§ 2.56 p.m.
§ Lord WALSTON rose to call attention to the problems of rural deprivation; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this Motion, I have no desire to assess the relative merits and hardships of urban deprivation and rural deprivation. To my mind, they are big and serious problems but they are complementary, not rival problems. The only point I should like to make is that rural deprivation (which I hope I can persuade your Lordships does exist) although not nearly so dramatic as the urban deprivation that we so often see in the slums of our cities and read about and see pictures of and, I freely admit, although not nearly on so large a scale, since it does not affect so many people, still is a very real problem: one which affects not only the lives of the people who live in deprived rural areas but also, as I hope I shall be able to convince your Lordships, the lives and wellbeing of all of us in this country.
§ To start on a pedestrian note, it is perfectly true that, even with the spread of sewerage and water supplies, of electrification and all the rest of it throughout the whole country—and remarkable progress has been made—there are still areas and individual houses which are deprived of these services; and there is still a painfully large number of cottages and houses in the country where the privy is down at the bottom of the garden and where there is no inside sanitation of any kind. But bad housing is by no means the commonest or, indeed, the most serious aspect of rural deprivation. What, of course, is needed is more housing and, above all, housing at a price that the poorest members of the community, living in rural areas, and the 1251 youngest members of the community can afford. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. So housing comes high on the list of priorities.
§ Also very high on the list of priorities are schools. As we know all too well, many schools are already closed. Many others are under the threat of closure, while many schools are in painfully old buildings. Indeed, very many of them lack the amenities which our educationalists tell us are essential for proper modern education. In addition, and in my opinion possibly the most important of all, is the question of jobs. Where should the young people of the villages go to get work?
§ I am not going to devote any time at all to the problem of agriculture. Obviously it is the most important of all rural industries. It is indeed the most important of all our national industries but, for all that, the contribution that it can make to alleviate rural deprivation is, at the best, no greater than the contribution it has made in the past. It employs—what is it?—2.8 per cent. of the total working population. Of course, in rural areas that rises to a considerably higher proportion, but I do not believe that it will, or indeed that it should, increase its labour force significantly. I hope it will not diminish its labour force, but we cannot look to agriculture to solve the problem of creating more jobs for people living in the rural areas. Therefore, my third point is the absence of jobs in rural areas.
§ The fourth point is facilities for shopping. Frequently in villages today there are no shops, or there is just one shop. Such shops as they are—good though they are and pleasant though they are to shop in, thanks to the owners who run them themselves—of necessity charge prices which are almost invariably higher than prices in the supermarkets in the towns. Their turnover is lower; more transport, and all the other things connected with it, are involved. So for those living in rural areas the cost of shopping is higher, unless they can get into the towns, and many of them are unable to do that because of my final point—public transport services are poor or non-existent. There are still very many people living in rural areas who do not own cars, who are unable to drive them; or even if the family does own 1252 a car, for most of the day it is away, taking the husband to work and therefore leaving the wife isolated and unable to shop except by public transport.
§ Those are the main factors leading to rural deprivation. The result of that is that, above all, young people are leaving our villages and because there are fewer young people now living in the villages the average age of the population is rising. It means that fewer children are being born in the villages; fewer children of school age are growing up in the villages, and therefore there is a greater threat to those village schools which still exist because in 10 years' time there will be fewer children than there are even today to go to them.
§ In remote areas—and as your Lord ships will know there are many of them—this leads to dying villages; the deserted villages which we have heard about from the days of Goldsmith onwards and certainly in more recent times in the inter-war years. They still exist. Dying villages are still to be found in many parts of the country. But where villages are not dying—and there are many of those, too—two other factors have come into the picture. One is that where the village is attractive, where it is on the coast or is scenically beautiful and has a good climate, more and more people are buying the houses that otherwise would be derelict, in order to have retirement homes or possibly week-end homes. In other areas not quite so remote, those within commuting distance of, not only London but the other big centres and the not-so-big centres, the professional classes, the managerial classes and the representional classes come to live, and of course go away to work 20 miles or even 50 miles away. In my own village in fact, some 50 miles from London, there are now people who commute to London every day.
