough local choice, but that is another story.
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, talked about post offices and about local food. Later this year there will be the launch of the year of food and farming. I hope that that can be used by industry—it is industry-led but government-supported across several departments—to try to make the connections between the production and provenance of food, linking up the areas where the food is produced and where most of it is consumed, which by definition will be in urban areas.
The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, started off by saying that he would keep away from the RPA, and I was very grateful for that, although the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, came back to it at the end. I will not be able to go down that road today. My regrets and apologies if the noble Earl thinks that he has come across a confrontational issue. I get distressed about rigid adherence to some of the EU regulations, and sometimes I have to adjudicate on some of the appeals. The panel says one thing and the lawyers say that one cannot accept the panel. On one or two recent occasions, we have been confrontationally oppressive and I am seeking to have the decisions changed. There is rigidity in the system, which should be loosened up to take account of people’s personal and sometimes tragic circumstances.
I think that we can overcome what the noble Earl said about waste and fly-tipping from the cities. I certainly hope that we can, given what was said earlier today, by planning to be proactive about it. He also mentioned broadband, as did someone else. I am a bit concerned, because I need to ensure that we have got this right: my information is that the availability of broadband in the UK is now 99.7 per cent, with rural coverage at 98.6 per cent. I shall check whether that refers to geography or people—I assume that it is people—but that figure is substantial and, frankly, if there are problems in specific areas I would like to know about them. As a Minister, when I am given those kinds of figures, I have to ask: where is the problem for the vast majority of the country?
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester made several points and I understand what he said regarding foot and mouth and the fact that the livestock sector has a worse time than the arable sector. The county of Cheshire has 20 per cent of our milking herd, so it is incredibly important for our dairy industry.
The right reverend Prelate mentioned something that struck a chord, because I found it in my brief. When I read it, I thought, “I haven’t heard of this”. I asked about it yesterday—the Pub is the Hub scheme. It relates to the demise of public houses. There are approximately 50,000 in England, of which 15,000 are in rural areas. In the past five years, 300 pubs nationally have been transformed to include a wide range of facilities, including—wait for it—gyms, post offices, school dinners, bakeries, church services and pharmacy collection points. That is as a result of the Pub is the Hub initiative, supported by the department. It is obviously a small scratch on the surface, but there is an attempt to realise the use of the pub as the hub of the community to ensure that, with the changes in society, we can make use of these facilities—whether they are pharmacies or whatever. The churches have different rules about what type of pubs people can go into. As a former Methodist Boys’ Brigade boy I realise that there is a problem in some areas. I shall not go down that road, but noble Lords will appreciate my point.
I should tell the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, that, while I speak for the Government, I do not speak for Scotland. I appreciate that there is a difference between the single farm payments for Scotland and England. He mentioned nitrate-sensitive zones and the fact that one of the directors at Defra has been raising that issue. I assure the noble Duke that that director is not the only person who has been challenging some of the assertions about covering the whole country with nitrate-sensitive zones. We are in negotiations with Brussels. I have to say that we have a Rottweiler, who is supposed to be there to deregulate not to regulate. He may be called the director of regulation, but I look at it the other way around. His instinct is to go for minimum regulation and I encourage him in that.
The issue of the closed period and the amount of storage is very serious—there is no question about that. We do not want to poison the water. No one wants to do that and I have never found a farmer who wants to poison the streams. To listen to some people, you would think that all farmers want to do is poison all the streams and not bother about what they put on the land and when they put it on. Farmers obviously care about this issue, but we are governed by these regulations. We have taken such a long time to introduce them—10 years or more, I understand—that we are under threat of infraction proceedings, which is why we need to come to an arrangement with the Commission.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, painted a picture that I recognise of villages that have closed over time. There has been no single reason for that; changes in technology and other aspects of society cause different factors to change. The rigidity of our planning laws probably does not allow new things to start up in a village to maintain its vibrancy, and you end up with exactly what I said in 1990: you get single, detached pieces of suburbia surrounded by fields. That is the direct result of the planners’ rigidity in not allowing changes to buildings that have been created for one purpose and not allowing a new business to come in and flourish in order to maintain the vibrancy of a village.
