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Mr. Gill: Has it not occurred to the hon. Gentleman that much of the crime that he alleges occurs in rural areas is displaced crime from the urban areas that he represents?

Mr. Dobson: It is a fair stride for a knock-off merchant in Kentish Town to get to Gloucestershire to do a robbery, but it may happen. I am saying--the hon. Gentleman makes my point entirely--that what the Government propose today will not stop the long-distance professional criminal. We need a national crackdown on such people. The problem cannot be solved locally.

In Shropshire and in Hereford and Worcester, crime has more than doubled. In Lincolnshire, it has increased by 170 per cent. In Leicestershire, crime has trebled and violent crime has quadrupled. In Cambridgeshire, represented by the Prime Minister and the chairman of the Tory party, violent crimes have doubled, but I do not blame them for all of them.

Those are the official figures. They do not give the full picture.

Mr. Gummer: Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the Labour party has voted consistently against every crime measure presented by the Government? Why has the Labour party always been soft on the criminal and hard on the victim? Why will it not change its views?

Mr. Dobson: I shall treat the Secretary of State's intervention with the contempt that it deserves. What he said is simply not true, and it is no good him burbling on about it.

The reality is: drug squads in every police force in rural areas, lager louts in many a country town and old people's lives dominated by crime and the fear of crime. Hon. Members who represent rural seats know that what I say is true.

Although rural communities should be given the power to protect themselves, that alone will not solve the problem. We need a nationwide drive against crime, a nationwide--indeed, international--drive against drugs and a commitment to tackle the causes of crime. Labour is committed to those policies.

The Bill will empower parish councils to promote local transport. That is to be welcomed. It follows the example set all over the country by Labour councils that have used their powers to improve bus and train services--for example, the initiative taken by Lancashire county council and district councils in the county, in conjunction with parish councils, to improve local railway services and stations, so encouraging more people to use the local railway service. That initiative was ritually denounced by the Secretary of State a few minutes ago.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): Is it not possible that a problem could arise if parish councils were

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allowed to raise more in their precepts? If district and county councils that already provided services such as those that my hon. Friend describes were capped and strapped for cash, they could say to the parish councils, "You can raise the brass; get on and do it," and the service might deteriorate, rather than improve.

Mr. Dobson: Nothing in this world is all gain: there are advantages and disadvantages. Unless great care is taken, the situation described by my hon. Friend might arise.

The Government now recognise that a local effort is necessary, but it is a struggle in the face of the Government's overall transport policies, and above all their policy of bus deregulation. Clauses 26 to 30 have had to be introduced to give the parishes powers to offset the harmful impact of bus deregulation. The Government are giving with one hand the power to deal with the lack of the service that they have taken away with the other.

As a result of bus deregulation, the number of passengers going by bus in shire counties has fallen by 20 per cent. Less than one third of rural parishes have any bus service at all, and many others have no bus service after dark. Yet people in villages have to travel much further for vital services than people who live in towns. Fewer than one in five villages have a permanent GP, half do not have a school, fewer than half have a shop and one third do not even have a pub.

The measures proposed by the Government will help, but much more is needed, starting with the reregulation of the buses, as Labour proposes. In exchange for the right to run services on the most popular routes at the most popular times of day, bus companies will be required to run buses on less popular routes at less popular times of day. That is how the system worked before, when there were many more bus services than there are now.

Housing is one rural problem that is not addressed at all in the Bill. The sale of council houses and the failure to build more to replace them has contributed to the record levels of homelessness in rural areas. Many young people have had to leave the village where they grew up, in order to find somewhere decent to live. It is often forgotten that, when the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), now the Deputy Prime Minister, introduced the sale of council houses, it was intended that the takings should be used to build more. Except for one short lucid spell, that has not happened. Recently Ministers have taken to denouncing the whole idea; I do not know whether they have cleared that with the Deputy Prime Minister.

Labour will encourage councils to invest the takings from the sale of council houses to build new houses and rehabilitate old ones. That will be phased to give councils and the building industry the benefit of steady expansion. Such a programme offers real hope to many people, especially young people in rural areas, that they will be able to afford somewhere decent to live in the village where they grew up. That is vital to local communities so that they do not become devoid of young people, and to ensure that there are people to provide vital services such as the post and the milk round.

