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8.41 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I start by welcoming the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment at the end of his speech on

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access to the countryside. He has been steadfast on the issue. I agree with what I think lies behind what he said--that it is unlikely that landowners will be able to deliver a watertight voluntary system, and that sooner or later, legislation will be inevitable.

The Opposition motion

During the past couple of months, the Labour Back-Bench rural affairs group, led by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), has met some 25 organisations concerned precisely with the quality of life in rural areas. Almost without exception, they urged on us the need for flexibility in planning in green-belt areas, and raised that as a major issue. Their plea was reiterated by the Country Landowners Association in the quotation that I used in my intervention on the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May).

My constituency is almost all in the green belt which prevents the spread of urban Merseyside and Greater Manchester towards the Ribble and the Irish sea. To that extent, the green belt performs the function described by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor). The green belt is very jealously guarded by West Lancashire district council, although some farmers and landowners are very adept at getting around the restrictions. I could take my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment to an agricultural worker's cottage that was built about 10 years ago in the middle of the green belt, which has 10 bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a kitchen--the only room I was allowed into--which is larger than my house.

There is a serious and detailed debate to be had, which the terms of the motion and the recent sloganising about the countryside obscure. There is clearly a need for some appropriate development in the green belt. In my area, there is a desperate need for small industrial estates to serve the interests of packers and transporters who service the horticultural industry. There is clearly, too, a need, which I think is recognised generally on both sides of the House, for small housing developments, covenanted--hopefully--to needs in villages and hamlets. In the Lancashire green belt, however, it is vital that large residential and industrial development is strongly resisted. That is made more possible and important in my area due to the large concentration of brown-field sites in the north-west.

Last week's report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology--I pay tribute to its reports, which are always timely and very informative--showed that, in the north-west of England, 21.8 per cent. of the total area can be classified as derelict land. That is far and away the largest percentage of any English region. At the same time, the projected increase in demand for new homes in the north-west is 10.2 per cent.--the sixth lowest of all English regions.

Obviously, the availability of such land and the demand for new homes differ from region to region. The needs and pressures in the north-west are obviously very different from those in some of the areas represented by Opposition Members. I strongly welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's policy to devolve strategic land use decisions to the regions, to Regional Development Agencies--and I hope, ultimately, to regional government.

Mr. Hayes: I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's interest in these matters. On the Library's figures,

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he represents the 97th most rural constituency in Britain, which is pretty high as Labour Members go, as I shall explain in my speech. Will not rural Britain--this is certainly true of Lincolnshire and, I am sure, his area--be dominated by urban areas? People in Lincolnshire are frightened that the regional development agency will be dominated by Leicester, Derby and Nottingham. What will such cities care about south Lincolnshire, the Lincolnshire fens and other rural areas?

Mr. Pickthall: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If he will allow me, I shall come precisely to that point a little further on in my speech.

The use and abuse of green belt and other countryside areas must be subject to the most sensitive planning considerations, and decisions must be made as locally as possible. I hope that, as far as possible, the presumption will always be against building in such areas except in the direst necessity. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment say almost exactly that in his intervention a few moments ago.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): It is of course said that the presumption will always be against building except in the direst circumstances, yet, in Hertfordshire, we are being asked to agree the building of 10,000 homes on a piece of unspoilt green belt west of Stevenage. The Deputy Prime Minister was personally approached and asked to intervene to save that green belt, but he totally ignored the request. Does the hon. Gentleman really believe all the Government's crocodile tears and weasel words?

Mr. Pickthall: Of course I believe my right hon. Friend--what a silly question. The hon. Gentleman describes a region and county with which I am not intimately familiar, but, clearly, the pressures of population and the need for new homes are much greater in his region than in mine.

The megaphone debate about rural areas has done no favours to the sensitive issues of green-belt and rural development. That is true also when we consider any aspect of rural life and conservation. We have had an extraordinary period of ersatz claims by the Conservative party that it represents, in some mystical way, rurality. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) recoined the phrase "truly rural" to describe herself and her colleagues, in an attempt to show that Labour Members, such as me, who represent rural areas--and Liberal Democrats--are not rural. On the other hand, she might simply have been proving that she could pronounce "truly rural".

