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Rural Poverty

Volume 815: debated on Monday 25 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report by the Rural Services Network Towards the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, published in June, what plans they have accurately to reflect in-work rural poverty in future funding allocation mechanisms.

The UK shared prosperity fund will help us to level up and create opportunity across the United Kingdom in the places most in need and for people who face labour market barriers. The Government are working closely with local areas, including rural communities, to assess how the UK shared prosperity fund can best target places in need.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Recent research by CPRE suggested that just 40% of young people living in rural areas expected to remain there in the next five years. They cited affordable housing, connectivity, rural transport and rural employment as the factors driving them out. If Her Majesty’s Government are to deliver on the levelling-up agenda between urban, rural and suburban, is it not time for them to deliver on the rural strategy promised in the response to the Select Committee report Time for a Strategy for the Rural Economy?

My Lords, the Government are committed to addressing the issues that the right reverend Prelate raises. For instance, the levelling-up fund of some £4.8 billion will focus specifically on the issues around transport connectivity, regeneration and ensuring that we see economic recovery, whereas the shared prosperity fund will deal with the issues around unemployment, skills, productivity and other labour market barriers.

My Lords, we hear on a daily basis about the impact of the rising cost of living but not so often about the very real problem of rural poverty. Levels of poverty in rural communities are worsened by the high cost of living that people in these areas are often faced with. Last year the Guardian reported that people in isolated rural areas spent an average of £71 a week on food compared with £61 a week in cities, and I am sure those figures have worsened. Could the Minister please inform us what assessment the Government have made of the impact of the increasing cost of living on people in rural towns, villages and hamlets, especially with the added increase in the cost of fuel?

My Lords, we recognise the impact of the escalating cost of living, but we have set out a very clear plan around how to tackle that in both rural and urban areas. More details around how the money will be spent will be given in the forthcoming spending review announcement later this week.

My Lords, the report referred to by the right reverend Prelate does not accurately reflect the impact on young people of living in a rural area. While in full-time education they have their friends around them, but at the weekends and in school holidays the picture is different. Those living in low-income families may not have access to a car, and there is no bus service that goes anywhere near them. Why are young people not a major consideration in the Government’s levelling-up agenda?

I do not recognise that young people are being missed out of the levelling-up agenda. We have to recognise that, in terms of capital investment in infrastructure including transport, this is the largest commitment that we have seen for a considerable period of time. Specifically, the levelling-up fund will look at improving transport connectivity as part of the way that the fund has been designed.

Will my noble friend join me in congratulating the North Yorkshire Rural Commission on its excellent work? Will he and the Government address the issue of those aspects of rural poverty for those in work on zero-hours contracts who are struggling to make ends meet and have to rely on food banks to eat and on benefits to heat their homes?

I thank my noble friend for her insight into the local challenges faced by rural areas. That is very helpful as we consider our approach to targeting the upcoming UK shared prosperity fund. That fund will help to level up and create opportunity right across the United Kingdom in places most in need and for people who face labour market barriers. We will set out more detail, as I have mentioned before, in the upcoming spending review.

My Lords, I refer the House to my interests as set out in the register. First, has the Minister actually read the report referred to in the Question? Secondly, addressing in-work poverty is a subject that should concern us all. Taking that point, does the Minister accept that more rural locations have had their needs obscured and been disadvantaged by recent funding rounds, and would benefit from a fairer distribution of national funds?

I have to declare to the noble Lord that we have a phenomenal army of policy officials who have dissected the guts out of that report. I am happy to acknowledge that I have read a summary from my officials rather than the report itself.

I would point out that of the two funds that we have been talking about, the UK shared prosperity fund, which has been piloted through the community renewal fund, targets rural areas in design—to the extent that 29% of those have a higher index of local resilience and are therefore being focused on and being captured, compared with a lower percentage of 22% for urban areas—so we are seeing a great focus on dealing with rural poverty, while of course the levelling-up fund is designed with the different outcomes in mind.

My Lords, what are the Government planning to do to increase the extent and pace of the rollout of broadband and 5G to rural areas, and in terms of its reliability and capacity once the service is in? Does my noble friend agree that connectivity is critical for rural areas’ economic, social, psychological and community well-being?

I thank my noble friend for raising the important issue of digital connectivity. The Government have made it a priority to address nationwide gigabit connectivity as soon as possible. We are working with the industry to target a minimum of 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025 and to get to as close to 100% as possible. The Government’s £5 billion Project Gigabit is supporting the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband in hard-to-reach uncommercial areas. Obviously, more details may be outlined in the spending review.