Mr. Gummer: Will the hon. Gentleman give a guarantee that the same amount of money for spending on capital matters would be provided at the same time, or would the spending of capital receipts replace that?

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Furthermore, will he give a guarantee that only the capital receipts held by the authority concerned would be spent, and that no capital receipts would be transferred to other, less careful authorities?

Mr. Dobson: We intend that the capital receipts from the sale of council houses should be released in phases to enable councils to get on with building houses. We have no intention of compulsorily transferring any such assets from one council to another, which we must have said a dozen times. I think that the Secretary of State is losing his marbles.

Mr. Gummer: Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to answer the other question? Would the same amount be given to local authorities for spending on capital matters, and what is the difference between the phased release that the hon. Gentleman talks about and the fact that local authorities are already, in most cases, able to spend much of their capital receipts on enabling housing associations to build houses?

Mr. Dobson: Again, the Secretary of State is in danger of misleading the House. There are severe restrictions on what councils can do with the takings from the right to buy, whether in relation to housing associations or not. What I am saying--I have said it before and I shall say it again--is that we shall release the takings from the right to buy. That proposal is welcomed by every housing association and by everybody committed to providing housing. The only person who apparently cannot understand it is the Secretary of State. As he cannot understand it after I have explained it to him twice, I do not propose to give him a third opportunity.

Mr. Gummer: I asked the hon. Gentleman a direct question. Will he guarantee that, alongside his proposal, the money provided for councils by the Government for capital expenditure will not be reduced?

Mr. Dobson: The object is to increase the amount of housing being built. These questions are from a man who sits in a Cabinet that will not even guarantee money next year for any hospital in the country, yet he is asking me to dish out guarantees. What I am saying--I shall repeat it yet again, in case the Secretary of State still fails to understand--is that, as a result of our policies, there will be more money for the house-building programme. We have made that clear, and that is why even Tory building companies welcome the proposition.

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham): Following the hon. Gentleman's earlier remark, will there be more money for buses? He told us that there would be a new system of bus regulation, which would require bus operators to operate services other than those they operate at present. Presumably that means more financial support and a return to the old transport commissioners. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us more about that?

Mr. Dobson: That does not follow at all. With bus deregulation and, in some cases, privatisation, we have seen a massive increase of semi-private monopolies all over the country. They are rolling in money, and, under

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the regulatory system, they will be expected to provide services on the less popular routes at less popular times of day in exchange for the right to operate at popular times of day on the popular routes. They will not get subsidies to help them.

I give one example of a dire housing situation. In the Forest of Dean, the number of applications for housing by homeless families has almost doubled in three years, from 185 in the whole of 1993-94 to 164 in the first six months of this year. The council expects a further escalation in youth homelessness as a result of the lack of new house building and the changes in social security rules. The young single homeless project run by Gloucestershire county council and Shelter is also threatened by the change in housing benefit regulations. Last year, the project dealt with more than 200 young people in the Forest of Dean. Having nowhere to live leaves those young people especially vulnerable to drug pushers and other criminals, whose presence in the Forest of Dean has been growing.

Most disturbing of all are recent reports that some of the drug barons have been buying up houses which they then let to young homeless people, a move calculated to entrap the young people, to increase the evil profits of the drug pushers and to terrify local families and the local police. All that is happening in Gloucestershire, which has already seen the biggest rise in crime in any part of England--a rise that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who has now left the Chamber, attributed to outsiders. The provisions in the Bill that will allow parish councils to put some of their own money into crime prevention are welcome, but they will not counter developments such as those that I have described in the Forest of Dean.

The proposal in the Bill that has attracted the most attention is rate relief for village shops and other village businesses. It is certainly true that local shops have taken a pounding under the Government, who, until recently, actively promoted out-of-town shopping developments, which undermined village shops as well as high street shopping centres. When they changed their policy, we welcomed their belated recognition of the damage that the planning policy was inflicting on existing retailers, both rural and urban.

We welcome the Government's adoption of a policy based on a presumption against such developments. We continue to believe that town centres should be the preferred location for major retail developments, although we recognise that some out-of-town developments may be justified in particular local circumstances. If the Secretary of State wants to rely on rumours and lies in the papers instead of on what I have just said, that is entirely up to him.

