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The Diocese of Chester, from which I come, contains both the broad swathe of rural Cheshire and the continuous industrial band on the south side of the Mersey, from Birkenhead through Warrington to Stockport, so I see both sides. I shall indicate the areas of concern that I hear from the more rural areas. In doing so, and notwithstanding the hiatus over the single farm payments, I pay tribute to how Defra has sought to develop a proper strategy for rural areas with the White Paper in 2000, which was followed so swiftly by the foot and mouth epidemic and the rural recession. That made the national planning process rather difficult.

I begin with the recession itself. Agricultural recessions tend to be long and deep because of the general inflexibility involved in working the land. Falling prices put inefficient producers out of business, and the assets are often taken over by more efficient producers. That tends to exacerbate the problem of overproduction, depressing prices even more. With a bit of luck and judgment, arable farmers can switch crops, but livestock farmers are less able to make such changes, especially in the dairy industry, which is prominent in Cheshire, with its large capital investment in milking equipment and herds. The price of milk has been at a disastrously low level in recent years—below the level of production in many cases—and the present recovery in other areas of agriculture has not yet had much impact on that. Many dairy farmers have simply given up. Only this week, we heard the news that Her Majesty the Queen’s pedigree herd of Ayrshires at Windsor is to be sold.

Those farmers who remain do so under considerable pressure. One farmer’s wife said to me recently at her son’s confirmation, “It was always hard work, but now it’s even harder work for hardly any return”. With the isolation that comes from working with fewer colleagues, one can understand the growth of stress-related problems and the tragedy of suicide in the farming community. In Cheshire, the churches acting ecumenically have gathered together to employ an additional full-time agricultural chaplain to provide pastoral support and encouragement to farmers in these circumstances. Some farmers have diversified—rightly so—and sought other income streams. In Cheshire, with large urban populations nearby, that has been relatively possible, but it can be only part of the solution and brings its own distortions to rural life.

I shall say a word about the environmental issue of trees. Partly due to the general recession in agriculture in recent years, farmers have tended to neglect the wider issues of stewardship even more than before, unless a direct economic incentive has been offered. As one drives around, most of the trees ones sees in hedgerows are relatively mature and are often dead or dying. Imagine the countryside with trees largely confined to defined woods and coppices or plantations. I wonder whether more should be done to encourage individual tree planting, largely for aesthetic reasons. One needs a long-term vision for that to succeed. It takes decades for most trees to grow to a decent height, and the best trees take many decades. In today’s society, we sometimes simply prefer schemes with a shorter-term impact.

Tree planting is also an underdeveloped theme in responding to climate change. The Stern report told us that the worldwide increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is as much due to ongoing deforestation as to transport, which is an astonishing fact. Across the world, we need to promote an ethos of reafforestation. While an individual tree counts for relatively little in that, an imaginative programme of tree planting across our countryside would be symbolically very important. Beyond its aesthetic value, it would symbolise the wider commitments that we rightly seek to make at the present time.

I shall turn briefly to the role and place of the churches in the countryside, in relation to the provision of rural and local services in particular. A recent research study, helpfully supported by Defra, into the contribution of faith bodies to rural communities identified five local facilities that are of particular importance to rural people: the village hall, the pub, the primary school, the shop and the church. In some interesting developments, country churches have been exploring a role in supporting some of these other facilities, although we have not yet opened a church and pub as a dual-purpose entity—maybe that will come. The Millennium Commission, using lottery money, gave substantial grants to enable churches to convert space, usually at the back of the church, into a flexible meeting area with a kitchenette, toilets and so forth. That has proved to be extremely creative and effective in my diocese and beyond. Churches elsewhere have provided space for farmers’ markets—we are just about at the 10th anniversary of the first farmers’ market in the modern era—visiting post offices and visiting advice centres that deal with a range of matters. This is one of the ways in which we must respond to the closure of permanent post offices.

Provided that the primary purpose of a church as a place of worship is safeguarded, I entirely welcome these Dibleyesque developments. A church has to seek to take a place at the heart of its community and be ready to adapt to the needs of that community. Churches always used to be like that; it is very much a Victorian and modern development to think that they can be used for strictly religious purposes only. Indeed, the legal framework surrounding the use of churches is now loosening to respond to these new opportunities.

Finally, I shall say a word about planning issues, which are again coming to the forefront of the Government’s attention. Much has been said about the need for affordable housing, and there has been real progress on that front, but it is a long-term issue and is vital to the health of rural communities. There must be no let-up in seeking to establish a broad range of affordable housing in our rural areas. We have tended to have highly restrictive planning policies, with a good deal of artificiality accompanying them; for example, barn conversions often have very artificial outcomes.

