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Lord Harrison: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating this excellent debate. I want to remind the House that a rural economy relies on a sound economy in general. I pay
 
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tribute to the Government because the IMF, in its December 2005 report, says that the UK's impressive record of macro-economic stability owes much to good macro-economic financial and structural policies, underpinned by a sound policy framework.

Is there a problem? Yes, there is, but in certain pockets of the countryside. Roger Turner, a Countryside Agency economist, says that there are sometimes discrepancies between the perceived and the real problems in the countryside. Farming may well be in decline, but he goes on to say that in the broader view, including all types of businesses, not just rural businesses, the picture is very different. Indeed, according to the CRC's State of the Countryside 2005 report, many rural residents enjoy comparatively high levels of household income. We discovered how that same report describes these pockets. It argues that there are two rural Britains: one which is well off, in less sparse areas, associated with people who are commuting; and then a poorer rural Britain, often in sparse, peripheral areas of the United Kingdom, mostly on the fringes of towns or villages found in those remoter areas. We should be concerned about those areas because often they contain families with children living in real poverty. That is why we must do something.

The Government's policy should be twin-tracked, not only supporting shrinking industries such as farming. The Government have done so since the election, with the whole-farm approach, introducing innovative IT systems, cutting, apparently, £28 billion in red tape for farming. There is also their new farm business advisory service, funded by £7.5 million. The Government recognise that the farming industry may be shrinking, but it is important to try to give support. We should remind ourselves that at best farming provides only 4 per cent of work within the countryside.

I want to ask my noble friend the Minister about other forms of support from the European Union, including the LEADER programme, which is the six-year programme for fostering partnerships of local organisations in the countryside. Will he give us a report on that, it is an important initiative whereby we share best practice with our cousins elsewhere in the EU?

As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, there has been a sea change—one might say a land change—in the way in which the economy is based in rural Britain. A clear example, subject to a recent report, was the prediction that within the next 10 years the rural traditional craft industries will provide more jobs than farming. How does my noble friend respond to that report and how can we encourage the resuscitation of such crafts?

We should also adopt a policy of supporting other kinds of industries which are already with us. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, tourism is important. It mirrors the profile of those in the countryside because it can reach the parts that others do not. The countryside often has a higher degree of SME formation, sometimes in the sparsest areas
 
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by 3:1 over their urban equivalents. Of course, there is home working, which is labour-intensive. There are many good examples of tourism flourishing. I consulted my local Visit Chester and Cheshire tourism board, which told me about some of the initiatives. One is supporting an enterprise called "Spa and Pampering"—somehow, never has Cheshire seemed so exotic as when represented by that one. I was also pleased to learn that my old stamping ground of the agricultural college at Reaseheath now provides a business centre to advise those who seek change and promote business within the community.

Another example by Visit Chester and Cheshire was the flourishing of the equestrian tourism industry. There is, for example, the stud farm for shire horses at Cotebrook, near Tarporley, which demonstrates the history of the shire horse and its use in the countryside. There are also other forms of equestrian tourism. I make a point about that because those concerned with the advent of the fox hunting ban believed that a perilous loss of employment in the countryside would be associated with it. As I thought might be the case, the reverse is true.

Will my noble friend also consult the Forum of Private Business and the Federation of Small Businesses, both of which have produced excellent reports on how small businesses might be helped within the countryside? For instance, the Forum of Private Business talks about infrastructure. Examples are impoverished road networks, broadband availability, which has been mentioned today, and labour shortages, which can be dire. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, mentioned the closure of post offices, which I believe, with thought, could be revived and provide centres for small businesses in particular in a variety of ways. The Federation of Small Businesses points to the national website which the Government have set up to help small businesses, but there is not a separate farming or countryside section, which would be a useful addition. Will my noble friend consider that? These areas are important.

I want to conclude with one other form through which most of us townies receive knowledge of the countryside. It was set up after the war to help to promote understanding of the countryside, especially farming. It is the radio programme "The Archers". I consulted a great expert on the programme, my wife, and also my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley. They report to me that in some ways "The Archers" does not reflect modern Britain and modern business. Of course, there are many representations of farming, but far fewer representations of the small businesses which populate our rural areas, full of young entrepreneurs. The few examples of business and the use of IT are represented by Lynda Snell's husband and some estate agent, whose name escapes me, who is part of the nouveau riche and is seen as a bit of a wide boy.

I make these points because that is how the majority of us may receive our information about the countryside. It is time that we modernised that view in order to have a firm basis on which we can go forward and develop the industries, the prosperity and the jobs that people need in the countryside for a better Britain.
 
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12.39 pm

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer for this interesting and wide-ranging debate on the rural economy. I intervene to bring to the House my experiences of living in a rural area; they follow on nicely from the closing comments of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison.

