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Column 1326all the republics of Latin America have returned to democracy, some from subjugation by exceptionally brutal military regimes. Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and others are struggling to foster responsible representative democracy against the background of horrendous economic difficulties.
One of the principal problems lies with the restoration of effective democratic parties following the destruction wreaked by military dictatorship. That is particularly true of Chile, where the Right-wing parties have suffered notably more than those of the Left. I wonder whether we, as representatives of the "mother of party democracy", are applying sufficient resources in this area in which we have such an impressive wealth of practical experience to contribute.
Many countries in the region deserve congratulation on their transition to democracy. The latest example has been Chile, which has astonished the world with its smooth process through constitutional referenda towards the presidential and congressional elections due to be held in December. Despite the reservations that we may have about their brutal record on human rights, President Pinochet and his regime deserve recognition for the determined way in which they have led the country back to democracy. Perhaps the greatest endowment that they will bestow on the restored democracy will be the relatively most healthy economy in Latin America. The test of that democracy will be whether its new policies can be compatible with continuing and growing economic prosperity. Argentina under Raul Alfonsin is a bitter warning to Latin American democrats of the penalties for irresponsible policies and failure to take the necessary decisions.
A number of Latin American countries have still to return to democracy. Nicaragua last voted in 1984, in elections which were delayed and then staged under conditions so open to poll rigging that the main opposition alliance boycotted them. The Government of Nicaragua are committed to elections next February, and the opposition have agreed to contest them, but will the Sandinistas, with their record of repression, political prisoners and censorship, give a fair wind to the elections? What democratic guarantees will be on offer? Independent oversight of the poll and the freedoms of campaigning and the press must be upheld.
We all know what happened as a result of the May election in Panama. Haiti has reverted to yet another military dictatorship. Paraguay has recently returned to democracy, but we must never forget that the recent election there was held under Stroessner's distorted electoral law and voters list. Nor should we forget that President Rodriguez was a close associate of his dictatorial predecessor. We must make it clear that we continue to have considerable reservations about all those countries.
A growing interest in Latin America is centred around the real threat to the rain forest in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazonia. We have a major part to play in view of our technical expertise, which is particularly manifested in the Oxford Forestry Institute and at Kew. Experts in tropical rain forests, such as John Hemmings and Ghillean Prance, have much to offer to enable an economically viable but ecologically preserved Amazonia to prosper. This is why we must welcome the recent agreement concluded with Brazil by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), which brings much of this expertise to bear in co-operation with the Brazilians. It is
Column 1327the first agreement of its sort and contrasts well with the rhetoric emanating from the United States and elsewhere which so inflames the Brazilian public and political opinion.
We should speak out also against the international desecrators of the rain forest. We rightly take an interest in British companies which perhaps inadvertently have Brazilian subsidiaries and affiliates which commit environmental excesses, and we should speak out against destructive exploiters of the rain forest. I think in particular of the Japanese exploiters of hardwood, who have already wreaked havoc in Burma and Borneo and are reported to be planning the rape of the Brazilian state of Acre along a transport route through Peru.
British trade with South America has had a sad record in recent decades. Even now, our share of Latin American imports has risen to only 3 per cent. I note the significant increase in British trade missions in recent years and the increasing number of Ministers making visits, but one visitor who would make a major impact is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The Government's great successes in transforming the British economy, vastly increasing productivity and pioneering privatisation have excited the interest of Latin Americans. A visit by the architect of that transformation would focus interest on the potential for business with Britain. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will note that and consider enticing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister with the prospect of a visit to Sa o Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, to Colombia and Venezuela, and to Chile after the restoration of democracy. We also need visits by many more business men to the region to foster British exports and investment. The great Latin American cities provide sophistication and comfort to rival any in Europe. It is not a discomfort prospect. Business men will need to gain a knowledge of the languages, which are Spanish and Portuguese, and although it is not the subject of the debate, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will emphasise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science the importance of those languages. Spanish, after all, is the most spoken international language after English.
The debate has necessarily been short. We spend little enough time in the House on foreign affairs, and most of that is on European affairs with a little on the Commonwealth, but we must never forget our friends in Latin America and the outstanding potential of a region whose GDP is greater than that of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia put together. The opportunities for us are immense if we do not neglect that continent.
