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Rural Communities

Volume 764: debated on Thursday 16 July 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure the sustainability of rural communities, in the light of the additional costs and challenges of service provision in rural areas.

My Lords, I am very grateful to all those who are going to contribute to this debate, which is an opportunity to highlight the importance of sustainable rural communities to the life of this country and to consider the challenges that exist in providing the services needed to support those communities so that they can continue to be engaging and vibrant places to live and work. Many definitions of vibrancy can, and indeed have been, applied to rural communities. Previously, these definitions have focused on the services available in the community—for example, a shop, a post office or a school. But in the final analysis it is the people who count and who make a rural community, indeed any community, what it is. A rural community becomes sustainable when people care about its future and have an opportunity to engage in that future, shaping it themselves for the common good.

When we talk of the sustainability of rural communities there can be an understandable resentment that we are asking rural places to justify their existence, which is a question we do not normally ask of towns and cities. This reflects the vulnerability that the residents of some rural places feel when the shop and the pub have closed, the school long since closed and public transport is a distant memory. In some villages, often only the church remains as the last open public building.

Here I should declare an interest. The Church of England has 10,199 open church buildings in the countryside, as defined by Defra’s rural definition, which is two-thirds of the total number of our churches. Through the parish system, we therefore have an interest in communities of all shapes and sizes, and we want to ensure that the smallest places have as much chance to thrive as more substantial communities and settlements. There is a quiet revolution going on in many of our rural church buildings. Increasingly, they are adapted so that, as well as being places of worship, we are returning to the medieval understanding that the nave can be used for a variety of purposes. Many rural churches now have a meeting room that can be used by villagers, toilets, a kitchenette and so on, which is a real win-win situation. We are seeking to use these buildings for the wider community.

The rural areas of the United Kingdom are diverse and varied. They are not a single homogenous unit that can be described simply or dismissed as affluent and therefore of little concern to policymakers. One of the features of rural communities is that, on average, the population is older than in urban areas. This demographic means that providing health and social care that is accessible to this age group is already a challenge that needs to be addressed.

Some academics are already warning that the countryside could become an exclusive place open only to those with enough money to buy property there. The long-term sustainability of rural communities will be challenged if this becomes the case. Proposals such as the right to buy housing association properties will not help the long-term future for rural communities, and will exclude those whose life experiences and skills are just as valuable, although their incomes are less.

Similarly, removing the requirement for affordable units on new build sites of 10 houses removes one of the major sources of affordable housing, particularly in smaller settlements that are not considered to be service villages. Her Majesty’s Government have given assurances in the past that rural proofing of policies takes place. In terms of providing affordable housing this does not appear to be the case. Neighbourhood planning has much to recommend it, giving rural communities the opportunity to have a say in the development that takes place there.

However, neighbourhood planning is complex, time consuming and costly. The schemes already in place to assist communities in this process, particularly across civil parish boundaries, are extremely welcome, as is the grant aid available, but more is needed, particularly around simplification of the process and plan, as to date only a small proportion of rural communities have plans in legal force, 3.5 years after the original legislation was enacted.

It is well established that rural households pay higher rates of council tax per dwelling, receive less government grant and have access to fewer public services than their urban counterparts. Delivering services costs more in the countryside—the rural premium—and applies to healthcare, education, social care and a great many other things, including public transport. Funding allocations per head of population tend to be consistently lower than towns and cities and do not take into account the sparsity factors of distance and small total population numbers. The local government finance settlement remains unfair to rural local authorities and this needs to be addressed now honestly and openly, as it is unjust to the rural population.

Health and social care is a particular concern. We already know that accessing health services in rural areas is more difficult, because travel times, distances and costs are greater. As such, we need to be much more creative in how health services are delivered, by using outreach centres, video links or tele-medicine services. Social care provision is particularly valuable to allow people to stay in their homes and remain part of their community. Rural areas are difficult, where travel times between each client are longer and the wages for carers are low, recruitment is difficult and the time spent is unsatisfactory to both the client and the carer. Many rural residents benefit from the knowing and being known of small places, although others, sadly, live isolated, lonely lives. Sustainable communities will be ones where trust has been built, and knowing who one’s neighbours are is a matter of pride, not surprise. The voluntary sector and the churches have a continuing major role to play here in bringing people together and looking out for who is missing. As a church, we invest hugely in the number of rural clergy, who in some cases are among the few professional people actually living and working in that community; many of the others commute out of it to work. However, this cannot be done for ever on a shoestring and good will. We have to plan now for providing these services and acknowledge the extra costs associated with them in funding settlements.

