HC Deb 26 January 1995 vol 253 cc538-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Burns.]

7.12 pm
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?

Mr. Atkins

When we think of England, we think often of the countryside. Our countryside has seen great changes over the past 50 years and it will face new challenges as we enter the next century. We must face those challenges with optimism and a clear sense of direction.

That is why the Government have decided to produce a White Paper on the future of the English countryside. The English countryside is at a crossroads. Traditional industries are declining. There are demands for new jobs, new homes and more leisure opportunities. We must ensure that our countryside provides a good quality of life for people today and that it is ready to meet the challenges of the future, but we must take care that we do not destroy the qualities which make our countryside so valuable.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the assurance from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 8 December—that the Education Department will be closely involved with the steering group—will be extremely important to people like me, and my hon. Friend, who believe in rural schools? Does he condemn the efforts made by Lancashire county council to attack and destroy village schools?

Mr. Atkins

As a constituent of my hon. Friend, as well as a parliamentary neighbour, I am only too well aware of the pressure on village schools in Lancashire and elsewhere. My hon. Friend is a renowned and doughty fighter for the village schools in her constituency, and she makes an important point to which I shall return later. It is an entirely fair point, and we shall be considering it. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who will be winding up the debate, will be more than happy to support my hon. Friend's concerns.

The aim of the White Paper is to set out our vision for the medium to long-term future of our countryside. It will not be about quick fixes. Instead, it will look 15 to 20 years ahead to the sort of countryside that we want our children to enjoy. It will examine the pressures on the countryside and review the Government's responses to those pressures. It will set a framework for future policies.

Most importantly, the White Paper will help ensure that all policies which affect the countryside are part of an overall strategy. Our policies need to support each other and not pull in different directions. The White Paper is being co-ordinated jointly by my Department and by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The presence of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary demonstrates that. It involves, and must continue to involve, many other Departments right across Government.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the greatest worry of people—particularly in the south-west, but in most rural areas—which is the spread of the concrete jungle? As an illustration, I fought my constituency in 1967, when it had an electorate of 63,000. If I had the same parishes in my constituency today, the electorate would be 118,000. That is the kind of growth we are having in the south-west, and the concrete jungle is eating into the countryside. When planning applications come to the Department, they seem to be approved without enough thought being given to the protection of rural England, which is what we all wish to see.

Mr. Atkins


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the Minister replies, I must point out that there are many right hon. and hon. Members who wish to speak in this debate, and long interventions do not help.

Mr. Atkins

My right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) is a distinguished and long-serving Member, and he speaks with considerable authority about rural matters, which he has represented in constituency terms in this place for many years. I was in my right hon. Friend's constituency during the summer, and I saw for myself the sort of pressures about which he talks. I shall be addressing some of my later remarks to planning, but he has put his finger on the concerns. The pressure from those who have moved from the town, or from those who are visiting the countryside from the town, is matter which my right hon. Friend and other hon. Friends have raised.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

My hon. Friend keeps talking about our countryside, but why have we excluded Scotland and Wales? Why have we also excluded forestry from the debate?

Mr. Atkins

I have enough trouble looking after the problems in England without being concerned personally with Scotland and Wales. The Ministers responsible for rural matters in those two parts of the United Kingdom are only too well aware of the concerns which my hon. Friend wishes to raise. My task is to be responsible for the English countryside, and I shall certainly make sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends are aware of my hon. Friend's concern.

It is important to realise that my hon. Friend, as an English Member, has been able to raise his particular concerns about Scotland and Wales. Perhaps—under the proposals from the Opposition—that might not be the case in future, and that is an important point. My hon. Friend will know that forestry throughout the UK is led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and that adds more fuel to the point that I just made.

Where were we? [Laughter.] There is a penalty in giving way to so many hon. Friends.

People in the countryside tend not to shout as loud as well-organised and influential urban lobby groups. In a world dominated by towns and cities, it is all too easy to overlook the needs of rural areas. Country folk think that no one is listening and that their interests have been forgotten or neglected, but that has changed since I was appointed Minister for the Environment and Countryside. I have made it my top priority to get out into the countryside—from Northumberland to the Isles of Scilly, from Shropshire to Kent—to discover the real needs of rural England.

One thing that I have learnt is that there is no single voice for the English countryside. Some people want more development, others want less. To some people, the countryside is a place to enjoy, to others it is the place where they live and work, and it is the latter to whom I am paying particular attention.

Many people have a stake in the future of our countryside. That is why we have asked more than 300 organisations to tell us what they think should be in the White Paper. We have also publicised it through national, regional and specialist press and invited people to write to us directly with their views. At the last count, we had received about 200 responses from organisations and individuals alike and we know that many more are on the way.

In addition, we are arranging a series of regional seminars during the next few months, which will provide a further opportunity for Ministers from my Department and from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to listen to people who know and understand the countryside.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I are delighted to have this opportunity to hear the views of hon. Members. Many Members, on both sides of the political divide, represent rural constituencies and I look forward to an informed and constructive debate. It is particularly helpful to have this debate during the early stages of our work on the White Paper. I cannot promise that we shall be able to deliver everything that people ask for, but my hon. Friend and I will take away the promising ideas that I am sure will arise—especially from the Benches behind me—to explore with our ministerial colleagues in other Departments.

The Environment Bill is being discussed in another place and contains provisions to safeguard our national parks and protect hedgerows. We appreciate the heritage provided by our national parks. They are frequently termed, with justification, as the jewels in the crown of our landscape. When they were established 45 years ago, however, few people can have imagined the pressures that they face today. The Bill therefore provides for the establishment of independent national park authorities, which will provide the framework within which a more integrated approach can be taken to the management of those areas. For the first time, it will also oblige Government Departments and other public bodies to have regard to the purposes of the parks when operating within them.

The national parks can thrive only by maintaining a sensible balance between the purposes of conservation and recreation, for which they have been designated, and the needs of local communities. That is why we also propose a duty requiring the new national park authorities to have regard to the economic and social well-being of the local communities.

We are also honouring our commitment to protect hedgerows. They can be an important part of the fabric of the countryside as a wildlife habitat, a valuable landscape feature or simply a reflection of our history. The Environment Bill includes powers enabling us to introduce a statutory scheme to protect important hedgerows in England and Wales. We intend to introduce a scheme that is reasonable, practical and fair—a scheme that minimises the burden on those who will be subject to the controls and those who will administer them. The detailed arrangements will be settled only after we have listened carefully to views expressed as the Bill progresses through Parliament and during separate public consultation.

The Government are committed to the protection of our hedgerows and to the future of our national parks. Traditionally, our policies to protect the countryside have worked through designating particular areas. The White Paper provides an opportunity to consider how far we want to move further in that direction and whether we want to consider new approaches that will help to safeguard the assets in the wider countryside.

Environmentally sensitive areas and countryside stewardship point the way towards a new approach, providing incentives for farmers and land managers, who are the stewards of the English countryside and who, over the centuries, have helped to create the countryside as we now know it—a fact often forgotten or ignored by urban dwellers. The White Paper will assess the roles of regulation, advice and incentives and map out a strategy to make the most effective use of our resources.

In addition to special programmes to protect the countryside, we must ensure that the major forms of land use are conducted, as far as possible, in a way that enhances the environment. That is particularly true of agriculture, as about 73 per cent. of the land surface of England is farmed. We may need to study the prospects for new crops and positive alternatives, such as forestry, which can offer a range of benefits.

