MPs Column

Edward Leigh
Edward Leigh

Those of us who represent rural areas in Parliament have been combining to do our best to make sure people in the countryside get our fair share of services and support.

Last week in the Commons, I pointed out that city people often have quite pronounced misconceptions about the countryside. The metropolitan elite and the people who write in our national newspapers often think that we all live in lovely stone cottages in picture-perfect Cotswold villages inhabited by media moguls and retired admirals. That’s not to say we don’t have beautiful villages – I’m delighted that Nettleham and Tealby are frequently named among the best-kept villages in the county, and the beauty of the Lincolnshire Wolds is renowned far and wide.

But there are pragmatic advantages to city life that we are deprived of here in the countryside. 96% of households in urban areas have a regular bus service, whereas only 42% of rural households can claim the same advantage. Even then, the services are much less frequent than those available to city dwellers. We also have rail service that fails to meet our needs and demands. I have already written to East Midlands Trains about overcrowding and lack of space on their services. We also have the famous train between Gainsborough and Cleethorpes which runs only once a week.

All of this combines to make us more dependent on cars, and we in rural areas also tend to drive over longer distances – 45% further than the annual English average. Average weekly household expenditure on transport in urban areas is £55. In rural towns and their fringes it is £62, in villages it is £78, and in hamlets and isolated dwellings it is £90. The average for England is a mere £58 in comparison.

In areas like ours in Lincolnshire, the highest proportion of income that is spent on an individual commodity or service goes on transport. We should consider the sort of wages that people in rural areas earn. We have a lot of retired people on relatively modest pensions, who have paid taxes their entire lives. They have to spend an average of no less than £90 a week on transport if they live in hamlets or isolated dwellings, which is an enormous burden. It’s obvious that more needs to be done in order to alleviate these discrepancies between urban and rural areas.

We – rural MPs – are united in exerting pressure and influence on the front bench ministers. In my last column I mentioned farmers’ objections to Government proposals over the Common Agricultural Policy. I wrote to Owen Paterson, the cabinet minister in charge of DEFRA relaying these concerns and backing them up. I’m very pleased to report back that the Government has been persuaded by our arguments, and found a compromise which has been accepted by the National Farmers Union, the Country Land & Business Association, and others. We can take heart that, even in the straitjacket of coalition, the Conservatives are delivering for people in the countryside.