Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



Mr Martlew

  80. The Cumbria situation and foot and mouth and Lord Haskins' report. You seem to indicate from your statements, and I do not disagree with you, that you think by next year recovery will be starting to take place.
  (Mr Cameron) I hope.

  81. In some of the evidence you submitted to the Haskins Inquiry you said there were now 1,500 jobs at risks. Being a Cumbrian MP, I realised that every month since foot and mouth broke out in the county unemployment has reduced throughout the county and is now 1,500 less than when we first got foot and mouth disease. Where did you get the 19,500 figure from at risk and why has the problem which everybody was saying was going to come out and devastate the rural economy not happened with jobs? I realise there were people who were under employed, especially in the tourist industry, but why have we had the hype about Cumbria being in meltdown and yet unemployment has reduced by 1,500? Have you any understanding of that?
  (Mr Cameron) The 19,500 was in the Haskins' Report?

  82. I think it was evidence from yourself?
  (Mr Cameron) If it was evidence—

  83. I think you got it from an IVA document, to be honest.
  (Mr Wakeford) I am not sure I should speculate but I will because one of the things that has happened in Cumbria is, of course, the compensation payments that have been made to farmers have brought some cash into the community. There has also been a very thorough farm clean-up operation going on. In terms of the tourism industry much of the peak in some of the hotels is taken up by people who are coming in from other countries and certainly other parts of the country to take on a summer job. We do need a good understanding of that. Not only in Cumbria but in other parts of the countryside, the rural economy took a real dip in the spring. We know that because of the lack of visitors, especially visitors from overseas who are high-spending visitors. That dip has gone through the economy. In the summer there was a significant increase and people started to visit the countryside again which was very welcome. The footpaths were open, people felt that was something they could do. We have also benefited from the Indian summer which has delivered a pretty good autumn for the tourist industry, at least if data from the South West are borne out. When we come to the winter, some of those things are not going to produce any income but those rural businesses who have loans and who have been paying loans from income during the summer will once again face the time when their loans are greater than their income. It is at that point that we believe the risks to rural businesses and rural jobs will be high again. That is why my Chairman said earlier how important it was not to let up but to aim to relaunch the countryside as an attractive place attracting visitors again early next year.

  84. Do you also believe that some of the government assistance that has gone into the businesses has had the effect it was supposed to of reducing the major impact?
  (Mr Cameron) From what you say it sounds as though it has.

Diana Organ

  85. In rural proofing obviously one of your main aims must be to improve services and diminish social exclusion and to actually tackle the really big problem of rural poverty, in which case surely the most important section of your rural proofing has to be what happens with the indicators because the indicators and how they are interpreted are crucial. You were talking, Pam, about there are three million people living in the countryside in poverty but, as we all know, they do not live in nice little clumps of wards, they are dispersed and so they are cheek by jowl with very wealthy second homeowners in Chipping Campden and we cannot identify them. So I would argue that the work on indicators is the most crucial thing because then it alerts the government to where the deprivation is which draws down money into local authorities which means we do not have to worry about Richard and his charitable trust because the real money going into service delivery is coming from where it should come from—local and central government. In rural proofing you must have priorities about what you are going to march through the door about. You talked about talking to the Lord Chancellor about what happens to local magistrates' courts but do you have this as your number one element of rural proofing? If it is not, why not? If it is, what have you succeeded so far in doing and how can we measure this in the timescale to see that we do have a better revenue support grant and or a better local government finance settlement for rural areas?
  (Mr Wakeford) Can I draw to your attention—I would like to send it to you afterwards because this is a very complicated issue—in June we issued a draft document on indicators of rural disadvantage which was trying to identify and help all of those who are designing programmes to take account of rural disadvantage by showing how you can measure rural disadvantage. There was a national consultation and a series of regional reports. It is quite a lot but it is quite important that it is quite a lot and I can give you an example of how some of this is already being used. The New Opportunities Fund at the moment is working out how to target some of its funds on the 50 most disadvantaged parts of the country and they are ensuring they are rural proofing their approach by drawing on the data that we have illustrated in these reports about indicators of rural disadvantage.

