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8.53 pm

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): I want to speak briefly about the procedures that the Government will pursue for considering regional planning for the south-east. Before I do that, I want to make some personal remarks because I do not know how else they can be placed on the public record.

On Sunday 5 December, The Sunday Telegraph published an article which made some critical comments about me. The next day, I brought the matter to the attention of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards because it seemed right and proper to do that as soon as possible. The substance of the complaint in the article was that I had failed to register a loan in the Register of Members' Interests.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards considered the matter and concluded that, because the difference between the interest that I had paid and the market rate at the time was not greater than £215, registration of the loan was not required. She also concluded that there was nothing wrong with the donations that were made to my constituency association.

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However, she ruled that I should have registered my involvement with Asian Business Breakfast, although I had not gained financial benefit from that body. I took her advice immediately and registered my involvement.

I briefly draw the matter to the attention of the House because, given that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had made a ruling, I expected The Sunday Telegraph to make some comment about it in yesterday's edition, not least because it had published the original article under a headline that contained the word "sleaze". I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to see no mention at all of Miss Filkin's adjudication in yesterday's paper. When a colleague of mine approached another paper that had published the story, he was told that had I been found guilty of every offence by Miss Filkin that would have been news, but being exonerated for the main offence was not news. Such is the life we live, but I think that I should put those matters on the record before the House adjourns. Otherwise, I see no way of hon. Members knowing what has happened.

My real concern is the regional planning guidance process, and I say that as a former junior Minister for inner cities and for planning. Ministers cannot be unaware of the genuine concerns that exist throughout the south-east, but we have a problem because the Minister for Housing and Planning, for whom I have enormous respect, is sidelined: through no fault of his own, he is campaign manager for a Labour candidate for the London mayoral election. Early next year, the Government will publish new regional planning guidance for the south-east, for which there is a consultation period, and I suspect that a large number of people from villages and parishes throughout the south-east will want to take part.

I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), asking whether she would consider visiting Oxfordshire during the consultation. My letter--which was courteous, not aggressive--asked her to come and listen to the concerns of local people about over-development in the south-east. To my total surprise, I received the fairly bureaucratic, dismissive response that Ministers had not yet worked out how they would deal with the consultation process. When I was a Minister, I considered it a particular obligation to visit the constituencies of Labour Members whenever they asked me to do so and I spent a great deal of my time, as did my ministerial colleagues in the then Department of the Environment, making such visits to listen to people's concerns. It seemed to be an important part of the democratic process that constituents should not feel that Ministers were not interested in their problems simply because their Member of Parliament was of a different political party.

I say to the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who will reply to the debate, that there are genuine concerns about the proposal to build 1.1 million new homes in the south-east by 2016. It has been noted that not one Labour Member signed the letter to the Deputy Prime Minister expressing concerns about that, but it must be in the interests of the Labour party and the Government for Ministers to get out and about early next year when the draft regional planning guidance for the south-east is published. I can guarantee that Conservative Members, along with colleagues from other political parties in the various shire counties concerned, will be more than willing to arrange properly organised, sensible meetings

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at which local authorities, local people and local amenity groups can reasonably and rationally express their concerns direct to Ministers.

It must be in the interests of democracy for everyone to feel that they have a part to play in the process. Democracy will be damaged and enormous resentment caused if people think that they have not been heard on this important issue, and the Government simply produce a new set of figures at the end of this nominal consultation process on draft regional planning guidance. In the short term, that will be bad electoral news for the Government and the Labour party. Much more significantly, it will undermine confidence in the planning system for years to come. I hope that the Minister will be able to convey to his ministerial colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions that it must be in everyone's interests for them to listen during that crucial consultation period.

8.59 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): One of the advantages of speaking at the end of the debate is that I have had the opportunity to listen to right hon. and hon. Members. I should like to comment on the rural issues raised. I could comment on the views of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on nuclear terrorism, because I have read some of the same source material. I could also be taken along the planning route, about which the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) spoke. However, I shall stay with the rural theme that has been explored mainly by Opposition Members. I shall deal with funding issues, and then come back to what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said about rural sub-post offices.

It is a canard that the problems with the funding of rural authorities started in May 1997. Those of us with a legacy of involvement in local government and national politics in the rural domain could argue cogently and coherently that these problems have a much longer legacy. I take no pleasure in so saying, but it is important that we put that on the record. I want to draw attention to three problem areas, using examples from my constituency of Stroud and from the county of Gloucestershire. They do not result from immediate policy changes, because their antecedents occurred much further back. The three areas are health, education and policing.

On health, the problem for Gloucestershire is that the formula has been rejigged, which is causing concern among constituents and health professionals. I would argue that the formula should be reconsidered because of the lack of sensitivity in dealing with some of the problems that it is trying to address in difficult and varied circumstances. I would not demur from the view that we should try to deal with the biggest problems in the most deprived areas, which are usually the urban centres because of the number of people who live there. I strongly concur with the Government's approach of prevention rather than cure. We should deal with the worst excesses of health inequality and deprivation, but that should not be done at the cost of the health of others.