The White Paper will consider the future priorities for land use in the countryside. In doing so, it will need to take into account the likely future course of the common agricultural policy. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has established a policy group of independent experts to advise him on future developments and the United Kingdom priorities for change. The results of that review will feed into the White Paper.

The planning system is one of the main ways in which we protect our countryside, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton said in his intervention. I hear many different views of its effectiveness, as do many of my hon. Friends. The Council for the Protection of Rural England, for example, tells me that the planning system needs to be strengthened, but the Country Landowners Association tells me that it should be more permissive. We shall be dealing with that problem in the rural White Paper.

More development is necessary in rural areas if it is to provide new homes and new jobs, but that development must be in the right place and be of good quality, if it is to fit in to the English country landscape. That means design that responds to local styles and materials and I have some plans for that.

People in the countryside—perhaps not so differently to those in other parts of the country—are sometimes accused of NIMBYism. Often, it is not the principle of new buildings to which they object, but the imposition of ugly developments that look totally inappropriate. We are lucky to have inherited a country with a myriad of local styles and we should celebrate that diversity, enhance the natural environment and, above all, resist the advancement of drab uniformity.

Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Will my hon. Friend undertake to be especially vigilant about road schemes? Does he agree that some of the motorways that have been driven through our countryside have done more to despoil and desecrate it than any other development?

Mr. Atkins

My instinctive reaction is to agree with my hon. Friend—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in his place who, in a previous incarnation, was the Minister responsible for some of that. In many rural areas, a bypass enhances the environment and adds greatly to it, but in other instances, proposed developments do not.

I found that out when, at the behest of the Labour-controlled county council, it was proposed that a six-lane motorway be driven through my constituency. Fortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, then the Minister responsible for roads, was able to help me to defeat the proposal. It is a question of the local view prevailing. Sometimes it is a good thing and sometimes it is bad. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is only too aware of his concerns, which are shared on both sides of the House.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

My hon. Friend mentioned the views of the local people. He will know that recently a development was approved in Ambleside in my constituency, which was opposed 100 per cent. by the local people. He said how important it is to listen to the local people, but in that case they were ignored, in spite of a series of planning inquiries. Will he undertake that the planning laws will be studied, with a view to giving more consideration to the views of local people?

Mr. Atkins

I cannot but agree with my right hon. Friend. I do not know the case to which he refers, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend, the Viscount Ullswater, who is responsible for planning matters, is aware of it. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will tell me more about it later. His general argument is entirely fair and, as a Minister responsible for planning in a previous incarnation, as well as being involved in a council planning committee, I know only too well of its importance. One of the intentions, in the rural White Paper, is to ensure that we pay more attention, in all the multiplicity of areas that are important in the countryside, to what local people have to say. As usual, my right hon. Friend makes a particularly good point.

The creation of green belts around major conurbations, to check urban sprawl, is one of the major achievements of our planning system. They have assisted greatly in protecting the countryside. Earlier this week, we published revised planning policy guidance that reaffirmed our resolute commitment to green belts and made limited changes to strengthen policy for the 21st century and secure yet greater environmental and economic benefits.

There are sometimes tensions between those who live in the countryside and those who visit it. I have heard the pleas that the countryside should not become a giant theme park, but we must recognise that, as people's leisure time increases, they will wish to visit the countryside more and more. About 590 million journeys to the countryside were made last year and I have no doubt that that number will increase in the future.

I was in the peak district park not long ago, and was astonished to learn that, as many of my hon. Friends who represent the area will know, it is the second largest park of its kind anywhere in the world—second only to a park in Japan. The pressures on it are great indeed. We cannot ignore this trend and hope that it will go away, but we can manage it to secure the maximum benefit for rural areas, while still conserving those qualities which attract the visitor in the first place. The livelihoods of those who live and work there must come first.

The White Paper will also look at the urban fringe, an area which has yet to realise its full potential.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Does the Minister agree that when it comes to access to the countryside, we have an excellent right of way and bridleway network? More and more farmers, especially in East Anglia, are very responsibly maintaining those rights of way. Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour's proposal for the right to roam the countryside is sheer lunacy, and that it would destroy the good will that has been built up between the public and the farming community?

Mr. Atkins

My hon. Friend is a consistently staunch defender of the countryside interest. He knows it as well as, if not better than, anyone else in the House. His point was on the nail—I could not but agree with it.

The White Paper will also look at the urban fringe, an area yet to realise its full potential. There is great scope to provide leisure opportunities on the fringes as well as in the heart of our cities. That will reduce the demands on the countryside and breathe new life into a part of our urban areas which has been neglected for too long. Community forests are a good example of how to exploit the potential of the urban fringe, but I am sure there is plenty of scope to do more.

Our vision of the countryside, particularly if we live in towns and cities, usually focuses on beautiful landscapes, sometimes of the chocolate box variety, but people are just as important. They maintain the land and the traditions of rural life—not least country pursuits, crafts and country sports.

Sir Peter Emery

Hunting and shooting.

Mr. Atkins

As my right hon. Friend says. Today's countryside is filled with people as varied as blacksmiths and computer programmers, although I sometimes ask myself how easy it would be for a blacksmith to get planning permission these days: the smells, the noise, and so on. The strength of our countryside lies in its diversity—the variety of people and economic activity as much as the variety of its landscapes.

I have travelled quite extensively around the English countryside in recent months.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Not more trips!

Mr. Atkins

Well, they bear repeating, since I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not moved out of Leicestershire.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Will my hon. Friend be extremely careful to distinguish Leicestershire from the city of Leicester?

Mr. Atkins

Yes. In the course of my perambulations, I have been able to hear at first hand some of the concerns of country dwellers. For instance, when I was in Northumberland in the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), we saw the pressures that Hadrian's wall is bringing to bear on local activities, and the consequences for tourism. We also went to a village shop in Otterburn and saw the importance of the Army to what goes on there. We listened to people's views.

I also went to Todmorden moor and saw for myself the problems on the edge of the Pennines. I saw how local people, with the aid of Rural Action, are dealing with the problems of fly-tipping by those who pass through the area. Then I went to the Malvern hills, to see the problems of tourism and to visit a small cider maker and taste her wares, which I publicly endorse whenever I get the opportunity. I saw how much can be achieved in such a small operation.

I went to the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) to see a small cheese maker; I went away with some excellent Somerset cheese of a prize-winning variety. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Name it."] I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be happy to help out my hon. Friends.

One of my most enjoyable visits was the one to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, to see the problems and to talk to the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) and for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). Arguably, one of my most fascinating visits was to west Dorset, in the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer). He is a well-known member of the Parachute Corps, and he asked me to meet his constituents, to enjoy the delights of the area and to see the problems of the coastline. We talked to local people. I am only sorry that in the course of so doing, my hon. Friend stumbled and injured himself—for which I apologise.

All these activities allowed me to see and hear at first hand what the problems were, and to realise the strengths of the countryside. There are some wonderful people out there. There is great heart there, and a great deal of which to be proud.

Many of these rural communities see an adequate supply of affordable housing as the key issue. Of course that is linked with jobs, transport and the location of schools, shops and health care facilities. Policies for rural housing need to be considered against the background of the changes that are taking place in the countryside. We need to take account of the needs of those who have traditionally lived and worked in the countryside and who wish to continue to do so.