Although help for rural shops is welcome, it should not be overestimated. By the Government's calculation, the saving from the mandatory rate reduction will average £500 a shop. When the shop is rented, it is not clear from the Bill whether that saving will go to the shopkeeper: it may go to the landlord, who is not required to pass it on. As drafted, the Bill leaves many questions about definitions unanswered. The concession is for rural settlements, but what is a rural settlement? Will the concession apply to rural settlements in a city, metropolitan or unitary district? There are many sensible definitions of a rural settlement.

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Why have local pharmacies not been singled out to receive the concession, as recommended by the Select Committee on the Environment? I raise that point because of the new threat to local pharmacies: the proposed abolition of resale price maintenance on non-prescription medicines. That has raised fears all over the country that local chemists will be forced to close, reducing the service available to people living in small towns and villages. For example, in Colne valley hundreds of people signed petitions about the threat to pharmacies in Linthwaite, Slaithwaite, Milnesbridge and Golcar. The Bill does not address the new threat to local services.

The proposal to help local shops raises a matter of principle. Why does the concession apply only to villages? Why does it not apply to other areas where there are one or two shops that can hardly make ends meet? There are plenty of large estates, both council and private, on the edge of towns whose residents will feel that they equally deserve such financial support. Some such shops may be even more badly placed than village shops because of high insurance and security costs, on top of the fact that many of their customers are out of work or on low incomes.

Shops on the Matson estate on the edge of Gloucester have closed. The situation is so bad that a small shop selling basic groceries has had to be provided in the voluntary neighbourhood centre. That centre pays no rates except on the shop premises. People living on that and similar estates will want to know why the concession does not apply to their local shops.

Another example is the Lumbertubs estate on the edge of Northampton, where the general store is threatened with closure. If it closes, residents without their own transport will be isolated. On top of the usual problems, that shop has been repeatedly broken into. Local people want closed circuit television in such areas, because they have seen its benefits in the town centre. CCTV was pioneered by Northampton borough council without Government help, and still nothing is forthcoming.

The Bill proposes a number of sensible changes to help and expedite the setting up of parish councils: indeed, it returns the law to what it was before the Government made a mess of it by changing it. It increases the entitlement of parish councils to be involved in the decision-making processes of their district and county councils. The Secretary of State again referred scathingly to Lancashire county. When I last met representatives of parish councils in Lancashire, they had no word of criticism of the county council about consultation.

All those developments are a welcome acceptance by the Government of the merits of the policies that we have advocated for a long time. Unfortunately, the sensible aspects are marred by what appears at first sight to be the highly prescriptive nature of the Government's proposals, which look as if they will require the Secretary of State literally to lay down the law to individual parish councils. It seems that the Government cannot break the habits of a lifetime. Fortunately, however, that lifetime is rapidly drawing to a close.

Planning is a major responsibility of local government, and it should have been included in the Bill. Opencast mining is a major planning aspect, and it should have been dealt with in the Bill--but that has not happened. It is the rural blight that the Tories always forget. It has not been dealt with in the Bill; it was not mentioned in last month's

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White Paper on rural England; and it was not mentioned last year in the Government's rural White Paper. Opencast mining is the biggest, ugliest and most environmentally damaging activity in rural England, but the Tories dare not even speak its name.

Opencast mining is ugly, noisy, unhealthy, dangerous and dirty. It threatens rural communities in Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire. The Government do nothing and say nothing about it, because they have encouraged it and sold off the rights to private companies that are willing to destroy thousands of acres of countryside for short-term gain.

I shall give one or two examples of the problems faced by people in rural areas. In west Yorkshire, RJB Mining is the owner of most of the 660-acre Windsor site, which straddles the boundaries of Dewsbury, Batley and Spen, Normanton and Morley. It includes woods and watercourses, and it is criss-crossed by rights of way. It is a green lung for the surrounding communities, but it is now under threat.

In Derbyshire, RJB has just emerged as the buyer of an even larger site--the Shilo North site--which extends around Amber valley, Ashfield, Broxtowe and Erewash. In a joint effort with local people, the Labour-controlled Amber Valley and Broxtowe councils--supported by Tory Members of Parliament for the area, who are both Treasury Ministers--tried to buy the site, but they were outbid by RJB. It is another example of Tory profiteering getting the better of local people's interests.

Labour intends to change the rules so that opencast mining will be permitted only where it benefits the local community and environment. We also believe that the law should be changed to protect communities from repeated applications for the same or similar opencast developments. The Bill could have done that, but it does not.