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow) : I shall start by sketching a little history of Latin America. If time had permitted, I should have gone back to the Incas and perhaps even earlier. Unfortunately, time does not permit, so I will go back only about 200 years to the period when the great liberator, Simon Bolivar, was hard at work getting rid of the Spanish yoke. There was Bolivar in the north and San Martin in the south, and we should not forget the help that the British Government of the day gave those two liberators. It should not be forgotten that British troops fought beside the liberator. Nor should we forget the reverence in which Bolivar is still held. I
Column 1328remember well crossing a square in Caracas where there was a splendid equestrian statue of the liberator. A man was on duty, and if people attempted to carry parcels past the statue or to sit on the steps around its base, the man would advance blowing a whistle to drive them away. Could we find such an example of reverence for a great national figure of the past?
We have heard a great deal about Argentina. I have reservations about President Menem because I have strong reservations about Peronism, which seems to be rather an unpleasant creed. None the less, we must wish him well and every success with his beautiful country, which has the potential to be one of the most prosperous in the world. Let us hope that he gets it right.
I continue to skate northwards very rapidly, to Nicaragua. It is my belief that the United States Government got it wrong, and that the Somoza regime was particularly unpleasant and should not have been bolstered and kept going. America should have taken the longer-term view by getting rid of Somoza and encouraging Nicaragua to take the road to prosperity rather than repression.
Other hon. Members have touched on the Falklands. I have just received the latest issue of the Falkland Islands Newsletter, which mentions Peronism and the fact that it directs that
"Argentine school children be taught from infancy that The Malvinas' are theirs by right so that they actually believe it." That is not the way forward. Good will is needed on both sides, not that sort of propaganda.
I spoke briefly of Britain's historical contacts with Latin America. Even to this day, the English are much liked in south America.
Mr. Corbyn : So are the British.
Mr. Summerson : I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely correct, particularly bearing in mind that Admiral Cochrane was a Scot.
To this day, the British are well liked in south America. Twelve years ago, I spent six months travelling around south America, and as soon as the local people discovered that I was not "Americano" or "Yankee" but "Inglese", their attitude changed. There is a great fund of good will for the British in south America, and we should not throw it away but develop it.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : By leave of the House, even at this late hour I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) on securing the debate, and welcome the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Under- Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
As other hon. Members have observed, Latin America is increasingly at the margin of British interest. The total value of our exports to Latin America in 1987 was less than that of those to Norway. In the past 30 years, Britain's share of Latin American imports has fallen by two thirds, and that country's share of British imports by four fifths. Britain makes a relatively insignificant contribution in terms of services to Latin America, whose total share of British aid is less than 3 per cent.
To most British people, Latin America is an unknown continent with a negative image of debt, rain forest
Column 1329destruction, poverty, drugs and dictatorship, but in the past decade there have been extensive moves to democracy in Latin America. One thinks of Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina--and this year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, to which the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) properly referred.
Elected Governments in those countries are increasingly under pressure as democracy, sadly, fails to deliver in economic terms. A regrettable feature of centre Governments is that they are increasingly losing out to the extreme Left or extreme Right--and the end of that road may be a a return to military dictatorships, as people yearn for the stability offered by military Governments of the past.
We must constantly remind ourselves that democracy is not just a matter of constitutional structures but of human and social rights. A democracy that cannot deliver is a shaky democracy. In particular, one now sees problems in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina. The debt problem has been mentioned. The net outflow of resources from Latin America last year was in excess of $28.9 billion and the flow of investment to Latin America was only $4.3 billion. There are no clear signs of growth and inflation is high. One asks whether democracy can find an easy route in such circumstances.
What role can Britain usefully play, given the decline in our influence and commitment to Latin America? The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), who has an extensive knowledge of the region, bewailed the few British journalists in the area. He might also have mentioned the decline in language studies, other than French, in Britain.
Save for the peculiar bilateral difficulties of the Falklands and Argentina, our policy towards Latin America will increasingly be seen in a European context, particularly because of the important historic and cultural links between the Iberian countries. I do not suggest that there should be an exclusive relationship, but that special relationship in the past will have to be addressed.
What, then, are the specific and general areas of impact on the United Kingdom which are worth recording? The debt problem was much stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). The foreign currency spent on servicing debt clearly reduces growth and the possibility of imports from the First world. Short-term emergency packages are insufficient. As the hon. Member for Wycombe stressed, the Baker plan did not work, but the Brady plan for debt reduction at least has some greater hope of working. Are the British Government planning any initiative to reach a lasting settlement? I see that not in the context of bailing out those banks--particularly the American banks, but not exclusively so--which in the 1960s and 1970s saw it as their job to lend. Certainly the structure and composition of the debt is different from the public debt which applies in Africa south of the Sahara.