That is a serious issue but we must also take into account the fact that what you do not use, you lose. Although I do not blame anyone for it, people were moving away from collecting benefits and incomes from the post office long before the Government ever thought of going for automatic cash transfers. When I discovered that 10 per cent of people on income support were having their money paid directly into their bank, that told me that something was changing substantially. When I was at the DSS, 50 per cent of pensioners were already choosing, voluntarily and without any pressure, to be paid in that way, but when the poorest people in the country on the lowest income—means-tested income support—chose to have their income paid into the bank, that indicated that a substantial change was afoot.
One could conceive of a situation whereby, if nothing was done to manage the post office network—at one time it consisted of 18,000 independent businesses—the lot could be lost overnight and people would wonder what had happened to it. Therefore, we have to manage the network. I obviously regret the closures but we want to maintain as many rural post offices as possible, and we have tried to get government departments to use new services in post offices.
The situation was just as bad in rural areas. An assessment, by constituency, of who had money paid into the bank was carried out long before there was any element of compulsion, when the system was purely voluntary. People were asked how they wanted their pension or maternity benefits to be paid. To start with, income support was not available through the bank—it was available only as cash—but when people were given a choice, they moved to having payments made into the bank.
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that, long before the present situation, I was at the DSS headquarters in Newcastle when people were asked over the telephone how they wanted their pension to be paid. I was wearing earphones when people phoned in and, when they gave their address, the first thing to come up on the screen in front of the civil servant was information on the 10 nearest post offices, which was displayed automatically. The civil servant knew exactly which post office the pensioner would need to go to, if that was what he wanted. The people who phoned in were given choices. Obviously the situation has changed now, but then it cost 89p for an order to be paid at the post office and 1p for an automatic cash transfer. The enormous amount of fraud and benefit book theft that occurred in the post office system put pressure on the Government to adopt a more modern system. However, I repeat that people were moving away from post office payments long before the element of compulsion had a bearing. I do not blame people but that is the reality.
I do not want to pick out particular speeches but, because of the issues raised and the positive way in which they were raised, I would have felt privileged to make those delivered by the noble Lords, Lord Cameron and Lord Dear.
There is a real problem in balancing urban regeneration grants because they target only 10 per cent of the worst areas. Therefore, 90 per cent of those areas are not included in the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. When I was at the ODPM, I visited what appeared to be leafy and prosperous small market towns. I shall not mention them because that would be unfair. But occasionally you see another side. I remember coming back from one such visit and saying to officials, “How on Earth can we have allowed this to happen in this place? It is as bad as any urban area I have seen in terms of unemployment, dereliction and the nature of the estate”. The officials almost laughed at me. They said, “If you look at the numbers involved, you’ll see that this place is listed at about number 3,000”. In other words, there is not enough money. We are targeting only 10 per cent of the worst places, so we are bound to miss out both urban and rural areas.
In addition, the calculations are made differently today. When they were made on the basis of wards and constituencies—particularly wards, as there is variation around the country—there was unfairness. Now officials use—and I am damned if I can remember what the zone is called—pockets of 3,000 people around the country to make up areas of deprivation, so they are more equal than ever before. Nevertheless, there is bound to be unfairness in the system, simply because we are targeting not 100 per cent, but only the worst 10 per cent.
The noble Lord, Lord Dear, raised a point which struck a chord with me—and an answer came through on a note—about people living in rural areas needing more than one car, which meant that the system was unfair. He is absolutely right, but that was identified and dealt with. In fact, the index of deprivation does not have a motor car ownership issue now, simply because the noble Lord’s point was identified and something was done about it. There is obviously a high dependency on rural transport.
