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14 May 2009 : Column GC455

Grand Committee

Thursday, 14 May 2009.

Arrangement of Business


2 pm

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux): It has been agreed that, should any of the Questions for Short Debate not run their allocated hour this afternoon, the Committee will adjourn during pleasure until the end of the hour. Therefore, each of the Questions for Short Debate will start on the hour.

Rural Communities

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By Lord Livsey of Talgarth

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: The debate which I am fortunate enough to introduce today is about the withdrawal of public and private services from rural areas. I owe Members an apology, because this debate should have taken place before Easter. Unfortunately, the husband of our Lord Lieutenant, Bill Legge Bourke, died, and I was unable to come to the debate on that date because of his memorial service. I happen to be a deputy lieutenant in the county of Powys.

The market town of Talgarth, where I was brought up, was a busy place. Its population in the days of the Second World War and later was around 2,000. Apart from the livestock market, many worked in one of its two hospitals. Others worked on the railway; an artery which joined north with south Wales, mid-Wales with Hereford and Oswestry and beyond, to say nothing of lines to Merthyr Tydfil and Swansea. Indeed, you could travel to London and back in a day from my home town. Situated in the then county of Breconshire in the heart of the Black Mountains on the Welsh borders, it was very well connected, transport-wise.

There were 45 retail and business premises, mainly shops, including three banks, two garages, a bus and haulage company, two branches of farmers’ co-ops, and a police station with three policemen. When I returned after working for ICI and other businesses for 25 years, I found the following in comparison: there were 16 retail premises, no railway after the Beeching cuts, one slimmed-down hospital, one bank, no bus company, one garage, no farmers’ co-ops, no police station and no policemen. There was one councillor, instead of the previous two. The town seemed to have been partly abandoned, with a massive loss of services. This sort of demise has hit rural communities all over the UK, and that is why I feel so strongly about it and want to see the Government provide the means and

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the technical know-how, along with the business entrepreneurs in the private sector, to stem the tide of depopulation and outward migration of young people.

At this point, I must declare interests. First, I am vice-president of the Brecknock Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, at the younger end of the local community. Secondly, I am an adviser to the board of the Prince of Wales outfit called Prime Cymru, a Prince’s Charity that enables over-50 year-olds into business start-ups in Wales. We have started 1,500 new businesses as a result of that over the past five years. Thirdly, I am a member of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales. I will later demonstrate how some of these bodies help to regenerate rural communities.

At the start, I am duty-bound to describe and identify the degree of devastation that has hit many of our rural areas through the withdrawal of both public and private services. Rural areas have often suffered most from the closure of local shops, services and facilities, which also act as the hub of a community. These services also create local jobs for the communities that they serve and are a vital part of vibrant, sustainable communities. Local communities are suffering from the following: the closure of local independent shops; the closure of local post offices; the closure of local bank branches; the decline of local street markets; the closure of local pubs; the closure of local services, such as health centres; green spaces being built on; more traffic, and fewer people walking on the streets; and fewer public transport services.

The impact of all that can be quantified as follows: 70 per cent of rural parishes have no general store; 75 per cent have no daily bus service; 83 per cent have no general practitioner; and 43 per cent have no post office. That information has been supplied by the Countryside Agency. Some 3,700 post offices have closed—a 21 per cent decline; 8,000 independent grocery stores have closed—a 25 per cent decline; 3,757 bank branches have closed—a 23 per cent decline; and 13,000 independent newsagents have closed.

I realise that I am already running against the clock, but my colleague Tim Farron MP, in his role as Liberal Democrat spokesman on this subject in the House of Commons, has quantified the following. Under the Conservative Government, rural post offices shut at a rate of up to 200 a year. Since Labour came to power, the relentless pace of closures has continued, with 1,200 axed since the millennium. There is a crisis in affordable rural housing and, indeed, there is unfair competition in relation to food prices, with a continuing decline in the agricultural industry and in the number of rural shops. Fuel poverty is twice as bad in rural areas as in urban areas. When one starts to compare all those facts with the situation in metropolitan areas, one can see a huge imbalance between the two. Less than half of the residents in villages and hamlets live within 13 minutes of their nearest bus stop, for example, and there are other statistics of that kind that one can pray in aid in setting out the impact of the reduction of services on rural areas.

I have far too much material here, so I am motoring through it. There are a number of factors which I should like to underline regarding how we might be able to tackle some of these issues, but I know from personal experience that it is very hard going. One of

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the latest things to have happened is that HMRC has decided to close a large number of tax offices. That is causing a lot of hardship for small businesses in rural areas and is quite a problem.

