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The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:


Having spent quite a long time in the House, I must say that I have rarely listened to such an over-the-top litany of synthetic whingeing. More than half the griping of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) was about green belt. No one would guess from his speech that 30,000 more hectares have been added to the green belt than have been taken away since the Government came to office.

As for Hertfordshire, which the hon. Gentleman made much of, more than five times as much new land will be designated as green belt than the area proposed for development. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, the hon. Gentleman did not mention Newcastle. It is true that 500 hectares will be deleted from the green belt compared with 25,000 which the other local authorities in the north-east propose adding to it. In both Hertfordshire and Newcastle, more than 50 per cent. of new houses will be built on brown-field sites. In Newcastle, 8,250 of the 10,750 new homes needed will be built within existing built-up areas--more than 75 per cent.

I ask--the House is bound to ask--what did the previous Government do? The previous Government--interestingly, this apparently escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice--directed three counties to increase their housing figures above those that they had proposed. In the case of Berkshire, that was an increase of 3,000 houses. It was an increase of just under 3,000 for Kent and one of more than 2,000 for Bedfordshire. As for West Sussex, which the hon. Gentleman also made much of, the proposal was that it should produce a 12,800 housing shortfall as against regional planning guidance, a cut of 25 per cent. What hypocrisy to suggest that the previous Government, having enforced increases on those three authorities, should have simply ignored the fact that there was to be a 12,800 shortfall in West Sussex.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that all the Tories do when they loudly proclaim their love for the countryside is reveal their affinity for sheep? In power, they fleeced the rural areas; out of power, they bleat about them.

Mr. Meacher: There are indeed quite a few fleecers and bleaters on the Conservative Benches, as this debate has shown.

Listening to Conservative Members, one might think that the countryside was in crisis and that that situation had arisen since 1 May 1997. That is not only untrue, but laughable. The Rural Development Commission's most

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recent survey showed what has been happening in rural parishes over the past two decades: 83 per cent. had no general practitioner; 75 per cent. had no daily bus service; 49 per cent. had no school; 43 per cent. had no post office; and 42 per cent. had no permanent shop. That survey was published in 1997, so which party presided over that unprecedented decline in rural services? Not Labour. It may be hard to believe that the motley crowd on the Conservative Benches were ever in government, but they were--for 18 years. What was their concern for rural Britain then?

We came to power to put an end to the decline in rural services. Tonight, I have heard the most selective misrepresentations that I have ever heard, so I intend to set the record straight, in detail. In our first 15 months, we have provided an extra £50 million for rural transport; there are new proposals for supporting rural bus services; there is new rate relief for village shops to protect--

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): That was our policy.

Mr. Meacher: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not concerned about extra shops. The aim of the relief is to protect single shops in some of our smallest communities. We have also provided extra protection for rural schools, so that any closure proposals must go to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment before a school can be closed. We are giving £150 million of extra support to the agricultural community as it begins to recover from the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, which certainly began under the previous Government. And we are providing financial support to the dispensing services of pharmacists who are more than 1 km from another pharmacist.

This afternoon, I announced details of my Department's proposed spending on rural programmes in the light of the comprehensive spending review. I am pleased to tell the House that spending will increase--[Interruption.] I do not think that that is particularly funny. If the hon. Member for South Suffolk was interested in the subject he purported to speak about, he would think it significant that spending will increase by more than 35 per cent. over the next three years. I shall discuss the announcement later.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): If all the Minister has said is true, why has the Labour MEP for Hereford and Shropshire said that the Government should listen to country people? He writes in Tribune:


Mr. Meacher: That is exactly what we are planning. There was a stream of closures under the previous Government, but we propose to put a stop to that, and any decision to close a school must come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. We are also concerned about the decline in social service provision in urban and rural areas, and the comprehensive spending review will make a massive difference after the decline of the past three to five years.

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The hon. Member for South Suffolk is one of those who have continually said that Labour is an urban party and does not understand the countryside. Even he might have noticed that the electorate gave rather short shrift to that view, which is why the number of Labour Members representing rural constituencies is greater than the number of Conservative Members representing them. In fact, there are probably more Labour Members representing rural constituencies than there are Conservative Members.

Judgment is not exactly a Conservative strong point. I too looked back at the countryside debate of 3 March. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) argued then that there was division between the Prime Minister and the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) over the countryside march. No doubt thinking that he was scoring a clever little point, he concluded:


The career of my right hon. Friend, who is now the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is rather more successful than that of the right hon. Member for Fylde. With predictive powers such as that, no wonder the Tory Opposition lack credibility.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk also forgets his history. I remind the House that a Labour Government created the town and country planning system, which has done so much to protect our rural areas from American-style urban sprawl, the green belt, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. I admit that Labour did not create the Rural Development Commission, but then nor did the Conservatives. That was achieved by Lloyd George in 1909, in the teeth of fierce Tory opposition.

Mr. Yeo: The Minister claims for Labour the credit for introducing the current system of planning controls. Be that history as it may, what a tragedy it is that the current generation of Ministers so fail to understand the purpose of the green belt that they think that building on one section of it is justified if, further out, they create more land that is designated green belt. The green belt surrounds an urban area; once that urban area starts to expand, the very purpose for which the green belt was created is destroyed.

Mr. Meacher: That is simply nonsense. The purpose of the green belt is to provide an area surrounding cities for recreation in open countryside, but, as populations grow, as towns change in size, and as new towns are built, it is perfectly reasonable to intervene in the green belt if the overall impact is to increase its size. That has always been part of regional planning guidance note 2, and it is exactly the line that we have taken. Under the previous Government, there were interventions in the green belt without a corresponding increase in the size of the green belt overall.

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