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8.43 pm

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): I crave the indulgence of the House, because I wish to speak on another aspect of the rural economy, which has nothing to do with farming. I speak with reasonable authority, because I was a professional geologist when I had a proper job. I emphasise at the beginning that more than 100,000 people are involved in the minerals extraction industry in this country, much of which is based in rural areas and which contributes enormously to the rural economy.

Britain is underlain by rocks of an extraordinarily rich variety. Those minerals have been used since pre-history in every facet of this island's social and commercial life. Boxgrove man knapped flints from chalk cliffs 500,000 years ago; Roman colonists obtained gold, silver and lead from Cornubia; Wealden iron made the guns that defeated the Spanish armada; and our coal resources fuelled the industrial revolution. That extraordinary revolution was built on the mineral wealth of this country. It provided the raw materials for the chemical industry, the sand and gravel and limestone for concrete, and the oil and gas that now drives most of our modern transportation system.

Despite the demonstrable value of the minerals industry to the national economy, the widespread public perception is of an industry that has squandered the earth's resources, despoiled the landscape and polluted the environment. I say to the Government, as I would have said to the previous Government, that they cannot base a policy on the opinions of the last pressure group that Ministers spoke to. We need a properly planned minerals policy. I speak not on behalf of the industry, but on behalf of the more than 100,000 people who are involved in the industry, many in rural areas where there is no other option for work.

Apart from the jobs and prospects in rural communities, the industry is enormously valuable to the country. The total value of minerals production in the United Kingdom is some £17 billion a year, including industrial minerals such as fluorspar, barytes, salt, potash, fuller's earth and special clays, and construction minerals such as crushed rock, national aggregates, gypsum and common clay. Many hon. Members have quarries and works in their constituencies that extract those vital minerals for our economy.

Mineral production in Britain is now dominated by oil, followed by coal, but other vital non-metallic minerals are very important, including crushed rock, limestone, sand and gravel. They are essential to our construction industry and in the development of our cities, which are probably the greatest despoilers of the environment, especially when the Government allow intrusion into the green belt.

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Britain is a major minerals producer on a world scale. More than 80,000 people are employed directly by the industry, and many are employed, especially in the rural communities, in transporting the minerals to the consumer through heavy road vehicles and rail freight haulage. In addition, much of the revenue generated and derived from mining and quarries supports secondary industries in their areas, which often have few alternative sources of employment.

Negative perceptions of the industry are often trotted out by certain pressure groups. The first is that it squanders the earth's resources. That is simply not true. The record of mineral production through time shows clearly that, while individual mineral deposits can be worked out, known reserves have increased with time.

The second charge levelled at the industry is that it despoils landscapes. That also is not true. The industry may be an unwelcome neighbour in some areas--particularly for people who have come from the city to live in the country. They may not want to see any development of the rural economy, but, on the other hand, most people who live in rural communities welcome this way of earning a living outside agriculture.

An unavoidable fact at the heart of this debate which needs to be tackled by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is that Britain is a small and crowded island with many different demands for land use. The limits of free market principles and deregulation, which were the wont of the Tory party when it was in power, need to be closely addressed.

Having listened to the shadow spokesman, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), I must say that I was amazed by his attitude and his calls for Government intervention--this is the only industry in which the Conservatives want the Government to play a part. Certainly, when the Conservatives were decimating British industry, I wished that they had interfered positively.

Planning decisions are desperately important, but they must be balanced with land use and the reconciliation between local desires and the national interest when an application is called in by a Department and examined at a public inquiry. The effect of minerals operation on the local environment in an aesthetic sense has to be balanced against the value to the local economy and whether the mineral is vital and is not available elsewhere.

It is important to recognise that aggregates extraction takes up only a minute area of the British landscape--something like 0.3 per cent. Oddly enough, the figure is declining rapidly, because the process of rehabilitation currently exceeds the present extraction rate. After mineral planning guidance 6 in 1994, the then Government were positive and said that there ought to be a rundown of primary extraction and greater use of recycling material.

There are some who say that MPG6 did not go far enough, and they would like to see the closing of limestone quarries and gravel workings, for example. They say that, if we cut the road building programme, it would reduce the demand for road stone.

The important thing to remember is that road building under the Conservatives was cut by such a degree that, in England, only one national scheme was started in 1995-96, and there is a huge backlog of maintenance

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need. If no new roads were constructed by 2010, the demand for primary aggregates would be likely to increase by about 25 per cent.

I mention that because it is important to remember that 80 per cent. of the demand for primary aggregates leads not to road construction but to improvements in housing, schools, hospitals, railways, factories, inner cities, recreational facilities and amenities, sewage treatment works and a host of other essential uses. That is a positive contribution by the countryside economy to those who live in urban areas.

There is a conflict between landscape and the use of the countryside in this positive sense. But this must be balanced, and it can be balanced only by the Government adopting a constructive policy on mineral extraction. It is right for the industry to seek to create wealth from our natural resources, and it is equally right that neighbours should be entitled to object to activities which impinge--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

8.53 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am a last minute stand-in for my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) who is undertaking duties in the Standards and Privileges Committee. Any shafts of wisdom in the next few minutes come from me, while anything of a more prosaic nature comes from my hon. Friend's script.

I know that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has had to leave the Chamber for another engagement. I have made my apologies to him, because I must congratulate him on his speech and thank him not only for his contribution to tonight's debate, but for the way in which he has suggested how much better the debate would have been if he were still on the Conservative Front Bench. All of us who represent hill farmers and less-favoured areas know that the right hon. Gentleman sincerely believes that we can work together to help them. That is in sharp contrast to the new Conservative spokesman, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr Jack), who seemed to be suffering from the most extraordinary case of amnesia.

The countryside is under siege--we all know that. What is extraordinary about the motion is that, for some incredible reason, Conservative Members seem to think that that siege started on 2 May. That is patently ridiculous. How they have the nerve to table the motion, I do not understand. To his credit, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon did not speak in those terms, but instead spoke about trying to help those who have been hardest hit by many years in which hill farmers have been decimated by Government policies. Many in those communities would have been more impressed by the speech by the right hon. Gentleman than by the absurd attack by the right hon. Member for Fylde.

The countryside is under siege because of successive policies over a long period by urban-minded Governments from both sides, and we would do well to recognise that. Time after time in this House, Liberal Democrats have stood up for hill farmers, and we have had support from hon. Members from all parties. Indeed, some notable

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Labour Members have supported us on those occasions. I hope that we will have their support in a few weeks' time.

I take the Minister's point that the review of HLCAs has not yet taken place and that he has not come to a conclusion. We shall hold him to that, and we expect him to respond to the facts being put before him, not just by the farming unions but by the Country Landowners Association and the Hill Farming Initiative.

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