A rural community will often be able to articulate its own needs far better than those doing the planning, and these voices need to be heard clearly and not dismissed. Supporting the rural economy has been a stated priority for Defra for the past five years, and no doubt will continue. Supporting the additional costs of service provision and delivery also needs to be a priority. How does Her Majesty’s Government propose to do this? Service delivery plans also need to address all rural residents, including the hard-to-reach areas. How will that be delivered within Defra, now that the Rural Communities Policy Unit has been subsumed gently and quietly into other policy areas?

My Lords, I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for giving us this opportunity to discuss something that I think is very close to all the hearts of our speakers this afternoon. It is an important debate.

For many people living in rural areas, there is increasing concern about the future of services, whether the provision of healthcare, school places and transport, or access to jobs or affordable housing, to name but a few. The right reverend Prelate rightly highlighted other aspects and gave us some of the solutions, indicating how church parish communities help. Two-thirds of those churches are in rural areas; many, as we have seen, have altered the way in which they are used and are now in multi-use. Care for our elderly is one of the biggest challenges that we face but I will come back to that later.

This debate also gives me the opportunity to thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, on his leadership in taking the rural dimension—or challenge, I should say—to various government departments, speaking to Ministers and senior civil servants. It was indeed a Defra initiative but I will not steal his thunder as I am sure that he will talk about this in his contribution later. The most important thing to come out of all this, and his report, is that the valuable research that was undertaken should not be lost and should be acted on.

Over the years, I have attended various conferences and discussion groups looking at ways in which service provision in rural area could be enhanced. The Commission for Rural Communities, in its comparatively short existence, brought together much valuable data. The common theme coming out of all these is that no one size fits everybody; that includes whether they are working with public provision or alongside voluntary organisations and individual giving.

I was particularly pleased to see this morning’s news that Cornwall, a very rural area, has been given new powers—English devolution—to take responsibility for regional investment, countryside bus services and franchises and the provision of healthcare and social care. I hope that this is the start of freeing up service provision for others in different authorities. I hope also that, in future, different counties and districts will work closely on provision, so that one is not limited by a boundary. I was concerned, however, also to see in this morning’s news that some of our magistrates’ courts are to be closed. I accept that, where they are not fully used or circumstances have changed, it leaves them no longer viable and that such decisions are right. Nevertheless, I draw to the Minister’s attention my fear that such closures will affect rural communities more significantly.

Challenges lie ahead of us but I am encouraged by some of the excellent community work that is already ongoing. The right reverend Prelate referred to our growing number of elderly people. I will share with you my own experience when, two years ago, my husband was not well; he was in hospital and, sadly, eventually died of bowel cancer. The link-up between the hospital and provision at home, where he chose to come back to die, was enormously helpful—I reiterate that because I think that we were exceptionally lucky. The hospital linked up with the local doctors and nurses, and Macmillan and LOROS came in to us and were enormously supportive, which meant that he was able to live where he wished to live for as long as he could. Such linking up between hospital and home is crucial, and I am glad that this Government are committed to making healthcare much more accessible for everybody.

I suspect, however, that this afternoon quite a few of us will be looking at what the state might do—I have written in my notes the need for us to help ourselves as well. State provision is quite rightly there when it is needed, but there are ways, as the right reverend Prelate has said, that we can help each other: giving time and support, knowing your neighbour, befriending, mentoring, and churches working as post offices and foodbanks are all important. What is key for long-term success is ensuring that we have access to broadband and to jobs—some of the local authorities are very good at helping youngsters to have a bike to get them to work. These are small, practical ways in which we could help and I am grateful to be part of the debate this afternoon.

My Lords, my home is in the north-east of Cornwall. When you drive west on the A30, if you are on holiday, you will drive straight through the middle of Lewannick Parish. It has a population of just under 1,000 and the two main settlements are separated by that road—Lewannick to the south and Polyphant to the north. Their closest town, Launceston, five miles to the east, has the basics: a secondary school, a community hospital, a library, a leisure centre, a mix of shops—several charity shops—and many estate agents.