The countryside needs people. I often think that our villages would benefit from a slightly more open planning regime. In that regard, I welcome the prospect of more taxing of planning gains, provided that the gains are used for social purposes. It could be seen as though, rather like the fields and the hedgerows with which I began, everything is a bit too stuck in the past, or at least in the status quo, in some of our villages. There is a need to trust local people more in the decisions over their own lives and their local area. Overall, I am not too pessimistic. I see a lot of resilience and determination in the rural communities that I know to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

4 pm

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, like many others who have spoken, I feel that rural areas have changed in many aspects over the past decade. The council houses have been sold off, the agricultural workers have largely disappeared and the rural people have kept the bank manager happy by selling off houses to more wealthy people from the towns, usually older people or those wishing for second homes. The local young have found that there is limited opportunity and less housing, and so the older generation is left behind.

The current crisis in the dairy industry, alluded to by the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Chester, has meant that more than 2,000 dairy farms have closed down since 2002. That is more than one a day. The latest information is that, in 2006, at less than £14,000 per annum, one in three farmers is living below the Government’s low-income threshold. In Scotland’s less favoured areas, the average income was published as £8,400. That, along with the deluge of regulations, causes a worry for all those who wish to stay in rural areas and in agricultural production.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, agriculture is coming to fulfil a role as a rural service, and the support systems are geared to providing a public benefit. As my noble friend Lord Inglewood was hinting, the single farm payment in England has been a nightmare for all concerned, compared with what I and others have experienced north of the Border. Rather than trying to introduce new mapping requirements at the start, the Scottish Environment and Rural Affairs Department is now carrying out its inspections and, as here, checking field boundaries by satellite. I was lucky: it found that I had underclaimed by 0.4 per cent and so did not earn a penalty. Unlike the 220,000 farmers in England who are still waiting, in Scotland almost all the payments have gone out on time.

The great idea on which the single farm payment was sold to the industry was that it would be a great simplification and would mean that fewer pieces of paper would need to be submitted to the Government if you wanted to keep the business afloat. What has happened is that you have to fill out what appears to be 10 times the amount of computer and paper records to comply with all the requirements. These are required to be kept for anything up to 10 years. It has been a fairly radical shift for those who considered themselves to be the horny-handed sons of soil to find that several hours a day has to be spent in administration and that Jack of all trades has to be accompanied by Jill of all regulations, or some other person, all rolled into one.

Until recent years, as noble Lords are aware, farming and forestry provided employment, stability, an appealing countryside and the basis for rural communities. This Government have a great passion for going out on their own in the hope that they can get other countries to follow. They are now trying to achieve some of these aspects through what is called “voluntary modulation” of up to 14 per cent of the support available to farmers. That must be looked on with amazement by most of the 26 other member states from their offices in Brussels that do not want to go down that road. The money is due to be channelled back through the devolved Administrations and the England Rural Development Programme.

In order to benefit, farmers will be required to look to and provide new and different aspects of land management. The effect of these measures in more remote areas is rapidly revealing itself. I must admit to being more familiar with the situation in Scotland, although I am sure that the same must be reflected in many of the communities that we are considering today.

In a period of seven years, the breeding flock of sheep in Scotland has reduced by 70,000—or 20 per cent—and the number of farms by 10 per cent, to the extent that the Royal Society of Edinburgh has just instituted an inquiry into the future of the hill and island areas. At the same time, the Scottish Executive have commissioned an inquiry into crofting and its system of land tenure. The puzzle is: what sort of environmental management can you have once the farmers leave? Can the money be accessed to the same effective extent by a community made up of bed-and-breakfast owners—not that I have anything against bed-and-breakfast owners? Are studies being carried out on similar situations in England? What is the Government’s attitude to the problem?

Another issue that is very much to the fore at the moment is the implementation of the European directive on nitrate-vulnerable zones. It is somewhat reassuring to hear that the new water director in Defra is questioning to what extent the rules that have been envisaged as full compliance are really necessary and how much is likely to be gold-plating of a rule that has been redefined in translation. I am told that the present understanding is that the whole policy is predicated on the 15 millilitre drinking water standard, when many of the rivers affected are not used for drinking water. It would be interesting to know how long the sampling regime on which the selection of rivers has been based has gone on, and whether account has been taken of the conditions in the 1980s and 1990s, when fertilisers were much cheaper and farmers were much more profligate with their materials. Is the current situation really as worrying as the records would lead one to believe?

