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10 Mar 2003 : Column 9—continued

Rural Libraries

6. Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): What plans she has to encourage local authorities to maintain and develop rural libraries. [101459]

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): The Department recently published a 10-year vision for England's public libraries called "Framework for the Future". It is relevant to rural and urban settings, and draws on examples of good practice in country areas. We are working with Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries and with library authorities to see how they might best deliver that vision. Twenty copies of "Framework for the Future" were sent to each of the 149 authorities in England.

Mr. Wright : I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and I am pleased to hear that we have that 10-year vision, which is completely different from that of the Tories on Norfolk county council, who recently announced the closure of one of my village libraries—Bradwell—for the princely sum of savings in the first year of £1,700. At the same meeting, they agreed to increase the hospitality budget from £28,000 to £88,000. The comment "booze instead of books" certainly springs to mind.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the Conservatives for that miserly cut and the problems that it will create for the residents of the Bradwell parish council area? Will he also send the Government's support to the parish council, the Women's Institute, the mothers' union and county councillors, which are

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waging a campaign to keep that facility open and endeavouring to ensure that the library in the village of Bradwell has a future?

Mr. Caborn: My officials inform me that the letter of the law under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 has not been broken, but perhaps the spirit of the law has been. "Booze instead of books" has a ring about it. I hope that all local authorities will take the "Framework for the Future" document seriously. It tries to reposition libraries in the 21st century as major centres of resource to help communities to develop. It does not view libraries in the traditional sense, as they were a decade or more ago. We are trying to upgrade libraries so that they can be a major resource for all communities, whether in rural or urban areas.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that those of us who live in country areas have as much interest in and entitlement to a public library service as anyone else? Will he ensure that the extra unit costs of providing small branch libraries and a peripatetic service are recognised in local government settlements? Will he also ensure that small public libraries have broadband, so that they can offer the modern range of services that we want them to provide? At the moment, broadband is not available in my constituency.

Mr. Caborn: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that tremendous investment has been made in the infrastructure of libraries. I believe that 85 per cent. now have access to broadband, and another 13 per cent. have access to the internet in one form or another. Few libraries do not have such access, although I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point. There is a cost factor for rural libraries, but we will look into that. The speed at which we have been able to invest in the library structure to bring it up to date with e-development is considerable by any standards.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): My right hon. Friend has a great interest and expertise in the rural areas of Yorkshire, and he has just acknowledged the importance of broadband. Will he encourage a greater partnership with the regional development agencies around the country to ensure that there are links with the wider community and with business, so that they can make the most of the library service, which needs to be mobile in sparsely populated areas like mine, in the north York moors?

Mr. Caborn: My hon. Friend makes a good point. An investment of about £780 million is going into public libraries. The "Framework for the Future" document says that integration is necessary, and I believe that the RDAs should develop libraries in their areas to ensure that greater use can be made of them, especially by small and medium-sized businesses and for learning.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Since they came to power, the Government have systematically rigged the funding of local authorities to shift resources from the rural shire counties to Labour metropolitan areas. It is hardly surprising that rural libraries are all too often the first casualties of

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Government-induced pressure on resources. Given that rural library closures are on the increase, is the Minister content for his Department to preside over this diminishing but none the less priceless resource?

Mr. Caborn: That is not the case. The present Administration have now brought about fairness in local government financing. We inherited an unfair system of distribution, and now there is fairness. [Laughter.] Conservative Members are disagreeing with that. There has been investment in libraries, and the constructive dialogue with the library service has produced the 10-year vision in "Framework for the Future". That has been accepted by all of them as the right way forward; it will bring the library service into the 21st century. If the authorities to which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) referred put booze before books, that is a matter for them, and the electorate will make their own decision.

New Opportunities Fund

7. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Which neighbourhoods will be given greater priority in the review of children's play facilities for the New Opportunities Fund. [101460]

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): No decisions have yet been made on that. The review is considering the needs of areas that have inadequate play opportunities and groups of children who have limited access to play. A report with recommendations about priorities for play provision will be published in the summer.

Ms Munn: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Is he aware that the splash programme that took place last summer in areas such as Jordanthorpe and Batemoor was successful in demonstrating that constructive activities for young people can lead to a reduction in crime? I urge him to consider the lessons from that scheme by ensuring that neighbourhoods where there are few resources for play and where family incomes are low, which prevent children from being able regularly to go swimming and to access other more expensive activities, are taken into account in using this money to the maximum benefit.

Mr. Caborn: I very much agree. I hope that through the summer splash and splash extra programmes we will be able to continue to fund developments, not only over the summer period, but beyond that. They have proved to be an extremely good investment. They have taken young people off the streets and into creative activities, leading to a tremendous reduction in crime. The steering group—which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who has been pushing this very hard—has been active in consultations in the regions, of which there have been nine. He has attended all but one, along with Tim Gill, the director of the Children's Play Council, who has been seconded to the Department to consider the areas in which children's play can be most effective.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister will be aware that the all-party sport and leisure group,

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of which I am deputy chairman, has long-standing concerns about the diminishing number of playing fields and children's play areas. At last week's meeting, the chairman of the National Playing Fields Association pointed out to hon. Members that the Government's much vaunted protection for play areas does not cover children who are under eight and, in addition, of the 202 fields that have been referred to his Department for consultation, permission for sale has been refused in only six cases. I know that the Minister shares my concern about that, so will he look urgently at his scheme's failure to work, especially in relation to the protection of playing fields and play areas for the under-eights?

Mr. Caborn: The hon. Gentleman paints a gloomy picture, which does not reflect the real world. First, we have introduced the revised PPG17, which is the first time that play areas and playing fields have been brought together in a planning guidance. That guidance, which is very proactive, asks each local authority to carry out a needs assessment of its play facilities.

As regards the 202 applications, the hon. Gentleman did not inform the House that those applications are often made in order to build a pavilion or other accommodation that would enhance the quality of the play area. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are challenging that, so I shall give an example. A rugby club that had several pitches but no proper changing facilities made an application that we approved, which was regarded as the closure, or part closure, of a playing area. One must be objective about the matter, not view it only on the basis of statistics.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): As part of the review, does my right hon. Friend have plans to consult the Welsh Assembly Government, and can he tell us how long the review is likely to take?

Mr. Caborn: In terms of the Welsh Assembly, the answer is yes. The planning guidance covers Wales, so it has to comply with PPG17. I hope that local authorities in Wales will respond positively.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): How many responses did the Minister's Department receive in support of the idea of merging the New Opportunities Fund with the community fund? Is it not now obvious that the public have rumbled that NOF money is substituting Government funds for projects that should be paid for by the taxpayer? Would it not make more sense if the Government redirected more funding to the original good causes, such as the community fund and the sports lottery fund, which are better placed to make independent assessments about play and sports projects that would command the support of lottery players?

Mr. Caborn: We have consulted widely on modernising the lottery and the hon. Gentleman will know that we have received a considerable number of submissions.

Mr. Greenway: How many?

Mr. Caborn: I do not know the exact number but I will find out and supply the information to the Library.

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We are trying to be more efficient with the New Opportunities Fund and the community fund. We believe that the case has been made for bringing them together. We will put that to Parliament and to all the funding partners. We believe that things can be streamlined and that the central idea of the National Lotteries Act 1993, which was to do with additionality, is maintained today, as it was in 1993.

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