I shall describe the parish. There are more people over 65 than the Cornwall figure, which in turn is much higher than the national average. There are fewer people under 18 or with degrees or professional occupations. Car ownership is high—poor public transport—home ownership is not. For any community to start on the path to sustainability, there must be people to live there, jobs for them to go to and houses for them to live in. There is a primary school in Lewannick, a pub, a village hall, a shop, a branch GP surgery and the parish church—open at all times. Polyphant has a Methodist chapel and a mobile library. Both villages have residential care facilities. In a neighbouring village on Monday the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro opened a shop and post office in the parish church, a project of our energetic shared vicar.

Today the first rural devolution deal was announced. Lib Dems have long campaigned for local devolution. This deal, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, will give Cornwall the ability to franchise bus services and commission what is needed—even a bike—when and where. It will give the promise of integrated health and social care, support for the renewables industry, improvements to home energy efficiency and the reshaping of training and skills provision, leading to innovative apprenticeships and local jobs. Cornwall will have intermediate body status for the two EU structural funds, letting us make our own minds up about what to fund, not be told by Westminster.

We are disappointed—we should not be lacking in gratitude, but we are disappointed—that there was no ability to deal with a burgeoning second home market which pushes out locals and does little for our economy. Cornwall has world-beating natural beauty but in 1997 had an economy on a par with Portugal. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Teverson who, as MEP for Cornwall, worked incredibly hard to ensure that Cornwall became eligible for Objective 1 funding, which was the highest funding available and which has completely changed the economy of the county. Thanks to this European funding, and others, we have wi-fi and, for those who want it, fibre-optic provision is available. This is a boon for those running businesses from home. I am short on time, but I must pay tribute to the work of the Cornwall LEP. It will play a large part in delivering the devolution agenda.

Back to Lewannick. The past few years have seen a marked increase in the availability of affordable housing, which is not common across Cornwall. Some 40 units across the parish have given the opportunity for young people to stay in the village and young families to move in. This is good news for the school, the shop and the pub. Sadly, this is not typical. Core services are fairly well provided for, but what of their sustainability, and what else is available that makes the village a good place to live?

The factor that will mean one community is sustained over another is the people who make a place worth living in: the volunteers and those who are committed to running services that do not have to make a major profit for a multinational—I welcome the description of vibrancy given by the right reverend Prelate. It should be said that the volunteers in Lewannick would not recognise this as a description of themselves or what they do, but these vibrant volunteers run the village hall committee, the pantomime, the May Day with its maypole, the film club, the garden club, the ladies club—this in a village of 1,000—the flower and produce show, the fete and dog show, the oil-buying consortium, the parish council and, of course, the PPC. My apologies go to those groups I forget—I am sure they will remind me at the weekend. Villages in Cornwall that are not sustainable are those that are dead out of season, with dwindling working populations. They have often lost their shops and services, and suppliers find it difficult to provide services such as education, health and care or transportation.

Today’s devolution deal offers a hope that decisions will be made closer to the provision with less need to be bound by nationally determined criteria. Communities that survive are those where work and housing are fit for the population and the local economy. They have a living heart. They are not always where you might want to spend your holiday, but they are places where you would say hello to anyone you meet and expect to get caught in the shop for a long chat about the weather or the state of the world. These are true communities with a stake in their own sustainability.

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for initiating this debate. I will speak as the chair of the Rural Housing Policy Review, which reported recently and among whose members were the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. I am grateful to them for their support.

The review looked at all the earlier reports concerned with rural housing to see what progress had been made since they were written. We discovered that they all said similar things. Indeed, we underlined and emphasised the things that they had said before us, including that housing is absolutely critical to creating and sustaining a community—a vibrant community, as the right reverend Prelate said. The reports also said that people in rural areas have special housing difficulties. They face competition, if they want to buy a home, from commuters, retirees and, in some places, second-home owners and holiday-home providers. All this extra competition means that prices are 26% higher in rural areas than elsewhere while earnings are 19% lower. These are tough times for anyone aspiring to be a home owner and have a job in a rural community. There is also less affordable housing in these areas, not least because the right to buy for council housing has depleted the amount of social housing available in villages. Across rural England, social housing provision is at a level of 9% compared with 20% in urban areas.

