Rory Speaks on Rural Communities
There is the possibility that those on the Front Bench will have a weary cynicism about this debate—a feeling that statistics are being thrown around, that special pleading is going on, names of councils being showered down on them, and figures of 50% or 2% and different definitions and so on being mentioned, but the point, of course, that hon. Members are making on both sides of the House is not about councils, but about rural communities and the very particular situation in which rural communities in Britain find themselves after 50 years of intense fragility.
We are talking not about individuals, wealthy second-home owners or people who retire to the countryside, but about organic, living communities of the sort that we prize in this country and that everyone in the Chamber prizes—communities containing young families, living small farms and a living school. Those things desperately depend on how rural councils are funded, however, and they face a perfect storm. Ministers are not the only people putting pressures on them. It is important to understand the overall context in which agri-environmental schemes, the huge movement towards supermarkets and capitalism itself have eroded rural communities. This is simply the last straw on the camel’s back. For all the reasons we have heard in the House—sparse population, fuel poverty, cost of living—these communities now face a serious crisis. Whatever we do with the 50% or the 2%, rural councils have inherited a situation in which they are significantly less well funded per head than urban councils.
Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): As my hon. Friend points out, this situation has been going on for a long time, so does he share my disappointment that, although we thought that this would finally be dealt with and that rural communities would get their fair share, that does not appear to be happening?
Rory Stewart: That is an excellent point. Perhaps Ministers will address the fact that this is an inherited situation, stretching back to the ’60s and the ’70s, and relating to the debts of urban councils and the types of assets that urban councils possess. The financial settlement was not designed to address real instances of deprivation or to take into account the indexes of deprivation that we all experience day to day—the cost of heating rural homes, the cost of living and so on.
The nub of the argument, however, has to be about the communities themselves—about why we care about them and wish to keep vibrant, living, organic communities alive. There are three reasons: first, there will come a time when we treasure the food security offered by those small farms, which do not exist independent of the funding that the council is prepared to provide for schools, transport or housing; secondly, tourism, which is one of the most rapidly growing sectors in the rural economy, is dependent not on our weather or food, but on a living landscape of humans; and finally, the fact that this is something deeply precious to Britain. In this the 21st century, our country has the privilege of being one of the most advanced developed countries in the world. We can set an example to other countries of how an advanced industrial economy should behave, what kind of civilisation and future we want and what kind of landscape we imagine for our grandchildren. The decision that Ministers make today will determine that: it will determine whether instead of a network of small farms, organic communities and vibrant villages, we end up with nothing but a wilderness for millionaires.