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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Rating and Valuation

Question agreed to.

17 Mar 1999 : Column 1232

Rural Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

10.24 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am delighted to have obtained this Adjournment debate, not only because of my deep interest in the welfare of people in rural Britain, but particularly because of my passionate commitment to my constituents in rural South Holland and The Deepings.

I make no apology for adding that I feel I have a disproportionate responsibility to represent those in most need in my constituency: the elderly, the disabled, the poor and those in remote communities, who are most isolated from public services. Nor is there any contradiction in my making a fierce defence of the gentle, or passionately advocating the case for quiet, unassuming, unchanging rural Britain. It is in that crusading spirit that we should approach the delivery of public services in rural communities.

Rural Britain has felt besieged since Labour came to power. It may be true that new Labour, with its assumptions about modernity, its fascination with everything new and its metropolitan culture, is particularly hostile to rural traditions. It is certainly true that the Government have treated rural Britain relatively badly. Evidence of that can be found in the on-going crisis in agriculture, but I particularly want to concentrate on public services and the Government's settlements for local authorities. [Interruption.] Perhaps I should wait a moment while the Minister takes her seat. Rural communities have fared badly in those settlements.

I have figures from the House of Commons Library that reveal that in the two years in which the Government have made local government settlements, most of Britain has received an increase of 8.2 per cent., while shire districts and counties lag behind on 7.7 per cent. Rural services have, therefore, suffered as a result of inadequate financing from the Government. That may be partly because the Labour party has so little rural representation. Despite its extravagant claims, only 19 of the 100 most rural seats in Britain are held by the Labour party. In England alone, the party fares even worse, holding only 17 of the 100 most rural constituencies.

I do not want to be unnecessarily ungenerous to the governing party. There are times when it is necessary to be ungenerous, but, on this occasion, I do not want to give in to temptation. However, the services that are so essential to sustaining rural communities have certainly been neglected. The Government will undoubtedly talk about the extra support that they have provided for rural transport, but I have to tell them that it is not enoughfor the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who, when serving on the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, said that as the Government grant additional money to rural bus services, they are disappearing. She stated that

Frankly, even if one totalled the money that the Government have allocated to rural transport, it would not be enough to solve the problem in even one part of Great

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Britain. Many rural communities have almost no public transport services, and the car is the only way that people can get around.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Will my hon. Friend note that in rural areas such as Shropshire, 67 per cent. of the work force go to work in a private car, and the swingeing increase in diesel and petrol duties is the equivalent of 1p on income tax in the course of this Parliament?

Mr. Hayes: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to the attention of the House. He is the personification of Housman's "A Shropshire Lad", and a staunch defender of all things rural and, in particular, the interests of his constituents.

My hon. Friend mentioned the increase in diesel duty, which was a particular blow to the haulage industry. People such as Jim Welch of Fowler Welch in my constituency viewed that as a slap in the face, given that the information that the Government had received from the industry had made it clear that any further increase would endanger the future growth of that industry and even its maintenance. Haulage is an important rural employer, as I am sure the Minister is aware.

We should not be too ungrateful because we have, at long last, the beginnings of a White Paper on rural affairs. That is not the White Paper itself, which is very late, but a precursor in the form of a discussion document, which says that the Government are committed to providing rural services that are accessible for the whole community. It questions what mechanisms are necessary to ensure that rural issues are considered in policy making. I can tell the Minister that such mechanisms are not regional development agencies or regional assemblies. There is a fear that a regional authority dominated by Derby, Leicester and Nottingham would forget the needs of rural Lincolnshire. The equivalent must be true for many parts of Great Britain.

The answer to question 10 in the discussion document--how we connect consumers and what farmers produce--is certainly not supermarkets. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) said in an Adjournment debate last Thursday, it is local suppliers who most often forge productive links with local producers. They purchase their products from the local area, whereas large supermarkets tend to buy nationally. The expansion of supermarkets will do nothing in rural communities to maintain the link between farmers, consumers and retailers.

So we have the precursor to the White Paper. It is rather late and slightly thin, but at least it is a step in the right direction.