So are there any positives out there or good things happening? Yes, there are. We noted in our report that the neighbourhood plans drawn up by local communities have often been positive. They have not just been about nimbys saying, “We don’t want anything in this village”; they have been positive in many areas. Parish councils are now coming to local housing associations, as was reported to us by two major housing associations working in rural areas, saying “Please come to this village. Help us to get some cottages built for local people”. Not everyone is against anything happening in rural England. We were also encouraged by landowners who are willing to provide sites either free or on very good terms.

Yet despite some of those positive signs, things are very difficult and tough. We had to draw attention to the fact that government, we suspected unwittingly, made life more difficult for those in rural areas by decreeing that any housebuilder producing executive homes or new development in a rural community—or anywhere else—should not be required to include any affordable housing in that provision, as they would be in most cases, if 10 homes or fewer were built. Well in rural areas, almost all developments are of 10 homes or fewer, so almost no additional affordable housing can be produced on the back of those housebuilders doing their work in rural areas. We were disappointed to say that things were not getting better, despite some good signs and some energy at the local level—not least on the part of church people, who are often to the fore in these matters.

After we produced our report, we were very sorry that another blow hit those concerned with housing in rural areas with the extension of the right to buy to the tenants of housing associations, as with those in council housing. These very large discounts of up to 70% off the price, or up to £77,000, seem quite an extravagance to many when the same amount of money would provide some three times as many shared-ownership homes for half-buy, half-rent. We could get three times as many built as new homes in other villages.

However, that does not express the real problem, which is the loss of the homes themselves even if they could be replaced on a one for one basis. It is that loss which is so painful for local communities. People struggle, sometimes for years, to persuade landowners to make the land available, to get the planning organised, to bring these schemes together, to defeat opposition—because there is always some—and to get these homes built. Now we fear they are to be told that, after three years, the occupiers will be able to buy those homes with a large discount—bless them, I would not blame them at all for taking advantage of this. Those homes will then not be available in perpetuity, as often was promised to the landowners and the council, for those people who will need those affordable homes in future. I hope that the Minister is listening. I know that he is incredibly sympathetic to these issues and understands them deeply. I hope that he will prevail upon some of his colleagues to step back from the brink on this one.

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate very warmly for raising this important subject. I should declare some interests. In particular, I chair the National Housing Federation, representing non-profit housing associations. I have also had a lot of interest in this whole area over some years: I led the Living Working Countryside review for Labour; I worked with Conservative Ministers in the last Government on planning guidance; as the noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned, I was a member of the Rural Housing Policy Review; indeed, I was the founder chair of the Rural Coalition. The one interest, however, that may be most relevant to declare is that I am also from Cornwall, which is represented unduly highly in this debate.

I want to touch briefly on several issues. The first is that rural communities are not sustainable unless there are homes for those who work in the countryside and, across all rural communities, tend to earn in excess of 20% less than the national average. However, they live in areas where house prices are much higher and where rented accommodation is extremely hard to come by. This is particularly true in the more attractive areas, where what rented accommodation is available is typically in the holiday sector and not for full-time workers. That means that for the people who work on the farm, in the pub or the shop, or who look after the elderly in the community, the only accommodation that they are likely to be able to afford is either formal affordable housing or in the back of a camper van. I promise noble Lords that there are many who live in the back of a camper van: they may get a winter let in holiday accommodation, but in the summer months they live in the camper van. As communities and villages have become aware of that, they have started to make sites available for affordable housing. It is small-scale, but where there was resistance only a few years ago, increasingly there is support for it.

However, it is still the case that many fewer affordable homes are built in rural villages than their share of the population—less than half of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, touched on. The policy of not requiring affordable homes on sites of under 10 homes particularly impacts on rural communities, where generally that number would be typical of the sites. The right-to-buy policy—I know that this concerns the Conservative side as much as any other—could put a complete stop to people bringing forward exception sites for affordable homes, if they think that that decision will lead to those homes being sold off just a few years later at a massive discount. It is the permanence of the affordability of those homes that villages buy into when they take the decision to allow them.

