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9.39 pm

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): It may assist the House if I begin by trying to answer some of the questions of fact and interpretation that have been raised in the debate.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) asked why the measure did not embrace Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland does not have a system of parishes analogous to that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is currently undergoing a rating revaluation, so it would not be easy to graft such a Bill on to the existing structure of legislation in Northern Ireland. No doubt the hon. Gentleman may wish to discuss with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland his interest in measures that would have a similar effect to the Bill.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) asked which parts of England, Scotland and Wales were covered by the Bill. The complicated answer involves the way in which Bills are drafted in order to observe legal technicalities. I could give him a detailed explanation which would leave him better informed, but possibly none the wiser. Perhaps it would be easier for me simply to list the parts of the Bill and the areas to which they apply. I can do that with certainty.

The village shop rate relief applies to England, Wales and Scotland. The abolition of duty on sporting rights applies to England and Wales, as there is already a similar measure for Scotland. The abolition of Crown exemption applies to England, Wales and Scotland, as does the retention of the exemption for visiting forces. The creation and review of parish arrangements is confined to England, as is the consultation framework for parishes, but the transport and crime prevention powers for parishes apply to England and Wales.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with an exhaustive topographical explanation of the Bill. I counsel him not to seek a detailed explanation. He can have one if he wants, but he will find it truly helpful only if he is deeply insomniac.

It may also be helpful if I cover some of the basic elements of the Bill, as I can provide clarifications and explanations that may save us time elsewhere. The village shop relief applies to the only shop that is a general store, selling food, hardware and household goods, or a post office. It will get a 50 per cent. mandatory relief. If there is a post office that is a general store and there is another general store in the village, the relief will apply to the post office, although the local authority will have the discretion to apply it to the second store as well.

Discretionary relief can be used to increase the 50 per cent. mandatory relief to the designated store.

Mr. Rendel: I seek clarification on that point. If a joint village store and post office is the only post office in the village, is the rate relief given only on the post office element of the store or on the total value of the property?

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Mr. Curry: Rate relief is given on the total value of the property, as I shall explain in more detail.

Mr. Dobson: I am genuinely trying to be helpful. Will the Minister consider a problem that may arise when the proposals in the Bill are put through by local councils? At the moment, auditors interpret any advocacy by a councillor of action to be taken in the ward or district that they represent as disqualifiable interest. Councillors from particular villages may well wish to advocate some of the proposals that have been put forward today. Under current auditor's rulings, they would not be allowed to advocate them or be present at a meeting at which they were discussed, still less vote on them.

Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman has raised a serious point. As he knows, the Nolan committee is considering local government issues. The Government's submission to that committee will be published shortly. I shall undertake to consider what the hon. Gentleman has said--his point covers many issues--in the light of the discussions that are taking place.

Other stores can qualify for discretionary relief, not just the pub, the garage or the pharmacist. The power is deliberately widely drawn to give the local authority discretion. Any business can be included if it is important to the local community--the butcher, the baker or, for the sake of argument, the sawmill rather than the candlestick maker.

In our consultation, we suggested a ceiling of £5,000 in rateable value for the mandatory element and £10,000 for discretionary relief. The consultation showed a general agreement with those figures. In the light of the broad consensus that they achieved, I suspect that my right hon. Friend will probably settle on them.

The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) asked about mobile shops. They are almost certainly not rated at the moment, although a central storage element, if they have one, may be. I am happy to consider that more closely and write to the hon. Gentleman if I need to qualify what I have said.

We think that some 30,000 businesses will benefit from the two schemes.

Mr. Wigley: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I have been persistent on some points today. Will he confirm that it is possible to have several settlements--the term used in schedule 1--in one parish or community? If there are post offices in several villages in one community, will they all qualify?

Mr. Curry: I shall come to that. We have defined a rural area. It will be for the local authority to identify the settlements lying within that area. There may be more than one settlement in a defined rural area. The answer is therefore yes.

A local authority can already grant charitable relief, discretionary relief and hardship relief. None of those powers is affected by the new powers.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), who is not in her place, asked about settlements in metropolitan areas. Nothing in the Bill prevents a village in a metropolitan area from being deemed eligible. We will follow the definitions produced as a result of

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consultation under the Housing Act 1996, which lists 30 or so areas in South Yorkshire, for example, designated as rural areas.

Any settlement of no more than 3,000 people within one of those parishes is eligible, each one being eligible separately. I know that that will also interest many of my hon. Friends. I understand that the hon. Member for Hillsborough has explained that she cannot be present now because she is in a Select Committee. It is for the local authority to define the curtilage of a settlement.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) asked where the money comes from. I suppose that I had better answer.

The money comes from the pool, which is redistributed. Under the local government financial system--with which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South will be intimately familiar--any cut in the amount available for distribution under the business rates is compensated for under the revenue support grant. The money comes from the Exchequer, and is not a charge upon what is distributed in the pool.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) asked about a lower limit, a part-time post office in a garage, and a newly provided store. The answers are no, yes and yes. He will forgive my shorthand, but I think the answers are satisfactory.

A number of questions were raised on parishing. There are essentially three routes into parishing. First, a district council can undertake a review and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State, who then makes the necessary orders to create the parish. The district council then makes the orders to create the parish council. Secondly, a petition, by either a minimum of 250 electors or 10 per cent. of the electors in the area of the proposed parish, that defines where they want the boundaries to lie, goes to the district council, which can comment. These comments are then sent to the Secretary of State for a decision.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley): Will my right hon. Friend include metropolitan councils in what he is saying?

Mr. Curry: Not in all of what I am saying, but I shall refer to metropolitan councils in a moment, when my hon. Friend will be as satisfied with what I have to say as he was with what I have just said.

The third route is for the Secretary of State to direct the Local Government Commission to carry out a parish review from scratch, or where there is some dispute about the need for a parish. In that case, the Local Government Commission can investigate and make a recommendation.

Mr. Barry Field: My right hon. Friend has referred to petitions. If a community has already petitioned before the passing of this legislation, will that stand good, or will it have to do it all again?

Mr. Curry: We would expect a new petition if one had been rejected, and there must be a two-year interval between petitions. Parishes in metropolitan areas are exactly the same as those I have described in the countryside, because, in law, a metropolitan council is a district council. There will be no upper limit to population size, except where the creation of a parish would dominate an entire district.

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The parish council can currently precept £3.50 per elector for general purposes, such as recreation or the upkeep of the village hall. It will now be able to precept above that for the reasons specified by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today. There was a question about traffic calming and the relationship between parish councils and the Highways Authority. The parish council will be able to support traffic calming projects, provided it has the consent of the Highways Authority, which will carry out the work. Other than the parish council opting to lie in the middle of the road, as it were, it will be able to contribute to the work.

It is worth remembering that, in trying to enhance the roles of parish councils, the recent national parks legislation created a route by which people from the national parks and local parish councils could serve on the national park authority. In my local national park in the Yorkshire dales, the new authority that will come into being next spring contains people who have come through a sort of parish electoral college to enhance the views of local people in the national park.

In areas such as that--where planning issues are particularly sensitive--there is great resentment at the feeling that decisions are too often made by people who do not live in the park and who are not closely in touch with people who know the real problems, including the need to earn a livelihood in the park as well as to provide a refuge for visitors.

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