I shall refer particularly to the latest attack on the countryside and public services, by which I mean the Budget. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) has mentioned haulage, but we should not ignore the effect of increased petrol costs on individuals, which once again will be felt disproportionately by rural motorists. The Government's national traffic survey, combined with road traffic statistics, suggests that rural dwellers typically travel about 2,500 more miles a year than their metropolitan equivalents. This is about not just the availability of local services, but access to them.

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Figures from the Library suggest that the total extra annual cost of the Budget in terms of fuel costs to rural dwellers is £350 million, and Lincolnshire's share of that is about £10 million. It is inequitable to introduce additional taxation that affects rural motorists in this way, especially when we consider that the luxury of a car in London is the necessity of a car in rural Lincolnshire. That is why car ownership as a universal measure of deprivation, or of the lack of deprivation, is such a misleading criterion.

When Mr. John Edwards of the Rural Development Commission gave evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture, he said:

for example

    "the SSA for local government finance . . . are picking up urban disadvantage much better than they are rural . . . For example, if you want to measure poor access to services, what you need to do is find out those areas which do not have a shop and . . . do not have a regular bus service and then count the number of people there"

who cannot find easy access to local community facilities.

The knock-on effect from private motorists' problems reaches the public services. We know already, for example, that the national health service will be £1.5 million poorer because of extra fuel tax. Once again, the burden will fall unequally because of the higher level of transport costs in rural communities.

Figures from the Library show that police spending on transport is greater in rural communities. For example, 2.4 per cent. of the budget for non-staff transport costs is allocated in rural areas, compared with 2.2 per cent. in metropolitan areas and 1.5 per cent in the Metropolitan police force area. In Lincolnshire, that means that £60,000 will have to be devoted from a scarce police budget solely to fund the increase in petrol tax that has arisen as a result of the Budget.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the categories of people who will suffer as a result of the swingeing increase in the price of petrol is those who work voluntarily for charities, including Mrs. Zettl, an 81-year-old lady living in the high street in Buckingham? She is of modest means and working for two local charities. She cannot contemplate with equanimity the savage increase in the cost of petrol that she will have to face.

Mr. Hayes: I am looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend's constituent and discussing these matters in greater detail, no doubt over a cup of tea.

The fire service is even worse affected. Fire services in rural areas spend an even greater proportion of their budgets on transport. Social services, refuse collection and a panoply of other local authority services display a similar difference between metropolitan and rural spending patterns.

The Minister will claim that standard spending assessments are adjusted to take account of sparsity, but with regard to the police, for example, she will know that there has always been criticism of the formula that was introduced in 1995-96, which led to the allocation formula working group. Questions about the particular difficulties of policing rural areas have not been satisfactorily

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resolved. Although a research project was set up by the Government, we need assurances that it will report speedily.

Surprisingly, there is no adjustment in the SSA to take account of the additional costs of the provision of rural services by fire brigades. For only three other local authority services are there adjustments in the SSA to take account of sparsity, although I admit that one of those is social services. That adjustment was introduced by the Government this year. I welcome that warmly--well, fairly warmly.

When the Minister responds, there are some particular assurances that I hope she will give us. First, what progress can we expect on the research on the additional costs of rural policing? Secondly, the fire brigade must be included in the estimates of additional costs for rural provision. Thirdly, the sparsity variable in the cost adjustment of the general allocation for health and ambulance services must be revised upwards.

Fourthly, other local authority services must be studied to ascertain the effect of sparsity and rurality in their delivery. Fifthly, the differential cost of transport, petrol and diesel in particular must be an identified separate factor in the funding of local authority and Government services.

The sixth point is that there must be additional support for areas with scattered populations, and those with sparse populations, which are not the same thing--for example, there may be a rural area in which there are many villages and not much in between, or there may be a fenland area in which the population is thinly spread.

Given that the Minister is so highly regarded in all parts of the House, expectations will be high tonight that, having thought on her feet, she will agree to all that I have suggested. If she does not, she should be aware in her comfortable and privileged Hampstead and Highgate constituency that there are those of us who will fight and campaign unstintingly for the interests of the countryside and rural areas.

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