§ Therefore, in those villages we are getting an entirely different form of population, and very largely a population which sleeps there and which looks after its garden there but increasingly does not send its children to the village school and does not shop in the village shop because these people have cars to go into the towns where there are a better choice and cheaper commodities. They find their recreation elsewhere, go off to the local 1253 golf club or drive many miles to a different pub instead of patronising the village pub. So the whole character is changing. One finds that either the village is dying or is providing homes for the elderly and retired, or becoming a dormitory. In any event the villages lose their character. They are very different from the villages we have known in the past and have come to love.
§ Does this in fact matter? Is there anything sacrosanct about village life as we knew it? Is not this perhaps a change to which we should say, "Well, some of us are rather set in our ways, we do not like changes, but there is nothing essentially wrong with it", or is there something essentially wrong with it? Yes, my Lords, I believe there is.
§ I believe there is for two reasons, to which I will give first a very short answer and then a somewhat more explicit answer. The short answer is that in village life there is a mixed society (and I shall develop that point a little more in a moment) and there is a small society. Today I believe one of the troubles in this country is that too few people understand the problems of other people. They live together in a street in a district of a town, in a suburb, where most of the people with whom they rub shoulders, their neighbours, those whom they meet on the way to work, on their way to school or on their way to the shops, are of roughly the same age, roughly the same income group, with roughly the same interests, roughly the same type of family. They are people who have the same interests and who take their holidays in similar places, and so on. People have little opportunity to have any contact at all with others: people who are older than themselves, people who are younger than themselves; people who are richer or poorer, people who are better or worse educated. They are insulated, as it were, in a cocoon, living in a form of monastery, protected from very much of the real world, knowing their own problems, ambitious for their own ambitions, knowing their own joys and their own disappointments, but with very little opportunity to understand or comprehend the ambitions, problems, joys and disappointments of other people.
§ This I believe to be very bad for adults. The more you can know about people different from yourself, the better; the 1254 less you know about them, the more you look upon yourself as belonging to the only important group of people. I believe this is one of the reasons why we have so many strikes today: people are so insulated that they do not realise the effect of their actions on others until it is too late. Of course they realise it now, but not when they are taking the initial steps. It is even worse for young people growing up. They do not know anything about the world outside. That ignorance of other people is the breeding ground for hooliganism, vandalism and crime.
§ In a village that does not happen at all. It is entirely different: you meet all types. There is the retired professor or the retired colonel, there is the roadman, the businessman, the tractor driver, the commercial traveller, the farmer. There are the bedridden old people and the rowdy children—they are all around you. The village gossips and the recluses, those who organise the Women's Institute and those who run the cricket club. They are all there, rich and poor, sick and healthy, and of necessity you know them all. You know of their problems, you know they exist and you talk to them, walking about in the village, watching the cricket match, simply because you are in a small community.
§ Because of the smallness of the community there is this feeling of involvement, of responsibility—responsibility for everybody, not just for yourself and your family. And it is very much harder for young people growing up in a village to become hooligans and vandals, to take to crime, when they are so much involved in the community and the whole village community is so much involved in them. It is very much harder for a worker in a village community to go on strike when the sufferers from the strike are people he knows and meets every day. I would just mention one statistic, the only one I shall mention. In my own region of East Anglia the days lost through industrial disputes in the past years were only one-sixth of the national average, and East Anglia is, of necessity, a rural community with far more villages and far fewer large conurbations than virtually any other region in the whole of the country.
§ While I do not want to trespass on what the right reverend Prelate may be saying 1255 later, I should like to put in one word for the village parson. His job must be, and I am sure is, very much easier, especially if he lives in the village itself, when he is able to walk round on a summer evening, talk to people working in their gardens, make contacts in that way, rather than in a town when he has, as it were, to pay an official call on his parishioners, with all the difficulties that ensue from that.
§ These are some of the qualities of village life that are of value, and I believe them to be of ever-increasing value today in our urban, impersonal, uncaring society. These are the values that are at risk; far more at risk than the lovely old houses, the thatched cottages, the village green, the trees, the elms struck by disease, the oaks still growing, the hedgerows, and far more important than all those things, important as they are. Fortunately, there are societies—I am very glad there are—to protect these inanimate objects, but there is no society to protect the far more important and elusive values that I have been talking about, the values which arise from small communities. So I would most strongly suggest to your Lordships that villages have very much to offer to the whole of the country, and that it is in the interest of all of us to see how the good things of the village can be preserved.
