Previous Section Home Page

Column 542

styles and we should celebrate that diversity, enhance the natural environment and, above all, resist the advancement of drab uniformity.

Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South): Will my hon. Friend undertake to be especially vigilant about road schemes? Does he agree that some of the motorways that have been driven through our countryside have done more to despoil and desecrate it than any other development?

Mr. Atkins: My instinctive reaction is to agree with my hon. Friend- -I see my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in his place who, in a previous incarnation, was the Minister responsible for some of that. In many rural areas, a bypass enhances the environment and adds greatly to it, but in other instances, proposed developments do not.

I found that out when, at the behest of the Labour-controlled county council, it was proposed that a six-lane motorway be driven through my constituency. Fortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, then the Minister responsible for roads, was able to help me to defeat the proposal. It is a question of the local view prevailing. Sometimes it is a good thing and sometimes it is bad. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is only too aware of his concerns, which are shared on both sides of the House.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale): My hon. Friend mentioned the views of the local people. He will know that recently a development was approved in Ambleside in my constituency, which was opposed 100 per cent. by the local people. He said how important it is to listen to the local people, but in that case they were ignored, in spite of a series of planning inquiries. Will he undertake that the planning laws will be studied, with a view to giving more consideration to the views of local people?

Mr. Atkins: I cannot but agree with my right hon. Friend. I do not know the case to which he refers, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend, the Viscount Ullswater, who is responsible for planning matters, is aware of it. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will tell me more about it later. His general argument is entirely fair and, as a Minister responsible for planning in a previous incarnation, as well as being involved in a council planning committee, I know only too well of its importance. One of the intentions, in the rural White Paper, is to ensure that we pay more attention, in all the multiplicity of areas that are important in the countryside, to what local people have to say. As usual, my right hon. Friend makes a particularly good point. The creation of green belts around major conurbations, to check urban sprawl, is one of the major achievements of our planning system. They have assisted greatly in protecting the countryside. Earlier this week, we published revised planning policy guidance that reaffirmed our resolute commitment to green belts and made limited changes to strengthen policy for the 21st century and secure yet greater environmental and economic benefits.

There are sometimes tensions between those who live in the countryside and those who visit it. I have heard the pleas that the countryside should not become a giant theme park,

Column 543

but we must recognise that, as people's leisure time increases, they will wish to visit the countryside more and more. About 590 million journeys to the countryside were made last year and I have no doubt that that number will increase in the future.

I was in the peak district park not long ago, and was astonished to learn that, as many of my hon. Friends who represent the area will know, it is the second largest park of its kind anywhere in the world--second only to a park in Japan. The pressures on it are great indeed. We cannot ignore this trend and hope that it will go away, but we can manage it to secure the maximum benefit for rural areas, while still conserving those qualities which attract the visitor in the first place. The livelihoods of those who live and work there must come first.

The White Paper will also look at the urban fringe, an area which has yet to realise its full potential.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West): Does the Minister agree that when it comes to access to the countryside, we have an excellent right of way and bridleway network? More and more farmers, especially in East Anglia, are very responsibly maintaining those rights of way. Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour's proposal for the right to roam the countryside is sheer lunacy, and that it would destroy the good will that has been built up between the public and the farming community?

Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend is a consistently staunch defender of the countryside interest. He knows it as well as, if not better than, anyone else in the House. His point was on the nail--I could not but agree with it.

The White Paper will also look at the urban fringe, an area yet to realise its full potential. There is great scope to provide leisure opportunities on the fringes as well as in the heart of our cities. That will reduce the demands on the countryside and breathe new life into a part of our urban areas which has been neglected for too long. Community forests are a good example of how to exploit the potential of the urban fringe, but I am sure there is plenty of scope to do more.

Our vision of the countryside, particularly if we live in towns and cities, usually focuses on beautiful landscapes, sometimes of the chocolate box variety, but people are just as important. They maintain the land and the traditions of rural life--not least country pursuits, crafts and country sports.