I think that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was basically calling for freedom and choice with some degree of economic independence in rural areas. He said that people there would be able to better use resources than having resources planted on them on a one-size-fits-all basis. That was the basic issue, as well as there not being enough money. It may be that the planning freedoms and some of the loosening up can assist with this. A report commissioned by me and David Miliband about barriers to diversification was put up on the department’s website a couple of weeks ago, without much fuss. While it was essentially for farmers, it was very rurally focused, asking what the barriers are. The two key barriers relate to planning and business skills. The report has about 22 recommendations, and we are going to try some across government. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, used the term “silos”. We have to go “silo busting”—a jargon phrase I discovered the other day in a Foresight research programme. We must “silo bust” across government to implement planning; Defra must obviously work with other government departments on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has answered a question. When I flicked through a newspaper this morning, I could not figure out why on Earth someone had done a diary piece about how many times I have mentioned the word “squirrels” in the past six months. I thought, “Blimey, someone’s calculated this”. It was only seven times; the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is apparently on 200. With the reshuffle coming, the piece said, I do not have much time to make up my count of mentioning squirrels. Well, squirrels are actually very important. Red squirrels are more important than grey squirrels. I now realise why someone has been alerted to the fact that squirrels need a mention. Natural England, as noble Lords know, is supported by the House in the different bodies coming together. The point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was whether there was an issue with single-species wildlife trusts not being able to carry on. If that is an issue, we must clearly look at it, along with the others.
The noble Lord raised another issue of which I am conscious. The health situation presents special challenges in relation to scarcity and transport. You cannot have a maternity unit or brain surgeon on every street corner, whether in an urban or rural area. The issue of medical facilities in rural hospitals is a constant. I could quote statistics and figures, but I will save that for the letter. On the noble Lord’s example, women who have already been picked up in the ambulance may have to go further than originally planned, and not to the nearest hospital—but to be picked up when the driver does not know where they are going to go is quite unacceptable in the 21st century. I will be happy to give a better response on that, I hope.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned ATMs. How many of those 4,000 are going to be in rural areas is for local consultation. I do not have the figure for her, but I will come back on that. The Post Office has already started local consultations on the restructuring to determine where the subsidy is going to go. The real problem in a situation like this is controlling which offices close. Sometimes it is like voluntary redundancy where the good people go and the others have to be kept. We do not want that with the post offices. We need to keep the ones that are more vital than others. That consultation has already started.
There is less regulation. If I were to give a block answer about statutory instruments, the numbers would look great, but we will be able to show that we are cutting back on regulation. We have a programme to do that, and we will be up before the Select Committee on the annual report to show what we are doing.
I will have to come back on the point about the precepts on the parishes because, by definition, they are the third tier of government. One assumes that the services that the parish council is providing are not coming from the district council; therefore the district council is saving the money. It is not as though it is an extra, and it does mean more local control. It means that the parish council has a bit of control over the way it does things. It is not a great deal, but it is not simply an add-on.
On the noble Baroness’s central point about the RPA, we have paid up to 82 per cent of the money. Our target is 96.14 per cent of the money by 30 June. I explained the reasons for the delays, so I shall not go into great detail. We are going to come back to the 2005 people. It is an incredibly complicated scheme, far more complicated than it needs to be. As was said, it is more sophisticated than the others, but therein lies the problem. We are now dealing with three years’ payments. We have plans that are being operated and implemented as I speak to try to achieve that target, but we need to close down 2005 and deal with 2006 as quickly as possible so that we can start to pay the money for 2007 earlier in the year than we did for the 2006 money. We paid earlier in 2006 than in 2005, but I fully admit that we are now behind where we were last year in terms of the totality of the money, although the cash-flow situation has been vastly improved, as shown by the Bank of England figures that I gave at Question Time.
I am very grateful for this debate. It is a pity that it was only two hours, but the other debate was quite important. The business managers do the split, not me. I will make sure that I send a note on the points that I have covered inadequately or not at all. I shall send it to all noble Lords, and I shall make sure that a copy is placed in the Library.
My Lords, time is up. We have had a good debate, and I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. I particularly thank the Minister for his light-touch, non-prescriptive wind-up speech. We look forward to hearing from him in due course. Unlike us, he probably has a bit of work to do next week. I also congratulate him on his prescience in 1990 in making a speech that enabled him to endorse his credentials today. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.