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

Mr. Pickthall: No, I want to finish as soon as I can.

"Behind the Scenery" concentrates on identifying social exclusion in rural areas and seeking solutions to it. The Local Government Association sees a large part of the solution lying in increased resources, and we have heard this evening how some of that, at least, is happening. The need to carry the rest of the tax-paying population along with that view has not been addressed.

Maintenance and improvement of the quality of life in rural areas depend largely on enlightened local government and on the success of regional development agencies in improving economic performance and investment. There has been much debate about rural representation on RDAs. Personally, I do not think that putting one member from a rural area on the board is any answer. It would be all too easy for the rest of the board to listen respectfully and then carry on regardless, rather like the role of Dr. Weakling among the 40 thieves in "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists".

The RDAs--I am speaking especially about the north-west--should have a rural filter so that every decision involves enhancing the rural economy as well as protecting the landscape, ecology and biodiversity of a region.

I have long believed that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be replaced by a rural affairs Ministry, but further thought and discussions have changed my mind--not that I want to retain MAFF as it

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stands--and I now believe that plucking rural bits out of so many different Departments would be likely to produce paralysis. There is, however, a need for a body that considers the needs of rural areas across the boundaries of existing Departments, and the LGA's suggestion of a Select Committee has some attractions.

The megaphone debate on rural affairs has prevented us from asking some serious questions, which I would like to ask now. What do we do if and when people in rural areas wake up to the fact that 93 per cent. of public support for rural areas goes to agricultural production--excluding horticulture, pigs, poultry and egg production, which are the backbone of the industry in my constituency? What happens if, and perhaps when, common agricultural policy reform fails to curb production subsidy?

What relationship should we foster between agriculture, tourism and leisure? Can we justify organising agricultural subsidy to run stock in inhospitable hill areas to keep the fells trim for tourists? Is there anything that Government or Parliament can do to check the power of the big supermarket chains that control farmers and growers? They tear up contracts at a minute's notice and switch their buying policies at the drop of a hat, to the ruin of certain sectors and regions.

We do not discuss those important questions because we are too busy shouting about who is more rural than thou. We do not live in two countries, however much the hon. Member for South Suffolk sought to suggest it. I thank him for visiting my constituency--without telling me, of course. He figured prominently in my local newspapers, standing in the middle of an empty street. I am not sure whether he was trying to comment on the disappearance of rural shops.

The Opposition are seeking to create a party political war between rural areas and the rest. If their pursuit of that objective is not ended, rural areas can only lose out as the rest of the country has forced down its throat what the Tories present as a rural whinge. In my patch at least, I do not hear that from rural people.

9 pm

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): West Sussex has been mentioned several times and my constituency forms the greater part of it. There are four important points about the case of West Sussex.

First, 45,000 people have signed the petition against the imposition of an extra 12,800 houses. Petitioners come from across the full range of party politics and there is cross-party support on the county council. An important plank of the new policy announced by the Deputy Prime Minister--something that will help judgment on whether it is to be believed--is that the new approach to housing should involve an element of bottom-up consideration and dilution of what has been accepted across the board as too many orders from on high under the old predict and plan. West Sussex is a classic test case from which we will judge whether the new policy is for real. The citizens of West Sussex have spoken more than loudly with those 45,000 names opposing the extra homes.

Secondly, simple arithmetic shows that, under the structural plan, about 40 per cent. of the new housing will be on green-field sites and 60 per cent. on brown-field sites. With the extra 12,800 houses, the balance swings the other way. Such housing would have to be entirely on

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green-field sites and the balance would change to 60 per cent. on green-field sites and 40 per cent. on brown-field sites. In deciding whether the Government's policy objective of reducing the extent of green-field sites is to be believed, their decision on cancelling their order to add the 12,800 houses, or reducing the number, will be important.