I now live in Northumberland, but I have spent most of my life living in the south-east, which is a crowded area. For a great deal of that time, I lived in a city. I am now living in one of the sparsely populated areas of this country, a long way from the centre of gravity in Britain, which I consider to be London and the south-east. It has been an interesting time. I am now also a county councillor in Northumberland and married to my local MP. Being married to the local MP involves once a year visiting all the villages in his constituency, which is 50 miles north to south. That takes us eight days; most days we drive something like 120 miles. I am not only the chauffeur but the clerk in this arrangement. It has certainly given me a great insight into not only the problems of rural Northumberland, but, of course, the beauty of the landscape.

My reflections this afternoon are therefore personal. I have become aware of the extra hurdles involved in running an economy in a rural area, some of which have been mentioned this morning. I illustrated the distances that one has to deal with, particularly when one is accessing health and education. There are also the distances from some of the major networks. For example, very few people in my area are on the mains gas supply. My noble friend Lady Miller talked about other reliable infrastructure, such as broadband and digital. We do not have digital. Broadband is improving—we might receive it—but we have some areas where the electricity supply is not always reliable because some of the lines are overhead. The situation is improving, but it is not perfect. Historically, the whole area is a low-wage economy.

Another main factor—it has certainly affected us and people coming to us—is the problem with delivering emergency services in rural areas. The police, ambulance and fire services have to travel long distances over slow roads. From my experience in the Houses of Parliament, having been a Front-Bencher for a number of years considering national legislation, it has become obvious to me that many central government policies add to the problems that we have. It is not necessarily deliberate, but our whole system is very urban-centric. I have been able to see the huge difference in the time that I have now spent in Northumberland—which, I have to say, is only five years.

I want to highlight one or two problems that have come to my notice in recent weeks. One of those is transport. With many things such as transport, housing and planning, the Government wanted to have a regional agenda and regional government, and I supported them. Unfortunately it did not happen, but we still have part of it. Whichever side of the argument you come from, the problem is that, if you
 
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are stuck with the present arrangements, you have policies handed down from above. That is causing several problems for us.

One of the most recent problems has been the thorny issue of what we see as the strategic A1 through Northumberland. It is the main line up to Edinburgh from Newcastle and for many years people have been fighting to get it dualled. Recently, we discovered that under the new arrangements from the Government the A1 is no longer a strategic road but is shoved in with all the other decisions that we have to make in our area within the meagre budget that has been handed down. I was at the county council yesterday. We are desperately trying to get the Government to look at the road and say, "Yes, we need a strategic arterial road in Northumberland, as it's of national importance". Only the day before yesterday I was reading about the problems of congestion. All the traffic to Scotland on the roads goes up the west side and through the central part of Scotland. The main railway is up the east side. It seems to me sensible to have good road and rail up both sides.

In Northumberland, we used to have the Rural Transport Partnership, but now our regional development agency, One NorthEast, has taken away the money funding an officer that had helped to produce good results in the area. Another problem we have had—not necessarily regional—is rail services. We have excellent main line rail services—I would not be able to do what I do if we did not—but on the stopping stations in-between the service is not quite so good. There is a train that goes from Newcastle up to various places, with its final station at Chathill, which is in rural north Northumberland; the train then goes a little further to Belford, where it turns round, but there is no station there any more. That is an extraordinary situation. For five or six years or more, people have been trying to get the station open. The train goes there—it is not a problem—but health and safety has said that the driver might not know on which side to open the doors. With all the changes that have happened in running the railways, this is a big issue. We hope that at last the new authority will look at that issue, but such matters are simple and should not arise.

Other noble Lords have mentioned housing. This is another problem. The figures for the houses that can be built in the area come down from central government through the region and they are based on urban policies. We have been told that, in an area such as ours, we must preserve the countryside and therefore can build only 60 houses per year in Berwick borough. But if that is what you do, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, your villages and towns become unsustainable. If you go just across the border into Scotland, you will see that in the Borders region a completely different attitude has been taken to development in the smaller towns and to the provision of transport links: the A1 is dualled for most of the way on the other side of the border. Will the Minister look at the policies that have been
 
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implemented in the Scottish Borders, because we are just next door and we could benefit from similar policies?

When making policy, the Government should always be thinking about what effect it is going to have on rural areas. We have suffered from the change to out-of-hours provision by doctors. The decision was disastrous; it was made by people living in cities who had no idea what would happen in our area. I do not have time to go into it. Similarly, the decision to make people apply for a passport in person is another issue—we can perhaps go to Edinburgh or Newcastle. Can civil servants think about rural areas when they are drawing up policies? What has happened to rural-proofing? I would like the Minister to talk to us about that. I also ask him to look again at the regional administration agenda, which is not working in our interests at the moment.

12.58 pm


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