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12.44 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I will endeavour to be as brief as the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) was. I agree with a great deal of what he said, and especially his closing remarks about the regeneration of inner cities being more about people than about buildings. I refer him to Newcastle city council's proposal to demolish 6,000 houses in the west end of the city, which has created an outcry among local people. For the first time, the people in that part of Newcastle are beginning to fight for the future of their community. That must be a good thing.

I was reminded, when I saw the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) in the Chamber, of the recommendations of the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs:

In fact, it is well over 170 pages. The report says:

The report also says:

That proved to be a false hope. As we know, the Government did not do that, and the documents were published separately. That is a pity, because what happens in cities has a major impact on what happens in the countryside.

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The amount of building in the countryside depends on the health of the cities and the inner cities. Rural areas such as mine in Northumberland suffer from crime that has been displaced from the cities. Sadly, although ours is the most sparsely populated county in England, we suffer from pollution from neighbouring conurbations. Even on the Cumbrian fells, on six days last year, the ozone level reached UK standards, showing that town and city are dependent on each other.

There are two communities in the countryside: people who have moved there to live but continue to work in the towns and cities, and those who retire there. Unlike the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), who talked of "gentrification" and "geriatrification"--words that I suspect will haunt him in the election campaign--we welcome those people into our communities. Retired people, in particular, make a substantial contribution to the life of rural communities. They serve on parish councils; they make the effort.

Those who move to the countryside because they want a better life are not squeezing children out of village schools--they are putting children into village schools. Without the arrival of those new families, villages would increasingly die.

Mr. Peter Bradley rose--

Mr. Atkinson: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He spoke for more than 42 minutes, during which time three other Members could have spoken. He took an unduly large chunk of time out of what should have been a sensible debate, which means that we all have to truncate our speeches, including the Minister.

The problem lies with the community that works in land-based industries, predominantly agriculture--forestry and quarrying, in my constituency. Those industries have suffered, and the challenge of the White Paper for any Government is how to rebuild that local economy.

The rural White Paper talks about rural "proofing", which is clearly important. If the White Paper circulates anywhere, surely it should circulate in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Time and again what the DETR does with one hand damages something else in rural Britain. For example, my constituency has three large quarries that are substantial employers of people directly and also, indirectly, of people in the haulage industry. Jobs will be lost because of the aggregates tax that will be imposed. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is proposing to create a rural development fund, but half of that will be paid for by removing farmers' grants. The Government say one thing and do another.

The White Paper talks about the importance of access to cars. It says that the vicious circle of no job, no car/no car, no job, is all too familiar to some people living in the countryside. The Government say that they aim to offer more help to individuals who need a car. Why therefore do we have the highest petrol taxes of any country in Europe? That is very damaging.

If we are to make something of this White Paper, we will have to see some product from it. People in the countryside are suffering from initiative fatigue. My local

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council has a member of staff, who is almost full time, to determine where grants can come from. There are so many different schemes that they are completely incomprehensible.

Three key matters need to be addressed in order to revive our important rural economy. First, the profitability of farming must be rebuilt. I shall not trouble the House with a long discourse on how that should be done. In essence, farmers need a fair price for their commodities. Unless they can produce profitably, farming will be damned. They can be helped by various marketing initiatives, but the trouble is that so often, when farmers try to band together to promote a product, they fall foul of the competition authorities--as we saw with Milk Marque. The mass of red tape and regulation that continues to surround farming adds considerably to the costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) welcomed--as do I--the paragraphs in the White Paper stating that the Government would simplify the rules and regulations for abattoirs, especially the small, rural abattoirs that are so essential. However, the document was still hot from the press when we learned of another directive--the introduction of regulations that will change the way in which animals are slaughtered. That will mean expensive re-equipping for small, rural abattoirs and will result in closure for many of them. Regulations introduced by one Department will have completely the opposite effect of proposals made by another Department.

An improvement in education is the second aspect of rebuilding the rural economy. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central touched on that matter. We have some extremely good schools in rural Northumberland, but there are problems of distance when young people go on to further or higher education. Many of the practical courses that are of such value to them are many miles away from people's homes. For example, members of a family living in Haltwhistle in the west of my constituency have to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning to drop two children off with a neighbour, while they drive their 17-year-old son to catch a bus so that he can travel to a college in Ashington in south-east Northumberland--a journey taking several hours each day. Although bursaries are available for accommodation costs for young people, they are seriously limited.

The Government could do much more to make access to such training easier for people living in rural areas. We need additional skills. As has been pointed out, many people used to follow their fathers or grandfathers into agriculture, but those jobs are now closed to them. Better and higher skills are needed in other spheres. It is vital to improve that aspect of education.

My third and final point is on infrastructure. One of the great successes of our Conservative Administration lay in the development corporations. In Newcastle, for example, Tyne and Wear development corporation cleared derelict environments, allowing independent private capital to construct new buildings and give new life to a down-at-heel area. Anyone who visits Newcastle can see the effects in the success of the quayside area.

Development corporations have brought the same results to other parts of the north-east--[Interruption.] I hear some grumbling from the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) who, as a Whip, is unable to speak.

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However, I am sure that even he would admit that the redevelopment of the Newcastle quayside has been particularly successful.

Why cannot we apply the same techniques to rural areas? The problem is that we lack infrastructure in rural areas--especially fibre-optic cable, which will be of huge importance in the future. Fibre-optic cabling is now being installed across the country, but there are no plans for it to reach rural communities--nor is broadband communication likely to reach those areas, as has been mentioned. If we are to develop independent businesses to encourage diversification in the rural economy, they will need the tools to do that.

A third missing element in our rural infrastructure is a simple one--a supply of gas. In 2001, it is extraordinary that the only parts of north-east England that regularly fail air quality tests are country villages--there are certainly three such villages in my constituency. Newcastle now has, after London, some of the cleanest air of any city, yet the air in the country and villages miles from anywhere still fails air quality tests. There is no gas supply, and therefore heating is still largely done by burning coal, which causes pollution.

The estimates for the cost of installing gas mains in those communities are fantastic. It would cost about £3,000 a house in the village of Bellingham and about £600 a house in Haydon Bridge--far beyond local people's ability to pay. If we want to improve the environment of our country villages, we must develop their infrastructure, which includes supplying gas to those communities.

Agriculture is going to change, and it faces great challenges. However, it can rise to the challenge, provided the Government stop making it difficult for that to happen. If any lesson can be learned from the rural White Paper, it is that we have too many inflexible structures. Individual farms and other rural businesses need the freedom to prosper.

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