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8.2 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): I shall not follow the Minister all the way in his self-congratulation at the end of his speech, but I shall follow him a considerable way in his attack on the Opposition's extraordinary motion and the no less extraordinary speech of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). The Conservatives' record of 18 years has magically disappeared. I thought that the motion was rather like a shooting gallery, with a set of feet neatly lined up for Conservative Members to shoot themselves in before our turn came.

The range of issues for which people in rural areas have far from forgotten--let alone forgiven--the Conservative Government is immense: a debate as short as this does not allow us to cover it fully. We could consider what they did in relation to farming or fishing, which has affected many of the communities in my part of the world. We could consider the erosion of traditional industry in many rural areas, particularly heavy engineering in my part of the world. We could consider the extraordinary lack of funding for local authorities, not least in rural areas, many of which were discriminated against by the Conservative party's funding formulas, particularly in the rural and more peripheral areas of the United Kingdom.

Mr. David Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. Does he agree that it is

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extraordinary that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) should have talked about the funding of rural counties, given that, in my 12 years' experience of leading and being a member of a county council under a Conservative Government, there were reductions each year in essential services in rural areas and a capping regime which caused enormous trouble? The tragedy is not that something has changed but that nothing has changed.

Mr. Taylor: My hon. Friend is exactly right. We do not have time to pursue every area, however, so let us concentrate on the matters dealt with in the Opposition's motion. I had assumed that that was what the hon. Member for South Suffolk would do, but, having written the motion last night, he clearly thought better of it, realising that there was little Conservatives could say on transport or on rural housing, homelessness and council house sales. I shall not let him off from my attack, but I understand why he did not mention those, and that may become a little more obvious later.

The motion starts by concentrating on development in the countryside. Development in the countryside, indeed: we are talking about a policy of predict and provide; about 4.4 million homes; and about the real concern in county after county about the impact that that will have on the countryside and in some-green belt areas.

All that concern is about policies pursued by the Conservative Government in their 18 years in office. Those policies were at their most rampant some years ago, when, as Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley approved every possible development in the countryside, encouraging out-of-town shopping, which has done so much to destroy our market town centres, and abolishing the Nature Conservancy Council because it so effectively argued the case for the protection of rural areas, leaving us instead with an emasculated and underfunded English Nature.

Those developments did not stop, even in the last years of the previous Government under the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who, sadly, is not here to defend his policies. In Berkshire, the right hon. Gentleman forced up housing numbers against the wishes of local people. The same thing happened in Kent, and 400 acres of woodland in an area of outstanding natural beauty were turned over to the holiday village of West Wood, which includes 1,200 parking places. It is rather ironic that, on the site itself, cars are forbidden, in order to protect the rural nature of what is left of the wood.

It is precisely the Conservative party's record that is under attack in the motion. The Government might have taken inadequate steps to change that--that they have not acted with enough speed is a realistic criticism--but for the hon. Member for South Suffolk to argue against the policies in such terms is an act of outstanding forgetfulness, if not hypocrisy.

The Labour party's record has been mixed. There have been some wrong decisions, but the Deputy Prime Minister promised to break the mould and to abandon the predict and provide premise. The trouble is--the Minister did not adequately address this--that predict and provide is still all too much with us. For example, after his statement, Hertfordshire county council requested that the Deputy Prime Minister reconsider the number of houses

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in the structure plan, and the proposals for the release of green-belt land around Stevenage, but they were adopted unchanged.

Last December, the Deputy Prime Minister overruled West Sussex county council's argument for lowering housing figures and imposed an extra 12,800 houses--despite the fact that its case was well argued. The county council then applied for judicial review on the basis of what it understood from the Deputy Prime Minister to be the new policy, but there has been no change.

Today, the Government approved a major opencast coal-mining site on green-belt land in Nottinghamshire, against local opinion and planning guidance and against the position taken by Labour before the election on opencast mining and green-belt development.

Labour's rhetoric is good, and I think that the Government's intentions are genuine, but the practice clearly lags some way behind. Much worse than any individual examples is the fact that, on 1 April this year, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions issued a statement outlining the implications for development plans and regional planning guidance of the Government's White Paper "Planning for the Communities of the Future".

That statement on transitional arrangements showed that the full implications of the new policy await not only new regional planning guidance, which has yet to be seen--I hope the Minister is right when he says that it will be soon; he will forgive us if we are a little suspicious, but we have been used to 18 years of misleading statements from the Conservative party, and need proof rather than promises--but the reviews of the structure and local plans already in place. That process could take about 15 years. No wonder many developers are acting on a "business as usual" basis. It is hard to see how anyone could, as yet, act in any other way.

The plans are already there. Much of the development has already been given permission, and more is being given permission all the time on the basis of outstanding policies. Exactly that case was argued for Somerset by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), and exactly the same problems are arising in Devon. We have seen them in Cornwall in the past, and we shall doubtless see them again. Indeed, we see them throughout the country. Hard work will be needed to change what is perhaps not yet set in stone--but the stones are rolling down the hill in a process that it will not be easy to stop. Change will have to be made within a certain time if it is to make a real difference, enabling people to judge Labour not by what it says it wants, but by what has happened at the end of the current Parliament--or the next, or, even worse, the one after that.

Labour's argument that more green-belt land is being given than is being taken away misses a fundamental issue. Of course nothing can be guaranteed for ever, but the principle of the green belt is that, once allocated, it provides a protection on which people can rely. If new green-belt land is allocated, that is a bonus; but we are not talking about a mathematical equation in which people say, "We will take two pieces from here and add two here, and that will be all right. We might even add another half

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piece on top to make it look a little sweeter". The green belt is intended to provide genuine protection for the countryside around developed areas. If we are to provide that protection, it must be long-term protection; it must not be eroded as needs are seen to arise.

The Minister said that the figure for new homes was still 4.4 million. We could argue for ever about whether that figure is right, but there will certainly be a good many. It seems to be assumed that, county by county, broadly the same allocations should continue to apply as now, even if they do not apply to exactly the same locations within counties. An extraordinary feature of this country, however, is the erosion caused by people moving out of cities into rural areas. They are doing so for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons is clearly our failure to make our cities attractive places in which to live.

People do not aspire to live in the centres of our great cities. I understand that London is virtually the only capital city in Europe to experience a major reduction in its central population--a reduction which is continuing. For a number of social reasons, if for no other reasons, policy must aim to reverse that process, and to make cities attractive. That does not simply mean that Sussex or Surrey must change where their new housing is, opting to use a little less green-field land and a little more brown-field land; it means that there should be less housing overall in the counties.

Mr. Martlew: In other parts of Europe, the problem is that populations are leaving rural areas and moving into cities. Does the hon. Gentleman advocate that?


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