Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of research published by the Local Government Association showing that subsidised bus services in England have reduced by more than 12% in the past year, what assessment they have made of the sustainability of rural communities.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords contributing their considerable expertise to this debate, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, whose wealth of experience is a welcome addition to this House. I declare an interest as president of the Rural Coalition and bishop of a diocese with large rural areas, some of which have seen considerable cuts in bus service provision in recent years.
As many noble Lords in this House will know first-hand, rural bus services provide a lifeline for rural communities, creating vital routes of connection to other parts of the country. For anyone who struggles to drive themselves because of age or a disability, or because they do not have a car, buses are often the only means of transport that connects rural residents with work, friends and family. With an increasing number of local services cut from rural towns and larger villages, the need to be able to connect with urban areas only increases.
The problem, of course, is that rural bus services are not particularly profitable. Relatively low footfall and long distances between stops mean that rural bus services, particularly in more remote rural areas, require discretionary local council subsidies to maintain viability. As cuts in local authority funding have taken hold over recent years, rural bus routes have been quickly disappearing. Indeed, the rate of this disappearance is startling. Official statistics from the Department for Transport show that bus mileage in local authorities outside London has decreased by 12% in the last year alone. According to the Local Government Association, council-supported bus services in rural areas have decreased by approximately 40% over the past decade.
This drop is a direct result of local authority cuts to bus subsidies. Figures collected by the Campaign for Better Transport show that Bedford Borough Council, in my own diocese, has seen an 83% cut in discretionary support for bus services since 2010, while Hertfordshire, also in my diocese, has seen a £1.7 million—or 40%—cut in funding in 2015-16 alone. Across England and Wales, several local councils have decided to cut all discretionary funding for bus services, and some rural towns and villages have found themselves removed from the bus network completely.
This situation is completely unacceptable. Rural towns and villages do not exist in self-sustained isolation. As living, breathing communities they depend—like all communities and all people—on interconnection. Whether it is providing care for the elderly, bringing jobs into the local economy, building healthy, diverse and thriving communities, or combating the isolation and loneliness that can be endemic in hard-to-reach places, in such places connectivity is absolutely essential.
It is particularly important among the elderly. According to Age UK, 40% of people aged 60 or over use local bus services at least once a week, and around a quarter of these journeys are for medical appointments. When Age UK interviewed elderly residents of rural villages near Durham and Northampton, they found that cuts to rural bus services had severely inhibited their ability to socialise and participate in community life, limited their access to healthcare and left them significantly poorer owing to the higher costs of alternative forms of transport.
It is difficult to blame local authorities, however, because cuts to bus service provision are inevitable when local councils continue to see their budgets shrink. It is down to Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that local authorities have the resources they need to adequately support rural communities. One option would be for Her Majesty’s Government to commit to funding the statutory concessionary fares scheme in full. The LGA estimates that £764 million is spent each year by local authorities in fulfilling their statutory obligation to provide concessionary fares, with local councils having to divert money from discretionary bus service funding to make up a shortfall of around £200 million. Full central government funding for the scheme seems a perfectly reasonable suggestion that could free up resources for local authorities to invest in discretionary, but often essential, bus service support. I hope the Minister will assure me that his department will look at that carefully.
Of course, we also need to think about the long-term future of the bus network as well as the immediate needs. The Bus Services Bill makes significant changes to the way bus services are regulated, not least through the extension of franchising powers. While this is a welcome step change in the provision of bus services, it must be recognised that the extension of franchising is likely—at least at first—to be confined to predominantly urban areas that have developed a combined mayoral authority. Given the scale of the change involved, I understand the Government’s caution, but I hope that the Minister can indicate at least an aspiration to see franchising powers extended to authorities such as county councils before the end of this Parliament, where it could make a substantial difference to rural bus service provision.
As a side note, while on the subject of the Bus Services Bill, I take the opportunity to welcome the Government’s commitment to requiring audible and visual information on all buses. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that adequate financial assistance with the associated costs is provided to small and medium-sized bus companies, which often operate in rural areas. Given the reliance of disabled people in rural areas on bus services, it would be unacceptable if this commitment were later watered down and smaller bus companies were excused from this requirement.
