Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

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Jim Knight: Just to clarify the matter, as I said in my opening speech, the Commission for Rural Communities was established in March this year within the Countryside Agency, of which Stuart Burgess is chair. It has an acting chief executive, so it is up and running internally, but if the hon. Gentleman’s amendments took effect it would fall away.

Mr. Breed: I am delighted to know that. I hope that the setting-up costs, such as the stationery and so on, will not be too great because it would be a shame, having forged ahead, to find that the body will not come into being.

I do not want to trivialise this serious point. There is a genuine feeling in rural areas that the Government have tried to tackle some of their concerns, but setting up unelected quangos, which is their continual answer to the strong voices in rural communities, is not the way forward. The way forward is to recognise that local authorities have a central role in the provision of services to rural areas. They have to be engaged in these matters anyway, principally through planning; they have economic development units and access to a significant amount of advice and information; they are already involved in public transport through subsidy and planning routes; and they are involved, working with primary care trusts, in the provision of health services.

Local authorities have one real additional benefit: they are elected. There is a democratic deficit in the regional development agencies, the Government office for the south-west, the Countryside Agency and the CRC, which is why local people do not feel that the Government are responding properly to their wishes. They want their elected representatives to work with the Government to deliver what they need and want, which will vary between areas—it will not be “one size fits all”. Cornwall’s requirements will be different from those of East Anglia or Derbyshire. Local authorities, with their local knowledge and expertise, should be the real rural advocates. Only if they work with the Department will local communities get cost-effective and efficient services. The CRC will go the same way as the Countryside Agency, which Lord Haskins has already said should be abolished.

Central Government should operate in concert with local government: two democratically elected bodies working for the benefit of the people who elected them. That is what we should return to.

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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I rise to support virtually everything that the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) said, possibly with the exception of his comments about Cornwall and the one-party state, which I am sure is purely a temporary arrangement.

We made our position clear on Second Reading, as did the Liberal Democrats. We share the view that the CRC is a wholly unnecessary body that will almost certainly be ineffective in achieving the Government’s objectives.

When my party was in office, we were accused, sometimes with merit, of continually setting up unelected quangos. However, the present Government have done so with a vigour that was unknown even in our day. What worries me is the criticism that is always levelled at quangos: they do not actually represent anybody. Sometimes quangos are the most effective way forward. However, as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall made clear, rural people already have perfectly able, reasonable and sensible elected representatives at different levels. In theory, every CRC appointee could be from Westminster or Islington. There is no reason to believe that such people would have a specialist knowledge or understanding of rural areas.

That example was probably extreme and I trust that the Government would appoint people with rural knowledge. However, because, as the Minister explained, the body will be relatively small—we will talk later about the numbers on the board—there is a risk that it will seek to impose on the whole rural community of England its vision of what rural England should be in terms of economic activity. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall pointed out, those economic factors will be extremely different in Cornwall, East Anglia, Northumberland, Yorkshire, the south downs and wherever else—even in South Dorset. It could be argued that it would be better to have a big structure with lots of regional offices all doing what appears to be right, but that would make the situation worse in many ways because it would lead to even more conflict.

As we said on Second Reading, the Government have gone the wrong way not only about this clause but about this element of their whole rural restructuring. It is wrong to give RDAs a considerably enhanced role—arguably it was wrong to invent them—in delivering the economic aspect of the Government’s rural policies. They are wholly unelected. Those functions could perfectly well have been delegated to county or, I would argue, district level where, as the hon. Gentleman said, economic promotional activities are already in place. Most county and district councils have economic development offices and an infrastructure in place. More importantly, they have the down-to-earth knowledge of their particular area and are accountable. If the Government had fulfilled some of their rhetoric of driving power down to the people, they would not need to set up a national rural superstructure.

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I hope that I do not need to convince the Minister, the Committee or the House of Commons of my fervent support for rural communities—it has been my guiding principle throughout my political career and will remain so. That is what I am here for. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) is here to represent her constituents, including the three parishes. We are elected to represent our communities, and councillors are elected at district and county level. We all know that we are accountable for how well we do our job, but the proposed organisation will not be.