The drugs problem has also been mentioned by several hon. Members. It is significant that 40 per cent. of the cocaine seized in Europe last year came from Colombia and 20 per cent. from Ecuador. What co-operation are the Government receiving from Latin American countries on the drugs problem and to what extent are the Government prepared to assist in measures such as crop substitution?
Column 1330My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North mentioned the destruction of the rain forests. The Opposition welcome the initiatives of the Secretary of State for the Environment in his previous incarnation as Minister for Overseas Development and we hope that he will carry that same commitment to his wider responsibilities in his new Department. In particular, we note his pressure on British companies which operate in the area, such as Shell in Brazil, following allegations of their supplying fuel to mineral prospectors in Bua Vista in the north of Brazil and elsewhere.
It is in human rights that the Government have had the greatest failure in the past decade, in particular in their non-intervention when so many Latin American Governments tolerated death squads and vigilantes who co-operated with the security forces. I recall that in 1983, in the port of Valparaiso in Chile, on the 11th anniversary of the bombing of the Moneda palace the British ambassador was handing over a warship to the Chileans, while, in contrast, the French ambassador had completely immersed himself in human rights problems, co-operating with others. Britain had resumed diplomatic relations with Chile ostensibly to make representations on human rights after the torture and maltreatment of Dr. Sheila Cassidy and the death of William Beausire, a British subject, but despite the purported reasons for establishing diplomatic relations it was clear that trade was the main motive.
Mr. Corbyn : And military co-operation.
Mr. Anderson : And military co-operation, as my hon. Friend says. To add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles has already said about Chile, we rejoice that Chile now seems firmly on the road to democracy, although that is no thanks to the British Government who seemed happy and at home with dictators.
The hon. Member for Wycombe referred to the Falklands and Argentina. Clearly, circumstances have changed since the election of President Menem, who has given many signals that he wishes to enter into a dialogue with Britain. In that regard, may I ask the Minister whether it is true that the Argentine Government have offered to meet the British Government in Brasilia--as Brazil acts as agent on our behalf--and, if so, what has been the response?
After the war we had established the principle of no change by military intervention and held, and could have acted from, the high ground. Unfortunately, there has been a substantial slippage since then because of the failure of both Governments to respond to the situation. It is wrong that countries which have had such a long history of friendship should fail to move, but at least the way now seems open for some positive development. As the hon. Member for Wycombe will know, a high-powered delegation of congressmen from Argentina will be here for the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in September, which may afford an opportunity for discussions. Back in Chile, the dark night of Pinochet is almost over. The consensus agreement on constitutional changes agreed between the Chilean Government and Opposition last month suggests that progress towards democracy is now almost unstoppable. I hope that the British Government will help in the process, as the elections promise to be fair and there is every expectation of an Opposition victory. I hope that the British Government
Column 1331will in no way welcome Pinochet to this country in view of his background and in particular his treatment of British subjects. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North mentioned our major concerns about El Salvador. Our real concern is that the Government will seek to encourage ARENA and make it respectable. Clearly, the United States was mightily embarrassed by the rigged elections in Salvador. By their past attitudes and by the death squads, those in ARENA have proved themselves to be a bunch of murderers, although it is fair to say that President Cristiani has been the respectable face of a very unrespectable group. Is it true that the Government propose to invite President Cristiani to visit Britain in the autumn, and if the visit goes ahead, will he be accompanied by Mr. d'Aubuisson? It would be a disgraceful blot on the British record if d'Aubuisson, who is the real power behind the throne, were welcome at either No. 10 or the Palace, or both.
The Government now appear to be seeking in every way to make ARENA, which has always been linked with the death squads, acceptable. They should surely draw the line at welcoming d'Aubuisson, who a previous American ambassador described as "a pathological killer". Are we making representations to El Salvador about the increasing human rights abuses and the newly published programme for changes in the penal law mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North?
Nicaragua has been perhaps the greatest victim of Thatcherite ideology over the years. Is it not now time, after 10 years of blockade and isolation, to help restore peace and to rebuild Nicaragua's shattered economy and resume direct British aid to that country?