There are costs as well as benefits to living in the countryside. People complain about the closure of village shops and village schools, the lack of public transport, the shortage of affordable housing and the difficulties of building new premises for businesses and new houses.

There are no easy answers to those problems—although I am sure that Opposition Members will try to offer some. We know that there are none. To some extent, those problems are a reflection of higher standards of living and increased choices. The car has given many people greater mobility and has enabled them to make journeys to shops and schools which would have been inaccessible to their parents, but this freedom has its price. If people drive to the supermarket on the edge of town rather than use their village shop, the village shop will inevitably close. The same is true of village schools and local buses. The slogan "Use it or lose it" is not new but it lies at the heart of the battle to maintain village services. We can all help.

The Government need to think carefully about their role in protecting services in the countryside. Would it be right to subsidise village shops but not corner shops in cities? Indeed, why should not people shop in supermarkets, where there is greater choice at cheaper prices? When is it right for extra resources to go into village schools to enable them to deliver good quality education rather than releasing resources to enhance the provision for children attending large schools? In answering those questions, it is necessary to be aware of the value of village services to the local community.

These are not easy judgments to make. We need to take account of people's changing expectations, the extent to which reduced choices lead to market failures and the extent to which urban dwellers should cross-subsidise people who live in the countryside.

In many cases, the way forward is to build on the strengths of the countryside, rather than to impose urban solutions where they do not fit. Adaptability and a sense of community are at the heart of rural life in many areas. I know that my hon. Friends would endorse that. Schemes such as the Home Secretary's parish constables initiative build on the fact that people in rural communities often know each other well and are prepared to invest time in their village.

The other guiding principle in delivering services in rural areas is making the best use of what is there and being flexible about using facilities for different purposes. The Post Office has an unrivalled network in rural areas and we shall consider how further diversification of Post Office Counters, which was never going to be privatised, can help to deliver more services to people in the countryside. Plans for the automation of the Post Office network offer exciting possibilities to improve the range of advice and information available to people no matter where they live.

Access to transport is one of the key requirements of people in rural areas. In many cases, it will be the car, which is an essential part of rural life today. Although car ownership in rural areas is high, some people do not have a car. It is a particular problem for women, young people and the elderly. We must look at people's need to travel, rather than focus on transport providers. In some areas, buses would have only one or two passengers. It would not be practical and it probably would not. be the best environmental option.

We must consider flexible approaches that build on what is already available. Many hon. Members will know about post buses. There are other opportunities, such as car sharing schemes and making better use of statutory transport, such as school and social services buses. The problems of providing services in rural areas are not intractable. We must start with an understanding of people's needs and then look at the best way in which to meet them—building, again, on what is already available in the countryside.

Overall, our countryside is a success story. Its beauty is an asset for the whole country. The countryside also contributes to the growing strength of the national economy. During the 1980s, employment in the countryside grew almost twice as fast as in large towns. Places with an attractive environment, broad-based employment and easy access to markets are well placed to help lead the recovery and contribute to our national competitiveness.

Some traditional rural job providers, such as mining, defence bases and agriculture, employ many fewer people than they used to—in our own countryside as in other parts of Europe. Many of the more accessible parts of the countryside have met that challenge. Old jobs are being replaced with new and employment is rising. The economy of today's countryside is very different from the traditional image. Small-scale manufacturing and the hotel and distribution sectors provide almost half the jobs in rural areas. Some 40 per cent. of farms in England now also run non-farming businesses. Those are huge and successful changes in the countryside. They are testament to the flexibility and the entrepreneurial skills of our people in the countryside.

The rural White Paper will look at how the Government can best play their part in helping the countryside fulfil its economic potential by building on its natural strengths—the skills and resourcefulness of the people and the quality of the environment. It will examine how the Government can help diversify rural economic activity, remove barriers to enterprise and build on local strengths. The new rural challenge competition, administered by the Rural Development Commission, is an example of our approach. The winning bids in the first round show an encouraging integration of economic and social development with environmental enhancement. I congratulate the Rural Development Commission, particularly its chairman, Lord Shuttleworth, on the immense amount of work that it does in the countryside.

I have received, as, I assume, have many of my hon. Friends, a note from the RDC. It is worth emphasising the second paragraph, which reads: The Commission's overriding concern is that the Government should put people at the heart of rural policy and it should restate its belief in the importance for the conservation of the countryside of a strong rural economy and balanced communities with a reasonable access to services. I could not have put it better myself.

The White Paper is still at an early stage, but I have tried to give the House an idea of the issues that it will address and look forward to hearing the view and ideas of hon. Members.

There are problems in the English countryside today and there are challenges for the future, but I am confident that we can meet them by building on the strengths of the countryside: the values of stewardship and inheritance, which we see in the way in which farmers and landowners value their land; the respect for quality and building things to last, which we see from magnificent country churches to dry-stone walls; the sense of community in which people support one another and work together, whether to raise money for the church roof or to keep the cricket club going—even expanding; and the sense of place and pride in what makes one village different from the next. I am sure that, if we build on those traditional values and adapt them to meet new challenges, the English countryside can look forward to a bright and prosperous future.

7.43 pm
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I welcome the debate—the first major debate on rural issues for many years—because at last it appears that the Government understand the importance of rural issues. It is right that it should be a major focus for all the political parties.

It is a pity that the debate is taking place on a Thursday evening, on a day when there is no opposed business at 10 o'clock, but it is good to see so many colleagues in the House, ready and willing to participate in the debate. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) here today, because I am sure that he will be able to tell us of all the good things that are happening in Lancashire. It is good to see so many distinguished Conservative Members, so many knights of the shires—I do not know whether Croydon, Central quite counts as a shire—so many knights-to-be and so many knights-who-should-be. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) is here.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

It is sexist to refer only to the knights of the shires.

Mr. Vaz

There is nothing like a dame, and I am sorry that I overlooked the presence of the honourable dame opposite.

The English countryside is a precious asset, which is neglected at the peril of the nation or any Government, especially this Government, as so many Ministers, including the Secretary of State, represent rural seats. It was interesting to hear of the trips that the Minister has made around the country, and a quick glance at his curriculum vitae shows why he is so keen on those visits. As a former sales executive with Rank Xerox, he has had plenty of opportunity to look at various parts of the country.

Living as I do in a shire city, every weekend I have the opportunity, when I return to Leicester—as I shall do this evening—to see the beautiful Leicestershire countryside. On the way, I pass some of the glories of England, among them the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire. I agree with the Minister to this extent. It is a great joy. But like the rest of the rural areas of England, there have been dramatic changes over the past few decades.

Tonight, I hope to set out what I believe should be done to change rural issues from being considered as a fringe political subject to one that is brought into the mainstream of political debate. It is a move that the public support. It is an issue that the House must tackle.

The title of the debate, "The future of rural England", gives hon. Members enormous scope to raise so many issues of concern to them. I promise to be much briefer than the Minister was in his contribution, as so many hon. Members wish to participate.

After 15 years of neglect, some might say that the answer to the question "Is there a future for rural England?" is no. The view from the Opposition is an emphatic yes. Environmental policy, for far too long, has been based on action being taken after the damage has been done: cleaning our rivers after pollution; protecting sites after neglect; and protecting wildlife after their species has been threatened. Opposition Members believe in taking action to prevent damage to the environment from occurring in the first place. That is why we are committed to creating an environment protection executive, which will set and enforce standards, in co-operation with local authorities.

