Queen’s Speech: Bishop of St Albans speaks about rural affairs and levelling up

On 11th May 2022, the House of Lords debated the Queen’s Speech. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I declare my interests as president of the Rural Coalition and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I, too, welcome Her Majesty’s Speech and the Government’s commitment to implementing the levelling- up agenda; although, as other noble Lords have, I note the Secretary of State’s comments about the difficulties of levelling up in a period of high inflation.

The scope of the Government’s 12 levelling-up missions is ambitious, but they now need to be accompanied by a determination to deliver them, which will be costly. Cautious as the Government may be about fulfilling these mission statements, expectations are high among those in left-behind communities, even if, to date, some of the most deprived areas are still not receiving the funding that they had hoped for and expected. The BBC programme has been referenced by others; it was telling when we looked at how the money has so far been allocated.

To strike a more positive note, the initial content that we know will feature in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill with respect to local high streets and empty retail units is welcome. However, notably absent from the White Paper was any mention of delivering prosperity or growth to rural communities, which is what I want to concentrate on for the rest of my speech.

The shared prosperity fund certainly has great potential to help to level up rural Britain by investing in local communities. However, money alone will not close the 18% productivity gap that currently exists between urban and rural locations or achieve the mission statements of the levelling-up agenda. I am thinking particularly of mission 1, to close the productivity gap; mission 2, to increase research and development; and mission 5. There is also a lack of any talk about buses, which are absolutely fundamental in rural areas—anyone working in a rural area knows that they are vital. A comprehensive rural strategy is absolutely essential.

I was pleased by the announcement that legislation will be brought forward to encourage the domestic agricultural and scientific innovation required to unlock the future of sustainable and efficient farming. In my opinion, this has the real potential to revitalise the rural economy and promote our rural localities as scientific hubs at the cutting edge of agricultural experimentation. We have so much to be proud of in this country. We are right at the forefront of some of the most exciting agricultural initiatives, and we do not do enough to showcase these around the world.

However, to turn this ambition into reality, alongside the wider mission statements of the levelling-up programme the Government will have to reverse the brain drain affecting rural areas. If rural localities are to attract the talent required to close the productivity gap and turn themselves into scientific hubs, questions of affordability and connectivity will have to be tackled. Despite rural wages lagging behind their urban counter- parts, England is the only OECD country where it is more expensive to live in a rural area.

Poor digital connectivity is an important factor in deciding where people locate and a major impediment to businesses and individuals thriving in our 21st-century rural economy. The fact that the gigabit digital rollout will cover only 85% of the country by 2025 could be a stumbling block to closing that £43 billion productivity gap. Hopefully, the desire on the Government’s part to meet their own levelling-up missions will spur them on to expedite the rollout for the remaining 15% by 2030 at a minimum, but hopefully long before.

Rural communities need tailored policies to build more affordable houses that chime with their needs, values and design, along with the creation of well-linked business hubs. I commend to your Lordships’ House the recent report by the APPG for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse on levelling up the rural economy in achieving the twin pillars of connectivity and affordability needed to facilitate a thriving business and innovation environment.

The Government’s priorities to strengthen the economy and ease the cost of living for families are the right ones at the right time, but we need them to be bedded into the rural as well as the urban.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Cameron of Dillington (CB): Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, I want to talk about the levelling up of rural England, its economy and its communities. In many ways, I am firing his second barrel for him, but I assure noble Lords that there was no collusion between us. It has long been a bone of contention that urban local authorities get 48% more central government support per head than their rural counterparts. That is quite a large percentage, and it means that rural council tax payers pay an average of 17% more than their urban cousins.

In health too there are inequalities. The most expensive age cohort to treat medically is from 65 to death, and while in urban England some 16% of the population is over 65, in rural England it is 24% as people like to retire to the countryside. In Devon, a very attractive place to retire to, the figure is 26%. So why is it that health funding in the county of Devon, for example, is 40% per head less than the national average and nearly 80% lower than in London?

These are old saws which I have mentioned before in this House, and I will not dwell on them. I want to talk about opportunities in the countryside that the Government can help us with at fairly minimal cost. As the right reverend Prelate mentioned, two weeks ago, our APPG for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse launched a report on levelling up the rural economy to enable us countryfolk to better help ourselves, and the nation, by growing our rural economy, something that must be absolutely relevant to the under- lying message inherent in the Queen’s Speech.

Lord Mountevans (CB): I very much look forward to studying the detail of the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill. As an island nation, the coastal communities are a vital gateway; 95% of goods entering or leaving the UK go by sea, 50% of our food arrives by sea, and eight out of 10 cars exported do so by sea. But people and communities around our coasts can often suffer the highest levels of economic and social hardship. As we know, seaside towns can present a sad aspect, particularly out of season. Many of the challenges of the rural economy that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, mentioned also apply to the coastal economy.

