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I represent one of the most sparsely populated rural areas. I should add that I have the pleasure of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on rural services, which exists to champion, in particular, the least well-populated parts of the country, where the cost of supplying services—whether in the public or the private sector—is highest. I find it very depressing that such an important
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sector of the economy receives so little attention in this place. Part of the attention that it does receive, along with the focus of Government efforts to help the rural economy, is strongly driven by a perception that rural areas serve as the playground of the nation. However, although tourism is an increasingly important diversification for those who have engaged in more traditional primary activities in rural areas, it is not the be-all and end-all. It is not the only activity that Government should seek to encourage.

Many areas of active industry in the rural economy are now perceived by Government as there to provide entertainment for the masses. Forestry is an example. The second largest landowner—after Her Majesty the Queen—is the Forestry Commission, which under the current Government has been transformed from a primary producer of timber products whose purpose was to provide construction materials and other building products for the nation to, essentially, a playground. There has been an appalling failure to accept that responsibility for the nation’s forests lies with the Government. The forests owned by the Government are seen as being there purely to divert the people. That is all very well in one sense: we should be encouraging access to our forests. However, if we do so at the expense of the industry itself, in a few decades’ time we will no longer have forests. Instead, we will have scrubland areas which will not be attractive places to visit, and which will not provide the biodiversity that is at the heart of the Government’s argument for allowing forestry to regenerate naturally rather than being planted.

David Taylor: I think that the hon. Gentleman would generously acknowledge that in the Government’s forestry policies the national forest is an exception. That project was started in the early ’90s under a Conservative Government, and it has been tremendously successful. It covers 200 square miles and straddles three counties and two regions, and it has been very helpful to economic development, environmental restoration and sustaining the communities that lie within it, many of which are rural. The Government have supported that project over a 12-year period, as the hon. Gentleman’s party supported it at its inception.

Mr. Dunne: I look forward to learning more about the national forest to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

I wish now to touch on certain Government measures that are having unintended consequences—at least I hope they are unintended—for many of the businesses that are so vital in maintaining a vibrant economy in rural areas. As other Members who represent constituencies with small towns and villages have said, many such settlements are at present experiencing the loss of some of their last public, and indeed private, services. Members have mentioned that jobcentres, pubs and shops are closing throughout the country as a direct result of the recession, but they are not closing only as a result of the recession; they are closing partly as a result of Government policy.

We face the prospect of a tobacco display ban in shops. Many of us—myself included—are not keen on encouraging smoking, but that proposal is based on poor research from international comparisons and a poor level of evidence, and its effect will be to put at risk the survival of many of the small convenience stores
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and corner shops which, in many villages in my constituency and elsewhere, are the only retail outlets left. Such shops rely for their footfall on the many people who go there to buy tobacco. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents predicts that some 2,500 such shops will close. If that is the case, their closure will be a direct consequence not of the recession but of a Government measure. It is intended to achieve a desirable public health aim, but it will have the unintended consequence of depriving communities of their main source of purchasing other goods, as such shops are often also the convenience store where people can buy their food.

Let me offer another modest example from my constituency. Over the past year, I have been besieged—that is not too strong a word—by operators of small bed-and-breakfasts. Many former farmers or people whose houses have spare rooms choose to diversify their income by opening their home to visitors who love the beautiful scenery of south Shropshire. Bed-and-breakfasts are now subject to the same fire regulation inspection regime that applies to much larger commercial institutions such as hotels, yet the proprietors of bed-and-breakfasts typically do not have the available capital to meet the standards that might be imposed on them by fire officers. If they cannot meet the standard imposed on them, they have no option but to close. No appeal mechanism is available to these people, who might have been operating a bed-and-breakfast for 10 or 20 years. They cannot explain that, for instance, there have been no fires and that there is limited fire risk, yet regulation imposed by central Government tells them that such steps are necessary.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD) rose—

Mr. Dunne: I am sorry, but I will not take an intervention, as I am conscious that another Member wishes to speak, and he has been present for the entire debate.

That is just another small example of the pernicious consequences of Government direction. They believe that businesses are capable of absorbing that considerable added burden, but there is no benefit to the business in that. Consequently, the local economy can suffer.

My final example, which is very much a live issue in my constituency at present, is the scrapping of the empty property rates relief. Again, this affects people who have been encouraged to diversify their activities, such as farmers who have developed workshops out of redundant barns, or, especially in my area, people who have developed their garage premises into light industrial premises but find that there are not any light industrial users. There are now increasing numbers of empty premises. It is almost impossible to secure the granting of a change of use from the planning authorities despite the current housing crisis. As a result of the reduction in rate relief, owners must suffer significant tax on empty properties, and it would not surprise me if a number of them were to decide to make their premises uninhabitable in order to avoid the tax. That is, I think, an unintended consequence; I am sure the Government do not want properties that could be put to economic use to be pulled down, but that will, I fear, be the direct result of a Government measure.