A thorough overhaul of the land register is necessary to provide a comprehensive guide to ownership, quality and land use. There is far too much confusion in that area. We need an improvement in conservation legislation, to protect natural habitats and create more nature and marine reserves. We strongly welcomed the creation of the new national parks. We believe that there should be more, especially in southern England, to meet the regional imbalance.

We need a new Clean Water Act, to provide clean water. The water environment naturally has an effect on the nation's tap water. We want to ensure full compliance with European standards, as set out in the European Union drinking water directives. It is outrageous that water disconnections for residential properties are still allowed. We believe that they should be outlawed. Water costs more in rural areas. Now the water companies are under pressure from the regulators to change the cost of delivery of water to each location. That is accountancy gone mad. The price of water, which has already increased, will quadruple.

It is high time that we developed policies for native and broad-leaved woodlands which recognise their amenity value and ecological importance. I want to see a huge reduction, if not elimination, in opencast mining, which has been described by the Council for the Protection of Rural England as one of the most environmentally destructive processes carried out in the United Kingdom. New opencast sites should be permitted only where they are of benefit to the local community and the environment.

The countryside belongs not to government, either local or national, but to the people themselves. There should be a legal right of access to common land, mountain, moor and heath. There should be co-operation with local authorities to ensure that public rights of way are kept open and clearly signposted.

We heard a great deal from the Minister about "Cider with Rosie". We did not hear enough about the cider-makers and the rural economy. For far too long, the hopes and aspirations of those who work in our rural areas have been taken for granted. One rural household in every five is now living in or near a state of poverty.

A survey carried out two years ago found that 55 per cent. of workers in farming, forestry and fishing were earning less than £200 a week compared with an average of 26 per cent. in all industries. With employment in agriculture falling, it is vital that new industries and businesses are fostered in the countryside.

Regeneration is not something that can be applied only to our major towns and cities. Macro-economic policy should not ignore the job-creating and wealth-creating potential that is based outside our urban areas. Businesses in rural areas must have access to the help and advice that can be provided locally. We firmly support the concept of one-stop services for small businesses which will concentrate on providing management support systems and which will have their roots in the local community.

New technology will be the key to development in that area. Regional development agencies, with powers to provide industrial estates and encourage long-term investment will ensure that decisions about local needs are made by local people who understand the needs of rural areas.

Developments in telecommunication services will be a key to helping districts far from large towns and cities to stay in touch—for example, through telework. There are now 129 telecottages in the United Kingdom, 75 of which are in England and they boost the rural economy by encouraging town-based work to move to the country. It is important that that new technology should be available to rural areas at the same price as to other areas.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

The hon. Gentleman is enunciating some interesting ideas which will form part of the Opposition's manifesto when the time comes. Can he give us a clue how some of the proposals will be funded?

Mr. Vaz

Nothing in what I have said will result in an increase in Government expenditure. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I was saying, and if was aware of what our policies are in terms of encouraging support for employment prospects, he would know that we believe firmly in the concept of partnership between the public and private sectors. I shall come on to planning and partnership issues later.

We welcome the initiative of ACRE—Action with Communities in Rural England—and the Rural Development Commission with help from British Telecom and the Post Office which last week launched a £1 million grant scheme known as countrywork to help with job creation in the English countryside. As Michael Simmonds wrote in The Guardian this week, this will hardly create a revolution, but it is a start. He said: But it is so good to see the post office championing the cause of development when not so many weeks ago they were talking of rationalisation and closure. We need to train our work force, especially the school leavers. There is a need to co-ordinate those agencies that offer training. Raising the low wages of those who work in our rural areas is also a priority. That is why the Opposition support so strongly the concept of the minimum wage. About 4 million people will benefit from the initiative, many of them in rural areas where a large number of people are on low pay. That will be of special relevance to women who make up a large proportion of the low-paid rural workers.

We did not hear much from the Minister about housing and I am not surprised. Britain is in the midst of an appalling housing crisis, with interest rates now on the rise again and a staggeringly high level of mortgage repossessions. At the same time, we are seeing the lowest rate of new houses built since the second world war and record levels of homelessness.

In the midst of that crisis is the crisis of rural housing. The scale of need in the village is greater.than in any single city, but because of their scattered nature, they are often ignored. The concept is of an idyllic village—the little house on the prairie. The truth now is that the little house has become overcrowded. People on low incomes with young families are unable even to think of buying a home while fewer opportunities exist to rent.

We need an effective housing policy in order to sustain rural communities. Unless affordable housing is provided, the viability of some villages may be threatened. If people with younger families have to move out, school rolls will fall, causing the closure of schools and the redundancy of teachers.

The knock-on effect will be impossible to curtail. Other community facilities, such as shops and pubs, would then be threatened as businesses would slump accordingly. Thus, housing plays an integral part in the fortunes of the rural economy. There is an urgent need to act. Local councils in rural areas should be permitted to start small-scale building programme and offer a range of options for affordable housing, including part rent, part buy schemes, either in partnership with housing associations or by councils in their own right.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

The hon. Gentleman has already told my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) that none of his policies will involve additional expenditure. The Government this year are providing £2.5 billion to the Housing Corporation to provide some 45,000 housing starts this year in the low rental sector. How will the Labour party, as it says, solve the problem of homelessness, about which the hon. Gentleman complains, despite all that building, without the injection of further public funds?

Mr. Vaz

I have had the advantage of having a meeting recently with the chief executive of the Housing Corporation. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is unable to grasp the fact that there was no increase in the amount of money available to the Housing Corporation, there was a decrease, which will result in fewer houses being built. I am sure that even the hon. Gentleman can understand that.

In the 1980s, the Minister's predecessors in the Department of the Environment boasted of a bonfire of planning controls. The consequence of the extraordinary approach that we have seen during the past 15 years is now apparent in all areas of rural Britain. We have witnessed extraordinary developments destroying some of the best of rural Britain while other areas are starved of necessary investment in new industry and housing. Sensible planning controls, firmly rooted in the local community, are vital if we are to have the right type of development at the right place in the right time.

Development must be plan led, not market led. The market on its own cannot provide affordable housing. We want to see local authorities using the planning system to ensure that new housing developments include some affordable housing for rent. I want to see a partnership approach so that local authorities work with the private sector and local people to protect and enhance our countryside and to secure balanced and appropriate development.

We want to see local people consulted much more carefully over the drawing up of local plans. That is why, on Second Reading of the Town and Country Planning (Costs of Inquiries etc.) Bill on 12 January, I announced the establishment of a review of planning law. The results of that review will have a direct effect on the quality of lives of those who live in rural areas.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)


Mr. Vaz

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but this is the last time that I shall give way because other hon. Members wish to participate.

Sir Jim Spicer

All the emphasis so far on housing has been on what is done by the local authority. In my part of the world in west Dorset we would not even begin to understand the sort of situation that the hon. Gentleman outlines. The main thrust for new affordable housing in west Dorset comes from housing associations, which are getting cheap land, are using the money that is being provided by the Government to the full and are providing a massive input of new housing in every village in west Dorset.

