HL Deb 03 May 2000 vol 612 cc1020-9

3.20 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

rose to call attention to the provision of essential services to communities in particular need, including banking, post office facilities, transport and health; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. This is a debate about two nations, but not as conventionally understood. It is not a debate about the distribution of income and wealth, although I have to say that I find it deplorable that in today's affluent Britain the gap between rich and poor is widening.

Nor is the debate about north versus south. The problems of economic and social deprivation are common to communities throughout the United Kingdom. It is not even about town versus country because people living in both suffer from exclusion for one reason or another. Nevertheless, it is a debate about the haves and have-nots, particularly about those whose quality of life is diminished and seems likely to be diminished further by the absence of or inadequacies in the provision of those essential services which most of us take for granted.

The Social Exclusion Unit in the Cabinet Office recently published a report on neighbourhood renewal. In his foreword to it, the Prime Minister set out what he called four imperatives for successful regeneration. They were, first, to revive the economy. In this case, that is poor neighbourhoods. Secondly, to revive and empower the community. Thirdly, to improve key public services, particularly schools, health and the police, as well as re-engage private services such as shops and banks. Fourthly, underpinning all those, said the Prime Minister, was the need for leadership.

The Social Exclusion Unit report is concerned with the urban problem, particularly how to deal with run-down estates. Almost word for word, the Prime Minister's four imperatives could be applied to the problems of today's countryside. Reviving the economy has an immediate echo for everyone struggling with the consequences of the current disastrous farming crisis. Without a flourishing agriculture, life in rural areas as we know it will perish.

As regards improving key public services and re-engaging private ones, that is precisely the subject of today's debate. Under the umbrella of the Motion before the House, I expect my noble friends on these Benches to refer to all the matters on the Prime Minister's list and also to others, including transport. That is a notable omission when considering rural problems. I am pleased that noble Lords in most parts of the House will bring their experience and authority to the discussion, although I say with regret that judging by the speakers' list there is a startling lack of interest on the government Back Benches about these matters. We can always hope that one noble Lord from that side of the House will choose to speak in the gap.

In the past week, the Countryside Agency published its second The State of the Countryside report. I find it a fair-minded and balanced report. Its tone is calm and it does not campaign, although campaigning would be justified. The report states that the countryside is still a good place to live and mentions, for example, that people living in rural areas are as healthy as or healthier than their urban counterparts.

However, it also states that while: the affluent and the mobile may enjoy a good quality of life — a significant minority suffers serious disadvantage". It continues: Average weekly wages are lowest in rural counties such as Cornwall. Northumberland and Shropshire. To make matters worse, many essential services are either closing or face the threat of closure. This creates particular problems for the less well-off trying to get basic services if their post office, doctor's surgery or village shop has disappeared".

The report refers to homelessness and rising house prices which make it difficult for young people, even those in work, to continue to live in rural areas. It also refers to the amount of traffic on rural roads rising faster than in towns, which came as a surprise to me. It also refers to crime, with vehicle crime rising by 24 per cent between 1991 and 1995, much faster than in urban areas; faster even than in inner cities.

The report does not reflect—and given the timescale for publication it could not do so—the debate on rural crime that has followed the Tony Martin case. In an article in The Times 10 days ago, the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, spoke of the manifest and total failure of the Norfolk police. I am not in a position to judge whether that was a fair comment or a hasty one. We should certainly be careful about drawing instant conclusions of whatever kind from those events. The noble Lord was perhaps prudently more cautious in his description of his local police force in Somerset, which he says has a good reputation for professional conduct. As I cannot judge that from my direct experience, I, too, shall be cautious about it.