The regulations will cause most disruption in limiting the seasons for the spreading of manures. In any western and high-rainfall areas, to which the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, referred, that will require huge extension to storage capacity and will severely restrict the few existing opportunities to get out on the land without causing damage. In Scotland, the Executive propose to bring in the full rigour of the rules. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which is known under the acronym of SEPA, has been given the title “Screw Every Penny out of Agriculture”. In one survey undertaken by NFU Scotland, 11 of the 16 respondents said that they would give up farming if that level of control was introduced. We hope that Defra will arrive at a better solution.

The brave new world that is coming into shape in the countryside combines biodiversity, wind farms, biofuels, broadband and tourism—all ways offered to bring an economic rationale and employment to rural areas—but it will still need the basic care and maintenance of the resource to make it a place that is pleasing to the eye and in which we can all take satisfaction.

4.07 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, much attention has been paid to the role of agriculture. I shall speak about a different type of countryside. I shall contrast it from the beginning. When we look at the problems in our cities and our larger conurbations, we see that we need to return to a community feel and a community structure where people feel that they belong to one another and have responsibilities to one another—to build a sort of family within our cities. We already have that family in our rural communities. The tragedy is that so many of our actions today are undermining those communities and the relationships within them.

It is not wholly fictional, but I think of a village called Llareggub Bach. I thought of making it Llareggub Minor, but in Wales you would only get that in Gwent; in my part of Wales, it would be Little Llareggub. It is not fictional. I know of the places that I am speaking of. It used to have a good population of quarrymen and agricultural workers, but the quarry closed about 40 years ago. Then the quarrymen and their families had to move out. I was there on the Sunday after the quarry closed and they were packing, ready to leave that area. There are far fewer agricultural workers today than there were 40 years ago. Then the wool mill closed, so everything that sustained that particular community now belongs to the past.

One then has the problem of what one does with the various community institutions. The right reverend Prelate spoke of the role of the church. In the part of Wales that I am speaking about—it might be Llareggub Bach—there were nine places of worship; in Wales, we believe in doing things wholeheartedly. All but one closed one after the other. The one that remains is attended by between 10 and 20 people on a Sunday evening. Not only have the buildings gone, but so has the vicar, as well as the two nonconformist ministers. These were the people who kept that community together.

There were two schools in the village at one time; one in the upper valley, the other in the lower valley. One closed some years ago and the other is struggling to meet the targets necessary to make it viable for the children of today. The schoolmistress does not live in the village, nor does the assistant or the nursery assistant. The doctor will come if someone is ill, but the village has no surgery. The policeman will occasionally call in a panda car—if they still call them that—to see what is going on in the village, but the crime rate is pretty low so we do not see the policeman very often. The policeman does not walk around the village and hear the gossip of the people, so he does not really know what is going on or know the people in that area.

The village has become desolate, remote and isolated. There was a time when we had 39 shops in the village. My uncle ran the post office there. It was a busy post office, but now that has gone. People say, “If you want your pension, you can go to the bank”. The bank used to come on a Friday morning, but it does not come any longer. If you tell the pensioners that they can get banking online, they ask what online means and what a website is. We must travel to another village or town some miles away to get our pensions, car tax or television licence. None of those things is available in the village any more. This was once a viable community.

So much that we are doing in villages today is undermining their viability. The scheme to close 2,500 largely rural post offices will destroy communities. We must somehow get to grips with this. We have community support officers. They are not the same thing that I am thinking of, but could we not have some sort of support for rural communities? People could go into villages and help with the parish or community council, which might find it difficult to get a clerk or a treasurer. The band has gone, as has the choir; very few local organisations are left. There should be some organisation that could come in and help the organisations that remain. I do not know whether we are now at crisis point and need a royal commission on the countryside to look at the massive changes that have taken place and are taking place. We should remember that if we lose rural communities, or indeed any communities, we are adding to our problems in the years ahead.

4.13 pm

Lord Cameron of Dillington: My Lords, I, too, shall talk about the delivery of rural services. The first thing that I shall do is stamp on the heresy, which seems to be prevalent, that rural communities have less need of public services because they are on average slightly more affluent than urban ones. An even worse mantra doing the rounds says that if people choose to live in rural areas, they should expect worse public services. Frankly, that is disgraceful. The poor of the countryside have not chosen to live there; they are almost certainly born there. They live and work there among their family and friends, and probably contribute enormously to their rural community. They could not possibly move to the towns, in any case. Such a mantra is equivalent to saying to the people of, say, Hackney, “Your health and education services are not very good, but we the Government are not going to do anything about that, because, frankly, why don’t you move to Canterbury or Reading?”. It is exactly the same idea. That is a very bad starting place, which I have heard in government and Civil Service circles.