In Gloucestershire, we have identified vulnerable areas, particularly to do with older people, and they need to be addressed. Many people want to retire to Gloucestershire, and there may be good reasons for that--I am sure that other hon. Members have similar experiences in their

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areas. People usually retire when they are fit and healthy, but, in their latter years, their health may deteriorate. Health authorities are sometimes not capable of dealing with the skewed nature of the health problems. That is particularly acute in Gloucestershire, which has a good reputation for dealing with people with special needs and learning difficulties. Some of them are older, and they are cared for by the residential and nursing sector. To be fair, that is accounted for in social services funding. We do not get as much as some of us would like, but we tend not to get equivalent and appropriate funding for health services.

My hon. Friend the Minister may care to comment on that, or pass on my remarks to his colleagues in the Department of Health, who need to be made more aware of the acute problems faced in Gloucestershire. The existing budget has to take much of the pressure, and that is neither fair nor reasonable. I can state categorically that we are pleased with many of the changes that the Government have introduced. The main acute hospital in the west of the county, Gloucestershire Royal hospital, is being refurbished, but much still needs to be done.

Gloucestershire's education has traditionally received low funding. We were part of the E8 group, which has now grown to become the E40. Heads are always approaching me to tell me about Gloucestershire's problems: it does not benefit from an area cost adjustment and, in both the secondary and the primary sectors, it has been relatively underfunded in comparison with other counties. There is a considerable difference--about £1,000--between the funding of Essex schools and that of Gloucestershire schools. That did not arise overnight, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise the problems that it causes and the need to re-evaluate the formula.

A particular problem has been caused by the fact that many schools in my county chose to become grant-maintained, not for any philosophical reason but because more money was involved. Those schools have now returned to local control. There has been no blood-letting or arguments, either between the authority and the schools or, more particularly, between the schools, which says a lot for the professionalism of the teachers--including heads--and, indeed, for the attitudes of parents and children. An anomaly has been thrown up, however. The schools involved now have less money, which means redundancies--redundancies that will have to be shared throughout the LEA sector. That is unfair to schools that have remained under LEA control and also means that there is less money available generally.

As for policing, I do not disagree with the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) or with those of the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), but the sparsity factor is important. I thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a bit negative: I understood that the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), had accepted--certainly in principle--that the arguments were sound and should be reflected in the rejigging of the formula. The problems relate to when we deal with the matter, where the money will come from and who may lose out as a result, but at least we have made the point.

By pure chance, a meeting took place with my local police authority this morning, attended by four Gloucestershire Members. We heard a doom-laden catalogue of the results of the current low increase,

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but there was also some good news: if we can have the new police officers that the Home Secretary has said we will have, it will make a considerable difference. It will improve security, which is always a bone of contention in Gloucestershire, and may enable us to make progress with the radio project--a project that involves a good deal of capital expenditure in areas such as ours. I know that that is true in every part of the country, but it applies especially to a small rural force.

All those factors prove to me that there is a problem of funding in rural areas. I will not hide from that; I will not say that the Government should brush it under the carpet because it happens not to be convenient for them to talk about it. The reasons for the problem are obvious. They relate to how we measure distance, how we deal with isolation, the lack of economies of scale in our most rural areas, and, indeed, the ever-increasing likelihood that we need a debate on minimum standards. Obviously, in rural areas standards sometimes fall below the norm that is expected in urban areas.

I do not disagree with what was said by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. There is a real threat, but, as always in the case of threats, there are also opportunities. Last week, when I spoke in the debate on the Post Office, I said, "For heaven's sake, let us realise the opportunities." When I visited ICL last week to view the horizon project, I thought that there was a real chance to put the Post Office at the forefront of the new technology and of any competition, whether it came from within this country or, more particularly, from outside it. What worries me is that I am not sure whether that has been totally understood. I am not criticising Post Office management, and I am certainly not criticising those who are trying to run sub-post offices, but it should be realised that there are enhanced opportunities to extend postal and communication services.

On my Christmas visit to my post office, I heard that mail is up by 15 per cent. That shows what sub-post offices can do. On the back of that, they have to break into the network banking system, rather than view it as a total threat. What better way of turning the position round than to realise that banks which have lost all those branches can regain them again? They cannot do so through their own businesses as they have sold them, but they can use local sub-post offices, particularly those in rural areas. That is what people want and are looking forward to.

I am aware of the time, so I will not speak much about the matter, but the e-government debate is crucial. Sub-post offices could become the centre point of their communities, where people genuinely use the internet, find out information, but, more particularly, change passports, get a driving licence and use local government services in all their different forms. That shows that there is a nexus between commercialisation and the way we liberalise the system and democratising it and making it fully available.

I have tried to show that there is a need for a proper rural debate. That was no more clearly shown than by the publication of the performance and innovation unit report, "Rural Economies." There was a rumour that it was slipped out on a Friday. I hope that that is not true. I have read it quite quickly, so I will not pretend that I am an

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expert on it, but it contains many good ideas. It is about putting forward a debate as a starting point to the rural White Paper, which will come some time next year.

There are many challenges in rural Britain, as those of us who are interested in the agricultural scene know only too well. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) spoke about one aspect of that. There are many challenges, but agriculture is not the whole rural scene, although it is an important part of it. We can show that we are capable of doing many things in the rural domain.

The planning process needs to be completely reformed, but not by going away from any controls and throwing away the green belt and the greenfield protection that we need. We have to recognise that some flexibility is required in the way in which we use old buildings and bring back communities that no longer have the opportunity to work in agriculture so that they can genuinely find work where they live.

I could make many other comments, but time is against me. I urge the House to start a proper debate on where we want to take our rural economy, rural services and, indeed, democracy in rural areas.

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