However, the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, was right to say that, in the English countryside generally, burglary no longer seems to be taken seriously … zero policing has resulted in a climate of fear [which affects] the old most of all". We all know that police houses in many villages stand empty, if they were not sold years ago. The local policeman, who everyone knew and who knew everyone, with his knowledge of how to reach outlying houses and farms, is becoming part of folk history. The local policeman was never off duty. But now, if you think you are being burgled, you may have several telephone numbers to call, some of which may be connected to voice mail. The nearest police station could be 10 miles away and open only from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. So if you think you are being burgled, you must hope that the burglar will take his time because there could be a half-hour wait before the police arrive in response to a 999 call.

It is not just—or mainly—the incidence of crime that causes fear in the countryside, but the extent to which the forces of law and order have apparently disappeared altogether from view. Of course, the picture is not all black. Some areas are better and more openly policed than others, but there is an urgent need to rethink and to explain rural policing in order to give the reassurance that country people deserve. And if that means more resources, so be it.

Last week, under the heading of "More Money to Cut Local Crime", the Home Office invited bids for a share of £30 million in the next round of its "Reducing Burglary" initiative. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that bids for policing in rural areas will be encouraged.

One of the persistent and worsening problems in rural areas is public transport for those who do not own their own cars. More than 20 years ago, the government of the day published a White Paper on transport policy, for which, I confess, I had some responsibility. A chapter on rural areas stated that more than two-thirds of those living there had a car even if they could not afford one. A consequence was that bus services were less used and more infrequent. That increased the isolation of households without cars and other members of a household when the use of the car was reserved for the breadwinner.

That figure of over two-thirds 20 years ago is now as much as 83 per cent and the isolation of those without cars is even greater. The White Paper of 1977, which proposed increased bus revenue support, simplified licensing procedures and rural bus experiments with new legislation to facilitate community schemes. However, despite those experiments and despite that legislation, public transport in rural areas has been allowed to languish for two decades.

In the course of the debate, my noble friends will refer further to rural policing and transport. Among other things, they will also mention problems of access to healthcare, the role of public libraries, rural housing, the threat to sub-post offices (much debated in this House yesterday) and the disappearance of local banking.

With regard to local banking, in closing 171 of its rural branches on 8th April, Barclays only followed more brutally a trend which has been apparent for a long time. Gone are the days when, in the absence of a branch, representatives of a high street bank arrived at least once a week to make its facilities available for half a day at the back of the local shop. For that matter, the local shop may have gone as well., together in some cases with the local pub. They do it better abroad. In Italy, for example, there are few hill villages without banking facilities. I do not know why their banks can provide a service which seems to be beyond the capacity of ours.

As the Countryside Agency says, for many people the countryside is still a good place to live; nor is the argument from these Benches against all change. It is certainly too easy to romanticise the past when living and working conditions for the majority of those in the countryside were often harsh and the quality of life restricted.

For the comfortably-off incomers to the countryside and, even more, the affluent weekenders with a second home, there are few problems. The incomers may run small businesses from their houses or, for those with two family cars, commute 10 or 20 miles or perhaps much further to work. They have chosen where to live and generally have the means to reach all the facilities and services that they require. They have the best of both worlds.

I even recall seeing recently an advertisement for "new executive town houses in delightful rural setting"—an estate agent's oxymoron if ever there was one‡ As for the weekenders, they can load up the family 4x4 at Tesco's or Sainsburys and hurry home to Islington if it begins to rain. I have no complaint whatever against incomers or weekenders—I was once one myself—except where they push up the price of housing. However, they do not face the problems of those born and brought up in rural areas; those who are anchored there and cannot really choose another way of life.

Finally, I return to the paradox that rising standards of living and a better quality of life for most people in our country can further impoverish the lives of an isolated or otherwise disadvantaged minority. Poverty itself is relative, but absolute standards can also be affected by the decline of essential services that most of us take for granted. We cannot allow the two nations of haves and have-nots, as I have defined them, to grow farther and farther apart. That means that in a market economy business must exercise social responsibility if it is to justify its freedom and not simply satisfy its shareholders and overpay its bosses. It means an active role for government, which must be ready to redistribute resources to meet the cost of public services that are inadequate or under threat.