It goes without saying that services cost more to deliver to rural areas, which is fairly obvious. Refuse collection in rural areas costs 70 per cent to 90 per cent more than in urban areas because there is more distance between the bins. Therefore, more fuel is required and the three or four people on the lorry require more time. A recent report indicated that primary school education per head in remote rural areas costs 24 per cent more than in urban areas. Of course it does: there have to be more buildings and more heads so that the very young do not have to travel an excessive distance to their first school. At the other end of the scale, domiciliary care for elderly adults costs an extra 5 per cent if they receive one visit a week, up to 163 per cent more if they have five visits a week, and so on and so forth.

In highlighting the problems of rural communities, I do not want to deny that the most deprived urban areas face profound problems of poverty and social exclusion. I do not even deny that they should have additional resources. But it has been brought to my attention by Professor Asthana of Plymouth University that the focus on area-based initiatives, notably the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, and the tendency for mainstream funding now being targeted by area-based deprivation indicators means that the problems of disadvantaged people not living in disadvantaged areas—for example, rural people—are largely being ignored. If the Government truly wish to target poverty and social exclusion they must realise that more deprived people live outside deprived areas than live in them. It is a somewhat sobering thought that this year the London Borough of Islington, which I have always thought of as a fairly mixed community, will receive more from the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund alone than the total budget of many rural district councils.

To my mind, the funding allocation for health in England has gone very wrong. In my response to last November’s Queen’s Speech I drew your Lordships’ attention to the fact that the allocation of NHS budgets makes no real allowance for the extra costs of rural delivery. A recent NAO report has pointed out that to deliver out-of-hours cover costs 70 per cent more in rural areas than in urban ones. This, combined with the extra cost of having more health centres, more transport costs, training and even extra housing for staff explains why, for instance, in Scotland rurality adjustments have been made to the funding formula, with some rural areas receiving more than 30 per cent extra. However, in England it is the other way around. The primary care trusts serving the most urban populations receive the highest average per capita funding, whereas PCTs in rural areas receive the lowest.

In addition to these points, Professor Asthana and those assisting her argue that in the health sector the really critical issue is the relative importance given to age in the calculation of funding. She cites the example of Manchester, which has a much higher standardised mortality ratio than east Devon. Very loosely speaking, in layman’s terms, a standardised mortality ratio means that the people of Manchester have a lower life expectancy than the people of east Devon. Thus, the interpretation is that Manchester is perceived to have greater health needs, whereas the reality is very different. Manchester has a much lower proportion of people aged more than 65 than east Devon; that is, 13 per cent compared with 27 per cent. Of course, older people make far higher demands on the health service than the young, owing to the degenerative illnesses of the elderly. It is not surprising that a greater percentage of the east Devon population died in 2003 compared with Manchester—proportionately, one and a half times more. Therefore, although Manchester has a much higher standardised mortality ratio, a smaller percentage of its population requires the very expensive, high-intensity care associated with proximity to death.

All those facts explain why in 2004-05, 3 per cent of PCTs serving urban areas failed to break even while 68 per cent of PCTs serving populations in rural England ended the year in deficit. Noble Lords will recall that these PCTs respectively receive the highest and the lowest per capita funding allocation. Taking a more common newspaper headline, it is not surprising to find that the average waiting time for an inpatient appointment at Caradon in Cornwall in 2004-05 was 145 days compared with around 54 days in Hackney. So those residents do not have to move after all.

As health funding continues to shift towards deprived areas, there is a real danger that by the end of the current funding round we will have two National Health Services, one predominantly urban that is increasingly well resourced, while the other serving rural England becomes ever more hard-pressed and struggles to adjust to lower levels of per capita funding. One has to ask whether this is compatible with social justice and equity for the rural poor.

The health sector is just one good example of what is happening in other areas. Local government funding is also strongly weighted for area deprivation. As a result, London boroughs and metropolitan areas receive two to three times the amount per head as shire counties. For instance, twice more London pensioners receive home care than those in rural counties. At the other end of the age spectrum, while I know that Sure Start has tried hard to rural-proof its activities, it still does not reach out to most of the three and four year-olds living in poverty in rural areas. There also seems to be some sort of postcode lottery provision for pupils with special educational needs.

I do not have all the answers, but one thing is clear: we must find a better way to assess and respond to the needs of all our population. Rather than using complex geographical formulae which rather dubiously suggest that there is only real need where there is mass deprivation, why can we not set eligibility and assessment criteria on a national basis and ensure that the needy and disadvantaged are protected irrespective of where they live?

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