12th May 2022
Thank you Mr. Deputy Speaker,
It’s an honour to be making my first contribution to a Queen’s Speech debate since being elected, in her majesty’s platinum jubilee year, and I’m very much looking forward to celebrating the platinum jubilee celebrations with my constituents.
The topic of todays debate is ‘Fairness at work, power in communities’, and I’m going to be focusing on rural communities in particular.
I’m incredibly proud of my rural community of North Shropshire. On Sunday I was lucky enough to attend a concert in Oswestry called ‘Songs for Ukraine’ involving nearly 200 local school children. Brilliantly hosted by Ukrainian sixth formers Lisa and Myra, showcasing the amazing talents of young performers from across North Shropshire and bringing together hundreds of families to raise over £11,000 pounds for vulnerable people fleeing a dreadful war. This was definitely North Shropshire at its best.
But it is abundantly clear to me that rural communities like mine, and so many other up and down the country, from Shetland to Somerset, feel taken for granted by this Conservative government.
‘Levelling up’ is the catchy slogan we have heard time and time again but there is very little of substance for those in rural areas. And the Queen’s Speech, I’m afraid, has offered nothing to help them.
In fact, the Government managed to compile a 140-page background briefing note to the Queen’s Speech - but the only mention of the word ‘rural’ was on four occasions. And two of those were in a list of Government departments.
Let me describe the situation in the lovely town of Market Drayton. It’s a fantastic place to visit - if you can get there. It’s a pretty medieval town, with attractive buildings and recently a large amount of housing development. Market Drayton has only one, very infrequent, bus service. This is being reduced and by the end of August, at the weekend there will be no bus service at all. For those that don’t drive, if they have an out-patient appointment at the hospital in Telford, they must rely on the car of friends or family for the 25-minute journey – a taxi would be more than £50 and on the minimal public transport available the round trip would be in excess of 4 hours. It may as well be an island. Young people here struggle to access work, let alone achieve fairness when they get there.
Limited and reducing public transport is not unique to Market Drayton. Across the market towns of North Shropshire and in the rest of rural Britain, isolation from work, from social opportunities and from health services are limiting opportunity and limiting the quality of life for rural communities. They need access to reliable bus services.
Now, colleagues may be thinking that the government is on this. They’ve committed, after all, to ‘bus back better’. But I’m afraid to report this is yet another catchy slogan with no meaning. How many times does the briefing paper to the Queen’s speech mention buses? Have a guess? The word ‘bus’ or ‘buses’ only appears once. It highlights the complete disregard this government have for rural communities like mine who are seeing their local transport cut to the bone.
The ‘bus back better’ funding, as with other levelling up funding, has been allocated via a bidding process, in which money is apparently allocated with very little direct reference to need. There has been nothing for Shropshire.
Much of the time I have spent on the floor of this house since being elected in December has been on the subject of ambulance waiting times, and I’m not going to repeat the shocking stories of dangerous delays again today.
But I note that a report by the APPG for Rural Health and Care and the National Centre for Rural Health and Care has found stark levels of inequality between rural and urban areas when it comes to health and social care services, and this resonates strongly with the emails in my inbox from concerned constituents, struggling to access GPs, dentists and even domiciliary care in what is an increasingly centralised model.
There is a theme emerging for rural communities in which critical infrastructure - whether that it is public transport, adult social care, community ambulance stations, banks, post offices, swimming pools and even driving test centres - are being shut down, centralised and removed from where they are most urgently needed.
In our market towns and villages we are expected to get in our petrol cars – because there aren’t any electric charging facilities - and drive to reach the most basic services. And those that can’t, whatever their reason, are being isolated in these rural islands. They are far from empowered. And I’m afraid that voting on their neighbour’s extension will not compensate for waiting 17 hours for an ambulance when they need one.
The Conservatives have taken rural Britain for granted.
The farming industry forms the back bone of the rural economy, producing our food, protecting our countryside and glueing our communities together. But this government is dicing with its future. Offering trade deals to countries with lower standards, and phasing out the basic farm payment scheme before its replacement is in place, would be bad enough.
But there has been no response at all to the rising cost of feed, cost of fuel and the cost of fertiliser that are leading farmers to shut up shop altogether. At a time when many of these critical businesses are facing the biggest challenges for a decade, the Conservatives are cutting their lifeline, taking their votes for granted and refusing to consider other options, even in the short-term, to save this critical industry. But they have been cut taxes for banks.
That shows all you need to know about the Conservatives’ commitment to rural Britain. Cuts for farmers, shortages in health care, cuts to public transport, tax breaks for bankers. 140 pages, thousands of words and barely a mention of rural Britain and the problems facing it.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I are proudly championing rural Britain. We have tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech which focuses specifically on rural issues.
We are calling for the government to protect farmers from the effect of new trade deals which would lower environmental and animal welfare standards.
We’re urging them to use this Queen’s speech to reverse the closures of rural ambulance stations and urge the Government to do far more to tackle the chronic shortages of GPs, dentists, consultants, nurses and other clinical professionals that we so desperately need.
We’re calling on the Government to protect our rivers by preventing water companies from dumping raw sewage into them, damaging our wildlife and reducing our access.
I am proud to represent the rural constituency of North Shropshire – and in my very biased view the best rural constituency in Britain. The people are caring, creative and resilient.
But the Conservatives are taking the good hard-working people of rural Britain for granted. Far from levelling up they are risking decline. I urge them to think again and act now to prevent this happening.
Act on the crisis in rural care – of which dire ambulance response times are the symptom.
Act now to save our farming industry and improve our food security
Act now to improve the services and transport infrastructure critical to growing the rural economy.
And Act now to give rural constituencies the fair deal that they deserve.