Anne McIntosh: Why it's time to future-proof rural policies

ONE of the highlights of this time of year is the agricultural show, and this week marks the 160th Great Yorkshire Show which is a national celebration of the countryside and farming.

When will rural communities receive fair funding?

Living and working in the countryside is the envy of many, yet rural dwellers face challenges of which their urban counterparts are blissfully unaware. That is why I am delighted to have secured a debate in the House of Lords tonight on the challenges and costs of providing public services in rural areas.

Public services in rural communities are coming under increasing pressure. Delivering health and social care, affordable housing, adequate transport to work or to see the doctor or dentist, accessing the digital economy via broadband and mobile phones are major challenges on a day-to-day basis.

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Successive governments have – for years – failed to understand and grasp the challenges associated with the efficient and safe delivery of key services. Officials seem to be metro-centric and urban-based and, in many cases, have never been exposed to the challenges of rural life. Also, funding per head of the population in is invariably less in rural areas. Finding an affordable home, with the ability to travel to a job some distance away; filing a tax return online; using the electronic prescription service in rural GP practices; reporting an emergency with a poor mobile phone signal; accessing local post offices and banks for small rural businesses are everyday examples of the issues.

And then the issue of health. Community hospitals play a special role in rural areas, making patients safe after a fall, a stroke or an operation before they return home. Yet a number have closed, such as the Lambert Hospital in Thirsk. Stroke units are often transferred to larger hospitals but far removed from where the patient lives. This, in turn, makes family visits difficult.

The Government rightly lauds its policy for a digital economy. Yet they must grasp the fact that digital access in the countryside actually precludes rural GPs accessing electronic prescriptions to the benefit of the patient, or farmers from downloading and completing farm payment claims online.

As far back as July 2013, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, which I had the privilege to chair, produced a report on rural communities in which we identified local authority funding, rural broadband, mobile phone blackspots, affordable housing, access to public transport and developing the rural economy as crucial factors which needed to be addressed.

Now the post-Brexit England Commission has just published an interim report on threats to rural areas after leaving the EU. It found a deepening divide between rural and urban areas, unaffordable homes, an increasing skills gap and poor connectivity to the internet. The report recommends greater powers to local authorities to tackle the problems, giving all councils the ability to borrow to build new homes, devolving funding and control over skills and employment schemes to local areas, and to plugging the adult social care funding gap which is expected to reach £3.5bn by 2025. Recently the House of Lords reported on the implementation of the Natural Environment Act and how this legislation, passed in 2006, had failed rural areas by abolishing the Commission for Rural Communities, ceased to rural-proof policies and recommended that responsibility for rural affairs be transferred to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government from Defra and that the Cabinet Office oversee rural-proofing of policy in all departments.

As we marvel and wonder at the craftsmanship and husbandry of the produce on display at the Great Yorkshire Show, we can simply urge the Government to be mindful of the everyday needs of country folk. A good start would be to rural-proof every policy emanating from Westminster and Whitehall, and to test its implementation against the costs and challenges facing rural communities.

Now five years on, this is a wake-up call to the Government that rural dwellers should be treated equally with their urban cousins, and to encourage a more joined-up, cross-departmental policy approach to the challenges and financing of public services being delivered to rural communities. Where better to commit to this than this week’s Great Yorkshire Show?

Anne McIntosh is a Tory peer and the former MP for Thirsk and Malton.