Of course, it is always the case that in some remote areas commercial bus routes will remain unviable in the long term, no matter what support they receive from the local authority. Rural communities themselves need to be willing to think creatively to provide publicly accessible transport. Community transport schemes hold great potential if a joined-up approach can be found, and they offer real opportunities for third sector organisations, including the Church, to get involved in providing an essential local service. Indeed, I was pleased to learn just this week of a church in Harpenden, just up the road from where I live, which has acquired two 17-seater buses and several volunteer bus drivers. It is hoping to start a bus service in February connecting care homes with the wider community. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government continue to commit to projects like the community minibus fund and the Total Transport scheme so that we see this important sector grow and develop in new and innovative ways.
In a world of increasing connectivity, rural areas are facing a future of deepening disconnection. Her Majesty’s Government are taking steps in the right direction but local authorities still lack the financial resources they require to connect rural areas with the wider community. Without these resources, we will not be able to build flourishing, sustainable rural communities, and I urge the Government to commit to putting rural bus services on a long-term and sustainable footing.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on securing this very timely debate. It is a privilege to sit with him on the Rural Affairs Group of the General Synod under the excellent chairmanship of Bishop James Bell. It is just a point of regret to note that in the new year he will be retiring from that position. It was also an honour to chair the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in the other place for five years.
It gives me particular pleasure to congratulate and welcome my noble friend Lord Kirkhope to his place today. We very much look forward to hearing his maiden speech. I am sure that will be the first of many occasions on which we hear him contribute. We have both come a long way since we drove tanks with the British Army on the Rhine all those years ago, and I take this opportunity to wish him a very happy, fruitful and successful time in this House.
This debate on the sustainability of rural communities goes to the heart of the challenges that are faced by living in parts of rural North Yorkshire. It goes wider than transport alone; to have a sustainable rural economy and to enjoy living well in rural communities we must have access to fast, reliable broadband and mobile phone and internet networks. We must have a supply of affordable homes, good rural schools, regular and reliable bus services and a vibrant rural economy, which means access to banks and financial support for rural businesses through loans and grants. Certainly, banks are coming under increased pressure and in many cases have seen reduced opening hours in recent years.
I recognise that the cost of providing services in rural communities is higher than in urban areas. The costs of transporting children to schools and patients to hospitals, running police vehicles and other such things are much greater than in urban areas. I make a plea to my noble friend the Minister—whom I welcome to his place today—that we should recognise these additional costs and include a rurality and sparsity factor, as we have done increasingly in education funding.
I also make a special plea for rural bus services and concessionary fares. They play a big part in helping to combat isolation and loneliness among elderly people and indeed among young mums with children. They go to the heart of quality of life, which can be enhanced by subsidised bus services. The key to sustainable transport in rural areas is access to regular, reliable bus services for the very old, the very young and the most vulnerable. There is often no alternative—people may have no car or be too frail to drive. Bus services can enable these very vulnerable people to access vital services, such as schools, hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and dentists, and can ease the feelings of loneliness and isolation. For me, the game-changer would be one simple thing: to keep concessionary fares on rural bus services but allow those eligible to pay a contribution. Older people in North Yorkshire would willingly do so—in fact, they would be willing to pay up to half the cost of the fare. What would be the point of offering concessionary fares with no services to provide them?
My Lords, when we talk about sustainable rural communities, we are covering a very wide range of communities where how we define sustainability and the things we need to do to achieve it can be very different. Social, economic and technological changes are as inevitable in rural areas as they are in towns and cities, and harking back to what we used to have is likely to prove unfruitful.
I live in a very small village in Suffolk with a population of 275. Our facilities are a post box and the parish church with its associated church room. It is not just a place of worship; it is the focal point of our social life. The 1901 census showed that the village had a population of 229. Even then, we were not able to sustain a shop or a pub. Every employment listed was related to the local farms. Around 95% of the population were born in Suffolk, and most of them in the village. The incomers lived in the rectory.
