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16 Oct 2002 : Column 410—continued

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of that rebuilding is very difficult because of the factors to which he adverted? Among other things, selling off care homes and privatising British Telecom, which made broadband provision much more difficult, have made it more difficult for us to climb out of the mess that we were left than if we had been given a reasonable shot.

Malcolm Bruce: That is a perfectly fair point; I will not take issue with it. I am saying, however, that excuses will not ultimately impress the voters. They want results; we have to deliver results. We as a party have sought to address some of the issues and to start to develop policies that we believe will begin to rebuild confidence in the economy. We have a vision of a rural economy that promotes harmony with the environment but recognises the varying and important contribution that the countryside makes to the whole economy; and, indeed, which ends the urban-rural divide, which is not constructive. We have a number of measures that would go some way towards achieving that.

I will not labour the point other than to say that it remains our view that joining the euro as soon as is practicable and subject to a referendum would help to secure a competitive market in the CAP. As long as we remain outside the euro, we shall be increasingly disadvantaged. That is an indisputable fact for agriculture whatever the relevance of the euro to other sectors of the economy. We happen to believe that the euro would benefit the whole economy.

We recognise that we need to diversify the strength of the rural economy—the income not only of agriculture but of other activities. We want to encourage and promote co-operatives, as the Government have said they recognise. We want to promote marketing initiatives that will help to secure diversification, adding value to and diversifying farm produce, boosting tourism and attracting new businesses. That requires practical measures of support—certainly in finding new investment.

Mr. Drew : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Malcolm Bruce: No, I am anxious that others should be able to make some contribution to the debate.

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One area worth exploring is whether rural communities can secure a direct stake in the resources that they provide for the whole community. I have in mind things such as the water supply, which at the moment is owned by privatised water companies that have their own shareholders and do not cut the community into the benefits. The Minister for Rural Affairs knows perfectly well that that is an issue of sharp political focus in Wales, especially north Wales, dating back 50 years or more. My argument is not that the residents of Liverpool, Birmingham or Manchester should not benefit from Welsh water, but that the Welsh people should receive some benefit in direct revenue accruing from that. We should consider community ownership or a community share, certainly for new developments. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, now Lord Ashdown, long argued that a mutual stake in such services had much to commend it.

We have the proposed expansion of renewable energy sources, such as wind farms and others. I recently witnessed with the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and the all-party parliamentary group on renewable and sustainable energy the encouragement of the German authorities in order to ensure that communities secured an ownership in wind turbines. That had two benefits. First, it meant that the community could see an income flow rather than just an outside business developing and exploiting their resource. Secondly, with indicative planning, it helped to remove people's fear that wind turbines would be spread all over the landscape without any regard to bird migration, scenic beauty, scientific interest or, indeed, over-development. If rural communities are to be exploited in order to provide resources for the wider community, I strongly commend to the Government a sensitive planning regime and the opportunity for revenue to accrue directly to the community. I want the Government to consider whether there are ways of exploring that.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) made mention of broadband, as did the Minister. Whenever the issue is raised with the Government, the standard ministerial reply is that they have had discussions with BT. With the greatest respect, I must tell the Minister that people are looking for a little more than that. They want some commitment to ensure that broadband will be available.

The problem is potentially rather more severe than the hon. Member for Aylesbury set out. Lack of broadband access will not only stifle the development or attraction of new businesses in rural areas but threaten the continuing survival of those already located there. If they cannot access broadband, many will have to move to a place where they can. I suggest that the matter requires more than Ministers having conversations with BT. There should be a Government policy to try to ensure the drawing down of broadband to rural communities and the delivery of the service in the long run.

Rural proofing has been mentioned as something that the Government talk about, but to be honest it does not test very well. Indeed, the Countryside Agency is not that impressed. There are a number of problems. The

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costs of providing services in rural areas tend to be higher and the funding of local authorities and other public agencies does not fully take account of that.

A specific issue that has had an impact in my constituency is small rural schools. They are an important part of the fabric of the rural community, but if the rebuilding or modernisation of those schools is a serious issue and the Government's response is, in essence, that the only way to fund the work is through PFI, there is a problem. To be frank, rural schools are of no interest to private developers, so PFI could lead to the forced closure of rural schools, to be replaced by larger schools covering a wider area.

Pete Wishart : The Liberal Democrats are in government in Scotland.

Malcolm Bruce: It is not happening in Scotland—well, it is in some parts of Scotland, but not where Liberal Democrats are in charge, because we consult local people and we have clearly stated that we will not close schools against the wishes of the local people. The one school in my constituency that has closed since Labour came to power, a school in the Moray council area, was closed by a Labour chairman of education and the closure was sanctioned by a Labour Minister, against the expressed wishes of the local community.

Mr. Peter Duncan : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Malcolm Bruce: No.

Further issues relating to services in rural areas include the provision of further education, training within rural communities, and outreach clinics. As for the Post Office, it is somewhat ironic that the Government decided to force the transfer of benefit payments from post offices to banks and credit transfers to cut the costs of the former Department of Social Security, now the Department for Work and Pensions, but now have to find an almost exactly similar sum to support post office services. It makes one wonder whether they would have done better to leave well enough alone. Finally, advice centres in rural areas are difficult to fund and often face closure, leaving people having to travel to advice centres in towns up to 50 miles away.

Another important and much debated issue is that of affordable housing in rural communities. Local authorities and housing associations clearly need freedom to invest in housing, and planning guidelines must be revised. In addition, I suggest ending the second home council tax rebate and using the revenue to allow local authorities and others to fund new housing development to meet the requirement for affordable housing. It is interesting that the Tories are so keen to sell off the remaining housing association stock at a discount: it is Mickey Mouse economics to believe that one can continue to sell at a discount and the money will not run out. I wonder whether the Conservatives would be so enthusiastic if the same rule applied to privately rented accommodation in rural areas. If such properties were sold off at a discount to tenants, it would make a huge contribution to the welfare of rural communities. I suspect that such a policy would not be greeted with warm support from the Conservatives, but I think it a better policy than theirs.

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As I am happy to acknowledge, there is strong political competition for rural votes. Many constituencies in rural areas are marginal, with some having only recently become so. Some Labour Members have been astonished to find themselves representing rural constituencies, and on occasion their astonishment shows. A lot of Conservatives are no longer in Parliament because they no longer represent rural areas, whereas there is a swelling rank of Liberal Democrats who have built up their strength: more than half our constituencies are rural. Major factors in our success have been the discredited policies of the Tory Government and rural people's lack of conviction about Labour's competence and understanding of rural issues.

I suggest that the complexion of the House of Commons after the next general election will to a substantial extent be determined by how the parties tackle rural issues. We Liberal Democrats are determined to be out in front in that respect—indeed, we already are. At our party conference in Brighton, we adopted as a blueprint for policy development our radical XRural Futures" paper, which bears reading.

While the Tories, by their own admission, have no policies, and Labour continues to send a discordant message, we, the Liberal Democrats, are determined to establish our party as the natural party of the countryside.

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