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10.20 am

Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): I thank the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) for his contribution, and agree that that issue is dear to many people in rural areas and needs full debate and full investigation. However, it is fascinating that, in a debate on rural policies, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea talked almost exclusively about a minority blood sport. There has not been much comment on what is at the heart of rural issues.

One of the reasons why Labour won so many rural seats in the general election in May is that we addressed the real issues in rural areas. Conservative Members have talked about people coming to the rally from Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. Where is the Conservative representation in those areas? The idea that Conservative Members represent the countryside is nonsense. It is the Labour Government who represent people in rural areas, because we address the issues that concern them.

Mr. Spring: The hon. Lady entirely misses the point. The Labour party is in government. It is now responsible for rural areas. We should like some answers on policy issues, which, so far, it is pushing out of the way. That is the whole point of this exercise.

Mrs. Organ: The point of the exercise is to show that the past 18 years of Conservative Government have decimated rural services and rural transport, have hindered access to affordable housing and have put rural areas at a disadvantage compared to urban areas.

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The biggest problem in rural areas is access to jobs, to advice and to housing. Because of the 1985 bus deregulation, the Conservatives cut off at the knees any opportunity for rural areas to be able to develop a good communication and transport infrastructure. The pursuit of the market principle which the Conservatives followed relentlessly for 18 years, with the threats on the Post Office, rail privatisation, bus deregulation, the development of out-of-town shopping and inappropriate housing development, is the reason why rural areas felt increasingly marginalised, looked to Labour and said, "Yes, you have the policies that address our concerns." Added to the chaos in the agriculture sector and the total mishandling of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, people lost all confidence in the Conservatives.

Problems in rural areas are often difficult to identify because people suffering social deprivation often live in small pockets, cheek by jowl with wealthy people. In my constituency, there are small pockets of deprivation in places such as Broadwell, Bream, Lydney and Cinderford, but they are cheek by jowl with affluent commuter areas such as Newent and Newnham. The problems are therefore difficult to identify.

The second problem is that, in many ways, rural areas' deprivation problems are worse than those of urban deprivation because of the problem of access. That is biggest issue in rural areas. People need to get a job and to training. In the Forest of Dean constituency, there are three principal towns: Lydney, Cinderford and Coleford. People can take a bus only from Coleford to Cinderford. They cannot get one from Lydney to Cinderford, yet it is the centre of further education, skills and training. That means that people live in rural areas do not have access to the services that they require.

One thing that we must do in the transport review is to make bus services accountable to local communities so that they have a say in the frequency of service, the route and the setting of fares. The 1985 deregulation increased the poverty of rural areas almost incalculably.

The other issue is the release of capital receipts. The lack of affordable quality housing leads to distress and homelessness in rural areas. Capital receipts will allow local authorities to improve the housing stock and maintenance, and, more important, to build social housing in rural areas.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Is the hon. Lady aware that most capital receipts have been raised in relatively pleasant rural areas and that the greatest social deprivation is likely to be found in cities? Therefore, most of our carefully preserved and raised capital receipts in rural areas will be spent elsewhere in England.

Mrs. Organ: That is not true. The hon. Gentleman should consider where the capital receipts are held. I absolutely refute that. The Labour Government have clearly said that we need to consider housing need and the best value that can be delivered, so we will move funds appropriately.

Local authorities in rural areas where there is housing need to hold capital receipts.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): Having sat on the Standing Committee that considered the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals)

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Bill, which releases that money for housing spending, I believe that I am right in saying that, in the hon. Lady's constituency, the proposed formula will leave it worse off than it would have been if its authority had been left to spend its own capital receipts. I believe that I am right in saying that her constituency is one of those that will suffer under the system that the Government propose to introduce.

Mrs. Organ: Forest of Dean district council holds capital receipts of about £11.4 million, and we can deploy that money in all sort of projects, involving co-operatives, maintenance and grants to projects such as Anchor "Stay Put" to increase housing stock quality.