The village is not much larger now but its inhabitants come from across the United Kingdom and from abroad. The range of occupations is wide, and the uniting factor is that we have all chosen to live in the village, notwithstanding its lack of facilities. We expect to have to travel. I do not know how long it is since we had a decent bus service. When my now husband first came to the village about a decade ago, he asked, “When is the next bus?”. “Thursday”, I told him, but we do not even have that now.
Of course, we need alternatives to the private car, and that gap is filled by neighbours, by local taxis and by a demand-responsive community transport system. However, as we have heard, councils have been forced to divert money from discretionary schemes such as community bus services in order to fund the statutory scheme, which increasingly is not available in rural areas. If you ask the residents in my village what they need to keep their community sustainable, they tell you that it is better broadband access.
Just down the lane is a village around eight times larger. It has a range of facilities, and sustainability there is rather different. The residents there want planning policies which preserve the space between them and the nearby town so that they keep their village identity. Having always had a good bus service, they want to keep it. People have chosen to live there because of the location and the services, and the bus service now being under threat is posing a major problem for those who rely on it.
I am afraid that “rural proofing” by government is a total myth. During the passage of the Bus Services Bill, the question of rural public transport was raised and the Minister referred to the statutory guidance. To his embarrassment, when it was published it contained two lines about rural buses. The Bill could have provided a really good opportunity to bring the benefits of area-wide franchising to rural areas—in effect permitting a cross-subsidy with more profitable routes—but, because the opportunity is limited to areas with elected mayors, places like mine are not likely to benefit.
Whole swathes of government policy are based on the assumption that accessibility is easy, when for those in rural areas it is not. Government should not assume that poverty and social inequality are something you find only in towns—they are real and harder to spot in rural villages because families are often very isolated. The Suffolk Community Foundation has done superb work on this in its Hidden Needs reports.
Sustainability is very much about diversity—of age, occupation, background and economic situation. Keeping that diversity, especially in very small communities, does not need dramatic government intervention, but it does need proper attention to the detail of legislation and policy to make sure that they are genuinely rural-proofed.
My Lords, I rise to address the House for the first time with a mixture of pride and trepidation. It is a pleasure to participate in this important, if short, debate, instigated by the right reverend Prelate. Let me say at the outset how grateful I am to my supporting Peers, my noble friends Lord Hunt of Wirral and Lord Freeman, not only for their kindness and good advice on many occasions in the past and on my introduction to the House, but for their exemplary public service. I must also thank the staff of the House for their immediate helpfulness and warmth of welcome. My attempts to recognise the names of all our doorkeepers are progressing well, with only the occasional error caused by their official photographs not always being completely up to date. I mentioned my pride in being here. That pride is shared by my wife and four sons, and I know also that my late parents would have felt the same. I certainly intend to make a full and positive contribution to the affairs of the House.
I have been active in politics for more than 50 years. I have served as a county councillor, a Member of Parliament and Minister in the other place, and then for 17 years in the European Parliament, including having the privilege of leading our MEPs there for six years. I am now honoured to have been elevated to your Lordships’ House on the recommendation of the former Prime Minister David Cameron, to whom I would like to pay a special tribute for all the good things he did for our country. In the aftermath of June, it is inevitable that he will not yet receive the credit he deserves for his premiership, but I am certain that in the fullness of time that should and will be remedied.
I grew up in an urban environment in Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was educated at the Royal Grammar School and was in a legal partnership, before taking my parliamentary seat in Leeds North East, another predominantly urban area. Only when I became MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, an area covering 6,000 square miles and with 5.2 million inhabitants, did I realise how important our rural communities and the rural economy are to our country. Needless to say, my elected service to the people of Yorkshire for nearly 30 years is something I will always cherish.
In this necessarily short contribution I want simply to emphasise the importance of rural agencies and organisations such as our parish and town councils, which do such an important job of co-ordinating community activity. I congratulate particularly those councillors who give so much of their time voluntarily; I have seen much evidence of that in my work in Yorkshire. But those organisations need re-innervating, with more encouragement and more acknowledgment.