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton spoke with real knowledge of the problems of rural areas, but that is not, by and large, the Opposition's concern in this debate. The trumpeting of "We are the party of rural England" by the Opposition has prevented the proper discussion in this place of the complex needs of people in rural areas, and has prevented us from asking--let alone answering--some awkward and serious questions. I am thinking of the sort of debate that the Local Government Association has undertaken in its recent document, "Behind the Scenery".

There has been a tendency to separate the nature of rural life completely from urban life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) pointed out,

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ignoring, incidentally, suburban life in the process. Conservatives and the Countryside Alliance paint a picture of Britain where towns and cities are dark conglomerations of howling multitudes, whose involvement in rural Britain is to plunder--or, at best, ignore--it, while those in rural areas cower in fear of proletarian invasions.

Life is not like that. My area is not untypical of the countryside. I have Skelmersdale in one corner of a huge rural area which has the small market town of Ormskirk in the centre.

Mr. Hayes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickthall: I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me. I want to sit down as soon as I can to allow as many hon. Members as possible to contribute.

The area is surrounded by Liverpool, Southport, Preston and Greater Manchester. All the transport systems, rail and road, have their roots in those towns, and serve the rural areas--however unsatisfactorily--on the way through. That interdependency of rural and urban areas is reflected in the county of Lancashire as a whole, which has vast rural areas edged by quite large towns. The county council--and, on a smaller scale, my district council--has worked over many years to hold together the interests of urban and rural areas and to explain each to the other in terms of their needs.

The problems of service provision in areas of sparse population are well recognised and, at least in part, addressed by Lancashire, involving some redistribution of wealth from towns to rural areas. Urban areas constitute the largest part of the tax base of this country. Three of my villages have libraries, one of which is brand new. Two have sports complexes, and one large village has two sports centres. All of those have been provided largely by urban taxpayers.

As bus deregulation destroyed rural bus services, the council has had to provide what alternatives there are, financed by urban and rural taxpayers. I am not trying to suggest that the rural areas of Lancashire are okay--far from it--but I am asserting their interdependency with urban areas and the need for greater understanding, rather than the constant drive to polarise.

I wish to refer to a report by the Rural Development Commission, which--I ought to point out to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo)--has not been abolished; it has merged, and is still going strong. We have received briefings from it this week. The report states that, in rural Lancashire, the average weekly earnings are £45 lower than the national average, £41 lower than neighbouring Cheshire and £14 below neighbouring Cumbria. It is a fact that earnings in rural areas for those who work there are lower than those in urban areas. Employment is harder to come by and the new deal is harder to deliver. Services are much more sparse.

Those crucial disadvantages must be addressed.I want to highlight the disadvantage of isolation. Of course, it is more than possible to be isolated physically and psychologically in urban areas, but the possibility of help or of pursuing solutions is much less in the countryside. There is a sort of gulag archipelago, and generally prosperous and thriving rural communities,

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often composed of those who travel into urban areas to earn a living, disguise pockets of poverty and misery. Elderly people and those with mobility problems often occupy the gulag.

The services--whether medical, environmental or housing, and whether public or private--are at best problematic and often non-existent. Where the services are supplied, they are vastly expensive, and shire authorities are well aware of the cost disparities. Lack of transport also isolates young people, leading to problems in many villages, including the importation of some of the difficulties that we more usually associate with towns and cities.

Those with access to private transport travel to towns or to out-of-town supermarkets to shop, while lamenting the collapse of their village shops and post offices and demanding public funds, through council tax rebates, Rural Development Commission grants, or whatever, to shore them up.

Many projects are designed to pick away at the problems of economic hardship and isolation in country areas, and they are all valuable, but, in the face of the dwindling of employment in agriculture, the slowness of replacing those jobs through new small enterprises and the collapse in transport, their impact is limited.

To begin to resolve some of the social difficulties in the countryside, we need vision and determination such as is being exhibited in local government in the shires and shire districts. "Behind the Scenery" encapsulates that, and I congratulate the Local Government Association on it.

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