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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I knew that it was too good to be true! Some of my noble friends wish to be off early tonight, but, nevertheless, I apologise. I fear that the last two pages of the Statement were not before me. I must express my gratitude to the noble Baroness for making that observation. However, I shall return to the Statement:
"Our consultation showed that for too long local people have felt that they have not been able to take decisions for themselves. We want local communities to play a bigger part in shaping their own future because every community has its own priorities, strengths and distinctiveness.
"The performance of our parish councils varies. We shall promote new "quality" town or parish councils, which will be able to take on a bigger role in providing and managing local services in partnership with principal authorities. We shall provide £7 million to help parish and town councils to meet the quality standard and shape their own future and for the first time to help 1,000 communities develop town and village plans, which can then feed into the statutory planning process. In addition, the Countryside Agency will equip every town and parish with access to the Internet. Town and village plans will allow local people to set design standards and preserve the character of their villages.
"As our consultation revealed, all too often in the past, and at all levels of government, rural needs and priorities have been overlooked. We shall ensure that the commitments in this White Paper are followed through. To achieve that, the Countryside Agency will produce an annual report on how major policies have been assessed for their rural impact, we shall establish new rural advisory boards at national and regional level and a new rural advocate--Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Countryside Agency--will argue the case on countryside issues at the highest levels in government and outside.
"We are clear that it is impossible to tackle the problems of the countryside in isolation. We need to look at them as a whole across government. The White Paper will promote: a living countryside, with thriving rural communities and access to high quality services; a working countryside, with a strong economy giving high and stable levels of employment; a protected countryside, which we can all enjoy; and a vibrant countryside, which can shape its own future and have its voice heard by government at all levels.
"Some people want us to divide town and country. We are governing for the whole country. Our aim is a living, working countryside with better access for all people to enjoy. I commend the White Paper to the House".
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place earlier this afternoon. As noble Lords will have realised, it is a very full White Paper. The noble Lord's introduction took over 11 minutes to deliver. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I give a rather full response to a most important Statement.
The White Paper deals with the relationship between the working countryside--the farming side of it--and the rural aspects involved. We welcome, too, the money that the Minister said will be available to enforce some of the proposals in the White Paper. However, we are somewhat concerned that some of that money may be recycled money. We shall need several days to work out the total commitment in the Statement and the rural White Paper.
The White Paper also refers to the need for "multiple consultation". The Government came into office in 1997. Since that time, we seem to have consultation after consultation on rural matters. The one thing that we are looking forward to--and what we hope will come out of this process--is seeing some action. Just recently we had an extremely good report from the Better Regulation Task Force, Environmental Regulations and Farmers. This is an ideal consultation booklet. However, having consulted, we now need to move forward. With all the thrusts and the wide range of issues that are covered in the White Paper, I just hope that we shall quickly see some action and forward movement, rather than having to wait for it to take place in a little while.
I listened to the comments made this morning by the CBI and was slightly worried by the statements made about the responsibilities and extra burdens that small businesses in particular have to carry. I raise this issue because of taxation and regulation and because local small businesses are to be found predominantly in rural areas. I am very hopeful that the Government will take this matter on board and consider the issues raised by the CBI this morning. For example, do the Government intend to reduce the burdens on both large and small businesses, but especially on the smaller ones that were referred to this morning? Moreover, will the Government compensate the agricultural community for the extra costs that it has had to bear as a result of European directives, and the gold-plating that we have enforced on animal welfare rules? We are hopeful that this will be resolved by way of the White Paper's proposals.
Further, will the Government continue to follow our lead and not introduce EC directives in advance of the time set for them to be introduced? The noble Baroness and I have had discussions on that issue, which is a real worry to the farming community. Farmers are also concerned about the amount of regulations to which they have to adhere.
The Minister referred to the White Paper as "practical". Many of the examples given in the document are practical and most welcome. However, perhaps I may address one of the big issues therein; namely, the matter of housing. As has emerged from
We welcome the changes in some of the planning guidance indicated in the booklet, but I wonder whether some of the proposals are strong enough. For example, both the Statement and the booklet say that for every new house built, one affordable new home should be built. However, that may be impractical in many of our villages. Some villages may need only 10 or 12 new homes and other types of housing may be required. I should be grateful if the noble Lord would clarify that.
We welcome the U-turn on the Government's proposed controls on advertising in rural areas. During debate on the countryside Bill we said that we did not wish to see the countryside covered in hoardings. With regard to housing, I understand that a reduced rate of VAT will be levied for the conversion of buildings to residential use. Does that apply just to the conversion of barns to houses or does it include the conversion of bigger houses into smaller units? The document does not make that clear. Will the VAT burden in this regard be removed altogether from houses built more than 10 years ago or will it be reduced only down to the 5 per cent which I believe is recommended in the case of the conversion of other buildings?
As regards grants for brownfield sites which we have discussed in this House on many occasions, I understand that the EC has to give approval for grants to develop brownfield sites. I understand that that approval has been challenged. What progress has been made on that front?
The document is full of useful points. We are particularly delighted with the implications of the proposals for strengthening parishes. With regard to the restrictions on speed and--this is not mentioned--the whole issue of parking in parish areas, will the
I have just touched on a few of the many points in the document. However, I am aware of the time constraints that apply to the debate. I hope that we shall be able to debate the document at greater length in the New Year. The document deserves a full debate. I am concerned about whether the funding will be adequate for what the Government are trying to do. Will it improve the life of those who live and work in the countryside? The document seeks to allow greater diversity to farmers and others to adapt their businesses. However, I am concerned as to how we ensure that some of the new jobs that are to be created will be taken up by people who currently live and work in the countryside. Will they not result in many people who live in urban areas being attracted to rural areas and thus not solve the problems that the Government seek to solve?
