WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000 _________ Members present: Mr Andrew F Bennett, in the Chair Mr Hilary Benn Mr Crispin Blunt Mr Tom Brake Mr Brian H Donohoe Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody Mrs Louise Ellman Dr Stephen Ladyman Miss Anne McIntosh Mr Bill Olner Mr George Stevenson _________ RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House, (Minister for the Environment), and MR HENRY CLEARY, Divisional Manager, Rural Development Division, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, examined. Chairman 1. Can I welcome you back to the full Committee today. Could I ask you to identify yourself and your colleague for the record, please? (Mr Meacher) Yes, indeed, Chairman. Still, since yesterday, Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment and on my left Henry Cleary, who is Head of the Rural Development Division of the DETR. 2. Now I know you normally do not want to make an opening statement. Do you want to on this occasion? (Mr Meacher) I think opening statements are a way of distracting essentially from your priorities, which I prefer to concentrate on. I will make one sentence though which I think I should perhaps put up front. We intend to publish an implementation plan for the delivery of the White Paper early in the New Year. 3. Can I press you as to what "early in the New Year" is? (Mr Meacher) We did have a lengthy discussion at the beginning on the word "soon" yesterday. 4. I assumed you picked that with care from this lexicon of words. (Mr Meacher) I think you exaggerate my solicitude for terminology. I would hope in January. Is there any reason why we should not? (Mr Cleary) We need to consult with partners. It is going to be shared with a number of partners who are going to implement. (Mr Meacher) It is other departments. Mr Blunt: That is May. Mrs Dunwoody 5. So "soon" is not a very accurate account? (Mr Meacher) I think soon remains pretty accurate. Chairman 6. Your hope is January? (Mr Meacher) My hope is January, yes. Dr Ladyman: He has not said which New Year. Mr Blunt 7. Minister, why does the White Paper assume that a considerable number of "executive homes" will continue to be built in villages? How many new executive homes do you expect to be built in villages over the next 20 years? (Mr Meacher) The thrust of the Rural White Paper is to increase the number of affordable homes that are being built. We propose to double the Housing Corporation Approved Development Programme which will increase the affordable home build from 800 to 1,600 a year. It increases under that Approved Development Programme the percentage of affordable homes from 3.4 to 6.4 per cent. In addition, there is the increase in local authority social housing grants which we estimate will provide, also, something of the order of another thousand a year. We will continue with the Rural Exceptions Policy. We believe, also, that the exercise of existing planning powers should increase something of the order perhaps of another 500 affordable homes, a total of around 3,000 homes. Now, combined with that, there can be some increase in executive homes. I think it will be small. We are drawing attention of local authorities, to the fact that the exercise of planning powers is in their hands. It is perfectly possible in the light of need in their area to have a one for one policy, namely for each market or executive home, if you call it that, there could be one affordable home. 8. Does that not lead then to rather more the incentive to grant planning permission for executive homes? If you are doing one for one then that means every time you put up an executive home, you need one of them to get an affordable home. (Mr Meacher) Against the background where in the past, in the last couple of decades we have sometimes had 25 executive homes for every affordable home, if it is one for one that is a dramatic change in the other direction. We do not believe that in the light of housing deprivation the numbers are very large that need to be met but we believe that a build in small communities of less than 3,000 population, very small communities, doubling the number and getting it to a total of about 3,000, or if you look at all rural districts about 9,000 a year, that will meet the need. In addition, if there is some demand for executive homes, we believe that can be met consistent with our overriding objective for affordable homes. 9. What impact do you expect your proposed house building rates firstly in villages and secondly in market towns to have on outward migration of households from urban to rural areas? (Mr Meacher) The aim is to concentrate the build of affordable homes in market towns. Increasingly, we believe it should be concentrated in market towns. They are intended to be the focus for regeneration, the provider for services within the area. 10. That is what you mean, is it? You say in Chapter 9 of the Rural White Paper that it should be market towns, as you have just said. Of course what you say in Chapter 5 on affordable housing is significant numbers of affordable houses can be built in villages specifically in association with at least as many private houses. Which do you mean? (Mr Meacher) You did not give me a chance to finish my sentence. I am saying that it should increasingly be concentrated in market towns but we do recognise that there is a particular need in some areas for some increase in build in small villages. It would be in small numbers and only compatible with the characterisation of the village. There is some need, some young people growing up, marrying, wanting a house, at the moment not able to buy one. Now we do intend to try and meet that need. 11. If these houses go on being built in the countryside, in the South East of England the Government signed up to these huge numbers in opposition to local authorities and local authorities collectively, surely all you are going to do is continue the motion we have had before, the migration from towns and cities into the countryside? This policy will not stop that, will it? (Mr Meacher) There are several points there, very political issues about this question of build on the countryside. First of all, we are not increasing the build in the countryside at all as a result of the Rural White Paper, we are simply concentrating on a greater proportion of the build being affordable homes. That is the thrust of the paper. You raise also the wider question of what you call, I cannot remember your adjective but extensive build on the countryside in the South East. 12. Concreting over the countryside. (Mr Meacher) We have made repeatedly clear that as a result of using increased density we are not using any more land than under the SERPLAN proposal. There is not, contrary to what you say, an increased concreting over or building on the countryside, that is not the case. The Rural White Paper is not about that more general issue, it is about meeting specific and targeted need in specific areas, mainly in market towns but also in some villages. 13. SERPLAN are only responding to the central government's own figures. It is a complicated negotiation. The local authorities in the South East and so on are just seeing how low they can get this figure to have some form of agreement with you and your Department. These are not the numbers the people in the South East want that SERPLAN represent, so to then say we are going to represent no more land than SERPLAN are allocating, if you are trying to say that represents the views of local people, it does not. You know it does not because you know how the system works. (Mr Meacher) Chairman, this is going rather wider than the Rural White Paper. I am perfectly prepared to go down this avenue but I think this is a broader issue. The fact is the Government is required - all governments are required - to take account of the demographic demand for new house build. That is a figure which is regularly updated every five years. Once we have that figure, and we try to make it as reliable as possible, we then have to allocate that across different regions of the country and through local authorities or through regional planning guidance. That is exactly what we have done. The fact is there is a demand for new housing and one cannot get away from that. There are changes in demographic structures, more elderly people, more young people preferring to live alone for longer periods before they may marry or live together. The fact is there are more refugees from marriages. All of those are true and they increase the demand for housing. 