Rural decline can be stopped, just as run-Clown neighbourhoods can be saved. As the Prime Minister said, that needs leadership. In this case, leadership should start with the government of the clay. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, has certainly struck a very opportune note with his choice of subject for the debate today. He made a point about the haves and the have-nots. I hope that some of the have-nots in parts of Hampshire, at whom, I suspect, this debate is aimed, may take some note of what is said today.

I speak as deputy president of the Countryside Alliance. The Countryside Alliance recently commissioned an NOP poll which confirmed a great deal of what we already knew. The April. NOP poll confirmed that only 4 per cent of all postmasters believe that the Government are doing a good job. The previous poll taken in July 1999 found that 27 per cent believed that the Government were not doing too had a job. The drop in the past nine months from 27 per cent to 4 per cent is quite substantial. Well over half the people who run local post offices know perfectly well that the Government are doing a bad job, and 87 per cent know and believe that the Government do not understand the value of local post offices, despite what may have been said yesterday.

There are nine other elements in the rural economy. It is a question not only of the post office, but also of the pharmacy, the physician, the parson, the priest, the publican, the primary school teacher, the petrol pump attendant and the policeman. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, I should like to dwell in particular on the latter two important members of the rural community who are so essential in providing the full range of services: the petrol pump attendant and the policeman.

The rural areas are worst affected by the fuel tax. The motor car supplies the basic needs of every single person who wants to live and work in the countryside. It would be churlish not to welcome what the Government have done with regard to the fuel tax escalator. However, they may have given up the principle but they do not seem to have abandoned the practice. The Countryside Alliance's April survey also shows that the much-vaunted rural bus scheme has made no perceived difference to the people who live in the countryside. Like all government schemes, it is badly run, and a high percentage of the grants under the Rural Bus Challenge seems to have been spent in the metropolitan areas. It is quite extraordinary that the moment the Government start to give a grant, socialist authorities are very apt at diverting the money their way.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said, policing is the next most important problem in the countryside. Independent research for the Countryside Alliance has shown that crime is a concern equal to transport and housing for people who live in rural areas. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, so rightly said, the unique element of rural crime is the terrible fear that help is unlikely to arrive in time. That is something that we in the countryside all know. Worse still is the admission by police forces in the counties that I know best—certainly in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk—where the police tell you that if you can identify the criminals and want to press charges, the police cannot be responsible for any subsequent action against your property. That is a really serious situation.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Government do something about the noise?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I was seeking to be as fair as possible to the noble Lord, Lord Kimball. He may prefer to adjourn during pleasure to discover the cause of the noise. We now understand the cause of the noise, but it will take a few moments to rectify it. I am not sure whether the Leader of the House will agree that it is in order to adjourn during pleasure for five minutes, after which we shall be able to listen to the noble Lord properly. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 3.45 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 3.40 to 3.45 p.m.]

Lord Kimball

My Lords, it seems that even in a central metropolitan area it takes some time for the experts to arrive and fix these problems. That reflects exactly what I was saying about crime in rural areas—help is unlikely to arrive on time.

The police in the counties of Norfolk, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire will tell you that if you can identify the criminals and wish to press charges, the police cannot be responsible for any subsequent action against your property. It is a very serious situation to receive that sort of advice from a district superintendent in your own area.

Many noble Lords will have seen the "Countryfile" programme, which is one of the few programmes on television that is worth watching. It has a very good weather forecast, which is not normally done by a lady, so it is usually right‡ "Countryfile" recently produced the facts that 55 per cent of all farms have been burgled; 45 per cent of all farmers in rural areas have suffered vandalism; 20 per cent have suffered arson, which is a very serious crime; and 10 per cent have suffered physical abuse. In my own parish in Leicestershire, every single farm toolshed and store has been attacked. The perpetrators have not yet succeeded in gaining access to them, but every single one has been attacked. The reason for that, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers rightly said, is that even the Home Office has had to admit that there is a very serious shortfall in police funding. They admit to a figure of £30 million per year because of the inadequate calculation of the sparsity funding factor. That cannot be put right overnight. It is all very well for the Government to say that they will make the money available, but they have to recruit and train the police officers and revamp the structure of the country forces.

