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Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about Leek, because I know the area well, representing a neighbouring constituency. Would he care to contrast the situation in Leek, which is under the Labour-controlled Staffordshire

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Moorlands council, with that of the neighbouring borough of Macclesfield--a booming market town with a Conservative council?

Mr. Dobson: There are some substantial differences between the two places, including a considerable difference in population. One of those towns has the advantage of being on the west coast main line. That would be a greater advantage if the Government had not allowed the line to run down.

In the first speech that I made as shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, I spelled out the importance to us all of having a sense of place, personal loyalty and concern. People have that sense of place in the Yorkshire village where I was born and lived for the first 19 years of my life. They have it equally in Holborn, Camden Town and Kentish Town--the areas that I represent in Parliament. In government, we want to draw on that sense of place and local loyalty, that personal commitment of individuals and communities, so that we can work in partnership to make the whole country, urban and rural, more prosperous, safe, clean and healthy and make each part of our country more desirable.

To the extent that most of the Bill is a limited move in the right direction, we give it a critical welcome. We shall seek to improve it in Committee. The most necessary changes must await Labour's victory in the coming general election.

5.17 pm

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham): The Bill offers real, positive help to rural communities. It was a pity that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) spent so little time talking about its main purpose, which is to help village shops, and so much time airing his prejudices against those whom he described as "toffs"--a term which shows his lack of understanding of those who live in the countryside--and his prejudices against country sports. However, it is probably better to gloss over the barrage of inaccuracies from the hon. Gentleman and return to the Bill, which is a practical and helpful measure. It may well be possible to improve it in Committee, but it is a good Bill and I warmly welcome it.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the parish of Stone, near Faversham, in my constituency. Alas, the boundary commission is removing that parish, for the extraordinary reason that nobody lives there. There is a fine Romano-British Christian church surrounded by a burial ground, but alas, we cannot consult those people. Nevertheless, some of us do not want the parish to be removed.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: With regard to parishes without populations, my hon. Friend may be aware that Dallinghoo in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State contained a parish called Dallinghoo Weald, which I represented as a county councillor many years ago, but I am sad to say that my right hon. Friend encouraged its amalgamation and so we lost another such parish.

Sir Roger Moate rose--

Mr. Gummer: For the record, I fought hard against the abolition of Dallinghoo Weald and of Havergate island,

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but I am afraid that the sensible policies that I intend to implement did not apply at that time. I will ensure that the necessary change in policy is carried through.

Sir Roger Moate: We should have liked to keep the parish of Stone, but it is hard to argue the case when there are no residents there.

Under the consultation requirements, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will seek to ensure that planning authorities advise parishes of the reasons why planning applications are rejected or accepted contrary to the wishes of the parish council. That is a matter of some significance, and the news will be warmly welcomed by parish councils which find the way in which the system operates at present to be irksome.

I wish to refer to the main thrust of the Bill--the help for village shops. Like other hon. Members, I have offered my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer my advice on what the Budget should contain, and my main suggestion was that we should try to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the unified business rate. I argued for that because I believe that the removal of that burden would do more than anything else to stimulate the small businesses of this country and to encourage enterprise. Alas, it is a £12 billion tax--a little beyond the probable scope of one Budget, and certainly beyond the scope of the Bill.

Nevertheless, I see the Bill as a £22 million start, as that is the estimated cost of the rural rate relief scheme proposed in it. One of the reasons why I welcome the Bill is that it is the first crack in the structure of the business property tax, which is still based on the totally artificial device of notional rental values. That flawed concept eventually destroyed the old domestic rating system, and I welcome this move as a small step in the right direction.

I also welcome the fact that the Bill is specifically aimed at helping those small shops which are an essential part of the fabric of rural life and of small communities. If we are going to start anywhere, this is probably the right place. A 50 per cent. mandatory reduction in rates will be immensely important to shops in my constituency, the county of Kent and the rest of the United Kingdom. A 100 per cent. discretionary reduction could also be crucial, as it could help shops to survive and also encourage new shops to open. We are all aware of enterprising individuals who are seeking to establish new businesses in rural areas. It is a difficult challenge, and this type of help is important.

The proposals beg more questions than they answer. That is why the Committee stage will be so important. We should not always complain about what we have been given and say that we should have been given more. Inevitably, however, the Bill's provisions lead to crucial questions. I am not clear from the Bill, or from the answers given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today, why we are applying the concessions only to village general stores and village post offices, as other retail activities in our villages are also important--equally so, in some cases.

The village butcher, for example, is a much treasured retail establishment in many villages and should be supported. Also, small souvenir shops in rural communities, picture framing shops, book shops, pubs--as have been mentioned--and garages should also receive support. One can understand the argument that the general

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store offers a crucial lifeline for many people, but all those other establishments play a crucial role in the rural economy, and we should try to help them. I hope that we can explore the possibility of a more flexible definition in Committee.

Mr. Rendel: That is an interesting point, which comes back to an intervention that I made on the Secretary of State, who unfortunately did not attempt to answer it. The hon. Member is perhaps mistaken in thinking that the definition needs greater flexibility, as the Bill simply refers to businesses which may "benefit the local community". It is possible to interpret that widely to include businesses which benefit the local community by employing a large part of the local work force. What is needed is a change of mind from the Government on how the Bill could be interpreted, rather than a change in the Bill itself.

Sir Roger Moate: The Bill refers specifically to general stores and post offices. The hon. Gentleman will find that the definition is drawn fairly narrowly.

That leads me on to the discretionary 100 per cent. grant. Again, I am not clear how this will operate. Will it operate at the discretion of local authorities for one shop as opposed to another, or will it apply to a broad category of premises or businesses across an area? If it is the latter, the measure may be much more expensive than the Government expect. It will be difficult to exercise a judgment in favour of one business against another, particularly if it is not being done on the basis of need or following means testing. It is a good principle to give local authorities the power to help small businesses, but we must get it right. This is a marvellous opportunity: we must build on it and explore how the system will work.

My next question has been touched upon already and concerns the rural area itself. What is a rural settlement? The definition, we are told, is a rural settlement with a population of 3,000. But is that a parish boundary? Is it a large village, or a small town? It is hard to define the terms. I fully understand the Government's saying that this is a difficult matter and that it is preferable to do something than to do nothing, but there are large villages in every area with populations of more than 3,000 whose village stores are just as much in need of support as those with populations under 3,000. It will be hard to give grants to a small village while another village further away gets no grant at all.

Mr. Wigley: During the consultation in Wales, the Secretary of State for Wales at one stage referred to the density of the population in relation to the definition. I do not know whether that was referred to during the consultation in England or whether it is irrelevant. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts on that? Could such an approach deal with the question of where those 3,000 people can live?


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