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9.1 pm

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke): I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you were in the Chamber earlier this afternoon when I raised a point of order about the closure of the Gulf refinery in my constituency, which was announced this morning. It is planned to close it by the summer of 1997, with the loss of 350 direct jobs and a similar number of indirect jobs.

My constituency, a peripheral part of the United Kingdom, has over the past five years suffered defence cuts that have meant 1,050 job losses in defence establishments both in the constituency and in neighbouring ones. There have also been job losses in the energy sector, another pillar of the local economy, totalling 400 over the past five years. In the food production and processing sector, the third pillar of our local economy, we suffered the closure of the Whitland creamery, in 1994, and we are now suffering the effects of the BSE crisis.

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The fourth pillar is tourism, which this year was hit by the Sea Empress spillage. Cardiff business school calculates that that resulted in a loss to the local economy of between £21 million and £30 million this year, with the consequential loss of between 1,100 and 1,400 jobs in the holiday season.

The cumulative effects of all that have been catastrophic, particularly for unemployment. In September this year, male unemployment in Milford Haven on a narrow base rate was 26 per cent., in Fishguard it was 20 per cent., in Pembroke Dock it was 20 per cent., and in Tenby, 22 per cent. The report produced by Cardiff business school and the Institute of Rural Studies in Aberystwyth also shows that, before the Sea Empress disaster, average income per head in rural west Wales was 72 per cent. of the European average, making it as poor as many parts of Portugal--which, along with Greece, is the poorest country in the European Union.

I represent a rural seat, because all the jobcentres that I have quoted in my constituency cover rural areas as well as the urban areas of particular towns, so I welcome anything that could alleviate some of the problems that my constituents face.

I am disappointed with the Bill, not precisely because of what it does, but because of what it does not do. It does not take on any of the major issues identified by the Government in their rural White Paper, nor in the responses from various rural organisations in England and those received in response to the Welsh Office rural White Paper. The scope of the Bill is extremely limited, and it does not get to grips with some of the fundamental problems that Wales in particular faces.

I was somewhat amused by the comments of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who said that the problems faced by those in the rural areas of his constituency were caused by success. He said that, because people could afford a car, they could travel to the supermarket 10 miles away, thus depriving the local community shop of income. That is certainly not the case in my constituency.

The sad fact is that, two years ago, the Employment Service conducted a survey on behalf of the local leading pressure group, South Pembrokeshire Action for Rural Communities, in which it identified the fact that lack of transport was one of the main reasons why people remained unemployed or were unable to upgrade their skills on training schemes. It discovered that people could not get to a job even if one was available, and that they could not attend a training scheme even if one was offered to them, because of the Government's failure to ensure that we have reasonable transport services throughout our rural communities.

A survey carried out by Cardiff business school discovered that those on low incomes remained so poor because, even though they had a job, they had to pay car insurance, car tax and the high price of petrol for a car that they could not really afford, but which they kept because, without it, they could not get to work. Many of those people were going without to keep their car on the road. That is the reality for many in rural areas, particularly in Wales.

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I welcome the limited proposals in the Bill, although I have certain concerns about some of the details. Bearing in mind the limited amount of cash that will be available under the mandatory scheme, it is surprising that it will not be more closely targeted. It is quite possible that a successful shop in a village, which makes a reasonable turnover, will receive rate relief under the mandatory scheme because it is the only shopping outlet in that village. Unless we start targeting that limited resource, I am afraid that other, perhaps more deserving, shops and garages might go without. In Committee, we shall have to examine closely whether it is right to offer relief according to a blanket definition which means that, if a shop is the sole outlet in a community with a population of less than 3,000, it is automatically entitled to that rate relief.

As many hon. Members said, there are serious problems in areas that people from a city would regard as rural, but which the relevant local authority might regard as urban. Today, I asked my staff to carry out a small survey in two towns in my constituency, Pembroke Dock and Milford Haven. I asked them to count how many shops were boarded up, how many had "To Let" signs up and how many were unoccupied.

In Pembroke Dock this afternoon, 39 shops were either to let, boarded up or unoccupied and a further 16 units in a small shopping mall were also vacant. In Milford Haven, 15 shops were unoccupied or boarded up. That shows that we are examining the problems not only of purely rural areas, but of those not especially large towns where people from rural areas shop. The Government should address the crisis in the retail sector in many of our small towns. It is rather unfair that successful shops outside so-called urban areas will receive rate relief, whereas those suffering real problems in small towns will get no help at all.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) has returned, because my next point relates to what he said about garages. If certain bypass schemes go ahead, some villages in my constituency in which the village garage is also the village shop will face problems, because their garage-cum-shop will be bypassed along with the rest of the village. Obviously, a significant part of such outlets' income derives from passing trade, and when that traffic has gone, because the trunk road will go round and not through the village, they will face real difficulties. The Committee should examine that issue because there is a deliberate policy on trunk roads that affects such village shops, especially those that also serve as garages.

As I explained, Whitland was a thriving town until November 1994. It had a large creamery that employed 156 people, and most of those people lived in the town. As a result of the deregulation of the milk market, that creamery was closed by Dairy Crest, and 156 people lost their jobs. Earlier this year, the town was bypassed and now, instead of going through the centre of the town, the A14 passes to the north. From an environmental point of view, that is undoubtedly a benefit; it is also an economic benefit, because it speeds up traffic between the far west of Pembrokeshire and the M4 corridor. However, the impact on the town centre--its shops, pubs, takeaways and garages--has been catastrophic.

The irony is that, under the present arrangements, the creamery, which is still owned by Dairy Crest and which the company refuses to sell, lease or otherwise put on the

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market, has received rate relief; whereas the poor shops, garages, takeaways and other outlets have received no help whatever. That is another matter which the Committee should seriously examine.

I recently asked the Post Office how many post offices had closed in rural west Wales, and I was told that six had closed this year alone--in Rhyd Lewis, Aberaeron, Freshwater East, Tufton, Bosherston and Fron Deg Terrace. I do not think that anything in the Bill will encourage anyone to take on those franchises, reopen those post offices and provide a vital service to people in those villages. Another opportunity has been missed to establish essential services. Elderly people and those on benefit need a local post office that is operational.

I shall now discuss community councils, as we call them in Wales. Wales is completely covered by community and town councils. I served on the Committee on the Local Government (Wales) Bill, which addressed many of the issues that are addressed in, I think, part III of the Bill, which relates purely to England. I am a great supporter of community councils, and I welcome some of the moves in the Bill towards increased responsibilities and powers for community councils, but we must be realistic.

Many of the new powers relate to improving transport facilities. Castlemartin community council in my constituency has 121 electors. It has serious transport problems; almost its only remaining public transport is a post bus. Those 121 electors would not be too happy with their community council if it suddenly started levying a rate to provide a vital service. They would appreciate that service, but those 121 people would not like the bill that they would have to pick up.

In that case, the issue is too great for a community council, and can be tackled only by the county council, but its hands are tied because it is in effect capped by the Welsh Office. It cannot expend the money necessary to provide that community with a reasonable transport service.

Mr. Rendel: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the worries about the extra powers that the Bill would give to parish councils is that, although parish councils are not capped, the money that they spend counts against the capping limit for the higher-level council, so any money that those poor 121 electors might be asked to spend will have to be deducted from the spending of the higher-level council?

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