Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

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Mr. Breed: The hon. Lady indicated that she was a member of her local authority. Does she believe that the CRC would be a better advocate for those issues than her former council?

Ms Smith: I have already said that the role of an elected representative is fundamental to economic development in rural areas, but when I was on the city council, the voice of a commission relating to any subject relevant to a local authority was always taken seriously. Local authorities ignored the policy advice of a commission at its peril. Those commissions, because they are independent and seem to have no direct interest in the issue at hand, are taken seriously, particularly in a politicised city such as Sheffield, which is so politically driven. Statements made by commissions are taken seriously by local community and lobbying groups and are ignored at one’s peril.

Schools, local authority housing and access to further education and employment have already been mentioned, but drugs are also a big issue in rural areas. The issue is not special to urban areas. There are drugs issues across every single rural area in my constituency. The problem needs to be addressed seriously. The problem is often ignored. I am convinced that the Commission for Rural Communities will play a part in raising the profile of such issues, which can threaten to destroy the very communities I am talking about. In a former pit village
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in my area, High Green, we have a specific drugs problem, which is one of the reasons why it is recognised as one of the city’s most deprived areas.

The whole point of having a commission, which I am pleased to see, is that the focus is going to be on social and economic disadvantage. Drugs and drug taking is one of the key indicators of serious social and economic problems. Outside my constituency, and outside Sheffield, is the village of Grimethorpe, which was made famous by the film “Brassed Off”. Grimethorpe is known as a village with one of the biggest drugs problems in South Yorkshire. It was one of the most prosperous villages in South Yorkshire, but the closure of the pit led to entrenched social problems. It is going to take more than the good will and focus of the local authority to deal with that problem. We need the national policy framework. We need a powerful advocate for communities such as Grimethorpe, High Green and Stockbridge—at the northern end of my constituency—to deal with such deep-rooted problems.

I welcome the commission and I hope the Committee and its members will support the Minister in rejecting the amendments.

10.15 am

John Mann: This is nothing to do with Sheffield—never been to the place. I warn Conservative Members opposite that, if they take up the kind invitation of my hon. Friend, they would be well advised to go incognito.

Mr. Paice: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, I, like a lot of my colleagues in the House, have been to Sheffield on many occasions and do not need to be reminded of its good side, as well as some of the disadvantaged places. I like it.

John Mann: I am puzzled at the Liberal Democrat and Conservative approach, and I am particularly puzzled as to why Conservative Members are opposed to the body. However, I understand the rather flawed, tortuous logic in the arguments about democracy made by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall.

During the election, my Conservative opponent honed in on major issues such as housing and wind farms. I disagreed with his solutions to the problems, but they are major, contentious issues, in my constituency and many others, and they relate to the perception of quality of life. To me, it is in the interests of those who want an informed debate and who want to influence Government policy that there be such an independent body that is able to look and comment.

I am not dissing the argument about whether people in West Sussex want more housing and whether the local authority agrees, but there is likely to be a tendency in any rural community not to want significant expansion in housing, and for there to be resistance—we all get it in our communities—to big add-ons of new housing stock in our villages. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said, there is increasing demand to live in those villages. That is a major policy dilemma.

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I am as strong in my advocacy of “not in my back yard” in relation to new housing developments as many other Members are, and that case is argued cross-party. For example, in the Shireoaks village, I fought tooth and nail alongside local residents to prevent Bovis Homes from building some ridiculous houses on a flood plain that will, strangely enough, flood one day; the houses would be uninsurable. It would be ludicrous to build them there. Long-standing community members who remember from their life experience what a flood plain is like point out what will happen, where the water will run, and so on. We all can—and need to—put such cases, which are valid. However, in terms of the overall approach, we have to match such arguments with the increasing demand for housing. There are those of us who do not wish every flood plain in Britain to be built on. Successive Governments’ policies have been too lenient in that regard, and that is a very big rural housing issue. However, a body such as that proposed in the Bill might have more weight than I, the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall or any of us putting the case solely for our own constituency when it comes to blocking what we see, quite rationally, as bad developments.

It is similarly the case for wind farms. No one seems to want a wind farm in my constituency, but they want them on every blade of grass outside it; they want hundreds of them. I have counted about 200 proposed wind farm developments. It seems that half of Sheffield, which is up the M1, and most of Lincolnshire and south Yorkshire, north of my constituency, is to be made up of wind farms. I do not know whether the movement is southbound yet; I am sure that it will be. Perhaps we are a dip in the country, and will be surrounded by wind farms. That is a concern, and yet I am a strong advocate of the development of alternative forms of energy supply. No councillor who wants to get re-elected will go around their ward, district or county saying, “Bring all the wind farms here; we’ll have them all.” I do not think that many would survive for long if they chose to do that.

We want an informed debate, in which Government policy is perhaps impacted by the rural community. It seems to me that this body will have quite a potential influence. What it chooses to do is paramount, but we have the ability to pressure and argue about what its priorities should be.

I give another example, which is more controversial and relates to an issue that people in this country do not wish to discuss: immigration and rural immigration. At present, there are about 3,000 migrant workers from places such as Estonia residing in the rural community of my constituency. They are living in caravans, some of which are overcrowded and leaking. Who is their advocate? They cannot vote for me, or for or against the local councillor. Who considers issues such as planning and employment
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policy and the future of agriculture in that respect? These are major issues in many rural communities and they do not get a proper airing.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): If the people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are from Estonia, presumably, as European Union citizens, they are eligible to vote in local and European elections. If they take the trouble to go on the electoral register, they can participate in local decision making.

John Mann: The hon. Gentleman corrects me and makes a very valid point. Who, therefore, within the local authority chooses to see that group of people as relevant to put on the electoral register? I do not know whether people who are here for a six-month period are entitled to be on the register, but if they are, there is a debate to be had. Let us suppose that 3,000 people in one or two of the wards suddenly appeared on the electoral register—my brain is now thinking ahead and I may rush from the Room. It is a shame they cannot vote for me, too. These are important issues. A commission that can take a non-party political and non-partisan view and crucially that is not subjected to the whims—perhaps I should say the accountability and pressures—of the electorate on some of these issues could come up with coherent, significant advice.

Mineral plans are another example where there is the potential for a clash with the local authorities’ approach. We know how local authorities develop mineral plans; they have to reach certain decisions and they will upset some local communities in the way they do so because they have to achieve their objectives. The impact that might have on a rural community is something that the body might want to take a look at.

GP funding is another absolutely classic example. The future of GP funding in terms of outreach provision—be it single GP practices or the spread of large practices—especially in a constituency like mine, should be considered. Rural GP practices are cross-county and there are all sorts of complications in linking them into the health structures. How national policy determines GP funding is of fundamental importance, and probably much more critical than any decisions of primary care trusts and strategic health authorities in this context. My constituency cannot be the only rural community where that would be the case. There is a very good argument for the proposed body to consider, as part of the work plan, whether rural communities are developing well or if there is a problem. That is exactly the kind of work which, in a non-partisan way, would have an impact on the policy making of political parties and directly on decisions that Parliament might take.

There are many other examples, such as the future of privatised telephone boxes. For many people in rural communities, the existence of a telephone box in the village—

It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.

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Prepared 24 June 2005