Sir Peter Emery: Hunting and shooting.

Mr. Atkins: As my right hon. Friend says. Today's countryside is filled with people as varied as blacksmiths and computer programmers, although I sometimes ask myself how easy it would be for a blacksmith to get planning permission these days: the smells, the noise, and so on. The strength of our countryside lies in its diversity--the variety of people and economic activity as much as the variety of its landscapes.

Column 544

I have travelled quite extensively around the English countryside in recent months.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Not more trips!

Mr. Atkins: Well, they bear repeating, since I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not moved out of Leicestershire.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Will my hon. Friend be extremely careful to distinguish Leicestershire from the city of Leicester?

Mr. Atkins: Yes. In the course of my perambulations, I have been able to hear at first hand some of the concerns of country dwellers. For instance, when I was in Northumberland in the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), we saw the pressures that Hadrian's wall is bringing to bear on local activities, and the consequences for tourism. We also went to a village shop in Otterburn and saw the importance of the Army to what goes on there. We listened to people's views.

I also went to Todmorden moor and saw for myself the problems on the edge of the Pennines. I saw how local people, with the aid of Rural Action, are dealing with the problems of fly-tipping by those who pass through the area. Then I went to the Malvern hills, to see the problems of tourism and to visit a small cider maker and taste her wares, which I publicly endorse whenever I get the opportunity. I saw how much can be achieved in such a small operation.

I went to the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) to see a small cheese maker; I went away with some excellent Somerset cheese of a prize-winning variety. [Hon. Members:-- "Name it."] I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be happy to help out my hon. Friends.

One of my most enjoyable visits was the one to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, to see the problems and to talk to the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) and for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). Arguably, one of my most fascinating visits was to west Dorset, in the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer). He is a well-known member of the Parachute Corps, and he asked me to meet his constituents, to enjoy the delights of the area and to see the problems of the coastline. We talked to local people. I am only sorry that in the course of so doing, my hon. Friend stumbled and injured himself --for which I apologise.

All these activities allowed me to see and hear at first hand what the problems were, and to realise the strengths of the countryside. There are some wonderful people out there. There is great heart there, and a great deal of which to be proud.

Many of these rural communities see an adequate supply of affordable housing as the key issue. Of course that is linked with jobs, transport and the location of schools, shops and health care facilities. Policies for rural housing need to be considered against the background of the changes that are taking place in the countryside. We need to take account of the needs of those who have traditionally lived and worked in the countryside and who wish to continue to do so.

Column 545

There are costs as well as benefits to living in the countryside. People complain about the closure of village shops and village schools, the lack of public transport, the shortage of affordable housing and the difficulties of building new premises for businesses and new houses.

There are no easy answers to those problems--although I am sure that Opposition Members will try to offer some. We know that there are none. To some extent, those problems are a reflection of higher standards of living and increased choices. The car has given many people greater mobility and has enabled them to make journeys to shops and schools which would have been inaccessible to their parents, but this freedom has its price. If people drive to the supermarket on the edge of town rather than use their village shop, the village shop will inevitably close. The same is true of village schools and local buses. The slogan "Use it or lose it" is not new but it lies at the heart of the battle to maintain village services. We can all help.

The Government need to think carefully about their role in protecting services in the countryside. Would it be right to subsidise village shops but not corner shops in cities? Indeed, why should not people shop in supermarkets, where there is greater choice at cheaper prices? When is it right for extra resources to go into village schools to enable them to deliver good quality education rather than releasing resources to enhance the provision for children attending large schools? In answering those questions, it is necessary to be aware of the value of village services to the local community.

These are not easy judgments to make. We need to take account of people's changing expectations, the extent to which reduced choices lead to market failures and the extent to which urban dwellers should cross-subsidise people who live in the countryside.