I shall now highlight one or two examples of how the idea has already failed. The Countryside Agency started fairly well with, for example, the highly successful vital villages programme, through which many village halls were developed and stimulated. However, when the Government decided to change the national lottery rules and we lost all the money for vital villages, did the Countryside Agency say much? Not a lot. What did it achieve? Nothing. The Government rode roughshod over it. Government policy was to change the whole structure for allocating lottery money, so many village hall projects in the pipeline, including some in my constituency, were suddenly cut off. In theory, a rural advocate is fine, but the reality is that if the Government of the day or, indeed, RDAs, which are equally unaccountable, decide to do something different, it does not matter how loud the rural advocate’s voice is.

There is a strong case for saying that this aspect of rural development and of the Government’s restructuring of their rural delivery process need to be thought through again. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, Lord Haskins made his view clear. The Government could have done things differently. They could have driven responsibility for sustainable economic development back down to local authorities, where people are elected from small rural communities—people who have an understanding of the matter and who are accountable. If they get things wrong and seek to impose their perhaps somewhat twee or outside vision of a rural community, and the rural people do not like it, they can be removed at the next election, as applies to us.

This body, however, will exist in perpetuity. If it tries to impose its vision of rural communities, there is nothing that anyone can do about it, other than the Government disregarding it. That brings me back to my first point, which is whether the body is necessary in the first place. The Minister is clearly wedded to it; he believes passionately that it will be a strong rural advocate. I do not in any way denigrate his commitment to it, but I say with utter seriousness that this is not the right way to go about dealing with the problems of rural communities. We should be driving power back down to local people and giving them the resources and the responsibility to resolve their own problems, because then they know that the buck stops there and that things cannot be blamed on some body located we do not know where.

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I suspect that I am whistling in the wind, but I support what the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, and I hope that the Minister is prepared to go away and think again on this aspect of the Bill.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I do not dispute for a minute the fact that there are problems in rural areas and rural communities. I represent a constituency with a large rural element. However, there is a danger of talking rural areas down. It is fascinating that when we talk to residents throughout the country, they say that they want to move from urban to rural areas—that is the direction of travel. The growth of the population is in rural areas: people believe that there is a better future there. The rate of unemployment is lower and the rate of economic growth is higher in rural areas, so the notion that they are a wasteland is just not true.

Mr. Breed: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paddy Tipping: Before I do, let me just say that I am happy to admit that there are problems—that was my opening line—but they are small-scale isolated problems compared with the massive disadvantage that exists in urban areas.

Mr. Breed: The hon. Gentleman is right about unemployment. Certainly unemployment in my rural areas has gone down, which is to be welcomed. Of course, that is partly because there are no jobs and the young people have moved away to find jobs and careers, often after they have been to university, and they have been replaced by an increasing number of retired people, who are not on the unemployment register. So, although the figures are right, we would like far more jobs to be made available in rural areas, so that when young people leave school or university, they can stay there to live and work. Unemployment rates have come down, but that has not addressed the employment problem.

9.45 am

Paddy Tipping: I am not going to get into a long dispute about unemployment, Mr. Forth, because you will not let me. I merely say to the hon. Gentleman, simply and bluntly, that, yes, that is one factor, but there are others. He is right to say that we need to bring more employment opportunities, in particular, to small parts of rural areas. The Commission for Rural Communities might want to consider the issue.

The Countryside Agency has been important; for example, as an advocate of growth in rural transport. The rate of closure of small village schools has fallen significantly as a result of action by the Countryside Agency and the Government.

Mr. Breed: The hon. Gentleman is right, but who has been doing that? It is the local authorities that have been receiving the subsidies, sorting out the bus routes and deciding where there should they go. Who has been looking at the schools? It is the local education authorities.

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Paddy Tipping: But there has been a policy behind that, which has been decided by the Government. They took the view that they were not going to close small schools. That has nothing to do with local authorities; they were the delivery mechanism, but the policy was made centrally.

