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Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that redundancy is a serious matter, although he did not present it as such a moment ago? Does he also agree that unemployment in rural areas continues to fall? In the two rural constituencies in Cumbria, unemployment is 2 per cent. or below.

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Mr. Yeo: Of course redundancy is a serious matter. The distinction that I tried to draw is that it is a problem that has a solution, but, once a green-field site has been concreted over, there is no solution. With regard to the figures that the hon. Gentleman cites, they vary from one part of the country to another.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): One in 20 homes in the north-west lies empty. There are more empty houses in England than all the houses in Birmingham. One and a half million homes are unfit for human habitation; 1997 was not year zero. What did the previous Government do to address those issues, which would have relieved the pressure on green-field sites?

Mr. Yeo: The hon. Gentleman conveniently overlooks the fact that a high proportion of those empty homes belong to, and are managed by, Labour local councils. The worst 10 councils in the country for keeping council properties empty are all Labour. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about resources, why do five Labour councils have £100 million of uncollected rent on their council properties? Up to one fifth of the rent roll in five Labour councils remains uncollected. No wonder there are some repairs that need attention.

In Berkshire, 2,500 homes are proposed for a green-field site around the village of Grazeley. Wokingham council does not want such a big development there. The people of Grazeley do not want such a big development. Alternative brown-field sites exist nearby--sites that are closer to where all those new residents would work--but the Government refuse to act. This week, Wokingham council unanimously passed a motion urging the Government to redraft the relevant planning guidance. When will they do so?

Those examples make a mockery of the Government's claim that they want to achieve a target of 60 per cent. of new homes on previously developed sites. The Secretary of State is a modern-day Nero, but worse--not just fiddling while Rome burns, and not just dithering while the bulldozers move in, but going to court to cover England with concrete against the wishes of the people.

If the Government are to regain credibility, the Minister must first announce that all county structure plans currently in review must be halted to allow the counties concerned to change them in the light of the 60 per cent. target. Secondly, he must publish new planning guidance introducing the sequential approach. Six months have been wasted. No more time can be lost.

The second key element in the Government's approach was "more decentralisation". That claim was made at the very time when the House was considering the Regional Development Agencies Bill, which proposed new powers for the Secretary of State to abolish the planning role of any elected council in England. The new powers would allow him to transfer that role to an unelected quango answerable only to himself. Opposition pressure forced the Government to abandon that outrageous idea.

Regional development agencies will still take power and resources away from elected councils. Members of RDAs are appointed by Ministers, their budgets are set by Ministers, their strategies are determined by Ministers and they are accountable only to Ministers. Their entire agenda is urban based. It reflects what

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Country Life described as the Government's "fixation with Britain's cities." As the Rural Development Commission pointed out in its dying breath,

    "policy makers are ignoring the problems"

of rural areas and

    "the result is that rural areas lose out on essential programmes and funding."

No wonder the commission is being abolished. Spelling out inconvenient truths is not acceptable to Labour's control freaks.

The Government's response is to cut the resources of local councils in rural areas. This year, the Government slashed £94 million from the standard spending assessments of rural local authorities. Support for the police in Lincolnshire and Wiltshire was cut in cash terms. Oxfordshire's SSA was cut by £8 million, Kent's by more than £7 million and Suffolk's by £4 million.

Two weeks ago, the small print of the comprehensive spending review warned that council tax will rise year on year on year as the Government cut their help for local councils. Council tax will rise in real terms by 5 per cent. in each of the next three years even if councils do not increase their services. Those rises will come on top of the record rises that we have already seen this year. In the current year, rural authorities are bearing the brunt of council tax rises. On average, council tax in the shire districts rose by more than 11 per cent., more than double the average increase in London. Many county councils fared even worse. In Norfolk, where central Government help was slashed, council tax rose by 15 per cent. How much worse will all this get?

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): Will my hon. Friend confirm that, alongside the swingeing attacks on standard spending assessment provision, there is a group of local authorities that is having special difficulties? Those groups are represented by the Town and Country Issues Group. They have combined rural and urban characteristics and, under the present regime, they are facing special difficulties that should be considered.

Mr. Yeo: My right hon. Friend is right. There are particular difficulties for councils whose populations straddle two very different types of area. The danger is that rural councils and the taxpayers who live in rural areas will be penalised yet again.

Last Wednesday, the Government sneaked out, by way of a press release, an important change in housing policy, using a procedure that prevented any hon. Member from asking a question. The document contained a warning that tenants wanting to buy their homes will now have to pay more than before. For almost two decades, council tenants enjoyed increasingly favourable opportunities for home ownership. This week, that policy has been reversed. From now on, councils will receive extra help to buy up privately owned homes in their areas.

The right to buy transformed the lives of more than 1 million families, including many in rural areas. This week, new Labour has started to dismantle the right to buy. The changed housing policy involves a big role for councils, a very old Labour approach. Predictably, the needs of rural areas were scarcely mentioned in last week's document. That is another example of how new Labour always puts the interests of the countryside at the bottom of its agenda.

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My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) will refer to transport when he winds up on behalf of the Opposition. The Government's approach to transport appears to be based on old Labour tax-and-spend instincts. There have been three huge increases in petrol tax--

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: No. I have given way too often.

There have been three huge increases in petrol tax in less than a year, which have hit rural motorists hard. No amount of public spending, particularly that which is confined to buses and does not extend to taxis, can prevent people in small rural villages from remaining dependent on their cars.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Is my hon. Friend aware that the fuel tax inflator mechanism that was put in place in the Budget, resulting in price rises of 6 per cent. over and above inflation, will result in a rise in diesel and petrol prices this year of more than 45p per gallon? Will that not hit people in rural areas especially hard, and is it not a mean measure from the Government?

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. It is a most shocking increase. It is a huge burden and one which is disproportionately borne by those who live in rural areas.

I want to help the Minister when he responds to the debate because I shall ask for three assurances that are easy for him to give. None will result in extra public spending or require new legislation, but his answers will be the litmus test of whether his Government are willing to learn from their past mistakes. First, will the right hon. Gentleman publish immediately, without more delay, planning guidance incorporating the sequential approach supported by the Opposition and by many outside the House? Secondly, will he halt immediately further progress on all county structure plans in review so that counties may reflect the Government's target of 60 per cent. of new houses to be built on recycled land? Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman stop penalising rural councils and rural taxpayers by fiddling with the formula for distributing central Government cash to local authorities?

Unless the Minister gives those assurances, the House will know that Labour's claim to be concerned about the countryside is just another failed soundbite. The Government's attitude to the countryside started with denial that any problem existed. From denial, it moved into panic at the huge level of public concern that was so effectively demonstrated in the march last spring. The Government now rest in confusion about how to tackle the mess that their policies have created. That is confusion for which all men, women and children in rural areas throughout the country are paying. It is confusion that is permanently damaging our rural heritage. This evening, we can take the first step to ending that confusion by approving the motion, and I commend it to the House.

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7.36 pm

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