What do we have to do to try to tackle these problems? I can tell noble Lords what we have done in my local community. For the past 20 years, we have had to lobby for a relief road because the lorries were literally knocking down the shops, and we have finally got it. We have had to restore retail shops, as there is no provision for this, and we have managed to scrape together £2,500 to paint them and make them more attractive. We had to make video films of traffic congestion and lorries to convince the powers that be that we needed a relief road—not a bypass, just a relief road. We have had to create a regeneration group, of which I can claim to be the first chairman. We have also had to acquire business starter units, some of which have been successful. However, we have very few funds, although we now have a project to convert a mill for electricity generation from the river that runs through the town, and somehow or other we have managed to find £60,000 for that from various grant-making sources.

The problem is that the situation is very uneven. Some rural communities seem to get support, while others are in the doldrums. In our area, I have been involved in the start-up of the Hay Festival, which is coming up soon and in past years has been very successful. I have been chairman of the Brecon jazz festival, which also has been very successful.

However, my poor old hometown does not seem to have the sparkle because there is a lack of active people who can fill in forms in a professional way and lobby. We have had to do a number of extraordinary things in the area. We were threatened with a bank branch closure in Llanwrtyd Wells and the only way we saved it was to take a busload of residents down to Cardiff to the regional board meeting and hammer home the fact that it was the only bank branch within 14 miles and we saved it. We had to take 200 people to the regional health authority 50 miles away to save eight community hospitals. Recently we have had to come to HMRC in London to try to save 140 jobs in our tax office. As we have an almost non-existent bus service, we have set up a dial-a-ride service and it does 100,000 miles a year with five buses. We have managed to do all those things in our community, but the latest thing to hit us is that they want to close our local voluntary centre for want of £1,000 to promote tourism, for example.

How will the Minister join up government and ensure that sufficient money and panache, particularly entrepreneurial panache, are put into local areas to increase employment? The Home Office has come down on us like a ton of bricks because it wants to close as many of the magistrates' courts as possible. Six have already been closed in the past seven years and it wants to close the one in Llandrindod. We have had a seven-year campaign, including debates in the House of Commons and lobbying of the Minister to save one magistrates’ court. The next one is 40 miles away and witnesses cannot travel there because there is no proper public transport.

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I have explained the impact which we face in rural areas. We need an enormous amount of help in such areas, where the GDP per head is only three-quarters of the UK average. The need for young people, and indeed older people who are the majority of the population, is immense. A little money would go a long way.

2.12 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: I am privileged to follow my noble friend Lord Livsey. Much the same story will emerge. We are both from Wales and so this could be considered the upper House of the Welsh Senedd; perhaps they should form one. As we are the House of Lords for the whole of the UK we can, at least, venture into Welsh territory.

This problem relates to the background of the past century and a half. I have been looking at the census records. We have an increasing concentration of population in urban areas. In 1851, just over half the population, 50.2 per cent, lived in urban areas; in 1951, 80.7 per cent of the population lived in urban areas. We have seen a decline from nearly half the population living in rural areas to just one in five today. Urbanisation continues and it is against that background that we have the problems which we face.

My noble friend Lord Livsey has mentioned Talgarth in mid-Wales and adjoining towns. I want to take you to a valley in north Wales which is composed of two little villages, one larger than the other. Over the past 50 years, something has happened there: there were two quarries and both have closed; there was a woollen mill and that has gone; and we are chapel-going people in Wales and there were six chapels and now there is only one, which is not particularly well attended. Both the churches have gone and the Church in Wales premises have gone. One was the most historic in Wales because it was near there that the Bible was translated into Welsh in 1588. One of the two schools has gone and the present school is threatened: it has only 20 pupils. Forty years ago, 120 people attended the Sunday school, but that has gone completely. This is a spiral of decline.

One of the two pubs has gone. One remains, but that is run by volunteers and we are not sure how much longer that can continue. These villages are at the end of the valley. It is a cul-de-sac so there is no passing trade and there are probably more attractive premises in the renowned tourist villages in that locality. The fish and chip shop has gone. It was run by one of my family, so I feel very sad about that. Both post offices have gone and now 39 shops have gone. In those villages where there were 39 shops 30 years ago, today there is no post office and no shop at all. There is no minister or vicar. There is no doctor's surgery. There is no policeman. There is no football team or band or choir. The hills are no longer alive with the sound of music.

