A "decade of disrespect" for rural communities

Arundel & South Downs MP Nick Herbert has accused the Government of presiding over a “decade of disrespect” for rural communities and called on Ministers to return powers to local people.

The MP also underlined the importance of ensuring access to broadband in rural areas, including West Sussex where many households still cannot get the service.

Mr Herbert was speaking in a Commons debate last week (15 June) in which he said that rural communities have been let down by a Government which has taken powers away and given them to a plethora of quangos.

Mr Herbert, who is Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, said that the economic recession was hitting rural areas hard, with job losses affecting key rural industries and unemployment rising faster than in urban areas.

The MP also criticised the Government's "lamentable" record on rural services, with the closure of 1,400 rural post offices since 2000, the closure of nearly one fifth of rural job centres in the past two years at a time of rising unemployment, the closure of hundreds of small rural schools over the past decade, the failure to build affordable homes and the loss of 2,000 local shops every year.  According to one estimate, 42 per cent of small English towns and villages have no shop of any kind.

Mr Herbert said that the impact of the recession on rural areas could easily be overlooked: "There is a myth that rural Britain is wholly affluent, but 1.6 million people in rural areas live in poverty.  One in five households in the most rural areas live in fuel poverty - double the proportion of fuel-poor households in urban areas.  Around one in six people who suffer from deprivation are found in rural areas."

Mr Herbert said that it was time to support rural communities, not only from a sense of fairness, but to harness their "huge potential" for generating sustainable economic growth. 

Rural areas are already home to a quarter of all England's businesses, employing 5.5 million people and with a total turnover of £300 billion.  They also have higher rates of self-employment and new business start-ups, with more businesses per capita than in urban areas. 

But Mr Herbert said that the Government have exacerbated the recession in rural areas by the burden of regulation, increased payroll costs and problems accessing credit for small businesses.  In areas where people's work and services are often further away from where they live, Government measures such as increasing fuel duty and the tax on 4x4 vehicles have hit rural workers, particularly the low paid, disproportionately hard. 

And, according to the Commission for Rural Communities, fewer than half the residents in villages and hamlets live within 13 minutes of a bus stop with a service at least once an hour, compared with 95 per cent of urban residents.

During the debate, Mr Herbert focused on the importance of high-speed internet access in rural areas and highlighted the case of one of his constituents who, despite living less than 50 miles from London, had been paying £11,000 a year for a two megabyte connection to his converted farm buildings.

Last week, Gordon Brown said that broadband was an essential service, "as indispensable as electricity, gas and water", and pledged to give every home access, making broadband "truly available to all" by 2012.

Nick Herbert commented: "Proper broadband access in rural areas is long overdue.  While it's claimed that a large majority of the population can get some form of broadband, the truth is that at least half a million households cannot obtain reasonable speeds, and many get no acceptable level of internet connection at all - as many infuriated local people tell me.

"At the recent Amberley Business Breakfast, Councillor Roger Paterson made a passionate plea that we should not accept the ‘digital divide' between areas with broadband and those without.

"The divide will grow wider still when super-fast fibre-optic broadband is rolled out to half of the population, in cities and large towns, but not to rural areas.  The Government's answer, typically, is a new tax on phone lines, which is hardly fair on people who don't want an internet connection.

"Without next generation communications, we will not fulfil the potential of rural Britain to be home to small businesses generating the sustainable jobs of the future."



Notes for Editors

1. For a transcript of the Commons debate, visit http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090615/debtext/90615-0006.htm#0906157000006.

Christopher N Howarth