I shall give an example of what is so upsetting for local people. In north-west Leicestershire, in 1993, an application to opencast a 500-acre site was rejected. At that time, the site was called Coalfield West. Now, the villages of Heather, Normanton-le-Heath and Ravenstone are beset by another application to opencast the same site--only this time, it is called Thorntree. As far as the local people are concerned, enough is enough. They want no to mean no. They want the law to be changed, and so do we.

What about the problems that people face when they are ill in rural areas? Their problems are mainly connected with transport, which parishes may wish to try to deal with under the new powers set out in the Bill. The national health service, whose anniversary was yesterday, was founded on the principle that the best health services should be available to all, wherever people live or whatever their circumstances. But that is not so in many rural areas. There, the groups most in need of health care--children, women of childbearing age and people who are poor, disabled or old--have the least access to the NHS. Instead, rural health care is most readily available to the best-off and healthiest people. That cannot be the right priority.

People living in rural areas need treatment even if they do not have enough sick relatives and neighbours nearby to attract a doctor to set up in their village. Similarly,

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they may need a hospital or an ambulance even if they, their family and their neighbours will not use either as intensively as the residents of a more densely populated suburb or town. They will still need a hospital and an ambulance service.

Unfortunately, most of the changes in the NHS have made matters worse. Countless local hospitals have been closed or have seen the number of beds reduced in the NHS's mad dash for centralisation. Leicestershire presents a good example, because it has experienced the closure or partial closure of Markfield hospital, Zachary Merton home, Ellen Towle home and Groby Road hospital, while services have been concentrated in the city of Leicester.

What about the problem of schools in rural areas? That, too, is very much a question of distance and transport. Hundreds of village primary schools have gone, as local education authorities have been forced to respond to Government and Audit Commission pressure to reduce the number of places. Village schools make a vital contribution to village life. The Government could have included some help in the Bill, but they have not. Instead, they are proposing to make matters worse.

As the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said, where there is only one school, there is no choice. That is true in many rural areas. In many sparsely populated areas, not only is there only one primary school, but only one or, at most, two secondary schools are within reach, usually in or near the local market town. They are usually genuinely comprehensive, taking in pupils of a full range of abilities. They are successful comprehensives, but what would happen if the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment got their way and tried to set up a grammar school in every town? That would foul up the whole system--and I am not the only one to say that.

To his credit, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), who is in his place and knows that I am about to mention what he said, told the House about the two comprehensive schools in Kendal--

He then advised the Secretary of State to

    "remember the old adage: 'if it works, don't start trying to fix it'."--[Official Report, 25 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 162.]

Sadly, many other schools will soon be at risk from the "Gill'll fix it" brigade.

It is not just a matter of Government policies having made country living more difficult in the past. They are still at it, and their most recent policies are likely to prove just as harmful.

Parish councils have powers to protect rights of way and to promote their use by signposting and other means. Unfortunately, neither they nor highway authorities have the power to do anything to counter what is happening to footpaths through woodlands, as a result of the Government forcing the Forestry Commission to sell off individual stretches of woodland.

Figures produced in response to parliamentary questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), the vice-president of the

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Ramblers Association, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) show that, until April this year, 92 per cent. of those woodlands had been sold without any agreement to retain public access. Of 81 woodlands up for sale in June, only 14 had agreements to safeguard public access.

The Government do not understand the depth of feeling on the subject. Privatisation is restricting ancient rights and customs, producing large gains for the privileged few and a loss of amenity for everyone else. New landlords are telling people that they can no longer go where they have wandered unhindered for generations. I know exactly how they feel.

As my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Bayley) said, the Forestry Commission is to sell off Hagg wood in Dunningham, the village where I was born and grew up, and which I still frequently visit. I have walked over every part of that 100-acre wood since I first went there on my father's shoulders with my grandfather. Later, I went there with my brother and my friends, and in due course I took my own children there, so four generations of my family--and others in the village--have roamed all over the wood. Now, as a result of Government policy, access is to be restricted, partly as a result of the actions of the Forestry Commission and partly by the Church Commissioners, who own the shooting rights. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "church militant".

That is happening all over the country. The rights of access to woodlands should be extended, not restricted, and the Bill could have made the necessary changes, but it does not. We shall be tabling amendments to that effect.

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