Mr. Vaz

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been listening to what I have been saying, but I made it clear that we believe in a partnership between local authorities and the private sector. I wonder where the hon. Gentleman thinks the money that goes to the Housing Corporation comes from. It is public money, and what goes to the Housing Corporation goes to housing associations. We welcome the work that has been done in that regard. The hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to what is being said before intervening.

We believe in planning for prosperity—the prosperity of our local areas and local people, which will preserve the rich diversity of life in England. The House should be very concerned about the new information provided by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which shows that between 1945 and 1989 we lost more than 700,000 hectares of rural land to urban development. That is an area greater than Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and greater London combined. The disappearance of the land—England's lost land—needs urgent consideration.

It is important for education opportunities to be available to all our children. That means that we must take special note of the requirements of rural communities. Local schools are often the focus of their communities, and there should be no prejudice against small village schools in decision-making. Resources must be made available to ensure that rural schools are closed only for educational reasons.

We need to improve access to further and adult education in rural areas. We must examine all options offered by new technology for distance learning and promoting the spread of information. That is why we propose that local agricultural colleges should be expanded into countryside colleges, with a wider curriculum providing key skills in new technologies, business techniques and environmental matters, thus meeting the training needs of a much broader section of the rural community.

The national health service was founded on the principle that the best health services should be available to all, wherever they lived and whatever their circumstances. In many rural areas, people do not have easy access to health services: mobility is of key importance to them. Mobile services can help to improve access to services in such areas: they could include mobile clinics equipped to provide primary care—immunisation clinics, child health clinics and family planning services in local premises. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) will need the support of such services.

Consultants and general practitioners must share responsibility for care so that people who need long-term treatment, such as diabetics, do not have to make so many long journeys to out-patient clinics. More tests and treatments should be available in GPs' surgeries and health centres so that patients do not have to go to hospital. We should also ensure that minimum activation and response times are as laid down in the Orcon standards, which require 95 per cent. of responses to be made within 19 minutes. Those standards should be maintained, and improved wherever possible.

I am sure that the House will agree that good transport is vital to the quality of life in rural areas. We look forward to hearing from the Minister what new measures she proposes to improve rural transport. Under the present Government, services have been cut dramatically: villages have become isolated and fares have soared. To end the isolation of those villages and to improve the prospects of small rural industries, we must have better road links between rural areas and centres of population. We must also have bypass schemes to make villages safer, taking traffic away from where people live and children play. That is why I support the eastern bypass in Leicestershire so strongly.

Mr. Garnier

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vaz

As I taunted the hon. Gentleman earlier, I think that I ought to give way to him.

Mr. Garnier

The last thing that I would want to do is disappoint the hon. Gentleman. As he has cast a fly across the water—if he understands that analogy—I think that it would be rude of me not to rise to it.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the plan for the eastern bypass was drawn up by the Labour group on Leicester city council to wreck the countryside of south-east Leicestershire. Is it not true that the hon. Gentleman understands not a jot of the speech that he has been reading out, and that he has no experience of rural life and no understanding of rural Leicestershire, let alone rural England? Is not his speech a total abomination?

Mr. Vaz

That is rich, coming from the hon. Gentleman. He supports the A46/47 link road, which will destroy so much of the green space in my constituency and, eventually, his own. He ought to be ashamed of himself, and I am sure that the electors of Harborough have noted what he has said.

The car alone will not solve all the problems of transport in rural areas. There has been a massive increase in the Government's road building programme. The Department of Transport projects an increase in road traffic of between 83 per cent. and 142 per cent. by the year 2025, because of policies pushed through by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) when he was a Minister. That is enough to form a queue 124,000 miles long. Those extra vehicles could be accommodated on a new motorway from London to Edinburgh, if it were 257 lanes wide. Such a policy is environmentally damaging, both because roads require land and because they encourage greater use of private vehicles, with all the attendant potential for an increase in air pollution.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)


Mr. Vaz

Good, affordable public transport is vital—

Mr. Key

The hon. Gentleman referred to me.

Mr. Vaz

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to apologise to the House—in his own time, not in mine—for what he did when he was a Transport Minister.

Good affordable public transport is vital, allowing the networking that enables rural communities to prosper. We need to encourage the use of innovative bus services such as post buses. We must provide greater route flexibility for the regular network services, ensuring—dare I say it—through ticketing between transport services. In the present climate, when the Government seekincredibly—to privatise our railway system, we need public and private partnerships to invest in our railways. We need to examine ways in which lines that are currently restricted to freight can be reopened to passenger service; we want to ease congestion on and damage to rural roads by promoting the use of rail for the movement of goods. The proper use of the railway system is one of the most effective ways of protecting the rural environment.

The organised hunting of foxes, deer, hares and other animals for pleasure, in which pain and suffering is inflicted, is unacceptable. The present law relating to cruelty to animals is seriously flawed, as statutes outlawing cruelty do not apply to wild animals. The law must be changed and strengthened. We have never proposed further limitations on country sports such as angling and shooting. We recognise that angling provides a healthy recreation for millions of people, and we should encourage angling associations and clubs to develop the sport through training schemes which will include the education of the young angler in the importance of caring for wildlife and the countryside generally. It is a wonderful occupation and recreational facility for ex-Ministers.

Sir Patrick Cormack

What about shooting?

Mr. Vaz

As for shooting, there is the issue of rural crime. It is not just the controllable crime seen through the eyes of those who watch the television series "Heartbeat"; it is real crime, and, as the Minister knows, there has been a staggering increase in it. In Kent there was an increase of 106 per cent. in recorded crime between 1987 and 1993. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack)—the new knight of the shires—will be astonished to learn that, during the same period, there was a 70 per cent. increase in recorded crime in Staffordshire. In Sussex the figure was 59 per cent., in Lancashire it was 43 per cent., in Hertfordshire it was 33 per cent., in Leicestershire it was 96 per cent., in Dorset it was 35 per cent., in Hampshire it was 48 per cent., in Norfolk it was 55 per cent.—[interruption]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. There are too many seated interventions and commentaries. If hon. Members wish to comment, they must rise and seek to intervene in the customary fashion.

Mr. Vaz

Conservative Members do not want to hear about the increase in crime in rural areas. They are ashamed and embarrassed about it. There appears to be no strategy for dealing with the problem. There are no more bobbies on the beat, in their cars or even on their bicycles and crime is disfiguring the lives of people in our rural areas.

The debate will show that the needs of the countryside and those who live in it are of great importance. It is not a case of competition between town and country, of city hall versus village hall; the real competition is with time itself. We must ensure that we do not waste our most precious assets, so that all who care for the countryside can work together—as William Blake wrote— Till we have built Jerusalem In England's green and pleasant land.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. A number of hon. Members are anxious to contribute to this short debate so I ask hon. Members to exercise self-control and to make short speeches.

8.9 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

After the quite extraordinary speech from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), I hope that we can return to the issue of the future of rural England. The hon. Gentleman was not kind enough to give way when he attacked me. I am sorry that he did not agree with my policy of cancelling five motorways, which I deemed to be unnecessary. I was keen on promoting bypasses, one of the most famous of which was at Broughton and Scruton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister, who is unable to mention it himself.