Sadly, to a large extent Latin America is marginalised in comparison with the grand role that our people played in the area in the last century. If that role is currently marginal, it is potentially very important. I have referred to the impact of debt and drugs. I hope that our foreign policy towards the region as a whole will be less ideological in future and more oriented towards human rights and development. I hope that it is less based on the Reagan-Thatcher axis which has done so much harm to the area's development potential and particularly to that of central America. The time is now set for the tone of our policy to change in response to the signals from that continent.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : The Foreign Office is notnoted as a Department that frequently brings legislation before the House. It can fairly be said that it is not a Department whose responsibilities frequently feature as subjects for debate. Therefore, I am more than somewhat surprised to find that before my second day--or more accurately, my third night--in my new post, I have not only taken a Bill through all its stages in the House, but I find myself replying to a debate. I welcome these opportunities. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) and for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) for the kind welcome that they extended to me on my new responsibility--
Mr. Anderson : In spite of the hour.
Mr. Corbyn : Or because of it.
Mr. Sainsbury : Despite of or because of, I am not choosy. When my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham initiated a debate on our relations with Latin America this time last year--almost to the day--he remarked that it was the first time for 38 years that the House had debated the subject. I am certainly pleased that we have returned to it after a briefer interval on this occasion, although the hour is rather similar. In view of my relatively short time in post, I hope that the House will understand if I necessarily speak with some diffidence on the subject.
However, I can confirm that a lot has changed since last year's debate, much of that change being for the better. Last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), in her previous position as the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, spoke of the continent's return to democracy. That welcome trend has continued and has gathered momentum. A series of presidential elections is in prospect in the region. It is easy to forget that 10 years ago most Latin American countries were dictatorships while most are now democracies. Even in those countries in which democracy is not yet fully established, notably Chile, there have been clear moves in the right direction. I know that the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) recently visited Chile and I welcomed what he said as a result of the impressions that he gathered during his visit.
Our relationships with the region are full of potential, as many hon. Members have said, but they have also moved forward. When he addressed Canning house in December last year, referring to relations with Latin America my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, the then Foreign Secretary, said :
"now we can say, without any fear of contradiction, that the period of neglect is over."
Events since have borne him out. Quietly but continuously we have developed our relations with the region. British investment, always a major component of that relationship, has continued at high levels. We are a significant investor in Brazil. In 1988, investment flows from the United Kingdom made us the second largest foreign investor that year both in Venezuela and in Colombia. The region remains an important trading partner for us, even if, as hon. Members have said, our share of the market remains far lower than it should be. The degree of interest shown by the United Kingdom companies that attended the Foreign and Commonwealth Office-organised seminar on trade and investment in Latin America last May heartened all of us. More than ever, our message to the United Kingdom companies that have not yet discovered Latin America is to go and look. The opportunities are there, as has been stressed in the debate, and United Kingdom companies trading in Latin America are doing well. The Foreign Office, the Department of Trade and Industry in London and our posts abroad stand ready to offer every assistance to those that do go and look. I accept that we could and should do better, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has said.
In other matters, too, our relationship has thickened. Hon. Members will be aware of the recent very successful visit to Brazil by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Our co-operation with Latin American countries to combat the worldwide scourges of narcotics and terrorism has continued and intensified. I shall say more on those themes in a moment.
Column 1333Not surprisingly, Chile has frequently featured in this debate. The hon. Member for Western Isles referred to it as one of the most exciting countries in the region. I note the concerns that have been expressed, but Chile has a long history of democracy, and the British Government want to see that status fully restored. We have been encouraged by the progress that is now being made to that end and by the great sense of responsibility being demonstrated on all sides during this important political transition, and we wish it well. We will continue to give every encouragement to all those in Chile who aspire to democracy. Together with our partners in the Twelve, we look forward to working with a democratically elected Government, expected to assume office in March next year, following the general and presidential elections to be held in December this year. The success of the Chilean economy in recent years has been particularly notable. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham referred to that. It is certainly true that there has been sustained growth since 1983 of over 5 per cent. per year, substantial debt reduction, and an impressive diversification of exports. All the major political parties and presidential candidates are pledged not to alter the basic economic framework put in place by the present Chilean Government. Candidates' differing ideas on the social policy that a democratic Government should follow will be put to the vote in December, and it will be for the Chilean people themselves to decide. There will be plenty of scope for economic co- operation by Britain with the new Government when they are in place. The unified European Community market in 1992 will offer plenty of opportunities for trade which we would expect not only Chile but other Latin American countries to grasp.