Let me give another example. Many Members in this Room were concerned about broadband, and the disadvantages that rural areas might face. However, the development of broadband has been absolutely tremendous. We have made more progress than I ever thought was possible. Yes, there are problems with rural post offices, but the Government are making available money for them to stay open; I know that the problem is tough, and we must find imaginative solutions to it, but they are being found.

Mr. Breed: The hon. Gentleman is making my point for me. All that happened without the CRC. Broadband has improved, and we did not need the CRC or the Countryside Agency for that to happen. The Government recognised that.

Paddy Tipping: The Government recognised that they needed to consider the infrastructure. The hon. Gentleman talked in his opening comments about the strong campaign for a department for rural affairs. The Government wisely decided against that, and moved towards the establishment of DEFRA. As he said, that led to conflict between DEFRA as a deliverer of policy and the Countryside Agency, which still had a policy function.

I shall make two points about that. First, the needs of rural areas must be acknowledged, and the establishment of DEFRA showed that. Secondly, I feel strongly that there is a need for an independent voice for rural areas. The Minister spoke about independence, and that is important. However, the point that he made about strength is more important. The commission must be a strong body that is not afraid to take the Government on. There must be a dynamic tension—that is the kind of phrase that they use in No. 10 sometimes—between the new CRC and Government.

I am pleased that the chairman of the CRC will be the rural advocate, appointed by the Prime Minister and having direct access to him; perhaps the Minister will confirm that. Hon. Members who have already spoken have made important points, but it is important that the new body sensitises the Government and Departments to the needs of rural areas. Having said that, I accept that there will be some conflict between the policies being devised in DEFRA and the new CRC. That area needs further work and examination.

The new body needs to an independent outsider prepared to criticise the Government openly. It needs to produce an annual report and a stock-take of what the Government do. In the early days, that stock-take might be pretty poor, but it might be an encouragement to Government to do more. However, there is some tension between DEFRA and its officials and the new body, which needs to be carefully managed.

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I am also clear that the body is designed to be a policy instrument rather than a service deliverer. That is right, but issues arise from that. One is that it is sometimes hard for a policy wonk to stay in touch with the real world. I am not convinced that the Haskins split between policy and delivery is as clear cut as many people argue. I am not entirely sure from where the CRC will get its knowledge of the situation on the ground, which is an important and difficult issue that needs to be carefully examined. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, the needs of rural communities across the country will be different and require different solutions.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): We all admire the work that the hon. Gentleman does and the thought that he gives to the issues. However, I live in a devolved nation, and there are 68 town and parish councils in my constituency. What will the people in the countryside think of the CRC? It will not deliver for them, and if they have points to make about community hospitals and local schools, surely they will go straight to local authorities or DEFRA or the Department for Education and Skills. It seems to me that the CRC will sit in some ivory tower without any contact with the people whom it is seeking to represent.

Paddy Tipping: If that proves to be the case, the CRC will be a failure, but I think that the people surrounding the commission—an embryo body exists—are aware of those difficulties. I want the CRC to be, first, independent and, secondly, a powerful voice for change. The CRC will not be able to make that change, but it will be an advocate, tool and lever for change. It will be judged on what it delivers: I am with the hon. Gentleman on that.

Both the hon. Members for South-East Cornwall and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) have spoken about the role of local authorities. It has become fashionable to do local authorities down, but I want to see them strong and powerful. After two decades of denigrating them and reducing their powers, the tide is turning, and I hope that across all parties there is discussion about the need for a new localism. We want local authorities that are in touch with, advocate for and deliver for local people. Indeed, one interesting aspect of the Haskins review was the weight given to local authorities. Lord Haskins is a strong advocate for local authorities.

My final point is that we will have myriad players working in rural communities. Part 8 of the Bill, which we will come to later, talks about “Flexible administrative arrangements” in clauses 70 to 74, but I have some anxiety about how we will pull everything together. There will be Government offices, RDAs, the new CRC and local authorities, which we will be asking to do some of the delivery. I am not confident that we have mapped out clearly enough the infrastructure to bring about the change that we want in rural areas.

