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Mr. Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) on his maiden speech. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech.
It is a great honour to have been elected the Member for Arundel and South Downs. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will understand me when I say that it came as something of a surprise to me to be selected. Two months ago I had hardly thought that I would be in the position that I am now. I had then been enjoying the luxury of running a think tank and conducting radical thinking. That luxury is no longer available to me. I had to spend much of the election campaign looking carefully under tables at village hall meetings to check that bugs had not been placed by the agents of the previous Government and worrying that I might commit some dreadful infelicity in arguing, for instance, for lower taxes.
I have been greatly helped since arriving in this place by the kindness of the Opposition Whips, who looked after new Members with a great deal of attention. We were given the opportunity of a two-day induction course. We were assisted by the fact that each of us was required to wear a badge bearing our name, with our constituency written underneath. We were shaking hands, introducing ourselves and congratulating one another on our success. Someone came up to me and congratulated me. His name, I think, was James Baring. He had Douglas and Gordon written on his badge. I said, "Congratulations to you, too. I had not realised that we had won an additional seat in Scotland". It turned out that it was Douglas and Gordon, the estate agents. I had already made the first of many mistakes, I am sure, as a new Member.
It is right for me to pay tribute to my predecessor, Howard Flight. He was the inaugural Member for Arundel and South Downs, a seat that was newly created in 1997 when he first fought it. I am sad about the circumstances in which Howard had to resign from the seat, but I pay great tribute to the work that he did as a well-regarded constituency Member. He was
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assiduous in the attention he gave to his constituency and in his work for my partywork that was shared by his wife Christabel. I hope that my party will find a continuing role for Howard in the future.
I can well understand Howard's dismay at being unable to continue to represent such a beautiful constituency. I say with some care, given that I know that some of my hon. Friends present also represent beautiful constituencies, that Arundel and South Downs must be one of the most beautiful constituencies in England. Thirty miles broadtwice the size of the Isle of Wightit can take almost an hour to drive from one side to the other. It famously contains the town of Arundel and Arundel castle, where indisputably the most beautiful cricket ground in England is found. Each year, a visiting touring side plays the Duke of Norfolk's XI or another side constructed to give the tourists their first game. This Thursday, we look forward to the visit by Australia, which is to play its first game of the tour at Arundel. I hope that a member of the Professional Cricketers' Association Masters XI will replicate the success of my great-grandfather, who, when playing for the Duke of Norfolk's XI against Sussex at Arundel, took five wickets for seven runs. For those who might not know much about cricket, let me emphasise that five wickets for seven runs is quite an achievement. If we can begin with that sort of performance against Australia, it will stand us in good stead for a great Ashes victory.
Half of the constituency is covered by an area of outstanding natural beauty. The Bill's aims of protecting the environment and rural communities are therefore highly relevant, but I suspect that my constituents will greet many of its provisions with hollow laughter. During the election campaign, the local issue most prevalent on the doorstep was that of countryside development. People are enormously concerned about the proposals for house building in West Sussex, which is an outstandingly beautiful part of England, and the impact that that development will have in the area near the south downs.
It is significant that the proposals for 46,500 houses in West Sussex alonemore than 100,000 in the south-eastare, in essence, central Government diktat. Local people feel disfranchisedthey feel that they have no say in whether the development should go ahead. The local authorities oppose it, as do the overwhelming number of local people, yet the decisions have been handed down from the Secretary of State and through the unelected South East England regional assembly. When I tell my constituents that I spoke on Second Reading of a Bill to protect the natural environment that the Government introduced early in the new Parliament, they will wonder why that Bill does nothing to arrest the house-building proposals about which they are concerned and over which they have no say.
The second reason why I believe that the Bill will be met with hollow laughter in my constituency is that it talks about protecting rural communities at a time when the natural communities that have shaped my part of
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West Sussex for centuries are threatened and some have been lost. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) said, farming is enduring a period of great change and difficulty, and that difficulty is exacerbated by the increasing regulation confronting the industry. It is difficult to stand in the way of the changes that farming is experiencing, but we could make it easier on farmers by introducing less of the kind of legislation that the Bill contains.
I cannot avoid introducing a note of controversy about a more malevolent attack on natural communities, which may not affect the constituencies of some Labour Members or even of some of my hon. Friends, but does affect mine. I refer to the ban on hunting, which was introduced in the last Session. I have a number of packs of hounds in my constituency. The impact of that legislation, irrespective of its other meritsI happen to think that it had no meritsis devastating on the natural rural communities that have existed for hundreds of years in that part of the world and which bind rural people together. It behoves us to reflect whether it is possible to legislate, as the Bill sets out to do, to build or support communities. I believe that it is not possible to legislate in that way. What we can do is legislate in a way that undermines such communities or even destroys them.