Secondly, even if you have the homes, that is no good unless you have the work for those who live in the countryside. I did a lot of work to encourage the changes that have taken place in planning, to make planning policy and guidance much more amenable to businesses in the countryside being able to grow—not huge businesses that are inappropriate in the countryside but small-scale businesses of all sorts, not just those sorts typically thought of as rural. In the internet age, things have changed. There is an opportunity for new wealth in the countryside but not if old-school planning still directs businesses to the industrial estate in the town. I am afraid that that still happens. It is about a change of mind more than a change of policy but the Government have a role of leadership in it.

The third element is that rural communities are not sustainable without access to services. We all understand the need for value for money and the financial imperatives that sit on the Government in present times. But if value for money is costed per person, services are stripped out of the rural and into the urban because the same service provided to a large number of people is cheaper than that service in the rural area. Too often, we see the centralisation of services on value-for-money grounds: the bigger school is more cost-effective than the smaller school; the bigger hospital is more cost-effective than the cottage hospital; the rural post office serving a small community does not have the throughput which maintains the full service provided in the town, yet in the town there may be multiple outlets and multiple opportunities to get those services. There needs to be an understanding that what applies in one may not apply in the other.

Rural communities are not sustainable if we do not also have policies to help them be sustainable environmentally. Half the homes in rural areas have the worst SAP ratings of 30, which means extremely energy-inefficient. I chair a ground-sourced energy company—I should declare that interest. I do it because I am worried about this issue and want to make something happen. Too often, policy, which is all about value for money, the pennies at the edge and the numbers you can deliver, does not address the fact that in rural areas some of those biggest problems exist. In the past, policies to increase energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty have been most cost-effective in towns and have ignored the fact that the greatest number of properties using night storage or oil, creating the greatest problems while being the most expensive to run, are in the rural areas. We need to understand peculiarities of rural communities.

My Lords, a sustainable community is one where the old and the young, the rich and the poor, can live together, assist each other and have a shared vision. With a nod to the right reverend Prelate, the greatest of these are the young.

What rural communities most require from government is understanding and rural-proofing, because to deliver to remote and small communities requires government departments to put in place procedures to work out how to reach out to rural people: where there is real deprivation, where there is little or no public transport, where not everyone has a car, where services are often miles away, where broadband is either slow or does not exist and where the costs of delivery per head are higher but the budgets available per head, as has been mentioned, nearly always lower than in urban areas. Rural-proofing is also about ensuring there are no unintended consequences in the countryside of policies which are usually poorly thought out by urban-based individuals.

For instance, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned, I gather today that Mr Gove wishes to close 140 courts to save money for the Ministry of Justice. Has this policy been rural-proofed? It may save money for the Ministry of Justice, but will it be easier for rural people to access justice? I suspect the answer is no.

Rural-proofing is also about training. In my tour around departments last year, I really noticed the difference where Defra had run a training workshop relevant to that department. Is Defra still running these detailed departmental workshops? Does it still have the budget to do so? They are its one opportunity to affect the quality of life in rural England through the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, the DWP et cetera. Personally, I think that rural-proofing should be the responsibility of the Cabinet Office, but I will not go there today.

The two most urgent policy areas for rural communities are affordable housing and broadband. The Government, as has been mentioned by others, are making a total Horlicks on housing. The bedroom tax should not apply because there are no single-occupancy units in most villages. Then there is the abolition of affordable housing quotas, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best, on sites with fewer than 10 houses. The almost complete absence of housing for the next generation is the biggest worry for all rural families, and these quotas provide 60% of the provision of new affordable houses in the countryside. Their abolition is madness. Then there is the proposed new right to buy, also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I have already vented my fury elsewhere on that, so I will say no more today.

On broadband, the Government have a better record. Not everything is perfect and certainly in Devon and Somerset, where we were supposed to have a beacon project, we have been badly let down by the complete incompetence of BT in spite of it receiving millions of pounds of public money. But the intentions of the Government are there and they are good. The Government just have to focus more on the actual delivery.

To underline the importance of fast broadband to this debate, apart from it being essential to help retain the young in our communities, there are many examples from around the world where government services are delivered by good broadband. You just need a special room in your village where doctors can talk to patients, courts can talk to witnesses, jobseekers can talk to the jobcentre, schools can talk to classes and business can talk to whoever. You can see why it needs a central body like the Cabinet Office to deliver this interdepartmental infrastructure. But, first, the Government really have to focus on delivering high-speed broadband to all rural communities and then get all departments to focus on how they can use it and best deliver to their rural electorate.

