Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Is not the hon. Gentleman arguing against himself? He has just praised RDAs and the devolution to them of the Countryside Agency's rural development responsibilities, yet he decries the fact that county councils have not been given enough responsibilities. Surely if all the Countryside Agency's work had gone to county and district councils, there would be no need for
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1041
the commission for rural communities as a bureaucratic body overseeing another bureaucratic body, neither of which is accountable.

Mr. Kidney: I do not agree for two reasons. First, I was praising not the giving of powers to RDAs, but my RDA in the west midlands for getting better. I made the point that I am not particularly satisfied that the statutory basis for the existence of RDAs is good enough for the roles that we envisage for them. In that sense, I was not praising RDAs, so I am consistent in saying that I prefer those roles to be taken by local government.

Clearly, the commission for rural communities will not have such roles. It will advise the Government and monitor what happens on the ground, so its role would be valid even if we gave all the new roles to councils, because the Government still need to hear where the problems are and, indeed, where the best practice is, and the commission is the body to have that role.

I want to remind the Government why local authorities having a greater role in the delivery of those services and rural communities fits with the Government's pronouncements. I shall quote a speech made by the new Minister of Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), whose speech was obviously so good at Nottingham on 20 May that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published it as a pamphlet. Although it was a speech to the English Core Cities Group and it clearly focuses mostly on cities and larger towns, it has universal application because it reminds us all that Labour's last election manifesto said that we would promote effective action even at neighbourhood levels. My right hon. Friend said:

However, there is another quote that is excellent to pray in aid of my point. He says:

I wholly endorse that statement, which should apply to this issue as to any other.

I shall move on—a slight digression—to give a case study of the kind of problem that rural areas come up against frequently and need people to help them to cut through to the necessary outcome. The Staffordshire biomass project, which hon. Members may have seen featured prominently on Channel 4 news just yesterday, involves more than 40 farmers who farm more than 1,200 hectares in Staffordshire. They plant miscanthus—elephant grass—to burn to produce power and, later, heat as well. An industrial estate will be an end user.

The scheme will be carbon neutral because the growing elephant grass takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, just as burning the grass creates carbon dioxide. The scheme meets many of the Government's policy objectives, such as those on climate change; on farmers diversifying, into growing non-food crops in this case; and on science and innovation leading to new
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1042
industries and jobs—for example, Talbott's Heating Ltd. of Stafford makes the converters that burn the crops, creating the heat and power.

The project has been good enough to receive grants from DEFRA and the Department of Trade and Industry, yet those involved are still unable to secure its future, although it is a wonderful addition to our renewable energy sources in this country, partly because the excess electricity produced by the scheme needs to be sold into the grid and the project cannot find an electricity company that is willing to guarantee it a long enough contract at a high enough price to make the scheme stack up.

Thus Government help is needed to extend the system of renewal obligation certificates beyond the current end date of 2017. A review of the renewables obligation is under way, and more people need to be given access to renewable obligation certificates so that such projects need not go to third parties for support. Perhaps the Government need to use their good offices to lend a helping hand to secure the use of biomass to generate electricity. Failing that, perhaps the Government need to ensure a minimum price for producing electricity with that source of energy, just as they guarantee a minimum price for renewable energy provided by the emerging tidal and wave technology.

I hope that the Minister can take away from the debate the fact that there are some serious issues in Staffordshire right now that involve a renewable energy project that meets all the Government's obligations and yet is still not secure, although it wants to be, and the Government can do much to help it to ensure that it is.

All that shows my role as a rural advocate, until we have the commission to do such work for me, but I now want to measure the Bill against the rural delivery review of 2003. A quote from Haskins is worthy of repeating. On page 8 of the report he said:

The Bill and the rural strategy contain some movements towards the views stated by Haskins, especially in clarifying the roles for policy making and delivery, but is enough in place to establish the regional and local accountability that he called for in his report? I am not sure whether we are there yet, and I hope that we can examine that in detail in Committee. Haskins reminded us that the direct customers of the new set up will include land managers, non-land-based rural businesses and rural communities, but he helpfully reminds us, too, of the indirect beneficiaries—all the visitors to the countryside every year, those who live and work in rural areas and, indeed, taxpayers, who pay for those services.

I am backing the Bill, which will make the most of our natural environment—the beauty of our landscape, the marvel of its biodiversity and the human desire to enjoy both—while contributing to helping farmers reconnect with markets and strengthen their role in the food chain, and supporting myriad other rural enterprises. Rural businesses are now growing at a greater rate than those in urban areas. The Bill will also stand up for the quarter of the population who live in rural locations, while facilitating visitors—obviously, sustainable tourism
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1043
only is required—to our countryside. More than 1 billion visitor days contribute over £10 billion a year to local economies. This is the sort of Bill that can made rural winners of us all.

6.47 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): The health and sustainable prosperity of the countryside and rural economy are extremely important to my constituents in south Wiltshire. That was evident during the general election campaign. I spoke at 22 public meeting during the campaign—and I assure hon. Members that the environment featured at every one of them, because I made sure that it did—and important questions were raised and discussed.

Although I had hoped to see a Conservative Member of Parliament representing South Dorset, it is nevertheless a great pleasure to welcome the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), to the Dispatch Box tonight. It will be a pleasure doing business with him. It is reassuring to know that there is Member of Parliament for central southern England who represents the broader views of our part of the country in his Department, and I wish him well.

I was quite overwhelmed that I had briefings from 16 different organisations for this debate on Second Reading, from the National Gamekeepers Organisation to the Woodland Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and all the others. This is a matter of intense importance to a very large number of people. I therefore broadly welcome most of the Bill. I share the reservations expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and therefore will have pleasure in supporting his amendment.

