Peers debate rural economy and services

RURAL communities are continuing to suffer the loss of services and facilities, peers have warned.

Peers debated the state of the rural economy in the House of Lords on Thursday (3 July).

The Earl of Shrewsbury (Con) said village shops had closed in large numbers although some communities had invested in their own community shops, which was to be applauded.

"Many small post offices have closed, thus denying those communities financial services. For the rural community to grow, access to services is absolutely essential."

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (Lib Dem) said: "Rural communities are suffering the loss of services and facilities. People have lost the habit of supporting local businesses."

She added: "The phrase 'Knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing' springs to mind.

"The past 10 years have seen large numbers of village shops, small garages and filling stations, post offices and rural services generally, become unviable and close."

Once a local facility had been lost there was little chance of reversing the process, said Baroness Bakewell.

"The loss of these facilities causes a real sense of isolation for the elderly who would have used these outlets to keep up with the latest gossip.

"It would also have been a means for ensuring that those who were frail and needed assistance were known about and looked out for."

Under the latest government settlement, Lord Cavendish of Furness (Con) said rural residents were faced with paying £88.36 more per capita in council tax than urban residents.

But urban residents would receive £169 more in government funding, he added.

"I wonder whether the government might reflect in the next round whether it is fair for the settlement to be driven purely by population density, when you consider the additional costs of essential services that arise as a consequence of rural remoteness."

The Earl of Arran (Con) said one-third of households were so deprived that they were going without three or more of the basic necessities of life.

"Declining village services, lack of access to public transport and, crucially, access to work opportunities represent a growing problem for support services and the welfare system."

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon said the modern countryside was about much more than farming and the growing tourist industry than in the past.

"It needs a sustainable third sector and successful businesses to thrive, as well as good public services," she said.

"We need to invest in the infrastructure and businesses that drive rural economic growth, and we also need to invest in the people who live and work there."

Speaking in response for the government, DEFRA minister Lord de Mauley said: "Rural growth and investment is hugely important and it is an area on which we place a strong emphasis.

"Helping rural businesses to unlock their potential to thrive and grow sustainably is one of my department's four strategic priorities."

Lord de Mauley said the government was investing £790m in broadband across the country "with a key focus on rural areas".

On the subject of rural shops, Lord de Mauley acknowledged that the network transformation programme was not suitable for about 3,000 post offices.

"They predominately serve small, often remote rural communities – many are the last shop in the village," he said.

"The updated network transformation programme provides for the first time a £20 million investment fund allocated specifically to this part of the network."

The full debate can be read here.


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