Let me now say a word about human rights in Chile, which have been referred to rather too often, one might think. Sadly, they continue to be abused in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, Latin America is no exception. The British Government's views on this matter are very clear, and we make no bones about putting our views squarely to the Governments concerned, including the Chilean Government, which we do frequently, as we do to the Colombian Government about the different problems in that country. We and our European Community partners have frequently made it plain that we are concerned about continuing abuses, not only in Chile, but wherever they occur, and we are not afraid to take a clear public stand, including in the United Nations. [Interruption.] I emphasise to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) that we must also be ready to recognise real improvements. By doing that, we encourage the further improvements that we all want to see.
I shall now cross the Andes to Argentina, which has also been mentioned by most of the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.
Hon. Members will have seen reports in the press of "a new approach" by the new Argentine Government on the Falklands. We have been struck by the new tone of official Argentine statements since the inauguration of President Menem. We certainly welcome the constitutional transfer of power through elections, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe rightly pointed out was for the first time in 60 years. We wish that new Government well. The
Column 1334full nature of the Argentine position is not yet clear. There have been numerous statements, not all entirely consistent with each other. But their approach seems designed to restore a more normal relationship with us, while putting the difficult issue of sovereignty on one side, which we welcome.
We have consistently expressed our willingness to work for more normal relations by making progress on practical issues of potential benefit to both sides. I have in mind the removal of trade and financial restrictions and the restoration of air links and the establishment of contacts on fisheries, where we have important common interests in the conservation of fish stocks.
I hope that we can look forward to a period of tangible achievement in our relations with Argentina. That is certainly our aim, and I hope that it is shared by the new Argentine Government.
A number of hon. Members have asked about the reports of contacts with Argentina. I hope that they will understand that this is a very delicate matter and that they will not expect me to go into details at this stage. I cannot comment on the press reports, but hon. Members may rest assured that we will respond positively to any proposals, consistent with our commitment to the Falkland Islands. The debt problem has been generally recognised as very worrying, but, of course, it is not all gloom. On a more positive note, after lengthy negotiations, Mexico has reached an agreement with its commercial creditors, which we warmly welcome. We hope that that will make a major contribution to economic recovery in Mexico and to the successful implementation of the Brady plan.
The Government are very concerned about the difficulties faced by many Latin American countries as a result of their heavy debt burdens, but it is important to remember that the majority of Latin America's debt is owed to the commercial banks, and arrangements for dealing with that debt must be primarily a matter for debtors and banks to negotiate between them.
However, in Latin America, creditor Governments have made a substantial contribution towards debtors' external financing needs. That has been through both new lending from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and by rescheduling official debt in the Paris club, where countries are prepared to undertake the often difficult task of economic reform.
Furthermore, the Government appreciate the importance of commercial debt reduction, and recognise that international financial institutions can play a useful facilitating role. We support the strengthened debt strategy for the highly indebted middle-income countries, known as the Brady plan. We endorsed it at the economic summit in Paris.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham and the hon. Member for Islington, North raised the important matter of the rain forests and the environment. That has been fully debated twice this year in the House, but I recognise that there is an extraordinary degree of public interest in the issue at the moment. I mentioned earlier the successful trip to Brazil by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in his previous post as Minister for Overseas Development. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that as a concrete demonstration of the importance with which we view environmental problems in the region and of our interest in doing something effective to help. Perhaps less prominent have been the continuing difficulties of urban pollution in Latin
Column 1335American cities, which my right hon. Friend also looked at during his visit. Not surprisingly, there is great sensitivity in certain Latin American countries at anything that smacks of foreign interference in those affairs. My right hon. Friend said during his visit, and I repeat here, that
"there is no intention whatsoever of interfering in sovereignty", Brazilian or other. We wish to help Latin American Governments to tackle those very difficult problems, and are glad to be able to put at their disposal our considerable expertise in the forestry sector. My right hon. Friend signed a memorandum of understanding with the Brazilian Government during his visit, opening the way to just that sort of sensible, practical co- operation. Overseas Development Administration officials are now looking at specific ways in which we can help. We are in no doubt that this is a much more responsible approach to important issues than any calls for pressure to be put on Latin American Governments.
