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

Mr. Drew: No, time is very short.

We formed that group and, only the other day, the Conservatives aped us. It is pleasing that they are now taking rural issues seriously.

We have considered many rural matters and we shall continue to battle to get across our point of view on transport, on the reprovision of services and on dealing

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with the ever-present rural housing issues. The Government will continue to listen to people in rural Britain and act on their views.

9.11 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): This is an important debate on a subject that is of great interest to my constituents. The Government now know, if they did not before--I suspect that when they took office, they did not fully appreciate--how important the green belt is to many people, particularly those in certain parts of the country, including my constituents in Hertfordshire. More than anything else, those people want the full force of existing protection to be given to the green belt. There has been a change in the Government's pronouncements on this issue and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, we shall seek proof of that in the Government's actions in future.

We want full protection for the green belt and development to be permitted there only in exceptional circumstances. I was slightly concerned by what the Minister said about the contents of the White Paper, particularly the doctrine of compensation in other places through extension of the green belt, rather than protection of the existing green belt. I counsel the Government against moving too far in that direction. People want the existing green belt to be protected.

I know that the Department is responsible for protection and conservation of wildlife as well as environmental protection. It would be strange if it applied its green belt principle to the conservation of wildlife. Ministers might say, for example, "The song thrush has become extinct, but never mind because we have added the skylark and the sand martin to the protected species list, which is a great triumph for conservation." They might say, "The Siberian tiger has become extinct, but we are now giving protection to the Indian elephant and the white rhino." We want a better policy than that.

I was also concerned by the Minister's comment that, under the previous Conservative Government, there had been no corresponding increase in the size of the green belt. That is strange, and I seek an explanation because, under the previous Government, the green belt doubled, with the addition of 837,000 hectares.

The Minister for the Environment produced an interesting figure of a 30,000 hectare increase, under the Government, in the area of green-belt land. It was an improvement on the one that the Prime Minister recently gave, when he told the House at Prime Minister's Question Time:

When the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions was asked about the Prime Minister's answer in a written question, we were told that the basis of the Prime Minister's boast was

    "a net increase of nearly 4,000 ha"--[Official Report, 11 February 1998; Vol. 306, c. 234.]

in the green belt. That compared with an increase under the previous Government, between 1979 and 1993, of 830,000 hectares. According to my--admittedly

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shaky--maths, that means that, if the present rate of increase continued, we would have to wait until 2205 for the Government to match the previous Conservative Administration's record. Even if the figure of 30,000 is correct, it would take the Government about 26 years to achieve what the previous Government achieved in 14 years. Has the figure of 30,000 been achieved, or does it represent an aspiration for the future? Perhaps the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), will tell us. She is bound to know the answer.

The Under-Secretary can help us on another point. I listened carefully to the Minister's comments and claims about the Government's achievements. Some of them, especially on village shops, had a familiar ring; I wondered where I had heard them before. Then it occurred to me that, in the previous Parliament, I served on the Committee considering what is now the Local Government and Rating Act 1997, which introduced the rating discount for village shops. I know that it was late in the previous Parliament and, to give the Government credit, the then Opposition did not oppose the Bill, but the legislation was carried through by the previous Government. I am pleased to note that it is now an achievement of the present Government.

More than anything else, we want proper protection of the existing green belt--the full force of existing protection. That is what my constituents want in Hertfordshire, that is what we want in the rest of the country and that is what Conservative Members will press for.

9.16 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): The 1997 general election result produced a major benefit for rural areas--it introduced political competition into parts of the country that had not experienced it for many years. We have a--

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

Mr. Todd: My goodness; I have only just started. Time is short, so I am afraid that I must decline.

As I have said to rural voters in my constituency--many of them have agreed--that political competition will be of benefit, because we are starting seriously to discuss issues that had previously been dealt with complacently by the Conservatives and with relatively little interest by Labour.

The misguided Opposition motion fails to address the rural quality-of-life issues that my constituents care about. They are the ones that would be familiar in an urban constituency--the quality of schools, the availability of jobs, decent transport, affordable homes, crime and the quality of our environment. Those are the issues which most people in South Derbyshire care about, as I suspect do most constituents throughout the country.