Lastly, I ask the Minister, and I have given him warning of this: when will the Government respond to my report on rural-proofing, which they themselves commissioned?

My Lords, this debate is a great pleasure, particularly as, I think, 30% of contributors are from Cornwall. First, I unreservedly welcome the Government’s moves in devolving power to the far south-west, which is very much welcomed across the political spectrum. I declare my interests in that I have a non-financial interest as chair of the Rural Coalition, following my noble friend Lord Taylor. I also am chairman of Wessex Investors and Anchorwood Developments Limited, which currently are in commercial negotiations with a social housing organisation in rural England. I also live in a hamlet of four houses, which will probably receive superfast broadband at about the same time that HS2 reaches Edinburgh. I still wait in anticipation.

Thinking back to the ancient history of April and May, and the election, there were a number of not-very-good days to wake up as a Liberal Democrat. But one particularly bad day, not as a Liberal Democrat but as a citizen, was when the proposal on the right to buy for social housing was announced. In my waking-up stupor and listening to the “Today” programme, I groaned with real fear that this had perhaps been thrown out to reflect the glories of Thatcherism without really thinking about its implications, particularly in rural areas. I would like to concentrate on that area in this debate.

This random allocation of taxpayers’ money to particular individuals—up to £100,000 in urban areas and more than £70,000 in rural areas—seems to be a lottery that has gone too far at the taxpayers’ expense. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, we cannot blame the individuals in any way if they take advantage of this. Given the great shortage of social housing, that is fundamentally wrong at the moment. Even more, why is this a rural issue? It is partly because we have a situation where the ratio of house prices to earnings in more rural areas is 8:1, which is much higher than in urban areas. Individual sales of social housing in villages or small towns potentially is disruptive to those communities and means that any replacements are not necessarily likely to be located in those areas. In fact, the chances of that are very small.

In terms of the undertaking to replace one-for-one, unfortunately, even if we look back to the coalition Government’s period, although there was such a requirement on right to buy and council housing during that time only 46% of houses were replaced. Therefore, the robustness of that offer is very low. I know the Government will say that that means that even if that happened, which is unlikely, one house would still be in the community and another would be there to replace it. At this stage I will not get into the mathematics of selling houses elsewhere of higher value. But even if that took place, that money could buy even more houses in those communities than if it was transferred in the way in which the Government say it will be. I believe that this is a corrosive and difficult policy for rural communities. Will the Government find any exclusions for rural communities as part of this policy, particularly in villages and small market towns?

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, a former noble friend until May, is a great champion of rural issues and has a great track record on them. I welcome the fact that he is answering this debate. But it is ironic that in the year in which we celebrate 800 years since the Magna Carta, Her Majesty’s Government are proposing to sequester and take away from private legal persons and charities their own assets.

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for drawing our attention to the continuing sustainability of rural communities and the challenges of maintaining rural services. I declare an interest as a farmer in the rural community of south Cheshire.

The challenges to rural services arise from the relative lack of demand in rural, sparsely populated areas together with the additional costs of provision. This covers all aspects of life from affordable housing provision to planning restrictions, the amount and quality of jobs, health and education provision, energy costs, transport and bus services as well as to police and emergency services provision.

Rural communities are facing a low-pay, low-skill economy, a squeeze in living standards, a lack of affordable housing and insufficient power to make decisions about their future. Average wages are more than £4,500 a year lower than those in urban areas, and the gap has grown by £1,000 since 2010. Rural businesses and households have seen the same soaring energy bills as the rest of the country, but have an added burden as many have no grid access, forcing them to use more expensive alternatives.

All speakers have drawn attention to different difficulties facing everyday aspects of life in rural areas. All their contributions have been informative and I will briefly outline key aspects of concern. The provision of broadband in rural areas is essential to connect rural businesses and help them grow and compete, as was highlighted in the Efra Committee’s report of the other place earlier this year. In my area of Cheshire, the present limit of 2 megabytes is insufficient even to download collective catch-up television. Will the Government commit to raising in this Parliament this 2 megabyte universal service commitment to a much higher figure for superfast broadband? What will that figure be and what will be the cost? Will the Government commit to a level that is largely already the norm in urban areas?

