Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Vaz: Conservative Members do not want to hear about the increase in crime in rural areas. They are ashamed and embarrassed about it. There appears to be no strategy for dealing with the problem. There are no more bobbies on the beat, in their cars or even on their bicycles and crime is disfiguring the lives of people in our rural areas.

The debate will show that the needs of the countryside and those who live in it are of great importance. It is not a case of competition between town and country, of city hall versus village hall; the real competition is with time itself. We must ensure that we do not waste our most precious assets, so that all who care for the countryside can work together--as William Blake wrote--

"Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land."

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. A number of hon. Members are anxious to contribute to this short debate so I ask hon. Members to exercise self- control and to make short speeches.

8.9 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): After the quite extraordinary speech from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), I hope that we can return to the issue of the future of rural England. The hon. Gentleman was not kind enough to give way when he attacked me. I am sorry that he did not agree with my policy of cancelling five motorways, which I deemed to be unnecessary. I was keen on promoting bypasses, one of the most famous of which was at Broughton and Scruton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister, who is unable to mention it himself.

I declare an interest as president of the Wiltshire Association of Local Councils, and local councils have much to contribute to the future of rural England. Like the Minister, when I worked in the Department of the Environment I was able to travel the length and breadth of this country, which was a great privilege. One of my ambitions was achieved when I attended a parish council meeting in Warkworth castle in Northumberland and attended a meeting of the council of the Isles of Scilly.

I fervently hope that the future of rural England will not include regional government. The Labour and Liberal Democratic parties are wedded to the idea of devolution and regional government. In my book, that means more interference and bureaucracy and negates many existing checks and balances, such as the National Consumer Council and a number of regulators and the like. Above all, it means more Members of Parliament, more cost and more officials, and it raises the terrible issue of where regional assemblies might be located. It may be seen as obvious that the north-east of England should have an assembly in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In the north-west, an assembly might be located in Manchester,

Column 555

and in the midlands it could be somewhere in Birmingham. Those who have dealt with the councils in those fine cities, all of which are under Labour control, know that the Labour leadership of metropolitan authorities loathe the idea of regional government. It would emasculate the politics of their regions and reduce their influence for good, in their terms anyway, in their areas. They do not want it, and I know of no one who does.

In the south-west you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will decide that any regional assembly should have its headquarters in Bristol. Unfortunately, many people believe that Bristol is in the west of England. I hate to disillusion them, but it is not. Bristol is a proud and ancient city that has always looked rather in towards itself, but if it is anywhere, it is in the west midlands. It is absolutely not in the west of England, which is why I fought so hard when I had the honour of being a member of the Government to locate some of the new regional government offices in Plymouth, which is far closer to the centre of gravity of the south-west. The delivery of Government and local services is what matters, and Government regional offices have made a major contribution to that.

Thank goodness we are getting to the end of the review of local government because it has been a difficult time for us all. Much of the opinion-taking by the Local Government Commission has been flawed. I regret having to say that, but there is a perception that it has not worked. A constituent of mine wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment on 20 January. He stated:

"There was a distinct lack of popular interest and even less comprehension of the true facts resulting in a natural reluctance to opt for change. A MORI interviewer indicated that of all the people seen in several different areas I was the first who could answer her questions without reference to the sparse green leaflet." He went on to give further examples of the flaws as he saw them. The Local Government Commission issued a number of press notices informing the local population of its decisions. I was rather alarmed about the Wiltshire decision because, in announcing a unitary authority for Swindon, for Thamesdown, which we all applaud and agree about, it announced that there would be no change to the rest of the county. Of course, that could not be further from the truth because, if a third of the population is taken from a county, the rest of the county must experience substantial change in the administration of local government.

My district council in Salisbury is excellent by all objective tests in financial management, administrative cost, tax collection and arrears and housing benefit: 98 per cent. of claims are dealt with within five days. On matters such as rent arrears, void council homes and energy ratio scores, my district council is doing very well. I know that we in south Wiltshire are fortunate in having one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the south-west. That is a privileged position but it has been achieved through hard work: it has not happened by accident.

I shall now deal with some of the particular issues affecting rural England, not just in my part of the world, but throughout the country, and I shall start with one or two points about the military. We in south Wiltshire are proud to have the largest training area in the country on Salisbury plain. The military have made a positive

Column 556

contribution to the development of rural England and will continue to do so. They are a good neighbour and they look after the rural and built environment.

The military are good conservationists and plant so many trees that the nature conservation bodies complain that the habitat might be upset if planting goes on at the same rate. They are good at archaeology and at liaising with archaeologists and at the preservation of habitat for flora and fauna. If my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) were here, he would say that and I have no doubt that my other neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber), will hope to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The military are good employers of civilians, and have been so in south Wiltshire for the best part of this century. They have made a dramatic impact on employment, so with particular sorrow I shall tomorrow attend the closure of RAF Chilmark, which is being closed because of the changing needs of the Royal Air Force.