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6.56 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): First, may I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment to his new job? We have over the years come across each other from time to time in this House, and normally our encounters have been good-humoured, and I hope that continues. His predecessor the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) has just left the Chamber, but I want to thank her as well. She managed finally to solve one of the most complex problems arising from the single farm payment. Almost the last thing that she did was sign off that problem, and as a result a farmer in my constituency has been promised the money under the single farm payment. I suspect that the right hon. Lady will get into trouble from Europe as a consequence, but I would like to place on record my gratitude to her for doing that.

I am also grateful for the update on Dairy Farmers of Britain. The processing plant in Blaydon has closed, leaving a considerable problem for the few remaining dairy farmers in the north-east of England. Most of them have now found contracts, but there is a long-term problem: because the processing plants for milk are now so distant from the north-east, longer to transport distances milk will lead to higher costs, which will increasingly affect the viability of the few remaining dairy farmers in that region.

That brings me to the problem of the beef industry as a whole. I appreciate that we will have a debate on agriculture on Thursday, but the recession has touched this industry as much as any other, and, of course, a recession in the dairy industry also affects the amount of beef that is available for consumption. That will mean that our degree of self-sufficiency in beef will decline even further than it already has—from more than 100 per cent. in 1997 to only 80 per cent. currently. We have to import the rest, often from countries whose welfare standards are far less reliable than those of the United Kingdom.

I wish also to pick up on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made in his opening speech. The most important lesson to come out of this debate is that we must devolve power as far as possible. It is very difficult to pin down exactly what a rural community is. A rural community in my Northumberland constituency is very different from one in Suffolk or Surrey, or one in Sussex, where my hon. Friend’s constituency is. Each has its own set of problems, and each requires individual attention and local determination in order to solve them.

The housing issue provides an example of that. In rural Surrey, huge housing demand is what causes real problems, but in parts of Northumberland, particularly those rural areas which were formerly coalfield areas, local people want more properties to be built, because that makes their communities more sustainable. Such communities have declined because the coal industry left the area, and new houses and people, often coming from the towns, bring life back to them. We therefore want more properties in those areas, yet we live under the dread hand of the regional spatial strategy, which imposes things from above. For instance, in the part of Northumberland that I represent, we can build only 157 new houses over the next five years, which is ridiculous. According to the spatial strategy, we should all move into the city of Newcastle, and not live in the rural
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communities, which is what we want. The main lesson, therefore, is that we should devolve decision making to its lowest possible level, and deregulate and decentralise. That is how rural communities will be able to fight the recession.

6.59 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I start by properly welcoming both new Ministers to the Department? The hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) has a hard act to follow. The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) was in the Chamber a few minutes ago but, sadly, she has left her place. I wanted to commend her because despite the fact that, like the new Minister, she came into the Department with a self-confessed complete lack of knowledge of the issues she was facing, she applied herself willingly to a steep learning curve and in a short space of time persuaded the farming industry and the rest of the rural community that she was very much aware of their issues and very much on their side. Nevertheless, I wish the new Ministers well in their posts.

In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), the Minister made a great deal of the rural development programme for England. I must say, as an aside, that his words rang truer when he moved off his script and said what he really felt, rather than what he had been told to say. When he has had a chance to travel the length and breadth of England—it is not his fault that he has not yet had the chance to do so—to talk to farmers and to rural communities, he will not find much support for the way in which the regional development agencies have operated in the rural sphere. They have contributed far more sums of more than £1 million than smaller sums of £100,000 or less, which would be much more relevant to small businesses wishing to improve their productivity, to diversify and so on.

Everywhere I am told about this, I find that the schemes devised—they are all different—by each RDA are bureaucratic and very difficult to access. At last week’s cereals event—I went the day after the Minister—I went to the RDA stand, where an official told me, with some apology, about a farmer who had just been in wanting to see whether he could apply for a grant of about £40,000 for a meat-cutting plant, only to be told that he was not eligible. That had nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of the scheme. I have no idea whether it was a good or bad scheme, but he was told that there was no scheme that suited his needs—that is laughable, because that is precisely what the rural development programme for England was designed to produce. I hope that when the Minister has had the opportunity that I mentioned, he will look again how that programme is working.

The Minister also trotted out a litany of statistics. I intervened on him on the issue of poverty, which is a huge issue in rural areas, not least because it is less obvious there than in big urban areas, where often whole blocks of flats or areas of communities all live in poverty. In rural areas, because of the lower population density, one often finds only one or two people living in poverty and they may live next door to someone who is clearly quite affluent, so this is a much more hidden form of poverty, but it is there. I hope that the Minister
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who winds up will address poverty issues and the spending plans of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I was astonished to find that last year DEFRA actually cut spending on “strong rural communities” by 35 per cent. The Government have also failed to mention the real-terms cut in DEFRA’s budget. It has been cut by £200 million since last autumn’s pre-Budget report, yet they have the nerve to criticise our proposals in their amendment to our motion.