In many cases, the way forward is to build on the strengths of the countryside, rather than to impose urban solutions where they do not fit. Adaptability and a sense of community are at the heart of rural life in many areas. I know that my hon. Friends would endorse that. Schemes such as the Home Secretary's parish constables initiative build on the fact that people in rural communities often know each other well and are prepared to invest time in their village. The other guiding principle in delivering services in rural areas is making the best use of what is there and being flexible about using facilities for different purposes. The Post Office has an unrivalled network in rural areas and we shall consider how further diversification of Post Office Counters, which was never going to be privatised, can help to deliver more services to people in the countryside. Plans for the automation of the Post Office network offer exciting possibilities to improve the range of advice and information available to people no matter where they live. Access to transport is one of the key requirements of people in rural areas. In many cases, it will be the car, which is an essential part of rural life today. Although car ownership in rural areas is high, some people do not have a car. It is a particular problem for women, young people and the elderly. We must look at people's need to travel, rather than focus on transport providers. In some areas, buses would have only one or two passengers. It would not be practical and it probably would not be the best environmental option.

Column 546

We must consider flexible approaches that build on what is already available. Many hon. Members will know about post buses. There are other opportunities, such as car sharing schemes and making better use of statutory transport, such as school and social services buses. The problems of providing services in rural areas are not intractable. We must start with an understanding of people's needs and then look at the best way in which to meet them--building, again, on what is already available in the countryside.

Overall, our countryside is a success story. Its beauty is an asset for the whole country. The countryside also contributes to the growing strength of the national economy. During the 1980s, employment in the countryside grew almost twice as fast as in large towns. Places with an attractive environment, broad-based employment and easy access to markets are well placed to help lead the recovery and contribute to our national competitiveness.

Some traditional rural job providers, such as mining, defence bases and agriculture, employ many fewer people than they used to--in our own countryside as in other parts of Europe. Many of the more accessible parts of the countryside have met that challenge. Old jobs are being replaced with new and employment is rising. The economy of today's countryside is very different from the traditional image. Small-scale manufacturing and the hotel and distribution sectors provide almost half the jobs in rural areas. Some 40 per cent. of farms in England now also run non-farming businesses. Those are huge and successful changes in the countryside. They are testament to the flexibility and the entrepreneurial skills of our people in the countryside.

The rural White Paper will look at how the Government can best play their part in helping the countryside fulfil its economic potential by building on its natural strengths--the skills and resourcefulness of the people and the quality of the environment. It will examine how the Government can help diversify rural economic activity, remove barriers to enterprise and build on local strengths. The new rural challenge competition, administered by the Rural Development Commission, is an example of our approach. The winning bids in the first round show an encouraging integration of economic and social development with environmental enhancement. I congratulate the Rural Development Commission, particularly its chairman, Lord Shuttleworth, on the immense amount of work that it does in the countryside. I have received, as, I assume, have many of my hon. Friends, a note from the RDC. It is worth emphasising the second paragraph, which reads:

"The Commission's overriding concern is that the Government should put people at the heart of rural policy and it should restate its belief in the importance for the conservation of the countryside of a strong rural economy and balanced communities with a reasonable access to services."

I could not have put it better myself.

The White Paper is still at an early stage, but I have tried to give the House an idea of the issues that it will address and look forward to hearing the view and ideas of hon. Members.

There are problems in the English countryside today and there are challenges for the future, but I am confident that we can meet them by building on the strengths of the countryside: the values of stewardship and inheritance, which we see in the way in which farmers and landowners

Column 547

value their land; the respect for quality and building things to last, which we see from magnificent country churches to dry-stone walls; the sense of community in which people support one another and work together, whether to raise money for the church roof or to keep the cricket club going--even expanding; and the sense of place and pride in what makes one village different from the next. I am sure that, if we build on those traditional values and adapt them to meet new challenges, the English countryside can look forward to a bright and prosperous future.

7.43 pm

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): I welcome the debate--the first major debate on rural issues for many years--because at last it appears that the Government understand the importance of rural issues. It is right that it should be a major focus for all the political parties.

