MPs call for fairer rural deal

MPs have called for a fairer deal from the government for rural communities.

The issue of rural communities was debated in a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday (17 March).

Simon Hart, MP Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said the debate was an opportunity for Defra minister Richard Benyon to lay out the government's achievements.

"That will probably include the achievements of Departments other than his own, because this debate is deliberately wide ranging," said Mr Hart.

Mr Benyon should ask himself whether rural patience was being stretched.

The government had done well on issues such as broadband, food labelling, red tape in farming, and planning. It had also made progress on health.

"However, the rural jury is still out on affordable housing, post offices, mobile phone coverage, fear of crime and, more recently, on VAT on caravans, fuel poverty and transport costs as well.

"It is therefore not necessarily a rosy picture of Government enthusiasts in rural areas, but they are there for the picking."

On local government finance, James Gray (Con, North Wiltshire), said it was an anomaly whereby the government spent about £200 per head in rural areas and about £400 per head in urban areas.

"Surely that is wrong and the forthcoming review of local government finance and, incidentally, of health finance as well should correct that anomaly."

Rory Stewart (Con, Penrith and the Border), cautioned against "pretending that rural areas are somehow entirely neglected or forgotten".

Rural MPs should not stand up again and again in the House of Commons and present their constituencies as victims, said Mr Stewart.

"To do so is dangerous," he said.

If we present ourselves as victims and demand more and more transfer payments, and start to take on board the arguments about productivity and the connection between rural areas and the City of London, for example, we will create unpleasant tensions."

Instead of focusing on money MPs should consider what the government could provide. "Above all, I am thinking about infrastructure and getting the broadband in the ground and sufficient mobile coverage."

Huw Irranca-Davies (Lab, Ogmore), took a more forceful line.

The government had been seen to support rural communities "only in the same way that Herod supported juvenile population control," he said.

Since the government came to power, support from regional development authorities had been lost because they were unceremoniously scrapped.

At the same time, local authority budgets were under pressure.

"As has been said, cuts to local authority funding hit rural communities hardest, because of the added cost of provision of services in rural areas.

What are the government doing against that stark backdrop to help a greater proportion of communities to save their pubs, shops, banks, post offices, libraries and other services?

Speaking on behalf of the government, Mr Benyon said the Defra ministers had real ambition for rural communities.

"If someone who is elderly, sick, mentally ill, out of work or on a low income lives in a rural community, the problems imposed by rurality are increased by isolation.

"Those are obvious points that we all understand."

The government had set up a rural communities policy unit (RCPU) at the heart of Defra to encourage departments to ensure their policies and programmes meet rural needs and interests.

Operational for a year, the RCPU was engaging effectively at an early stage in the development of policy across the government.

"The RCPU is working hard to engage proactively and communicate with rural communities and their representative organisations and to stimulate debate about rural needs and propose solutions," said Mr Benyon.

"That work is critical to ensuring that evidence and intelligence from our rural stakeholders informs Government policy and its delivery."

In addition, the government was working closely with Action with Communities in Rural England, so it benefited from regular access to up-to-date local intelligence about rural areas.

Defra had also rolled out a rural broadband fund to get to those "hardest-to-reach" groups.

The government's commitment to have the best broadband across the country by 2015 was on track said Mr Benyon.

"We are a team of ministers with a real commitment, and we are driving the issue forward with key groups of people, such as the RCPU, so that we can make a difference to how people live."

A transcript of the full debate can be read here.


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