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8.12 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) who made a characteristically constructive speech. Some of the matters that he raised are already addressed satisfactorily in the Bill. For example, schedule 1 will provide billing authorities with much flexibility to interpret what is meant by "a rural settlement". I understood what the hon. Member was talking about, because I spent my summer holiday this year in his constituency and that of his hon. Friend the

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Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I thought that he talked down Porthmadog a little, because it is a vibrant shopping centre and my wife and daughter greatly enjoyed our shopping trips there, although I could see the damage that has been done to areas of his constituency by the attractions of Safeway in Caernarfon and the new Tesco store further along the coast at Bangor. They have had an impact on village shops.

The two cheers from the Welsh nationalists must be encouraging for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister who will reply to the debate tonight. The Opposition parties seem to agree that the Bill is at least a small step forward, so we are entitled to believe that it is a big one indeed.

As we have heard in the debate, the Bill is about rural communities, and it is good to have an opportunity to debate that subject. I think back to the fuss that arose when the Church of England published its report, "Faith in the City", and the huge row that erupted. Someone even used the word "Marxist" to describe the report. A few years later, the Church of England produced a parallel report called "Faith in the Countryside" which, I am sad to say, sank without trace. It was a fine report and an example of the Church making a useful contribution to the debate about rural communities.

We are debating today the very institutions that bind together those rural communities. Many of them are important--the church, the shop, the pub, the parish council, the school and so on. Those are the "little platoons" of village life. That phrase was used by Edmund Burke in 1790, when he said:

So our debate tonight has a long and honourable tradition.

Those institutions, those little platoons, empower people--they help people make a difference to the community in which they live--and they do not just include the formal institutions, because the family is a little platoon, as are sports clubs, hunts and voluntary groups. All those little platoons bind together the fabric of rural life. Some, such as the Church, do so by providing spiritual help; the shop provides practical help, as a centre of information for the village; the pub provides a social opportunity; the parish council provides a democratic one; and the school provides an educational one. They are the foundations on which our rural communities are built, and I congratulate the Government on the Bill, which will deal with many aspects of rural institutional life--those little platoons.

There is little for schools in the Bill, but it is not an education Bill and is not the place for that. There is little for the Church, but it has something to tell us about the importance of little platoons and subsidiarity. I mean, in this case, the Church of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is a member, rather than my Church. Subsidiarity lies at the heart of what we are debating tonight because giving power to parish councils, as the Bill will, is what subsidiarity is all about. It was defined by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical "Quadrigesimo Anno" in the following terms:

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    "Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater or higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do."

He continued:

    "those in power"--

he must have been thinking of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State--

    "should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of subsidiary function, the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be, the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State".

That definition was quoted in the document "The Common Good", which was produced by the Catholic bishops recently and widely, and I think wrongly, interpreted as an incentive to vote Labour. That interpretation was sadly misguided on the part of mischievous media.

In the document, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church stated:

That is what the Bill sets out to do and that is why we should give it three not two cheers.

The principle of empowering parish councils must be right and we will give them powers that they may choose to exercise or not, depending on local circumstances. Conservatives are frequently criticised for seeking to centralise power, but I cannot understand that criticism. Our proposals for grant-maintained schools involve a decentralisation of power. They give power back to local communities and I am delighted that, in Flyford Flavell first school, I have the first grant-maintained primary school in a rural area in my constituency. That is empowering for the local community. We see decentralisation in health authorities, because we are giving power to general practitioners to take decisions.

We oppose Labour plans to create regional assemblies which would undermine the role of all local authorities, especially parish councils. We want to take power out to the people and that is what the Bill sets out to do.

Parish councils are, as everybody in the House agrees, crucial local institutions. I seek invitations to go to them as regularly as I can and a summons to one is a three-line whip to me. On the Bill's proposals for parish councils, I have two questions, two welcomes and two caveats to enter. I am delighted that the Bill will make it easier to establish parish councils, and that it will give local communities the power to petition for their creation. I am also delighted by the new powers the Bill will provide on community transport and crime prevention, but I wish to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary a question about clause 16. As I read it, the clause seems to create a presumption in favour of parishing. It seems to oblige district councils to parish where appropriate.

I think that I know the answer to the question, but does the clause also apply to parishes in urban areas, for example in Worcester city? I ask because my city council fought the creation of parish councils. The Labour party, which controls Worcester city, did not welcome rival centres of power in the city. They were wrong to fight

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them and it was undemocratic and unduly centralising of them. I am glad to say that the parish councils now exist and are making a valid contribution to the life of my city. In other cities, where Labour administrations might take a similarly unenlightened attitude, will they find it more difficult to resist the creation of parish councils?

I have a second question, about clause 21 and consultation with parish councils, which may already have been answered when I was temporarily out of the Chamber. I understand that it is primarily intended to deal with planning matters, about which several hon. Members have already spoken in detail.

