Rory Stewart believes 'we will give rural communities enormous strength'

Newly-appointed Defra minister pledged to help small businesses innovate and empower parish councils to influence planning policy

John Stillwell/PA Wire Rory Stewart arrives in Downing Street
Rory Stewart arrives in Downing Street

Parish councils will exert more influence over planning, a newly-appointed Government Minister has said, as he pledged to give rural communities a stronger voice.

Rory Stewart, the Penrith and Border MP promoted by David Cameron to be Minister in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said he will help parish councils to join up and drive the North East planning agenda.

The pledge to empower rural communities comes as Chancellor George Osborne sets out his Cities Devolution Bill, which could see controls over housing, skills and transport cash handed to the North East Combined Authority.

He said: “We need to make sure rural communities have enormous strength. Often in our part of the world, people love the area in which they live but are deeply frustrated by the barriers of distance and feel cut off.”

The Cumbrian Minister said rural voices in County Durham and Northumberland would not get lost in the fast-moving debate on devolution and vowed to tackle the low-wage economy in these areas by helping businesses to innovate.

“I am MP for the largest rural constituency in England,” he said. “I live and breathe rural communities. I am very much a believer in working to get more influence to those communities, whether it is parish councils, trusts or community groups.

“Over the last five years, what we have been doing is piloting projects which may now be good to see in action.

“We have had parish councils working in neighbourhood planning groups; getting together and taking over parish planning policy.”

New Government cash for parish councils is unlikely to be on offer as the Government is set to embark on more austerity but, Mr Stewart said, they would be offered advice on funding streams and have the option of raising the council tax precept.

The Minister said transport was a hurdle for rural communities but that bus subsidy allocation was a matter for local authorities.

Data published by the Northern TUC in February showed a sizeable portion of rural workers were paid below the living wage: in Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency it was 33%; North West Durham, 32%; Bishop Auckland, 29%; and Hexham, 25%.

“Low wages in rural areas is a challenge,” he said. “We have got to balance that in a serious way. We have got to accept various differences in urban areas but not say it is ‘us and them’.

“Cumbria has some of the lowest wage areas in the country but at the same time unemployment levels are very low and we have a very large number of self-employed and small businesses.

“We have got to get the balance right. The first thing we need to do is make sure people have employment in a field that they love, value or respect.

“Where we have businesses, we will do what we can to help them innovate and become more productive.”

He stopped short of backing the living wage but said Government will offer businesses support by boosting apprenticeships, skills and capital investment. He added: “It is not going to happen by someone in the Government pressing a magic button.”

Mr Stewart said the Government would also help to tackle isolation in rural areas by backing community-owned shops, transport and pubs where possible.

He said: “We can feel really proud and optimistic. Our rural areas are some of most beautiful places in the world.

“Many people living in rural areas up and down the country are much happier. Happiness in rural areas is much higher than in other parts of the country.

“We need to make sure we protect the landscape and our small farming industry. We have a real opportunity to make Britain one of the best examples in the world.”

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