Bishop of St Albans leads House of Lords debate on sustainability of rural communities

On 16th July 2015 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt revd Alan Smith, led Peers in a question for short debate “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.” His speech opening the debate is below. The full debate can be read here.

Rural Communities

Question for Short Debate

Bishop St Albans June 2015The Lord Bishop of St Albans: 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?