A number of hon. Members rightly referred to the catastrophe of the demise of Dairy Farmers of Britain, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), in whose constituency it is based. Of course I welcome the measures being taken by the receivers and by other milk buyers, and I am pleased that DEFRA officials have been involved in negotiations to try to find other buyers. However, it is very important that the banks, and indeed the merchant trade, take a generous approach to those farmers who have lost a month’s milk cheque. Very few businesses in any sector of life could withstand losing one twelfth of their income unexpectedly, just like that, with no time to plan. If the Government had introduced the national loan guarantee scheme proposed by my Conservative colleagues, there would be some opportunity to assist. I am anxious to ensure that some of the smaller and more remote producers find outlets for their milk, because they are the ones who will find it hardest to survive.

I hope that Ministers will also agree that what has gone wrong at DFOB—its previous and present management both have many questions to answer—does not relate to the fact that it is, or was, a co-operative. I was pleased that in the same week, Milk Link, another co-operative, reported increased profits—that is good news. What happened at DFOB was about business management and control, rather than simply about the fact that it was a co-operative, although I have no doubt that there will be those who will try to paint this as an inevitable problem that one gets with co-operatives.

Some hon. Members mentioned a number of other agricultural issues, but I shall resist the temptation to launch into those, because we can do so at great length during Thursday’s debate. In passing, I should point out that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) trotted out almost everything he could think of on this subject; that may or may not mean that the House is relieved of the task of listening to him again on Thursday.

This evening, we have heard a wealth of experience from a number of hon. Members—sadly, it has come only from those on the Conservative Benches—who have spoken about the importance of the rural economy. They have spoken of its huge breadth, covering not only farming and the food industry, but manufacturing—traditional craft manufacturing right through to high-tech manufacturing—a lot of research, small businesses, telecommunications and so on.

A number of my Conservative colleagues have discussed specific issues. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) referred to the Government’s failure to understand the scale of issues in rural areas. It would be completely wrong to suggest that losing one’s job is not a crisis for any individual, but, as he said, whereas it is bad news when half a dozen jobs go when a business closes in a large urban area, when a business loses the same amount of jobs in rural area that can be a complete
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catastrophe for the village in which it happens. It can wipe out the employment prospects for a large proportion of the people in the area.

My hon. Friend also raised issues relating to the village pub—and not only alcohol duty, on which we have our own proposals. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) and others, he rightly referred to other issues relating to business rates. I know that a debate is taking place later on that matter, but I wish to mention something that, unusually, has been raised in my constituency. As a result of the recent rate revaluation, the business rates of someone from a village pub had rocketed up by £4,000—that is a lot of money for a small village pub. He could not understand the situation until we looked into it. He had been on a transitional process since the previous revaluation. The trouble is that the Government had designed a transitional process that had not got him to where he should have been at the previous revaluation, so he lost that relief and had to go to the new revaluation, which meant a substantial percentage increase in his rates.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk also referred to the reality on the ground of businesses trying to get loans to see them through the current crisis. He motioned rural crime, but he did not mention—so I shall do so now—that violent crime has increased by some 20 per cent. in rural areas since the recession set in. A number of hon. Members have referred to housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs did in his opening remarks. Even Labour Members have said, in interventions, that a figure of only 10,000 planned homes in rural areas is wholly inadequate. I stress the need to address what has gone wrong. It is not, despite what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale suggested, all the fault of the Conservative Governments who sold all the council houses. The problem was that the money raised stopped being recycled. Part of the big advantage of selling council houses was that that money would be recycled to build new social housing in those areas. It was the present Government who stopped that and confiscated the money to give to other local authorities.

We need to get rid of the ridiculous top-down planning strategy—we will abolish the regional spatial strategies—and give power to local communities to decide what low-cost housing they need and where to put it. We will also use the exception site policy, introduced by the Government of which I was proud to be a member—

Tim Farron: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice: No, I apologise—

Tim Farron: Does he remember the 1980s?

Mr. Paice: The 1980s are a subject for another day, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I probably have a much better recollection of them than he has, as I presume he was doing his GCSEs at the time.

The point is that if local decision making is given to local communities, they will be much more amenable to allowing houses to be built in their communities, instead of having them imposed from the top down and being told that they must have a lot of extra houses.

Rural transport has also been mentioned several times. The Minister waxed lyrical about how much money the
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Government have poured into bus services, but let me quote from the Commission for Integrated Transport—the Government’s own body. It says:

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