Many parish councils in Worcestershire feel that they are not taken sufficiently seriously on planning matters. Only yesterday a parish council chairman told me that they feel that they are regularly presented with a series of faits accomplis. For exactly the reasons that many hon. Members have explained, I would like parish councils to be fundamentally involved in the planning process. They are in touch with grass-roots local opinion, and they know, often better than district or county councils, what is good for their communities.

Parish councils could also be given a role in the enforcement process. Often, when planning permissions have been granted, they are not properly followed, and sometimes the parish is better placed to judge whether a planning permission has been properly adhered to.

Frequently parish councils are not adequately informed during the local plan process. That has been an issue in the village of Tibberton, Worcestershire, which is currently suffering the imposition of an unwelcome housing development because the parish council was not properly informed about it. No one broke the rules, but there are no rules obliging anyone to inform the parish about a change in the application of the plan to its village. As a result, Tibberton is finding it difficult to resist the imposition of that unwelcome housing.

In the early stages of the local plan, the parish council thought that it had made its representations effectively, but then found that it was not required to be informed of a change. I do not think that at this stage the village can avoid the building of the unwelcome houses.

Parish councils have a crucial role to play in the planning process, and we should seek to reinforce that role wherever we can. The 1972 legislation simply required all planning applications to be notified to parish councils. I believe that that those councils' views should carry much more weight, and I hope that that is what the relevant clause seeks to achieve.

I extend two specific welcomes, one of which is for the wide range of powers on community transport and on traffic measures such as traffic calming. I especially welcome the emphasis on imaginative, innovative, creative use of existing facilities, such as sharing cars and taxi arrangements. Sadly, the days of the village bus cannot come back for most rural communities. Too many people own cars, which traps the poorest and most underprivileged members of our society in the villages, unable to leave them to work, to shop or for recreational purposes. The new proposals are welcome, as they seek to correct a trend that cannot otherwise be addressed.

I welcome the powers on crime prevention. Several parishes in my area are already adopting certain measures, such as giving remuneration to neighbourhood watch co-ordinators, which may or may not be legal at present.

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I am sure that they will welcome the provisions in the Bill. The installation of closed circuit television cameras may be a bit much to ask in small village communities, considering not only the capital costs but the running costs. But larger town councils will welcome the powers that the Bill will enable them to take.

I have two caveats. First, not all parish councils will take up the new powers. It is not the Government's intention that they should. The powers are discretionary, and councils can decide whether to use them. However, if a significant number of parishes decided to use the powers, parish council expenditure would increase sharply.

Wychavon district council area, which covers the rural parts of my constituency, is fully parished. We have three significant town councils, and the total budget of the parish councils there is about £750,000. I therefore repeat what some Opposition Members have said about not bringing parish precepts within district and county capping arrangements. That would be a harmful development, and I hope that the Minister will assure me that the Government do not intend it to happen.

My second caveat concerns the new responsibilities of parish councils. They will require a great deal more skill and expertise than some councils now have. Many parishes may be reluctant to take up the powers because they feel that they lack the necessary expertise.

Let us consider some of the issues that my local parish councils are confronting now. Whittington is fighting a battle with the Highways Agency about noise, and a great deal of expertise has been built up there. People in Bishampton and Throckmorton have fought an entirely inappropriate planning permission for a chicken farm, and have had to deal with complex laws on environmental impact assessments, as well as European Union involvement in such matters.

I have already talked about Tibberton, and the detailed work that has been done there on the planning process covering housing. Inkberrow fought the Boundary Commission in an attempt to prevent its transfer to the new Redditch parliamentary constituency. In Wyre Piddle, people need to know the details of transport policy, as they fight for their bypass.

Those matters are all time-consuming for parish councils, and if they are to take advantage of the new powers in the Bill the clerks, especially, would benefit from further training. Perhaps the Rural Development Commission could consider the idea; indeed, I believe that it is already doing so. Overall, I welcome what the Bill will do for parish councils. It recognises subsidiarity, decentralisation and the strength of the little platoons.

That thought leads me to that other little platoon dealt with by the Bill--the village shop. Many such shops in and near my constituency are struggling against all the odds. In my eyes, the proprietors of village shops are the real heroes of rural life, providing a crucial service and a social facility that we cannot afford to lose.

Several Opposition Members have said that the relief that we propose for village shops should go to urban shops too. I understand that wish, because there are struggling urban shops in my constituency, too. However, the point is that the rate relief will be a subsidy not to the village shop proprietor but to the community, to keep that crucial community facility alive. That is the distinction.

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Ultimately, the Government have to draw the line somewhere. There are all kinds of things that we would like to do if resources were unlimited, but as they are not, I believe that the Government are striking the right balance. The rate relief proposal will often make a real difference to village shops.

