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Although I have no doubt that Natural England is motivated by a genuine sense of the public interest, its decisions do not always seem to be explicable or accountable.
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Moreover, it does not always consult the people likely to be affected. For example, Natural England has declined to assist people living in the coastal town of Northam, in the northern part of my constituency, who are facing acute problems with erosion in an area known as the Northam burrows. It is a beautiful spot: when the spring breezes tease the flowers from their buds, nowhere is nicer for a refreshing walk.

The Royal North Devon golf club—one of the old- fashioned clubs that sprang up on the sand dunes and grassy banks of our coastline—is situated in the Northam burrows. However, the tide has been advancing relentlessly for some years, and it has begun to erode the pebble ridge that offers protection from the sea’s depredations. The pebble ridge is an idiosyncratic feature of the area, and it is a precious and protected site, but only the other day we lost 25 m of it to erosion.

The people of the communities that I represent cannot understand why the responsible authorities—the district and county councils—do not take the action that their fathers and forefathers took to protect the Northam burrows against coastal erosion. Simply recharging the pebble ridge would afford protection against the oncoming tide and the erosion that it causes. No such action has been taken because Natural England no longer believes that recharging the pebble ridge is the right thing to do, even as an interim measure. Instead, it believes in what is called managed retreat. I do not contest that there are sound reasons for that belief, but managed retreat means that the cycle of tides in that part of the Torridge estuary should be allowed to do its work, and it also means that interim measures are not in the interests of the Northam burrows.

If Natural England is right, it is vital that its reasoning be communicated to the people who live in the area, because they are the ones who are affected by coastal erosion. Their houses and communities are at risk, as are the precious Northam burrows that they have loved and lived in for decades and centuries. They feel that the policy has been devised at a distance from them and has not been one on which they have been consulted and that, in any event, it lacks the justification and substance that it ought to have.

There is an additional problem—a problem that, I hope, when I reveal it, will make apparent to hon. Members why the community is so concerned. On the Northam burrows—this is common to many precious and protected sites—many years ago, a landfill site was deemed appropriate. On that landfill site, which closed 40 or 50 years ago—certainly, 30 or 40 years ago—there was placed, pre-war and in the 1940s, a whole range of the odious and the bad. It is believed that there are many tonnes of asbestos of the most dangerous kind, that there may be medical waste and that it is all lying in a vast mound in the middle of the Northam burrows.

As the tide advances and surmounts the dunes, as it is beginning to do, it is beginning to sweep in and encircle that landfill site. None of us knows what is in the site. We believe that it contains asbestos—we are pretty confident that it does—and we know that it will contain something very unpleasant. As the tide encircles it and begins to erode it, we can only speculate and greet with some fear and trepidation what may be uncovered by the tide.

There is no doubt that the problem is urgent. There is no doubt that the problem is acute. All agree that it is
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urgently necessary, since the records of the landfill site were lost by the county council many years ago, that some urgent steps are taken to investigate what lies beneath. Yet month has followed month and year has followed year, but no such investigation has been carried out, while the tide continues to advance, while the pebble ridge continues to recede and be eroded and while the danger increases step by step, nearer and nearer to the communities that I represent.

So I use this opportunity to raise in the House, I hope, in as clear and compelling a way as I can, the urgent necessity for Devon county council to act now. Those whom I represent believe that, as the tide encircles that landfill site not a catastrophe but certainly a very dangerous situation indeed could arise. The county council has committed itself to move forward with those investigations now for many months, if not years, and those investigations must commence. My constituents cannot understand the delay, and they cannot understand the policy of not recharging the pebble ridge and thus protecting the landfill site from the further inflow of the tide.

One or other thing must happen, and the delay, inertia and apparent unwillingness of the county council, which I say with no partisan spirit is Liberal Democrat controlled, is something that those whom I represent can no longer countenance, understand or tolerate. I believe and hope that these words will be heeded, as will the cries and pleas of the local communities that I represent. That is the first issue, which illuminates, as I believe, why those whom I represent resent the sense of a quangocracy at a great distance from them not listening to the interests of the fragile rural communities in Torridge and West Devon.

The future of post offices is, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) has mentioned, a critical question that is, even now, bearing on the consciousness of those whom I represent. We are in the middle of the stage of identifying the sub-post office branches for closure. I have never experienced such a process. It is characterised by what I can only describe as a rather sinister sense of intimidation. I have postmasters ringing me quietly in the night, afraid even to speak to their Member of Parliament because of confidentiality clauses and the implied and unspoken suggestion that if they speak to their Member of Parliament, make a fuss or draw their position to public attention, they may lose their compensation. They whisper to me in corners, and they telephone me confidentially. They are anxious and troubled—it is not too much to say that they are afraid.