14. There are not more people. It would seem rather sensible to look at some of the social issues which underlie that in order to address the household arrangements. How will you ensure that the affordable homes, the executive homes and everything else are going to be primarily for people from that region, from the countryside, rather than at the end incomers perhaps who may buy them and be the second owners of those homes? (Mr Meacher) Yes. This is, of course, a matter primarily for local authorities. They are building in response to evidence of local need. The properties are intended for people who have lived in the area for a long time and who can demonstrate that. With regard to the right to buy, of course, which has in the past substantially reduced the availability of affordable homes, we have new rules now which require a right to buy which is not restricted. We are not proposing to restrict it in rural areas but the right to resell is restricted in the sense that it has to go back to the local authorities and registered social landlord within ten years or if it is being sold on after that period it has to go to someone who has lived and worked in the area for at least three years. The main point is we are building more houses. The pressure, the reduction in the availability of affordable homes, was mainly because of the effect of very little build over the last decade, in conjunction with the cumulative impact of the right to buy. Chairman 15. Can I just ask you, are you sure you are not pressing for more executive homes to pay for the social housing? (Mr Meacher) No, we are not doing that. I think there is a demand for executive homes. I think many people would like to live in the countryside. Although we are trying to address that by reducing that demand by making living in urban areas more attractive. Of course the whole of the Urban White Paper is about trying to produce the conditions: better quality services, better transport, less crime. Now these things are not easy to deliver, as we all know, but the intention is to improve quality in urban areas to reduce the flight to the countryside. Mr Olner 16. On farm diversification, Minister, are you happy that the planning system that you are going to put in is robust enough or are we just playing with minor tweaks at it? (Mr Meacher) This is a major issue. There is no doubt that the interface between the planning system and the farming community has not always worked well in the past. We have looked at this very carefully. Nick Raynsford, my colleague, has certainly discussed this. He has had major meetings with the various stakeholders. The general view which we share is that it is not the planning system as such which has to bring together conflicting interests which is always difficult to reconcile but it is the manner in which it is managed and delivered which is at fault. First of all, the planning system often appears unduly rigid and bureaucratic. Chairman 17. But is that not always the case? If you do not get what you want it is rigid and bureaucratic, if it gives you what you want it is nice and flexible? (Mr Meacher) That is true. That does influence perceptions, of course. The point I am making is that even when you are saying no to someone, which you have to do, for good reasons that are set down, there are ways of doing it. You either just say "no" in a forbidding and prohibitive manner or you say "Well, we cannot provide what you want in that location for these reasons but have you actually thought about alternatives at another location or in a different way or modified in a certain way which if you were to look at we might be able to take a different view?". That is a much more consumer friendly planning system. I think on the other side, farmers who are notoriously rugged and individualistic people who do not brook much interference with what is a pretty tough life for them and do not easily react to officialdom, I think we can do more to assess them, either for the small business service providing more assistance, perhaps someone to hold their hand, if you like, in their relations with the planning system. Mr Olner 18. Is not the planning system a soft target in the Rural White Paper? We are looking at the Rural White Paper to give more financial assistance and advice and training to farmers. (Mr Meacher) I am not sure the problem with the planning system is a question of money. We are looking at the question of agricultural permitted development rights, but only after discussion with the interested parties, and now is not the best time in view of the state of the agricultural community. We are proposing to update planning guidance. If there is a need for more financial support in this area I think we will look at it. I do not think that is the real problem, it is a relational issue and the manner in which farmers, when they need to diversify, perfectly properly, we are encouraging them to do so. 19. How do we measure the environmental impact of some of these changes within the farming community, Minister? (Mr Meacher) That, of course, is exactly what the duty of planning officers is to do. The planning department does have to look at farm diversification because we are issuing new planning guidance to encourage more farm diversification but in a manner which does not undermine the basic character of the countryside. You can only make that judgment on the merits of each case. It is a judgment which can be made, I think. 20. Surely you accept that rural areas could easily and very quickly be spoilt if inappropriate industry is allowed to develop in the countryside, particularly on farmers' land? (Mr Meacher) Absolutely. We are not suggesting a major factory should suddenly spring up around the countryside, it has to be compatible with the general character of the countryside, that is absolutely right. That is why planning departments do have to say no. Some proposals are, frankly, unacceptable. As I say, it is the manner in which you say it. If you explain to the applicant, to the potential developer, to the farmer, as to why it is not appropriate, what are the limitations of acceptability, try to get him to understand, hopefully he will look at alternatives. 21. Having seen in the past some agricultural workers' residencies built as executive homes, as Crispin was talking about earlier, when we build these executive homes in the countryside should we not be laying rules down as to where these executives work? Certainly with agricultural workers' residencies there were strict regulations that they were for agricultural workers only. Should we not be looking at strengthening that on the question of executive homes? (Mr Meacher) My understanding is that planning departments would look at the location of a proposed executive home. You could not suddenly turn a barn out in a field into a massive new executive home. I imagine in almost all cases that would be turned down, that is not an appropriate development. Mr Donohoe 22. There are a number of reports of fairly major programmes on road bypasses. Can you just confirm, I know in the White Paper it says something like a billion pounds over the next three years, is that a figure which you would suggest is accurate? (Mr Meacher) It is part of the ten year transport plan. We do anticipate, I think, about 50 rural bypasses. 23. Over the period of ten years? (Mr Meacher) Yes. 24. But over the next three years is that expenditure in the order of a billion pounds? (Mr Meacher) A billion pounds? I thought it was over ten, but correct me if I am wrong. 25. The White Paper states that you are allocating a billion pounds over the next three years on rural programmes. (Mr Meacher) If the Rural White Paper says it, it must be right. 26. You agree with that then? (Mr Meacher) Yes, I do. 27. That is a step in the right direction, is it not? (Mr Meacher) Yes. 28. Can I just ask in connection with the situation of bypasses, I have visited a number of bypasses recently built and there are a number of issues, not least the environmental impact that they are making. Just what are you taking into account as far as that situation is concerned? (Mr Meacher) All new roads, including rural bypasses, are subject to the Government's new approach to appraisal which includes the five headings: safety, environment, which is the point that you have just raised, economy, integration, and one that I cannot recall. Those five tests have to be applied and they have to pass on each of those tests before the road can go ahead. There is no question that there would be a presumption against any new road development which in any significant way adversely affected environmentally sensitive sites. 