Parish councils are of course responsible for bus shelters, but not sufficiently for planning the most suitable means of transporting people in their locality. The Rural Challenge report in 2010 made proposals that highlighted the need to use existing facilities, rather than merely funding new ones, including our community halls, churches and church buildings, postmen and women, market town partnerships and local businesses. Informing local people of bus services or alternative shared transport schemes, using IT where available and pressing for its availability where not, must be part of that agenda. The idea of having village agents to advise on needs and opportunities should be explored further. Establishing needs and meeting them brings communities together and reassures those who live in rural areas that they are as important as urban dwellers to government at all levels. Future transport plans must, in my view, reflect that balance.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on securing this debate. As he knows, I live not very far from St Albans and am delighted, therefore, that he is my local bishop. It gives me enormous pleasure to follow the maiden speech of my long-standing and noble friend Lord Kirkhope. His record of public and political service is second to none. His tenacity, coupled with his remarkable ability to prove doubters wrong, will be a great asset to your Lordships’ House. He was a highly regarded MP for Leeds North East and a Home Office Minister in John Major’s Government, and after losing his seat he bounced back and became a trusted and effective MEP for Yorkshire, including two shifts as leader. This time, after the people of Britain have decided to remove all our MEPs, once again he has bounced back to join us in your Lordships’ House, and we will all benefit as a result.
In my area of Hertsmere, next door to St Albans, the local MP, Oliver Dowden, has been working extremely hard to preserve transport services for the community and minimise local disruption as a result of the county council cutting subsidies. It is true that our area could at best be described as semi-rural, but it is also true that it is the so-called semi-rural areas on the outskirts of London that need good connectivity and transport links too. It is heartening that the Bus Services Bill, which has had its Third Reading in the House, provides powers that enable local transport authorities to work in partnership with transport providers to ensure that services reflect the needs of local people. However, in the case of Hertsmere, it is the responsibility of TfL to do more to support these links. Will my noble friend the Minister urge TfL to play its full role in this regard?
We are all aware of the great strengths of rural communities, and I am certain that the announcement made by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement to double the rural rate relief to 100% in 2017 will play an important part in ensuring that there are enhanced conditions for rural businesses to grow and prosper. The Federation of Small Businesses report of May 2016 entitled, Going the Extra Mile: Connecting Businesses and Rural Communities, concluded:
“Improving the quality of transport links will help small businesses to become more productive, increase employment and make even more of a contribution to the UK economy than they currently do”.
It is true, however, that transport connectivity can be unsatisfactory, as we have heard. Does the Minister agree with me that the £25 million community bus fund has been a great success, with the Government having provided almost 200 community transport operators with a free minibus, thus providing vital transport services in certain rural areas across the country? The scheme has indeed been successful, but will the Minister look at ways of expanding the community bus fund?
My Lords, I too thank the right reverend Prelate for introducing this debate. The first point I want to make is one I often make: rural areas do not exist in isolation; they exist as part of an area that includes their local market and small towns, and the two are very often closely interlinked. We hear an increasingly large amount about big cities and city regions, and people talk about the more sparsely populated rural areas. The area I live in, in east Lancashire, is typical of a great deal of England: it consists of a mixture of small and medium-sized towns and the villages and rural areas that surround them. The two are closely interlinked, not least in the case of bus services.
Very often, the bus services that serve the villages are actually town-to-town bus services, which would not exist if there was not the trade from the towns. One of those, which we fought hard to maintain in the spring of this year when Lancashire County Council was discussing proposals to stop all subsidies to bus services, which I think were about £8 million in total, is the 65 bus. It runs from Burnley through the small town of Padiham, through the Pendle villages of Higham and Fence, and then through to Barrowford and Nelson, which is another small or medium-sized town. It provides services round the back streets and estates of Burnley, and then goes into the countryside and provides essential services for these villages. I have to report that the county council—the Labour county council, I regret to say—for Burnley Central West, which covers part of that area in Burnley, wrote on Facebook, when we were campaigning to save this service:
“Yes, our Liberal Democrat partners did betray us in saving our most vulnerable elderly for the sake of a few bus routes. May they rot in hell forever”.