We need access not only to affordable social housing and transport, but to new technology--information technology. We do not want rural areas to become information poor. Labour's plans for putting ports and outlets through telecottages, schools, libraries, hospitals and colleges, and for access to cable and the super-highway, will enable rural areas to end their marginalisation and to be at the centre of the information revolution in Britain. That is important because such a revolution, through the training and the access that it offers, means that it will not matter whether you live in a small rural hamlet or in the centre of the metropolis. You will be equal with one another: you will shall have equal access to training and equal opportunity.

We must develop and sustain rural areas. In the past, it has been considered that large-scale private housing developments would be a way to provide sustainable economic growth to rural areas. I totally refute that. That is not the way forward. We are left in Gloucestershire with a vestige of Tory planning. There are plans to build estates of 1,000, 1,500 and 2,000 homes in areas of Gloucestershire such as Painswick, Sedbury and Tutshill. That is wholly inappropriate to those small villages. It is not the way forward and we are fighting to ensure that those plans do not go through.

Instead, we need to build on all the opportunities that the countryside offers. There is a strong arts and crafts heritage in the Forest of Dean. Indeed, in the British economy, the money deployed from culture is greater than that from manufacturing. There are many examples of rural areas being regenerated and revitalised through the growth of small-scale arts and crafts business that grow into large ones, such as Laura Ashley, Robert Walsh in Chipping Campden and Dartington in south Devon. Lottery money should be used to encourage the arts and crafts heritage in rural areas so that we can build sustainable small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): Will the hon. Lady join me in supporting the work of the Rural Development Commission? Will she oppose any moves by her Government to abolish it?

Mrs. Organ: You are scaremongering.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I could help the hon. Lady. On a number of occasions, she has used the term "you". She involves the Chair when she does so. I am reluctant to call her or order, but it might help her, so early in her career, to take note of such matters.

Mrs. Organ: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for my lack of politeness to the Chair.

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It is important to develop sustainable small and medium-sized businesses, using all the rich opportunities of the countryside such as leisure, tourism, culture and the arts. We need sustainable economic growth. We must deal with the real needs of the countryside.

Mr. Bercow: I have been listening closely to the hon. Lady's thoughtful speech. She criticised my hon. Friends for what she thought was an excessive preoccupation with country sports. I hope that she will forgive me for saying that she seems studiously to be avoiding any reference to that subject. Does she propose to vote for a ban on fox hunting? If so, did she inform her electorate of that before the election?

Mrs. Organ: I have avoided the subject because it is a minority activity. The real issue is policies in rural areas. The Government will deliver policies on transport, housing and economic development that will deal with all the needs of rural areas.

10.32 am

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): I have had the great pleasure and privilege of being born and brought up in my constituency. Therefore, I speak from some experience of life in rural areas and the impact of Government policies on that, rather than from--as is all too often the case--the perspective of people who have moved there latterly from better-off backgrounds and suburban environments, and have a rather idyllic and out-of-touch view of what living in rural areas is all about.

I was surprised that the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) should imply that all the ills facing the countryside are due entirely to the policies implemented by the Labour Government over the past two months, rather than those implemented by the Conservative Government over the past 18 years.

I remember going to the Lizard area when the Cury hunt was out. The whole community came together and my mates and I chased around on our pushbikes to see what was happening, although I do not remember the hunt ever catching a fox. I do not think that whatever happens to that leisure pursuit will have a significant impact on the economies of rural areas. I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) that there are far more pressing issues facing rural areas.

Conservative Members talk about leisure pursuits, but there should have been more support from the previous Government to improve facilities in rural areas. For example, they should have recognised--in the teeth of prejudice--the need for improved skateboarding facilities. Too often, we think about the leisure needs of the privileged, but the less well-off also have leisure needs. Providing those facilities would contribute considerably to the economies of rural area--


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