§ I have mentioned some disadvantages and I shall make some concrete proposals for overcoming the disadvantages that I have mentioned. All the well-known things are needed; of course, there must be better rural bus services, and I know that much thought has been given to this and that progress has been made in certain areas with the minibus. This is very valuable indeed. I know that there are already—and they have been in existence for a long time—subsidies for rural bus services, but they are still diminishing every year. I would like to quote briefly from the National Consumer Council, who have written to me on this subject. The main conclusions of their very valuable report on rural public transport are that the various experimental services that have been tried can make a very real contribution to the lives of rural communities, but are limited in scope and cannot solve all the problems of access of people living in rural areas.1256
§ While the report praises the qualities of imagination, innovation and self-help demonstrated by the schemes, the National Consumer Council strongly opposes the replacement of conventional with unconventional transport schemes. It goes on to say that there is widespread evidence that local authorities are not nearly as involved as they should be in joint planning with the Post Office on post-bus services in rural areas. So we cannot be complacent over what has been done. Let us give credit to those who are trying, but above all I would very strongly support anything that can involve the rural bus services with the postal services. It has been done in many countries: Switzerland is an example where it has been very successful, and I believe we can make very real progress in helping with the rural transport problem by making use of postal buses at the same time.
§ So what is needed is bus services, rural transport, far better infrastructure, which is always needed, and more houses to let, council houses for young married couples. This is of vital importance. All this imposes still more upon the local authorities, upon the rates; it means that more money must be available. We have heard a great deal about the urban renewal programme, a very good and valuable one, but I make a plea to the Government that this should not be at the expense of money which otherwise would be available for the rural areas.
§ Then, of course, we come to this very vexed problem of the rate support grant. I will not weary your Lordships with any long details of it; I do not know them myself in any case, and I think it would be out of place to attempt to do so. I said that I would not give any more statistics. I apologise, but I have one or two very small ones here. The rate support grant in 1978–9 for the whole of England works out at £145 per head of population, out of general taxation. The county of Suffolk, not a county I live in but one I am close to and fond of, gets not the £145 which is the average for the whole of England, not the £161 which London receives, or the £175 which the North-West receives, or the £185 which the North receives, but £116, in spite of the very heavy burdens that it, in company with all other rural communities, has to bear.1257
§ So far as education is concerned, I have some figures here which show that the amount spent on education in the same county is higher than the average. It has a larger number of school-children in need of education and that population of school-children has been rising steadily year by year. But its share of the needs grant has diminished from a figure of 0.92 per cent. in 19747–5 to 0.74 per cent. in 1977–78. The only point of those figures is to show that the picture is by no means getting better, that there is in fact a deterioration in it throughout the whole of the country, throughout all the rural areas.
§ So far I have spoken only of those things which require money, and I know that it is very difficult for any Government at the present time to say, Yes, to any proposals which require more money. But there are other things which do not require money. For instance, the village schools always have difficulties with regard to teachers. But why should they not have peripatetic teachers moving round the villages, specialising in history, geography, music, whatever the subject may be, so that on Monday one village has it and on Tuesday the next, with a great saving in money and a great improvement in standards of education in the rural districts, with the one resident head but the peripathetic specialist teachers?
§ Secondly, there should be—and again no money is needed in this connection—a far greater willingness on the part of the planning authorities to give permission for small factories and extensions to existing ones, and for small offices too, in selected villages. So, ideally, everyone living in a village—other than the most remote in the Highlands of Scotland or in the vastnesses of Wales—will have a choice of employment, a variety of jobs in factories and offices, within the maximum of half an hour's travelling from his or her home. That would be the ideal.
