Rural Communities debate
Speaking in a Parliamentary debate, Neil Parish raises issues relating the rural communities and the cost of living in rural areas.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate on rural poverty and the rural countryside.
We must talk up the countryside, because we are sometimes victims of our own success. One reason why house prices are so high in the countryside is that people who come on holiday to Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and other places—they even venture into Wales occasionally—retire there. Of course, we welcome retired people, but they do drive up the price of houses. Then people who work in the countryside, where wages are usually about 12% to 15% lower, have great difficulty buying properties. That is why affordable homes and planning are important. We must enable local villages, hamlets and communities to have affordable homes. I would like not only affordable homes but shared ownership, which gives people a chance to buy a share in a property and later, perhaps, to buy the whole property. It allows more people into home ownership.
Andrew Bridgen: Is my hon. Friend aware that the average age in rural communities is seven years older than in urban communities? Is it not an option for exception sites—I will be pushing for my parishes in North West Leicestershire—to provide retirement bungalows for people— with qualifications? Often, a widow or widower who has lived in the village all their life may own a large family house. They no longer require all that space, but they do not want to lose their friends and relations in the village. If they moved to a retirement bungalow, they could free up a house so that a new family could move into the village.
Neil Parish: I agree with my hon. Friend. Managing housing stock effectively is absolutely right. We need a supply of retirement bungalows so that people can move out of three or four-bedroom houses and live in their own area. I am a great believer in encouraging people to move, not browbeating them. It is essential to have such housing in an area.
I congratulate the Minister on what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been doing about red tape in farming and agriculture. We want to extend that beyond farming to all small businesses. We are a nation of shopkeepers and small businesses, and nowhere are they more essential than in the countryside. We need much less regulation so that businesses can thrive.
Food prices are rising. Although many people might not welcome that, it is a stimulus to the countryside in many respects. It stimulates not only agriculture but food processing. I would welcome the Government announcement that we hope for in the Queen’s Speech of a grocery trade adjudicator to ensure that the right proportion of the prices that we pay in shops returns to those who produce and process the food. That is absolutely essential.
I know that I will not make myself entirely popular with those who represent constituencies involved with the oil industry when I say that what has driven up the price of petrol at the pumps is the fact that crude oil prices have risen. If crude oil prices have risen globally, the companies are making vast profits, because their investment has not increased. We should tap into that a little more in order to reduce fuel prices in the countryside. Fuel is not a luxury; it is a necessity. I do not care how much money the Government invest in rural bus services; in many places in my constituency, if one waited for a bus, it would never come, and if it came, it would probably be going in the wrong direction. That might be facetious, but it is absolutely true. We must face up to the reality that in many small rural areas, bus companies will never run efficiently. Where we can make that happen, we must, but we need to consider it.
Tourism is hugely valued and is linked with agriculture and the countryside, and we must help it. I welcome the Government money for that in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.
Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I return to the start of my hon. Friend’s speech, which is positive about our rural communities. I agree that they are absolutely thriving. Over the Easter period, I visited an engineering business in my constituency that is expanding so fast—it has 70 workers now—that it cannot find premises. We have 11 micro-breweries in my Yorkshire constituency, and a new dye house—so there is lots of vibrancy in our rural communities.
Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The intervention is too long.
Neil Parish: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. I want to ensure that we do not leave this debate thinking that everything in the countryside is doom and gloom. There is much going on. That leads me to broadband and superfast broadband. The Government have invested £30 million in Devon and Somerset. We want to ensure that that delivers broadband to isolated areas as well, so that the easiest areas to get at are not picked off and the rest left. That is essential.
My final point involves school funding. Devon is 247th in the league; it is among the least funded in the country. We talk about fairness. I am not griping or grouching. We need fair delivery of funding throughout the country. Rural schools are small and cost more to run, so we need a fairer system.
I welcome this debate. The presence of Members from all parties shows how strongly we feel that the rural community deserves great support.