Bishop of St Albans asks Government about rural economy

On 26th November 2020 the Bishop of St Albans asked a question he had tabled to Government on tabled a question he had asked about the rural economy. The exchange is below, with the further questions asked by other Members:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to their response to the report by the Select Committee on the Rural Economy Time for a strategy for the rural economy (HL Paper 330, Session 2017-19), what progress they have made towards their strategic vision for rural communities.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I draw attention to my interest in the register as president of the Rural Coalition.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con):  My Lords, our vision remains that rural communities should prosper, benefiting from the full range of government policies designed to level up opportunity and take the country forward. Defra will shortly publish the first annual rural proofing report on how the needs of rural areas are being addressed across all domestic departments.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I thank the Minister for that reply. The Government’s commitment to rural communities is welcome and, I am sure, forms a major part of strategies such as the UK shared prosperity fund, the Covid-related green recovery fund and the levelling-up agenda.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England noted the lack of funding for rural areas in the comprehensive spending review. What actual evidence do Her Majesty’s Government have that the rural proofing promised in their response is making a real and significant difference? Could the Minister give us some specific examples? If not, could he write to me with those examples?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, I think the best thing here is that I will be able—very soon, I hope—to furnish the House with the first rural proofing report. Following this House’s Select Committee report work has been under way on the formation of a rural affairs board, and indeed, because of Covid, the Rural Impacts Stakeholders Forum, of which the CPRE is a member.

Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen (Con): My Lords, as we know, one size does not fit all when it comes to our rural communities; Norfolk’s needs are not the same as Cumbria’s. I ask my noble friend to ensure that the Government take note of local data gathered together by community agencies when they come to think of their infrastructure and other policies that they want to make for these already very fragile communities.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My noble friend is right. Rural areas can be very different from each other, and we believe that local people are often best placed to judge what is right for their communities. For instance, the Government provide grants of up to £18,000 to groups that wish to pursue a neighbourhood plan. Defra itself provides funding to the 38 rural community councils across England.

Lord Berkeley of Knighton (CB) [V]: My Lords, I declare my interests as listed in the register. I am sure the Minister will agree that one of the greatest problems in rural communities is employment. Therefore, with the Government moving towards more environmentally friendly support for agriculture, might there not be possibilities to employ more people—for example, to do things that are labour intensive, such as planting trees? Secondly, transport is essential for farm workers. Have the Government thought about how the move to electronic vehicles might impinge on the ability of farm workers, who are on very low salaries, to buy these cars?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, on the transport issue, on Tuesday the Department for Transport launched a call for evidence to shape a future rural transport strategy. I shall take back to the department what the noble Lord said. On the economy, everything that we have been doing, not only through the Covid crisis but throughout, is to ensure that there are vibrant opportunities and indeed many small and medium-sized enterprises in the countryside, which we wish to support.

Baroness Pitkeathley (Lab) [V]: My Lords, today is Carers Rights Day. The latest research shows that carers have had to take on huge extra responsibilities during the pandemic. Their needs may be particularly acute in rural areas as many voluntary and community services have simply disappeared. Does the Minister agree that any rural policy must make support for community and voluntary services that support carers and those they care for an absolute priority?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, I absolutely endorse that the work of carers throughout our community has been absolutely profound during this crisis. The Department of Health and Social Care is working on addressing the main health and care inequalities—particularly, in this case, as experienced by people in rural areas—and continuing to ensure that a higher share of funding goes to geographies with high health inequalities.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD) [V]: My Lords, the County Councils Network has recently conducted work on the effect of Covid on the decline of the rural bus network. The Government are committed to a rural bus strategy, but will the Minister give assurance that consideration will be given to providing a range of passenger transport services to provide positive benefits to residents in rural areas?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, the Government have provided £220 million of new funding to support a better deal for bus users. This includes £20 million for the rural mobility fund to trial new on-demand services and to improve existing services in rural and suburban areas.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab): Askham Bryan College has stated its intention to close the Newton Rigg agricultural college in Cumbria, saying that students may wish to explore options at other colleges regionally. However, Cumbria’s young people need to learn how to farm in Cumbria, where its unique landscape brings unique challenges. Can the Minister clarify that the Government support the ongoing needs of agricultural and rural industries in Cumbria through the vital and sustainable future of Newton Rigg College?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): I assure the noble Baroness that that is hugely important. We agree that attracting bright new talent into agricultural and horticultural careers and having a skilled workforce in place are vital for the future of UK food and farming. My understanding on Newton Rigg agricultural college is that the Department for Education is looking at the matter very closely.

Baroness Redfern (Con) [V]: My Lords, rural economies have untapped potential as well as challenges. From living in a rural environment, I understand how important our rural economy and personal well-being is. However, there are concerns in particular about action on surface water flood risk to homes and businesses. How are the Government enforcing their drive to bring together all partners to improve the management assessment of surface water flood risk to make our rural places, infrastructure and growth more resilient to our future climate?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, the Government will double the amount we invest in the flood and coastal defence programme in England to £5.2 billion over six years from 2021. This will help to protect a further 336,000 properties, including 290,000 homes.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB) [V]: My Lords, my interests are as recorded in the register. Yesterday the Chancellor reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the long-awaited shared prosperity fund, which the right reverend Prelate mentioned. Can the Minister confirm that there will be a committed element of the fund dedicated to the rural economy, as recommended in the report Time for a Strategy for the Rural Economy?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, I confirm that the UK shared prosperity fund will take into account the specific needs of rural communities and will help to support investment in rural infrastructure as well as rural businesses.

Baroness Mallalieu (Lab) [V]: I declare my interests as stated in the register. With increasing numbers of people wanting to both live and work in the countryside, what steps are Her Majesty’s Government proposing to take to ensure that rural areas are not left behind in the rollout of 5G as they were with broadband?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): That is absolutely why we are investing and working with the £5 billion programme to support the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband, as well as the joint investment of over £1 billion in the shared rural network on mobile, both of which are extremely important. It is the case that 5G is a continuing challenge for the hard-to-reach areas, and that is what we want to work on in particular.

Lord Foster of Bath (LD): My Lords, given the Minister’s very clear promise to the committee that I had the privilege to chair that there would be robust rural proofing of all government policies, how does he explain the clear absence of rural proofing in the Government’s recent proposals on changes to the current planning system, which will have a devastating and disproportionate effect on the provision of affordable homes across rural England?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, affordable homes are clearly important, including in rural communities. Two consultations are going on at the moment—on changes to the current planning system and planning for the future. We in Defra will work closely with our MHCLG colleagues on the matter.

The Earl of Caithness (Con): My Lords, in their reply to the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, the Government said:

“The Minister for Rural Affairs … is specifically charged with ensuring that the needs of rural areas are taken into account across all government business.

How many meetings has the Minister had with fellow Ministers, and what further meetings does he propose to have to combat the sort of unintended problems that the noble Lord, Lord Foster, has just mentioned?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): I have many meetings; I have had meetings on digital, on crime and on a range of other issues. As I mentioned, as part of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we formed a rural impact stakeholder forum comprising many of the key stakeholders we work with, so that we could we in Defra could respond to other Whitehall departments about the specific dynamic of difficulties—for instance, with the pandemic—in rural areas. I continue to work on that. The stakeholder forum was meeting weekly; it now meets fortnightly. That work, as well as the work of the rural affairs board, is very important.