§ I am glad to see my noble friend Lord Northfield present and I hope he will take part in the debate. His organisation and especially COSIRA are doing very valuable work in this respect. However, they cannot put factories, however willing they are to do so, in areas for which local authorities will not give them permissions. It is the relaxation of those permissions that I believe to be one of the most vital 1258 needs at present. Of course, people will say that if one puts factories, or even offices, however small, in a village it will change the character of the village. It will do so, but I have tried to show to your Lordships that the character of the village is changing in any case, and changing for the worse.
§ I believe that if the sites were properly chosen, if the architecture were good, if the tree planting around the factories was well thought out, then, although the character of the village would change, it would change for the better. There would be more jobs. The young people would remain in the villages—provided the other changes were made also—and we would have live communities ready for the 21st century rather than the dying communities still trying to live in the 19th or even the 18th century.
§ Why are we so appallingly defeatist about our new buildings? After all, a village is nothing if it does not have buildings. We love our villages and we love the buildings in them. Is it a fact from which we cannot escape that our architects in this country are so lamentable that there is nothing that they can build anywhere at any time which will enhance the site on which it is built rather than detract from it? I do not believe that to be so. We have good architects and we have some damn bad ones too, and we have seen the results of their work. However, we do have some extremely good ones, and if they are given the opportunity and encouragement I believe that just as the great houses, the small houses, the manor houses and the cottages have enhanced the appearance of our villages, it is possible that even factories and places for offices—I shall not call them "office blocks"—can also enhance the beauty of our villages and will certainly make life for the people living in the villages far better than it would otherwise be.
§ Rural deprivation exists. It has not ruined our village life yet, but the warning is present. It is there for all of us to see who are not so obsessed with the problems of the inner city, with urban deprivation, slums and the rest of it in the large towns, that they have no understanding whatsoever of the values and the advantages of village life. Even with no extra expenditure much can be done to 1259 halt the decline. With relatively small amounts of money wisely spent, our villages will still be able to play their part in the aesthetic, economic and spiritual wellbeing of the country. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.24 p.m.
§ Lord ELTON
My Lords, the House is fortunate to have someone with such a very wide experience as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, to introduce this subject to it. He has his roots in farming and agriculture but his knowledge extends right through the affairs of this country and, indeed, the world.
The proper point from which to start a review of the subject is a recognition that we are one nation. It would not be right to look at the problems of the countryside as if they were separate and distinct from the problems of towns or, indeed, of the inner cities. Many painful situations that countrymen sometimes believe are theirs alone have an exact counterpart in the conurbations. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, took that point, but I think perhaps did not place it at the centre of his theme. Certainly, one can be acutely isolated in a fenland cottage, but one can be just as remote from the community in a high-rise flat. Certainly, there are low paid jobs on the land, but so, as we are all aware, there are in the cities. Certainly, some urban councils keep many houses empty in spite of homelessness, but so, regrettably, do some landowners. In many of the problem areas at which we are looking there is a direct parallel between what is happening in the country and what is happening in the towns. At some point we must recognise that town and country are in competition with each other for the same scarce resources, the same sparing Government assistance.
Secondly, we must recognise that the diversity of the countryside defies generalisation in most of the subject areas. The differences are not merely geographical. The difference is not only that between the hill-farms of Cumbria and the hop gardens of Kent: it is also economic. The contrast is between the compact gentility of subtopia, the lengthening urban shadows of Manchester and Birmingham, and those parts of the West 1260 country and Wales which are saturated by tourism.
Thirdly, we must recognise that a large and vital area of political thought and, hence, of economic action has, since the 1950s, been captured by what I shall loosely term the conservationist lobby. The reasons for that have been sound, but like all conscious political fashions I fear that this may have gone too far. The effect has too often been to preserve rather than to conserve. And what has been preserved has, in some areas, been too often an idealised notion of a life-style that never existed.
Perhaps the most emphatic conclusion of a conference which I recently attended on the future of the rural community was that the countryside is a place in which to earn a living and not just a place in which to live or, worse still, to which one goes to die. The fields are not just landscape: they produce 71 per cent. of all the wheat we need in this country; 100 per cent. of the milk; 38 per cent. of the butter and cheese; 87 per cent. of the beef; 61 per cent. of the mutton, and 40 per cent. of the sugar. Together with the ancillary industries, agriculture generates £2,500 million-worth of exports a year and, of course, saves us a staggering sum by import substitution.