Since 2010-11, the proportion of pupils at rural schools achieving five or more A* to C grades has been lower compared with those attending school in urban areas, with the gap widening every year. Will the Minister inform the Committee what steps the Government are taking to address this rural versus urban education attainment gap?

Living standards have been hit by public transport fare increases. Bus fares have risen by 27% as 2,000 routes have been cut. Families spend almost £4,500 on transport, almost £800 more than the national average. People in rural areas travel 50% further per year on journeys which often necessitate travel by car due to poor interconnectivity of public transport. What plans do the Government have to ensure that those living in the countryside and coastal communities have access to affordable, effective transport services?

There are currently GP shortages in many rural areas and anxiety about service provision changes and reconfigurations. Too often, patients and the public feel that they are not involved in drawing up proposals for changes to their local health services and have little say in decision-making. Have the Government plans to give local communities a real say in the future of their NHS? Affordable rural housing has long been a problem. Developers have now been allowed to end the provision of affordable housing on sites with fewer than 10 houses, as the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Best, said.

All this provides a real challenge to policy-makers in drawing up plans for rural communities. Now that the Rural Communities Policy Unit has been subsumed into other policy areas, will the Minister clarify how his department will address all these problems?

My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for raising this important issue for debate. I declare my interests as a farmer—perhaps more personally, as a countryman —and, because the debate has quite rightly raised the issue of housing, as a facilitator of a rural housing scheme. Rural areas and people provide security and opportunity for the entire nation—the food we eat, the natural resources we use, the beautiful landscapes and recreation we enjoy. However, the right reverend Prelate was absolutely right to emphasise that we must focus on people because it is people who make this extraordinary part of our United Kingdom so important to the nation as a whole. Of course, I also recognise—and do so personally—the role the churches play in many rural communities. I suggest that it is in the countryside—this will be controversial with more urban-minded right reverend Prelates—that the Church of England remains an enduring part of life.

Investing in infrastructure to improve connectivity, protecting key services, providing affordable housing and helping to reduce the cost of living are all central to this Government’s approach to achieving sustainable rural communities that are fit for future generations. I very much agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, that we should perhaps be thinking most of the young and the next generation. Sustainable rural communities must also be underpinned by a thriving rural economy contributing to national prosperity and well-being. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, described the key features of her own vibrant community. We can all identify with many communities up and down the land that have many of the features the noble Baroness outlined. Of course I am delighted, particularly as we have three noble Lords from Cornwall, to hear the announcements about that great county.

The countryside already has a good track record of entrepreneurship and generating new businesses. In preparing for this debate, I was particularly interested to find that in fact the countryside is home to a quarter of all our firms, yet has only 18% of our population. Boosting productivity, investing in a strong economy and infrastructure and—most importantly in the countryside—high-speed broadband will bring businesses closer to markets and help people access the services that they desperately need.

The right reverend Prelate was absolutely right to refer to the cost of living in rural areas. Many noble Lords from the countryside know this at first hand. The Government have recognised that, for instance, spending on energy can be much higher in rural areas. In remoter rural locations, the car is a necessity not a luxury, and people living in some of the United Kingdom’s most rural areas now benefit from a 5p per litre fuel discount thanks to the rural fuel rebate. Some £25 million has been made available to provide hundreds of new minibuses to community transport operators in rural and isolated areas. Further help with energy costs is provided through the £15 million Rural Community Energy Fund, which helps rural communities in England develop community-owned, community-scale renewables projects.

There are additional costs for delivering services in rural areas, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, highlighted. Considerable progress has been made with local authorities in closing the urban-rural funding gap, demonstrating a positive uplift for rural communities. Since 2011-12 for shire districts this gap has closed from 19% to 11% and for unitary authorities from 11% to 6%.

Affordable housing allows people of all ages to live and work in rural areas. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, particularly referred to the essential element: “to work” in rural areas. I also listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor said in that regard. By encouraging sensitive developments we can ensure that communities remain vibrant and sustainable.