It is a pity that the debate is taking place on a Thursday evening, on a day when there is no opposed business at 10 o'clock, but it is good to see so many colleagues in the House, ready and willing to participate in the debate. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) here today, because I am sure that he will be able to tell us of all the good things that are happening in Lancashire. It is good to see so many distinguished Conservative Members, so many knights of the shires--I do not know whether Croydon, Central quite counts as a shire--so many knights-to-be and so many knights-who-should-be. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) is here.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: It is sexist to refer only to the knights of the shires.

Mr. Vaz: There is nothing like a dame, and I am sorry that I overlooked the presence of the honourable dame opposite.

The English countryside is a precious asset, which is neglected at the peril of the nation or any Government, especially this Government, as so many Ministers, including the Secretary of State, represent rural seats. It was interesting to hear of the trips that the Minister has made around the country, and a quick glance at his curriculum vitae shows why he is so keen on those visits. As a former sales executive with Rank Xerox, he has had plenty of opportunity to look at various parts of the country.

Living as I do in a shire city, every weekend I have the opportunity, when I return to Leicester--as I shall do this evening--to see the beautiful Leicestershire countryside. On the way, I pass some of the glories of England, among them the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire. I agree with the Minister to this extent. It is a great joy. But like the rest of the rural areas of England, there have been dramatic changes over the past few decades.

Tonight, I hope to set out what I believe should be done to change rural issues from being considered as a fringe political subject to one that is brought into the mainstream of political debate. It is a move that the public support. It is an issue that the House must tackle.

The title of the debate, "The future of rural England", gives hon. Members enormous scope to raise so many issues of concern to them. I promise to be much briefer than the Minister was in his contribution, as so many hon. Members wish to participate.

Column 548

After 15 years of neglect, some might say that the answer to the question "Is there a future for rural England?" is no. The view from the Opposition is an emphatic yes. Environmental policy, for far too long, has been based on action being taken after the damage has been done: cleaning our rivers after pollution; protecting sites after neglect; and protecting wildlife after their species has been threatened. Opposition Members believe in taking action to prevent damage to the environment from occurring in the first place. That is why we are committed to creating an environment protection executive, which will set and enforce standards, in co-operation with local authorities.

A thorough overhaul of the land register is necessary to provide a comprehensive guide to ownership, quality and land use. There is far too much confusion in that area. We need an improvement in conservation legislation, to protect natural habitats and create more nature and marine reserves. We strongly welcomed the creation of the new national parks. We believe that there should be more, especially in southern England, to meet the regional imbalance.

We need a new Clean Water Act, to provide clean water. The water environment naturally has an effect on the nation's tap water. We want to ensure full compliance with European standards, as set out in the European Union drinking water directives. It is outrageous that water disconnections for residential properties are still allowed. We believe that they should be outlawed. Water costs more in rural areas. Now the water companies are under pressure from the regulators to change the cost of delivery of water to each location. That is accountancy gone mad. The price of water, which has already increased, will quadruple.

It is high time that we developed policies for native and broad-leaved woodlands which recognise their amenity value and ecological importance. I want to see a huge reduction, if not elimination, in opencast mining, which has been described by the Council for the Protection of Rural England as one of the most environmentally destructive processes carried out in the United Kingdom. New opencast sites should be permitted only where they are of benefit to the local community and the environment.

The countryside belongs not to government, either local or national, but to the people themselves. There should be a legal right of access to common land, mountain, moor and heath. There should be co-operation with local authorities to ensure that public rights of way are kept open and clearly signposted.

We heard a great deal from the Minister about "Cider with Rosie". We did not hear enough about the cider-makers and the rural economy. For far too long, the hopes and aspirations of those who work in our rural areas have been taken for granted. One rural household in every five is now living in or near a state of poverty.

