Greg Smith – 2022 Speech on Levelling Up Rural Britain

The speech made by Greg Smith, the Conservative MP for Buckingham, in the House of Commons on 9 November 2022.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this important debate for rural communities across our whole United Kingdom, not least the 335 square miles of rural north Buckinghamshire that I have the privilege of representing in this place.

I associate myself with the points multiple hon. Members made to quash the myth that rural communities are all universally wealthy without pockets of deprivation. In my constituency, there are certainly communities that are struggling and need support. The energy crisis has really highlighted that, following on from the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) made about off-grid households. It took until September for Whitehall to acknowledge that off grid existed. The £100 scheme is too universal and does not address the real fuel poverty that exists in off-grid households, not least those that are not on oil and do not have the space to have a liquefied petroleum gas tank but are on the 47 kg LPG bottles, which I believe are up to something like £88 plus VAT a bottle now and, on full burn, only last for 19 hours. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take that point back to the Treasury, because if we do not get the basics right for rural communities it is very difficult to level up rural communities and deliver for everyone.

I was struck by the figures my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) gave that rural communities receive for their public services 37% less than their urban counterparts. Clearly, that is not right and we absolutely need to address it to ensure that every community across our United Kingdom gets, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, their fair slice of the cake. For communities like mine, when it comes to public services it is not just the core funding that is a challenge. It is also the way we remunerate the expenses of some of the lowest paid but most vital and important public servants. Carers often have to go in their own cars to visit patients and those they are caring for. Often, they do not even get the 45p a mile set out by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which, as we all know with rising prices at the fuel pumps, does not actually cover costs in the first place. That needs to be addressed urgently.

For my constituency, there is something that needs to be tackled very, very urgently: projects that are done in the name of levelling up, but do anything but level up north Buckinghamshire. I have two railways being built through my constituency. One is HS2. It is totally toxic—a destroyer of farms, countryside and our very way of life—and I have spoken in total opposition to it many times in this House. The other is East West Rail. While we welcome that railway, which will bring vital connectivity, those responsible have made, if I may put it in such a way, a bit of a hash of building it.

The unintended consequences need to be resolved through cross-governmental work to ensure that where big infrastructure projects are being built, whether they are welcome or not, they are not allowed to disrupt the day-to-day lives of communities. Only this morning, for example, I learned that the Crooked Billet pub in Newton Longville has closed its doors for the last time and is being handed back to the brewery, because the endless road closures from East West Rail have starved them of their trade. When the Addison Road bridge in Steeple Claydon was closed for months on end earlier this year, the Prince of Wales pub’s takings were £2,000 a week down. That is a devastating amount for a rural village pub to lose. There was no compensation—nothing whatever. W. G. Hill & Son just outside Marsh Gibbon has effectively been shut down by East West Rail replacing a bridge next to that business, as it cannot now legally get its HGVs underneath the bridge.

All those businesses have essentially been allowed to fail in the name of levelling-up projects. I urge the Minister to look at that very carefully to ensure that, in the future when infrastructure projects are built, we do not allow communities and businesses to suffer in that way—not to mention the state of our roads, which have literally been ripped up by the sheer volume of HGV movements around the large infrastructure projects. Buckinghamshire Council is doing its best; it has a £100 million programme to resurface roads across the county. However, when others are doing the damage, it is not fair that council tax payers have to pick up the bill.

I welcome the infrastructure first moves that the Government are introducing, but there needs to be some retrospective action on GP access in my constituency. Long Crendon lost its surgery last year. It secured land through a development, but it desperately needs the funds to build the new surgery; that needs attention. Likewise, on the Kingsbrook development just to the east of Aylesbury, the integrated care board is trying to claw back the section 106 money to spend it on other surgeries. I urge the Minister to take urgent action to ensure that infrastructure first can be retrospective, too.