This spiral of decline affects us in so many ways. We cannot reclaim yesterday, but with the emphasis on a need for vibrant communities, it is vital that we support and maintain the villages that we do have. In the cities now we hear about dreadful crimes such as knife crimes and so forth in parts of London and we say

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that what we need are good communities. In the villages in the valleys and rural areas of the UK we have those communities. They need more support than they are getting at the present time.

I was looking at the police statistics in Wales. The most law-abiding places are the most rural places, where there is a sense of community. We now need to look at a way of stopping that decline. First of all, communities need people who are active members of their local community. We welcome visitors who come and stay for a weekend or even a couple of months in the summer, but we need locally based people to run the community councils. We need people to be in charge of the parochial councils. Communities need people with a wide range of ages and interests.

People need affordable housing. That is one of the main problems. I was speaking only half an hour ago to the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Welsh Assembly, Kirsty Williams. She was telling me that they were still trying to get—we might see it happening here before very long—the right for the Welsh Assembly Government not to sell housing if they see that areas are in special need. I am sure that when the measure comes before the House, we will be able to support that particular measure to keep people within their villages. Housing is crucial. With housing comes families, and with families come children, and with children come schools. The circle does not have to be a downward spiral: it can be an upward spiral.

Even though we would like to, we cannot justify the retention of all village schools. There is a limit when there are only half a dozen children and you cannot justify it. But with the proposed growth in the number of housing schemes for local families we might see changes in the population of young people in the near future. I suggest a halt in many places on the closure of village schools to see how the future develops. That might mean extra money from somewhere—as education is a devolved matter I have an idea that that will be from Cardiff—to maintain those schools through their education authorities for the foreseeable future.

We also need to experiment with different proposals to keep the commercial life of the community going. The Prince of Wales started a scheme to “make the pub a hub”. As a teetotaller, I was not sure how to support it, but I do support it, because if we can use one building for postal services, as a village shop and for use by the community, we will restore facilities in places where they have been in decline for many years.

Let us encourage pilot schemes and request local communities and parish councils to bring forward schemes of their own that can be embraced by the larger council and even in some way by ourselves. We need new vision. We need to be people with a bit of venture in our souls to bring new life to many of our rural communities.

2.20 pm

Lord Burnett: I refer noble Lords to my declaration of interests on the register. My law firm has a large planning practice that serves rural areas in the West Country, particularly in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Livsey for securing this debate; it is high time that we had a chance to debate the problems of rural England.

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There is a frequently held misconception that all rural areas are affluent. It is apparent that the Government hold that view in the way that they allocate central government spending. However, the Government can see for themselves in the statistics that they gather that there is considerable poverty in rural areas and that has increased over recent years.

In my former constituency of Torridge and West Devon, there were areas in north-west Devon in and around Bideford that contained some of the poorest wards in the country. The official indices of deprivation for those wards showed greater poverty than in the major cities in the north-east and north-west of England. It is, unfortunately, unlikely that this Government, in probably their last year of office, will do anything to change that.

The briefing for this debate by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England refers to the specific protection given to post offices in urban deprived areas. The briefing goes on to say that the Government have neglected to introduce similar provisions for rural deprived areas. Will the Minister, when responding to the debate, justify that appalling discrimination? The Government should understand that for many in rural areas, as my noble friend Lord Livsey eloquently stated, the post office is a lifeline. Many people in villages and country parishes do not have cars and need a post office to access their pensions and other services. In addition, post offices are a focal point for rural villages and parishes and often provide an essential retail function for both convenience and comparison goods.

I should like to dwell in this debate, and seize this opportunity to concentrate on, affordable rural housing. The problems have been eloquently described by both my noble friends Lord Livsey and Lord Roberts. David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, has stated that waiting lists for affordable housing in rural areas have risen by 40 per cent in the past five years. The waiting lists now comprise 700,000 people. That is a colossal number of individuals and the figure disguises considerable sadness and unhappiness. The National Housing Federation predicts that 103,000 people aged between 24 and 35 are now expected to migrate from the rural areas to towns and cities over the next three years. Without young people and young families, the heart will be removed from country villages and parishes. Schools will close, much parish activity will diminish and there will not be a pool of workers for all the necessary rural jobs, including agriculture and horticulture.