When the communities that I represent learn how many and which post offices will be affected, it will cause an outcry. Some of the post offices affected are in the heart of the most vulnerable, distant, remote, isolated and rural communities that I represent. It is well known that Devonshire has the largest county-wide network of roads in the country, some of which are of third-world standard. Even the manager of Stagecoach, the local bus company, has said that many of the roads in Devon—I represent one of the most far-flung regions in Devon—are inaccessible to bus services generally. Villages may have one bus a week, and certainly no more than one a day, yet post offices are to close, and the frail, the elderly, the vulnerable, and those in wheelchairs and electric buggies will have to negotiate their way to the post office on the roads that I have described. As for the weather, hon.
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Members who are familiar with the rain in Devon may fear and tremble for those people’s welfare. They will have to negotiate all those difficulties and adversities to go miles to their nearest post office.

The network change team—that is the euphemistic description of the team that is wielding the axe, and cutting and closing the post office network in my constituency—says, “Well, we’ll provide a van.” For people who live on a hill in Dartmoor, it is not a great deal of comfort to be told that for two hours on a wet, windy, bleak or snowy day the Post Office will provide a van. It is a brutal axe to wield on a number of scattered rural communities that are fragile, remote and isolated.

The closures will hit the most vulnerable hardest. They will tear the heart out of some villages whose only contact with the rest of the world is through their post office or their public house—their public houses are closing at a similar rate to their post offices. The process of post office closures in my constituency is as brutal and as bad for the communities that I represent as any measure that the Government could have permitted. It is characterised by fear, secrecy and want of transparency. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has told us that it is only right that full disclosure be made in relation to a post office. I agree with him entirely, but when one asks the Post Office, there is immediately a clamming-up and an unwillingness to disclose facts that could furnish information relevant to the submission and information on which the case could be made for a particular post office or number of post offices.

The system is not fair, and it will not be seen as honest by those whom I represent. That is why I speak—not, I hope, with too much vehemence—on behalf of a currently undisclosed number of people about a programme that will land a particularly heavy series of blows on the community that I represent. We are one of the most deprived constituencies; we have no bus system, and no public transport system that would enable those affected to travel. It is no use saying that the 3-mile access criterion for rural communities refers to distance as the crow flies. We are not crows in Devon; we do not fly; and we have no buses.

The lady, whom I will not name, to whom I spoke the other day in one of the villages where the post office may close—I cannot name her because that would be to name the post office, and to name the post office would breach confidentiality, which would have consequences—rides in an electric buggy for disabled people. It is 3.9 miles to the nearest post office, if her local post office closes. How is she to get there? There is one bus a day. She would have to remain in the other village all day waiting for the bus, merely to buy a stamp or send a parcel. Or, as the lady told me, with her Union Jack on the little basket on the front of her buggy—the House may have detected that she is indeed a Conservative voter, God bless her—she will set out in her buggy around the winding roads with their pits, holes and divots for the nearest village 3.9 miles away. I fear for her. She means it, and she will try, but is that what the Government want? Are the Government willing to permit an elderly person in a disabled buggy to set out on a 3.9 mile journey through fragile, remote rural isolation
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on Dartmoor in the wind, the rain and the cold in order to cash her pension or buy a few stamps? I earnestly submit not.

That is another reason why the rural communities that I represent feel as profoundly as they do that the Government are not interested in the rural south-west and do not govern for them. The Government do not understand the problems of the villages and market towns that I represent. There are so many issues that affect my constituents’ interests that I could speak almost until kingdom come, and I can already hear the silent groans of hon. Members at that dismal prospect, so I will not trouble the House much longer. I shall raise only one or two of those issues.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): More!

Mr. Cox: Do not tempt me.

I have more than 65 sub-post office branches, which shows why my constituency is said to be the second largest in England and the sixth most rural constituency in the country, including our Scottish cousins. There are so many problems with services that affect rural communities and give rise to the state of mind among them that London, the House and the Government are not listening. Broadband is a minor irritation, it might be thought by the House, but there are dozens of villages in my constituency that cannot receive it. Sometimes parts of villages, and sometimes whole villages, do not have access to broadband.

The regional development agency has assisted with a little money to enable some exchanges, but I get letters almost weekly about the rural businesses whose interests and prosperity have been frustrated by the simple inability to send an e-mail. I dare say that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge would not recognise the problem. I dare say that people in Uxbridge can at least get broadband, but in Northlew, St. Giles on the Heath or Belstone, or in many parts of those communities, people cannot get broadband at all.

If we are to encourage rural business and encourage diversification in areas where the traditional staples of agriculture and livestock farming have, sadly, been in decline for so many years, how are we to give those communities the empowerment that they need to take into their own hands their destiny and their fate, unless we can provide them with at least the elementary necessity of a modern business, a modern broadband communication link?