29. You are going to lay down, are you, specifications for the type of surface on these roads as well as everything else? Some of these roads are built of concrete which is absolutely unbelievably noisy. They will be laid down as well as everything else as far as conditions are concerned. You will also create a situation where if a bypass needs to be built near to a home, say within half a mile of that home, automatically they will be given grants to double glaze and triple glaze their properties, will they? (Mr Meacher) On the question of road noise, we are proposing, if I recall, 60 per cent of trunk roads will be resurfaced over the next ten years with, I think in most cases, low noise porous asphalt. With regard to double glazing where people are living within a certain distance of, say, roads which have a concrete surface, I think those are normally granted. I cannot remember the conditions, whether it is automatic. Certainly on the basis of application and certainly within half a mile, depending again on the contours of the land, I would expect grants for double glazing to be given. If you want a further note I would be glad to give it. Chairman 30. Can I take you back to this question about industry development in rural areas. How do you get over the problem that very often you start with a small industry development which is perfectly appropriate for the rural scene but then it starts to get bigger and bigger? (Mr Meacher) You are raising a question of whether further planning permission is required if it is going to be turned from an acceptable small development into a possibly unacceptable large development. Again, I think it is true that - I am trying to think of the rules - there is no requirement for new planning permission for larger development or, indeed, for change of use. (Mr Cleary) I think we come here to one of the objectives of the White Paper which is to strike a balance between the need to achieve the level of business activity which will support rural communities, whether it is in market towns or on farms and, as you say, development which is contrary to the character of either the town or the open countryside. What the White Paper does is to illustrate some of the ways in which that balance will be achieved. Part of it is in relation to agricultural diversification, as we have heard already, part of it is in relation to market towns. For example, one of the changes which is heralded in the White Paper, is the changes to PPG13 which will aim to strike a balance between, for example, the demands that transport places on the rural infrastructure and the need to ensure healthy growth in towns but also in farms, which increasingly are going to have to diversify in order to survive as viable units. (Mr Meacher) The question, I think, Chairman, if I can say it is if you have a small development which has been approved how do we prevent it growing into a larger one which is unacceptable? I am not absolutely certain of the answer to that since I am not the planning minister. (Mr Cleary) I think the answer to that is that if you are on a farm, for example, if you want to change use from agriculture into an alternative use you must apply for planning permission. 31. I understand that. (Mr Cleary) Part of that planning permission is actually setting limits. Mrs Dunwoody 32. The difficulty about that, I mean I have an instance, is that farmers are caught in this Catch 22 situation. If they try to diversify and they attract a certain amount of support then they are in danger of tipping over into a real industrial development and they become very unpopular not only with their neighbours but with everybody else. Certainly I have one unit which has consistently grown and it is right out in the countryside and it is now very specifically industrial development. Frankly no-one has put workable limits on that, so every time planning permission is refused they simply appeal and get it on the grounds that if someone else has done it so should they. (Mr Meacher) It is the case that original planning applications, if approved, are subject to certain limits. Chairman 33. I understand the limit but the problem is that a firm sets up in an area, it employs perhaps 20 people locally, then there is the opportunity to expand to employ 40 people. (Mr Meacher) Yes. 34. The pressure on the local authority is very considerable. They say "if you turn it down and we cannot have permission to go up to 40 we will move away to somewhere else and you will lose the 20 local jobs". The temptation is to allow it to grow and to grow. In fact, most of our big companies in this country started off as small ones. (Mr Meacher) Yes, I do understand that, but it is also the case that if there is a limit on the size of the development which is approved, you cannot go over that without putting the matter back to the planning department. 35. I understand that. Can I take you on to the rural enterprise scheme and the small business advice service. How far do they really give people advice and are they good at giving advice on what is an appropriate development on a farm to avoid these sort of problems coming along? (Mr Meacher) We are proposing, as I did say, to issue new planning guidance precisely to show how we are proposing to ease the problem of farm diversification but also to show the limits within which it will be allowed, namely that there is a need to maintain the basic character of the countryside. Dr Ladyman 36. I would like to explore some issues about wildlife and habitat, if I may, Minister. We have seen a lot of habitat lost, we have seen intensive farming and as a consequence we have lost a lot of bird species. How are you going to go about reversing the decline in farmland birds? (Mr Meacher) I am glad to say that we have begun to have some success and these things are long term, so I am not saying it is all this Government. I do think some of the proposals that we have put in place in the last few years are beginning to have an effect. In the last headline indicator on farmland bird population, I was able to announce that there has been a four to five per cent increase in bird populations, including some rare species like the Red Kite and the White Tailed Eagle, which is the first time we have been able to announce that. The basic causes are, I think, very widespread, basically to do with the intensification of agriculture over the last 50 years, changes from spring to autumn sowing which reduces stubble rich fields for birds because it is not available during the winter, the reduction in field margins, the extensive reduction of hedgerows and, over the last 50 years again, there is evidence that appears to have been arrested in the course of the 1990s and is gradually now increasing. It is a matter of addressing those basic causes. We are taking powers, and have taken powers, in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, as it now is, to protect wildlife in sites of special scientific interest. We have given statutory underpinning to biodiversity action plans for the first time. We have laid an obligation on Government departments and local authorities to take account of biodiversity in planning their policies. This is, I think, a collection of policies which is more extensive and goes further than ever before. I appreciate there is still a problem, I think we have turned the bottom but we have a long way to go up. 37. The Government has decided not to go down the route of a pesticide tax. We know the agri-environment payments will cover a minority of parkland areas. Is that something that you regret? Is it something you will look at again? (Mr Meacher) On agri-environment we have, as you know - Nick Brown did make an announcement about a year ago, I think, as I am sure you are all aware - the England Rural Development Programme, the switch from the production of subsidies to agri-environment schemes amounting to œ1.6 billion over seven years, so that is very considerable. Chairman 38. It is not that considerable, is it, compared with the whole of the expenditure on the CAP? (Mr Meacher) That is perfectly correct. The amount which is paid to this country in CAP terms is about œ2« billion a year and the proportion of switch increases from two and a half per cent to four and a half per cent over those seven years. I do understand, and I think the Minister of Agriculture would also agree, that we do need to go further. The point is modulation, as it is technically called, does produce substantial gainers and losers at a time when farm incomes are extremely low and in some cases still going down. It is very difficult to get a greater switch at this time. We do need to go further, I agree. On the pesticides issue, Government's clear position is that we want to reduce the adverse environmental impacts from excess pesticide use. The question is whether that is done through taxation or whether it is done through a voluntary approach. We have not excluded at some point the possibility of a tax if the voluntary approach does not produce the necessary result. We have been in touch with the British Agri Chemical Association - it is now I think the Crop Protection Association - who are, of course, opposed to the tax and asked them to produce their proposals on a voluntary basis to achieve that objective. I think it is fair to say that their first set of proposals were rather feeble, that is certainly my view. They consulted the relevant interests who took a similar view. They then produced a further set of proposals which we are currently examining which are better, but in my view still not adequate. As the Chancellor indicated in the Pre-Budget Report last month, we are having very serious discussions with them in the context of the period leading up to the Budget. That is as far as I can take it. Chairman: It is fairly blunt. Dr Ladyman 39. The Government has responsibilities under the Common Rules Regulations