This exodus should be reversed, and it requires urgent action. It would be helpful if the Minister, in winding up, would provide details of national house-building starts for 2006, 2007 and 2008, together with a breakdown of how many of these starts were in rural areas. It would also be interesting to have a similar breakdown for the first quarters of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. The first quarter of 2009 should now be available. I believe that these figures will throw up a huge contraction in house-building—and house-building in rural areas—in recent months and over this past year.

It is no good the Minister saying that this is all a matter for local planning authorities. The Government give guidance to those authorities and create considerable

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and needless further bureaucracy and administration in planning matters. I make one suggestion in an endeavour to alleviate the problem of the shortage of affordable housing in rural areas. There used to be, and probably still is, an exceptions policy. It was possible to promote a site for affordable rural residential property on the outskirts of villages. It was the sort of site that would in no other circumstances get planning permission for any open market residential development. The Government could give planning guidance to local authorities to the effect that there was a presumption to grant planning permission in certain circumstances, and these could be as follows.

First, it would be only for affordable housing, conditioned under Section 106 of the Planning Act to that effect. Secondly, it must be over an area of land as near as possible to the centre of a village, or even a hamlet. A sequential test would be relatively easy to devise. Thirdly, the amount of housing consented should reasonably accord with an affordable housing needs survey, conducted on behalf of the promoter and agreed with the local authority. There may, of course, be other conditions relating to topography, highways, and so on. Nevertheless, the Government could make these ambitions clear to local authorities and, effectively, give them the green light to start to reverse this decline in rural affordable housing. The Government should not just sit back and wait for something to happen. The Government should take the lead and empower local authorities to regenerate their villages and parishes. There is much work to be done.

2.28 pm

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, for securing this debate and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who, along with his namesake, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, guarantees that the Welsh voice is rarely silent in our House. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, for his contribution. In talking about rural housing, he hits on one of the major issues that any policy on rural communities needs to address. I am delighted to have by my side the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and I am sorry that her engagements meant that she could not participate in this debate. All noble Lords will know that she is a champion of this issue.

I declare an interest; I am a farmer and grower. I come from a place called Holbeach, where I was born, and I live in the house that I was brought up in, so I have a sense of place. When we talk about changes in rural communities, I know of what I speak because it is my life experience. My wife has been a county councillor for Holbeach for the past 20 years, although she is not seeking re-election; I think she wants to enjoy life in London while I am here during the week. It certainly means that I am reasonably informed about the politics of local communities.

I have been involved in a project. When Holbeach Hospital closed, 20 years ago, a group of friends and colleagues formed a charitable trust. I was chairman of that hospital for 18 years, running it as a community hospital with a contract with the National Health

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Service. There are practical ways in which communities can still cover deficiencies which occur simply because of government policies.

I will not pretend that this problem has arisen just because there is a Labour Government now, or that there were no problems under Conservative Governments. That is not the tenor of this debate. The phenomenon of which we talk is a process of change that has been fairly relentless. We need to find a consensus on how we can address it. We who live in rural areas do so in very changed communities. Not all the changes are negative; we must remember that. We are all better off, but the differentials remain, and those between urban facilities and affluence, and rural facilities and affluence, are growing rather than diminishing. I come from the district of South Holland. With its neighbour, the Fenland District Council, it is pretty low down any measure of general education attainment, healthcare standards and all the rest of it; it is always low on those indices.

Of course, the biggest change has perhaps been one of the reasons that has accelerated the decline: the increased number of car owners in rural areas. Car- owning is a mixed blessing. One in three households in rural areas have two cars—it is only one in 12 in an urban area—but that is not surprising. If both husband and wife are working, they both need a car to get to work. In fact, a car has become essential in rural areas. There was a local garage that specialised in buying cars from hire car companies and selling them, because they were so heavily discounted, to people in my part of the world. They were not old bangers, but they were on the way to becoming old bangers. They are essential: you need a pair of wheels to keep your job, to go shopping and to access services.

As soon as that happens, you create the mobility that can lead to the decline of services because people are capable of moving. We have the peculiar contrast that petrol stations in rural areas are in decline and yet there are more cars in rural areas than ever before. Why is that? It is because people are going to the supermarket pump in the out-of-town shopping centre rather than shopping and buying their petrol at the garage where it is that much more expensive. It may not be that much more expensive, but it is sufficient for people to go elsewhere.

I will talk later about those who are left behind. A lot of the problems with rural communities stem not from the people with the cars, but those without them. However, it has proved to be the death knell of the village shop, post office and many other rural services now that people commute from villages to towns and, indeed, from market towns to the cities for their shopping and services.

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