Just over the border, European money is aflowing and awashing in Cornwall, and it is gurgling around the plughole of public money, which is being squandered in millions and tens of millions. In Devon, however, and particularly in Torridge, there is nothing. We have none of the largesse that is falling like rain and manna upon Cornwall. We have a few bits—a few pennies pushed in our direction—but nothing when it comes to the enablement of my communities to receive the simple and basic necessity of broadband.

One Labour Member has discussed bus concessions. Even bus concessions in Devon have proved an extraordinary and chaotic nightmare. Hitherto, the county council—

Shona McIsaac: Lib Dems?

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Mr. Cox: Yes, a Liberal Democrat council. Nevertheless, I cannot blame the council for everything, and I do not seek to do so. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] No, no. Perish the thought that I should blame the Liberal Democrats. Speaking for myself, I have always enjoyed the most cordial relationship with the Liberal Democrat county council, and I think that the Liberal Democrats try to do their best—it is not always a good best, but they try to do it.

The county operated a bus concession scheme that allowed people to travel from 9 o’clock in the morning. Hon. Members might think 9 o’clock is a sensible time to begin, because that is when most of the buses go. They do not go after 9.30, because if people want to leave their villages and get to work, the buses must go before then. Unfortunately, however, the Devonwide partnership, which runs the scheme, felt unable to continue the original scheme, which was local, and introduced a start time of 9.30. That means that the scheme is almost useless for dozens of my villages, which people cannot get out of until after 9.30.

Why does the scheme now start at 9.30? I will tell hon. Members the reason, which might provide an answer for the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and which is certainly the answer in Devon: the Government have simply not provided enough money. At the moment, the Devonwide partnership does not dare take the step of starting the scheme at 9 o’clock rather than 9.30. Why? Because the Government have done no serious study of the number of visitors who will arrive in Devon. Those visitors, and the distances involved, would take up much of the Government’s money. So for the first year, the scheme starts at 9.30, not 9, which makes it automatically of little use to thousands of those who will have the card.

Additionally, it has not been possible to extend the companion or carers scheme to the county. That, too, is a devastating blow to those who are disabled and those with autistic children, which is a subject close to my heart. Their companions will be unable to travel on the buses, because the scheme has not been extended. Having done the maths, the Devonwide partnership simply does not believe that enough money has been provided to fund it.

The local scheme started at 9 and gave carers the right to accompany the disabled. The new national scheme starts at 9.30 but does not give carers that same right. I submit that that is another reason why hon. Members, were they living in one of the villages or market towns that I represent, would regard this as another meaningless, mysterious, peculiar, baffling decision taken remotely from them that hit hard their quality of life and their confidence that they could survive living in those remote and rural communities.

Shona McIsaac: I am curious about what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said about the concessionary travel scheme. His constituency is represented by a Liberal Democrat council, as is mine, and our constituents are experiencing similar problems and excuses. I have just checked and, apparently, Devon has been given £3.4 million in additional special grant this year, which is a 44 per cent. increase. He might mention that to his Liberal Democrat council.

Mr. Cox: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that debating point, but I shall not endorse it, because I have been told by those who run the Devonwide partnership—I
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respect many of them; they are perfectly decent people—that they have done their maths and there simply is not enough money, particularly as Devon is rich in tourist attractions. We have the south Devon coast, Dartmoor and the north Devon coast. The assessment is that the number of tourist visitors who will take up the benefit of the national concessionary scheme is so great that the money simply is not enough to cover it. That is why this is a problem that will adversely affect those whom I represent.

I cannot conclude my brief tour d’horizon of the problems of my constituency without referring to bovine tuberculosis. Mine is a livestock farming constituency, and it is probably the single most densely infected area. Dozens if not hundreds of farms are locked up in restrictions associated with the disease. For years now—certainly since I entered the House nearly three years ago—I have repeatedly urged the Government to take action, and the only way to do so, certainly in my area, is, as the Select Committee recently recommended, to grasp the nettle and order a humane badger cull in properly controlled circumstances. I am sorry to have to offend Labour Members in their sentiment and proper regard for those beautiful animals, but all scientists now agree that unless we tackle the disease in the wildlife reservoir, the disease, which costs £100 million a year, will go on inflicting devastating distress upon farming families as they see their livelihoods, their herds and their farms simply being washed down the plughole, putting them out of business, and we will go on experiencing this unacceptable and corrosive problem in the countryside.

I do not argue for an indiscriminate cull. The Select Committee got it exactly right. It must be done where the vets and the scientists agree that it will have effect—in the dense hot spots where we must eliminate the disease not only from the cattle population but from the wildlife population. We must bear down on both sides of the disease. We cannot simply replace infected cattle with clean cattle, leave infected badgers on the farms and expect TB not to break out again. That is what is happening, and it is time that the Government decided to end the scourge.

4.17 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox). Like him I represent a large rural constituency and I share many of the frustrations that he expressed about the provision of services to rural areas, and the first issue that I want to raise before the House adjourns for the Easter recess is an example of such services being removed from rural areas—motorcycle test centres.

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