I am aware that new committees are being set up and regional plans developed in various Government offices, but I say again to the Minister that the CRC
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will be judged in time. Rural administration is fragmented and will need to be examined and worked on, but I am confident that the CRC will play an important role in enhancing rural areas. I want it to be strong and independent, and to take the Government on. I want it to get under the Minister’s skin and, more particularly, under the skin of some of his ministerial colleagues, who are fairly thick-skinned when it comes to rural areas. One way to judge the CRC will be on the amount of trouble that it creates for the Government. I look forward to a lot of trouble being created to try to ensure that the balance between rural and urban communities is better addressed.

Mr. Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I support what was said by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I do not carry a copy of the Labour party manifesto around with me, but I am sure that the Minister will be able to remember whether it contains a provision calling for deregulation. I bet that it does. Certainly in the Budget before the general election the Government were clear that deregulation should be a priority. Yet, two weeks after the election, this Bill is published. Surely it falls at the first fence when judged against that agenda of deregulation because it confirms the re-establishment of a quango. We must question, as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall did very effectively, whether that quango is needed.

The body’s very name—the Commission for Rural Communities—should tell us something about it. I liked the fact that the Minister was able to announce this morning that it will be located in Sheffield.

Jim Knight: What I announced was that Natural England will be located in Sheffield. A decision about the location of the Commission for Rural Communities will be made by the end of the year.

Mr. Herbert: I apologise to the Minister; I misunderstood. So Natural England is to be located in Sheffield and we look forward to the Commission for Rural Communities perhaps being located in another one of our great cities.

Jim Knight: As I also made clear, the CRC will be located in a lagging rural area.

Mr. Herbert: A lagging rural area—I am sure that rural communities will be greatly reassured by that.

Paddy Tipping: As someone who was brought up in Sheffield, I remind the hon. Gentleman—and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough will back me up on this—that within the Sheffield city boundary there are areas of outstanding beauty and parts of the Peak park. Do not put Sheffield down.

Mr. Herbert: I feel humbled and corrected by the hon. Gentleman about the beauty of rural Sheffield, which I am sure matches that of the south downs; no doubt both areas have deprivation on a similar scale.

The most serious points made were about the extent to which the establishment of a body such as the CRC usurps powers and roles that should properly belong
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to local authorities. It is a great pity that, while the thrust of public debate is moving, as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) suggested, towards re-establishing power in local government, we are moving in the wrong direction by establishing this quango. There are issues about the extent to which rural authorities, even in an area such as mine, are sufficiently resourced to be able to deliver services to their areas. However, as an author of a new publication, “Direct Democracy”— I am sure that the Minister will have read it—that argues for a return of power to individuals, to local communities and, if possible, to local government from central Government, I think that it is a shame that that will not happen with this body.

10 am

We should also consider the extent to which voluntary organisations have the advocacy role that is being conferred on this body. Establishing public bodies such as this crowds out the ability of voluntary organisations to represent rural areas. There is quite a serious issue about the extent to which the Government are establishing publicly funded bodies that use those public funds to argue for greater public spending in certain areas. Arguing for greater Government intervention is properly the role of civil society and voluntary organisations. Setting up self-perpetuating bodies arguing for more Government intervention and more Government spending seems to me to be wrong in principle.

John Mann: To which voluntary bodies is the hon. Gentleman referring?

Mr. Herbert: All of us who are fortunate enough to be members of the Committee will have received representations from a plethora of voluntary bodies—some of which I am sure have representatives here watching the Committee today—that take a great interest in rural England and rural communities and that do a great deal of valuable work. The Government should be listening to their collective voices. I question whether it is necessary for the Government to set up their own public voice to which they are supposed to pay attention.

