Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Patten: My Lords, in asserting that the Government do care, would the Minister like to say why—as Mr Ewen Cameron, the rural advocate or countryside czar, has pointed out—the Government's own Social Exclusion Unit has no action programme of any substance in relation to the countryside and rural areas? Is that the mark of a government who care?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is not a question of the Social Exclusion Unit not having a policy for social exclusion in rural areas—it does have such a policy—but of whether its overall policy has been effectively rural proofed in the terms described when we established the rural proofing process in the rural affairs White Paper. We have given the Countryside Agency a clear responsibility to engage in an independent view.

Mr Cameron is doing his job, which we appointed him to do less than two years ago, which entails examining every aspect of government policy to

30 Apr 2002 : Column 677

determine whether it is sufficiently rural proofed. Surely, in 18 months, he will find many spheres in which that is not sufficiently the case. Rural proofing, however, is a process that is now embedded in that monitoring process. It needs to be increasingly embedded within mainstream policy right across all departments including—I regret to say—aspects of my own. We are therefore working hard to deliver what is required for proper rural proofing. It is right that the countryside advocate should point out where there are deficiencies. I hope that he continues to do that. But I also hope and believe that those areas of deficiency will diminish.

There are areas I shall not comment on. I shall not be provoked into discussing hunting tonight. We may have the odd opportunity to discuss that in the future. I shall not be dragged too far by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, into discussing the Welsh constitutional settlement or Welsh local government reorganisation. Nor shall I discuss the role of the Countryside Alliance, as I was tempted to do by the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Mancroft. As we shall no doubt have to return to it, I shall not discuss the assessment of the effectiveness of the control of foot and mouth. There will be many occasions on which we shall return to that despite the blocking of the Animal Health Bill. I record once again that I regret that and that we may live to regret it.

I shall not discuss in any detail the economics of farming. We again shall have other possibilities to discuss that more generally. It is an important part of the whole of the rural area but the Government's commitment to the broad strategy outlined in the Curry commission's report is well known. We are pursuing that and we have already announced a large number of initiatives in that respect. As regards its spending dimension, however, we have always made clear that that will become clear after the spending review is completed this summer.

I make one other comment in relation to farming in response to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. He says that the future of the countryside depends on our putting farming first, the rest of the rural economy second and the rest of the population third. However, that is the wrong way round. If farming and the countryside as a whole do not produce the food and the products which the rest of the population wish to buy and eat, and if it does not open its doors to tourists and others who come to do business and spend money in the countryside, we shall indeed experience an economic collapse in part of our countryside. The idea that the countryside and the town should be separate in their decisions and should not relate to each other has perhaps aggravated some of the problems within the countryside today. That is exactly what the Curry commission is addressing—the need for there to be a total approach to the food chain, for farmers to be closer to consumers and for consumers to understand better and get closer to primary producers and growers. It is exactly that integrated approach which is needed and not a separation of what goes on in the countryside from that which goes on elsewhere.

30 Apr 2002 : Column 678

A number of noble Lords made good points. My noble friend Lady Thornton was right to underline not only the importance of rural proofing but also the establishment of the rural forum by my right honourable friend Alun Michael, who is bringing together a significant number of rural and countryside interests to inform the overall approach of departments to policy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, rightly made the point that often there are pockets of difficulty and deprivation within rural areas which need to be addressed. Other noble Lords made important points in relation to deprivation, isolation and the lack of services within rural areas. All of those points are addressed in a strategy arising from the rural White Paper which we shall follow through.

However, the Question relates to definition. Definition is always difficult. A single definition is particularly difficult. The primary definition at the moment, which was originally drawn up by the former Rural Development Commission and is now adopted by the Countryside Agency, takes local government structures as the basic structures. That is partly because many services and the allocation of resources have to be carried out through local government. Its current form identifies 145 rural, local and unitary authorities as rural. One would think that that is straightforward but it excludes a number of areas.

There are problems of substantial significance at the edges of that definition. It excludes obviously the main conurbations but also towns at the centre of rural areas such as Cambridge or Exeter. The question of exactly where the delineation runs is important. For example, Carlisle district is not rural under the definition, despite containing a significant rural hinterland, as the bulk of the population is found in an urban area and the bulk of the district is urban. However, the population density of the district as a whole, at 99 persons per square kilometre, is almost exactly the same as Mid-Suffolk. In Mid-Suffolk, however, the largest urban area, Stowmarket, has only 13,000 people. Nevertheless, on a density basis, the two would be treated the same. On an urban/rural definition, they fall either side of the divide.

In north Somerset, the unitary authority is classified by the Countryside Agency as urban. The population is 499 persons per square kilometre. That compares with Arun in Sussex which is 50 per cent bigger in density but is classified as rural. There are these difficulties. The difficulty also prevails when one moves down to use a single definition for differentiating between wards on the Countryside Agency approach.

There is also the question of the use of the definition. For different services and policies, different definitions are appropriate. For various transport reasons, we use distance and isolation. However, most transport routes go from a town into the country or between towns. Therefore, one would involve quite large towns in the definition of a rural bus or rail route. Therefore for different policies, different criteria are probably necessary.

30 Apr 2002 : Column 679

However, we recognise what underlies the question: that we need a more co-ordinated and consistent approach to the categorisation. That is why DEFRA, DTLR, the Countryside Agency and the Office for National Statistics are now working together for a better set of definitions of "urban" and "rural" areas. In the short term, we are using the widely available definition developed by the Countryside Agency to which I have referred. That will be amended somewhat by a classification which is about to be recommended by a study which was commissioned by the DTLR. In its present draft it is almost 40 pages long. It will alter slightly the definition used by the Countryside Agency.

We need a more fundamental change of approach. An interdepartmental group of officials—DEFRA, DTLR, ONS, and so on—is working together to develop a new classification over the next 18 months. The aim is to develop a simple classification which is based more on land use, settlement pattern and the economic activity of very small areas; it would be significantly below ward level. The mechanism would be developed to build these up into a classification for larger areas. We would then have the basis for producing rural statistics by identification of these smaller areas, or aggregation of those smaller areas, which could be used for policy for local government, Whitehall and the devolved administrations.

If we are to address the real needs of the rural areas, we do not need a simplistic single definition. We need an approach to rural areas such as we are now developing so that we can identify problems of deprivation, isolation and lack of particular services at very low levels of disaggregation. We shall then have not simply one definition of "rural"—we may still have an overarching local authority definition—but a suite of definitions upon which we can draw as appropriate but as understood for various different purposes.

30 Apr 2002 : Column 680

I realise that that is not a sufficient and complete reply to the noble Lord, Lord Patten. However, it is an indication of the way in which we need to move for policy purposes.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I may clarify one point. Two noble Lords mentioned courthouses and post offices. Is the Minister's department taking a lead in bringing this profile to the attention of other departments? At present, those bodies are getting lost.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the issue of courthouses and access to justice generally is the subject of intense discussions between my department and the Lord Chancellor's Department.

On the decisions of Consignia, that is somewhat at arm's length from government. Nevertheless, an overall rural policy issue is involved with the continued closure of a number of rural and urban post offices. Together with the DTLR and DTI, we are engaged with the Post Office in looking at that process. As with other areas of the provision of services and the economic effects of broader policies on the countryside, my department is responsible for hassling other departments and agencies, ensuring that they take the rural dimension very seriously indeed, and in particular the social implications in rural areas for some of those changes.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page