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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): May I take the opportunity to remind the House that the 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches applies from now?

4.52 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on introducing what is an

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important subject for debate in the House. It is, indeed, about the balance between urban and rural communities. The common-sense policies that he has formulated will go some way to countering the imbalance that the Government's policies are fast achieving.

The Government's view of what they have achieved since they came into office is trumpeted in the Order Paper. They claim that their

The Minister has described their policies as having one-nation appeal.

The Government came to office promising policies that were based on consensus and inclusion, yet in two and a half years they have created two Britains: one urban and one rural; they have switched funds from shire to urban areas; they have largely ignored the worst crisis in farming since the 1930s; and they have imposed the highest transport fuel taxes in Europe, apparently not knowing that those impact more severely on the rural economy, which is already reeling from the rest of their policies.

The Government are undermining local democracy by switching power from elected councils to appointed regional quangos. The planning decisions that they have already taken show that their solution to the two Britains that they are heedlessly creating is suburban sprawl, uniting the whole country against that threat. Those policies demonstrate clearly their disregard for and ignorance of the rural areas on which they are imposing those developments, not that other examples are hard to find.

The Government cannot be unaware of the extra costs of delivering services in rural areas. I say that not because they give any sign of having understood it, but because of the number of reports that they have commissioned telling them so. Their independent consultants have pointed out that it costs more to police rural areas, which is self-evident to all who live in them.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Shephard: No. I will not take any interventions because of the time limit.

The result in West Norfolk police division, an area the size of Bedfordshire, is that there are 32 police officers on duty at any one time, when the force is up to strength, which it currently is not, yet Norfolk has lost 50 police officers since May 1997.

A report on population sparsity and social services published in August 1998, by the County Councils Network, concluded that the costs and time of travel are higher in rural areas than in urban areas; there are additional transport costs in providing services in rural areas; and economies of scale are harder to achieve. Those factors apply across a wide range of local authority services, with the consequence that rural authorities face considerable difficulties in providing the same range and standard of services at the same cost as in urban areas.

Council tax in rural areas represents a higher proportion of local average earnings. Therefore, people in rural areas pay relatively more in council tax than their urban

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counterparts. Yet, the Government have changed the funding formula so that, over the life of this Parliament, rural areas stand to lose more than £500 million in council grant.

The Government's attitude to agriculture--which has contributed to the worst crisis in farming since the 1930s--has meant a drop in farming incomes of more than half since they were elected. The Government's own failure to lift the ban on beef on the bone has left them with little credibility when arguing with the French, and now with the Germans, that British beef is safe. The Government have hit other farmers, in both livestock and arable sectors, with taxes and regulations.

I have no doubt that the Government's focus groups tell them that, as there are only 400,000 farmers in Britain, they are an insignificant group and not particularly popular--so they can be safely ignored. The Government's policies show that they have never understood that a prosperous agriculture sector enables a prosperous rural economy--it is as simple as that. As farmers go out of business, so will agricultural engineers, seed merchants, garages, markets, agricultural suppliers and the service industries that support them.

The Government, in the name of protecting the environment--the Order Paper shows so clearly that they have not understood what they have done--have also blithely imposed on the United Kingdom the highest fuel taxes in Europe. As Ministers' thinking--hence, their planning decisions--is urban, they have no concept of the impact that those costs have on people in rural areas. In my constituency, it is not unusual for families to have to have two or even three cars per household simply to get to work. Visiting the general practitioner's surgery may involve a round-trip of 14 or 15 miles; the local hospital, 30 miles; and the council office, jobs centre, benefits office and citizens advice bureau, another 30 miles.

Although the Government's announcement of a rural bus grant was welcome, not only can the grant not begin to compensate rural people for the fuel tax burdens that the Government have imposed on them, but Ministers really do have to understand that a bus network cannot cover the complexities of modern rural life and that many people, simply to lead their lives, need to use cars. That would be true even if the bus grant had been sensibly introduced. However, I should like to spend a moment sharing with the House the way in which the scheme is being implemented in south-west Norfolk. I shall make the point on rural buses in some detail, because the transport issue is key to all of the planning decisions already announced by the Government.

The secretary of the Watton and District chamber of commerce, Mr. Martin Anscombe, has written to the director of transportation at Norfolk county council about rural transport funding, stating:

on the rural bus grant--

    "in the strongest possible terms. That is, simply, that the provision . . . as far as Watton is concerned, is a complete waste of public money . . .

    There are now some 130 additional buses per week through Watton . . .

    Informal observations indicate that the new services are, so far, very little used, with large, single-decker coaches arriving and departing . . . empty or nearly so.

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    The effect of the grant has been the setting up of new services on a somewhat scatter-gun approach, with no time for consultation or a thorough examination of either need or effect."

That is not the only problem.

Earlier this year, my constituent Mr. Bagge, of Stradsett, wrote to the local council, King's Lynn and West Norfolk, stating:

some booklets stated that it was in one location, but others said it was somewhere else--

    "please let us know where the bus stop is".

The reply came from the council two months later:

    "I apologise for the delay in replying to your letter but it has taken me some time to identify who exactly is responsible for the location of the bus stops.

    From a site visit that I made to the village I would agree that it is not very clear where any bus stops are located, but from an examination of the timetables I have marked on the enclosed map where I think the buses should probably be stopping."

Eventually my constituent was contacted by the county council, which said:

    "At Stradsett, as in many rural areas, there are no fixed bus stops. Buses will stop on a hail and ride basis. . . . Timetables state a specific location in villages to help indicate the route the bus takes."

Small wonder that, despite their protestations to the contrary, the Government's much-vaunted rural bus grant is not working. Such nonsense can be put right by the common-sense policies advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham.

However, there is another, more menacing fundamental change, on which the Government seem set, that is hitting local democracy. To address the democratic deficit that their devolution policies have created in England, they plan to impose artificial and unwelcome regional structures throughout the country that would abolish counties, make local government more remote and, worse still, make it urban dominated. The rural development agencies are showing the way.

We ought to value local democracy and the involvement of local people who are willing to give their time to take decisions closest to the people whom they affect. We should seek to strengthen the local nature of the democratic process. That is why our proposals to give elected local authorities more say in large-scale development and planning matters are so welcome. In the mean time, the Government, from their urban fastness, seek to smother local democracy by layers of quangos--

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