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Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I am very pleased to be the first to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, on introducing this timely debate. Her experience and knowledge of rural matters is widely respected in this House. She has attracted a list of speakers who all have similar credentials. I cannot represent myself as any kind of expert but I want to make a few brief observations based on my own experience.

I was brought up in a village in rural Hertfordshire, and I live now in a village in rural Essex. Both are settlements that have remained recognisably the same over many generations, while also undergoing profound changes. Both are quite close to London, which, in economic terms, is both a blessing and a curse. What they have in common, which has allowed them to retain their distinctive characteristics, are, among other things, the following: first, a diverse population within which there is a proper balance of young and old, and a high proportion of people who are economically active. Secondly, as a consequence of that there is a thriving primary school with a growing intake. Thirdly, there is a significant number of small businesses providing reliable services to the locality.

I hope that your Lordships will indulge me if I give an example of that by citing the fact that my daughter is about to get married in the village where I live. We have been able to source from within the village just about everything that we need to make this quite big event—in my life, anyway—happen. We have the flowers, the catering and the cars. We even have a craftsman carpenter who has been commissioned to make one of the wedding presents. I think that is pretty good. On top of that, a great deal of accommodation is available in the village, which will allow many of the guests to stay there. All of that is generating income for the community. I cannot say that my daughter's wedding is the biggest event that will ever happen in rural north Essex but it is not insignificant. The essential element is that services are available in the locality which can be drawn upon so that the money stays in the locality.

Fourthly, there should be a variety of social activities, for instance drama, music and sport, and places in which they can take place such as a church, a village hall or, as in my village's case, several pubs. Finally, there should be enough local shops to provide for most daily needs within the community itself.

All those things happen to be available in the rural community that I am part of, but I know that my village is no longer typical. It is harder and harder for such communities to retain their distinctiveness and viability, and even where there is considerable
 
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affluence, as there is in my area, house price inflation has made it extremely difficult for young people to stay where they were born and grew up, which threatens to undermine the broad demographic so crucial to a dynamic community. The growth of large out-of-town supermarkets has hastened the decline of local shops, and rural post offices are struggling to survive. While I accept that it is not possible to resist the forces of change—nor always desirable to try—it is worth putting some energy into supporting the social and economic micro-climates that healthy rural communities generate.

What will it take to keep rural communities dynamic and allow them to retain or regain their vitality? There are many answers to this, and no doubt we shall hear most of them. I suggest three things, all of which have already been touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. The first of those is affordable housing. The Government have plans to increase the availability of housing in the south-east, and we know that large-scale development is planned, for instance, in the Thames Gateway and along the M11 corridor. While I do not view these changes with huge enthusiasm, there is a need to be met and this is one way of meeting it. Yet, smaller, more incremental development within existing communities is also hugely important if small towns and villages are to be sustainable. Making it possible for young, economically active people, particularly those with young children, to live in rural areas depends among other things on housing being available, but those same people often choose to live in such areas because of their special character, which can be quickly distorted by unsympathetic or excessive expansion. What do the Government plan to do to support the provision of small-scale housing development in rural areas?

My second point concerns transport. In my area, the transport infrastructure is not too bad. There are rail services, though they are under pressure, and a good network of interconnected buses. This is not true everywhere, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has already pointed out. We have learnt just this week that further review of the rail network is being undertaken. It seems almost inevitable that if the axe is to fall anywhere it will be on rural lines. Healthy, diverse communities have diverse transport needs. What do the Government plan to do to monitor pressure on the rural economy created by reduction in public transport, and to make resources available to keep services going?

Finally, on arts and culture, in November last year Arts Council England published Arts in Rural England, outlining the results of its review of arts provision in rural areas. The report notes that the arts are contributing significantly to regeneration in small towns and villages. It points to the importance of arts activities in increasing tourism in many rural areas—I think, for example, of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the development of the Maltings at Snape in East Anglia—and to the rise of new creative businesses where agricultural land or buildings have become redundant. It cites the example of Middle Rocombe in
 
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Devon where a dairy farm becomes an art farm each September, allowing up to 50 artists to show their work. In 2003, the event attracted over 3,200 visitors and produced sales of £13,000. There is also a growing network of small arts festivals across the UK.

It seems clear that communities which have managed to sustain, often against the odds, both amateur and professional arts activities derive both social and economic benefits, including making themselves attractive to visitors who spend money and to potential residents, especially families, who are more likely to be drawn to areas where there is a strong cultural life. In the village where I live, one of the most heartening events of the year is the annual gathering of morris dancers—please do not laugh. They come from all over the UK, including the City of Westminster, to participate in a weekend of dancing in the streets. Morris dancing is often held up as exactly the sort of symbol of rural life that we do not want to get stuck with, being a bit weird and distinctly comic. I can assure your Lordships that when the police close the streets on the first Saturday in June in Thaxted, a dozen teams of morris men strut their stuff outside my window and there are many hundreds, of all ages, watching and cheering them on. They are all spending money.

Participation in arts activity, whether as audience or artist, gets creative energy running in a community. Yet it is hard to keep it going, particularly as the costs of maintaining venues in which activities can take place are mounting.

There is some evidence that the business of applying for licences under the Licensing Act 2003 has become a problem for rural communities. The costs can be very difficult to meet, and the application process is complicated. Will my noble friend impress on his colleagues at the DCMS the importance of monitoring the impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on rural communities and of reviewing it if necessary?