Thirdly, West Sussex went to the length of having an independent environmental audit, for which it won a significant award. It succeeded in convincing the Department's inspectorate. In effect, the Minister overruled his own inspectorate. If we are to have a rational approach to the amount of additional housing with which rural areas can cope, without--in the words of the Minister--turning them into American rural suburbs, the principle of independent environmental assessments is important. They should be encouraged.

Fourthly, and I am surprised that this has not come out in the debate on green-field and green belt, in a large metropolis such as Birmingham or London, one effect of the success of the green belt has been to tip the pressure out to the next layer, to the perimeter lying on a 40-mile radius. Country areas have been hit by issues such as overbuilding and whether the Government's change of policy is for real; the problem of agriculture going seriously bust; and the gerrymandering of the standard spending assessments with the result that counties such as West Sussex have had a 10 per cent. increase in rates but no effective increase in real spending. To put it candidly, country areas like my own want to stop being dumped on by the Labour Government.

9.5 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): In an effort to allow as many people as possible to contribute to the debate, I shall keep my remarks brief.

Contrary to what might be imagined, I welcome this debate on the basis that, although we have debated similar topics five or six times before, the Opposition have yet to land a glove on us. I see that that proud record is continuing tonight. Much of the rhetoric in the Opposition motion is understandable, although their points about the green belt and green-field sites stick in the craw of Labour Members who spent the past 15 years working under Tory planning procedures, fighting those procedures through appeals and all manner of other processes, only to find that central Government had undermined what we were trying to achieve, with the result that we lost out to developers--developers who were often contributors to the Conservative party. Let that not be misunderstood.

There are more important issues that should be discussed in a debate about rural Britain. I am sure that the fact will have escaped no Labour Member that all is not well in rural Britain, but we shall look at what we consider to be the real analysis of the real problems and the real dilemmas facing rural Britain--poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) pointed out, earlier this year there was an Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ), but only a limited number of Conservative Members bothered to turn up for that debate, albeit more than were present at this morning's debate on concessionary television licences.

The Labour Government are prepared to accept that rural poverty exists, although it might be dispersed and difficult to measure. One of the previous

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Government's legacies, and something that should never be forgotten, is that they commissioned a report on rural poverty during the mid-1980s. Even though it was their own report, they chose not to publish it or to own up to it; instead, they buried it. That is a disgraceful record. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment said, that report would have shown the scale of the problems of deprivation that were identified in the Rural Development Commission report published in 1997. I shall not reiterate the figures given by my right hon. Friend, but it is important that we understand how many communities suffer the problems of not having public transport or easy access to a GP.

Why have the problems occurred? There are five key elements in the Conservative's legacy of failure. First, there are village services, which have declined out of all recognition. It was not without remorse that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) recognised at last the folly of the policy that he kept in place for so long--out-of-town shopping development. He came to realise the damage that that was doing to villages and market town centres.

Secondly, deregulatated public transport--which has been mentioned several times by my hon. Friends--and rail privatisation have done immense damage to our rural communities.

Thirdly, I could speak at great length about housing, but I shall concentrate on the provision of affordable housing. It is all very well to talk about taking away people's rights to a discount on a council house sale, but what about the people who have no access to housing in rural Britain? The Conservative party practised social exclusion because it failed to allow any reprovision of council stock and denuded rural housing associations of any opportunity to provide the housing that is desperately needed. That is social exclusion of the worst sort.

Fourthly, low pay is ever present in many rural areas, including my constituency. The Government can be proud that they have been able to introduce the national minimum wage, which will deal with low pay in all areas, whether urban or rural.

Finally, there has been an overall deterioration in services such as health, education and social services, which of course has a disproportionate effect on the old, the young, the disabled, the low paid, the unemployed, lone parents and parents who are left at home.

There is therefore no reason for the Opposition to warn us or tell us what we should be doing because the previous Administration let us down badly on rural matters. This Government take rural issues very seriously. We are fortunate to have so many Members who represent rural constituencies that we were able to form the rural Back-Bench group a year ago.


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