Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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Secretary of State speech at Countryside Future conference

A transcription of the Environment Secretary's speech at the Countryside Future conference on 6 June 2023.

Thank you very much, Nick and I really appreciate that warm welcome. It is true I have come from Cabinet this morning. But I want to start by saying a huge thank you to the Countryside Alliance Foundation to the organising committee for today’s event. I know many people have made a contribution today, indeed everyone who’s given up their time to participate in this important discussion on the future of our countryside. And also particularly in this great estate, thanks to Lord and Lady Salisbury in particular, which as we already know has played such an important role in many chapters of our national history.

The countryside is the bedrock of our own story. Rightly famous around the world for its beauty. And absolutely at the heart it is a part of what makes our country such a great place to live. It has nourished generations of painters, poets, authors, composers, who brought the countryside and nature to life, whether that’s Elgar, Beatrix Potter, Gainsborough, Jane Austen, I can even add Clarkson’s Farm which has opened up the world of agriculture to a new audience who may be connecting for the very first time on what a challenging and rewarding life being a farmer is. And from the patchwork quilt of fields hedgerows and the dry stone walls that characterise our landscapes. To the woodlands that have kept watch for generations and the ancient stone circles that still keep us guessing about how they got there. We are so fortunate that we have these wonderful touchstones of our shared heritage to hand. Our countryside makes up over 90% of our land. This is a living, breathing, vibrant place that adds so much to the health and happiness of millions every year and over £250 billion pounds to our economy in England alone - thanks to the hard work and dedication of the nearly 10 million people who are proud to call this home.

Just a few weeks ago, I was delighted to present the Countryside Alliance awards - the rural Oscars as they’re known - to several brilliant businesses from across the United Kingdom, who’ve been chosen for over 15,000 entries. It was a joyful, brilliant celebration of a thriving, vibrant countryside that we all know, that we all love, that we all cherish, and that we want to continue to prosper.

Now I know how government has already helped businesses, rural business rates, relief, financial support to keep things like the network of rural post offices open. We’re continuing to do so. We’ve got £3.2 billion pounds a year during a sporting farmers, the 2.6 billion pounds in the Shared Prosperity Fund and indeed the extra £110 million pounds of the Rural England Prosperity Fund that are deploying. And that’s just to name a few of the initiatives that we’ve undertaken. This morning, sitting around the cabinet table, we were discussing these important rural matters, and most of the cabinet ministers represent rural areas. My team of Defra ministers certainly do. And we know why people love living and working in the countryside. We live and work there ourselves. We know the potential, but we also know the challenges that our rural communities can and do face. As a government, we have established the rural proofing policy so that every department has to consider policy through the rural lens. And that’s why also we started presenting the annual rural report, the next version of which will be published later this year. To complement that today, and because of that potentially we know exists, I’m pleased that the government is publishing Unleashing Rural Opportunity, which outlines some of the work we’ve already done and some new initiatives to help.

To help grow the economy, to help increase connectivity, to help introduce affordable housing, and to help strengthen our rural communities. Securing a fine and prosperous future for our countryside is not a niche concern. Far from it. It is a national priority. As Secretary State for Rural Affairs, I make my pledge to you, indeed to people living in walking in the countryside, that we will always champion the countryside and cherish rural ways of life. Those of us with mud in our boots, we may roll our eyes when we hear newcomers to the village complain of the clanging of the church bell or the smell from the spreading of manure. But we also know that with time comes a really growing understanding that these are the things that makes the countryside so special, and that we take them for granted our peril. So I am delighted as we think about the next generation in particular, we’ve recruited none other than Shaun the Sheep to help us promote respect for the countryside through the Countryside Code.

And it is that respect of the hard work it takes keep the countryside beautiful and healthy. It’s that respect for the countryside and for the people living and working in it that I really want to reinforce today. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live and work and countryside know the many benefits of spending time in the great outdoors can bring to our lives. Indeed we made a pledge in our Environmental Improvement Plan to provide access to green or blue spaces within 15 minutes from everyone’s home.

We have over 140,000 miles of public rights of way in England and Wales alone and we are extending the deadline is 2031 to register more. When complete next year we will have the longest coastal path in the world, the recently rechristened King Charles III Coast Path, and that level of access is extraordinary. But I do believe that access needs to be carefully managed, carefully respected, to protect our ground nesting birds, to keeping dogs on leads to stop sheep worrying, and to allow farmers to farm. Which is why we, the Conservative government will absolutely not be establishing a right to roam but we are reinforcing respect for rural communities. Now I think we’ve made a lot of progress in supporting rural communities to prosper since 2010. We actually see very high rates of employment in the countryside. But it can hide pockets of poverty too and in particular on low pay, where there are some of the lowest salaries in the country - the council that’s represented by the Prime Minister’s has the third lowest median salary in the country. That is a challenge undoubtedly. And we are reviewing how we measure deprivation in rural areas so that the interests of rural communities are better represented in future policy.

