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12.2 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I welcome the opportunity to discuss urban and rural policies. At one stage, it looked as though no one else would be able to contribute to our debate. Without realising it, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) gave us 45 minutes-worth of good reasons why he might have given his last speech in the House and why there might be someone better qualified to represent The Wrekin who could join us on the Opposition Benches after the election.

Mr. Blunt: It was perhaps clear from the speech of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) that he would much rather address the Soviet presidium than the House.

Miss McIntosh: Yes, with the consequences of which the hon. Member for The Wrekin reminded us.

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who opened our debate. He gave a well-constructed, thoughtful and thought-

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provoking speech. We still face the continuing problem of transition from towns and cities to the countryside, to which he eloquently referred. I make what is intended to be a friendly challenge to the Minister who will respond to our debate: there is still a need, in Government thinking, for more joined-up government between urban and rural policies. I should like to explore that in my contribution.

In the context of evidence for the urban White Paper, I am delighted that the Select Committee visited the Vale of York. It briefly passed through Boroughbridge in a coach, and spent the afternoon taking evidence in Thirsk. What emerged from the evidence was recognition of the fact that there might be poverty in many parts of the country that is greater, I accept, than that which I personally experience in the Vale of York. However, in constituencies such as mine there are pockets of rural deprivation. That is an omission from the rural White Paper, and we have not yet had the opportunity to address it.

There is a crisis in the farming sector. It may not have started on 1 May 1997, but it has certainly been compounded since. It has impacted on market towns, which fall between two stalls: rural and urban. The Vale of York is a strongly rural community and contains the market towns of Thirsk, Bedale, Easingwold and Boroughbridge. There is also a strong hinterland on the outskirts of York, which includes Haxby, Wigginton, Poppleton, Skelton and other areas. The delivery of services in North Yorkshire is hampered because it is an especially sparsely populated rural area. The proposed focus on market towns is helpful in the light of the continuing agricultural crisis in rural communities.

North Yorkshire is the largest county in England. It has a population of 565,000 and covers more than 8,000 sq km. Not untypically, the county has experienced considerable growth in its population, economy and housing during the past 40 years, mostly because of inward migration. The problems caused by that growth are relevant to urban and rural policies and they require solutions. One such problem is low incomes, which were compounded in the past three years--and especially in the past year--by falling farm incomes. Other problems include access to employment training services and facilities for people who do not have their own transport, the narrowly based economic structure that exists in many areas and the environmental problems that are caused by inward migration, which can be compounded by housing growth and tourism.

The centralisation of facilities in larger urban centres often undermines the role of market towns. When the Select Committee visited Thirsk, we saw an increasing preponderance of charity shops in the empty premises vacated by businesses that cannot now earn a living in market towns. Northallerton, the county town of North Yorkshire, is situated in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The town has recently seen the sad closure of two well-known family firms of many years' standing: Dressers, the high street stationers, and the local butchers, which is another excellent shop. Dressers closed after approximately 164 years of service. Those closures demonstrate the problems that market towns continue to suffer--problems with which the measures contained in the rural White Paper do not adequately deal.

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Other problems arise from of the remoteness of rural and coastal communities. Such communities are typified in North Yorkshire. Furthermore, the county has a distinct shortage of appropriate areas for development. It lacks brownfield sites. During its site visit, the Select Committee visited some successful schemes such as the Workhouse at Bellington close on Sutton road in Thirsk, where a brownfield land development site is being successfully converted into affordable housing for private purchase.

During the visit, a plea was made for the urban White Paper to provide clear guidance on the so-called development calculation. I hope that the Minister for the Environment will acknowledge the additional costs involved in the development of brownfield sites. I hope also that he will recognise the impact on those costs of legitimate planning requirements such as affordable housing and the need to enable developers to meet such costs.

I urge the Minister and the Government to consider ensuring that no proposed development should occur on brownfield sites that are on functional flood plains. The Select Committee also visited Todd's yard, which was developed in accordance with exigent Environment Agency criteria as it is situated on a river bank. The development produced social housing on a site that was formerly occupied by a haulier and a builders merchant. Regrettably, after the Committee's visit, the site suffered badly because of the unprecedented weather conditions that caused the recent flooding.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish adequately expressed the point that gap funding has made a positive contribution, through English Partnerships, to North Yorkshire and other parts of the country. It has made a particular contribution to helping developers to develop brownfield sites in urban and rural areas when they would not otherwise have had the means to do that. It is regrettable that the Government seem to be on a collision course with the European Commission about developing gap funding in a revised form, or an alternative to it.

I endorse conclusion k in the Select Committee's report about the urban White Paper. It states:

There are examples of breaches of the greenbelt policy in the Vale of York. One of the most recent examples is the building of a park-and-ride facility at Rawcliffe Barr. A huge area of greenbelt land, which had been tarmacked, contributed to and aggravated the flooding at Rawcliffe, where 170 homes were evacuated. It will be months before people can return to them.

City of York council wants to increase the development by 250 places. That would lead to an extension of the roundabout on the A19 and the inner ring road. That will cause seven months' work until at least August. The Minister probably knows that the development is proposed on what is considered to be a functional flood plain. I ask him to use the proposals in his report on the White Papers and especially in the forthcoming PPG25, which will establish guidelines on developments on flood plains, to stop such developments on functional flood plains.

I want to consider rural policy, especially the role of the market town in serving not only its location but its hinterland. The Government have failed to grasp the nettle

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of rural areas. That is why Labour Members who represent so-called rural areas find themselves in an especially precarious position in the run-up to a general election.

The Select Committee recognised in its conclusion the special role of market towns in providing services, employment and economic development opportunities for rural communities. Lack of services such as transport in very rural areas is a particular problem. In the first year after my election to the Vale of York as its first Member of Parliament, I supported Knayton's application for a rural post bus. As the Minister knows, generous grants are available to run such services. They are administered by North Yorkshire county council in conjunction with the Post Office.

The demographic composition of villages such as Knayton near Thirsk can pose a problem. The working population who do not have their own transport want a bus to take them to work in the morning and bring them home at night. The older population, especially retired people, want to travel to market towns such as Thirsk to do their shopping and return after a light lunch. The younger people want to go to the market town for leisure and entertainment, such as swimming and meeting their friends. They want to return in the evening. Bus services constitute a problem in constituencies such as mine.

The difficulties are compounded by the problem of school buses. We are all familiar with the concept of a catchment area, but, regrettably, some children have to walk to school in Easingwold from the outlying villages because they are not covered by the formula for the distance by which they qualify for a school bus. It is unacceptable to ask children to walk to school through narrow lanes in treacherous winter conditions, especially in view of the recent flooding.

The Government must now accept that they have failed to deliver on their five so-called early pledges. Let me give an example that causes particular difficulties in constituencies such as mine. Class sizes are continuously unacceptably high in primary schools. Just one instance is a school in Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe. The village is delightful, as those who visit it and go up Sutton Bank will know, but the school building is very old. Given that the school--happily, in one sense--is enjoying a rise in school rolls, the facilities are inadequate. If the school hall were enlarged, it could be used as a village hall, and the whole community would benefit. Notwithstanding the extra funds that they have provided, the Government are not going far enough in widening sparsely populated rural areas.

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