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Mr. Ainger: I was going to make that point, and I can illustrate it. In 1994, Pembroke Dock town council was levying a rate that was higher than the district council rate for various purposes. As the hon. Gentleman says, we run the risk that, although the Bill would give those extra powers and allow community councils to levy a rate, it would have a knock-on effect on the upper tier of the local authority.

In Committee on the Local Government (Wales) Bill, I was worried--I still am--about the cost of democracy in community councils and town councils. If a member resigns or dies and there is a contest, the election can cost about £1,000. In Castlemartin, with 121 electors, if people decide that they want to hold an election, because everyone is concerned about a local issue and there are two points of view, that election almost bankrupts the

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community council. People are therefore reluctant to engage in local democracy because they are advised, "Do you realise that, if you do contest this seat and we hold an election, it will cost £1,000?" That problem must be tackled if we are to have vital local government at all levels.

The Bill presented a great opportunity--which has been lost--to tackle many of the profound problems that directly affect rural areas, especially in relation to economic activity. Why is there no rate relief for small business units, which would be a way to create and sustain jobs in rural communities? Why is there no rate relief for conversion of redundant farm buildings? Why has the Welsh Office systematically cut grants to village halls, which are often the only place where young people, the elderly, toddler groups and so on can meet? Although there is a token gesture towards education in rural areas through our small rural schools, why are local authorities constantly told that they must cut surplus places? That is the biggest threat of all to the small rural schools.

There have been cuts in support for the Leader groups, which are doing excellent work throughout rural England and Wales and addressing issues at the grass roots. In many cases, they are creating excellent training opportunities and in some cases good jobs as well. In 1995-96, £4 million was cut from support for rural initiatives in Wales. As a direct result, European money could not come into rural Wales. That is a travesty.

Although I welcome some of the measures in the Bill, I feel that an enormous opportunity has been lost.

9.20 pm

Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham): We have had an interesting debate. I originally thought that the Committee stage would be short, but as almost all Members who have spoken, on both sides of the House, have said that there are serious problems of definition in the Bill and flaws that will have to be worked out in Committee, I am beginning to wonder whether the short time between now and the election will be sufficient to sort it all out. Some of us hope that the Government will see sense and call an early election. It is interesting that all hon. Members who have spoken referred to the shortcomings of the Bill. They recognised that, although it is acceptable to Members in all parts of the House, it is a narrow measure.

I do not have a pecuniary interest, but I always like to make it clear to the House where I am coming from, so to speak, so I should state that I am vice-president of the National Association of Local Councils and president of the Durham branch of the Association of Parish and Town Councils.

Mr. Curry: Where is the hon. Lady's chain of office?

Ms Armstrong: We do not go in for that sort of thing in Durham, but I hope that I have made clear my commitment to local and parish councils.

The Secretary of State was mistaken when he said that some people did not understand rural areas and were not concerned. He almost implied that only Conservative Members were competent to speak about rural areas. The debate has shown that there is considerable knowledge, experience and commitment to a living, thriving rural environment. That is evident on both sides of the House.

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Members from Scotland and Wales as well as from England have stated their determination that rural life in their constituencies should thrive and develop, but they recognised that the measures in the Bill were minuscule relative to the needs of rural areas in the 21st century.

Interestingly, the debate has highlighted the differences in our experience of rural life. That inevitably means that we have different ideas of what needs to be done to enable the community to flourish in the next century. I was particularly struck by the comments by the hon. Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who described a type of rural life which certainly exists but which is not the only form of rural life and which in my experience is not the predominant form of rural life for many people living in villages. If it were, we would face a difficult future, because both hon. Members described many people who lived in rural areas but who were making their living outside those areas and commuted to work.

The very high use of cars is leading to problems in rural areas. In the Weardale area of my constituency, there is one road. There is a railway line, but it is now unused; that is another story and another tragedy. There is one road, and the increased use of that road is leading to enormous difficulties, both for the industries in the dale and for the people living there. If we have the idea that rural life in Britain can prosper only by people making their living and doing the main things that sustain their lives, such as shopping, outside the rural area, we shall make rural areas intolerable places in which to live. The people who live there now will move back to the towns because they do not want such a quality of life. My belief, and that of many hon. Members on both sides of the House, is that that is far too simplistic a view of what is going on in rural Britain today.

The Rural Development Commission carried out a survey in 1994 which cautioned all of us not to be glib about the nature of rural life. The survey shows that it is much more complex, that different patterns are emerging and that we as decision-makers need to think about the kind of communities that we shall encourage by the measures that we take. The Bill should have been approached in that way, but I am not sure that that has been the major motivation behind it.

The Rural Development Commission's survey makes it clear that many of the new incomers to rural areas are people on low incomes. That suggests that many of them are elderly people on fixed incomes who are moving back to their home areas or to the area where they have had a caravan. That is the common theme in Weardale. Sometimes they come to the area with an over-rosy picture of what life will be like there in their declining years. As they have low incomes, they desperately need resources and services in their locality. Many of them do not have cars or, if they do, the cars are on their last legs--or wheels. As those people get older, they are less capable of maintaining the car and they get to the stage when they cannot use it.