We want everyone in rural areas to be living long and fulfilling lives with the sustained improvements to living standards and their wider well-being we all want to see, beyond what just the natural green of the countryside provides. So providing the tools and resources they need to actually shape their future and to be part of decisions that affect their lives as we work together to make the most of the countryside for everything we want to achieve. And of course that includes our farmers, I’m not intending to dwell on farmers today but they are a core part of our countryside. And I’ve spoken about this at length in recent months and indeed, their dedication makes everything possible. I call them the original friends of the earth, they are certainly the custodians of our countryside. This was reinforced I hope when the Prime Minister made clear of how important they are at the Food Summit that we hosted in Number 10 just a few weeks ago. And as I pointed out, our rural reporting is now an annual fixture. So combining the best of the rural resourcefulness that many of us enjoy, the stewardship, the husbandry, we do need to make sure though, that we future proof our rural ways of life.

And some of this work needs to be taken and is being taken on a massive scale, including the £2.4 billion pounds flowing into the rural economy through supporting sustainable and productive farm businesses in England alone. Yet, just as a host of small challenges compound one another in the unique context of the countryside, we need to have smaller targeted solutions and initiatives to come together and make a real difference for the people who need the most and expand the horizons of what rural life can be. I think in particular, when I think about the different ways that we can do that. It is about making sure that we are unlocking growth and unleashing that rural potential. And there’s certain ways that we can try and make sure that happens. So we have digital connectivity. You should be able to run a financial services company or an architectural practice at the top of remote valley just as well as you can in a town. And that in turn will help us create more of the jobs we need in the countryside, as well as making it easier to give young people the wider educational and vocational opportunities they need to take them up, close to where they live, paying more rather than having to factor in an expensive commute into their working day. I’m determined that we would keep at it and, as I pointed out already, whether that’s business rate relief that we have, support for schools, investment in post offices, making sure that people can access the services that they need. So in terms of setting out our initiatives, we’ve got four themes where we’re talking about how we can grow the economy. But to do that, we also want to make sure that we’ve are improving that connectivity. and not just mobile phone but indeed, broadband.

Also reinforcing what it is about when we live in homes that are affordable homes that many of our younger people especially need, rather than having an exodus to the cities and then coming back later in life. But critically we also need to reinforce our communities and back the proven resilience, resourcefulness and agility that rural communities and rural businesses provide. So in terms of supporting growth in the rural economy, we will press on with making sure that we try to improve, as part of the levelling up agenda, supporting jobs, supporting education. whether that’s traditional rural strengths like farming, forestry, tourism, to make sure that we’re also capturing ventures into green industries and biotechnology, improving their skills, getting more people into better paying jobs, and just making things easier for people to do that. We’re investing in £10 million pounds through the new Rural England Prosperity Fund, and we’re going to be helping those who have furthest to travel to college each day by increasing our funding for bursaries for 16 to 19 year olds by 10% for the next year. In terms of transport and connectivity, it is absolutely key, getting to work and we should just accept that most people in the countryside do and will continue to drive. But quite rightly, we know that people want to be able to travel by buses too. Particularly as people get older in life. But it can be astonishingly expensive. And that’s why I was delighted that we’re extending the £2 bus fare cap until the end of October, and then we’ll go up to £2.50 until November 2024. And I know it’s helping a lot of rural people already. If I think about a trip from Kendall to Lancaster, it normally costs £15.

People are already saving that money now with the £2 cap and I can see the difference it makes in my own constituency as well. So overall, we’ll see over £3 million pounds in government investment to better protect our services into 2025 and keep travel affordable alongside the wider billion pounds being spent to improve the reliability, frequency and cost of buses. We’re also consulting on ways to better reflect the cost of operating rural bus services in subsidy payments to try and keep those fares low and the service levels high. So we want to protect vital rural routes. But even with the best will in the world, many people will know we can’t get a service everywhere, which is why we’ll be investing in more demand-responsive options as well.

The Department for Transport will be publishing later this year the Future of Transport Rules Strategy or Rural Transport Strategy and that will provide guidance for local authorities to use new technologies to improve access to services, tackle isolation and increase access to jobs and services in rural and remote areas. I was very pleased that we did issue a call for evidence last year on driving licences. Anybody who here has got their driving licence before 1997? So most people in the room but actually not all. And if you did that there was a European regulation that meant, which Britain fought hard for it at the time, that meant you were able to keep your driving licence rights which actually involve being able to drive up to seven and a half tonne lorry - but also critically and this is why it matters to me so much is a D1 licence and that is basically where you can drive community mini buses. And I see it quite regularly in my own constituency that you see charities investing money in people about 2500 to 3000 pounds to get their licence. I’m pleased to say the summary of the call for evidence that’s been published today 73% of those who responded would like to reinstate those rights particularly for the mini buses.