I think he was referring to the Liberal Democrats rather than the vulnerable elderly. I am pleased to say that we did save the service. Whether we will rot in hell for ever afterwards, I do not know. Perhaps I will need to take advice from the right reverend Prelate on rather more than bus services after this debate.
The right reverend Prelate and other speakers, including my noble friend Lady Scott, are right that the heart of this issue is not the question of rural services but of all services and the funding of local authorities. Most of the cuts in bus services, according to the Government’s statistics, have been in subsidised services. It will happen again in the budgets for Lancashire this year and next year. It is not possible for local authorities to continue to fund everything they do if their budgets are being cut by millions and millions of pounds. In Lancashire it is something like one-third of a billion over three or four years. If those cuts have to be imposed it will be impossible to maintain those services.
The basic message for the Government from this and many other debates is that local authorities have come to the end of the road of what they can subsidise and pay for that are not statutory services. There is no hope for subsidised services, whether or not the new Bus Services Bill comes through, unless the Government are prepared to fund local authorities in a more reasonable and practical way than they are proposing to do.
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for bringing this matter before the House.
We can take as read the importance of public transport to the carless in the countryside—the poor, the old, the young, the disabled, and so on. Without public transport they cannot access work, food, doctors, medicines, education, training, banks, lawyers, accountants, cash machines or just meetings with family and friends.
Equally, we are all aware that the deliverers of public and private services are cutting back the number of outlets they have in rural England. My local paper has just announced eight more bank closures; our local police station has just been closed; post offices are getting fewer; there is another wave of court closures coming; small rural health centres are threatened; jobcentres get fewer, as do small local pharmacies and so on. It is clear that the candle of rural life is being burnt away at both ends because, just as all these services are getting further removed from their rural customers, at the one end, so the provision of public transport is being diminished at the other.
I wish to make two points. The first is about rural-proofing and joined-up government. Any department or local authority cutting back on local services must rural-proof their policies. This means understanding the consequences for the carless, who I have described, who can no longer reach the services being “rationalised”.
The decision-makers in both central and local government must analyse what local public transport exists and ensure that the local transport authority is aware of the importance of the transport assumptions that they, the rationalisers, have made. Equally, the LTA, when examining its local transport grid and assessing its priorities for subsidy and support, must take account of the assumptions that have been made by the local health authority, the local courts and so on. I could even suggest that if one department or local service is saving money by closing a particular outlet, maybe it ought to contribute to keeping going the bus services to the surviving outlets on which it has, or at least should have, based its assumptions. Just because you are saving money, you have no right to thrust extra costs on to others, including the LTA. That is my main point.
My second point is an optimistic look into the future. In 15 or so years’ time, driverless cars will have changed the way we get around. For a start, regular bus routes could be served by cheap to run driverless mobility pods, as we will learn to call them, with automated mechanisms both in the vehicle and along the route. Then it is likely that fewer people will own a car. There will be a new agenda for motoring. Like an Uber taxi, one will order a cheap driverless car to turn up and take you wherever you want whenever you want. You will not have to park it. It will park itself, if it needs to. You will not be responsible for maintaining, licensing or insuring the vehicle.
The ramifications for the rural agenda here are enormous and the LTAs should soon start thinking about the sort of service they can offer and maybe even the fleet of cars they might need to own. I will say no more about that but leave it as food for thought.
I will end with a story of my time at the Countryside Agency. I was meeting a group of Yorkshire parish chairmen and somehow the conversation drifted to the problems of the disaffected rural youth who could not get into towns to join youth clubs, football clubs and so on because there was no evening bus service. Trying to bring a rather taciturn chairman into the conversation, I asked him when the last bus went from his parish to Harrogate. He looked at me blankly and after a moment he said, “1987, mate”. It rather killed the conversation.
Sadly, the direction of decline since then has done nothing to alleviate his concerns but, hopefully, automatic vehicles will offer a bright new future to the next generation of rural young.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for securing this important debate. We have heard some interesting contributions. I congratulate and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope of Harrrogate, and look forward to his future contributions.