Of course, the military bring housing problems in their wake, which was referred to earlier in the debate. Pressure arises when a family that has been in the Army for many years decides to leave it and needs housing. That family may originally have come from Liverpool or Manchester, but it has ended up in Salisbury via Germany, Belize or perhaps Hong Kong and its members feel more at home in my community than they do in their place of birth and upbringing.

There are great housing pressures on us all and good management by the housing authority has enabled it to cope very well. There has been a dramatic improvement, and the only measure that I shall offer is that in the past five years the number of letters and surgery cases about housing management has dropped dramatically. It is now manageable because there is a proper housing plan. Despite all the great financial difficulties that my housing authority faces, the housing stock is better than ever for the 15 per cent. of people in my constituency who depend on public housing.

There are also pressures on schools, social services, vehicles and roads and, of course, there is the pressure of noise. I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence, which has done all that it possibly can to minimise noise disturbance. Firing ranges and RAF aeroplanes inevitably mean noise, but it is manageable and sophisticated computer models are operating on Salisbury plain to try to ensure that when meterological conditions are not right firing is stopped for a few hours.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): With his knowledge of that military training ground, perhaps my hon. Friend could tell my constituents, who are to receive the AS90 gun from Salisbury plain, that the charges to be fired in practice at Otterburn will not be the same as the rounds that caused the disturbance on Salisbury plain.

Mr. Key: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to confirm that. He is absolutely right. The AS90 is seen as something of a bogey. Of course it has the same barrel as the gun that has been firing on these ranges for 30 years but it is a high-tech version. What matters is the charge that is put in the gun, and the very high charge can be fired only on Salisbury plain. I think I can confirm that it will not be fired on the Otterburn ranges. At the same time, we want to share a little of the grief with Otterburn. I have known Otterburn all my life. I have cousins who farm at Otterburn, so I

Column 557

understand the problems that my hon. Friend faces with his constituents. However, the position is not nearly as bad as he may imagine. Indeed, those living close to the plain sometimes wonder what is happening when it is quiet. Noise can be a problem, but the military take good care of the plain.

Another aspect is the science base of the MOD in rural areas. I have the good fortune to have in my constituency the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment and the centre for applied microbiology and research at Porton Down. Both are fine establishments that have done much to further basic medical science, to provide remedies and to protect our service men in time of war or threat. The science base is not just a matter of what goes on behind wire fences; it is part of our community. Its families are part of our community, of our schools and of our social life. That enriches our community. We are proud to have so many distinguished scientists in our midst, and are grateful for the employment that the establishments bring.

One area that concerns me is policing. Contrary to what the Opposition claim, the police--certainly in Wiltshire--have made dramatic strides in reducing crime. It is good news that crime has fallen for the first time in my constituency for some years. That is due to the excellence of the Wiltshire constabulary, whose motto rightly is primus et optimus. It is the oldest police force in the country and, of course, it is the best.

The problem with the Home Office funding under the new formula is that it does not take proper account of the sparsity of rural areas. My hon. Friend the Minister has already discussed that matter with me and others and we shall continue to press him on it. The basis of the new budget for the new police authority is one issue, but sparsity is another.

There is another side to the matter. Rural areas often have far more than one police force; seven police forces operate within my constituency. Many people do not know that there are seven police forces. The Home Office force has primacy, but we also have a full constabulary of the Ministry of Defence police. I pay tribute to their work, which is often unsung. It is important to the villages on Salisbury plain to know that the military police are supporting the county constabulary.

From time to time, we have the Atomic Energy Authority police and the British Transport police on our roads. There are other forces such as the provost marshals and, now, Guard Force. I suspect that in future there will be more semi-official police organisations--such as that on the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford. Its security force personnel look very much like policemen, although they are not strictly and legally policemen. Despite that, we are grateful for the work of all policemen, whichever uniform they may wear.

Inevitably, after the increases in police numbers in recent years there will have to be some constraint. There are now more police in Wiltshire than ever. There has been a 23 per cent. increase in the number of uniformed policemen since 1979 and a 97 per cent. increase in the number of civilians working in support of the police. It is not widely known that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is a special constable. Parish constables have been a success.

