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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): This has been an excellent and welcome early debate on rural affairs, putting the Bill into a wider context. I apologise at the start that I will not have time to respond in detail to the many points that have been made.
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As the Secretary of State said earlier, the Bill is the cornerstone of our plans to achieve the agenda set out in the rural strategy. It will provide the legislative framework to help us to realise our vision of thriving rural communities, of fair access to services for all in the countryside and of rich, diverse landscapes managed and enhanced for current and future generations.

Our rural reforms will benefit rural businesses, with fewer forms and quicker and better advice fully attuned to rural circumstances. They will benefit rural people, with decisions taken closer to the customer and with a strong advocate for their needs. They will help people to enjoy the countryside and the coast through a single co-ordinated approach to access and to nature. They will help the environment through better sustainable management of the environment, from individual species to the landscape as a whole. Last but not least, they will benefit the taxpayer, with more efficient and effective administration that, over the medium and long term, will save over £20 million a year.

As we have heard, there have been eight excellent maiden speeches during this debate. I congratulate all those hon. Members and welcome them to the House. I join them in paying tribute to the work of their predecessors: Lawrie Quinn, Linda Perham, Andy King, Sir Sydney Chapman, Brian Cotter, Brian White, Helen Clark and Howard Flight.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made an excellent speech, claiming the mantle of the hon. Member for oven chips. Given the confessed rivalry between Scarborough and Whitby, I thought him brave to describe Whitby as the jewel in the crown. The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) did well in linking his London seat to rural affairs and in proving that the divide often constructed between town and country is often false. We heard a fluent and polished speech by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright). I look forward to visiting his constituency shortly when I visit the royal show.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) paid a particularly warm tribute to Sir Sydney Chapman, saying that the House will be a poorer place for his absence. Judging by her maiden speech, the House and her party will be a richer place for her presence. The hon. Member for Weston-Super-Mare (John Penrose) talked of some of the problems of seaside towns, many of which I recognise from my own constituency. He talked of donkeys; it is clear he will not prove to be one in the House.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) looks set to make an explosive impact as a firework manufacturer, and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) made an excellent start as a champion for his constituents, including staff working at English Nature in Peterborough. I am not surprised at the great start made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Herbert), who I know is a polished performer. I look forward to his support for the reduction in public spending in the Bill, in the tradition of Members for that seat.

The amendment fails to understand that the purpose of the new body is to preserve and enhance the beauty about which the hon. Member for South Dorset is so poetic. [Interruption.] West Dorset; I am, of course, the Member for South Dorset. I am equally poetic about the
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environment. Beauty is important. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and I both represent the beautiful Dorset countryside and understand the importance of protecting the environment for the future while developing sustainable access to it for social and economic gain. That is at the very heart of the new purpose for natural England, but we must do so in such a way that we can all enjoy it and so that the right hon. Gentleman's constituents and mine can make a living from it while shaping the landscape for current and future generations.

Natural England will be an environmental body. Its purpose is to conserve, enhance and manage the natural environment; that will be its priority. It will build on the excellent work of English Nature and the Countryside Agency, and I join my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) in paying warm tribute to that work. I also applaud the work of the rural development service on agri-environment schemes in particular.

I believe that we have struck the right balance in forming the purpose of natural England, which will be required to contribute to sustainable development. It will actively seek integrated solutions that achieve the full range of sustainable development. However, natural England remains an environmental body and there will be situations where an integrated solution is not possible. Here we expect natural England to be a trenchant champion of the natural environment, as its statutory purpose makes clear.

The amendment suggests that we are failing to create a simplified scheme of support for rural communities. By bringing three new bodies together in one new body, we are simplifying arrangements for our customers and providing a streamlined framework for the delivery of support that will help us to cut red tape and confusion. That is at the core of the deregulation and simplification process that we would have expected the Opposition to support.