I declare an interest as president of the Wiltshire Association of Local Councils, and local councils have much to contribute to the future of rural England. Like the Minister, when I worked in the Department of the Environment I was able to travel the length and breadth of this country, which was a great privilege. One of my ambitions was achieved when I attended a parish council meeting in Warkworth castle in Northumberland and attended a meeting of the council of the Isles of Scilly.

I fervently hope that the future of rural England will not include regional government. The Labour and Liberal Democratic parties are wedded to the idea of devolution and regional government. In my book, that means more interference and bureaucracy and negates many existing checks and balances, such as the National Consumer Council and a number of regulators and the like. Above all, it means more Members of Parliament, more cost and more officials, and it raises the terrible issue of where regional assemblies might be located.

It may be seen as obvious that the north-east of England should have an assembly in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In the north-west, an assembly might be located in Manchester, and in the midlands it could be somewhere in Birmingham. Those who have dealt with the councils in those fine cities, all of which are under Labour control, know that the Labour leadership of metropolitan authorities loathe the idea of regional government. It would emasculate the politics of their regions and reduce their influence for good, in their terms anyway, in their areas. They do not want it, and I know of no one who does.

In the south-west you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will decide that any regional assembly should have its headquarters in Bristol. Unfortunately, many people believe that Bristol is in the west of England. I hate to disillusion them, but it is not. Bristol is a proud and ancient city that has always looked rather in towards itself, but if it is anywhere, it is in the west midlands. It is absolutely not in the west of England, which is why I fought so hard when I had the honour of being a member of the Government to locate some of the new regional government offices in Plymouth, which is far closer to the centre of gravity of the south-west. The delivery of Government and local services is what matters, and Government regional offices have made a major contribution to that.

Thank goodness we are getting to the end of the review of local government because it has been a difficult time for us all. Much of the opinion-taking by the Local Government Commission has been flawed. I regret having to say that, but there is a perception that it has not worked. A constituent of mine wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment on 20 January. He stated: There was a distinct lack of popular interest and even less comprehension of the true facts resulting in a natural reluctance to opt for change. A MORI interviewer indicated that of all the people seen in several different areas I was the first who could answer her questions without reference to the sparse green leaflet. He went on to give further examples of the flaws as he saw them.

The Local Government Commission issued a number of press notices informing the local population of its decisions. I was rather alarmed about the Wiltshire decision because, in announcing a unitary authority for Swindon, for Thamesdown, which we all applaud and agree about, it announced that there would be no change to the rest of the county. Of course, that could not be further from the truth because, if a third of the population is taken from a county, the rest of the county must experience substantial change in the administration of local government.

My district council in Salisbury is excellent by all objective tests in financial management, administrative cost, tax collection and arrears and housing benefit: 98 per cent. of claims are dealt with within five days. On matters such as rent arrears, void council homes and energy ratio scores, my district council is doing very well. I know that we in south Wiltshire are fortunate in having one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the south-west. That is a privileged position but it has been achieved through hard work: it has not happened by accident.

I shall now deal with some of the particular issues affecting rural England, not just in my part of the world, but throughout the country, and I shall start with one or two points about the military. We in south Wiltshire are proud to have the largest training area in the country on Salisbury plain. The military have made a positive contribution to the development of rural England and will continue to do so. They are a good neighbour and they look after the rural and built environment.

The military are good conservationists and plant so many trees that the nature conservation bodies complain that the habitat might be upset if planting goes on at the same rate. They are good at archaeology and at liaising with archaeologists and at the preservation of habitat for flora and fauna. If my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) were here, he would say that and I have no doubt that my other neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber), will hope to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The military are good employers of civilians, and have been so in south Wiltshire for the best part of this century. They have made a dramatic impact on employment, so with particular sorrow I shall tomorrow attend the closure of RAF Chilmark, which is being closed because of the changing needs of the Royal Air Force.

Of course, the military bring housing problems in their wake, which was referred to earlier in the debate. Pressure arises when a family that has been in the Army for many years decides to leave it and needs housing. That family may originally have come from Liverpool or Manchester, but it has ended up in Salisbury via Germany, Belize or perhaps Hong Kong and its members feel more at home in my community than they do in their place of birth and upbringing.

There are great housing pressures on us all and good management by the housing authority has enabled it to cope very well. There has been a dramatic improvement, and the only measure that I shall offer is that in the past five years the number of letters and surgery cases about housing management has dropped dramatically. It is now manageable because there is a proper housing plan. Despite all the great financial difficulties that my housing authority faces, the housing stock is better than ever for the 15 per cent. of people in my constituency who depend on public housing.

There are also pressures on schools, social services, vehicles and roads and, of course, there is the pressure of noise. I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence, which has done all that it possibly can to minimise noise disturbance. Firing ranges and RAF aeroplanes inevitably mean noise, but it is manageable and sophisticated computer models are operating on Salisbury plain to try to ensure that when meterological conditions are not right firing is stopped for a few hours.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

With his knowledge of that military training ground, perhaps my hon. Friend could tell my constituents, who are to receive the AS90 gun from Salisbury plain, that the charges to be fired in practice at Otterburn will not be the same as the rounds that caused the disturbance on Salisbury plain.

Mr. Key

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to confirm that. He is absolutely right. The AS90 is seen as something of a bogey. Of course it has the same barrel as the gun that has been firing on these ranges for 30 years but it is a high-tech version. What matters is the charge that is put in the gun, and the very high charge can be fired only on Salisbury plain. I think I can confirm that it will not be fired on the Otterburn ranges. At the same time, we want to share a little of the grief with Otterburn. I have known Otterburn all my life. I have cousins who farm at Otterburn, so I understand the problems that my hon. Friend faces with his constituents. However, the position is not nearly as bad as he may imagine. Indeed, those living close to the plain sometimes wonder what is happening when it is quiet. Noise can be a problem, but the military take good care of the plain.

Another aspect is the science base of the MOD in rural areas. I have the good fortune to have in my constituency the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment and the centre for applied microbiology and research at Porton Down. Both are fine establishments that have done much to further basic medical science, to provide remedies and to protect our service men in time of war or threat. The science base is not just a matter of what goes on behind wire fences; it is part of our community. Its families are part of our community, of our schools and of our social life. That enriches our community. We are proud to have so many distinguished scientists in our midst, and are grateful for the employment that the establishments bring.

One area that concerns me is policing. Contrary to what the Opposition claim, the police—certainly in Wiltshire—have made dramatic strides in reducing crime. It is good news that crime has fallen for the first time in my constituency for some years. That is due to the excellence of the Wiltshire constabulary, whose motto rightly is primus et optimus. It is the oldest police force in the country and, of course, it is the best.

The problem with the Home Office funding under the new formula is that it does not take proper account of the sparsity of rural areas. My hon. Friend the Minister has already discussed that matter with me and others and we shall continue to press him on it. The basis of the new budget for the new police authority is one issue, but sparsity is another.

There is another side to the matter. Rural areas often have far more than one police force; seven police forces operate within my constituency. Many people do not know that there are seven police forces. The Home Office force has primacy, but we also have a full constabulary of the Ministry of Defence police. I pay tribute to their work, which is often unsung. It is important to the villages on Salisbury plain to know that the military police are supporting the county constabulary.

From time to time, we have the Atomic Energy Authority police and the British Transport police on our roads. There are other forces such as the provost marshals and, now, Guard Force. I suspect that in future there will be more semi-official police organisations—such as that on the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford. Its security force personnel look very much like policemen, although they are not strictly and legally policemen. Despite that, we are grateful for the work of all policemen, whichever uniform they may wear.

