Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Tyler: Which one?

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well which right hon. Friend I am referring to. He knows as well as I do that Liberal Democrat party policy on the countryside depends entirely on the constituency--[Interruption.] We all know that, and Labour Members know that it is true. Indeed, it does not even change from constituency to constituency; it changes from ward to ward. Where there is a vote to be garnered, a policy can be changed. If the vote of somebody who thinks differently can be gained, the principles can be changed, for nobody will notice. Comparisons seat by seat show perfectly well where the Liberal Democrats stand: where they think that they might win a vote. That is the only principle that has ever obtained in the Liberal Democrat party.

It is therefore reasonable to ask the Labour party, now that we have heard the less than eloquent speech by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, why it has

4 Nov 1997 : Column 205

not yet explained to the House how, in times of such difficulties with money, it was possible to find £1 million to re-do the Agriculture Minister's offices. That sum might have been spent better on farming, but I do not know from which part of the budget it was taken. It was certainly not in the Red Book; nor was it part of the tight collar of which he spoke in respect of the previous Government. However, it is unusual for an Agriculture Minister who has been in position for six months not to know whether any money was left over from the sheep annual premium. He must be the first Agriculture Minister for many years not to have such a figure at his fingertips.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley) rose--

Mr. Gummer: I should tell the hon. Gentleman who is rushing to the Minister's aid that I was not about to say something rude. I was simply going to mention why previous Agriculture Ministers always had that figure at their fingertips. I knew that if I did not have it, the Treasury would have pinched it and I wanted to defend it against the Treasury. I always knew the figure because the Treasury was always out for any little "candle ends", as it would say. I am worried that, if the current Agriculture Minister does not know the amount, it has probably gone already because the Treasury will have got its sticky fingers in there very rapidly.

Mr. Morley: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: No, I really should not give way because I promised to be brief. There will be plenty of time for summing up.

I understand that £200 million is available and I hope that the Agriculture Minister will sort that matter out rapidly. I hope that he will also look at the fact that the last Government put in train an operation that would have given special help to rural post offices and small shops in villages with only one shop. That would not have been affected by the regulations about how much money was available because we were going to use the same totality but put a little more into the countryside by helping those shops. We have heard nothing of that from the Labour party. There was silence when Labour Members were asked about it and I want to know where they stand. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will doubtless be able to tell us.

We then had a story about how the Government would reform the common agricultural policy, a matter of which I have some experience. I was unhappy about the Agriculture Minister's statement, which said that the Government wanted to take the money that was now used for production support and use it for the environment. I am very much in favour of that but did not like the sentence, which was dangerous. He said that "some" of the money "could" be used to help "targeted" environmental purposes. I do not like that at all. Some of it? Perhaps, but how much? Does "could" mean "will", or "only if we can get away with it"? Most people in rural areas listening to the Agriculture Minister will probably say that he is not standing up for them. They will say to themselves, "He does not know whether he has any money in his back pocket; he is not on top of the job; he obviously does not know the figures."

4 Nov 1997 : Column 206

People will also say to themselves that the Minister lacks the fire to battle in the European Union. No one could be more enthusiastic about our place in the European Union than I am, but undoubtedly, because one believes in it one must battle there and fight for Britain. If the right hon. Gentleman is woolly about the funds that could be used to target, he will not get tuppence, or even a penny. He does not have a chance. He must go and fight.

I have heard from the Labour party no evidence of a desire to fight for the rural areas. I have heard no fire from Labour. Until we have a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who believes in them, feels for them and fights for them, we shall not have a hope in the rural areas.

9.29 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Because of the shortage of time allocated to me, I shall concentrate on the planning issue, following the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who talks a lot about planning and about brown-field development. The problem is that when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, he did not take the opportunity to question the figure of 4.4 million households that was quoted, and he made no proposals on how brown-field sites might be pressed into use. Now we are confronted with a very difficult problem, which we shall in due course debate and study to search for solutions.

I was intrigued that, although the word "planning" appears in the Opposition motion, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) mentioned it only superficially. That shows the depth of the Conservatives' concern about that key issue, which was taken up subsequently. Obviously, it is not as important in some respects as agriculture, but we must consider how it fits into the rural economy.

I, for one, will say that I question the numbers. I question the need for 4.4 million new households and I wish and hope that there will be a debate on the subject. My criticism is based on two presumptions.

First, it is not good enough to say that the figures for the previous 20 years will be replicated during the next 20 years. Major sociological changes are taking place, which need to be reflected in the forecasts. Secondly, in my area, much of the requirement is based on migration and I am pleased that, with colleagues, I have been able to do research to show that migration, which is the driving force, is slowing down. Unfortunately, that is not reflected in the figures.

