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9.10 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): For one and a half hours of a three-hour debate to be taken up by the three Front-Bench spokesman is unacceptable, and an abuse of those of us on the Back Benches who have been trying to get in. Having said that, I was much diverted by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who represents probably the flattest constituency in England, lecturing my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who represents probably the most mountainous, on the problems of hill farming.

In the last Parliament, it was irritating to be told over and again by the Conservative Government that they represented rural interests about which the Opposition parties knew nothing. The right hon. Member for Fylde did not mention the document that the Labour party produced in the lead-up to the general election, "A Working Countryside", which ranged across the whole gamut of rural life and showed how the quality of life in rural areas such as mine depends not only on farming incomes, important though they are, but on the health service, transport systems, social services and education. The countryside is not set in aspic, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) once memorably said, but is part of a continuum with urban areas. There is no simple division between country people and urban people. They have different problems but they are not different species, as the Tories like to pretend. They often talk as if towns were surrounded by mediaeval walls and the people in them never went outside.

The debate has mainly been about farming, but I should like to make some disparate points, with which I hope my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will be able to deal at some point. I am glad that, with her wide brief, she is responding to this debate.

The countryside is under siege. An important point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) must be emphasised. We are told that we need an extra

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4.4 million homes. I do not believe that such a quantity is needed, but that figure was adopted by the previous Government, and, as far as I know, is accepted by the present Government as an assumption. Please let that not involve huge developments in our villages. My constituency, for example, includes the beautiful village of Newburgh, where there was an attempt to bribe the community and the councils into building nearly 400 houses in a village that did not have so many to start with in return for a bypass provided by the developer. It was a great temptation for the village because it is pounded to pieces by traffic.

Brown land and the land surrounding new towns such as Skelmersdale should be the first areas to be considered for new housing and other building development. In north Wales, for example, the only piece of prime agricultural land is about to have factories built on it. It is currently farmed by one of my constituents. Right next to it are hundreds of acres of brown land in the form of the old steelworks which will not be developed. That is plainly crazy. The Country Landowners Association was quite correct in its briefing paper on the need to take action to secure developers from future claims and to give further help in the clean-up of brown land and land that might be contaminated. We cannot have the green belt, which occupies most of my constituency, plundered by developers any longer.

I welcome the Government's plans to reduce investment in major roads and motorways, but small bypasses to deal with terrible bottlenecks in villages and small towns still have to be considered. All too often, ancient and beautiful old towns such as Burscough, Newburgh and Parbold in my constituency are being pounded to pieces.

There are also problems with public transport. There are enormous problems with isolation in rural areas, particularly for elderly people and those who do not possess cars. Under the Conservative Government my part of the world experienced the collapse of rural bus services almost into oblivion and the seemingly deliberate rundown of rural rail services. We need more halts and more stations, but the few that are being provided, such as that at Euxton in Lancashire, are not being provided by the railway companies: it is the county councils that have to find the money. We need more regular trains, later trains and trains on Sundays to enable people to communicate. The same applies to bus services. There is a great deal of scope for the integration of planning so that any domestic development in rural areas is concentrated around railway stations to encourage both the use of the station and less use of private cars.

Another completely separate problem in west Lancashire, part of Fylde and certainly part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is the collapse of moss roads that were built over peat. Over the years, the peat has dried out, shrunk and collapsed, so the roads are collapsing. The county councils cannot--no highway authority could--fund the rebuilding of that elaborate road network, and, certainly since I have been involved in the county council and then in Parliament, there has been no Government help whatever to tackle the problem of moss roads. As farm vehicles get bigger and heavier, the problem becomes worse.

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I could continue for hours, but as time is short I shall simply flag up the uglification of parts of our countryside and the plethora of road signs. Why do local authorities seem to require a separate post for every sign instead of putting them all on the same post? Why are signs getting bigger? Why are we providing public money to build wind turbines in environmentally sensitive areas such as Kirby moor in south Cumbria and, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) knows better than anyone, on Longridge fell? We have to tackle those idiotic planning monstrosities in our countryside.

Over the past 18 years many economic calamities have hit our villages and rural areas. They include the blow suffered by rural sub-post offices--because of some idiocy by the Government at the time--from which many have never recovered.

There are also tremendous problems with village schools. As people increasingly drive their children to schools in nearby towns, small village schools, which are usually the centre of the community, start falling to bits. The same problem affects village pubs, which are also centres of community life. They are hit by supermarket competition and by beer smuggling and the problems that arise from it.

It would be churlish not to mention that there has been some attempt to help village shops and sub-post offices through rate relief and grants from the Rural Development Commission to some small shops in select parts of the country. However, the full implications of almost every policy that applies to rural areas--or, indeed, every policy--should be put through a rural filter and through an environmental filter. That is what "A Working Countryside" sought to prefigure and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport deserve great credit for that document and the new direction it gave to Labour party policy.

The great advantage of urban living is the convenience of facilities provided to meet the needs of the critical mass available there. The great advantages of rural living are better air, relative quiet, relative isolation and so on; the downside is sparsity of services. The palliative--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

9.20 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I would go along with much of what was said by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), especially his remarks about the need to protect the countryside from large-scale incursions of new housing. I wish that the Minister for London and Construction were here, because this is one of the few areas of environmental affairs where the present Government have departed significantly from the position that obtained before. The Minister said that we were naive to say that those 4.5 million houses could be built on brown land. Despite his attacking me for naivety, I am happy to be as naive as the Round Table on Sustainable Development and the Council for the Protection of Rural England in saying that we should be siting at least 75 per cent. of those new homes on brown land. I should like us to go further than that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: No, I have only 10 minutes.

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I should like to go further than that because it is good for the countryside and for the town to build on brown land. Indeed, I do not see how we can have a sensible regeneration policy for our urban areas if we allow people to take the easy option of building on green-field--especially green-belt--sites.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) is not here to explain why, at the time when she has been lucky to be able to buy a new house for herself, others are now facing the destruction of their rural area because Hertfordshire county council has declared by one vote--a vote over the Conservative minority--that it will release 800 acres of green-belt land between Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead, which are hardly kept apart at the moment, so that many new homes will be built on that land. Such decisions are damaging to our cities and to the countryside and I am sorry that the Government have decided to turn their backs on the policy that formerly obtained, which was that the green belt would not be damaged in that way.

I can recall only one occasion when I was Secretary of State when I gave permission for a substantial development in the green belt. People knew, therefore, that there was no point in asking for permission, so they had to get on with developing brown land. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will dissociate herself from the attacks on the protection of the green belt that we have heard from the Minister for London and Construction, who should look far more carefully at his policy if he is to be in tune with what I understand Government policy to be.

I also agree with the hon. Member for West Lancashire about the road signs. The only contribution made by the Liberal Democrat party in Suffolk was to put up a large number of signs. One entered a small village to be greeted by a great yellow sign saying "Peasenhall" and underneath it said, "Village", in case one did not know it was a village and might think that it was a combine harvester. The Liberal Democrats may have felt that they needed to tell people that it was a village because most of them were not country people representing the countryside but needed to be told about it. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) did himself no good at all with his comments about my right hon. Friend--

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