Column 558

We like special constables in our community- -they are people we know and meet every day. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary that it would be cheap, in his terms, to boost police forces in rural areas with sparse populations by using more special constables. I am sure that crime would reduce as a result. Farming is absolutely basic to my constituency, as it is to most of rural England. Farmers have created our environment and preserved our countryside. They are quick to respond to changing needs and they deserve our congratulations. If anything has gone wrong, it is that 20 years ago no one would have air freighted calves to the continent, to be fattened and returned to our country as dead meat. All that added value should be going to our farmers, butchers and consumers, not to transport companies and French business interests. I do not want to pursue that argument, but surely there will be some changes. I have suggested to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that we should be tweaking a very heavily subsidised industry to encourage more home markets. We must remove the need for that trade and encourage home subsidies. For reasons that include the care of the environment, I am sure that we will move from a high-input, intensive farming regime to a more natural farming tradition. The system of environmentally sensitive areas is a major advance, which I welcome. Perhaps there will be a return to traditional farming in areas such as Wiltshire, which means the grazing of sheep and cattle on the plain --as at Parsonage down and Winterbourne Stoke--with dairying in the valleys. There may be less grain growing, which depends on a high input of nitrogen fertilisers. That could make a big difference to the pattern of agriculture. It may be a long way off, but it is definitely on the way. If we want a few clues, we could do worse than look at the example of New Zealand.

Land tenure changes will make a big difference to the future of rural England. I welcome the Government's plans and I look forward to the Bill being debated in the House. A serious review must be made of county council farm tenancies. In my county, there are many such farms, covering about 12,500 acres. The tenancy was designed to be a short-term stepping stone, but the average now runs for about 26 years; something is wrong there.

Forestry is gaining increasing attention as we manage to think long-term, but foresters need short-term cash flows to pay the wages. It is folly to tie them up in red tape and tie them down with planning restrictions, which is what I fear happens in some places. I draw my hon. Friend the Minister's attention to an area that he has taken great care with, for which we are grateful--the New Forest heritage area. There are still problems with the overlapping of local plans and there is a fear that commoners, farmers and landowners will find themselves so tied up in red tape that they cannot do any productive farming.

Mineral extraction and waste management are matters that other hon. Members may wish to pursue, but planning is the key to so many things--as my hon. Friend the Minister said in his speech. Should there be a free-for-all? He was right to suggest that the instinct is to say yes, people should be able to use the property they own to their own advantage, in their own way. However, pragmatism insists that we provide an active framework of community

Column 559

co-operation. Therefore, I have no quarrel with the concept of being locked into a tight planning system. Local plans have proved a great advance.

This is a small island, which is another reason why we do not need regional government. The transport needs of London and Manchester cannot be seen in isolation from their impact on the home counties, the east Thames corridor, Cheshire or, for that matter, Barrow-in-Furness. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was right in his aim of deterring green field development even further. However, we must be careful not to deter regeneration in existing communities. As a former Minister with responsibility for inner cities, I know what it is to talk in billions of pounds about the regeneration of urban environments. It is wonderful to see Hulme crescent in Manchester coming down and Housing Association modest housing being put up in its stead. However, I am not talking about that; I am drawing my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that in most market towns there are hundreds of acres of derelict land. Much of it may be railway land; much of it has simply been derelict for many years. Enormous problems need to be dealt with.

We need to deal with transport constructively. I do not wish to get sidetracked into issues of inter-urban travel. In preparing his White Paper, my right hon. Friend the Minister should consider the problems of rural poverty, which undoubtedly exist, low incomes for rural workers, however diversified industries become in rural areas, and the retired population, who will always be on tight budgets. They are all dependent on the motor car. My worry is that less well-off constituents in rural England will suffer most from a carbon tax and similar proposals. I cannot imagine how one can devise a subsidy system to get round the problem.

This country spends more than £1 billion a year on subsidising not people who want to travel but bus companies. Is that the right way forward? My right hon. Friend the Minister drew attention to the fact that we need to be much more imaginative in tackling the issues of rural travel. Of course, the rural transport development fund, which he mentioned in connection with post buses, is important, but sick and disabled people have transport problems in rural areas, which is understandable. The concessionary fare scheme may partly deal with that, but it does not deal with the needs of most people. I am increasingly concluding that the best way of ensuring better targeted transport subsidy in rural areas is to subsidise not bus companies but people who need transport, which could be done through voucher systems. Many local authorities already operate such systems. To some extent, they are linked with voluntary car schemes. An extremely important study has been undertaken in Wiltshire by the Health and Safety Commission. It was published only this month and I draw it to my hon. Friend's attention.

Airports are another issue from which we cannot escape in discussing rural England. Regional airports are becoming increasingly important and they have an impact on rural development. There are many examples of that around the country. If ever there was one example of an airport that was a major opportunity waiting to happen, it is Newquay airport in Cornwall. That could make an enormous difference to the economy of western England. World tourism will continue to expand. Newquay can take

Column 560

jumbo jets and Concorde. The matter should be considered carefully. Could Cornwall cope? I believe that it could.

The Rural Development Commission has been mentioned. I reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister. I congratulate Lord Shuttleworth and all the people who work for the commission. I hope that it will reach the right conclusions in its difficult and controversial decisions on market failure and direct rural training. It has saved thatching and wheelwrighting from extinction. Some of the trades that it has taught have moved entirely into the private sector.