There is much to recommend in the document. I am sorry that I have spoken for rather a long time. I have not addressed many of the areas which I hope others will cover. Again I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, we on these Benches very much welcome the Statement and the publication of the rural White Paper. However, if it was in my fridge, I would suspect that it was rather past its sell by date. Having looking beyond the packaging, on the other hand, it seems to offer some good reading and some good thoughts.
The fact that the document is a joint publication of the DETR and MAFF suggests a new way of working between them. That is to be greatly welcomed. The document offers a new start in reversing the trends of decline of the past two decades when, as the Statement made clear, the countryside suffered badly from such developments as out of town shopping, the decline in services and, not least, the pressure on local authorities' budgets which forced them to cut back many of their important rural services.
However, the rural White Paper contains no definition of why we value the countryside and the unique qualities of its economy. That is regrettable if the document is to be a vision for the future. A little more attention could have been devoted to the land based nature of the economy and the extent to which people want to move away from that. However, we welcome the development of a rural services standard. We have pressed for such a standard on several occasions in this House and in the other place. We are absolutely delighted that the Government will introduce it.
We are concerned about the introduction of a strangely named "regional rural sounding board" and a "national rural sounding board". I say with all due respect to the chairman of the Countryside Agency,
The rural White Paper acknowledges the dramatic fall in farm incomes of 60 per cent in five years. When I said that the document was rather past its sell by date I had in mind, for example, the Government's lack of response to the Maclean report on small abattoirs. I hope that the fine words in the rural White Paper will produce some rapid action in that area and will not just be fine words.
There are some good points in the White Paper with regard to the "local food, local people" issue and developing local markets for farmers' produce. However, those points need to be followed up with firm action. The Government need to consider further their attitude to suppliers' relationships with supermarkets.
The White Paper mentions funding that can be bid for. The figures appear large, but if one divides them into the number of rural communities and small towns, many of them will gain nothing more than a new bus shelter and a notice board. I do not believe that that kind of funding should be the bottom line. We on these Benches believe that local authorities should be given a fair deal.
I draw the Minister's attention to the neighbourhood renewal fund. The DETR proposes to allocate less than 8 per cent of that renewal fund to address deprivation in communities served by two-tier local government structures; that is, rural communities. The inequity of that can be readily demonstrated as two-tier areas contain 46 per cent of the population and just under a third of the top 10 per cent of deprived wards. However, around half of the most deprived wards in two-tier areas will receive no funding because their needs are not apparent in data which are averaged out at council level. This is in stark contrast to modestly deprived wards falling within unitary authority areas. They will receive only 4 per cent; and then will not receive that funding. It may seem a complicated point but I hope that there is no disguise, with rural areas appearing to receive better funding which is, however, taken away in other ways. The Government need to bear in mind that rural areas are typified by pockets of localised deprivation.
While we welcome the strengthening of the role of parish councils, we are worried about the development of a two-tier system--quality parish councils, and the remainder. I hope that the Government will consider removing the Section 137 restriction upon what even
We welcome the doubling of the rural housing programme from almost nothing. As regards key workers, will the same criteria apply to them in rural and urban areas? Village halls are the key meeting point for rural communities. It is a shame that the Chancellor has reduced VAT only on church repairs but not village hall repairs. Perhaps the Government will reconsider the issue now that they concede that rural churches are important, as indeed are village halls.
Finally, the White Paper demonstrates what good practice can produce. The funding is still ring-fenced. The RDAs are being given more money. The money is being targeted through quangos but without a great deal of accountability. It is tiring for rural communities to have to bid again and again, without always receiving such funding.
Although we welcome much that is in the Statement and the good practice put forward, we believe that the services that local authorities can offer have been underplayed. I echo the wish for a fuller debate on the White Paper. However, I believe that we should have a debate on the urban and rural White Papers. There is a lack of reference between the two in the White Paper. The House would benefit from a further debate on the two issues together.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to the burden on small businesses. The action plan for farming already has a number of commitments to review and remove regulatory burdens and planning requirements in relation to farming, all of which are being acted upon. We shall have further consultation with regard to the environmental burdens identified recently.
As regards affordable housing, the options in the White Paper are available to local authorities and existing planning powers can achieve quite a lot. Whether the one-for-one approach were adopted would be a matter for the local market and local authority. But it would be useful in certain circumstances depending on the local housing market. Substantial additional powers and additional resources for affordable housing run through the White Paper.
The noble Baroness asked whether one could convert a larger building into a smaller building with VAT benefit. The answer is yes. Brownfield sites, previously developed land, must be discussed with the planners. Applications will need to take account of a range of considerations. But the intention is that the sequence of the planning hierarchy would mean that
The noble Baroness also referred to the possible influx from urban areas. The answer is that we have to get the urban policy right at the same time as we are getting the rural policy right. Therefore, the urban and rural White Papers fit together. The House authorities may well deem it sensible for us to have a debate on those issues.
Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I welcome the White Paper and the commitment of the Labour Party to govern on behalf of rural and urban communities. For too long the Labour Party has been regarded as a representative party only of city and urban communities.
I welcome the commitment to a vibrant and working countryside. There is no point in talking about improving the post office facilities here and there unless one gives people the opportunity of employment in the countryside. I have a special interest in forestry matters. I contacted the Forestry Commission on the continuing decline in opportunities for workers in the forestry industry. In 1993-94 the Forestry Commission lost 1,100 employees in countryside towns. The figures for private estates dropped from 15,000 to 10,000, and so it goes on. One will not have continuing employment opportunities in the countryside unless one continues to plant trees. At present there is a dramatic drop in planting trees. In this country, we are now planting more hardwoods than softwoods. Hardwoods have a rotation of 100 years. Even on a diminished planting programme, one is providing employment for 100 years' time.
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