Specifically on the coastal economy, most existing government funding for these communities has focused on heritage, recreational and arts projects. Only four of the 44 projects announced in the latest round of the coastal revival fund in 2018-19 could be described as business. That investment is of course valuable, but it does not unlock or engage with stimulating business investment.

There is a need for co-ordinated and concerted action. Coastal communities are uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the UK’s net-zero transition. There is, for example, huge potential for government and private investment to co-invest to bring electricity to ports so that ships can use shore power, thereby avoiding emissions; we are seeing this elsewhere in the world. We need to apply green technologies as they develop. Development of offshore green energy has had a major impact on areas such as the Humber and East Anglia, but new industries such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage, as well as offshore floating wind, are also areas of great potential for some coastal communities.

Lord Inglewood (Non-Afl): As has already been said, business needs confidence, certainty and encouragement. Often populism does precisely the opposite. It is open to the Government to help or hinder in these respects, and I am afraid I do not think their track record is as strong as it should have been. As has already been said, the Government have to ensure appropriate infrastructure, not least in the context of digital connectivity which is seen—as pointed out by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans—as an absolute sine qua non, especially in parts of the country which are hard to reach.

Lord Carrington (CB): My Lords, this has been a most wide-ranging and interesting debate, and it is a great pleasure to follow so many knowledgeable people, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner as set out in the register. I too welcome the intention to bring forward legislation to assist in the levelling-up agenda, which was clearly signalled in the February White Paper. However, as we heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, there was precious little in the paper on the challenges and opportunities faced by rural areas; it had a distinctly urban focus.

I am proud to have been a member of the APPG on Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse, which, as mentioned by its co-chair, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, released a report in April entitled Levelling up the Rural Economy: An Inquiry into Rural Productivity. I shall briefly concentrate on just a few of the issues raised, and look forward to a response from the Minister on how the Government see those challenges and their likely solution.

First, there are the perceived drawbacks of a planning system that is under-resourced and fails to consider the need for economic growth in rural areas. In particular, there is the need to recognise the importance of affordable housing in smaller local communities, rather than concentrating on larger developments. Employment and housing are essential for a thriving local community, or the young, who cannot afford expensive and often unsuitable existing housing, will move away and local businesses will suffer. The National Planning Policy Framework excludes small housing developments in the countryside, affordable or not, and sites of redundant farm buildings do not meet the definition of brownfield sites, which means that farmers and other rural businesses are unnecessarily constrained in their attempts to diversify into other activities. This is extraordinary when, following the steady reduction of the basic payment to farmers and the introduction of ELM schemes, which are not designed to compensate for the lost basic payment, the farmer is being encouraged to diversify. Depending on his diversification, how can he achieve that if he cannot convert his farm buildings if suitable? This indicates the need to redefine permitted development rights. To increase the efficiency of the planning process, the APPG report calls for a training budget specifically for planning officers on rural issues, with additional officers.

Baroness Pinnock(CB): My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a member of Kirklees Council. This has been a wide-ranging and thoughtful debate on the gracious Speech. However, some themes are emerging in contributions from across the House. One of these is the lack of ambition from the Government, despite their considerable majority in the other place. There is also a shared concern that the enormous challenges facing our country are being largely ignored. For instance, on an effective response to the challenges of climate change, to include actions to be taken by local government, there is nothing. Action to address the cost-of-living crisis that is hitting hardest those who are only just managing is absent. A targeted approach to meet the specific needs of people in rural communities—as described by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans—who are finding crucial services withdrawn is absent. It leads me to think that the plan that the Government have laid out in the gracious Speech that seeks to improve the lot of our communities, and transport and housing, appears to be lacking a strategic framework. If there is one, I hope that the Minister will be able to spell it out for us.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab): A number of noble Lords talked about rural communities. I live in a rural community myself, and I think this is something the Government need to consider more carefully. Transport is particularly important for levelling up, and it is hugely important that there is investment in rural transport, particularly bus services. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans talked about the need for a comprehensive rural strategy that should absolutely be part of the levelling-up agenda. As he said, the rural economy is 18% less productive than the national average. Not many parts of our rural areas have good 4G coverage—we certainly do not have any where I live—and many have poor or non-existent mobile phone coverage, although, having said that, sometimes that can be a bit of an advantage. But, overall, this has a negative impact on rural businesses being able to compete in wider markets, and this is something that needs to be seriously addressed when we are looking at the levelling up of those communities.

Lord Greenhalgh (Con, Minister of State – Home Office and Department for Levelling Up): There was a group of contributions—from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lords, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Carrington—about what the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will do for rural communities. We are rolling over the local government finance settlement from last year, including the rural services delivery grant of some £85 million. To respond to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, we are making sure that planning officers in rural areas have the requisite skills to develop the right planning policies for their areas.

On permitted development rights, we have introduced a range of PDRs to enable farmers to change agricultural buildings for commercial or residential use. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, we have seen 212,000 affordable homes provided in rural authorities in England between April 2010 and March 2021.

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