A survey carried out two years ago found that 55 per cent. of workers in farming, forestry and fishing were earning less than £200 a week compared with an average of 26 per cent. in all industries. With employment in agriculture falling, it is vital that new industries and businesses are fostered in the countryside. Regeneration is not something that can be applied only to our major towns and cities. Macro-economic policy should not ignore the job-creating and wealth-creating potential that is based outside our urban areas. Businesses

Column 549

in rural areas must have access to the help and advice that can be provided locally. We firmly support the concept of one-stop services for small businesses which will concentrate on providing management support systems and which will have their roots in the local community.

New technology will be the key to development in that area. Regional development agencies, with powers to provide industrial estates and encourage long-term investment will ensure that decisions about local needs are made by local people who understand the needs of rural areas.

Developments in telecommunication services will be a key to helping districts far from large towns and cities to stay in touch--for example, through telework. There are now 129 telecottages in the United Kingdom, 75 of which are in England and they boost the rural economy by encouraging town-based work to move to the country. It is important that that new technology should be available to rural areas at the same price as to other areas.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome): The hon. Gentleman is enunciating some interesting ideas which will form part of the Opposition's manifesto when the time comes. Can he give us a clue how some of the proposals will be funded?

Mr. Vaz: Nothing in what I have said will result in an increase in Government expenditure. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I was saying, and if was aware of what our policies are in terms of encouraging support for employment prospects, he would know that we believe firmly in the concept of partnership between the public and private sectors. I shall come on to planning and partnership issues later.

We welcome the initiative of ACRE--Action with Communities in Rural England --and the Rural Development Commission with help from British Telecom and the Post Office which last week launched a £1 million grant scheme known as countrywork to help with job creation in the English countryside. As Michael Simmonds wrote in The Guardian this week, this will hardly create a revolution, but it is a start. He said:

"But it is so good to see the post office championing the cause of development when not so many weeks ago they were talking of rationalisation and closure."

We need to train our work force, especially the school leavers. There is a need to co-ordinate those agencies that offer training. Raising the low wages of those who work in our rural areas is also a priority. That is why the Opposition support so strongly the concept of the minimum wage. About 4 million people will benefit from the initiative, many of them in rural areas where a large number of people are on low pay. That will be of special relevance to women who make up a large proportion of the low-paid rural workers. We did not hear much from the Minister about housing and I am not surprised. Britain is in the midst of an appalling housing crisis, with interest rates now on the rise again and a staggeringly high level of mortgage repossessions. At the same time, we are seeing the lowest rate of new houses built since the second world war and record levels of homelessness.

In the midst of that crisis is the crisis of rural housing. The scale of need in the village is greater than in any single city, but because of their scattered nature, they are

Column 550

often ignored. The concept is of an idyllic village--the little house on the prairie. The truth now is that the little house has become overcrowded. People on low incomes with young families are unable even to think of buying a home while fewer opportunities exist to rent.

We need an effective housing policy in order to sustain rural communities. Unless affordable housing is provided, the viability of some villages may be threatened. If people with younger families have to move out, school rolls will fall, causing the closure of schools and the redundancy of teachers.

The knock-on effect will be impossible to curtail. Other community facilities, such as shops and pubs, would then be threatened as businesses would slump accordingly. Thus, housing plays an integral part in the fortunes of the rural economy. There is an urgent need to act. Local councils in rural areas should be permitted to start small-scale building programme and offer a range of options for affordable housing, including part rent, part buy schemes, either in partnership with housing associations or by councils in their own right.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): The hon. Gentleman has already told my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) that none of his policies will involve additional expenditure. The Government this year are providing £2.5 billion to the Housing Corporation to provide some 45,000 housing starts this year in the low rental sector. How will the Labour party, as it says, solve the problem of homelessness, about which the hon. Gentleman complains, despite all that building, without the injection of further public funds?