I support the withdrawal of taxpayers' support where it is unnecessary, but we must be sure that we do not just abandon some of those traditional rural crafts where there is no alternative. Distance learning, telecottaging and small-scale tourism are taking place and the Rural Development Commission has played its part. We have employment problems in, for example, Wilton, where, tragically, the carpet factory closed this week. Of course, Wilton carpets will continue in one form or another. The name may have been raided by Bradford, but the land, buildings and heritage remain. Conservative Members and the Government are so often accused in rural areas of destroying rural communities. There is the image of school, church, pub, post office and shop. In one breath, we are condemned by Opposition parties for putting strains on those institutions. As soon as those parties get into a position of power and influence to do anything about the problems, they do the closing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has his own example; I have mine. My county council, where a pact has been formed between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, is putting under threat schools at Barford, St. Martin, Fovant and Dinton in my constituency. It is not being done on educational grounds. The hon. Member for Leicester, East said that those schools should close only on educational grounds. I hope that he will tell his county councillors of the decision that he has made.

Mr. Garnier: If he will not, I will.

Mr. Key: If our rural communities were being offered wonderful rural centres, with schools, sports halls, village halls for live culture and telecottaging, that would be fine and many of our little rural schools would say, "That is a better education," but that is not happening. Little rural schools are being closed so that we can have bigger town schools. That is not what my constituents want. Tourism is crucial and will be more important than ever as the years go by. I remain worried about the structure of tourism and support for it. My message is that we should make tourism as local as possible in terms of the organisation of the tourist industry. In my time as a Minister with responsibility for tourism, I found that it was best for a town to take an initiative on tourism rather than rely on a regional tourist board or even a bigger tourist organisation. England is a land of great diversity with a bright future and we should never talk it down; to do so costs jobs and prosperity. When I lived in Cornwall in the 1960s, I was told that Cornish fishing, the daffodils on the Isles of Scilly, early potatoes and broccoli, railways and the Cornish way of life were in terminal decline. None of that

Column 561

was true. There was uncomfortable change in the area. If one group of people should shoulder some responsibility for that, it is those who made their way in the world by convincing people that the south-west was in terminal decline.

The Liberal party, which became the Social Democrat party, which became the Liberal Democratic party, made the politics of the south-west the politics of decline, protest and defeat. That was not clever because every Liberal Democrat vote in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Dorset, Avon, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire is a vote for surrender. That party tells boardroom decision-makers from Newquay to New York, from Truro to Tokyo, and from Salisbury to San Francisco that the people of the south-west cannot cope, that they opted out of the challenge for progress and quality of life.

Every Liberal Democrat vote says to Whitehall and to Brussels, "We beg for your money and we will do what we are told. We want federalism, the single currency, the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy." At the vote on fishing last week, which was so cynical and opportunistic, the leader of that party was not even present.

The south-west can make a great deal of difference to itself: it has a choice. It should not sulk or sink into that orange sunset and be represented at Westminster by a party that is proud to be out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom and that lacks influence. In rural England, we see today's enterprise culture gaining markedly from the rich resources of the south-west. The heritage is better cared for than ever. I hope very much that in 1995 my constituency, where a quarter of jobs are in manufacturing industry, will be an example to the rest of the south. If my constituency is anything to go by, and I think it is, rural England has never had such a broad economic base. It is poised to take full advantage of the economic upturn. We have many problems to tackle, but we have never been better equipped to tackle them.

8.38 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro): I join in the all-party welcome both for the debate and for the Government's announcement that they will publish a White Paper on rural policy. Although I have no doubt that there will be plenty of disagreement about rural policy, it is good news for all hon. Members representing rural areas that the real problems and challenges affecting the communities are coming under scrutiny in that way. I welcome the tone and most of the content of what the Minister said at the start of the debate. Whether he will deliver on that remains to be seen. Regrettably, I noted some omissions from his comments. He sought, however, to highlight some relevant and important issues.

To draw up the kind of integrated approach that has been suggested, across all policies and involving all sections of the relevant communities, is an ambitious target. Despite the best intentions, the policies from different Departments, quangos and various tiers of Government too often pull in conflicting directions. The answer is to start with the basics.

Let us think of a typical rural community--a small village or town surrounded by a few dispersed homes and farms. Traditionally, such communities were virtually

Column 562

self-sufficient. The starting point was usually farming or a similar primary industry such as fishing, which brought relatively high employment levels to the countryside. Nearby villages and small towns grew up to service their needs--markets, small shops and other services, a school, post office, church and chapel. The size of the community and the traditional methods employed in its business meant little risk to the environment and an essentially self-sustaining economy. However, I am not suggesting that everything was perfect. In many ways, opportunities were restricted, but it was in a very literal sense a sustainable economy and community.

