Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Alan Clark: Skateboarding!

Mr. George: The right hon. Gentleman represents the rural area of Kensington and Chelsea. He appears to be opposed to skateboarding in rural areas. It is an important issue. We want to tackle crime in rural areas,

16 Jul 1997 : Column 322

and providing leisure facilities for young people is important to that. Indeed, it is far more important than the wholly unimportant issue of fox hunting.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. George: I will not give way. There have been many interventions from Conservative Members, and the Minister is waiting to reply to the debate.

Cornwall is an example of how the previous Government affected the economy of a rural area. Over the past 18 years, it has been at the bottom of the earnings league. It has one of the highest levels of unemployment among rural areas. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean accurately and rightly pointed out, the environment has been under great threat from the let-rip attitude of previous Tory environment Ministers, who have allowed rural areas to be over-developed with speculative housing and out-of-town supermarkets, despite the strong objections of local authorities.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Conservative Government's White Paper predicated that 4.4 million more houses would be needed by the year 2016. Where does the hon. Gentleman think those houses will be built? Does he want to deny people who want to move out of the cities the opportunity to live in rural areas? That would be the consequence of no further development in rural areas.

Mr. George: The fundamental flaw in the Conservative Government's policy was that they based their estimates of future population growth on past levels. That is spurious and I object strongly to that approach to planning needs.

Cornwall is a good example of population growth. It has grown faster than anywhere other than the county of Buckinghamshire, which has the new town of Milton Keynes. That growth has not been integrated with economic policies; instead, there has been a massive increase in unemployment. Growth and economic policies have not gone hand in hand. If the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is concerned about accommodating people in rural areas, what about the local people who have made homeless by Tory policies?

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I share my hon. Friend's analysis of the behaviour of a Tory Government run by a suburban party.

It is very difficult for me to listen to the comments of some Members because, tomorrow, we will discuss capping provisions that will have disastrous effects on rural services in my own county of Somerset. I hope that some of the hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently on rural services in today's debate will support the counties of Somerset and Oxfordshire in tomorrow's debate on the issue.

On the matter of planning and housebuilding--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is far too long.

Mr. George: I am sure that the matter mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will be debated fully tomorrow. Because of

16 Jul 1997 : Column 323

my deep experience of the pains and pleasures of living in rural areas, I have a great deal to say--as I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate--on the matters that we are debating. However, I am aware also that I must leave time for the Minister's reply.

The past 18 years of Tory Government policy have led to an increase in homelessness in rural areas. The housing market is often called an open housing market, but it is a private housing market. In Cornwall, we have one of the nation's biggest mismatches between earnings levels and house prices. Opportunities for local people to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder are very few and far between, and those trying to obtain a council house in a remote rural area cannot get one.

In the private rented sector, the tourist industry has taken precedence. Rural areas therefore face enormous pressures, making it incredibly difficult for local people to find accommodation.

Building speculative, executive homes in rural areas does not answer the housing needs of local people. Those needs were also not met by the Tory Government's legislation, which allowed council tax reductions of 50 per cent. for second-home owners in rural areas. Such measures simply further encouraged the iniquitous trend towards second-home ownership, which--hand in hand with homelessness and a shortage of affordable housing--has greatly increased in many of the villages in my constituency.

Although many rural issues must be addressed, I specifically ask the Minister to tell us whether an integrated rural policy will be developed involving all Departments, including the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Health--because many cottage hospitals are under threat--and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

We must also recognise the important role of the Rural Development Commission and the Countryside Commission. It was rather rich for my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) to question the Government's commitment to the Rural Development Commission. They have withdrawn funds from the commission and spent some of its core budget on the frivolous activities of rural challenge. I hope that the Minister will address the issue of integrated policies.

10.42 am

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing this debate. Judging by the level of interest shown by hon. Members, especially Opposition Members, we could use a full day's debate on the subject every week for some time to come. I pay tribute to him on his speech, in which he made many important points. He is a resolute champion of rural interests in Suffolk.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) expressed views for which he is well known. I have no doubt that other hon. Friends, if they could have spoken in the debate, would have dealt in some detail with the points that he raised. I hope that they will have an opportunity to do so in a future debate.

I regret to say that I felt that the speeches by Labour Members demonstrated the nature of the problem. There may be many Labour Members in this Parliament,

16 Jul 1997 : Column 324

but there are very few with an understanding of the countryside. Judging by the attendance for today's debate, very few Labour Members have even an interest in the countryside.

Among the very important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk were the irrelevance of an additional tier of government for rural areas; the bias of many county councils--certainly it is true of Suffolk county council--against rural areas and in favour of urban areas, where Labour party support has traditionally been concentrated; neglect of--

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: No. I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way.

