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16 Oct 2002 : Column 389—continued

Mr. Lidington: My right hon. Friend puts his point well. It has also been made to me by people living in rural Northumberland, who are worried about the creation of a north-east regional assembly, and by people living in rural Cheshire and Cumbria who are worried about the possibility of a north-west regional assembly. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) says that exactly the same fears are being expressed in his area.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): We do not have natural regions in England. I do not want to contradict what was said by the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), but if he is trying to impose that on England, he is talking nonsense. To go against our traditional county structure is to strike a death blow at rural England.

Mr. Lidington: I believe that my hon. Friend is correct in both his historical analysis and his understanding of the likely consequences of the regional agenda becoming reality.

Jim Knight: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: No. I must make some progress.

According to some estimates, tourism is now worth about #14 billion to the rural economy in England alone—that is, not counting the other nations of the United Kingdom. The foot and mouth epidemic, followed by the collapse of foreign visits after 11 September, has had a devastating impact on the industry. Many businesses have already gone under. There are nearly 300 fewer entries in the standard guide to bed-and-breakfast accommodation in England this year than there were last year. More than a quarter of owners who have survived say that they do not expect to recover fully until 2003 at the earliest. Yet the Minister's colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have been dithering for more than six months about whether to give the English Tourism Council responsibility for marketing England as a tourist destination. The tourism industry is still battling with enormous difficulties, yet because of Government delay and uncertainty the ETC has no marketing budget, no timetable and no plan.

Tourism, like many other sectors of commerce, will in future have to rely more and more on fast, good-quality electronic communication with its customers. That means access to broadband. People have made the point to me again and again, from Northumberland to Cornwall: without access to broadband, new micro-businesses in the countryside will be at a permanent disadvantage compared with their urban competitors.

There are issues related to the number of subscribers needed to make broadband economic. I know that British Telecom says that between 200 and 750 would be necessary, but according to other studies as few as 40 might constitute a viable threshold. The broadband link in Cumbria runs underneath Penrith so surely it cannot be right that businesses in that town are denied a

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connection altogether. Britain now has one of the lowest rates of broadband take-up anywhere in the OECD area, and our rural businesses above all stand to lose out because of the delay. I believe that Government action to tackle the problem—to increase availability of broadband and provide incentives for its provision in rural areas—would command strong cross-party support in the House.

People need somewhere to work in the countryside. They also need somewhere to live, and rural homes are becoming less affordable. According to the Countryside Agency, nearly two thirds of people living in rural areas would need to spend more than half their incomes on mortgages to buy an average home. Part of the answer certainly lies in the provision of more homes, and the great merit of the policy announced last week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) is that it would provide funds to pay for perhaps as many as 13,000 new homes every year nationwide.

Clearly there would be a need for particular measures, as exist in the present legislative system whereby small estates in small village communities are subject to particular arrangements.

Mr. Todd: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to develop that point. In the tiny hamlet of Thurvaston in south Derbyshire, three housing association homes were recently constructed by agreement with the local landowner. I can tell the hon. Gentleman for free that if those were made available for sale, they would rapidly disappear and not be replaced. How does he intend to address that kind of problem?

Mr. Lidington: There are a number of ways in which we intend to address the problem that the hon. Gentleman has rightly identified. First, there will undoubtedly remain a strong case for having an exceptional arrangement for designated small rural communities as currently exists under the present law. Whether the limit should remain as it is under the current arrangements is a matter on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden is consulting the interested bodies.

Secondly, there is the need not just to provide only accommodation to rent, but accommodation for shared ownership. That proposal has been made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden by the Rural Housing Trust, and he is discussing it with the trust and other parties.

The point that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has overlooked is that the chief complaint by those who have objected to the right to buy in the past has been that tenants had the right to purchase their house but that the money received by the local authority could not then be used to provide additional housing. The Opposition are now committed to a policy that will free housing associations to spend the receipts from the sale of those housing association properties on the provision of new homes. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman made a serious point that deserves a serious answer.

The trouble with the arguments put forward by Labour Members is that they are trying to conceal the fact that they remain instinctively hostile not just to

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what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden proposed last week, but to the whole notion that tenants should be enfranchised and have the right to buy their own homes. If the Minister for Rural Affairs or the Under-Secretary is prepared to stand up and say, not just to this House but to the tenants of housing associations throughout the country, that the Labour party remains adamantly opposed to tenants being granted the right to buy, my hon. Friends and I will be glad to take that message back and campaign on it in counties and cities throughout this land.