Another example that I could give was well made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), whose constituency abuts mine. He spoke about the impact of licensing regulation on shops, village halls and so on, where people wish to conduct events. Those absurd licensing regulations result in small bodies having to spend hundreds of pounds and go through the great bureaucratic difficulty of applying for licences simply in order to sell a small amount of alcohol at a quiet rural event or daily to quiet rural customers. Excessive legislation can create great difficulties for local communities. One of the best things that we can do for such communities is to lift the regulatory burden and to a large extent leave them alone.
I apply the same test to the part of the Bill relating to national parks. In my constituency there is a controversial proposal to create a national park in the south downs. The proposal has attractions and one can understand why people are drawn towards it, not least by the desire to protect the special rural environment there, yet if the Government are part of the answer to protecting the beautiful south downs, I wonder whether the designation of the park is a good thing.
I suspect that that will result in more regulation in the countryside and the substitution of an only partly elected body in the form of the national park authority, which will take planning decisions, whereas at present elected local authorities take such decisions, allowing people to feel that they have some kind of say over them. It will inevitably result in an increase in tourism in the area, with all the impact that that may have on the local environment. It may introduce conflict between local people and the park authority, such as I saw when I lived in a national park in Northumberland for three years.
The Bill has antecedents. The rural White Paper in November 2000 promised to deliver high-quality services in rural areas. Today, four and a half years later, the Secretary of State said that the Bill would radically transform rural services. I wonder what happened in between. Rural services in my constituency are under
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great pressure. Part of the difficulty is the funding settlement given to West Sussex. Although it is one of the most efficient councils, it has one of the worse settlements of any council of its kind. Resources have been taken away from it, the more efficiently it has performed.
The Bill would result in a considerable centralisation of the provision of services, which I no longer believe is viable in the modern world. It does not yield the results and the improvement in services that the public have a right to expect. That centralisation can manifest itself in extraordinary forms. During the election campaign I visited a doctor's surgery in the constituency, where a patient had offered to change a light bulb in the surgery. His manager told him that he could not change the light bulb and that someone had to be sent up from the relevant authority in Brighton to change it in accordance with NHS rules.
Throughout the election campaign, my concern was that in seeking to talk to people about how services might improve, there seemed to be a great disconnect between what the Conservative party and, indeed, the Government were offering and what people were willing to believe might happen as a result of the election of either one of us.
Another issue was antisocial behaviour in villages in my constituency. Such behaviour started in a minor way, but it greatly irritates local people and it is becoming a problem. All parties made promises about dealing with antisocial behaviour, but my constituents and others do not believe that we can produce what they want to seethe reintroduction of local policemen in the villages. We have had some success with community support officers, but there was a great disconnect between what we were promising and local people's expectations. That disconnect exists because local people sense that their ability to influence such decisions has been taken so far away from them that it is very unlikely that the changes that we were promising will be secured.
Today, the Leader of the House said that one reason why he thinks it so important to re-engage with voters is that the public understand that services are improving, but they do not realise that that is all to the Government's credit. That is not a reason to seek to re-engage with our voters. Even if it were true that services are improvingI do not believe that they arethere is the much more profound problem of the gap between what political parties say that they can do and what can be delivered for local people and, in my case, rural communities on the ground.
We have taken away power from local authorities and decision making from local people. Having centralised those powers, however, we cannot deliver the improvements to services that people seek. The Bill falls into that trap and is, in a sense, the old politicsit has 99 clauses, 99 pages and 12 schedules, but it offers familiar solutions that will not effect the radical transformation promised by the Secretary of State. It introduces a new quango, which issurprise, surprisemostly unaccountable. In the spirit of the modern age, the quango is branded as "natural", as though it were a yoghurt, and its very creation will take more powers away from local authorities.
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We have not learned the lessons from the public's rejection of the North East Assembly. In my part of the world, the regional assembly continues to make decisions on behalf of local people, although it is wholly unelected. We are not rapidly learning the lessons from the rejection of the European constitution by the peoples of Europe, which shows the disconnect between the public and politicians.
It is time for a new politics that brings decisions closer to people, makes institutions such as the one created by the Bill more accountable, regains power for local authorities and puts choice and control in the hands of individuals. That is the only way in which we can generate a better countryside, better communities and better services, especially for the disadvantaged. Instead of that, we have heard bold claims about a radical transformation that will simply not be met.
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