to try and focus more of our agricultural subsidies on environmental protection. Are you confident that you are going to be able to fulfil your requirements? Have you drawn any conclusions on how you will move that in the right direction? (Mr Meacher) This does come back to the intention to make this switch to support the Rural Development Programme which I have already referred to. Others may take the view it is still not adequate. It is a watershed in my view. It is a very significant switch, a significant switch in the direction of CAP funds away from production subsidies to the whole area issue of agri- environment, as I say, œ1.6 billion over seven years. We would like to build on that but it does involve significant redistribution of subsidies which would otherwise go to farmers. I repeat there are substantial gainers and losers. Chairman 40. Are not most of the gainers those who are small hill farmers in the parts of the countryside where landscape is most important to protect? (Mr Meacher) I think it is the losers, of course, who are going to be the ones who complain most bitterly. As we know, politically the gainers tend to say little and just pocket the proceeds. Mrs Dunwoody 41. That is hardly unusual in politics, is it, Minister, not necessarily restricted to the environment and agriculture? (Mr Meacher) Absolutely, Mrs Dunwoody. I would say that it is universal. It is a fact of life that we have to take into account. Dr Ladyman 42. Surely any form of social engineering requires there to be winners and losers otherwise it would not be social engineering? (Mr Meacher) That is true, but what I am saying is that some poorer farmers are going to lose out as a result of this. It is for Ministry of Agriculture ministers to determine how far they can press this at this time. I do believe they want to take this further as soon as they can. It did cause considerable unrest. Nick Brown did not increase his popularity in general by doing this. I think it was a brave act, I think it was right, but we do have to take account of the politics of all this. 43. Can I bring you to the question of best and most versatile land? (Mr Meacher) Yes. 44. It is implied, I think, that might not always be the most critical point when considering how to develop in rural areas. If best and most versatile land is not going to be the most critical factor in deciding on development, what is? How are we going to control it? (Mr Meacher) What we have said is that whilst it was the case in the aftermath of war that the nation was, understandably, overwhelmingly concerned about the security of its food supply and best and most versatile land was therefore reserved, unquestionably, for agricultural use. Now, 50 years on, when there is over-capacity and those issues no longer apply with the same intensity at all, and other issues like the quality of the environment have come much more to the fore, it does make sense to reduce the rigidities of the previous process and to allow best and most versatile land in appropriate cases to be considered for other uses. Now that does not mean, I underline six times, there is suddenly going to be a massive sale of prime agricultural land in the South East for development all over the place. I am sorry that some Members of the Committee who might be thinking that are not here. I hope they read this. This is not the intention. I do not expect this to happen to any significant degree. The planning rules, of course, still have to be met and the planners, I am quite sure, will not allow this process of building on prime agricultural land to proceed to any significant degree. It is just removing the rigidity is what is the aim. If you do preserve best and most versatile land purely for agriculture, it does mean the development will then take place, perhaps, on land which is environmentally very sensitive. We do need to take account of that balance, that is all we are trying to do. 45. What about wildlife protection and protecting wildlife habitats, how is that going to be given an appropriate level of priority? (Mr Meacher) I think the Countryside and Rights of Way Act certainly does that for all the reasons I said in answer to your earlier question. There are much greater protections for sites of special scientific interest. There is greater protection of wildlife at local sites outside SSSIs and there is this statutory underpinning which we were pressed to deliver, and did deliver, in regard to biodiversity action plans. The main problem now I think is not the powers, it is the availability of personnel to deliver those plans on the ground and inevitably probably more money. The one other aspect of this which we have brought into play is the National Biodiversity Network which is a computerisation of data which is collected on the ground so that anyone, once it is up and running - we will put a quarter of a million into it this year and it will be half a million next year - on the ground who wants to know the incidence of species in any part of the country should be able to get it at the flick of a switch. 46. One of the things that concerns me is that soil quality and soil development is something which is pretty poorly understood at the best of times. How are we going to protect the soil quality in all this? (Mr Meacher) That is another very good question. I have been looking for some time at not just one but more than one draft of the soil strategy which has been delivered to me by my own officials and those from MAFF. I have not been satisfied with it and I have asked for some significant changes. I recognise that after the Royal Commission Report on soils we do need to come forward with a strategy. We intend to do so and I hope, dare I say, Chairman, shortly. Chairman 47. I will not ask you when. (Mr Meacher) On this occasion, I am not able to say when because this is an issue of some contention within the Department, but let me be on the safe side and say within the next three months we will publish a consultation paper on soil strategy. Dr Ladyman 48. A final question then. In the study which in the West we call ecology, in the old days, certainly in Russia, they used to call bio-geo- scenicology - I will explain the etymology of it later - the reason being that they understood the importance of geology on the formation of soil as well as the importance of wildlife on the development of soil, they saw the whole ecological niche from geology through to wildlife. It is a very, very complex understanding of the way habitats develop. How are you going to reflect that sort of complexity in decisions about development on the land which we now call the best and most versatile land? Given that I do not know of a single local authority that employs an ecologist, how are we going to make sure that planning bodies are actually taking informed decisions in these very complicated areas? (Mr Meacher) When I go to public meetings and someone asks me a question like that I immediately assume that they know far more about the subject than I do and I immediately invite them to write to me because they are asking a question of which they have a very clear idea of the answer and almost certainly I do not. That exactly applies on this occasion. I have not given thought, I am not sure whether the Department has given thought, to this question of the relationship between ecology and habitats. Chairman 49. Would you like to give it some thought and perhaps send a note? (Mr Meacher) Henry, do you want to say something? (Mr Cleary) It may help the Committee if I say there are a number of techniques which are being trialled and explored by some very innovative authorities. We mentioned some of those in the White Paper, whether it is countryside character or environmental character. One of the features of the new regime, as the Minister said, which is after all to develop a more holistic approach in relation to landscape, is that we will be issuing best practice guidance on the way in which you take account of the environmental value in all its diversities you have mentioned, and the countryside character so that people can take a more integrated approach to planning decisions in the new order following the changes on BMV. (Mr Meacher) However, I think it would be a very good idea if we did give further thought to this and gave you a written response in the light of further consideration. Dr Ladyman 50. Can I just ask you to consider one element in this. They used to be called town and country planners, I notice more and more these days they are just called town planners. Maybe one of the things in the guidance should be that an ecologist be employed by local authorities. There should be a country planner on every local authority that has to make these sorts of decisions. (Mr Meacher) I am not sure if, Dr Ladyman, you were an ecologist before you came here or whether you are just speaking on behalf of others but we will take that on board. We have noted it. Miss McIntosh 51. Minister, in the White Paper on page seven you have announced œ37 million to strengthen market town generation. Then you go on to say through a œ100 million programme in 100 towns. Is it œ37 million or œ100 million? (Mr Meacher) œ37 million is the input which Government is proposing under this White Paper. We are saying if you add in partnership funds which are complimentary and have a similar purpose it is about œ100 million extra in the package and it would apply in the first instance to about 100 market towns. I think there are about 800/900 market towns. (Mr Cleary) A thousand. (Mr Meacher) A thousand, yes, within the general definition of market towns. This is the first tranche. 