Some people have underplayed the significance of rate relief to those shops. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities, for example, seems to think that it does not matter. I disagree. Some shops in my constituency are still awaiting the phasing out of transitional UBR relief, and at present the prospect for them is one of increasing business rates. The Bill will wipe out that prospect, which will be greatly welcomed by the shops.

Figures are missing from the Bill, but I understand that the Government intend to set the rateable value limit below £5,000 and to provide for mandatory 50 per cent. relief for such businesses. The discretionary scheme for a 50 per cent. top-up for local authorities must be welcome. I also notice that, whichever way we put it, only 25 per cent. of the 50 per cent.--that is, 12.5 per cent. of the total--will fall to local authorities, the rest being borne by the rate fund or by the Exchequer, depending on which interpretation one prefers.

I welcome all that, and I sincerely hope that the village shops in my constituency will benefit from both halves of the equation, the mandatory and the discretionary. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on such matters, praised the record of councils run by his party in that regard. The Lib-Lab pact that runs Wychavon council does not have an especially good record on hardship relief. Only a tiny handful of shops get help.

Wychavon is a cash-rich district, because of the wise policies of the Government, especially the policy for the transfer of council housing to local housing associations, which were pursued by the previous Conservative Administration. The council has enough money to give the relief, so I sincerely hope that, when the Bill becomes an Act, it will make a rapid commitment to use its resources to provide the tiny additional sum to increase the limit to 100 per cent.

Despite my welcome for the Bill, I accept what many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Caernarfon, have said: it is not a panacea, and does not solve all the problems of village shops.

I am a great admirer of Tesco, Sainsbury and Safeway. As one of my hon. Friends said, those companies have transformed British retailing; they are among the finest retailers in the world. But at the end of the day they are the enemies of the village shop. We cannot duck that fact.

For example, I wrote to Tesco when the company started running a bus service from a village in my constituency to its new store at Evesham. That stuck a dagger in the heart of the village shop in Peopleton. Tesco found it incomprehensible that I could be worried about the village shop, but I was, because the bus service was limited and inadequate, yet it would take away that extra bit of turnover from the village shop, thus endangering its future.

I opposed Sunday opening for similar reasons. I am sure that that, too, has damaged village shops and small urban shops. I am also concerned about the policy of some

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of the big supermarkets on "known value items". For a village shop it is difficult to buy many branded goods even as cheaply as the price at which they are sold off the supermarket shelves. The supermarkets stop the manufacturers and wholesalers selling goods at a price that would enable the village shop to compete with them.

That is a scandal, and I hope that the Minister can have a word with the Office of Fair Trading to see whether that body could have a little look at the problem.

Another matter that hon. Members could have mentioned is the new business improvement grant scheme for village shops. Taken together with the relief on business rates, it is a very important development. In fact, the chairman of the Rural Development Commission said in a press release last week:

Combined with the measures in the Bill, the new business improvement grant scheme, which was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 28 October, offers more than a ray of hope for many struggling village shops.

Of course, village shops face other threats, too. If, Heaven forfend, there were to be a Labour Administration sometime in the future which proposed the introduction of a minimum wage, what effect it would have on many marginal shops that can at present afford to employ one assistant at a relatively low rate of pay I shudder to think. The implications of a minimum wage for village shops could be very serious.

The National Farmers Union wants clarification on some issues. It has asked how my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State proposes to designate areas as rural for the purposes of the scheme. I am sure that we shall explore that in Committee, although I think that schedule 1 provides the flexibility that those rural communities need. It also asked what might be the position of some farm shops, which act as general stores but are not necessarily located within the boundaries of a designated rural settlement. That is an interesting point.

There is another point on which I would be interested in hearing my hon. Friend the Minister comment. Some of the shops have to pay not only business rates but large sums to have rubbish taken away by district councils. The cost of collecting cardboard cartons has an additional charge over and above the business rate. Perhaps that is another matter to be considered.

Finally, and briefly, I turn to pubs. It is right that we should emphasise them as a crucial component of village life. I attended a reception yesterday that was organised by CAMRA at which that point was made to me very forcibly. It is looking for a mandatory 100 per cent. relief scheme for village pubs, which is a trifle ambitious, to say the least. Pubs play a crucial social and economic role in villages. They provide a cheap and self-financing meeting place for many local groups where, for example, a village hall does not exist, and they are vital to social cohesion. I am told that, at present, business rates account for 6p per pint sold in the average village pub, and that the

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total tax per pint is around 54p when one takes account of excise duty, VAT and business rates. Perhaps that is another little platoon that demands a little more support in the Bill.

Nevertheless, the Bill is a good one, it has been introduced by a good Secretary of State and it deserves to make good progress. I certainly have no hesitation in recommending it to the House.

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