Is it not, therefore a little odd, in the light of those figures, that it is necessary for the noble Lord, Lord Walston, to ask us today to consider rural deprivation? It becomes less odd when one realises that this huge industry employs what he puts at 2.8 per cent.—and what I think is probably nearer 2.5 per cent.—of the working population. It came as a jolt to me to discover yesterday that there are fewer workers in agriculture than there are in British Leyland, and when one compares their average wages and average strike records one begins to realise that while there are large areas in which town problems and country problems are the same, there are also large areas in which town conditions and traditions are sharply different from those of the country, and that is perhaps why this is such an important debate. However, if we start to think of the country merely as a place in which a loyal workforce can be employed for long hours at a low wage and without striking, we shall get off to a very poor start indeed and shall be going in the wrong direction.
1261 Therefore, agriculture is economically important, but numerically small. As it provides few jobs it does less to support the rural community than is commonly supposed. It provides fewer customers for the village shop and post office; fewer passengers on the local bus and fewer pupils in the village school, and the noble Lord, Lord Walston, referred to that matter. The extent to which agricultural employment has shrunk since the war has made all those services more expensive to provide. Yet, as each of them is in turn withdrawn, the community crosses another threshold of decline and the recovery becomes that much more difficult.
I have the clear impression that not enough has been done to counteract the decline of agricultural employment since the war and that what has been done has been directed not at the condition but at its results. In medicine a detectable symptom is often evidence of the natural reaction of the body to a disease. Therefore, if we try to cure the symptoms, we are in danger of encouraging the disease. The countryside is our patient. For instance, our planning regulations are admirable in their intentions and have been applied by admirably-intentioned people, among them the noble Lord, Lord Walston, against whom I make no charge. But wherever, by prohibiting the introduction of light industry, they have been used to preserve the elegant repose of a village street that has grown quiet only because of the loss of jobs in the area, when it used to be noisy, dirty and bustling, they have, in fact, been preserving the fabric of the community while stifling its life. That is not the principle upon which human communities are based; it is the principle of the coral polyp, it is the principle of the coral reef: a mass of pretty dwelling places abandoned by their inhabitants.
As planning decisions are functions of democratically-elected authorities, why then is there a tendency for them to be used to stifle the economic and so eventually the social life of the communities that elect them? In part, it may be that the level of decision has been too far removed from the level of impact. I believe that that may be remedied by changes in the rules about what a county council may reserve to itself in planning matters, and that is in hand. In part it is, I think, a result of 1262 what I call the institutional disease; that is to say, that convenient administrative criteria have too much inertia to be overset by elected people not sufficiently closely engaged in the problem. This also may be dented, if only marginally, by the lowering of the effective level of decision.
However, I fear that the third reason is much more serious and much more intractable. I fear that it is also difficult to express without giving unintended offence. It is that the elected bodies themselves are too often in the hands, not just of interest groups that may not favour a particular development, but of people who have not recognised that, if it is to survive, the rural community must be a place in which one can earn one's living. It is the vocal who get their way in politics because they motivate and inform those who take the action, and they also appear to control the votes.
Local government is a thankless task. The reward is much more often measured in kicks than in ha'pence; it is a voluntary occupation and can be pursued only by those with adequate spare time at the cost of their own leisure. This usually means that there is a fair proportion of the elderly and the well-to-do; and it often means very humane and enlightened people as well. I deeply and honestly admire those who are prepared to dedicate themselves to this task. But I ask myself: have they recognised what is going on and what they can do to put it right? I hope that after today's debate they will, and will also recognise the causes.
In part, of course, this is due to the fact that the electorate simply does not know what is going on; nor does it know the resources available to it. I believe that this can be remedied in a number of ways. The first is a revival in visible democracy. I believe that we must look again at the parish council. With the disappearance, upwards, under reorganisation of the functions of the RDC most significant decisions have been taken so far from the man in the cottage that they are above the cloud base. The parish council is irrelevant, and the district council out of sight. Maybe we ought to return some responsibility to the parish. Certainly, as the point at which government actually reaches right into the community, it ought to be drawn more effectively into the central and effective network. If there 1263 are such things as grass roots, surely these councils are the most fibrous and tender tips of the whole system. Like other local authority bodies, they are composed of amateurs and are themselves often woefully short of information. When I became a parish councillor, I rapidly became acutely aware of this very fact.