One of the first things that I should like to mention—I plan to be mercifully brief—is the machinery of Government issue. Haskins had a good point when he said that how delivery took place was very important to those who would be empowered by the function at stake; but, too often in this country, we simply have not made up our minds about whether we want to have centralised power in Whitehall or whether we genuinely want to devolve decision making, and the money that goes with it, to local authorities.

I hope very much that, in thinking about the way forward for the Conservative party in the coming months, we will at least be able to say that the time has surely come to reverse the trend of the past 20 years, to my certain knowledge—I was part of it, as a Local Government Minister—to centralise, but we must ensure that the money follows. That is always the problem. We can have great discussions with local authorities, the Local Government Association and all the others, but in the end, the Treasury has the finger on the till.

My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset might think that it is not a very good idea to establish natural England and to give it a lot of fairly arbitrary power, but the position could be worse. Only last week, when I was in France observing the remarkable referendum proceedings, I spoke to Mr. Arnaudinaud, the mayor of St. Michel l'Ecluse et Leparon, and he told
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1044
me the frustrations of being a mayor in a devolved local government system. He said that he was responsible for the delivery of environmental policies for forests in his commune. Two years ago, his and 29 other communes obtained the signatures of three Government Ministers for a project for the satellite observation of fires in the forest areas of south-west France. However, because of all the local government interests, the brakes were on at every turn and the project still could not be delivered even though the Ministers' signatures and the money were lined up. The position could be worse, and I was able to assure him that we did not do business like that in England. I hope that I am right.

Above all, as an old-timer in this place, I want to say how much I appreciate the quality of the specialists and scientists in the Countryside Agency, and particularly English Nature. I have worked with them for many years, and they are absolute stars. I hope very much that their work will be valued in the transition that will occur.

I agree that the commission for rural communities will have a lot of functions that could have been given to local government. If we wish to see how not to do it, we need only to look at the South West regional assembly in my region to see how locally elected councillors at county and district level feel that they have been disempowered by the process. Although they are indirectly represented, much of the power to make decisions affecting planning, schools and transport is now at the regional assembly, rather than local authority, level. I wish the councillors well none the less.

The second point that I wish to make is about clause 40 and biodiversity. I am delighted to see this provision as it represents important progress. I welcome the clause, but I wish that it went a little further. It says that local authorities must "have regard" to biodiversity, but I hope that, in Committee, we will be able to persuade the Government to say that local authorities should "further biodiversity". "Have regard" does not mean anything at all except "Good morning. What a nice day", but a provision furthering biodiversity would be welcomed by wildlife trusts across the country and by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust in particular.

On a good day, local authorities already provide quite a lot of taxpayers' money for such functions. For example, in my area the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust receives money from the county council and Salisbury district council for the biological record centres that are vital if local authorities are to know where the rich wildlife sites are or, indeed, used to be. Such centres are a key data tool for biodiversity protection, enhancement and restoration as well as making it possible to produce all the reports that are now necessary. The county and district contribute to the biological record centres, the wildlife sites project, ecological footprint studies by volunteers and so on.

Quite a lot of money is going in, and I am pleased to see that the clause makes it clear that the term "local authorities" specifically includes parish councils. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about how he envisages the role of parish councils. They are an important part of our local government structure. I know that it is true that 50 per cent. of our country is not parished. Those of use who represent parished areas perhaps do not realise that, but it is true. We therefore need to be a bit clearer on what the role of parish councils might be.
6 Jun 2005 : Column 1045

My third and final comment is about part 6 and rights of way. I should declare an interest as a fully paid-up member of the Motorcycle Action Group. Although I do not ride a motor bike, when I was Minister for Roads and Traffic, I formulated motor cycling policy and became quite a convert to the activity. I remain a convert and champion of it, and that is why I was disappointed that the British Motorcyclists Federation put out a press release last week deploring the Government's actions in respect of rights of way. We must tackle the issue head on and go for an early commencement date. My highway authority, Wiltshire county council, has been inundated with hundreds of applications—I think 400 in that area alone—and it is a serious issue.

We must make it clear to those who use our lanes what they are doing. More than a year ago, I spent a day with an off-road club four-by-fouring in south Wiltshire's green lanes. I talked to trail bikers, had meetings with them and tried to understand where they were coming from. Many of them are responsible, genuine, careful people who do much good in supervising rallies and so on, and some of them—especially the Trail Riders Fellowship—mend tracks, keep back hedges and keep roads open. However, they are let down by the vast majority who do not act in that way and who have ruined miles and miles of ancient, historic and beautiful rights of way in my constituency and right across the south of England and beyond. It is a tragedy that that has happened, and I feel that most of those people have no idea of the damage that they do. It is totally inappropriate to put powerful bikes or four-by-fours on to very delicate surfaces that are only earth tracks most of the time. Many tracks have no foundations, and they are ruined for ever.

Many of the riders do not realise the significance of the routes that they use; they do not look at the maps and realise that they might be running along a road that went from Lincolnshire to the south coast in pre-Roman times. As in the case of Mack's lane in Grimstead in my constituency, the riders are interested only in opening up another 400 m so that they can power their vehicles through and get a thrill from it. I am sorry, but that has got to stop, otherwise those tracks will not exist for future generations. I hope that the riders will understand that, in the interests of the majority, we simply have to say no.

If anyone doubts that the majority is involved, I can tell them that, 18 months ago, I was contacted by 100 per cent. of the parish councils in my area and 100 per cent. of them said that we had to stop such activities. They said Parliament had a duty to them and to future generations to stop the conflict between pedestrians, horse riders and people with buggies and those who wish to use totally inappropriate motor vehicles.

Next Section IndexHome Page