The government’s Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill returned to the House of Commons last week with the Lords’ amendments. These included Lords Amendment 6, proposed by Lord Foster of Bath:
“Rural proofing report: Alongside the first statement of levelling-up missions required by section 1, the Secretary of State must publish a rural proofing report detailing the ways in which the levelling-up missions have regard to their impact on rural areas and will address the needs of rural communities.”
RSN worked closely with Lord Foster to bring about this amendment which is a win for all rural communities. However, when the Bill was presented to the Commons, a motion had been included to disagree with Lord Foster’s amendment. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up & Regeneration, Michael Gove MP (Surrey Heath, MP) instead introduced the alternative:
Introducing the new amendments, the Minster of State for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, Rachel Maclean (Redditch, Con), said:
“Linked to that, there have been calls for more specific reporting on levelling up and rural proofing in Lords amendment 6. We strongly agree that levelling up must work for all types of communities, not just those in urban centres….The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs already publishes an annual rural proofing report, which reflects the Government’s consideration of rural challenges across policymaking.”
These new amendments were hotly contested, firstly by Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland, Con) who said: “As someone proud to represent a predominantly rural community, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to level up in rural areas is by ensuring that those areas get strong devolution deals with strong local leadership?”
Replying, Ms Maclean said:
“we have tabled an amendment that will require the Government to have regard to the needs of rural communities in preparing the statement of levelling-up missions. That is consistent with the approach we have taken in other areas, including with respect to the devolved Administrations.”
St Ives MP, Derek Thomas (Con) also challenged the new amendments, saying:
“As somebody who represents a large rural constituency of West Cornwall and Scilly, I cannot stress enough the importance of policy and measures actively designed to support the needs of rural communities. The House does not need me to remind it that the need to level up rural Britain is urgent and critical. Wages are lower, house prices are often higher, homes are more expensive to heat, delivering public transport and other services, such as social care, are more challenging, and the list goes on.
“As I have said, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the departmental team for their engagement with me. My right hon. Friend assures me that, rather than accept the Lords amendment, the Government will give greater force to the commitment to level up, and that they will be obliged to consider economic, social and other outcomes in setting up levelling-up missions, including the specific needs of rural communities. I welcome the acknowledgement that rural communities have a specific case worthy of consideration. In his concluding remarks, can the Minister explain in practice how the needs of rural communities will be addressed and not sidelined in favour of more densely populated areas, especially in relation to Cornish people who need secure, affordable housing.”
Using her maiden speech in the House of Commons, newly elected MP for Somerton & Frome, Sarah Dyke, also addressed the changed:
“Rural areas such as Somerton and Frome are suffering deeply with the cost-of-living crisis. The cost of housing is often disproportionate to the level of wages available, and people have to use their cars to travel further for work or to access services such as dentists, GPs, hospitals or schools.
“Off-grid fuels have been significantly more expensive than gas in the heating of homes. I will work to ensure that off-grid rural homes never have to face this crisis again. That is why amendment 6, on producing a rural proofing report, is so important. I need not say that the cost of delivering services in rural areas is greater than in urban areas, so it is vital that the Bill takes that into account, and I am delighted that my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place have tabled that amendment. Although I am disappointed that the Government have not gone so far as to support the amendment entirely, their concession is welcome.”
However, Helen Morgan MP (North Shropshire, Lib Dem) said the new amendments do not go far enough:
“Levelling up was meant to spark life across the whole country: not just the south-east or northern towns, but rural parts of Britain that sometimes conceal their deprivation behind a veil of beautiful greenness. Others have already highlighted this issue. I know as a rural MP that, while it is a privilege to live in a rural area, it does not come without drawbacks. Some 13% of my constituency of North Shropshire has hardly any mobile connection, and only 46% of rural businesses have a decent 4G broadband connection. There is only one bus on a Sunday, as Members will have heard me say on multiple occasions, and poor connections throughout the week mean that young people are missing out on opportunities to access further education and, critically, businesses are missing out on the skilled labour they need to thrive and expand.
“As the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) pointed out, the logistics of living in the countryside mean that council services cost more. Council taxes are up to 20% higher than in urban areas, while rural workers are paid 7.5% less on average than their urban colleagues and are faced with house prices that—if we exclude London—are often over eight times higher. Sadly, those differences were not recognised in the original drafting of the Bill. I support the concessions the Government have made in relation to amendment 6: they are taking steps in the right direction, and I think those concessions have been entered into in good faith. While I support them, I would have preferred Lords amendment 6 to have been retained in its entirety.”
Greg Smith MP (Buckingham, Con) went on to challenge the changes:
“I shall start with Lords amendment 6 on the question of rural proofing. I absolutely and totally support locking into the Bill the concept of rural proofing, but there are a number of points I would ask the Minister to reflect on while making this particular commitment. Of course, anybody can say that they are going to “have regard to” anything at all. When I find myself in the supermarket with my children, I could have regard to their demand to put only chocolate, crisps and ice cream into the trolley. It does not mean that I am necessarily going to follow through on that, in my view, unreasonable demand. Much of the legislation we pass in this place can be judged upon, and under a legal challenge it is not unknown for the judiciary to look back at what was said at the Dispatch Box. I would therefore find it incredibly helpful if the Minister, in summing up, expanded a little on how the Government see that rural proofing. What are the defining principles of the rural proofing that the amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 6 talk about?”
He went on to say:
“The point I am getting to is that it is incumbent on the Government to recognise within rural proofing that rural needs to remain rural. Without farming—without agriculture, without farmers—there is no rural, because it is the farmers who maintain the landscape: it is the farmers who cut the hedges and keep our countryside as beautiful as it is. If we do not have that, there will be knock-on consequences on everything else that happens in the countryside, not least on the backbone of many rural economies: tourism. If it is not beautiful and it has all become solar farms, housing or commercial warehouses, we will not have the tourism offer either. I therefore encourage the Minister, when summing up, to reassure the House that in respect of the amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 6, rural proofing really does mean keeping the rural rural.”
The House was divided on the vote with 297 MPs supporting the government’s move to disagree with Lord Foster’s amendments. This means the government’s own amendments made in lieu will now be incorporated into the Bill which will return to the House of Lords for consideration again. This ‘ping pong’ could go on for a number of months but it is understood that the Government will want to see the Bill enacted ahead of the King’s Speech on 7 November. RSN will continue to lobby MPs and Lords to ensure rural communities and the authorities which serve them get the best possible deal.
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