Other points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk were the neglect of important rural assets, such as footpaths, and the impact of the minimum wage on the rural economy. I note that the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) did not say at what level the minimum wage which he so enthusiastically supported should be set.

On field sports, I reiterate my robust opposition to any legislation that aims to outlaw traditional country sports. In that context, will the Minister be able to tell us whether the fact that so many Labour Members support such legislation is connected to the £1 million donation to the Labour party from the International Fund for Animal Welfare? In the previous Parliament, in early-day motion 726, that organisation was described by Sir David Steel as

Will the hon. Lady tell us whether the Labour party solicited that donation? In view of the Labour party's proclaimed commitment to opening up details about party funding, will she tell us--I am sure that she will not wish to dodge the question--whether the International Fund for Animal Welfare approached Labour, if Labour did not approach the fund?

Given the size of the donation, one must assume that the Labour party made detailed inquiries about the nature of the fund's activities.Will the Minister therefore tell us on what basis the Labour party judged that fund to be a suitable organisation from which to accept money? What discussions were held between Labour and the fund on the issue of field sports? If she cannot answer those questions in her reply, will she write to me and place a copy of her reply in the Library?

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk mentioned the White Paper on rural England, which was published--to widespread acclaim--in 1995. A progress report, "Rural England 1996", assessed the achievements of the 12 months following publication of the White Paper. At the conclusion of "Rural England 1996", there was a commitment to making subsequent progress reports in 1997 and thereafter. Will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to honour that commitment? Will she confirm also that future progress reports will contain the same helpful check list, listing every individual commitment, which was originally made in the 1995 White Paper and occupied the last four pages of "Rural England 1996"?

16 Jul 1997 : Column 325

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk also mentioned access--a crucial issue for many people living in the countryside. Will the Minister now tell the House what is meant by the Labour party's manifesto commitment, which refers to

but adds:

    " We will not, however, permit any abuse of a right to greater access"?

Does that commitment mean that there will be legislation to introduce a statutory right to roam? If it does not mean that, what does it mean?

Does the Minister understand that the uncertainty--indeed, the threat--about the Government's intentions does nothing to encourage further progress on voluntary agreements with landowners, which have secured such an enormous increase in the amount of open countryside to which the public now enjoy access?

My final comments deal with the all-important matter of resources. In the 2 July Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his smash-and-grab raid on pension funds by abolishing the advance corporation tax credit. Even now, two weeks later, the full impact of that smash-and-grab raid has not yet been fully understood. The consequences of the Chancellor's raid are devastating for rural areas and for the local authorities that are responsible for those areas. Norfolk county council, for example, now faces an annual shortfall of £5 million a year in its pension fund, which is more than 1 per cent. of its total budget. In Lincolnshire, the equivalent figure is £2.45 million; and, in Somerset, it is £2.1 million a year.

The shortfalls have already started to accumulate--the change was made effective two weeks ago--and they need to be made good very urgently. If local authorities are to act responsibly in the interests of their employees and future pensioners, they cannot allow their pension funds to fall into substantial deficit. Therefore, local authorities' contributions to those pensions funds must rise.

There are three options to meet the cost of those higher contributions. The first is that services can be cut; the second is that council tax can sharply rise; and the third is that the Government will raise the revenue support grant. There are no other options. Will the hon. Lady tell the House today which of the choices the Government propose to adopt? If she cannot tell us, will she at least say when she thinks the Government will announce which option they have chosen?

To put a little flesh on the argument, in Norfolk more than 200 teachers may now face the sack, making a total mockery of the Government's election promises about class sizes. As the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) warned the Chancellor before the Budget, no increase of the sort required by the abolition of ACT could be afforded by local authorities without their having to make further cuts in services to their local residents. Millions of anxious people in the countryside will be hanging on the Minister's words this morning. They are wondering whether the Chancellor's smash-and-grab raid will cut services in their areas. Their uncertainty and anxiety should be ended at the earliest possible date.

I greatly regret that there is no time to pursue the other important issues raised in the debate. The Minister may not be able to respond to all the points raised by me and

16 Jul 1997 : Column 326

my colleagues, but I hope that she will deal with as many as she can. In passing, I remind her that I am still waiting for a letter from her on related issues that I raised in a debate on 10 June.

The importance of rural issues has been reflected in today's attendance and in the quality of the speeches, especially those of my colleagues. In the afterglow of their election victory, the Government may think that a majority derived from urban constituencies gives them the right to ride arrogantly and contemptuously over country dwellers and their concerns, but last week more than 100,000 people issued a powerful warning to the Government in Hyde park. This week, my hon. Friends have repeated that warning to the House. The Government ignore that warning at their peril. The Minister now has a chance to show that the Government will at least start governing in the interests of all the people in this country, including those who enjoy and live and work in the countryside.

Next Section

IndexHome Page