I am extremely concerned, as are we all, about the impact on rural communities of the decline in subsidised bus services. Figures show that of those who use buses, 20% are full-time workers, 30% part-time workers and 50% students. A reduction in bus services would lead to fewer students being able to access education. Students in rural areas would be especially disadvantaged and the skills of the future workforce affected.
Transport by bus is critical to the economy of local communities, ensuring that people can get to or find employment and can spend their money with local businesses. In areas such as Cornwall, rural Lancashire and others, bus cuts have rendered people with low skills economically inactive. The frequency of buses in these areas is reduced to a point where it is unrealistic to rely on them as transport to and from work. Frequent bus use is most common among unskilled workers and, in general, 35% of commuters with no car use the bus to get to work, and 43% of these have no alternative transport.
If bus services in rural areas are reduced to the point of making them unfeasible, many families will be unable to live in or contribute to their communities. The effect on the job market is marked and decreases the likelihood of job/worker matches, making it harder for firms to employ skilled staff. The likelihood of an individual being able to find another job if they lose their current one is decreased, with a resultant increase in the risk of economic inactivity to individuals with no other form of transport. A survey undertaken by the University of Leeds shows a decrease in the likelihood of an individual being able to access a better job, with almost half of its sample who used a bus to commute to work saying they felt that a better bus service would give them access to a better job.
With 80% of local authorities, as we have heard, reducing school and college transport since 2010, there is also the impact on parents, who are dependent on school bus services in order to allow them sufficient time to participate in the labour market. Again this reduces options for students and increases social and economic isolation in rural areas, putting a greater burden on local authorities and housing associations.
As more and more bus routes are cut or reduced, fewer retirees and concessionary bus users, including people with disabilities, many of whom use the infrequent bus service, will be able to shop, visit the dentist, meet friends and so on, as will fewer families on lower incomes and families with student-age students. All of these groups are heavily reliant on buses for transport. These vital contributors to our communities will be forced out of rural areas. In a time when there is a major issue with finding affordable housing anywhere, the reduction of bus services can only contribute to the problem. A sustainable solution must be found.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to all the questions that have been raised today. I would particularly like to ask him: if all bus services are withdrawn from a rural area, how does the “no better off, no worse off” rule apply?
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for initiating the debate and for being a consistent champion of this important issue. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, and congratulate him on the experience and insight he brought to this debate and will no doubt bring to future debates.
This debate has gone to the heart of what makes a thriving, sustainable rural community. Clearly, issues such as jobs, economic investment, quality public services and a prosperous agricultural sector all have their part to play. For example, a snapshot of rural living shows that employment opportunities are all too often limited to low-skilled, low-paid, insecure work. Meanwhile, the farmers are having a tough time too. The dairy industry, for example, is caught in a perfect storm of global market saturation and declining milk prices. At the same time, price volatility is now a widespread hazard. Understandably, it makes farmers fearful for the future. In turn, that impacts on their confidence and investment in their locality. All this has an impact on sustainability, but as a number of noble Lords have pointed out, the decline in public services is particularly damaging. I am therefore grateful to the right reverend Prelate for highlighting the decline of rural bus services, which, we would contend, illustrates a wider lack of strategic thinking by the Government.
We had the opportunity to debate rural bus provision in some depth during your Lordships’ consideration of the recent Bus Services Bill, and successfully moved amendments to extend bus franchising. We also argued that the provision of these public services in rural areas should be looked at holistically, rather than purely on a cost-driven basis. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, pointed out, we should understand the full consequences of decisions made in a locality. We argued that those commissioning bus services should consider the economic, social and environmental benefits to the community, rather than focusing just on the lowest-cost option. We also argued that remote rural communities should be able to delay the cancellation of bus routes when they were a demonstrable lifeline for a local community. Sadly, our proposals fell on deaf ears, but we still contend that rural communities will be sustainable only if localities have greater influence and control over the factors that help them thrive.
