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9.24 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Representing as I do one of the most rural constituencies in the country, I can inform the House that the Government's long-term policies will cause extreme difficulties for rural areas.

In Shropshire, an extra 36,000 houses are due to be built between 1996 and 2011, to conform to the ludicrous plan to build 4.4 million that the Secretary of State will impose on the country. That will lead to a 10 per cent. increase in the population of Shropshire, with an increase of 34 per cent. among those of retirement age. It will lead also to jobs and homes not being in balance with the economy--and certainly not with the services offered to the public by local agencies. The local council says that in Oswestry, for instance,


The provision of 2,400 houses a year is being made at twice the rate required to cope with the natural change that would occur if immigration were ignored.

In 1891, there were 236,000 people and 49,000 houses. Since then, there has been an incredible 70 per cent. increase in population and an amazing 330 per cent. increase in housing. That is partly due to social changes, but the Government must think about their long-term policies because so many more people will be divorced and single. By 2011, one-person households will take up one third of all houses in Shropshire.

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The pressure on local services has not been taken into account. Funding in Shropshire has been cut drastically since the Government came to power. For example, £100 million has been taken from the rural areas to the inner cities. It is ludicrous that an area such as Shropshire should have a standard spending assessment only 80 per cent. of Newcastle upon Tyne's. Shropshire is twice the area of London, but has only 4 per cent. of London's population. The Government do not understand that it costs more to provide services in a sparsely populated rural area.

There are 522 settlements in Shropshire with fewer than 2,000 people. That is 26 per cent. of all our settlements. We need seven primary schools to serve 1,000 people--twice the number required in an urban area. However, we have an urban Government who do not understand that.

Mr. Hayes: I notice that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who represents the 110th most rural constituency, according to Library figures, is laughing. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, despite the claims made by the Labour party, the truth is that it does not represent rural Britain psychologically. If we take the 50 most rural seats in Britain, the Labour party is the third party of Britain after the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps that is why the Government do not understand the issues that my hon. Friend is speaking about.

Mr. Paterson: That was a most helpful intervention; I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Labour party won many rural seats last year, but it does not understand rural issues. Nothing more clearly showed that than the local government settlement this year, when £10 million worth of cuts were imposed on Shropshire and there was a 17 per cent. increase in council tax. It was only after I led a march of 4,000 people, with the Bishop of Ludlow, who I suspect is not of my political persuasion, that the Government graciously lent Shropshire another £2.5 million.

These circumstances will lead to real pressures to resist an increase in population. Cuts in services have not been thought through. There are real costs involved in delivering services to a rural area, and the most obvious is transport. The Government do not understand that. The White Paper which was introduced last week--[Interruption.] The Minister jumps up and down, and laughs, but 60 per cent. of people in Shropshire drive to work. It is just not on to pretend that we can impose a Gosplan-type fixed system--[Interruption.] It is not possible to impose a coherent publicly planned transport policy on an area such as Shropshire. In my constituency, which has 98 villages, that cannot be done. As I have said, 60 per cent. of people drive to work. [Interruption.] The escalator tax on petrol is a tax on every business throughout north Shropshire, as is the increase in the price of diesel. Distribution is a major business in north Shropshire. Diesel costs 30 to 40 per cent. more in this country than on the continent, the rate of vehicle excise duty in France is a sixth of the rate in this country--and the Minister laughs, even though 95 per cent. of goods are transported by road freight. [Interruption.]

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Until now, the debate has been very good natured. Hon. Members should not be shouting across the Chamber.

Mr. Paterson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have used the last minute of my speech to show how exasperated my constituents are at the policies that are being imposed by an urban Government who do not understand rural areas.

9.29 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): As often happens in such debates, Back Benchers have provided original and relevant contributions. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) posed a number of questions that the Government would do well to answer, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) raised the West Sussex drama once again, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made striking comments about the extraordinary admissions by the Government in respect of their new and bizarre philosophy for the green belt, which has turned it into an ever-moveable feast for developers.

The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) forgot to mention that the Government have rate-capped his county council, which is the only one in the country that has been capped. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) spoke of the 10 per cent. increase in population that is being been forced on Shropshire by the Government; and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) for making such a welcome and useful intervention about the nature of the Labour party.

When he replied to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the Minister for the Environment did it again--new Labour has consistently shown that it does not understand the countryside. Nothing showed that better than the countryside march in the spring, and nothing surprised country dwellers and their supporters more than the strength of feeling that was mobilised against the Government, who were evidently surprised as well.

New Labour means new taxes on the countryside. The people who live there know that, because they are already feeling the pain and bearing the brunt of the record council tax increases that the Government have imposed on the counties and the rural districts. The Minister for the Environment comprehensively failed to answer that point, which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk.

The other taxes targeted on rural areas are taxes on the motorist. The Government will raise an extra £9 billion in fuel duties during this Parliament, over and above what would have been raised by our tax plans had they remained in place. The impact of Labour's tax rise is most cruel for those in far-flung areas, where there is no practical alternative to the car for the vast majority of journeys.

In many cases, the car makes it possible for rural communities to survive. The Government campaigning against the car in today's countryside is as paradoxical as making a film about the wild west without horses. The urban dweller does little mileage, so increased fuel

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costs are of little consequence. Country dwellers have to travel much greater distances; moreover, they have to pay the taxes, because they have no alternative to the car.

The purpose of these taxes is to raise tax for the Treasury. The Government say that they are against regressive taxation. What is the choice for rural people? Pay the taxes and use the car, or lose their jobs, incomes and businesses, their contact with friends and family in neighbouring towns and villages and their ready access to public services and benefits that should be theirs by right.

These motoring taxes do not redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Excessive motoring taxes hurt the poorest most, and those who need the car are often those who can least afford it: single mothers in part-time work; pensioner households, for whom the car is the last and most precious luxury; people on low incomes; and in particular, the self-employed. Come to rural areas and find forms of social exclusion that simply do not register on new Labour's urban radar.

Under the Conservatives, there was a huge increase in access to cars across rural communities, and women and pensioners were the biggest beneficiaries. The car brought them freedom to travel and unparalleled opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. New Labour does not realise that, or it does not care. It may think that it is modernising, but it seems determined to turn the clock back. Those are the very people whom new Labour says it champions. Under new Labour, people who need their cars suffer most. If fuel poverty is bad, why is car fuel poverty acceptable?

Yes, there are some public transport alternatives scattered across rural Britain. The Minister said that 75 per cent. of rural parishes have no daily bus service. Community transport alternatives are on the increase. Parishes with dial-a-ride schemes increased from 8 per cent. in 1991 to 15 per cent. in 1997. Conservatives will support any practical alternatives to the car in rural areas and anywhere else, particularly if they harness the enterprise of the private sector and the good will of the community. We have never pretended to have all the answers.


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