Digital connectivity is now mission critical. And things have moved faster than any of us could have imagined. 75% of UK premises can now access gigabit-capable broadband. That’s up from 6% just at the beginning of 2019. And over 730,000 premises have already been upgraded in hard-to-reach rural areas as part of our five day enhanced project in gigabit investment. And so by December 2025 we will have provided over 1.5 million premises with access to gigabit broadband, with fibre being laid up and down country. I remember it’s not that long ago, probably a decade ago when we talked about Universal Service Obligation. That was when we were going to excitedly give everybody access to 10 megabits and now we’re talking about a gigabit and we will continue to invest in that as well. An £8 million grant scheme to improve satellite connectivity for those really hard-to-reach places, up to 35,000 homes in the remotest parts of the country, as well as tripling the value of vouchers available under the gigabit broadband voucher scheme.

So that will mean we’re investing over a billion pounds in the shared rural network alongside industry to get 4G coverage and to get more people onto gigabit, and indeed we are planning through our Wireless Infrastructure Strategy to boost it by £40 million pounds. There are a number of trial things we are doing in the remote islands or the Shetlands or deep valets and the new £7 million fund will help to see how we can bring together satellite wireless and internet connectivity. I believe that will help tourism businesses, it help farmers to access lightning speeds and reliable connectivity for the first time. I am delighted that Simon Fell is going to be our rural connectivity champion, and that will encourage innovation investment and advanced wireless technologies in rural areas. We also want to make sure that people can get a home. The affordability of homes is really challenging. That includes making it easier for farmers to convert their disused farm buildings. We’re also funding a new team of rural housing enablers right across England to support new schemes and boost the supply of new affordable housing to rent for rural communities as well. You already know some of the challenges that we have on second homes.

That’s why local authorities will have the power to charge up to double the council tax on second homes, to help them to manage the impact that they can have on rural communities. And we’ll be consulting on the tools needed to address concerns about the proliferation of short term lets. I know that we’ve already supplied quite a lot of money, particularly for those with high proportions of second homes, to build new homes. I had the pleasure of opening a suite of those in Southwold in my own constituency, but it is critical that people do not feel that they have to leave the communities in which they have been brought up and want to stay within. So there are a number of other initiatives which I could be announcing today. I’m conscious that this particular one on energy, connectivity and what we’re doing to try and support, of course good homes, but I think also one of the things that doesn’t really get registered very often is crime. And we know that crime is generally lower in rural areas. But it’s also worryingly concerning about things like agricultural theft, in terms of equipment. These drills are not cheap to replace. These tractors are not cheap to replace. But they are being stolen and that’s why the establishment of the new National Rural Crime Unit with targeted funding, I believe will do a lot to bring together best practice, but also laser like focus on making sure that it’s not just about fly-tipping, which is a blight, but also how this is impacting the incomes and the prosperity of the people who are the very custodians our countryside and put the food on our plate.

So one of the things I am conscious about is that we want to see improve our access to things like health, the new dental plan, I’m expecting more work to be coming through on specifically on how we support rural communities. Coming back to the villages, the hamlets, the market towns, quite a lot of this is about is ‘the pub the hub?’ or ‘is the village hall the hub?’. As far as I’m concerned. It could be both and anything. Anything that brings people together, brings communities together. To enjoy that way of life, to be the volunteers, not just listening to the archers every night. But so they can have it happening in their own homes, in their own communities.

We need to make sure that we tackle that rural isolation, that we support the different elements that make people feel special. It’s why we’re forming a new Public Library Strategy for England in 2024. We’re giving some funding to ACRE and its network of member organisations in helping more people to volunteer and tackle loneliness. But also that’s why we continue to invest things through the assets of community value. I think the Prime Minister referred in cabinet this morning to the pub that he helped reopen when the community had bought it. For locals, like with the racehorse in Westhall in my constituency, just under £100,000 pounds was the key bit in there helping them buy and keep their pub open. And indeed we want to make sure that village halls endure which is why we created a fund especially in celebration of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee. And indeed I was in Herefordshire just a few days ago, where they were showing me how the support has made all the difference to making sure that their community hub is absolutely there. Let’s be clear, our countryside needs to be living, working, vibrant and thriving. That’s why I believe there are still many opportunities to really unleash its potential. That’s why today, I am publishing Unleashing Rural Opportunity, and it’s why I’m excited for now and generations to come to be the secretary of state of Defra, to be the person that bangs the table with my fellow cabinet ministers to make sure the countryside is not only respected, but cherished, valued, considered and make sure to continue to prosper for generations to come. Thank you very much.


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