However, all that has been under huge pressure in the past few decades and the net impact has left a huge question mark over the future of such rural communities.

In Cornwall, we are only too well aware that the urban view of the countryside--holidays, a good environment and a nice place to live--is very far from the reality for many of the people born and brought up there. To explain that we have to consider what is needed to keep rural communities alive.

First, housing must be available at a price that people can afford. However, several different pressures are making it ever harder for local people to find the housing that they need. The countryside has become a popular place to find a home for retirement, from which to commute or in which to buy a holiday or weekend cottage. City salaries or the value of a London house on retirement are available to such purchasers, but local wage rates cannot match them. With the supply of housing limited, not least by efforts to protect the countryside from over-development, local people are priced out of the market.

In Cornwall, for example, this has meant that a two-earner couple, with both individuals on average local earnings, could by the late 1980s secure a mortgage sufficient to buy only a house in the cheapest 2 per cent. of the housing stock in the county, almost none of it by definition in the more rural villages which were the most popular and, therefore, the most expensive.

Mr. Colvin: These days, people do not have to buy a house. In my constituency, there are on average 1,000 empty dwellings, roughly equivalent to the number of people on the urgent council house waiting list. If the Government's leasehold and short tenancy reforms were more widely known, more of that property could be let. People do not have to buy.

Mr. Taylor: I cannot dispute what is happening in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but that is certainly not the case in Cornwall, although I acknowledge that there are particularly acute pressures in Cornwall for the reasons that I have elaborated. In the 1980s, more than half the sales in the most popular Cornish villages involved second homes and many of the rest were homes for retirement. That stops local people buying in their own communities, and I shall deal in a moment with the problems of rented accommodation.

If a young couple cannot find a home in their community, they have to leave. The village then empties of children, the school struggles and local businesses fail. When the summer holidays come, part-time residents wonder why the full-time services have disappeared--even though they are a major cause of that disappearance.

Column 563

The problem is made worse by the loss of rented accommodation. Most rural communities have never had a great deal of private sector or council accommodation, but council house sales have been brisk and private landlords found that they could make more out of a summer holiday let than a year-round tenancy. The result is that homelessness has hit rural areas hard and forced young people out of their communities. We are all familiar with people who can get a winter let, but, when summer comes, are once again peripatetic, homeless, perhaps staying with family or friends or relying on bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Of course, well-paid local jobs could provide a solution to the dilemma. Traditional industries such as farming, fishing and mineral extraction employ nothing like the numbers that they once did, and they offer low incomes. In addition, out-of-town shopping and the concentration on larger towns by the major retail companies has destroyed much of the traditional small business base in villages. Once-thriving village centres now feel lucky if they can boast a part-time community post office.

For those with a car, that may be sad but not necessarily a real problem. However, for those without easy access to transport, it is a nightmare. On top of high housing costs, it makes rural living ever more unaffordable and, as young people, mothers and others are forced into the towns, more services are lost to the villages. Fewer children means pressure for the school to close, fewer people using local shops leads to still fewer shops; and so the cycle ratchets on. Fewer people use the buses, so routes are lost and the remaining people are stranded.

There is also the threat of the loss of rural post offices. Many have already closed and others are reduced to opening part time, but vast numbers are still struggling to survive although they have been hit by high business rates, by ever lower payment per item of business and by the Government's refusal to allow the Post Office to offer the new, competitive services that could help it survive while it remains in the public sector. If it is true that such an initiative is to be ruled out, it will be seen as nothing other than petty retaliation in a fit of pique by the President of the Board of Trade because he was not allowed the privatisation that he wanted. If the local post office is strangled in village after village, another strand of the mutual community and the elements of support that allow people to live in that community even though they are not rich is cut.

I hope that the House will now permit me to raise a couple of issues specific to the south-west which relate to Government decisions. The biggest fear in Cornwall, and what has most angered people in the region, is the cost of water. Capital costs used to be spread across the country but now fall to local communities. That may sound fine in theory, but the result is that the 3 per cent. of the national population living in the south-west has had to pay for more than one third of the national cost of cleaning Britain's beaches. With many bills soaring to more than £600- -that is often the case for pensioners in my constituency--householders and, incidentally, local businesses, have been badly hurt. I fear that the same could happen with the decision to charge consumers for the costs of getting electricity and gas to us.

I have done enough to highlight the problems of rural areas which have been caused partly by structural and economic change and too often hastened by Government policy. I deal now with what we must do to turn this

Column 564

around, and the kind of integrated policies that we need at all levels to rebuild the thriving, sustainable rural economy that Ministers say they are seeking. The Liberal Democrats published their proposals last year in the document entitled "Reclaiming the Countryside" and have already submitted it to the Government for consultation.