I am intrigued by the idea of rural-proofing—the idea that the commission should encourage the Government in all cases to think rural and act as a rural advocate. I ask again why voluntary bodies cannot perform that role. In relation to my constituency, the Deputy Prime Minister overruled the wishes of local people as expressed through their local authorities and imposed 46,500 houses on West Sussex. Was that the kind of policy that the new commission for rural communities would have been able to rural-proof? Would it have advised the Deputy Prime Minister that that policy was not in the interests of rural communities in my area? If so, would he have reversed the decision? I suspect not. Large parts of West Sussex have a water shortage and we have a hosepipe ban already. There are serious questions about whether that part of the world has sufficient
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infrastructure to accommodate housing on that scale, but central Government are simply ignoring those concerns.

I invite the Minister to tell me whether we will be able to rely on the new body, with its powers to rural-proof, to prevent such anti-rural policies from being introduced in future. It is wrong of him to caricature the genuine concern about the establishment of the body that hon. Members have expressed as somehow not properly representing the interests of rural people. I think he suggested that he was surprised that we were not more concerned about them. In fact, we are very concerned, indeed, about the interests of rural people. It is a perfectly simple question to ask whether the establishment of a Government body in itself supports their interests. I do not see that the Bill answers that question positively at all.

Ms Smith: I would like to start by stating how delighted I am that Natural England is to be located in Sheffield. It will be a great boost for the city. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood for his defence of Sheffield—never cross a Sheffielder when it comes to their home city; it is always a mistake—and I issue an invitation to the city to the hon. Members for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Herbert) and for South-East Cambridgeshire, who stated that there was nothing natural about Sheffield. They will be able to see just how rural it is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood stated, a third of the city’s boundaries are within the national park, making it a fairly rural city by national standards.

In South Yorkshire overall, and taking the authorities of Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster, it may surprise hon. Members to learn that each one of those authorities is more than 70 per cent. rural. Even in the county that is probably best known for pit villages and steel, there are clearly outstandingly rural areas. I do not want to get into a competition to see who represents the most rural constituency, but the point that I am trying to make was made by the Minister earlier: rural areas can vary markedly and can sit extremely close to urban areas and centres of heavy industry and manufacturing, such as Sheffield.

In my constituency, there is moorland that goes right into the dark peak, right to the edge of the Howden dam, which is best known for the Dambusters. It is home to grouse, curlew, golden plover, skylark and merlin. The dark peak is also one of the only habitats in England for mountain hares. I hope that I have settled the point: Sheffield and many areas in the north can be considered as rural in part, even though they are directly adjacent to heavy manufacturing areas. The issues faced by the rural parts of Sheffield in my constituency are in many ways common to most rural areas in the country.

We have discussed access to small village schools and public transport, but we must also consider affordable housing. Two villages in my constituency, Worrall and Loxley, have, in effect, no local authority housing left, because it has all been bought under the right-to-buy legislation. That means that the average house price in Worrall is now in the region of £150,000 upwards. Even for the north, that is a staggering
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figure. So there are real issues that I am sure many constituencies in the south-east and across the country share.

There are issues concerning local authority housing. One of the villages that I represent, Stannington, is located on a ridge between the Loxley and Rivelin valleys. It is an outstandingly beautiful location. On one edge of the village, there are tower blocks and two of the most deprived council estates in Sheffield—the Liberty Hill estate and the Deer Park estate. Two miles down the road, at the other end of the village, there are isolated farms in the Peak District national park. That illustrates perfectly why we need a Commission for Rural Communities. Although the local authority, of which I was once part, has recognised the Liberty Hill and Deer Park estates as areas of deprivation to be prioritised for investment, the Commission for Rural Communities would ensure that the local authority would pursue that policy effectively.

In terms of the national policy framework that was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, the CRC will help to ensure that the local authority does exactly what it says it is going to do and takes the rural areas within its boundaries as seriously as it does its city centres. With the best will in the world, an authority such as Sheffield, which is a Labour-controlled authority, needs to have advocates that are ready to ensure that those parts of the city that are not as directly involved in the political process are effectively represented. I take the point about elected representation, but the point is that some elected representatives tend to get more involved in parish-pump and local matters and to isolate themselves from the political process within the local authorities.

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