Hon. Members mentioned the important subject of drugs. The hon. Member for Swansea, East asked about the co-operation that we receive. We have developed increasingly effective programmes of co-operation with Governments in the common struggle against drugs, including direct links between our police forces and Customs services. For obvious reasons, I would prefer not to give details of those links. We have provided radio equipment to police forces in several countries. At present we are negotiating anti-drugs agreements with Mexico, and my predecessor signed one in Brazil last November. We plan to host a conference on this most important subject next year.
All hon. Members who contributed to the excellent debate mentioned the difficulties that Latin America faces. No one is more aware of those difficulties than the Government. We know that there is much work to be done in solving the problem of the region's external debt, and that democracy requires consolidation. It would be wrong to look only at the darker side of the region as a whole or our relations with Latin America.
Latin America is almost unique in the world outside Europe in its widespread return to democracy, and its attachment to western values. I am hopeful that the region's economic difficulties will prove temporary. I have often heard that nobody who has been there can fail to be impressed by the region's potential and by the capabilities of its people. I am new to this job, but I am much looking forward to seeing for myself before too long the problems and opportunities that we have been discussing tonight.
We mean it when we say that we value our relations with Latin America. Over past years, particularly over the past 12 months, we have established a particular momentum in those relations. We intend to continue to expand and to strengthen our links with a continent so close to our own in its culture and history.
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : However late and grey the hour, I welcome the opportunity to debate the continuing development on green field sites around towns and cities. In so doing, I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his expanded duties in the planning sector. He will need all his skills as a steersman, boxer and umpire in this arena, to which he is no stranger, and I wish him well. I am pleased and relieved to see that other hon. Members have stayed the course and are present to debate this important subject, late though it is. The issue is of vital concern to people all over Britain, but it is particularly acute in the south of England. A dominant London, a vigorous economy, rapidly developing job opportunities, attractive countryside and even a relatively benign climate combine to create an insatiable demand for new homes and other development in the countryside. That phenomenon is not new. Victorian and Edwardian suburbs bear witness to past demand. Ribbon development in the 1930s and the growth of boroughs such as Enfield, Bromley, Harrow and Woodford, and similar developments on the edge of other cities, show the strength of demand for homes built on green field sites in the years between the wars. They are a clear warning, as are many post-war developments, of how much acreage can be built on in one, two or three decades.
Our framework of planning law was established to balance the demand for more and better housing in an attractive environment with the need to preserve the countryside from the character of towns. Despite this framework, however, a frightening amount of green field land is still built on every year. As Mark Twain reminded us long ago, there is not an unlimited supply of this commodity. He was speaking of America. In Britain it is even more clearly the case. Many hon. Members from a multiplicity of constituencies are worried by that, but we are not blind to the need for new and better housing, nor to the desire of families for an improved environment.
The debate is about two issues--how to limit the pace of green field development and at the same time finding other land for housing. With many of my colleagues, I contend that great opportunities still exist to use derelict and underused land within and on the edge of many of our towns and cities as land for housing and other developments. Far too many people are still condemned to live as neighbours to decay--closed factories, empty warehouses, defunct power stations, unused wharfs and shrunken mental hospitals. Those useless monuments to the changed industrial and social life of Britain make bad neighbours for those who live beside them. Vandalism and dereliction, dirt and decay ensure a rotten environment. They create hopelessness, undermine initiative and cause depression and gloom. Land and buildings unused and uncared for are not just an economic waste but a social cancer.
Much of such land is still in the hands of central and local government, nationalised industries and other public bodies such as the Health Service. Several factors militate against the use of this land, including little or no financial incentive to sell, management which lacks dynamism, public sector managers whose accountability is limited and often diffuse, inadequate entrepreneurial know-how and
Column 1337drive, and limited or non-existent knowledge of property development. In some cases, it is continuing political resistance from some local authorities.
Where those factors can be changed a dramatic and rapid alteration follows. London's dockland is the prime example. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) was the mover behind the London docklands development scheme and he deserves continuing credit for it. I hope that there will come a time when he is again in a position directly to influence the course of government to the benefit of many.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), with expert advice from outside the House, has evolved public land use management schemes as one way to overcome the problems which too often stand in the way of selling public unused and underused land for housing and other purposes.
I have spoken of the social cancer that derelict land represents, and there is still far too much of it. Figures from the Department of the Environment show more than 17,000 acres of derelict land in England as owned by county and district councils, with a further 28, 000 acres owned by other public bodies. That was 40 per cent. of the total listed as derelict land in public ownership.