Inevitably, after the increases in police numbers in recent years there will have to be some constraint. There are now more police in Wiltshire than ever. There has been a 23 per cent. increase in the number of uniformed policemen since 1979 and a 97 per cent. increase in the number of civilians working in support of the police. It is not widely known that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is a special constable. Parish constables have been a success.

We like special constables in our community—they are people we know and meet every day. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary that it would be cheap, in his terms, to boost police forces in rural areas with sparse populations by using more special constables. I am sure that crime would reduce as a result.

Farming is absolutely basic to my constituency, as it is to most of rural England. Farmers have created our environment and preserved our countryside. They are quick to respond to changing needs and they deserve our congratulations. If anything has gone wrong, it is that 20 years ago no one would have air freighted calves to the continent, to be fattened and returned to our country as dead meat. All that added value should be going to our farmers, butchers and consumers, not to transport companies and French business interests.

I do not want to pursue that argument, but surely there will be some changes. I have suggested to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that we should be tweaking a very heavily subsidised industry to encourage more home markets. We must remove the need for that trade and encourage home subsidies.

For reasons that include the care of the environment, I am sure that we will move from a high-input, intensive farming regime to a more natural farming tradition. The system of environmentally sensitive areas is a major advance, which I welcome. Perhaps there will be a return to traditional farming in areas such as Wiltshire, which means the grazing of sheep and cattle on the plain—as at Parsonage down and Winterbourne Stoke—with dairying in the valleys. There may be less grain growing, which depends on a high input of nitrogen fertilisers. That could make a big difference to the pattern of agriculture. It may be a long way off, but it is definitely on the way. If we want a few clues, we could do worse than look at the example of New Zealand.

Land tenure changes will make a big difference to the future of rural England. I welcome the Government's plans and I look forward to the Bill being debated in the House. A serious review must be made of county council farm tenancies. In my county, there are many such farms, covering about 12,500 acres. The tenancy was designed to be a short-term stepping stone, but the average now runs for about 26 years; something is wrong there.

Forestry is gaining increasing attention as we manage to think long-term, but foresters need short-term cash flows to pay the wages. It is folly to tie them up in red tape and tie them down with planning restrictions, which is what I fear happens in some places.

I draw my hon. Friend the Minister's attention to an area that he has taken great care with, for which we are grateful—the New Forest heritage area. There are still problems with the overlapping of local plans and there is a fear that commoners, farmers and landowners will find themselves so tied up in red tape that they cannot do any productive farming.

Mineral extraction and waste management are matters that other hon. Members may wish to pursue, but planning is the key to so many things—as my hon. Friend the Minister said in his speech. Should there be a free-for-all? He was right to suggest that the instinct is to say yes, people should be able to use the property they own to their own advantage, in their own way. However, pragmatism insists that we provide an active framework of community co-operation. Therefore, I have no quarrel with the concept of being locked into a tight planning system. Local plans have proved a great advance.

This is a small island, which is another reason why we do not need regional government. The transport needs of London and Manchester cannot be seen in isolation from their impact on the home counties, the east Thames corridor, Cheshire or, for that matter, Barrow-in-Furness. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was right in his aim of deterring green field development even further. However, we must be careful not to deter regeneration in existing communities. As a former Minister with responsibility for inner cities, I know what it is to talk in billions of pounds about the regeneration of urban environments.

It is wonderful to see Hulme crescent in Manchester coming down and Housing Association modest housing being put up in its stead. However, I am not talking about that; I am drawing my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that in most market towns there are hundreds of acres of derelict land. Much of it may be railway land; much of it has simply been derelict for many years. Enormous problems need to be dealt with.

We need to deal with transport constructively. I do not wish to get sidetracked into issues of inter-urban travel. In preparing his White Paper, my right hon. Friend the Minister should consider the problems of rural poverty, which undoubtedly exist, low incomes for rural workers, however diversified industries become in rural areas, and the retired population, who will always be on tight budgets. They are all dependent on the motor car. My worry is that less well-off constituents in rural England will suffer most from a carbon tax and similar proposals. I cannot imagine how one can devise a subsidy system to get round the problem.

This country spends more than £1 billion a year on subsidising not people who want to travel but bus companies. Is that the right way forward? My right hon. Friend the Minister drew attention to the fact that we need to be much more imaginative in tackling the issues of rural travel. Of course, the rural transport development fund, which he mentioned in connection with post buses, is important, but sick and disabled people have transport problems in rural areas, which is understandable. The concessionary fare scheme may partly deal with that, but it does not deal with the needs of most people.

I am increasingly concluding that the best way of ensuring better targeted transport subsidy in rural areas is to subsidise not bus companies but people who need transport, which could be done through voucher systems. Many local authorities already operate such systems. To some extent, they are linked with voluntary car schemes. An extremely important study has been undertaken in Wiltshire by the Health and Safety Commission. It was published only this month and I draw it to my hon. Friend's attention.

Airports are another issue from which we cannot escape in discussing rural England. Regional airports are becoming increasingly important and they have an impact on rural development. There are many examples of that around the country. If ever there was one example of an airport that was a major opportunity waiting to happen, it is Newquay airport in Cornwall. That could make an enormous difference to the economy of western England. World tourism will continue to expand. Newquay can take jumbo jets and Concorde. The matter should be considered carefully. Could Cornwall cope? I believe that it could.

The Rural Development Commission has been mentioned. I reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister. I congratulate Lord Shuttleworth and all the people who work for the commission. I hope that it will reach the right conclusions in its difficult and controversial decisions on market failure and direct rural training. It has saved thatching and wheelwrighting from extinction. Some of the trades that it has taught have moved entirely into the private sector.

I support the withdrawal of taxpayers' support where it is unnecessary, but we must be sure that we do not just abandon some of those traditional rural crafts where there is no alternative. Distance learning, telecottaging and small-scale tourism are taking place and the Rural Development Commission has played its part.

We have employment problems in, for example, Wilton, where, tragically, the carpet factory closed this week. Of course, Wilton carpets will continue in one form or another. The name may have been raided by Bradford, but the land, buildings and heritage remain.

Conservative Members and the Government are so often accused in rural areas of destroying rural communities. There is the image of school, church, pub, post office and shop. In one breath, we are condemned by Opposition parties for putting strains on those institutions. As soon as those parties get into a position of power and influence to do anything about the problems, they do the closing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has his own example; I have mine. My county council, where a pact has been formed between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, is putting under threat schools at Barford, St. Martin, Fovant and Dinton in my constituency. It is not being done on educational grounds. The hon. Member for Leicester, East said that those schools should close only on educational grounds. I hope that he will tell his county councillors of the decision that he has made.

Mr. Garnier

If he will not, I will.

Mr. Key

If our rural communities were being offered wonderful rural centres, with schools, sports halls, village halls for live culture and telecottaging, that would be fine and many of our little rural schools would say, "That is a better education," but that is not happening. Little rural schools are being closed so that we can have bigger town schools. That is not what my constituents want.

Tourism is crucial and will be more important than ever as the years go by. I remain worried about the structure of tourism and support for it. My message is that we should make tourism as local as possible in terms of the organisation of the tourist industry. In my time as a Minister with responsibility for tourism, I found that it was best for a town to take an initiative on tourism rather than rely on a regional tourist board or even a bigger tourist organisation.

