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Rural Business

9. Mrs. Lait: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about his plans to introduce a new rural business use class. [15495]

Sir Paul Beresford: We announced in the rural White Paper our intention of consulting on the possible introduction shortly of a new rural business use class. A consultation paper is in preparation and the intention is to improve the rural economy by giving local planning authorities more confidence to allow appropriate new businesses to set up in the countryside.

Mrs. Lait: That is welcome progress in helping to reduce rural unemployment in areas such as Rother, where it has been far too high for far too long. Does my hon. Friend agree that councillors and planning officials have been the most opposed to successful, small-scale business development? What plans are there to provide training and information for them so that such developments may be encouraged--so that we may have thriving villages and a thriving countryside?

Sir Paul Beresford: My hon. Friend will be aware that, even at its consultancy stage, the White Paper will contain reassurance on exactly the concerns of local authority councillors and planning officials. I am sure that they will grab the opportunity and move with it when it is fully realisable.

Mr. Foulkes: Will the initiative extend to Scotland, Britain's premier rugby nation?

Sir Paul Beresford: I should have thought that, bearing in mind my accent, the hon. Gentleman was taking a big risk talking about rugby--even at Murrayfield. I shall certainly put his point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who might like to consider it.

Telecommunication Masts

10. Mr. Jenkin: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what measures he is pursuing to regulate the construction of telecommunication masts in areas of outstanding natural beauty. [15496]

Mr. Robert B. Jones: Except in an emergency, the erection of telecommunication masts in areas of outstanding natural beauty needs planning permission from the local planning authority. Guidance on such applications is set out in the Department's planning policy guidance note 8, which emphasises the need to protect the best and most sensitive environments.

Mr. Jenkin: Can my hon. Friend envisage the great landscape paintings of Constable spiked with telecommunication masts for cellphones? Will he assure me that he will co-ordinate carefully the telephone

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companies and the local authority in Dedham vale in my constituency to ensure that masts are not erected in inappropriate and obtrusive places?

Mr. Jones: It is probably just as well that my hon. Friend mentioned Constable, rather than some modern painters whose works already look as if they have telecommunication masts all over them. I certainly accept what he said about the need for proper co-ordination between operators and local planning authorities. After all, the purpose of preliminary notification is to enable authorities to pick out plans for sensitive sites and to ensure that full planning applications are required for them.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Does my hon. Friend accept that it is no earthly use his governing telecommunication poles unless he also governs electricity pylons? Will he ensure that in areas of outstanding natural beauty such as the Forest of Bowland, supplies are routed underground whenever possible?

Mr. Jones: I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I shall certainly think about what might be done in that regard.

Mr. Miller: It is good to hear that the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) is sometimes a convert to the need for regulation. What discussions has the Minister had with the Radio Authority and network planners? It is no good dealing with the issue piecemeal. We need a strategic plan in place, and his Department should take a lead role in that respect, ensuring that the proper infrastructure is there and that the environment is protected in the way described by the hon. Member for Colchester, North.

Mr. Jones: The whole point of calling operators and local authorities together is to ensure proper co-ordination. In trying to promote good practice, we shall certainly take into account the concerns that many hon. Members have expressed.

Energy Conservation

11. Ms Ruddock: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received regarding domestic energy conservation measures. [15497]

Mr. Robert B. Jones: We have recently widened the formal arrangements for dialogue between the energy efficiency industry and Ministers, and I met representatives of the industry on 20 February. We have received to date 119 responses to our consultation on guidance to the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. We have also received recent representations on our successful home energy efficiency scheme.

Ms Ruddock: How can the Government still claim to be in favour of sustainable development when they have cut by one third the modest home energy insulation programme, which conserves energy and reduces CO 2 emissions? Is he aware that the number of backlog applications from people who are poor, old and cold is approaching 250,000, and that 1,500 jobs will be lost

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because of the cut made by the Secretary of State? Will the Minister now reinstate that £31 million, or does he say one thing and do another?

Mr. Jones: If anyone said one thing and did another it is the hon. Lady, because although she is fond of the scheme now, under the Labour Government there was no such support for energy conservation. Judging by what she says, I suspect that she would take an axe to the scheme even now. I have explained to the House several times that £30 million was added to the budget for the scheme in anticipation of the second stage of VAT. That was voted down by the House, so of course the VAT compensation package also fell.

Mr. Harry Greenway: Will my hon. Friend confirm that home energy efficiency schemes save individual households as much as 33 1/3 per cent. on their fuel bills? Would it not be a long-term investment of the soundest kind, both for the nation and for the individual, if the scheme were further promoted as soon as it is possible to do so?

Mr. Jones: Indeed, my hon. Friend is right--and of course, even with the changes that we have made, more people will benefit. Those who do not qualify for free fitting of insulation will receive a 25 per cent. discount, which is a substantial incentive for people to adopt such measures in their homes.

Mr. Dafis: The wreck of the Sea Empress has many lessons to teach us, one of which is that we must reduce our dependence on burning fossil fuels. Is not energy efficiency the first priority? How can the Government claim to be serious about the matter when they are cutting the home energy efficiency scheme budget by 30 per cent., and when the Energy Saving Trust will have to make do with £25 million for two years rather than the £350 million that it expected? Is that not a terrible indictment of the Government's lack of commitment and seriousness on the matter?

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman is certainly right that energy conservation is extremely important in tackling environmental problems, and it is also one of the most cost-effective ways of doing so. If I had to name the worst enemy of progress, it would be the complacency of the British public, and that is difficult to address.

Environment Agency

13. Mr. Steen: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessments have been made of the impact that the new United Kingdom Environment Agency will have on the cost of running small businesses. [15499]

Mr. Clappison: Establishing the new Environment Agency will help all businesses by reducing the number of regulators with which they have to deal.

Mr. Steen: As the Environment Agency has the power to introduce new self-financing regulations, what will the Government do to protect the 4 million small firms that will be the victims of rampant and over-zealous officialdom? What is needed is a fast-track approach on

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appeal. Can something be done to reduce the impact on small firms of over-zealous officials who constantly want to gold-plate every rule and regulation that comes out of this place?

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is a zealous campaigner on behalf of deregulation, and I hope that he will welcome this as a deregulatory measure that will help business by providing a one-stop shop that can meet its needs. I hope that he will join the warm welcome that has been given to the new agency by the CBI and other representatives of business, including the Advisory Council for Business and the Environment. We will listen carefully to opinions as the agency progresses, but it will be a help to business and it will be deregulatory.

Mr. Bennett: Will the Minister confirm that high environmental standards are extremely good not only for people but for jobs? In meeting those high standards, many small firms have been able to develop a market both at home and abroad. Should we not be doing everything possible to encourage high environmental standards and the jobs that go with them?

Mr. Clappison: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. High environmental standards help businesses both large and small. For our part, the Government are prepared to give plaudits to businesses that are successful in winning environmental exports. We are interested in a positive environmental policy that benefits business and the environment. We wait to hear the Opposition's policies--so far, we have heard absolutely nothing.

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