I was horrified to hear the hon. Member for Hexham say that the lack of a car did not matter in his constituency, because his constituents now had the air ambulance. The head of the Northumberland ambulance service tried to endear a public meeting in my constituency to the idea that his ambulance, service would

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do a much better job if it took over Durham's ambulance service. He talked about the air ambulance, and one person in the audience said that the only reason people would need an air ambulance would be if all the amenities were closed and they were not able to get to them.

The closure of the local accident and emergency unit at Shotley Bridge hospital has led to many problems and the people in the top end of the Tyne valley whom I represent have enormous difficulties because of it. If they are taken by ambulance to the accident and emergency service, they are then left to find their own way home. I have a letter from one constituent who was charged £14 to travel 15 miles in the middle of the night because he had ended up in hospital after an accident and there was no ambulance to take him home.

It is not true to say that people in my region do not face problems because of the distances involved and do not feel isolated. Those problems exist. What is happening in the health service in my region is no different from what is happening in other regions. The closure of health care units adds to the difficulties of local people, but health is not the only issue to which those problems relate.

My experience of living in a rural area is different from the picture painted by Conservative Members, but it is not all bleak: many people enjoy living in rural areas and want to be able to continue to do so. We should address the issues dealt with by the Bill on that basis.

If we are to have a rural life that is sustainable, and if we are to manage the environment and the land effectively, we must have a working life. The number of small businesses and village shops that have had to close in recent years is staggering. The measures to save small village shops are welcome but, my goodness, we have had to wait until so many of them have closed. We must now consider not only how to save those village shops, but how to make them viable and able to meet the needs of rural communities in the next century. I am disappointed by the approach taken in the Bill. It does not look forward and consider how most effectively to support village shops and businesses to ensure that they can play their role not only for the present generation but for the next.

The Government should have thought more about a partnership approach, and should have developed their proposals in that context. In some areas of the country, local authorities together with local people are already working hard on imaginative and innovative schemes, especially schemes involving small businesses. Measures are being taken to encourage young people to get jobs. If we cannot create opportunities for young people, our rural areas will become the preserve of older people and those who are getting older. If young people are unable to find work and opportunities, they will leave. I know how many people have left my area in the relatively short time that I have been in the House. I know how many young people have been driven out of my constituency because of the decline of industrial development in the dales, in the rural areas around Consett and in Consett itself.

We have heard far too little from the Government about the work of local authorities in finding ways to encourage new industry and small businesses. Given the importance of small businesses, and given the critical importance of economic regeneration to small businesses, I am amazed that the Government have come forward with so little. Small businesses in rural areas will be encouraged not only by the presence of village shops but by the overall rural environment.

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However, as I have said, village shops can develop to meet the challenges of the future. In Hertfordshire, for example, centres have been established in village shops and in "telecottages" through the collaborative initiative of all local government tiers--district, county and parish--showing what can be accomplished by adapting a village shop or community facility to the changing needs and demands of a new century. Such initiatives prove that rural businesses can thrive. Perhaps there will be information centres and other facilities in village shops that will involve not only village shop owners but others in offering new opportunities in rural areas.

The Government have taken so many actions that have frustrated the efforts of so many people. Many of my constituents have been unable to pursue training or other schemes to get them back into work because of the Government's benefits rules, which have proved a major disincentive, especially for those who wish to undertake part-time training.

The Government have failed to tackle other issues in reducing unemployment. They have made it increasingly difficult for farmers' wives in my constituency, for example, who have come to see me anxious about whether their children of school-leaving age will have any work opportunities in the dale. Those women know that there must be support for initiatives to ensure that the dales and other rural areas can survive and grow.

I am also very disappointed about the Government's work on parish councils--which I support, as I have already made clear. I find it incredible that it is necessary for the Bill to state that Parliament will allow parish councils to organise car-sharing schemes or to take initiatives to tackle rural crime. Rural crime is a desperately important issue. In my area, we have worked with the police and with parish and district councils to establish a rural crime watch.

In Burnhope--I assume that this is one of the examples used by Ministers--we have a parish bobby who is paid by the parish council. Burnhope is an old, very isolated mining village, with incredibly high levels of poverty and deprivation. The situation is much worse there than in many other villages in my constituency, which itself has the lowest income per household of any constituency in England.

There is poverty and deprivation in rural areas, but people want to live and work in the areas in which they grew up. Our job is to provide the framework so that they can do that. Only when we deliver that framework will we be able to ensure that we look after the land--the green and pleasant land in which we live--so that it is maintained for future generations. The Government have missed many opportunities in the Bill, but the Opposition will table amendments in Committee to ensure that the Government consider those opportunities.

I hope that the Government will also examine other proposals affecting rural areas, such as the nursery voucher scheme, which is creating havoc in the rural areas of Norfolk and will create havoc across the country. There are enormous opportunities to make child care available, which will greatly assist rural women who want to end their children's isolation so that they can have a proper start in life.

The Government must examine their policies so that they encourage a thriving existence for everyone in rural areas, not just those with cars. Many rural areas have low

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car ownership and people living in those areas have as much right to our attention as anyone else. If we are to provide them with real opportunities, we need a Government who will take a more serious approach to those difficulties than that taken in the Bill. I suspect that the present Government will not do that, and I look forward to being a member of a Government who will find a solution.

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