  86. But is it your number one priority for rural proofing?
  (Mr Cameron) The indicators cover a range of different elements of rural disadvantage. Given that we explained in a sense the rationale for the Agency, which is to ensure that people are not disadvantaged as a result of being in rural areas, then I think that the answer to your question has to be yes. Rural disadvantage is the main thing that one is tackling in terms of the social aspects of people who live there, alongside the environmental issues which themselves can turn into rural disadvantage.

  Chairman: We need to move on.

Mrs Shephard

  87. The fact is I shall want to continue the theme because I also want to talk about comparisons between rural and urban dwellers. This morning we have heard a range of views from yourselves and also from members of the Committee taking each side of the argument, namely everybody is concerned with the same problems whether they live in urban or rural areas, there is not much difference if you are deprived if you are in a big urban estate or if you are in a rural area. What is your view? Is your view that there is rural disadvantage?
  (Ms Warhurst) Yes.
  (Mr Cameron) Yes.

  88. Right, in that case, following on from what Diana Organ just said, what are you doing about the switch of funds through council grants away from rural areas? How are you analysing the effect of that and what are you doing? Are you marching through the Chancellor's door as he prepares his statement on public spending in two weeks' time?
  (Mr Cameron) No is the answer but we are doing a huge number of different projects, highlighting, for the benefit of the local authorities you speak of, the problems of rural poverty and rural social exclusion.

  89. The fact is, if shire counties, which are are overwhelmingly rural, are unable to afford enough social workers because of the way council grants are currently structured, surely that ought to be at at the forefront of your representation? Similarly, are you familiar with the report that has been produced by rural police authorities on the fact that they are less well-funded in terms of coping with rural sparsity than their urban counterparts, and what are you doing about that? These things seem to be so specific. You do not need all these indicators if you do not start by tackling what is an obvious imbalance in the first place. It is there to be seen. It is in what used to be the Red Book. There it is, that is where you should start I would have thought. If not, why not?
  (Ms Warhurst) Can I bring you back to the Countryside Agency's role in all these things. In the first place there has been a lack of detailed information on what circumstances arise in rural areas. We saw that in terms of the anecdotal information we have. Therefore it is of primary importance, as you have said, that we get down to the fact that we as an agency (only in its third year of tackling those deficits) must understand what indicators can be used to show, where there is disadvantage, where things are improving, how we are monitoring it in the annual State of the Countryside report, and so on. We are using that to influence Government's thinking. That happens over a period of time. Certainly we have drawn attention to the fact that we do know that in terms of assistance that urban areas get £6 for every £1 spent on rural assistance. These are things that we are very well aware of and do incorporate into our discussions with ministries when we are talking about policy issues. Obviously we have key partnerships that we use but we are an agency that cannot deliver every single thing through every single mainstream department, that is not our function. What we are doing is working up strategic partnerships that can take forward those issues with the various departments. For example, we are working with the Department of Health and have created a Rural Health Forum to draw upon those very issues you allude to in terms of the problems that arise in terms of being ill in rural areas and perhaps not having the infrastructure there to deal with it. 76 per cent of parishes do not have GPs and so on. We are working to inform and to empower and give examples to those people that would seek solutions to this knotty problem that has not been resolved to date in order that they themselves can take that forward. We are also looking at crime concerns to see how we can deal with the fear of crime in rural areas as well as the very real problems about having police people on the beat throughout rural areas. Again as an agency we are there to research, to raise the profile of the difficulties, to inform that debate, and then at the other end of the scale, to work in partnership with people on the ground to say these are difficult issues that we have to find alternative solutions to if we are going to do something real about the quality of people's lives as opposed to forever producing reports that are put on shelves year after year. Those are very real issues that you draw to our attention. The function of our agency, which is not a huge agency, is to work in the way we have tried to explain to rural proof through an informed debate and then through giving some very real examples about how you can make a difference in rural people's lives.

  90. I accept all that but we have already discussed and debated the role of Mr Cameron as the rural advocate. Given the figures that you have quoted about the inbalance of government funding of urban vis-a"-vis rural people, you do not need to work up anything else, any kinds of partnership strategies with anyone else, that is a fact. You have just given the figure yourself. Surely you should be starting with that? Cannot we be hearing it from you, from the rural advocate?
  (Mr Cameron) Point taken.