We believe these principles should apply equally to other local services that can make a difference as to whether communities thrive or die. People are all too aware of the damage that can be done if a rural shop closes, but there can be equal damage if the village school closes as a consequence of the Government’s forced academies programme, or if a GP surgery closes as a result of a shortage of new GPs, or if the failure to invest in affordable homes and tackling social housing waiting lists means that young families are priced out of the locality. This is why we need to use our full planning and fiscal strategies to consider the needs of communities as a whole, rather than on a piecemeal basis. This is what our party is committed to do.
Finally, the Brexit decision adds new uncertainties about future subsidies, markets and labour availability in rural areas, which could bring further detriment to fragile rural communities. I hope the Minister is able to reassure us that action is being taken to address these challenges for the future.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for raising this important issue. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate on his excellent maiden speech. I think all your Lordships much appreciate his decision to make it during a rural debate. I declare my rural interests as set out in the register.
Rural areas are home to one-fifth of England’s population. They are the source of much of the food we eat, the water we drink, the landscapes we enjoy and the biodiversity we all cherish. This is why well-connected and well-served rural communities are essential, not just for local economies, but for the nation’s prosperity and well-being. Sustainable communities are safe, inclusive places where people want to live and work, and where they act together to provide the facilities they need. They offer quality of life and opportunity, both now and in future. Indeed, the attraction of rural England is evident from the number of people moving from urban areas to the countryside—around 60,000 a year. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about interconnection of all parts of the country. It is a very bad idea to be spinning in one’s own orbit.
Rural communities in England already make a strong contribution to our economy. They employ 3.8 million people and contribute more than £200 billion to the GDP. A quarter of our businesses are based in rural areas and 85% of rural employees work in SMEs. The announcement in the Autumn Statement to double the rural rate relief to 100% in April next year will give a much-needed boost to businesses in the country.
The sustainability of our rural communities also derives from the fact that they are cohesive hubs. They draw social and cultural sustenance from shared values, community spirit, volunteers and institutions such as parish councils, village halls, schools, shops, post offices and churches. Only last weekend I attended two community events: the monthly community cinema in Eye and, the next day, the Wickham Skeith November fair—all, as is usual in the countryside, run by volunteers.
As Rural Affairs Minister, I am committed to doing everything I can to help rural communities flourish and enhance their distinctive character and quality of life. Our rural productivity plan last year set out some clear steps to help rural areas achieve their potential. We want to ensure we improve the sustainability of our rural communities even further. We are doing this in a number of ways.
Like my noble friend Lady McIntosh, I well understand the importance of broadband and mobile connections for rural users. Indeed, I am sure that I and many of your Lordships share some of the frustrations many country dwellers feel. Everyone can now access basic broadband speeds of 2 megabits per second—fast enough for online access to every government service. Around 92% of UK premises have access to superfast broadband and we are on track to reach 95% by 2017. We are also working on the introduction of a broadband universal service obligation by 2020, at a minimum speed of 10 megabits per second. A broadband universal service obligation aims to provide a safety net for those without access to superfast broadband. Indeed, the industry has guaranteed to extend mobile phone 2G coverage, allowing access to basic voice and text messages, to 90% of the UK landmass by 2017. But we know we need to do much more, and as a member of the digital implementation task force I can assure your Lordships that I am continually making the case for improved rural connectivity.
Increasing rural housing stock enables villages to thrive and, I hope, become increasingly prosperous. New, well-designed and affordable homes for families, young people and rural workers help ensure that village services such as schools and shops can continue, and support sustainable rural communities. Indeed, the rural housing scheme I facilitated many years ago at Kimble was driven by the parish council, so I was very interested in what my noble friend Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate had to say on the matter.
I encourage local communities to take the initiative to secure the future of their own villages through sensitive development. One way to do this is through making more use of neighbourhood plans in rural areas, which enable communities to have a proper say in where new homes are built and to see the benefits of development. I am working closely with DCLG, and as a member of the housing implementation task force, to ensure that housing policy delivers for rural communities.