I must draw some conclusions from what I have said. The rural community cannot survive if all sections of that community cannot afford to live there. We cannot allow rural areas to become commuter dormitories or holiday home ghost towns, and that means affordable homes to buy and rent and helping young first-time buyers, for example, through a part-ownership scheme. Yet the private sector will not finance housing schemes with restricted sale clauses to meet local needs and, as housing associations have been required to get private sector finance, it is becoming a real problem to guarantee that the land specially set aside for rural needs will remain for local needs thereafter and councils are then naturally reluctant to make land available which would otherwise not get planning permission.

Many rural housing associations have suffered huge cuts for next year. For example, Cornwall Rural Housing Association will be unable to build any homes. The solution must be to relax the restrictions on the use of receipts from council house sales to build new homes to rent, whether by the council, housing associations or any other bodies, but present policies cannot continue without wrecking the nature of many of the rural communities that I represent. I cannot speak for all areas of the country, but where there is high incomer pressure and pressure for second homes, one cannot service the need for local housing for local people without substantial Government investment beyond that which remains after the recent cuts.

Housing alone is not enough--with it must come jobs. The best way in which to tackle that desire is to give more muscle to backing local business. That means single, well-financed local development agencies. The highlands and islands and Wales have shown that they can work and it need not mean much more money. It means taking the funds already held by civil servants in Whitehall and the Government's regional offices, all of which, incidentally, are in big cities, taking money from the quangos and from the plethora of competing agencies and giving it to a single accountable local agency to back local business.

Much as I appreciate the efforts of those involved with, for example, Business Link, I simply do not believe that an office in or on the edge of some rural town, for which people have to pay, meets the need, with part- time attendance by people from various Government agencies.

Creating jobs also means taking a broader approach to development issues and planning and transport. It is nonsense that no assessment is made of the often negative economic impact of road schemes on local communities. We need to look at the transport needs of rural communities in a broader way to take into account the environment, the effect on local businesses and those who may have no access to private transport.

Much of the destruction of the countryside has been in the name of economic development, yet has contributed to the loss of economic and business success in the communities affected. It is extraordinary to find it confirmed in parliamentary questions that no assessment is made of the local impact of such road schemes on jobs, even though the Government have, over many years,

Column 565

claimed that the schemes have contributed to the creation of jobs overall. They may contribute to jobs in the cities because the cities can supply the rural areas more easily, but, too often, such schemes destroy jobs in rural areas for small local businesses that never have any intention or ability to go into the cities to compete in that direction.

Creating jobs also means adopting a new approach to agriculture and protecting countryside. That is why we have advocated replacing the common agricultural policy with a new European common rural policy, in which agriculture continues to play a core role, but not an exclusive role. More advice and assistance needs to be made available for the start-up and expansion of small businesses, marketing and business planning, and diversification out of food production. We need to move away from indirect price management in agriculture, which is not popular with the wider public and never will be. Therefore, it is always under threat from Governments responding to that public concern. We need to move towards direct payments for economic, environmental and social goods, which benefit the wider community, such as maintenance of the best features of the British countryside, biodiversity and areas of special interest.

It has been said several times in this debate that farmers have created the countryside. People value that countryside and we need to make people more aware that they cannot have it without a successful farming community. One of the ways in which to do that is to make people more aware that their support in pay goes into things that they want to keep, rather than a general impression that it goes into the pockets of people who buy and drive new Range Rovers. Local government is best placed to respond to many of those local needs, but it simply cannot if restrictions, which were originally designed to tackle the sins of a few over-spending, out-of- control, left-wing city authorities, are extended to hit traditionally low- spending authorities in rural areas. It is especially harsh when authorities which for many years--decades rather than a few years--were low spenders, conserved spending as the Government wished, and very often underspent in areas such as education, find themselves, because the capping ceilings are based on historic levels, having to cut many more core services than authorities in the cities which were large spenders in the past and which have more fat to trim. It is not always the case, but some hon. Members would agree that very often that is what happens.

Extending the restrictions is especially hard to accept when the cost of services in rural areas, which cannot be delivered through one unit but have to be spread out over a wide area, are inadequately recognised by Whitehall. I shall give a couple of examples from the south-west.

In the south-west as a whole, the Government allow us £130 a year less in the standard spending assessment for each child's education than the average for England. Yet our schools have to deliver the same national curriculum and pay the same national wage rates. In addition, there is a tendency to employ older, more loyal staff in smaller village schools, so their wage costs are usually higher than average. Schools which may have only four, five or six teachers in the first place sometimes have to make a borderline decision about being able to afford to employ another teacher.

Column 566

Secondly, the area cost adjustment transfers funding to London and the south-east. For 1995-96, the effect on the south- west is a £1.5 billion loss of funding, despite the high costs affecting us in the ways that I have already outlined. Ministers have already agreed that that transfer needs to be examined, but I regret that they are not doing it more speedily. Throughout the south-west, while there may be a debate about the detail, there is broad agreement that there is a problem for us with the working of the settlements.