Not all but much of that land could be used to meet housing demand and thus help to limit the need to provide more and more green field sites for developers. Where derelict land and other urban land is used for housing, it is vital that development schemes are comprehensive, responsive to the desires of individuals and provided with a satisfactory environment around them.
Local authority city housing schemes of the 1960s and 1970s were often a disaster because planners, architects and, I have to admit, politicians paid scant heed to the wishes, though they were articulated clearly enough, of the often reluctant residents. It has taken us 25 years to learn the lessons of tower blocks. Where houses have been built for sale, the consumer has always had a say. That opportunity for choice now has a better chance of occurring in the rented sector under the Government's new initiatives, but there is still a long way to go. If the rapid development of city and other urban land is to take place, and thus relieve the pressure on green field development, such action can be successful only if homes and the lived-in environment around them are attractive to the people. Britain has not been good at achieving attractive modern towns and cities. The challenge now and in the future is to make them better places in which to live.
I return to the subject of green field sites and Government policy on specific planning applications. Pressure from would-be developers is relentless, be it for warehousing, factories, offices, shopping centres or new towns. My purpose in initiating this debate--and many of my hon. Friends will share my view--is to make it clear to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, whose appointment I welcome, that there is growing concern about existing and potential over-development in parts of Britain, particularly in the south. We want him to take full cognisance of our concern because it reflects that of many of our constituents and supporters, who look to the Government to balance the demand for homes against the need to protect the environment. They are not arguing like Luddites against
Column 1338all things new--they want planning law to be used to achieve a proper balance, and if it is inadequate for that purpose, it should be changed.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : Is my hon. Friend aware of the way in which what appears to be a certainty suddenly becomes an uncertainty? For example, there is a proposition to build on the edge of my constituency a parkway station in the middle of a gap which every local authority in the area had designated as a gap which should not be closed. Now we are all apprehensive lest once the station is built there will be no way of protecting the area, so that what was a complete certainty has suddenly become a total uncertainty.
Mr. Wolfson : My hon. Friend reinforces my point, and no doubt other hon. Members will refer to specific changes.
Regional and county structure plans provide a framework for the control of growth. Land earmarked for future development is known, local authorities can make their dispositions accordingly, and local people know roughly where they stand. But the readiness of development groups to challenge existing guidelines--and to do so with blatant disregard for the stated views of Ministers, local authorities and communities--is setting the cat among the pigeons. An application to build a new town in Oxfordshire, to be known felicitously as Stone Bassett, is a prime example of that. Happily, that scheme has been thrown out. That scheme, which had no place in any county or district plan, was evolved between a development consortium and a local farmer. The cost in money, time, worry and stress to the small community that would have been engulfed by the scheme has been immense.
My constituents and I have benefited from a similar decision taken on an application for a major out-of-town shopping centre at Hewitts Farm close by the M25 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook). There, too, developers had been repeatedly warned by Ministers that such an application was most unlikely to be successful because it fell outside all the relevant criteria. The developers nevertheless persisted but, I am glad to say, without success. That is the response that we look to the Secretary of State for the Environment to give in such cases--and not, as has happened over Foxley Wood, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), to allow the application on appeal. My hon. Friend raised that issue in the House only this afternoon.
I end by asking the Minister to convey to the Secretary of State my request that as one of his first acts in his new job he should reconsider the Foxley Wood decision and overturn it. That would give a clear and definite signal that on the development of green field sites his tiller is hard over to green.
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : The late hour and the number of hon. Members who wish to take part in this debate emphasise the extreme importance that a number of senior hon. Members attach to planning and to the protection of the environment.
In your other role as Chairman of Ways and Means, I suggest that it might have been helpful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if the 10-minute rule on speeches had applied
Column 1339throughout these debates because we might thus have saved an hour and a half for other speeches or for time in which to bowl along through the other debates because many hon. Members have spoken for longer than 10 minutes. However, I shall attempt to hold to that time limit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) should be congratulated immensely on bringing this matter to the House's attention. The fears that he has expressed are evident not only in the south-east and around London and all the main cities ; but in many other parts of the country, not least in the south-west. I shall use east Devon and my constituency of Honiton as an illustration. It contains some of our most beautiful countryside, such as the deep coombs and valleys, the commons at Woodbury and the red cliffs along the coast from Lyme Regis to Exmouth. The ancient farmland, village life and the seashore make for an ideal constituency with more than its share of countryside of outstanding natural beauty.