  Mrs Shephard: Thank you.

Phil Sawford

  91. Can I just pick up on this. You mentioned crime and the fear of crime. One of the things we are seeing is the roll out of CCTV cameras in urban areas and the fear in the rural areas is that that will displace crime. When you do your rural proofing, do you specifically look at knock-on effects of things happening in the urban areas that will inevitably affect perceptions, if not the reality, in the rural areas?
  (Mr Cameron) The Home Office is one area that I have not actually visited yet. That is an interesting point to make about CCTV cameras and their effect on displacing crime. Crime figures in the countryside have risen but they are still very much below urban crime. There is certainly a perceived problem.

  92. There is some evidence in my constituency, I will mention no names, where drug dealing appears to have shifted and the suggestion is that it is because there are no cameras in the rural areas.
  (Mr Cameron) Thank you for that information.

Mr Mitchell

  93. You say on page 17 that your second principle is that the rural community should have reasonable access to local services and facilities. What is "reasonable" and what is "local". How do you define them?
  (Ms Warhurst) I think we are going to have to defer to you, Richard, because we do have a team working on that very point of what would be a reasonable service standard in set categories of settlement. We are not there yet but we are hoping to publish it next year. Richard?
  (Mr Wakeford) I think the major success for the Countryside Agency in the Rural White Paper was to get the whole principle of service standards established as a part of Government policy. You are right to ask the question that you have. We asked the same question to the Government and they said "We do not know, we have not thought about it." Therefore we were able to say, "You should be thinking about it." I think one of the most innovative bits in this Rural White Paper is the table in chapter 2 of the White Paper which starts to set out service standards. What we succeeded in doing was getting the Government to put a partial table in here. When we saw the drafts of it we did not want to rock the boat too much by saying there were certain aspects of rural services that were missing nor did we want to say to them, "You are putting something in here that is quite difficult to test because you have not said what the reasonable standards and requirements are." So we regard the table as a starting point and we are taking that forward service by service with the Government to try to establish what the reasonable entitlement is. Clearly those who move to the countryside or those who are in the countryside will have a different level of service entitlement and standard than those who live in cities. There are certain services that you cannot provide everywhere, but it is important to try and work out what they are. The reason for doing that is unless there is a clear statement of what the policy goal is then in a sense the Government is never going to be able to say that services have reached a reasonable standard.

  94. So many miles to a bank and so many to a hospital and so many to a vet, whatever?
  (Mr Wakeford) What we were trying to do with the rural services report is to identify distances in the data that would be helpful. So in terms of the two kilometre distance for a post office, for example, and the figures are in there for what proportion of people live within that distance of a post office, we thought that was reasonable for the majority of people, a set percentage of people to be the goal for people within walking distance of a post office. Unless you set that standard then you are never going to be able to take the decision about what a reasonable network for rural post offices will be. For rural primary schools it may be that younger people could walk 4 km or 2 miles to a primary school. You have to make some judgments. By starting to measure the current position we are informing the process whereby the table in chapter 2 of the White Paper can be taken forward and firmed up. There is an element that needs to be added to it and the requirements and standards need to be firmed. Until we do that we will not be able to measure whether progress has been made towards reasonable standards.

  95. You define what are key public services.
  (Mr Wakeford) Again, there is a set of services set out in this table in the Rural White Paper which is a pretty good start but although, for example, it covers the Post Office it does not cover the telephone.

  96. I am not overwhelmingly sympathetic to the countryside, frankly. I am one of a dying breed of urban Labour MPs and the countryside, as far as I am concerned, is something you drive through to get to Meadowhall, but you are taking on an impossible task here because you are trying to reverse the dominant trends at the end of the last century and this century which is a trend to centralisation, a trend to bigger concentrations of shopping in out-of-town shopping malls, it is a trend in government to bigger hospitals covering a wider area and concentration in schools. This is just a superhuman task. You are taking on the labours of Sisyphus.
  (Mr Wakeford) You are right, that is the trend, and what we are trying to do is to see if we can harness the trend in such a way that it does not leave people disadvantaged in its wake. Meadowhall is no doubt fine as a regional shopping centre—I see it from the train when I go by rather than through driving there myself. But the more that one concentrates and centralises like that, the more difficult it is for those who do not have such easy access to drive to such places to acquire the same services. That centralisation is a disadvantaging people and the reason it is happening is because those who organise services—away from shopping back to magistrates' courts—the people organising magistrates' courts do not have to take account of the impact of their decision on people's travel. If people who were organising magistrates' courts had to transport and pay for the transport of people to magistrates' courts we would have a much more localised service. The same is true of a whole range of services.