Mr. Vaz: I have had the advantage of having a meeting recently with the chief executive of the Housing Corporation. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is unable to grasp the fact that there was no increase in the amount of money available to the Housing Corporation, there was a decrease, which will result in fewer houses being built. I am sure that even the hon. Gentleman can understand that. In the 1980s, the Minister's predecessors in the Department of the Environment boasted of a bonfire of planning controls. The consequence of the extraordinary approach that we have seen during the past 15 years is now apparent in all areas of rural Britain. We have witnessed extraordinary developments destroying some of the best of rural Britain while other areas are starved of necessary investment in new industry and housing. Sensible planning controls, firmly rooted in the local community, are vital if we are to have the right type of development at the right place in the right time. Development must be plan led, not market led. The market on its own cannot provide affordable housing. We want to see local authorities using the planning system to ensure that new housing developments include some affordable housing for rent. I want to see a partnership approach so that local authorities work with the private sector and local people to protect and enhance our countryside and to secure balanced and appropriate development.

We want to see local people consulted much more carefully over the drawing up of local plans. That is why, on Second Reading of the Town and Country Planning (Costs of Inquiries etc.) Bill on 12 January, I announced

Column 551

the establishment of a review of planning law. The results of that review will have a direct effect on the quality of lives of those who live in rural areas.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) rose --

Mr. Vaz: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but this is the last time that I shall give way because other hon. Members wish to participate.

Sir Jim Spicer: All the emphasis so far on housing has been on what is done by the local authority. In my part of the world in west Dorset we would not even begin to understand the sort of situation that the hon. Gentleman outlines. The main thrust for new affordable housing in west Dorset comes from housing associations, which are getting cheap land, are using the money that is being provided by the Government to the full and are providing a massive input of new housing in every village in west Dorset.

Mr. Vaz: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been listening to what I have been saying, but I made it clear that we believe in a partnership between local authorities and the private sector. I wonder where the hon. Gentleman thinks the money that goes to the Housing Corporation comes from. It is public money, and what goes to the Housing Corporation goes to housing associations. We welcome the work that has been done in that regard. The hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to what is being said before intervening.

We believe in planning for prosperity--the prosperity of our local areas and local people, which will preserve the rich diversity of life in England. The House should be very concerned about the new information provided by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which shows that between 1945 and 1989 we lost more than 700,000 hectares of rural land to urban development. That is an area greater than Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and greater London combined. The disappearance of the land--England's lost land--needs urgent consideration.

It is important for education opportunities to be available to all our children. That means that we must take special note of the requirements of rural communities. Local schools are often the focus of their communities, and there should be no prejudice against small village schools in decision- making. Resources must be made available to ensure that rural schools are closed only for educational reasons.

We need to improve access to further and adult education in rural areas. We must examine all options offered by new technology for distance learning and promoting the spread of information. That is why we propose that local agricultural colleges should be expanded into countryside colleges, with a wider curriculum providing key skills in new technologies, business techniques and environmental matters, thus meeting the training needs of a much broader section of the rural community.

The national health service was founded on the principle that the best health services should be available to all, wherever they lived and whatever their circumstances. In many rural areas, people do not have easy access to health services: mobility is of key importance to them. Mobile services can help to improve access to services in such areas: they could include mobile

Column 552

clinics equipped to provide primary care-- immunisation clinics, child health clinics and family planning services in local premises. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) will need the support of such services.

Consultants and general practitioners must share responsibility for care so that people who need long-term treatment, such as diabetics, do not have to make so many long journeys to out-patient clinics. More tests and treatments should be available in GPs' surgeries and health centres so that patients do not have to go to hospital. We should also ensure that minimum activation and response times are as laid down in the Orcon standards, which require 95 per cent. of responses to be made within 19 minutes. Those standards should be maintained, and improved wherever possible.

I am sure that the House will agree that good transport is vital to the quality of life in rural areas. We look forward to hearing from the Minister what new measures she proposes to improve rural transport. Under the present Government, services have been cut dramatically: villages have become isolated and fares have soared. To end the isolation of those villages and to improve the prospects of small rural industries, we must have better road links between rural areas and centres of population. We must also have bypass schemes to make villages safer, taking traffic away from where people live and children play. That is why I support the eastern bypass in Leicestershire so strongly.