The Government recognise the importance of public transport for the sustainability and independence of communities. We know how important affordable, accessible transport is for people and fully recognise the extra pressures placed on local authorities throughout the country to provide such services, particularly in more remote areas. The Government also believe that local authorities are best placed to decide what support to provide in response to the needs of local communities. A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Polak, referred to the Bus Services Bill, which had its Third Reading yesterday. The Bill provides powers that enable local transport authorities to work in partnership with transport providers to ensure that services reflect the needs of local people.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, was absolutely right that the needs of local people must come as a priority in looking at what solutions we can bring. The nature of rural areas means that we also need to work across Whitehall to develop innovative solutions to address rural connectivity—I was very struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, had to say on those challenges. I have discussed many of them with my own officials and colleagues in the Department for Transport.
My noble friend Lord Polak and the right reverend Prelate referred to the community minibus fund. The Government have provided almost 200 community transport operators with a free minibus, funded through the £25 million community minibus fund. These provide vital transport services in rural areas across the country. To answer a question about what more we are doing in this regard, I can say that a second round was announced earlier this year. All the feedback that I am receiving tells me that such minibuses are making a big difference. I assure your Lordships that I discuss this matter with my ministerial colleagues because I think that it is a very sound way forward.
Total Transport is also finding ways to commission public sector-funded transport more effectively so that passengers receive a better service with less duplication. My notes contain a list of local authorities that are receiving funds, including Somerset and Cornwall. Although I do not have time to go through all the figures, I think that local authorities in almost every area represented by the speakers in today’s debate are receiving funds via Total Transport, which I hope will be helpful.
I understand the points made about concessionary travel. The Government provide almost £1 billion of funding for concessionary bus passes ever year and remain committed to the current scheme. In addition, £250 million was paid this year to support bus services in England via the bus services operators grant. Nearly £89 million was paid through the green bus fund, improving the environmental performance of buses. Some £30 million of funding was provided for low-emission buses and associated infrastructure, and a further £150 million for low-emission buses and taxis was announced in this week’s Autumn Statement. More than £200 million was provided through the local growth fund for 15 bus schemes, including new bus stations, rapid transport schemes and bus priority corridors. So considerable funds are going into bus services, but I have taken on board the points that have been made.
On concessionary travel, bus operators are reimbursed on the basis that they are no better or worse off for carrying concessionary pass-holders. The Government issue guidance to help local authorities administer the concession consistent with this principle, but I will take back to colleagues in both departments the points that have been made on the matter today.
I noted what the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said about autonomous vehicles—I have not got my head around them, but they are a coming thing, I am sure. I am pleased to say that the department and others are far more advanced than me and we will engage with local transport authorities as we continue to develop our overall regulatory framework for such vehicles,
My honourable friend Thérèse Coffey, Minister for Environment and Rural Life Opportunities, is working with other departments to improve access to childcare, education, healthcare and skills—mentioned by a number of your Lordships—in rural areas. I hope that the Government’s plan to offer 30 hours of free childcare to eligible parents of three and four year-olds demonstrates in part our commitment. The Government are also consulting on the access criteria for post offices to ensure that they continue to provide vital postal and banking services to rural communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has championed the cause of rural proofing for as long as I can remember. I think that it is fair to say that, in another life, I was working with him, so, naturally, I endorse his cause. As an example of rural proofing in action, your Lordships may have noticed that the Northern Powerhouse Strategy, published only yesterday, sets out clearly:
“The government will continue to work with the region to create growth and improve life chances for residents across the whole area, ensuring we have the right conditions for rural communities and businesses to thrive”.
It is vital in the national interest and for future generations that rural England is in good heart. Rural communities offer so much. Our two 25-year plans for food and farming and the natural environment will demonstrate our commitment to future prosperity. Rural communities have an innate resilience and ability to build on their strengths. I have noted all that has been said today—we could have had a very much longer debate and I hope that there will other opportunities. I am conscious of the challenges facing the countryside, but I look forward to helping those who live in it achieve the undoubted potential of rural areas. For future generations, all our efforts should be concentrated on that purpose.