The natural beauty of many parts of the country has been bequeathed to us by past generations and is something that we only borrow and use. We should protect it before handing it on--I hope unsullied and unspoiled--for the benefit of future generations.
The concrete jungle is spreading not only in our big cities and towns, but in many parts of our countryside. Once spread, it eats into the greenness of the countryside which can never be restored and that is something to which we should begin to pay considerable attention. The speed of the movement of the population around the country, and especially into the south-west, bears on this problem. Having been a Member of the House for six years, I was defeated in 1966 and 330 days later came back in a by- election as the Member of Parliament for my present constituency. That was in 1967. My constituency then included part of the city of Exeter, Topsham, Ottery St. Mary, rural and town, right up to Broadhembury where a former and well-known hon. Member, Sir Cedric Drewe, still has his family home, Payhembury and Plymtree, and had an electorate of about 63,000. I have lost those areas. I still have all the coast, Honiton, Axminster, Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth. If I added to my present electorate of 83,000 the parishes that I had in 1967, the electorate would be 107,000--an expansion in 21 years of more than 70 per cent.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : Is my hon. Friend not illustrating something about which we are all worried--the way in which the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which is controlled by the Government, presents statistics on population development which become a self- fulfilling prophecy? If it says that another 50,000 people will move to the Honiton area in the next 10 years, the planners give credence to that projection by allowing development which enables 50,000 people to move into the area. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must consider how they move people who have no intention of moving until the Government direct them to do so because the Government's statistical department says they should?
Sir Peter Emery : I understand my hon. Friend's argument, but it is not so much that the Government direct them there.
Column 1340I was about to say that we cannot go on in this way. There is no way in which the countryside can continue to absorb so much housing if we are to maintain its beauty. I accept the considerable need for housing, but we have to balance that need with the impact on the environment.
Many retired people would like to find a home in east Devon or the south- west. Many thousands have already done so, but we cannot simply continue to build homes so that demand is automatically met. East Devon cannot continue to absorb this catastrophic population explosion. We cannot, and must not, allow the continued spread of the concrete jungle as, once it has come, it cannot be taken back. When I first represented Exmouth, it had a population of 17,000. It has been allowed to spread out and more than 30,000 people now live there. Looking down on Colyton from the hills, one can see the beautiful, old, small country town, but the expansion into housing estates around it is ruining it and the countryside.
I am taking the example of my constituency, but I believe that the same applies to the north-east just as it does to the south-east. We cannot allow this spread of the city. There is now the possibility of about 280 acres being taken from Exeter airport. The Devon agricultural show is being moved from inside the city to east Devon. There is a possibility of a new industrial estate being put on Stuarts land, which also is outside Exeter.
Given the way in which inquiries are now proceeding, and the way in which appeals are being allowed by the Department of the Environment, I believe that in the next 15 years we shall see development spreading out of those sites. Within 20 or 25 years, Exeter city will be demanding that its boundaries be widened to eat into approximately a quarter more of east Devon. I do not think that that makes sense either to the Government or to those who wish to protect the environment in which they live.
I wish not merely to complain, but to make suggestions. First, I believe that the views of the local planning authority and the advice given by parish and town councils must now be allowed to stand, and to be overturned only in extreme instances by the Department's officials or inspectors on appeal. The views of local people must be taken into account much more.
Secondly, we need to revise the Government's guidenotes to local authorities so that they do not lead developers to believe that they will be able to get around local officials. Local officials should not use them as a "guard" with which to advise councillors to grant planning requests, because if they do not they are likely to find that the guidenotes will allow appeals : often councillors do not hold to their preferred judgments, having been warned by officials that any appeal will be won by the developer.
The Department's guidance note No. 12, published in 1988, stresses the need for
"clear up-to-date local plans, consistent with national, regional and structure plan policies and setting out detailed policies and specific proposals for the use of land."
When a matter goes to appeal, the inspector will have the views of the local planning authority and the developer and the guidance notes on the needs of housing. The balance is two-to-one in favour of the developer if a local plan does not exist. That local plan should be immediately available.
I urge the Minister to back the policy that I am supporting in my constituency : that local people and local parishes should produce a draft local plan and submit it to