I live a particularly privileged kind of rural life—apart from the aeroplanes, but I promised myself that I would not go on about them today, and I will not—in a part of England that is both beautiful and affluent. I know that is far from the whole story; there is acute poverty and deprivation in some rural communities where the loss of traditional employment, allied to the lack of effective infrastructure, has been devastating. England still has strong rural cultures, and those cultures can be helped to develop their economic muscle to the benefit of everyone, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has already indicated. I hope that the Government will continue energetically to develop their policies in support of this important aspect of our national life.

12.01 pm

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, this is not the first time that I have followed the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, yet it is as much a pleasure today as it was previously. Hers was a model contribution to the debate on today's subject, for which we congratulate and thank the noble Baroness,
 
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Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. Seven- or eight-minute speeches make for cameos and telegraphic ones at that. I have lived part of my life in rural Wiltshire for the past 30 years; 18 years north of Salisbury Plain and 12 years south of it. The saying "chalk and cheese" comes from Wiltshire, and the plain is a cordon sanitaire in terms of pace of life, but the valley in which we live is not a bad microcosm from which to extrapolate. In one of AG Street's Wiltshire books, he takes the villages of Sutton Mandeville and Teffont Evias and turns them into Sutton Evias and Teffont Mandeville, as being typical of the villages around us.

The established Church in Wiltshire is more given to team ministries than most other dioceses, and last Sunday we finally became one, after negotiations worthy of Barchester, at least from where our valley river rises as far as Salisbury's outskirts, where Wilton was the ancient capital of Wessex. Tisbury church, which gets into Simon Jenkins's book in the junior grade, is the cathedral of the valley, and Tisbury is the largest and equidistant village in the 25 miles between Salisbury and Shaftesbury. Its origins are mediaeval, but it has a well served railway station and at least 20 shops for a population of 2,000, apart from the radial outlying villages.

In the days when I used to sit annually at the feet of the futurologist, the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute, I also used to read Norman Macrae, the deputy editor of the Economist, which released him for a six-month sabbatical every five years to go round the world to find out how it was likely to change. One of his earlier forecasts was the growth of one-person or two-person businesses working from home, inspired by the new opportunities that technology would offer. We have one such, some 100 yards from our cottage, where a husband and wife team do automotive engineering design for clients around the world from their home in the hamlet's former chapel. Rural areas spawn such units more prevalently than urban ones, with a higher number per capita than in towns and cities. In our case, the normal rural deficit of IT literacy is counterbalanced by a website specialist a village away, though, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, broadband facilities are dramatically less available. Only 7 per cent of rural villages and 1 per cent of remote rural areas have access to affordable Internet connections, compared with 95 per cent of the urban population.

Not everything in the garden is lovely. Historically, rural poverty has been assuaged by personal vegetable plots. It will be interesting to see how far that survives the relative disappearance of the agricultural labourer, one of whom lives next door to us. CAMRA says that there are fewer pubs now in rural areas than during the Norman Conquest. At least two such pubs have become private houses in our valley in the past decade. That is also an index, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, of the crisis in affordable housing.

The growth in rural homelessness since 1997 has been three times that in urban areas. Government emphasis on the quality of life in the countryside in part masks a lower standard of living. Rural Britain has the highest proportion of working-age adults
 
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receiving in-work tax credits. The Social Exclusion Unit is still without a section specifically dealing with rural poverty. The paucity of accessible citizens advice bureaux makes rural tax credit clients more reliant on helplines, and, as emerged from a supplementary answer to a Starred Question and subsequent ministerial correspondence last year, the Revenue helpline is not universally reliable.

It all comes down to the reduced effect of the sparsity criteria in the past decade under the standard spending assessment rules per capita, and it looks like it will get worse. Our admirable local GP envisages that the NHS will reduce local facilities over the coming decade, so the under-resourced transport facilities will be under further pressure. Of the increased funding of the national transport budget, less than 0.02 per cent will go towards the rural transport fund for the extension of rural bus services.

When Lloyds TSB closed its branch in Tisbury, the announcement on the door implied that there would be a warm welcome in Wilton, nine miles away, for its former customers. One of the valley's local post offices, which are candidates to inherit financial services opportunities, has just won the Post Office's prize for the best post office in the region, but there is a continuing threat of post office closures. Council tax problems threaten the closure of Tisbury sports centre, and the resolution of those problems will still see cuts to the arts budget.

These modest observations are not the utterances of a pessimist or a cavalier caviller, but those of a realist. Potentially, rural areas have ground for optimism in their capacity for community spirit. In our valley, the eventual creation of the team ministry last weekend is itself a beacon, not just for Christian reasons, but for that sense of community for which the Church at its best stands.

Within the past 18 months, in the debate on an Unstarred Question on church buildings asked by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, who happily is in his place, I described how Sutton Mandeville, our eponymous village, was raising £65,000 over three years to restore a mediaeval church tower in a parish of fewer than 100 souls. Your Lordships' House would not normally expect an update on so microcosmic an event, but we raised £54,000 in the first two years entirely by our own efforts, without institutional aid, and so have a relatively soft landing for the final year. The significant victory has been that this was the work of the whole valley and not just of the village. Two of your Lordships' House have generously given lectures to packed audiences within the church. In seven weeks' time we shall have an Ashes celebration cricket dinner with an ex-president of the MCC as speaker.

Self-help is not dead and the spirit that the valley engenders is redolent of Burke's small platoons. I do not want to rub salt in the wound of the defeat of the Government's referendum for regional government in the north-east, but opportunities for rural areas lie best on a local, not a wider, basis that is almost contradictory to local chances.
 
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12.08 pm


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