Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Paice : Who said that?

Alun Michael: Has the hon. Gentleman not read the Opposition's reasoned—or rather, unreasoned—amendment last week in which, in opposing the introduction of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, they said that the Bill focuses predominantly on urban issues while neglecting rural areas: their mistake, not ours.

Paddy Tipping : Clearly, the Opposition have forgotten. I need not remind my right hon. Friend that there were just two contributions from the Conservative Benches, neither of which addressed not only environmental crime but the equally important issue of animal welfare.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and his was one of the 18 excellent contributions that we heard from Labour Back Benchers. In contrast to the Opposition, which is interested only in slash and burn in public services, the Government recognise the different needs of rural and urban communities. The rural policing fund has therefore been maintained for 2005–06 at £30 million, and I am pleased about that, not just as the Minister with responsibility for rural affairs, but because as a Home Office Minister I commissioned the research that led to that money, which addresses the particular needs of the 31 forces with the most widespread populations.

When listening to rural residents, one theme dominates—the need for affordable housing that will allow their children, and people with a connection to the area, to stay in their community. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who intervened on that point, was absolutely right, as are those of my hon. Friends who have raised the matter time and again. The Government have responded to that call through a number of measures. Before Christmas we announced specific measures to help local planning authorities allocate sites in villages for 100 per cent. affordable housing. That complements the rural exception site policy, which will be continued and which allows affordable housing to be built on sites that would otherwise not be available for development.

Through the Housing Corporation's rural programme we are funding sites that would otherwise not be available for development. Our target is 3,500 homes for the two years from 2004–05, but we are on target to exceed that number by producing over 4,000 affordable homes in rural areas.
19 Jan 2005 : Column 888

But providing sites is only part of the story. In 2003 and through the Housing Act 2004, we introduced measures that retain a supply of affordable housing in rural areas by placing restrictions on the right to buy. In many villages where the supply of new social housing is limited, exercising this right has led to a diminished pool of affordable housing, and there are some who have exploited the scheme by selling on quickly to people with no local connections. That addresses precisely the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall. Hence, we introduced restrictions on the resale of right to buy homes in the seven national parks, the 37 areas of outstanding natural beauty and the 35 areas designated as rural for this purpose.

In addition, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently gave local authorities scope to reduce the council tax discount on second homes from 50 per cent. to a minimum of 10 per cent. Authorities can use this money for affordable housing or for other services in line with local priorities. In Devon, for example, this income is being used to build more affordable housing where it is needed in rural areas. These are real measures helping real people. My own belief is that shared equity is the model that we should support and encourage with as much enthusiasm as possible, because such models of co-operative housing provide the opportunity for people to benefit from affordable housing and to get on the first step of the ladder of ownership, and allows that unit of affordable housing to be recycled to the next family that needs assistance.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The Minister is aware that North Yorkshire national park made an announcement on the subject a couple of days ago, and Exmoor national park has been examining the issue for some time. If the national parks go down that route, will the Minister look to support their aspiration to keep low-cost housing for local people, and will the Government put a bit of backbone into the policy?

Alun Michael: We will certainly examine the details of the national parks' proposals, and I am delighted that they are engaging with the issue, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is an important matter in our national parks, as it is in many other rural communities. The issue is important in the national parks because of the need to limit developments that damage the local environment. It is possible to go too far, and we must examine the detail of the proposals, but I am happy publicly to encourage the engagement of national park authorities with the issue.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend commend the shared equity scheme introduced by Lovells, the private house developers, in conjunction with Gwerin housing association? I welcomed the first tenants to use that scheme in Monmouth. Does the Minister think that such a model could be applied to rural areas as well as to small towns?

Alun Michael: I note my hon. Friend's point. I am not aware of that specific scheme and would like to hear more about it. It sounds like the sort of scheme that we should encourage.

Turning to farming, the strategy for sustainable farming and food remains our key policy. It is a comprehensive, long-term plan for the future
19 Jan 2005 : Column 889
development of the industry. It identifies how we can all work together to help farming to improve its economic performance and individual farmers to access the right training and advice for them, and to improve farming's impact on the environment. It is designed to support the farming industry through the current period of change and leave it well equipped to succeed in the future. The UK farming industry has a major role to play in meeting this country's food requirements, providing an attractive, well-managed countryside and contributing to the rural fabric, and we want a viable and sustainable farming industry that can do that.

The implementation of the strategy is underpinned by our approach to the groundbreaking deal on common agricultural policy reform in June 2003, which committed us to seeking the best and the most sustainable approach to farming not only in England, but in the UK generally. Decoupling—breaking the link between production and subsidies—is the main prize from the CAP reforms, and it will allow the industry to shape its own future. In other words, the industry will depend on its own initiatives rather than on the Government.

The real benefits that farmers can gain is why the new system will be delivered this year, which is the earliest possible date. The reforms and the delivery arrangements, which are based on a flat-rate area system, will help to reconnect farmers to their markets and will be free of many of the bureaucratic rules associated with production-linked subsidies, benefiting not only farmers and consumers but society as a whole.

Overall, the CAP reforms will deliver significant economic benefits to not only farmers, but everyone in the UK. The benefits are estimated at £400 million to £500 million a year at present exchange rates. Payments under the new single payment scheme will depend on meeting a number of environmental, animal health and welfare and food safety standards. Those measures are expected to improve the environmental performance of British agriculture. In addition, we have decided to introduce an additional rate of national modulation in England, which will provide additional funds for agri-environment schemes and, by protecting the countryside and its environment, a more sustainable farming industry.

We have adopted cross-compliance measures, which contain a mixture of common-sense farming practices and support for existing legislation, to bring all farmers up to the same minimum level. In addition to pillar 1 of the CAP, we are putting in £1.7 billion through the England rural development programme over the period 2000–06. Help is being provided on a variety of matters, including diversification, skills training and marketing. That means that we are making available £240 million a year compared with £56 million a year between 1993 and 1999, which is a fourfold increase in support.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): On red tape, which was mentioned by the Opposition spokesman, does not it follow that with one single farm payment
19 Jan 2005 : Column 890
there is one single system for applying for forms and one single system for inspecting farms? Is not that better than the 10 or so schemes that we had before?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is right—I am certain that that improvement will indeed benefit farmers.

Next Section IndexHome Page