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Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Will the hon. Gentleman condemn with me the action of

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absentee landowners, such as the Garendon estate in north-west Leicestershire, which for decades deny public access to wild, beautiful, lonely, unfarmed places on the ground that it would damage those places and yet the moment mineral operators want to come and quarry they welcome them with open arms and open wallets? In those circumstances, is not profit being given a higher priority than preservation, and contamination more common than conservation?

Mr. Yeo: I am sorry that I gave way. I understand that the family concerned has a distinguished record of conservation and far from being an absentee landlord is resident in the constituency of one of my hon. Friends.

I suggest that instead of publishing the right to roam consultation paper the Government should abandon their policy and devote the resources to encouraging the voluntary agreements that have been so successful in extending access in the past few years.

On resources, the Minister has a chance this evening to allay the fears that the Government may tamper with the formula on the revenue support grant to take cash away from rural councils. Any caving in by the Labour Government to unjustified demands from their allies in the towns for extra money at the expense of the rural community will not pass unchallenged. Will the Minister confirm that the countryside will be no less favourably treated by Labour when the revenue support grant is announced next month than it has been in the past?

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) mentioned the Rural Development Commission. Will the Minister confirm that the commission's budget will not be plundered and that it will be fully protected? Does she recognise that the Rural Development Commission's rural regeneration work, which accounts for £22 million of its spending, is not a suitable source from which to take away resources and give them to the regional development agencies, whose focus is inevitably likely to be more urban? Perhaps the Minister will tell the House what the regional development agencies will contribute to the countryside.

On accountability, I was dismayed to learn that the Government are abandoning their predecessor's tradition of publishing an annual update of the White Paper "Rural England". Is the refusal to continue to monitor the widely welcomed initiatives in the 1995 White Paper because the Government do not intend to continue with the policies contained within it, or is it simply that despite all the rhetoric about open government Labour is terrified of further scrutiny of its failure to serve the countryside? Is it that the Government know full well that by publishing regular updates of the White Paper they would expose the cuts in resources that they are planning and the consequences of those cuts?

The House has learnt today what many outside have begun to suspect, and that is that the Labour Government, with their urban-based majority--[Interruption.]--neither understand nor care about the countryside. The Prime Minister's claim that Labour is governing Britain in the interests of all the people is nothing more than a hollow sham. I commend the motion to the House.

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9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle): It is always a pleasure to listen to the rants of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), and we had a vintage performance tonight. I shall get round to answering some of his questions in due course. Initially, I shall deal with the rather virtual reality view of politics that Conservative Members seem to be propounding. It is a myth, and it is perpetuated with increasing desperation by the Conservative party, that Labour does not represent the interests of the countryside. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was at it in Farmers Weekly recently when he said that we, Labour, did not represent those interests. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) has similarly ranted.

Following the general election, wherever the Conservative party has representation the Tories do not represent the countryside. Labour has 170 county constituencies while the Conservatives hold 135 and the Liberal Democrats 32. Labour now represents more county constituencies than both Opposition parties put together. In the general election, Labour enjoyed a national swing of 10.7 per cent., which was almost equalled in county constituencies with a swing of 10.4 per cent.

I shall not bore the House by going through the swings against Conservative Members who have contributed to the debate, all purporting to represent the countryside. Suffice it to say that on 1 May the countryside turned against the Conservative party in the same way as urban areas. The rump that the Tory party parades as an outdated caricature of town versus country can do only damage to the countryside while Labour is the one-nation party. It is Labour which seeks to unite the country and to create partnerships for progress. The Conservatives seek to divide the country in an attempt to set one part of it against the other. Before we take any more pious lectures from Conservatives about the needs of the countryside, it would be wise to remember the legacy that they left us to struggle with after 18 years of their stewardship of rural areas.

What was that legacy? I shall pluck a few examples out of the air to give the House the flavour of it. Between 1979 and 1996, there was a 144 per cent. increase in crime in the English and Welsh shire counties. There was a 29 per cent. cut in bus journeys after deregulation and 75 per cent. of rural parishes now have no daily bus services.

The Conservatives tolerated low pay and failed in their attempt to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board--a proposal that was opposed by everyone but the free market zealots in their own ranks. There are plenty more examples--I could go on.

There was the BSE fiasco, which devastated many rural communities, put public health at risk and cost the country billions of pounds. It was a Tory legacy. That debacle was almost as awful as the poll tax, which helped a few large landowners in the other place but caused massive hardship in our rural communities.

It is no wonder that the Tories lost so much support in the countryside on 1 May. It is no wonder that the swings against them in the rural areas were nearly 10.5 per cent. It is no wonder that they do not represent so much as a tree or a blade of grass in Scotland and Wales.

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The people gave them their verdict on 1 May, after 18 years of Conservative stewardship in our rural areas, and it was a damning verdict.

I will now deal with specific points that were made in the debate. [Interruption.] I gave up some of my time so that Opposition Members could make their speeches.

The idea that somehow the Rural Development Commission has no future was raised by several right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon and the hon. Member for South Suffolk. Ministers have fully discussed the rural role of the regional development agencies with Lord Shuttleworth, who is chairman of the Rural Development Commission. I can assure the House that the commission's views will be given due weight when the Government consider the role of RDAs. Decisions on this will be announced when the White Paper is published later in the year.

I also assure any hon. Members who may be worried about this that the RDAs will not be urban based. They will have a remit to look after the economic good of the entire areas that they cover--not just urban areas but rural areas. That will be central to their reason for existing.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned a possible inquiry into the BSE legacy. That is under active consideration. I hope that my assurances about the RDC and its future satisfy his worries.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Members for South Suffolk and for North Cornwall mentioned household growth. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made an extraordinary speech, given that the figure of 4.4 million was his. Those figures were published by the previous Government. We are currently examining the 700 responses to the Green Paper that he published. We do not dispute the figures, and neither does he.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): Does the Minister agree or disagree with the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), who said that the green belt is up for grabs--yes or no?

Angela Eagle: That is not what he said. I will read exactly what he said. I have a transcript. He was asked by an interviewer:

My hon. Friend then said:

    "The green belt is up for grabs as much as it ever was."

That is what that means: as much as it ever was, which is true because the Government have not changed the policy introduced by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal.

Mr. Gummer: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Eagle: No, I shall not give way. The right hon. Gentleman has had his chance to make his views known. It is interesting that he now talks about a 75 per cent. brown-field site target when his Government were considering 50 per cent. and seeing whether they could

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achieve 60 per cent. Out of government, he immediately finds another 15 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman made a disingenuous contribution to the debate.

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