52. Are you proposing to spend those additional funds purely in market towns? What proportion will be spent in market towns? A lot of the partnership money is the RDA funds? (Mr Meacher) Yes. 53. Which presumably will be meant to be spent in the hinterland rather than the market town itself? (Mr Meacher) Indeed. The proposal is that it would be used for such purposes as restoring high streets, improving local amenities, providing new work spaces, access to training, better transport links, etc. You talked about RDAs. We are proposing, also, as part of this initiative, and this comes from I think the American concept of charettes, that there should be consultation with local leaders and local people involving outside experts and the drawing up of plans by consultation between all the relevant parties as to how the role of the market town could be better developed as a focus for regeneration and as a provider of services, not just for the market town but for the hinterland. Action programmes would then be drawn up and RDA money would be used in conjunction with money from local companies, if we can lever that in, and also from European and Lottery sources. 54. Effectively, if I have grasped it, only 100 towns will be helped? (Mr Meacher) In the first instance. 55. There will be 900 who do not receive anything? (Mr Meacher) In the first instance. Chairman: You want to ask if Thirsk is one of them. Miss McIntosh 56. None of my market towns benefit. I just wonder if it is Labour held seats which benefit, just being a complete cynic. Can I just ask, you have mentioned the European Regional Development Fund and also the Government's Single Regeneration Budget and also the Rural Development Fund, now my concern is I know North Yorkshire does have access to a sizeable amount of farms but the farming community in particular seem bedazzled as to who they should apply to. What information are you putting out as to who should apply to which agency for which fund? (Mr Meacher) Can I take up firstly your point, slightly pejorative, that it is only 100, what about the other 800 or 900? I do repeat that this is in the first instance. I think it is sensible for public bodies and Government, or indeed private bodies, when you are looking at a major new initiative to have a test run, see if it works, learn the lessons before moving on. Certainly if it does work, and we expect it will in the light of American and other experience, then we would certainly wish to expand it further. We are selecting the towns initially on the basis of their potential as a focus for growth and as a service centre. On your question of where you get information, well that should, of course, come from the local authority, also from websites. I do not know how many of your North Yorkshire farmers are on-line but certainly a lot of this information is provided on-line. Do you want to add to that, Henry? (Mr Cleary) Only to say, increasingly, as you say, the providers of support funds, whether it is coming through the England Rural Development Programme, which is obviously a growing area of support particularly in farming, or from the RDAs, are working together in providing information. It is going to take time to get that to happen right across the piece. You have got a large number of funds targeting these areas. As you say, the RDAs are spending something in the order of 90/100 million in rural areas generally, even before the market town initiative, and that will continue. The provision of advice increasingly will be integrated between the major rural agencies, whether it is MAFF operating the RDP, or the RDAs, or the Countryside Agency advising people on programmes that they run. (Mr Meacher) This is excellent for officialdom in Whitehall. I think the question, which I have some sympathy with, is how does the farmer in an outlying area of North Yorkshire know about this and how do we get that information to such people better? (Mr Cleary) Can I just give two illustrations from the Rural White Paper. Both of these are areas which fall under the MAFF responsibility. One is the Farm Business Advisory Service which has just been set up which offers three days of free business advice to farmers who are looking at business development. Secondly, MAFF have also announced the Rural Portal Initiative which is an integrated website which will give access to all sources of support and assistance to farmers. That is currently the subject of a feasibility study but it is intended to roll out and apply right across the rural spectrum. 57. Can I ask about PPG13 and when it might finally be adopted? Will it ensure that appropriate services are located in the centre of market towns rather than on the outskirts? As you will be aware, towns like Thirsk, Boroughbridge and Easingwold have a problem with the increasing use of charity shops which are filling vacancies where a lower business rate applies, or no business rate applies. Will that be addressed by the PPG? (Mr Meacher) On PPG13, I know it has taken some time --- Chairman 58. Can you just confirm that there is not a Treasury veto on it? (Mr Meacher) There is not a Treasury veto on it. As is often the case there are discussions, to put it politely, between departments about some of the details. There is not a Treasury veto. The aim of PPG13 on transport is to implement the policy to make market towns the focus of development and, therefore, the intention is to concentrate, as I said, not just housing but other kinds of development on market towns. And as well to ensure that new employment opportunities are not ruled out simply because they are in less accessible locations. On your point about charity shops, again I am not the Minister responsible for PPGs, again it is Nick Raynsford, I am not sure whether they are dealt with specifically in PPG13 and I suggest we perhaps give you a note on that. 59. Can I turn to the main problem in the countryside which is the collapse of farm incomes. A conservative estimate is that probably over the course of this Government 50,000 farmers will have gone out of making a living in farming. Does this concern the Government and what are you proposing to do about it? (Mr Meacher) It massively concerns us, as I think we have made abundantly clear. There is a very, very deep and profound crisis in farming. It did not begin under this Government, and I think we should be very careful not to be party political about this. There was a growth in farm income, a substantial growth in 1995, and an almost equivalent reduction in incomes on average between 1995 and the present day. It is very severe. It is also, for reasons that go much wider than national policy, largely to do with overcapacity, low prices for farm products across the world and, therefore, level of imports. We are trying to address it, as I am sure Miss McIntosh does know very well, firstly by the Prime Minister's Action Plan for Farming, which was announced in March, an immediate œ200 million which was designed to tide over farmers until the effect of the Rural Development Programme begins to come through over the current couple of years. We have added to that a new Framework for Farming, another œ300 million, and that of course is in addition to the CAP benefits of œ2.5 billion. I recognise that is not solving the problem, there are large numbers of people who continue to lose their jobs. We are doing whatever we can to tide over those who can remain on the land by giving immediate financial assistance, by expanding for some of the poorest farmers, those who live and work in the hills, agri-environment scheme payments, countryside stewardship, environmentally sensitive area payments, all of these are being increased, as well as an expansion, for example, of funding for organic conversion, for the growing of energy crops. These are small measures but collectively I think can make some difference. I think it is quite wrong, and I am not suggesting that you were suggesting otherwise, to suggest that the Government is able to wave a wand and resolve a crisis which is very deep and has extremely deep roots, most of which stretch well beyond this country. Miss McIntosh: As long as we are going to have the same approach to farming that we take to the motoring industry I think I would agree. Mr Olner: What? Miss McIntosh: The biggest way to encourage farmers to farm in an environmental way --- Mrs Dunwoody: I think it is called capitalism. Miss McIntosh 60. ---- is to have