As the noble Lord, Lord Best, kindly said, I take a keen interest in these matters. It has been my privilege to open a number of rural housing schemes for Hastoe Housing Association, all of which have been enormous net contributors to their local communities. Almost 68,000 new affordable homes were provided in English rural local authorities between April 2010 and March 2014. Ten thousand of these homes have been delivered in settlements of fewer than 3,000 residents.

The right reverend Prelate asked about policy teams. I can assure noble Lords that Defra continues to have its own rural policy team. The responsibility for sustainable rural communities lies with a number of government departments but I can assure your Lordships that the Government are conscious of how vital it is to have cross-government working. When developing policies and programmes, it is important to take account of the specific needs of rural communities through rural proofing.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, asked about workshops. Defra will continue to work closely, as I have said, with other departments and how we do this will be a key part of the review. I thank the noble Lord for his recent report on the effectiveness of rural proofing across government. Ministers are currently carefully considering all of the recommendations and will respond formally. Perhaps I may go off script and say to the noble Lord and your Lordships that this poacher turned gamekeeper will be keeping a close eye on this.

However, we want to go further in removing the barriers to growth and unleashing rural productivity. We announced last Friday that the Secretary of State will be publishing a ten-point rural productivity plan.

My noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, referred to the vital need for improved connectivity, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned Cornwall in particular. From my days in DCMS, I know that Cornwall has got a good track record and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, should be congratulated on what he has done to assist that. The Government are investing around £780 million to make sure that superfast broadband will be available to 95% of UK premises by the end of 2017 and everyone in the UK will have access to speeds of at least 2 megabits per second by the end of this year. I hope that helps the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. We all want to ensure that we have the building blocks for success so that we can demonstrate by the end of certain periods that we are succeeding. In practice, 2 megabits per second means access to BBC iPlayer, YouTube, internet radio and audio streaming, as well as the use of government online services such as submitting forms to the RPA.

As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, rightly said—I have sympathy with him about not only superfast broadband coverage but mobile coverage as well—there are many parts of the country where it remains a nightmare for people to proceed as we do in many other parts of the country because of the need for improved coverage. The pilot schemes on the extension beyond 95% coverage are already exploring how to expand superfast coverage in remote areas using innovative fixed, wireless and satellite technologies, all of which I could not possibly invent but great people are going to do so for us. Extensive and reliable mobile connectivity is also crucial for businesses and local communities in rural areas. The deployment of new infrastructure is a key part of the Government’s manifesto commitment to hold operators to their legally binding agreement to provide 90% geographical coverage by 2017.

I say to all noble Lords who have raised the issue that the Government recognise that more homes need to be built and thereby ensure that many rural communities remain sustainable. For instance, we want more homes that people can afford, including 200,000 new starter homes exclusively for first-time buyers under 40. Indeed, we wish to fulfil the aspiration of many people to buy their own homes—it was, after all, in our manifesto—but I understand the concerns about right to buy in rural areas and we will work closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on this.

We also recognise the importance of accessing high-quality services in rural areas. The future of rural post offices is clearly important. We will work closely with the health and education departments to make sure that essential areas of provision are properly reflected in the rural context. Areas such as transport, libraries and police are all absolutely essential for vibrant and sustainable communities.

Defra is also taking action to support sustainable rural communities. As part of the new rural development programme, for instance, we plan to invest nearly £500 million over the next six years for the benefit of rural businesses, people and communities. This will include £141 million for the Countryside Productivity Scheme, which will provide farmers and landowners with support for improvements in the productivity of their farming and forestry businesses, and £177 million through the rural development growth programme. Defra will be investing in rural businesses, food processing, tourism infrastructure, broadband and renewable energy projects. In addition, there will be £138 million though the LEADER scheme, allowing rural communities to decide their own priorities. I think the right reverend Prelate mentioned how communities are able to decide their own priorities.

The Government are absolutely clear about the importance of vibrant and sustainable rural communities across the land, built on a strong economy and making them great places to work, live and visit. We also champion the special way of life that makes our rural areas so splendid. Five per cent of the gross value added generated in rural areas comes from tourism and the GREAT campaigns have demonstrated the best of British landscapes and food to the rest of the world. Most importantly, sustainable rural communities need to be dynamic, resilient and ready to adapt for future generations. We should not just look to preserve them but instead provide them with the framework of support in which they will clearly flourish for future generations.

Sitting suspended.