I would ask this of the Government--and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, when he is listening: if and when this debate is taken up, I hope that we can get some genuine understanding of what the numbers mean and especially the implications of those numbers. I am one of the 170 Labour Members mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who represent a truly rural area, and my area is under development pressure. Those development pressures cannot be hidden from or escaped from; they must be dealt with rationally. Development must take place when it is needed and according to rules that are open and understood--not at the whim of developers.

The right hon. Member for Fylde failed to mention rural poverty--an issue that many hon. Members representing rural constituencies know too well from our surgeries, our mailbags and discussions with individual constituents.

4 Nov 1997 : Column 207

It would be nice to think that hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench would feel guilt for what they did in the past 18 years. We have heard listed the policies that have increased poverty instead of reducing it: the deregulation of buses, the continuing decline in the number of shops and other services in the rurality, the imposition of signing on through jobseeker's allowance, which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned. The list goes on and on. It would be nice to see some remorse from Conservative Front Benchers. They have offered no solutions; they have not mentioned poverty or attempted to address the root cause of the problem by advancing ideas to deal with it. Poverty exists in our rural areas as well as in our inner cities, and we must introduce policies that address that terrible problem.

I am pleased, even at this late stage, to say that the Government will introduce a coherent platform not just on agriculture and rural areas, but on the whole development issue. The Government will deal with the saddest issue of all: rural poverty. I hope that all hon. Members have some understanding of how those matters can, and should, be addressed.

9.35 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): This has been a very significant debate that has raised many issues of enormous importance to the rural community. However, it has also been a desperately sad debate as it has exposed with brutal clarity the truth about Labour's attitude to the countryside. That attitude is founded on ignorance, riddled with prejudice, expressed without sympathy and is bordering on outright hostility. Labour's total lack of understanding of the needs and aspirations of the men, women and children who live in the countryside is nothing less than frightening.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to respond to all the points raised in the debate. However, I gladly pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), whose expertise on the subjects studied during many years of service at both MAFF and the Department of the Environment was clear from his speech. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) struggled--as he and his colleagues usually do now--with the dilemma of whether to attack the Government or the Opposition. As a result, most of his punches missed their targets.

I shall focus on four issues, the first of which is planning. On Radio 4 last week, the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), said:

They are chilling words, but we cannot say that we were not warned. It is no use the Minister shaking her head: that is what the hon. Gentleman said live on Radio 4. We were warned last August by the Deputy Prime Minister, who overturned the recommendation of an independent planning inspector and approved the industrial development of a 140-acre site in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). Incidentally, that site was owned by the Labour-controlled Birmingham city council--not that I am suggesting that that was a factor in the Deputy Prime Minister's thinking.

When the Minister replies to the debate, will she repudiate the extraordinary comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central? Will she confirm categorically,

4 Nov 1997 : Column 208

without qualification, that the rigorous protection of the green belt--which was a cornerstone of planning policy under the Conservative Government--will be maintained without any relaxation? Is she aware that if she refuses to give that assurance to the House today alarm will spread through millions of people, the quality of whose lives has been enhanced immeasurably by the green belt? They know--even if the Minister and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central do not--how eagerly developers will eye up the countryside that was protected previously by Conservative policy.

A wider planning issue is where the new homes will be built. I accept that there is a debate about how many there will be. Perhaps we shall not need 4.4 million new houses in the end, but we shall still need quite a lot. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) question the 4.4 million figure as he attempted to clothe himself in some kind of green mantle. I am obliged to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) for reminding me that the hon. Gentleman's remarks would be better addressed to the Labour-controlled local council in Stroud, which is proposing to despoil large areas of his constituency.

The Round Table on Sustainable Development recommended that 75 per cent. of those new homes should be built on sites that had been previously developed. At present, the country is achieving a figure of 50 per cent. Contrary to the comments made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), the previous Government were ready to raise that target. Indeed, I have no doubt that the consultation document that they published earlier this year was the prelude to a significant increase in the target.

The question now is what the Labour Government will do. Will they set a higher target for the proportions of homes that should be built on previously developed sites? If they fail to do so, and if they weaken the existing controls over the development of green-field sites, their decision will cause dismay in the countryside.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal rightly pointed out, it is not just the countryside that suffers when such development takes place in green-field sites; the inner cities suffer as well, because allowing new homes in the countryside leads to an exodus of the very people whom the inner cities need if the process of regeneration, in which the Conservative Government played such a distinguished part, is to continue.

I shall deal with one of the Government's socialist proposals. It was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack)--the right to roam. This trespassers' charter sits ill with new Labour's proclaimed agenda. I am not surprised that it has few champions. Apparently they include that well-known specimen of new Labour, the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher).

Will the Minister confirm, when she winds up, that the consultation paper on the right to roam has not appeared because her Department's proposals have run into trouble elsewhere in Whitehall? Does she recognise that the right to roam is potentially an extremely dangerous threat to the cause of conservation and the environment in many parts of the country and could destroy many previously undisturbed and valuable habitats?

Next Section

IndexHome Page