Bishop of St Albans on the importance of affordable housing, broadband and innovation to the rural economy

Bishop St Albans June 2015On the 27th April 2016, Baroness McItosh of Pickering led a Lords debate “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the state of the rural economy.” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith,  highlighted the need for more affordable housing, business innovation and greater access to broadband and mobile coverage

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, my thanks go to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for securing the debate. I will focus on three areas that I believe are crucial to creating a strong, dynamic rural economy.

First, I underline the importance of affordable housing in creating sustainable rural communities at a time when rural house prices continue to be pushed well beyond the reach of many local residents. A failure to provide for local people and local families to live and work in rural areas leaves the rural economy seriously inhibited. An affordable housing supply, available to local workers on low and middle incomes, is an essential feature of the rural economy, providing homes, and, in many cases, workplaces for those who would work in rural areas. I wonder, therefore, whether the Minister could outline how his department intends to work with DCLG to unlock the affordable homes that are so desperately needed, particularly given plans to exclude smaller developments, which form the bulk of rural development, from starter home and affordable housing requirements.

The second area is one already alluded to by other noble Lords: broadband and mobile connectivity. According to the CLA, nearly 50% of rural premises cannot receive broadband higher than 10 megabytes per second, while only 31% of people living in rural areas can expect to get “all networks” coverage indoors. The Government’s commitment to a universal service obligation on broadband is welcome. Progress is being made, but I hope that similar promises will eventually be made on mobile coverage.

If the aim on broadband is to be achieved, however, investment in innovation is essential. I highlight the excellent example of WiSpire in the diocese of Norwich, which uses church spires in rural villages to transmit and receive broadband. We need lots of creativity about what we can do, yet the problem is that WiSpire is finding it very difficult to access funding and investment. That could make a significant difference. With that in mind, will the Minister tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government have plans to make matched funding and investment for broadband projects more widely available?

Finally, I want to talk about fostering a spirit of innovation. Across rural communities are many thousands of microbusinesses, often operating out of kitchens and on small premises that form a vital cornerstone of the rural economy and provide opportunities of diversification to more established industries, such as agriculture.

As technology changes and sectors like the “sharing economy” develop—the rise of Airbnb is a good example—we need to ensure that rural communities are well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. Housing and connectivity are part of this, but it also requires that would-be entrepreneurs have access to the right advice, training and support. I draw Peers’ attention to the Germinate Enterprise course, which has been released by my colleagues in the Arthur Rank Centre and will be run though churches and community organisations. Can the Minister tell us what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to encourage entrepreneurs and business start-ups in rural areas?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con) [extract]:

..A number of your Lordships, my noble friend Lord Arran in particular, referred to the broadband universal service obligation. We and Ofcom are consulting on the introduction of that USO so that we have it in place for everyone by 2020. A broadband USO aims to provide a safety net for those without access to superfast broadband. Our ambition is to set the USO at 10 megabits per second. I am conscious—I declare an interest as I await a better service in my part of rural Suffolk—that we need to extend the mobile phone 2G coverage, allowing access to basic voice and text services to 90% of the UK land mass by 2017. I was reminded by what the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lady Redfern said of the use of church spires. The department entirely recognises the appropriateness of using church buildings; it wishes to use them and I hope that we might have a discussion. It might be a topic for one of the rural bishops’ meetings that we have in Defra. That would be extremely helpful….

….A number of your Lordships raised the issue of rural housing, and I was very conscious of my noble friend Lady Redfern, who is such a great champion of North Lincolnshire. We are committed to increasing the availability of housing in rural areas, allowing rural towns and villages to thrive, while promoting the greenbelt and the countryside. I can express my personal commitment to this. I should perhaps declare that I facilitated a rural housing scheme on the farm at Kimble. I am very much committed to this as a way in which we can assist villages to prosper so that the school roll remains vibrant and the hubs in the village community can continue. Thousands of families will also benefit from the 30 hours of free childcare that will be rolled out from September this year. Three of the eight early-adopter local authorities are in rural areas.