a tranche of CAP reform which is going to have to happen before enlargement. When does the Government envisage that the next round of CAP reform will take place? (Mr Meacher) Agenda 2000 was the proposals for major CAP reform which, again, you will know well, the Government was very disappointed with. We did not get the depth or extent of change in CAP subsidies that we wanted. There was virtually no agreement - to use an ugly CAP word - of degressivity on production subsidies. We want to return to this issue as soon as we can. I repeat, we are only now past what was intended to be a major change of direction. It fizzled out and there were rather little changes, for the very simple reason that some of the big countries, like France and Germany as well as several of the smaller ones, were adamant that they were not prepared to change. I think the UK and Sweden have been in the lead on this, we will continue to be in the lead. It is a bipartisan policy also within the UK. We need further and massive change in the CAP and we will return to this as soon as we can. Mr Olner 61. You mentioned the multitude of schemes for assistance to farmers and what have you in reply to Miss McIntosh's question. One of the difficulties is getting farmers to understand all of those, which is the scheme they may get help and assistance on. In your mind, is there a differentiation between the big farmer and the small farmer? The big farmers are well managed, they know where all the pots of money are but very often the small farmers do not. (Mr Meacher) That is perfectly true. My colleague here, Henry Cleary, did indicate the sources of information and those are new and important. It is true that, for example, we are consulting on relief on further rural diversification grants. Making sure that small farmers get information about that is crucial. It is difficult to ensure unless MAFF is prepared to send out the details to every farmer on their books and that is an expensive and time-consuming bureaucratic exercise. It is very important that we communicate to the smallest farmers, you are quite right. Chairman 62. I am worried about the time, so some fairly short answers, please. The Haskins Report, Environmental Regulation and Farmers, you put that in the wastepaper bin, did you not? (Mr Meacher) I am sorry, what is the question? 63. The Haskins Report you have put in the wastepaper bin, have you not? (Mr Meacher) When can we get a response? 64. No, you have put in the wastepaper bin. (Mr Meacher) Oh, I am sorry. Absolutely not. We shall be responding to this formally next month, I think I can make a commitment on that. We have already raised the question of pesticides and there was also a question of hedgerows but there were other recommendations. We regard it as a useful, important report which made clear that contrary to the views of many there is not gold plating of environmental regulation, there are good reasons behind environmental regulation, but if it can be reduced while still achieving the effective purpose it will be. 65. So you have not put the report in the wastepaper bin, he has persuaded you to put your proposals on hedgerows in the wastepaper bin? (Mr Meacher) No, he certainly has not. The position, briefly, on hedgerows is that I came in ---- 66. You promised this Committee two years ago that there would be some urgent action on hedgerows. (Mr Meacher) You are quite right, and I am embarrassed by the delay, let me put that on the record. I did say soon after coming into office that the hedgerow regulations which we inherited from the last government were wholly inadequate in my view and that we would review them. We did review them, particularly in two respects: one, the notification period which was previously 28 days before action could be taken that we thought too short; secondly, as to what was meant by an important hedgerow, one that merited being preserved. There has been, and this is a major reason for the delay, not surprisingly, a substantial difference of view between the farming community and the conservation community and the NGOs as to what is an important hedgerow, in particular as to how to handle the whole concept of landscape. I think we have now resolved that. There was the proposal which Haskins was recommending that there should be discretion to local authorities about handling this, but on the basis of an increasing number of hedges to be covered. There has been one further element in this issue which is the Countryside Survey 2000 which I published a couple of weeks ago. We are having a further look at the criteria in the light of that latest information which it has taken years to collect. I repeat that I am very keen to produce - you have heard this before - revised hedgerow regulations and I think I should say it is still probably a few months away but it will be in the first half of next year, whether or not before an election, if one were to occur. Mr Benn 67. Could we turn to supermarkets? (Mr Meacher) Gladly. Mrs Dunwoody: He is not embarrassed about supermarkets. Mr Benn 68. Why did the White Paper not propose any measures to require supermarkets - not encourage but require supermarkets - to take local sourcing of products more seriously? (Mr Meacher) This is a fundamental political question. There is a question how far Government should intervene in the operation of the market. After all, if local people are using a supermarket and they believe there is benefit to them from using a supermarket on the basis of which it runs, one has to be on very sure ground to try to reduce that. The question you have asked is slightly different, which is about local sourcing. We are trying to achieve that. The Ministry of Agriculture and the organisation called Food for Britain, I think it is called, are encouraging - which I know is not the word you used - supermarkets to introduce regional sourcing. We do say something about this in chapter eight of the Rural White Paper which is about local sourcing, it is about help for small abattoirs, which has not been mentioned this year, and improved marketing for local produce. The question is whether you should require it, whether that is an intervention in the normal operation of the market which goes too far. You have to ask the question whether the local produce that you want is available locally, and whether that can be determined by regulation is difficult. 69. Clearly there are environmental consequences to food buyers, which is partly what we are talking about here. Why do you not consider giving local authorities the power to make that a requirement of granting planning permission, subject clearly to negotiation with developers about precisely what that might mean in a particular context? In other words, it would not be a national requirement, it would be a permission for a local authority to take that on board in deciding whether to give planning permission. (Mr Meacher) Presumably the planning permission would be that as far as practicable the requirement would be that the supermarket should source locally, subject to the range of produce you wish to sell and the availability of that produce whatever is meant by locally, within a certain distance. That is, of course, still open to any local authority to do. It is really a matter for local authorities to determine. Whether Government should by dictat set that down centrally is more questionable. We are keen to see this happen. Certainly we would support local authorities which use their powers to secure that objective. There has been a reference to the Competition Commission about supermarkets taking advantage of suppliers and small rural retailers and, again, the Competition Commission has proposed a Code of Practice which is binding on supermarkets, which goes some way, I think, in your direction. 70. If one takes the specific example of apples, one can go into a lot of supermarkets and I am sure Members can recite a number of brands that are likely to be found: Cox, Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, which is a bit of a misnomer as in my experience it is neither golden nor particularly tasty. If one takes that as a practical example, one can have a very wide range of apple varieties but actually a minute proportion gets through to consumers. Is that not a practical area where if you happen to be a supermarket within, I do not know, Kent, there would be a case for the local authority saying only local produce where it can be achieved? (Mr Meacher) I think there is a case for that. Of course, we are talking about new approvals. I am perfectly happy to consider that further. As I say, there is nothing to stop local authorities doing that already, the question is whether Central Government should prompt them to use their powers more than they are already entitled to do. Chairman 71. Tourist tax, what is happening about it? (Mr Meacher) There has been a proposal about a voluntary tourism charge or payback scheme in order to enable hotels, guesthouses and other tourism development businesses to receive payment for the purposes of conserving the environment on which, indeed, their business depends. We are in favour of that, we would like to see it expanded. If one is talking about a tax, those who are in the tourism business are opposed, even though it could work to their gain, because they think it could have a competitive disadvantage to tourism in this country and I think we have to take account of their views. 