The Opposition also seek to deny rural areas the strong independent voice that they will have in the commission for rural communities. The commission has a unique and distinctive role to act as a voice for rural people, undistracted now by delivery functions of its own and with the purpose, set out in clause 18, of promoting awareness to all public and other bodies of rural needs. That is why it is relevant for the commission to be established; it can be a voice in respect of the actions of local authorities and regional development agencies, of which we heard much today, as well as central Government.

The commission will help to ensure that the Government's policies make a real difference, especially in tackling social disadvantage and economic exclusion. I have to say to the right hon. Member for West Dorset that I am advised that clauses 16 and 25, which he finds so objectionable in terms of undermining the independence of natural England and the commission for rural communities, which the Government want, are nothing new. They are a standard requirement for non-departmental public bodies to ensure accountability for taxpayers' money. English Nature and the Countryside Agency are currently vulnerable to similar powers of direction and I do not hear the right hon. Gentleman saying that they are not sufficiently independent.
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Many Members raised the issue of rights of way and great concern has been raised, most passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), but by many others. I share the concern that irresponsible drivers of four-by-fours and trail bikes are damaging our byways and some of the most beautiful parts of our countryside. We have consulted at length on the provisions in the Bill and believe that they strike a careful balance. Our overriding aim must be to secure the future sustainability of the rights of way network.

The Bill will give landowners and others greater certainty about mechanically propelled vehicles' rights on public rights of way. That should result in a reduction in conflict and it is a great step forward from the current situation in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 of leaving it until 2026 to put in claims for those matters. Under the Bill, claims based on historic evidence would only allow for rights of way to be established for non-motorised vehicles. This will ensure that future use of rights of way will be consistent with their historic use.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) asked about the date of commencement, as did the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). We must take care over commencement because we are extinguishing public rights, but if claims are focused on those routes that are most sustainable, the imperative will not be so strong for swift commencement. However, I put this warning on the record: if claims are submitted indiscriminately, I assure hon. Members that we shall have to commence the legislation at the very earliest opportunity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw asked about the volume of current applications for byways to be open to all traffic and about the use of traffic regulation orders. Such applications are currently lodged with local authorities and will remain there up to commencement. We will have to deal with them under the current legislation. That is the legal advice that I have been given. I would be interested to hear from my hon. Friend what evidence he has of thousands of applications, as we are in close contact with local authorities about the level of such applications and what he said does not reflect our findings. I shall be publishing guidance on the use of traffic regulation orders and rights of way in the summer. I share my predecessor's view that traffic regulation orders are an essential management tool in respect of that issue, to which I am sure we will return in greater detail in Committee.

The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood raised the matters of rural funding streams and the timetable for detailed design. My hon. Friend referred to our response to his Select Committee's report. He will have noted in our response more detail about the three funds that we provided before. If it is any reassurance to him, we intend to have a mature design in place by the end of this year.

Concern was raised that the costs of setting up natural England will outweigh the savings. I can clarify that the savings envisaged by 2007–08 are £13 million—not the £11 million mentioned by the right hon. Member for West Dorset. We are not complacent and will keep a close eye on the figures and on the benefits both to rural people and the environment that we believe the changes will bring. The changes will pay for themselves within
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five years and provide £21 million of savings every year thereafter, which I am sure that the whole House would welcome.

I shall have to correspond with the right hon. Member for Fylde on the issue of information technology.

In conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Bill will underpin the commitments that we made in the rural strategy and the rural manifesto, creating simpler and stronger organisational structures and transforming the way in which we deliver rural and environmental services to customers. It will reduce bureaucracy, devolve decision making, improve services and save money.

People living in the countryside will benefit from the devolution of decision making closer to the ground. The commission for rural communities will champion their needs, particularly those of people suffering from disadvantage. All will benefit from natural England, too, as it mutually reinforces the objectives of conserving and enhancing all aspects of our natural environment, helping people to enjoy and gain benefit from it. The environment will benefit from greater protection and a more coherent area-based approach to addressing its health, including biodiversity.

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