I am glad that it was the hon. Member for South Derbyshire who intervened earlier, because I said that while part of the problem was that we needed to provide new homes, we must also make sure that the homes were in the right places. I want to refer to something that the hon. Gentleman has said in the past. The Government's top-down approach is wrong. The Deputy Prime Minister seems to be rushing to concrete over great swathes of southern England and, in the process, is planning to build large new estates in some areas that are already relatively low cost. Surely we need instead a policy that begins with a sensible analysis of local need.

The Rural Housing Trust argued in a paper earlier this year for the provision of six to eight subsidised homes in each of 8,000 small villages throughout England—roughly 50,000 more homes in total—but sited in places where there was a proven local need that the local community would accept. I do not want to embarrass the hon. Member for South Derbyshire too much but I was impressed by an exchange that he had in the Select Committee on 21 November last year with a senior executive of the Countryside Agency.

The hon. Member for South Derbyshire acknowledged that an over-rigid approach to planning guidance, and particularly to PPG13, was tending to focus development exclusively in so-called key settlements, with a lot of smaller communities being, in his words, Xeffectively preserved in aspic" and therefore becoming more exclusive and less sustainable over time. I hope that the Government will look seriously at their planning guidance in light of our experiences as a country and at the sort of problems that the hon. Gentleman has rightly identified.

Jim Knight: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: No. The hon. Gentleman had one intervention about his front gate. I do not want a tour around his entire garden.

The rural economy is about a lot more than farming but farming still lies at its heart. Agriculture is not only important economically; farmers and growers are also custodians of a landscape that is valued by people in cities as well as villages and is a prime asset for our tourist industry.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the crisis in rural areas predates the election of the Labour Government? For instance, farm incomes were falling under the previous Conservative Government and the fuel tax escalator imposed an added burden on rural communities. Also,

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the one episode in particular that precipitated the crisis in the countryside would have to be the BSE disaster, over which his Government presided.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman will know that most of the subjects that we are debating today are, in Scotland, devolved to the Scottish Parliament. However, I take his point seriously. I will not quibble about statistics; the historians can argue over those. I am willing, as is my party, to learn the lessons of our period in government. We can learn where we got things right and where we got them wrong. What we ask of the present Government is that they be prepared to learn from their experiences over the past five years when they have failed to deliver on the promises that they were so keen to make to people in our rural communities.

It is true that farm incomes, employment and investment have all plunged in the last few years. It is true that no Minister—not even one as benevolent as the Minister for Rural Affairs—can simply wish away the problems caused by international commodity prices, world competition and fluctuating exchange rates. But that makes it even more important that the Government act firmly and effectively on those matters that do lie within their own power.

Britain's farmers need a fair deal from current European negotiations. The best future for farming lies in moving towards a system where farmers are free to respond to what their customers want rather than to the edicts of Government, whether in Whitehall or in Brussels. It is right also to find ways to recognise the public good that farmers and growers provide for the nation in terms of landscape and biodiversity. Some of the key elements in Commissioner Fischler's proposals—such as the ceiling on payments and the idea of putting modulation receipts into a common European pot—seem to have been designed quite deliberately to discriminate against British agriculture. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are determined to resist such discrimination.

There are many things that the Government could do now, without the need for international negotiations, to assist British agriculture. Top of that list must be, at last, some effective action against the illegal importing of meat. We know that the Government's assessment is that that was almost certainly the cause of the foot and mouth disaster. The Government are always lecturing farmers about the importance of biosecurity. It is about time that we saw the Government taking seriously their own responsibilities for biosecurity at our ports.

If one flies from London to Dublin, as I did last month, one finds when one arrives in Ireland a terminal plastered with posters warning that meat is not to be brought in. There is a disinfectant point, clearly signed, for travellers who have visited a farm or who are otherwise considered high risk. There is a large amnesty bin in which passengers can dump their ham sandwiches or whatever else they might have brought with them. All of these measures were introduced by the Irish Government in response to the epidemic here in 2001, even though there was only one case of foot and mouth disease on the island of Ireland.

When one returns to terminal 1 at Heathrow, one finds nothing. There are no bins, posters or disinfectant points. From written answers, we know that the number

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of spot checks carried out at ports and airports is pitifully low and that there are still no clear lines of command between the different agencies that share responsibility for port controls.

We are now a year on from the last case of foot and mouth, and we are six months on from the Government's misnamed Xaction plan" on illegal meat imports. Their sloth and incompetence on this issue is nothing short of a disgraceful failure to carry out their public duty.

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