  Mr Mitchell: That is an area where you have not been able to achieve all that much, frankly, and in the main you are taking on brutal economic forces that are not amenable to reason—

  Chairman: Do not talk about the Chancellor like that!

Mr Mitchell

  97. What you are doing is bleeding hearts stuff, "Let's set up an agency to do the research to show the scale of the problem", and then it wrings its hands.
  (Ms Warhurst) Can I come in very briefly as someone who came from an urban background, although it was a mixed urban and rural local authority that I worked within, but I had a real eye opener when coming to the Agency in understanding the inter-relationship between the landscape and the countryside and the people that live in the large towns and cities. Can I say that from my perspective having come from redbrick when I was small to living in the Pennines now, thank God that we have got a countryside that is still vibrant and has communities in it that people think are worth living in, and thank God we have got a countryside where I can go out and walk with the dog and enjoy the benefits ultimately in 2005 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which will include having pubs that I can drink in and post offices where I can buy things and tea shops where I can enjoy myself and so on and so forth. We are not saying we demand for every single human being who lives in every single small hamlet everything you have got in the centre of Leeds. God forbid, that is ridiculous. But I am saying that we do not want a sterile landscape in the countryside. What we do want is to understand the interplay between those who live in the countryside and work in the towns or who work in the towns and visit the countryside, and so on. It is an incredibly complex relationship that we at the Countryside Agency are trying to drive up the agenda in understanding the link between deep countryside and countryside around towns and what that means to most people who have not got any chance whatsoever of walking in the Pennines. It is complex, Mr Mitchell, and all I am saying is it is not to be ignored and we have to find some solutions.

  98. It is nice to have a public body to do it, and it is nice to get that kind of sermon from you, but at the same time the real problems of the countryside, the real problems of rurality are those of poverty. In the days when I used to work for a living I used to fly on the Yorkshire Television helicopter above Lincolnshire and look down on the swimming pools behind the big farm houses and all the Jaguars and BMWs parked there and that did dissipate my sympathy. The real problems attend those who do not have the BMWs, who do not have a car. In that sense the problems of poverty are no different to the problems in Mixenden. Half the people in Mixenden, which you know, are in a worse situation when it comes to services and tea shops and all the other romantic stuff you have described than the people in Wetway who at least have got Richard Whiteley for a mayor!
  (Ms Warhurst) I go back to the one thing I said, there is not a competition in terms of poverty and disadvantage. I absolutely accept that we need to resolve the issues for the Mixendens of this world but, equally so, there are specific problems related to those who are disadvantaged in rural areas because they do not live cheek by jowel with others that can be zoned or whatever else the Government thinks is seasonal. What I am saying is there is a real need to identify those 3 million people and to find ways that historically have not been found because there has not been a critical mass to pour the resources into the public sector, private sector, whatever else it might be. It is difficult but not to be ignored and what we are saying is, yes, there is a knee-jerk reaction to saying the countryside is much better and what we need to do is to focus on our large urban centres. There is not a competition there and we need to find ways of doing both with the public purse. That is all we are arguing for.

  99. That is true. Insofar as it is largely a problem of poverty and the rich people have moved there voluntarily to get the joy of the country life, it would be simpler to use public money to provide the poorer people with cars than spend it on do-gooder schemes all over the place.
  (Ms Warhurst) It is an interesting point you make in terms of when you roll out the discussion about how can we make urban and rural living work better. You might take a view on better public transport for those people who wish to travel from rural areas to city centres and thereby let those people who are at home have the car, but it is a complex issue when we are three years into a situation as an agency that has brought together two previous ones and one where I think we are making some progress in raising the profile of the debate.

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