The previous Government's record on some key indicators reveals why their motion has been severely rubbished by all participants in the debate from other political parties. For example, in Derbyshire, in the last six years of the previous Government, the percentage of parishes with no rural daily bus service increased from 54 to 62 per cent. Eighty-seven per cent. of parishes in Derbyshire had no nursery, and there was a massive loss

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of council housing in the rural areas. Many villages in my constituency have less than half the council housing that was once constructed, substantially reducing my constituents' choice of housing.

The Government have focused on addressing those key issues. First, the additional £700,000 plus given to Derbyshire county council for rural bus services is gratefully received, with very many thanks. It will provide the platform for restoring services cut in the past--even for introducing new ones--and must be applauded.

Secondly, the emphasis, within the comprehensive spending review, on nursery provision and on pre-school education generally, will increase the availability of pre-school places in rural communities in my constituency. I am delighted with that, too.

Thirdly, if one examines the state of schools in my area, one sees that there has been a transformation, even in the 15 months since the last election. Schools in Findern, Hartshorne, Long Lane, Hilton, Barrow on Trent, Netherseal, Rosliston, Melbourne, Overseal and Egginton have already received promises of money from last year and during this year. By my reckoning, perhaps one of those schools would have received some resources under the previous Government. To put the matter in context, more than £1 million has been committed to those rural schools, as against the Conservative Government pledging in their last year just £2.1 million for the entire county of Derbyshire. That is the kind of thing that my constituents care about most.

There remain issues to address. First, we must have a self-sufficient rural economy, diversifying away from agriculture. We must ensure that homes are available for workers in rural areas. We must sustain the environment of rural Britain and ensure that our citizens can enjoy it. We must recognise the increasing threat and fear of crime in rural areas, and we must maintain viable key services such as pharmacies and post offices.

We must address those concerns holistically. If we accept a rural economy dependent on commuting, we shall damage our environment, force up housing costs in our rural areas, undermine critical rural retailers and other key services, and entrench a stratified society with a hidden minority of seriously deprived individuals concealed in our midst.

Farm diversification is clearly critical to the task. The focus should be on trying to build local small businesses based around the food industry and providing additional jobs through that route. Local low-cost housing is essential to support that economy, together with cheap, reliable public transport. We do not need sprawling suburbia or protective nimbyism. In South Derbyshire, we require a clear balance between extra housing in our local plan and job growth. I would criticise the current county structure plan for lacking that balance in my area.

We must build around local successes. We have many attractive, highly successful local primary schools. We should aim to build other key services around those schools, making them the focus of community life and maximising the efficient use of scarce resources. We must recognise the shortcomings of existing deprivation indicators in the standard spending assessment--in this context, I have considerable sympathy with some of the points made by Opposition Members, but they should recall that the rules were drawn up under their own Government.

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The useful Rural Development Commission report on that shows that the current disadvantage indicators in the standard spending assessment are built around an urban slant, which clearly needs to be substantially altered. Deprivation is hidden in rural areas. Lack of advice services, paternalism and self-help often hide disadvantage that would be much more evident in an urban setting. Regression analysis based on past spending levels also works against low-spending rural authorities. Key services face higher unit costs than in urban areas. The Government's promised review of the SSA should correct those faults.

The development of rural development agencies obliged to produce rural employment strategies should start to address farm diversification, as should the Government's lead on Agenda 2000. Other initiatives include the minimum wage, which has been applauded already by some of my colleagues, the new deal for unemployed groups and the work of the coalfield task force. My community has a significant coalfield legacy. The coalfields were largely in rural areas. The task force will be an important component in redressing the balance for our rural communities. All those initiatives will provide a platform for improvements in rural quality of life.

Extra health spending will allow us to address the alarmingly poor performance of the Derbyshire Ambulance Service NHS trust, which currently produces the worst performance in the country in terms of response times--something which is a particularly acute problem in a rural constituency like mine. That is something that I am keen to see addressed.

The Government are taking on board the key quality concerns of my rural constituents while the Opposition motion addresses the Opposition's old obsessions in their old way and offers no future.

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