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5.58 pm

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon): I give a general welcome to the Bill, which is timely. It is right that the House should have the opportunity to consider some of the problems that face rural communities. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) when she says that there is much work to be done on the detail of the Bill, and some of my remarks will concern details that are as yet a little unclear. The rural White Paper set out the direction in which the Government intended to go, and the Bill contains the first set of measures that were adumbrated in that White Paper.

I represent two thirds of the borough of Thamesdown in Wiltshire, which is a mixture of urban and rural communities. It was formed in 1973 by bringing together the town of Swindon with several smaller towns and villages in what was then the Highworth rural district council. There was some unease at that time, some of which still remains.

However, whereas in those days the name Swindon was not acceptable to everyone in the new borough--which is why the name Thamesdown was concocted, from the River Thames to the north and the Marlborough downs to the south--as the authority moves towards unitary status next year, it appears to be satisfactory to the majority of the population for the name Swindon to be brought back into use. For those hon. Members who have had some difficulty with the concept of Thamesdown, and assumed that it was somewhere down the river from here, the confusion will be removed.

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The combination of urban and rural creates a sense of uncertainty and fear in the villages, some of which are near enough to the urban mass of Swindon to feel threatened by creeping expansion, but distant enough to be extremely independent-minded.

The rate relief scheme, which is in my view the principal proposal in the Bill, is welcome in principle, but there are some questions that the Government must address. For example, the upper limit has been set at about 3,000 people, but should there be a lower limit? Could a settlement be so small that it would not be possible to justify expenditure as set out in the Bill to ensure the continuation of a small shop or post office? I hope that the answer is no, but I would appreciate a reassurance from the Government that such a consideration would not enter their mind.

I think, for example, of the village of Hinton Parva in Thamesdown, the mere name of which will tell Latin scholars in the House that it is a small settlement--it has about 200 inhabitants. The post office operates part time and is run from their garage by John and Margaret Cook of Hollytree house, which, ironically, is next door to a house called The Old Post Office. Hon. Members will be able to guess what happened to the old post office. It is an example of people trying to maintain postal services in a village.

Will a part-time post office in a garage qualify for the relief that is designed to help rural post offices? I seek reassurance from my right hon. Friend the Minister on that point, because that is what the village of Hinton Parva has been reduced to, and I am sure that all the inhabitants are anxious to ensure that their access to postal services is reduced no further.

What about villages that have already lost their local shop or post office? Will the relief be available immediately to any individual seeking to provide those services afresh? Can we look to the Government, or to the local authority as it will be, to offer that relief?

What about settlements that are too large to qualify? I am thinking of the smallish town of Wroughton, near Swindon, which is extremely anxious to find a bank willing to provide a branch in the town; none of the high street banks has been interested in offering banking services there. It is unreasonable to expect bank branches to be established in settlements with a population as low as 3,000, but would the Government consider setting a different size for different activities, so that a town such as Wroughton could get some help with its rates for payments to bank branches?

Such possibilities are raised by contemplation of what is in the Bill. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) ranged widely over many issues that are not in the Bill, so I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will forgive me for ranging on a much narrower scale and for enticing him to embrace the possibility that help could be given in other ways than the rather limited ones set out in the Bill.

What about village halls and schools? Could any help be given to promote the idea that village schools should be more widely used for community purposes, to extract the maximum value from buildings that might in future combine the two functions?

What about relief for a limited number of new dwellings in villages? More and more villages are finding it difficult to provide enough accommodation to enable

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young people to stay and keep the villages alive, while the growth of dormitory living--people living in villages and working in neighbouring towns--becomes ever more apparent. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras raised the matter in a rather gruff way, but it is reasonable that we should discuss it, perhaps at a later stage in the progress of the Bill.

Local rural transport is dealt with in part III of the Bill. We should pay tribute to the way in which post buses, provided by the Post Office, have over the years filled part of the gap in the needs of rural transport, but they do not operate in the evenings. Those who live in rural communities and do not have access to a car have a right to go into towns, and it would be good if the Bill encouraged parishes to promote rural transport more than they do at present.

The rate relief proposed is of two kinds: mandatory and discretionary. Experience teaches that discretionary relief is not always effective as a means of implementing Government policy. I am thinking of the discretion given to local authorities to reduce the level of community charge on second homes. The Government clearly thought that there was a case for doing that, and the local authorities clearly did not.

Mr. Wigley: Hear, hear.

Mr. Coombs: The hon. Gentleman's interjection does not entirely surprise me, but I am not talking about the rightness or wrongness of what the Government did; the point is that, if the Government want to do something, it is probably best for them to do it themselves and not leave it to others who might well decide not to do it. That could be the case with discretionary relief, because it is estimated that the cost to local authorities even of their 25 per cent. share will be £4 million. I am not altogether inclined to blame authorities that say that they would rather not part with any of the money to which they are entitled. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that.

Until recently, Thamesdown borough council did not allow the disregard on war pensions. The amount in question was only about £20,000, but for years several of my elderly constituents, with some help from me, fought a campaign to persuade the local authority to give a complete disregard on housing benefit for war pensions. I am glad to say that in the end the authority agreed, and that that is now being done. This is a good opportunity for me to congratulate Mr. Patrick Bourke, who led that campaign to its successful conclusion.

The campaign took a long time and cost many people a great deal of money. The Government were happy with the concept of discretion but were not inclined to do anything to promote it. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to think carefully about the concept of discretionary grants. If the Government want to achieve something in this direction, as they do, we need to consider whether local authorities are willing to support the policy.

I welcome the proposed new parish council powers on transport and crime prevention. I have already mentioned evening bus services to rural communities, which will clearly require co-operation with bus companies and with district and county councils if they are to be an effective additional measure. I also welcome the involvement of

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parishes in traffic calming, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Hillsborough. She is not now in her place, but I wanted to say again that I agree with her. I am sorry that she had to leave so precipitately.

Traffic calming gives local people much assurance. I was recently approached by residents of Kite hill and Rotten row in the village of Wanborough just outside the main urban area of Swindon with a request for traffic calming. Unfortunately, many cars had found a rat run and were making their way down a steep hill. Some negotiated the right-hand bend; others went straight into the field, once knocking down the gate. All of them cause the risk of death or injury to the many children who live there.

Mr. Lawrence Trout of Rotten row raised the matter with me. I automatically wrote to the local authority, Thamesdown borough council. Like the hon. Member for Hillsborough, I want to be clear about what the position will be. Should hon. Members write to the parish council or to the district council? What will be the balance of responsibility in a matter as important--and sometimes emotional--as traffic calming?

I do not want to delay the House. Much of what I was going to say has been covered by other hon. Members. I welcome this first tranche of measures to revitalise the countryside. They are designed to help country dwellers to help themselves. No matter what we may seek to do in the House to assist them, it is important that they understand their responsibilities.

One of those was eloquently expressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he said that people who wanted to keep the village pub should be encouraged to drink there, although not to excess and not if they propose to drive. Happily, the rural areas of Thamesdown have so many pubs, so closely packed together, that the inhabitants will have no difficulty in walking a short distance to and from them to keep them alive. I look forward to supporting the further measures that were mentioned in the rural White Paper, which I am sure will be introduced by the Conservative Government elected some time next year.

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