I should like to see local education authorities prepared to run short, voluntary, part-time courses for councillors at all levels. They might start with very short courses for parish councillors, and the system might then reach upwards, just as the courses for justices of the peace seem to have been extended to the higher benches of justice. A very few hours could prove invaluable.
I also hope that more local authorities will consider the appointment of a stipendiary clerk to serve groups of parish councils and to act as a channel of information on the enormously wide and complex range of services, both voluntary and official, available, not just to the council, but to the community it serves, for whom it should be acting as the information point. This could include everything from Citizens Advice Bureaux to legal aid. What is not known cannot be used.
One powerful aid about which far too little is known is the National Housing Corporation. An approach to this body is the essential first step in setting up a housing association. To set up such a housing association is often the first essential step in enabling the next generation to live in a village rather than to leave behind it tumbledown and picturesque cottages. That, in turn, can be the actual turning point from decline to development. Here is a case in point of direct competition for resources between rural and urban communities. The funds of the Corporation are earmarked for areas of stress. For an extraordinary reason, it appears that the countryside does not seem to be recognised as an area where there is stress. Perhaps this is another example of the idealised or what some call the "gentrified" view of the countryside and one wonders whether the gentry have read, Wuthering Heights.It hurts as much to be battered in a village as it does to be battered in a deprived urban area, and yet the 1264 funds of the Corporation, as I understand it, are not available for refuge homes in rural areas.
§ Lord ELTON
My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord will speak later. I was going to say later on, but shall say now, that I am new to this subject and if I am wrong I stand ready to be corrected on every point. I wish merely to put ideas into people's heads and not to lay down categories.
From the general, I have now begun to be drawn into particulars, and there is not time—nor do I have the knowledge—to speak at length on every facet of this complex problem. Noble Lords are already aware of the rate of closure of village shops, village schools and village post offices. In Wiltshire, the rate of decline in the provision of all these, particularly the shops, is alarming. No one who has lived in a village will doubt the central role of each to the community. This was most sharply pointed up by a married couple who recently took over a shop in a village in Cornwall. Until then the husband had been a probation officer and his wife a social worker. After two years they both emphatically said that in their new job they were far more effective in the same role of supporting and helping their fellows in the community than ever they had been before.
In a village, people are individuals and are known to one another. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, devoted one of his most important passages to this. This is what should give it its stability. The local resident community—the people who take jobs where they live rather than live where their jobs take them—are all known to one another personally and very often have been personal friends since they first entered the reception class of their village school. The effect this has upon industrial relations in rural industries is very marked. Friends deal more fairly with each other than with strangers, regardless of their social position.
But villagers must know that the village shop will be extinct if they do not support it. In a community of 500 any shopkeeper would be working at or below 1265 subsistence level and is entirely dependent on the patronage of his clientèle, who, on average, have only £6.50 per week per head to spend. Apparently prosperous concerns—there has been research on this—are run by people working 70 and 80 hours a week for £65 gross and less and no annual holiday. The fact that a concern looks prosperous does not mean that it affords a good life to the person who runs it. If the shop is vital to the community, it should be supported by the community. I think that there should be some form of rate relief, and I hope that this will be achieved by Clause 3 of the Local Government Finance Bill which is at present in another place.
The closure of schools is a very tender matter about which, under other circumstances, I would speak at length. The effect on very young children of busing even quite a short distance is bad. I am not certain that I follow the noble Lord, Lord Walston, in his idea of a sort of gyro of peripatetic teachers dealing with large numbers of children in different places. But I believe that in Cambridgeshire the experiment of having a key school in the centre of satellites, with the head teacher and the junior departments in the middle and the infant departments and reception classes in the satellites is one that ought to be followed. I believe that local education authorities somewhat tend to consider a school as being a social net cost or, at least, regard the social credit side as being only the provision of a desk not too far from the back door.