72. But tourists do cost quite a lot of money to rural areas, do they not? (Mr Meacher) Yes, that is indeed the justification for imposing some charge and in encouraging it, but it is a question as to whether one, again, should require it as mandatory. 73. You just want it as voluntary? (Mr Meacher) We believe that is the best way of getting the balance between a charge being put in place in many cases without disadvantaging the industry, which would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. 74. Council Tax on second homes, this is put off until after the election, is that it? (Mr Meacher) No, it is not put off until after the election, whenever that might be. The intention is to move as quickly as we can on several items within the Rural White Paper. As I say, we shall publish an implementation plan early in the new year. It does require primary legislation to do this and, therefore, it does require a parliamentary slot. If it is possible to get one in this next year we will proceed. We are not dragging our feet in any way at all. 75. Why are you leaving discretion for local authorities? (Mr Meacher) Because some local authorities - and we are thinking not just about rural areas, we are thinking about Westminster and Chelsea, for example - would choose not to exercise that. Therefore, it is an issue which goes rather wider than rural regeneration. We are motivated also by the precedent which already exists in Wales, where the option was given to local authorities and all but two took it up. Again, we think it better that it can be done on the basis of local discretion rather than enforced from above. Mrs Ellman 76. How many shops will benefit from rate relief? (Mr Meacher) From the increased rate relief? 77. Yes. (Mr Meacher) The existing rules were that there was 50 per cent mandatory relief in respect of a sole shop or post office in a settlement with a population under 3,000. We have now increased the threshold for mandatory relief from 5,000 to 6,000 and for discretionary relief from 10,000 to 12,000. That is in line with the revaluation of all non-domestic properties. We are not consulting about extending it to food shops, to garages and to pubs. That again will require primary legislation. When you say what is the extra number, I cannot give an immediate figure. (Mr Cleary) It is likely to be several thousand. It depends on precisely where you set the limits. If we think in terms of the number of settlements of that size, each of them may have one or two extra food shops that will benefit, some of them may have the garage, many of them will have perhaps one or two pubs. It is in the order of thousands. We cannot be precise until we have actually got a specific proposal following consultation. 78. Is there going to be an assessment of the viability of those shops? How many of them would be viable even with the rate relief you are thinking about? (Mr Meacher) If currently they are operating viable entities then we would not do an analysis of their long-term commercial viabilities. As I say, if they are operating at the present moment commercially, as long as they fall within the parameters, we would regard that as justification for extending the relief. 79. Do you have any proposals on encouraging local people to use local shops? (Mr Meacher) We hope that the whole thrust of the White Paper is going to lead to increased economic viability in these small settlements and in market towns. It is not through any single measure but it is the collection of measures in terms of more homes, better transport links, improved amenities, use of post offices as access to Government services. It is the combined effect of all of these that I think will increase the viability of these areas and, hence, automatically the use of these basic services. 80. Do you have any idea of how much time will be involved in seeing this change before shops have actually gone out of business? (Mr Meacher) How much more time? 81. How much more time will it take for the impact of the changes that you have described to take place? (Mr Meacher) That is very difficult to answer. How long is a piece of string? This is a gradual process which is not completing at one point, it is a momentum and it is an even process. I would certainly hope that in the next two or three years one is going to see a change of tempo in these areas, I think that is reasonable. (Mr Cleary) I think it is worth adding that there are schemes at the moment which we are actually expanding in the White Paper. For example, the Countryside Agency run an existing village shop scheme which has already made a big difference to a number of village stores. The White Paper proposes that is extended into a new community service fund which will cover projects to re- establish its services. The money is there from next April. There is some money there already in the current year, the money is being increased from next April, so benefits should start to flow through over the next two years, as the Minister has said. Chairman 82. How many rural shops were saved by that Countryside Agency scheme? (Mr Cleary) There are many hundreds of grants. We will have to write to you with the precise details but it has already worked for many hundreds. 83. Speeding traffic: you were quite hopeful that you were going to do something about it in the White Paper when you came before the Committee originally. Why have you come up with such a damp squib on speeding traffic? (Mr Meacher) I do not think that is a fair description. We do recognise this is a problem, quite a severe problem, over-speeding in country lanes as well as village roads or high streets. We are encouraging local authorities to take action, including new local speed limits on rural roads where problems exist. What the Road Safety Survey and the research which it has commissioned has shown is that it is not just lowering the speed limit nationally but an overall provision. It is finding ways to control a vehicle's speed at hazardous points like bends or junctions where it is likely to be far more effective in reducing casualties on rural main roads than reducing the national speed limit. I would not rule out lower speed limits, that may well be appropriate. Certainly we are looking to 30 miles per hour as a limit in villages, but at the same time the more effective way of reducing the causes of accidents is trying to find ways of slowing cars down at difficult points. Maybe that is road calming measures as one is coming up to those points. 84. We know that speed cameras actually work, why not let local authorities keep the speeding fines so that they can put up more cameras, or more boxes actually to have cameras in them? (Mr Meacher) Again, DETR genuinely has sympathy for that policy of, in effect, hypothecation - to use another ugly word. The rules, of course, have always traditionally been that it is the Treasury which collects the revenues and then decides ---- 85. I think the Deputy Prime Minister usually says that is another one we have lost. (Mr Meacher) The fact is the Deputy Prime Minister has won so many with the Treasury on this issue and on a much bigger scale, that I think he has got a rather good record. There is a genuine point here. Mrs Dunwoody 86. It is all right, you are safe, we know you are good. (Mr Meacher) I think that point is known. We would like to see greater flexibility over local authorities in terms of, for example, fining people for speeding or for other offences, being able to retain that money and then put it into improved services to reduce those effects in the first place. Certainly that is something we would favour. 87. This question of the œ10,000 that parishes can apply for to buy a car for the village, presumably to go speeding in, is it going to work? (Mr Meacher) I think it will. I think this proposal of œ5 million is a small sum of money but, considering just how small these settlements are, I think it is ---- 88. Five or 15? (Mr Meacher) I beg your pardon, it is 15. Let me not under-sell. It is œ15 million which is designed to help parishes in conjunction with the principal authorities, the counties and the districts, to enable them to take initiatives, as I say improving their high street, providing a car park, providing new facilities for old people or young people, CAB facilities, whatever may be appropriate. I think it cuts through the bureaucracy and it cuts through the ---- I am sorry, I thought you were talking about the Parish Community Fund. 89. Yes. (Mr Cleary) I am sorry. (Mr Meacher) I think this is exciting and useful. It gives more opportunity directly to parishes and town councils to plan their own future. I think often they feel that they have very limited opportunities, they are dependent on the speed of operation of their principal authority, and I think it will be of very much value. 