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16 Oct 2002 : Column 399continued
As I have just pointed out, the problems for rural communities are extremely local. We have a large number of small communities; for example, there are about 8,000 parish and town councils. They are experiencing the impact of social and economic change. It is a fact of life that many people in rural communities also have access to supermarkets. They have the choice of shopping locally or in neighbouring towns or cities. It does not help to play politics with such issues.
The long-term social trends are difficult for rural communities. They present choices for local government and local people as well as for the Government. We are trying to enable people and communities to make those choices, which is why the work of the Countryside Agency is so important. Through the finance strands that we make available, the agency offers people a chance to take decisions about their futures at the most local level.
Mr. Curry: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that one almost hidden countryside industry is the care of the elderly. The local residential home may be the largest employer in many villages. Is he aware of the pressure being put on the sector because of local authority difficulties in funding care? What representations has DEFRA made in the name of joined-up government to the Deputy Prime Minister's Department about funding super-sparsity in rural areas and assisting sectors on which many people depend for part-time employment, not least to buttress agricultural incomes?
Alun Michael: I shall develop those points in a moment. We are working with colleagues throughout the Government, especially in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, to consider the needs of rural areas. Indeed, my right hon. Friend is taking a personal interest in issues such as the need for affordable housing in rural areas.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) makes very well the point that I was coming to: if we are to help rural economies, we have to understand them. I spent most of today with the Countryside Agency, which plays a vital role in this field. The agency rightly made the point that to maintain and extend the significant contribution that rural economies make to the UK economythey benefit not only themselves but the wider economyrequires better engagement with those business sectors that make the most important contributions to rural economies.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to farming and I have responded because it is important. However, almost 80 per cent. of the 5.22 million employees in rural workplaces work in four broad industrial groups about which we have heard nothing: for example, distribution, hotels and restaurants. Nowadays, more people in the
It is important, for example, that in some of our most beautiful landscapesour national parks and areas of outstanding natural beautywe also engage with the local economy and community, so that they can truly be test-beds for sustainable development and that they do not turn into landscape museums.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not only in respect of housing that the planning system is desperately in need of reform. In the countryside, we have the capacity to regenerate rural areas because there are many vacant or under-used buildingsusually farm buildings. I am sure that my experience is shared by many hon. Members: there is often great conflict between those who want to develop such buildings and those who want to pickle them in aspicto use the words of my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd). We have to make people understand that if they want the countryside to live we must develop those buildings. I hope that changes to the planning system will allow that to happen.
Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is right. I am pleased about the interest shown by my noble Friend Lord Rooker, who deals with housing. He will attend the next meeting of the Rural Affairs Forum to debate the issue with representatives and colleagues. At the forum's last meeting, one of his officials was present to hear the views of people across the board, to ensure that those views are fed into the processes. There is no magic wand; what one person wants to do may have an impact on neighbours. The planning processes have to be followed with balance and care, but my hon. Friend is right to point up their importance.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to access to broadband. That, too, is important and I met BT for discussions about it earlier this month. However, it is essential to be precise about what we want it to do. Broadband is not a magic wand that will suddenly do away with problems in rural areas; it offers potential but it must be used with precision and planning.
Mr. Todd: My right hon. Friend briefly touched on the horse sector, and I saw one or two other hon. Members nod their agreement about its importance. That sector is clearly growing in my constituency, but, once again, it would be facilitated by a careful examination of the planning regime that applies to the
The point that I am making strongly is that the Government are listening. We recognise that there are issues that need tackling to achieve our vision, which was so eloquently quoted by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, of a living, working, protected and vibrant countryside, but we are taking action and we have made considerable progress. We are committed to engaging and working with people in the countryside to develop solutions.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Before the Minister moves on from equestrian activities, may I tell him that a farrier came to see me at my advice session on Saturday because he was concerned, not surprisingly, about the impact of a possible ban on hunting? Nevertheless, I put it to him that the probable disappearance of hunting is likely to be associated with an expansion in equestrian activity when the stigma of it being linked to hunting is removed. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
The Government are trying to govern for all the country. The rural economy is a part of the national picture. Effective national policies benefit everyone, irrespective of whether they live in rural or urban areas. Our economic policy has led to the United Kingdom having the lowest inflation rate in Europe and the lowest in this country for 30 years. That benefits the rural economy. We have the lowest long-term interest rates and mortgage rates for homeowners for 40 years. Unemployment in Britain is lower than at any time for 25 years. Some 1.5 million more jobs have been created, and long-term youth unemploymentonce 350,000is now just 5,000.
To those Opposition Members who wish to talk down the rural economy let me say this: unemployment is down 36 per cent. in rural areas, compared with a drop of 31 per cent. in urban areas. Rural areas have benefited massively from the drop in unemployment that the Government have achieved, and other national policies benefit rural areas, too. Putting schools and hospitals first, with the biggest ever sustained increases in public investment, help both the rural and urban economies. The adoption of the minimum wage has raised incomes in rural areas. Indeed, the benefits to low-paid people in rural areas are probably greater than to those in urban areas.
What about the Conservative party's record on school closures? Three rural schools a year have closed since 1997, and only five have closed since 2000. Between 1983 and 1997, the closure rate was 30 a year. I am not surprised that Conservative Members look embarrassed.