Mr. Garnier: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vaz: As I taunted the hon. Gentleman earlier, I think that I ought to give way to him.

Mr. Garnier: The last thing that I would want to do is disappoint the hon. Gentleman. As he has cast a fly across the water--if he understands that analogy--I think that it would be rude of me not to rise to it.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the plan for the eastern bypass was drawn up by the Labour group on Leicester city council to wreck the countryside of south-east Leicestershire. Is it not true that the hon. Gentleman understands not a jot of the speech that he has been reading out, and that he has no experience of rural life and no understanding of rural Leicestershire, let alone rural England? Is not his speech a total abomination?

Mr. Vaz: That is rich, coming from the hon. Gentleman. He supports the A46/47 link road, which will destroy so much of the green space in my constituency and, eventually, his own. He ought to be ashamed of himself, and I am sure that the electors of Harborough have noted what he has said.

The car alone will not solve all the problems of transport in rural areas. There has been a massive increase in the Government's road building programme. The Department of Transport projects an increase in road traffic of between 83 per cent. and 142 per cent. by the year 2025, because of policies pushed through by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) when he was a Minister. That is enough to form a queue 124,000 miles long. Those extra vehicles could be accommodated on a new motorway from London to Edinburgh, if it were 257 lanes wide. Such a policy is environmentally damaging, both

Column 553

because roads require land and because they encourage greater use of private vehicles, with all the attendant potential for an increase in air pollution.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) rose --

Mr. Vaz: Good, affordable public transport is vital--

Mr. Key: The hon. Gentleman referred to me.

Mr. Vaz: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to apologise to the House--in his own time, not in mine--for what he did when he was a Transport Minister.

Good affordable public transport is vital, allowing the networking that enables rural communities to prosper. We need to encourage the use of innovative bus services such as post buses. We must provide greater route flexibility for the regular network services, ensuring--dare I say it-- through ticketing between transport services. In the present climate, when the Government seek--incredibly--to privatise our railway system, we need public and private partnerships to invest in our railways. We need to examine ways in which lines that are currently restricted to freight can be reopened to passenger service; we want to ease congestion on and damage to rural roads by promoting the use of rail for the movement of goods. The proper use of the railway system is one of the most effective ways of protecting the rural environment.

The organised hunting of foxes, deer, hares and other animals for pleasure, in which pain and suffering is inflicted, is unacceptable. The present law relating to cruelty to animals is seriously flawed, as statutes outlawing cruelty do not apply to wild animals. The law must be changed and strengthened. We have never proposed further limitations on country sports such as angling and shooting. We recognise that angling provides a healthy recreation for millions of people, and we should encourage angling associations and clubs to develop the sport through training schemes which will include the education of the young angler in the importance of caring for wildlife and the countryside generally. It is a wonderful occupation and recreational facility for ex-Ministers.

Sir Patrick Cormack: What about shooting?

Mr. Vaz: As for shooting, there is the issue of rural crime. It is not just the controllable crime seen through the eyes of those who watch the television series "Heartbeat"; it is real crime, and, as the Minister knows, there has been a staggering increase in it. In Kent there was an increase of 106 per cent. in recorded crime between 1987 and 1993. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack)--the new knight of the shires--will be astonished to learn that, during the same period, there was a 70 per cent. increase in recorded crime in Staffordshire. In Sussex the figure was 59 per cent., in Lancashire it was 43 per cent., in Hertfordshire

Column 554

it was 33 per cent., in Leicestershire it was 96 per cent., in Dorset it was 35 per cent., in Hampshire it was 48 per cent., in Norfolk it was 55 per cent.-- [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. There are too many seated interventions and commentaries. If hon. Members wish to comment, they must rise and seek to intervene in the customary fashion.

Next Section

  Home Page