Those problems are typical of rural areas, whose support the Conservatives have taken for granted for too long. If nothing else, the growing political success of the Liberal Democrats has helped at least to turn the political spotlight on the needs of rural communities. I have always argued that a marginal seat is best for the constituents in it. Politicians will always work harder and Governments will always seek to win or defend them as a result. The fact that the south-west has become an area of many marginal seats and a tight political battle has led to a change of attitude. It is time that the documents on the lack of economic development funds, sitting currently on the Prime Minister's desk, the rhetoric about cutting water bills, and the rhetoric about greater investment in our needs and responding to the concerns that I have mentioned was turned into action. If the White Paper is to lead to real change, it will have to lead to a change of policies in areas to which the Government have wedded themselves ideologically. But embrace that change they must.

8.56 pm

Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden): I shall be brief because it is a great shame and very selfish of ministerial colleagues, Opposition spokesmen and other hon. Members to take so long on their speeches late on a Thursday night when so many of us wish to speak in this important debate on rural England. I condemn hon. Members from all parties for taking far too long and I shall make an example with my speech by making it short and cutting it down to specific questions. I hope that the House finds some ways in which to prevent such use of its time, especially late on a Thursday night.

I have a different problem with my rural economy. I have the only county seat in the west midlands--Meriden; the bit between Birmingham and Coventry, which includes all the farms and all the countryside. It is doing too well. It is encouraging too much economic activity. With the M6 and the M42, the national exhibition centre, Birmingham international airport, Birmingham international station and Birmingham international business park, there is far too much concentration on the use of the green belt.

We also have the problem that the people with those jobs, which is great for the economy and great for the west midlands, need homes. We now have an extra 3,300 homes in the green belt. My first question for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), is this: will she accept my strong concern about the unitary development plan and the extra houses required in the green belt? In my small constituency, that involves more than 3,000 houses. Will she comment on that? Is that really right in terms of the arrangements for the countryside?

Column 567

Secondly, has my hon. Friend the Minister heard about the proposal, because of the magnet of the roads and all the rest of it, by Aston Villa and Birmingham City football clubs to build a new football stadium? That proposal could cause immense problems on the roads. Thirdly, has my hon. Friend the Minister heard about, and what does she feel about, the widening of the M42 in the area by a further two lanes on each side which will lead to a super super-highway? What does she feel about that and its effects on local residents? I have given my hon. Friend the Minister's office advance warning of my next question. All the developments to which I have referred pose questions for the rural countryside dweller who moved to the rural countryside in the belief that he would enjoy it. As I understand it, a judgment was made recently on appeal in the House of Lords that compensation can be paid to someone who can demonstrate that a property has lost value as a result of public works. If the unitary development plan or a ministerial judgment gives rise to a planning permission in respect of which a rural dweller can prove loss of value in respect of his dwelling--whether due to a motorway, to airport expansion or to the construction of new houses close to the urban dweller's house--what does my hon. Friend believe will happen as a result of that judgment? My hon. Friend may have to reply to that later. I am not sure whether I am correct, but I believe that the judgment related to Colonel Owen.

I promised to be brief and I will be brief. I represent a rural constituency, but it will not remain a rural constituency unless we have concentrated and effective help from the Government and from all those concerned in preventing further development.

9 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West): I noted what you said about brief speeches, Madam Deputy Speaker. Many of my hon. Friends asked me to use their 10 minutes, but I shall refrain from doing so. However, I shall not speak for as long as the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key).

When discussing this topic, it is very hard not to produce a shopping list of problems in rural areas. My constituents would expect me to do that and they would probably like to write such a list for me. My constituency is typical of scores of constituencies. It comprises a huge rural area between Merseyside and the River Ribble with a substantial new town, Skelmersdale, in one corner and two smaller towns, Ormskirk and Burscough, in the middle. My constituency has eight rural parishes and four semi-rural parishes. It has the usual tensions between the contiguous rural and urban areas. While the townspeople envy what they see as the wealth of the rural parishes and strive to move into them, people in the rural areas envy the facilities in the urban areas. The solutions to reconciling those tensions lie in increasing ease of communication and the decentralisation of many public services. That has not proved easy in recent years. While the councils have done a great deal to decentralise some services into rural areas, recent swingeing cuts in local government finance have made progress very difficult. For example, Lancashire county council's plans to extend nursery school and library provision, which have produced two excellent libraries in rural parishes and one

Column 568

nursery class in an area outside the towns of west Lancashire, have been put into reverse by the huge cuts in standard spending assessments that Lancashire has suffered since 1992.