90. What, œ10,000 for a car? (Mr Meacher) Yes. This is the Parish Transport Fund. 91. Yes. (Mr Meacher) Again, I was struck in the course of the consultation that we did have extensively in the production of this White Paper that when I said - as I often did as a good, loyal Minister - that we had produced œ170 million for improving rural bus services and there were 1,800 new or enhanced services, I had it all as a mantra regularly repeated, it was remarkably ineffective in the sense that people felt it still did not apply to them, it still was not sufficiently appropriate, it was not locally determined enough and that there was specialist provision of transport which people needed which was not met by improved bus services. I do think improved bus services are very important and I think they under-estimate all this. We are putting another œ239 million into improved and better bus services over the current three years, but what we are trying to do is to say to these people in very small settlements "you can have up to œ10,000 to decide yourselves how you want to see better provision of transport, whether that is in car pooling, taxi services, whether it is buying something like a minibus for community transport, whatever it is provided you show that there is a need for it on the basis of some kind of transport survey, provided there is matched funding, for example through levying a precept, and provided it fits in with existing transport provision". Mr Brake 92. On that point, wearing your climate change hat, Minister, are you happy that there are environmental safeguards in place, in other words that a parish is not going to buy up ten old bangers at œ1,000 a go and clog up the streets and pollute the atmosphere? (Mr Meacher) As I have said, there are conditions on this and certainly one would be to look at what the parish was proposing. I doubt it would have the money to buy up ten, but even if it bought up a handful of old bangers which were old cars, fuel inefficient and discharged noxious vapours, I certainly think we would advise them that was not appropriate. This is not given, as I say, unconditionally. We want to increase the discretion and powers of parishes, but within limits. 93. So each application will be reviewed and assessed? (Mr Meacher) Yes. Mrs Ellman 94. Do you think the Universal Bank project to save rural post offices will work? (Mr Meacher) I hope so. I think it stands a very good chance. What we are proposing, as you know, is we are offering basic bank accounts without overdraft or borrowing facilities which will enable customers to access benefits in cash without charge at post offices in a way that without the post office access and the large network availability, the use of banks' basic bank accounts, the so-called PAT14 accounts, would not work, they would not really address the issue of financial exclusion. We certainly are hoping that all the banks will participate if they are going to demonstrate their responsibility to the wider community. I think this is a very important part of improving the attractiveness of the Post Office network. We have already put œ480 million into automating the entire Post Office network to develop universal banking and access to Government services. I think this is the best way forward, attracting new customers and new services. 95. You said that you hope that it will happen. Whose responsibility is it to make it happen? (Mr Meacher) It does span several departments. I have attended a number of inter-departmental Cabinet sub-committees which deal with this issue. The DTI, of course, is in the lead. DTI has an interest because of rural post offices, but so, of course, does the Treasury have an interest in this, as does the Home Office. We are keeping a very close eye on this. It is being driven forward as a major part of the Rural White Paper, it is a central plank. It will certainly be reported on as part of the State of the Countryside reports which are going to be undertaken every year by the Countryside Agency. It will be looking at access to services, the availability of services. We will be monitored year by year and I am sure we will be criticised if we do not achieve our objective, which is the avoidance of all avoidable closures. 96. Would you be made aware if the DTI were running into difficulties on this one? After all, the banks are not known for showing social responsibility. (Mr Meacher) That is why I do use words like "hope". We do require co- operation from partners and these things cannot, nor should be done entirely by Government. We are certainly - I am not sure if I am allowed to say pressurising the banks - putting a lot of influence, to use another more neutral word, on banks to participate. I believe that they will. I think it would act against their reputation if they were seen to stand out on this. Mrs Dunwoody 97. When has that ever upset banks? (Mr Meacher) My colleague, Chris Mullin, upset banks recently, I seem to recall, and in my view was probably quite right to do so, by talking about banks' responsibilities. This is another instance of the responsibility of banks. I do not think we can require them. It is always easy to say that governments should require this, that or another body or persons to do such and such, but I do not think that is the way to operate. I have no reason to believe that the banks will not co-operate on this. Mr Brake 98. On that point, Minister, I do not see why you have this confidence. There is a bank closure in my High Street that is just going ahead now. I do not see why they would be willing, in the way that you are outlining, to back this proposal, particularly if you have no powers to require them to do so. (Mr Meacher) We perhaps take a different view on this. We have had extensive discussions with the banks. The Government is already putting in substantial funds, I mentioned œ480 million in capital costs, in terms of a further contribution. We have said that will be determined when the business case is approved but, of course, part of the Government's commitment to putting further funds in is that we get an equivalent commitment from the banks that they are going to play their part. Chairman 99. Rural proofing, do you believe in it? (Mr Meacher) Rural proofing is an essential part of this White Paper. We already have the Cabinet Committee on Rural Affairs. 100. When did it meet? (Mr Meacher) When does it meet? 101. I asked you when did it meet because I understand it has only met once. (Mr Meacher) No, that is not true. I have attended several meetings myself. I would say I have attended at least three or four meetings. It meets when there is a reason to meet. It is not a body which meets regularly just for the sake of it. That was already in place but, in addition, the Rural White Paper is proposing that we set up national and regional rural sounding boards. I was impressed by the sounding board which advised me in the preparation of this White Paper, which I think did a very good job, was very imaginative, and came up with a lot of good ideas which are incorporated in this White Paper, and we want that process to continue. We are also setting up a rural advocate who will be the Chair of the Countryside Agency, Ewen Cameron, who will have access into Government, including into the Cabinet Committee on Rural Affairs. The Countryside Agency is going to have a central role here because of the State of the Countryside Report which will set out the rural headline indicators, such as the state of the countryside, access to services, transport provision, all the key sensitive indicators, and look at what progress going forward or backward has occurred in the last year. That will be made public. The State of the Countryside Report will certainly be discussed in the Cabinet Committee. It may well be, I hope, discussed in the House. We are providing very full information about the state of the countryside in a quantified form which will enable Government to be held to account. 102. Do you see the Countryside Agency as being much more important than the Environment Agency or English Nature in this rural proofing? (Mr Meacher) I think for the purposes of rural proofing of countryside issues, the Countryside Agency is, indeed, in the lead. Those three bodies, of course, have to work very closely together, but for the purposes we are talking about here, yes, I think the Countryside Agency is in the lead. It does give me an opportunity to say I think they have performed very well in the period since they have been set up. I think they have been bold, I think they have been imaginative, and I think they have been effective. Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence. Mrs Dunwoody 103. A special vote of thanks to the Minister. (Mr Meacher) I shall miss you over Christmas, although I am seeing you again. Mrs Dunwoody: And a Happy Christmas. Chairman: Thank you.