In addition to the list of problems in the rural parishes all beginning with `p', I should like to add to petrol and policing two others that were not in the original list; namely, planning and Poundbury. The health of the rural economy today depends on diversification. Several times this Session we have debated the sad state of agriculture and the rural economy in decline. I shall not develop that further today. But what I should like to point out to your Lordships is the fact that we can no longer succeed in developing diversification on the farms of this country. Grants for adapting farm buildings for other uses have now been withdrawn.

I know many cases, certainly in the wilds of rural Lincolnshire, where more money is brought in on the rent roll from the diversification of farm buildings than is brought in from the actual business of farming. I know that we have the engine of Grimsby and Scunthorpe, leading to a demand for office accommodation and other uses for farm buildings. But what did the Government do in that sphere? They set up the Countryside Agency and stripped it of its grant-making powers. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, referred to the Countryside Agency's report, which is a very serious indictment of the Government's failure to do anything for the rural countryside. Will the Government look seriously at restoring grant-making powers to the Countryside Agency? When it was the Countryside Development Agency, we saw the immense effect it had on rural areas.

One other way of restoring rural prosperity can be achieved through the planning authorities. I should like to make it compulsory for every planning authority in England to visit Poundbury to see what the Duchy of Cornwall has done there. It is the most brilliant example of how to sustain, revive and maintain a rural community. It is a wonderful mixture of housing. I am depressed today by the fact that when there is a new bypass round a village, the land within its compass is sold off and one particular housing contractor builds a number of desirable modern homes. They are just another modern slum. But at Poundbury, there is a brilliant development which has a mixture of all types of housing. Do not let anybody be deluded into thinking that the Duchy of Cornwall is subsidising that in any way. It is a straight, practical commercial development, thanks to the supervision of a really powerful and brilliant architect.

The other important aspect of Poundbury is its acceptance of the motor car. The motor car is digested; it is not a nuisance at all. It is hidden away and the areas above the garages are used properly. Of course, Poundbury is the product of a farmer's mind.

I believe that we all know that the market towns of Great Britain, and of England in particular, are in serious financial trouble. I believe that many of those market towns could be sustained by proper development, in the same way as Poundbury has been developed. After all, all those shops which are going bust in the market town high streets were once houses. They should be put back into the affordable rural housing sector, and linked to proper out-of-town shopping centres. That is the way in which the countryside should develop. Like many other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for giving us the opportunity to discuss those issues in this debate.

3.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, like many noble Lords, I welcome the opportunity afforded by this debate to consider the correlation between services which are regarded as essential with the extent to which they are a reality among communities in particular need. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for initiating the debate. In particular, I look forward to the contribution of my friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, whose rural experience is considerably greater than mine.

I want to concentrate on aspects that are part of my day-to-day experience. The Portsmouth diocese comprises south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, an area which contains great social variations—inner urban, urban, suburban, suburban-rural, rural—much of which scores highly for mention now. However, I want to confine myself to two areas: banking and post office facilities on the Isle of Wight and health in inner urban Portsmouth.

It is a fact that 23 per cent of the population on the Isle of Wight are over 65 years of age and in the view of the county council it is unlikely that many of them will be using the Internet for their banking facilities in the near future. Local leaders are therefore extremely concerned about central government's proposal to pay pensions into bank accounts in order to avoid fraud and to increase security. That has implications for post offices, 40 per cent of whose business is paying out pensions to people who are purchasing goods at the same time.