First, of course, there is the focussing effect of the school on the community: the twice-daily pilgrimage to the school gate and the gathering of the peer group of the mums. Secondly, there is the effect of out-of-school fund-raising activities, sports days, and so on. Thirdly, and most often forgotten, schools provide employment, and not only jobs for teachers; there are also the caretakers, the dinner ladies, and the crossing attendants. Above all, let us remember that in education small is, within limits, more efficient than big because everybody knows and can care about everybody else.
The Church, I believe—and I am glad to see the most reverend Primate here—has a role to play that is no less crucial 1266 than it ever has been, but it is different. We do not live in the days of Trollope. Too many parsons, I fear, still try to act out, and exhaust themselves in trying to act out, the roles of the 19th century. What they are ideally placed to do as, one hopes, neutral and ecumenical as well as committed and Anglican, is to identify social needs within the whole community, and identify them not only to their congregation but to the community, and also to identify the needs of the community in its wider surroundings. And this goes not only for the old, the sick, and the lonely, but for things like bus services and schools as well.
The post office is another vital link at the centre of village life, but also between the village and the outside world. I can only say in passing that if the level of stipend necessary to maintain sufficient sub-postmasters is too high to fit in with the costings imposed on the Post Office, the social role they play should be recognised. It would not be improper for this to be recognised financially by the Department of Health and Social Security. We are, after all, considering deprivation, and the Department was built to look after the deprived.
On transport I hope to learn much of interest this afternoon. The market research of the National Bus Company is one of a number of useful inputs—including some very useful experiments in post buses and the like. Because your Lordships are anxious to hear a Statement I shall not expatiate on that, or on the report that the noble Lord mentioned, although I hope that I may briefly say that I believe that we ought to be looking at the present criteria by which British Rail cost the running of existing branch lines and the opening of new ones, which seems to militate against a policy of expansion.
When I sat down to write this speech I despaired both of covering the whole canvas of rural conditions in detail and of distilling a philosophy to meet its demands in general. As I reach the end I recognise how wise I was, but I think that we must return to essentials and to the beginning of what I said. Over a wide range of its needs the countryside is in competition with the towns, not just for customers but for services. It is the infrastructural services that are proving too expensive to 1267 support in relation to diminishing employment. The one area in which this balance can be adjusted without direct Government interference in policy in local matters, which is a bad thing, is in the allocation, as Lord Walston so percipiently said, of the rate support grant. Recently this was shifted to favour the inner cities. Certainly the inner cities have a claim to special treatment, and were we debating inner city deprivation we would be saying the same thing the other way on. Is it not time that a comparison of the conflicting claims was examined again? It can then be left as it is, or adjusted in either direction. What we must not assume is that it is correct for all time.
I have omitted large and crucial subjects altogether. I have scarcely mentioned the admirable work of COSIRA, and the contribution of the Commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Northfield (I am sure that he will at least make good that omission); the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the Development Board for Rural Wales, and the various tourist boards. I hope that in indicating the direction in which their policies should lead us, while sparing your Lordships a long catalogue of my views on each, I have shortened the debate without impoverishing it.
In conclusion, without British agriculture this country would either go bankrupt or starve within a matter of years. Without the rural community there would be no agriculture. The countryside is a part of the British way of life. It is not simply an eventide home for the retired—though there is room for that. It is not only a healthy and relaxing dormitory for urban commuters, though there is room for that. It is not only a pretty place for second homes, attractive as these may be. But did your Lordships know that there is a booming industry now in selling second homes to Belgians, Dutch, and other members of the Common Market, who leave them empty for large parts of the year?
It is the scene of essential extractive industries such as gravel, china clay and gypsum, but it is also, and above all, a reservoir for our people of all those values and strengths that come from living in a caring community small 1268 enough for its members to know one another as individuals; where that knowledge brings them to resist the centrifugal forces of a rapidly changing technology and economics, and where many of them, getting their living in the face of natural forces that no strike, no concordat, and no parliamentary regulations can alter, recognise human life for what it is—a very small and precious thing that must be protected by courage and held together with mutal affection and respect by all of us. If we are not in the end to perish in confusion this must be done. Those are the values we are talking about today because they are under threat. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, deserves our thanks for bringing this threat to our attention so effectively.