Ease of communication effectively means the private car for rural west Lancashire. Three vital bypasses projected for the district have been considered again recently, partly by the Minister for the Environment and Countryside in his previous job. The most crucial bypass has been completely cut out; one has been put on the shelf and the remainder seems to be permanently stalled.

The two rural railway lines are under constant threat. British Rail's inability to alter platforms or to prevent the decrease in the frequency of trains has left many people in rural areas, particularly the elderly, isolated. That situation has been made worse by the virtual collapse of rural bus services since deregulation. That issue has already been discussed and I shall not repeat it.

I often hear hon. Members attacking tax rises on petrol on the ground that rural people need cars. That may be true, but the complaint does not cover many elderly people who do not drive. Nor does it cover, crucially I believe, young people for whom rural life becomes an irritating and limiting experience so that they cannot wait to leave.

My constituency probably has the greatest total mileage of moss roads of any constituency in England. Those roads are built on peat moss. A combination of drought years--we are not experiencing such conditions now, but we have in the past--and increasing vehicle size, especially farm vehicles, is destroying those roads. The county has come up with imaginative solutions involving patch, make-do and mend solutions. It has made yearly bids for transport supplementary grant, but it has not been able to secure any. Therefore, some of those roads must be closed, which will divert more traffic on to fewer roads and increase maintenance problems.

In my constituency, like many others, there is increasing pressure on rural schools. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett- Bowman) says, the county has supported the tiny rural schools in my area. One now has 20 pupils. Figures--they are public--show that, per pupil, a small rural school can cost four times as much as an urban school, and there is great pressure from other areas to do something about that. Again, the shortfall in revenue support grant, particularly for education, makes it more likely that such schools will remain under threat.

If the argument for the retention of rural schools is based at least partly on their essential nature in the community--I support that, of course--and if small local communities are to flourish, perhaps we should consider other methods of top-up funding, possibly from the Department of the Environment, to relieve pressure on the education budgets of certain areas. Perhaps parish council precepts will even be considered.

There is increasing unease in the farming community of west Lancashire, which is brought about by pressure to sell county smallholdings, and uncertainty about medium-term and long-term effects of the abolition of minimum-term tenancies. The Prime Minister was wrong to suggest a few weeks ago in Parliament that all members of the National Farmers Union favoured the abolition of minimum-term tenancies. In the north-west, they certainly do not. The majority of tenant farmers, even though the decision will not be retrospective, are dead against it. Both

Column 569

developments, they believe, could stifle new entrants into farming and horticulture, and, far from encouraging them, might point young people away from careers in agriculture.

Shops, post offices and housing have been adequately discussed, but the planning policy guidance to which the Minister referred still continues to use the wonderful phrase "limited affordable housing". When many of my constituents in rural areas see the word "affordable", they fall about laughing. What is affordable in the opinion of someone in Whitehall is different from what people in west Lancashire and others in the north can achieve by putting their hands in their pockets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) tempted me to refer to matters such as the police service. Hon. Members might know--the Minister certainly does--that it was announced that Lancashire's police budget was to be cut by £280,000. A letter was received a few days later, saying, "We are terribly sorry, but we got the decimal point in the wrong place," and the budget was to be cut by £2.8 million. That is the equivalent of 100 policemen. It is likely that we shall see a reduction in police numbers in rural areas, whereas in west Lancashire there has been the opposite tendency in the past.

I wish to spend a few minutes dealing with green belts. I intended to ask the Minister, "Where is the new PPG2?" Of course, it was published on Tuesday. That spoilt my best line. However, I am pleased to read revised PPG2, particularly paragraph 3.2, which states: "It is for the applicant for planning permission to show why permission should be granted for development which is inappropriate within the Green Belt."

I am pleased also to note the stiffening of controls on building adaptation. The regulations have been substantially clarified, and my local authority will certainly be grateful for that.

I am sure that green belt policy commands support across the House and with the large majority of the population. But for local planning authorities, balancing the need to defend the green belt against the needs of the rural economy is like dancing on ice. The huge changes in rural employment, and hence in the make-up of the rural population, since 1955 when the green belt got going, have created stresses and pressures that planners find hard to resist and even harder to accommodate. It is something of an indulgence, but I must pay tribute to Les Abernethy, the chief planning officer in west Lancashire, and to Councillor Bob Pendleton, the chairman of the planning committee, who have both retained a clear, flexible and forward-looking attitude throughout all the difficulties.

In PPG7, published in 1992, the Government said that the retention of

"as much land as possible in agricultural use no longer has the same priority. The priority now is to promote diversification of the rural economy so as to provide wide and varied opportunities for rural people, including those formerly employed in agricultural and related sectors".

That passage, coupled with the drive to reduce agricultural surpluses, has led to substantial pressures to diversify in rural areas, which naturally push at the limitations in the green belt. Most of the diversification involves new or

Next Section

  Home Page