Existing arrangements for customers to access their banks through the post offices are good but that does not help those who do not have a bank account in the first place. Niton is a village in the south-east of the island, comprising 550 households, 25 per cent of which have no car. It has a population of 1,300, 32 per cent of whom are pensioners. At one time Niton had two banks and a variety of shops. People used to plan to retire there. Now it has few businesses and services and only a small post office with a small shop as part of it. If that were to disappear, the community would suffer even further. The ease of collecting cash and paying bills over the counter is not the only consideration. The post office remains a place of contact where people meet and keep in touch with each other. The scenario I have just described could be replicated elsewhere. It is a symptom of our inability to manage change in an effective and flexible way. We are often told in banking terms that we are becoming a cashless and faceless society. Perhaps that is where the future lies. But it is not here yet.

Many rural communities are increasingly suspicious of the high street banks which appear to them to be driven by what are seen to be their own economic priorities which are gradually replacing face-to-face contact. I am not against the cashless society. That is but a development from turning gold into paper in monetary terms and almost logical with our current technology. The faceless character of our society, however, has far more serious consequences. Computerisation and the Internet are causing a revolution, much of it good in terms of speed and efficiency. As chair of a steering committee for IT skills bases in the regeneration areas around Portsmouth, I have seen for myself children from deprived communities in inner urban Portsmouth being helped in basic English language skills by a computer programme in a way that would have been unthinkable in years past.

But there is a human price to pay. However clever the software, it cannot teach wisdom and the value of human relationships.

One of the answers to the island's problems is a more flexible approach, one which does not discriminate against those who are not computerised as well as one which provides a low-cost banking facility, particularly for the disadvantaged and the socially excluded. I want to ask the Minister what steps the Government will take to enable a credit union to deliver such financial services to vulnerable people.

I turn now to the City of Portsmouth and to inner urban Portsmouth, to be precise, which has the poorest postcode in the south of England. There are five of what we call urban priority area parishes. In three of those, 35 per cent of households depend on benefit. The area has twice the level of unemployment of the rest of the city. Seventy per cent of 17 year-olds are no longer in full-time education; 22 per cent of the population are in serious debt. I know those communities. The clergy working in their parishes are performing a heroic task, usually in partnership with community workers of various kinds. The work of all of them—not just the work of the clergy—is characterised by small results from great resources, such is the degree of deprivation among the people.

Life styles are unhealthy with high levels of smoking, alcohol drinking above sensible limits, and problems of overweight. A high proportion die of coronary heart disease or from cancer, including lung cancer, and 56 per cent are reported to suffer from stress caused by neighbourhood problems of one kind or another but different from that which interrupted us earlier.

In such a community, access to primary care is vital. But reality shows a different picture. In those communities general practitioners have a greater workload with a significantly higher proportion of night visits. There is a decreasing proportion of district nurses per 1,000 practice population aged 65 years and over. Moreover, the caseloads in those deprived areas include high numbers of children with special needs. Statistics reveal a consistently lower uptake for facilities such as cervical and breast screening.

The problems are typical of many of our inner cities, but Portsmouth scores highly indeed. Many of the reasons for what we face today lie deep in history as quick-fix solutions repeatedly reveal. Anyone who has lived and worked in those communities in Portsmouth knows that we are in for a long haul, whether in relation to health or education or even, in some places, housing.

I want to ask the Minister what the Government are prepared to do to persuade the Portsmouth and South-East Hampshire Health Authority to ensure the provision of equitable access to effective healthcare in relation to needs. Can he reveal the adequacy of primary healthcare provision in the deprived areas of the city so that financial allocations to primary care groups take account of differences in health needs and so that staffing levels of GPs, district nurses and health visitors can match needs in the most deprived areas? In conclusion, I call for what has been referred to by someone who, I believe, is a professional colleague of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, as "a real cultivation of the moral imagination". That will help us to bridge the gap between the grand strategy on the one hand and the problems that are with us on the other, so that we can find ways of thinking, analysing and imagining that are in every sense attainable.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, before we move to the Statement on Zimbabwe I take the opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on a Statement should be confined to brief comments and questions for clarification. Peers who speak at length do so at the expense of other noble Lords.

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