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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the Minister recall the Deputy Prime Minister saying that the green belt was a great Labour achievement and that we must build on it?

Mr. Meacher: I remember that; my right hon. Friend has his own inimitable form of humour. As is always the case, we knew exactly what he meant and we agreed with him entirely.

Labour is once again addressing the key issue of jobs and growth in rural areas through the regional development agencies. Average unemployment rates in rural areas have been coming down and are lower than those of urban areas. Business creation is strong and there is a high level of self-employment, but it is undeniable that some of the more peripheral rural areas have particular difficulties. Even in more prosperous areas, there are black spots. Thanks to the Conservative party, rural coalfields have lost almost 60,000 jobs in the past 15 years. Conservative Governments treated rural coalfields with the same vindictiveness as they showed towards urban coalfields. By contrast, we are determined to tackle rural unemployment head on through our coalfields regeneration programme and the regional development agencies, which will be established in April next year.

We have been criticised for giving part of the Rural Development Commission's functions to the RDAs. That criticism is wholly misplaced. RDAs will be the key institutions for achieving sustainable economic development in their regions. It would not be sensible to exclude rural areas and to leave them isolated in a ghetto, as if there were no links between urban and rural economic activity. Integration is clearly the right route, but with safeguards.

I give the hon. Member for South Suffolk these assurances. First, RDAs will have a specific remit to promote rural development. Secondly, each RDA will have at least one member--probably more--with a background in rural development. Thirdly, the money spent by the RDC on rural development will be ring-fenced, and will continue to be spent on rural development by the RDAs.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Before the right hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of planning, will he address the important point made by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)? Six months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister made a welcome announcement. However, it has had no effect in areas such as Somerset. There has been public examination of a structure plan that has increased, not reduced, the number of houses required in the county. That is not sustainable. We want the Government's policy to be applied in the context of a structure plan. How will that happen?

Mr. Meacher: That is a fair point, and it is our intention to publish the regional planning guidance as soon as we can, which I expect to be shortly. The House should be in no doubt that we are still committed, as were the previous Government, to the best demographic data on housing requirements, which show that we need an extra 4.4 million houses in the 25 years to 2016. About 1 million of them have already been built.

We do not propose a reduction in the number of houses to be built, but we accept that there should be greater flexibility in the planning process. The regional planning

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guidance should allow regional and local planning authorities to have more responsibility for where those houses should be built.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): My right hon. Friend's comment about the possibility of there being more than one rural member on the board of RDAs will be widely welcomed in rural communities. When the Tories left office in 1979--[Interruption.] When was it? It seems so long ago now. Anyhow, when they left office, men in the rural county of Shropshire were 125th in a low wages league table of 151, and women were in 150th position. That is why they will profoundly welcome the introduction of a national minimum wage, which the Conservative party has consistently opposed, just as it did the introduction of RDAs.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) secured an Adjournment debate on rural poverty, only three members of the Conservative party thought it important enough to attend? One was the shadow Minister, who sat down after five minutes because he wanted to hear from the Minister; one was a rural Member and the other was--

Hon. Members: Speech!

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member must sit down when I am on my feet. That was too long for an intervention. The art of an intervention is to be concise--but it seems to be a disappearing art.

Mr. Meacher: It may have been a long intervention, but it was a very good point. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) is absolutely right that the minimum wage will have a great impact on improving household incomes in rural areas. There is no evidence that it will destroy jobs if it is pitched at a sensible level. I do not believe that it will do so: it will be very welcome in rural households on extremely low incomes.

Mr. Tom King: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher: Yes, but this is the last time.

Mr. King: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for seriously addressing the issue that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and I have raised. The regional planning conference has already produced revised guidance, with lower figures for the south-west. Somerset county council is producing figures that should be published in September. Can the council be sure that, if it produces proposals that are in line with the guidance that the Deputy Prime Minister has produced, no attempt will be made to override them and to go back to the old policy that has now been discarded?

Mr. Meacher: The old policy to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is the previous Government's policy of predict and provide. We are trying to move away from that deeply unpopular policy. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the Deputy Prime Minister's welcome statement. If Somerset county council

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can produce proposals that are compatible with the regional planning guidance, we shall consider them extremely carefully. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a commitment that we will necessarily accept them. We may, but we may not: it depends on the full content of the proposals.

The Opposition motion mentions housing. I presume that that was another mistake, because one of the greatest indictments of the previous Conservative Government was their 80 per cent. cut in the housing budget, and all the misery that that caused. We recognise that a fine balance must be struck between building new houses to ensure that there are enough places for people to live in and controls on development to protect the countryside. Housing is an issue on which the Conservatives have campaigned. I remember seeing the Leader of the Opposition posing in an anorak outside Stevenage. I suppose that that is better than the baseball cap.

The Opposition called on us to set a target of 75 per cent. of new houses to be built on brownfield sites. Or was it 66 per cent. or 60 per cent? The figure changes with bewildering speed, so I do not know what their position is. When they were in government and could do something about this matter, they actually achieved a figure of 42 per cent.--that is the most telling statistic. The hon. Member for South Suffolk alleged that there had been an increase, but the average figure was 42 per cent.

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

Mr. Meacher: Hold on. The hon. Gentleman need not look through all his papers. We know what the figures are: they show an average of 42 per cent. He might as well throw his figures away, because we know what the facts are. Only since their election defeat have the Opposition discovered a concern to protect the green belt from housing. By contrast, we have recognised these pressures and have announced a new approach to future provision.

Mr. Yeo rose--

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman has found his figures, but we have now moved on. I am afraid that I must make progress.

Mr. Yeo: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister, unwittingly I am sure, has just quite seriously misled the House. The document that he--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I can tell already that that is not a genuine point of order. It is a matter of debate, and if the Minister will not give way, he has the Floor of the House.

Mr. Meacher: Once again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have saved the hon. Member for South Suffolk from himself.

By contrast, we continue to support the provision of affordable housing--for example, through the Housing Corporation's rural programme and the release of capital receipts of nearly £1 billion in the first two years. Following--I repeat again--the comprehensive spending review, which the hon. Gentleman somehow glided over, during the next three years an additional £3.5 billion will

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be allocated to start tackling the backlog of repairs to the housing stock throughout England, including in rural areas.

Significantly, the Opposition motion says nothing about the Government's support for countryside and rural programmes--I presume because it is so good. As I announced this afternoon, money for my Department's countryside and rural programmes will rise from £128 million this year to £146 million next year, £162 million the year after and £174 million in 2001-02. That is an increase of more than 35 per cent. over a three-year period.

Nothing shows the Conservative party in its true colours more clearly than its opposition to our proposals to improve access to the countryside, so that all those who love the countryside, not just those who are lucky enough to own large chunks of it, will in future be able to visit more of the countryside than ever before. For all their rather feeble attempts at modernisation, the Tories remain rooted in the 18th century--the party of exclusivity and inherited privilege; the party of the few determined to shut out the many.

We will open up the countryside of England and Wales. Let no one be in any doubt about that. We have consulted on the means and we are still considering the responses. But the ends are not negotiable. We will deliver to walkers new opportunities to roam over mountain, moorland, heath, down and registered common land. If we decide to rely on the voluntary approach, we will need to be convinced that the access delivered will be of the same extent, quality and permanence as would be achieved through a statutory right.

The Government have done more for rural areas in the past 15 months than the previous Government did in nearly two decades. The sheer vacuousness of the Opposition's motion is patent for all to see, and I invite the House to reject it with all the contempt that it deserves.


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