England is a land of great diversity with a bright future and we should never talk it down; to do so costs jobs and prosperity. When I lived in Cornwall in the 1960s, I was told that Cornish fishing, the daffodils on the Isles of Scilly, early potatoes and broccoli, railways and the Cornish way of life were in terminal decline. None of that was true. There was uncomfortable change in the area. If one group of people should shoulder some responsibility for that, it is those who made their way in the world by convincing people that the south-west was in terminal decline.

The Liberal party, which became the Social Democrat party, which became the Liberal Democratic party, made the politics of the south-west the politics of decline, protest and defeat. That was not clever because every Liberal Democrat vote in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Dorset, Avon, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire is a vote for surrender. That party tells boardroom decision-makers from Newquay to New York, from Truro to Tokyo, and from Salisbury to San Francisco that the people of the south-west cannot cope, that they opted out of the challenge for progress and quality of life.

Every Liberal Democrat vote says to Whitehall and to Brussels, "We beg for your money and we will do what we are told. We want federalism, the single currency, the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy." At the vote on fishing last week, which was so cynical and opportunistic, the leader of that party was not even present.

The south-west can make a great deal of difference to itself: it has a choice. It should not sulk or sink into that orange sunset and be represented at Westminster by a party that is proud to be out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom and that lacks influence.

In rural England, we see today's enterprise culture gaining markedly from the rich resources of the south-west. The heritage is better cared for than ever. I hope very much that in 1995 my constituency, where a quarter of jobs are in manufacturing industry, will be an example to the rest of the south. If my constituency is anything to go by, and I think it is, rural England has never had such a broad economic base. It is poised to take full advantage of the economic upturn. We have many problems to tackle, but we have never been better equipped to tackle them.

8.38 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

I join in the all-party welcome both for the debate and for the Government's announcement that they will publish a White Paper on rural policy. Although I have no doubt that there will be plenty of disagreement about rural policy, it is good news for all hon. Members representing rural areas that the real problems and challenges affecting the communities are coming under scrutiny in that way. I welcome the tone and most of the content of what the Minister said at the start of the debate. Whether he will deliver on that remains to be seen. Regrettably, I noted some omissions from his comments. He sought, however, to highlight some relevant and important issues.

To draw up the kind of integrated approach that has been suggested, across all policies and involving all sections of the relevant communities, is an ambitious target. Despite the best intentions, the policies from different Departments, quangos and various tiers of Government too often pull in conflicting directions. The answer is to start with the basics.

Let us think of a typical rural community—a small village or town surrounded by a few dispersed homes and farms. Traditionally, such communities were virtually self-sufficient. The starting point was usually farming or a similar primary industry such as fishing, which brought relatively high employment levels to the countryside. Nearby villages and small towns grew up to service their needs—markets, small shops and other services, a school, post office, church and chapel. The size of the community and the traditional methods employed in its business meant little risk to the environment and an essentially self-sustaining economy. However, I am not suggesting that everything was perfect. In many ways, opportunities were restricted, but it was in a very literal sense a sustainable economy and community.

However, all that has been under huge pressure in the past few decades and the net impact has left a huge question mark over the future of such rural communities.

In Cornwall, we are only too well aware that the urban view of the countryside—holidays, a good environment and a nice place to live—is very far from the reality for many of the people born and brought up there. To explain that we have to consider what is needed to keep rural communities alive.

First, housing must be available at a price that people can afford. However, several different pressures are making it ever harder for local people to find the housing that they need. The countryside has become a popular place to find a home for retirement, from which to commute or in which to buy a holiday or weekend cottage. City salaries or the value of a London house on retirement are available to such purchasers, but local wage rates cannot match them. With the supply of housing limited, not least by efforts to protect the countryside from over-development, local people are priced out of the market.

In Cornwall, for example, this has meant that a two-earner couple, with both individuals on average local earnings, could by the late 1980s secure a mortgage sufficient to buy only a house in the cheapest 2 per cent. of the housing stock in the county, almost none of it by definition in the more rural villages which were the most popular and, therefore, the most expensive.

Mr. Colvin

These days, people do not have to buy a house. In my constituency, there are on average 1,000 empty dwellings, roughly equivalent to the number of people on the urgent council house waiting list. If the Government's leasehold and short tenancy reforms were more widely known, more of that property could be let. People do not have to buy.

Mr. Taylor

I cannot dispute what is happening in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but that is certainly not the case in Cornwall, although I acknowledge that there are particularly acute pressures in Cornwall for the reasons that I have elaborated.

In the 1980s, more than half the sales in the most popular Cornish villages involved second homes and many of the rest were homes for retirement. That stops local people buying in their own communities, and I shall deal in a moment with the problems of rented accommodation.

If a young couple cannot find a home in their community, they have to leave. The village then empties of children, the school struggles and local businesses fail. When the summer holidays come, part-time residents wonder why the full-time services have disappeared—even though they are a major cause of that disappearance.

The problem is made worse by the loss of rented accommodation. Most rural communities have never had a great deal of private sector or council accommodation, but council house sales have been brisk and private landlords found that they could make more out of a summer holiday let than a year-round tenancy. The result is that homelessness has hit rural areas hard and forced young people out of their communities. We are all familiar with people who can get a winter let, but, when summer comes, are once again peripatetic, homeless, perhaps staying with family or friends or relying on bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Of course, well-paid local jobs could provide a solution to the dilemma. Traditional industries such as farming, fishing and mineral extraction employ nothing like the numbers that they once did, and they offer low incomes. In addition, out-of-town shopping and the concentration on larger towns by the major retail companies has destroyed much of the traditional small business base in villages. Once-thriving village centres now feel lucky if they can boast a part-time community post office.

For those with a car, that may be sad but not necessarily a real problem. However, for those without easy access to transport, it is a nightmare. On top of high housing costs, it makes rural living ever more unaffordable and, as young people, mothers and others are forced into the towns, more services are lost to the villages. Fewer children means pressure for the school to close, fewer people using local shops leads to still fewer shops; and so the cycle ratchets on. Fewer people use the buses, so routes are lost and the remaining people are stranded.

There is also the threat of the loss of rural post offices. Many have already closed and others are reduced to opening part time, but vast numbers are still struggling to survive although they have been hit by high business rates, by ever lower payment per item of business and by the Government's refusal to allow the Post Office to offer the new, competitive services that could help it survive while it remains in the public sector. If it is true that such an initiative is to be ruled out, it will be seen as nothing other than petty retaliation in a fit of pique by the President of the Board of Trade because he was not allowed the privatisation that he wanted. If the local post office is strangled in village after village, another strand of the mutual community and the elements of support that allow people to live in that community even though they are not rich is cut.

I hope that the House will now permit me to raise a couple of issues specific to the south-west which relate to Government decisions. The biggest fear in Cornwall, and what has most angered people in the region, is the cost of water. Capital costs used to be spread across the country but now fall to local communities. That may sound fine in theory, but the result is that the 3 per cent. of the national population living in the south-west has had to pay for more than one third of the national cost of cleaning Britain's beaches. With many bills soaring to more than £600—that is often the case for pensioners in my constituency—householders and, incidentally, local businesses, have been badly hurt. I fear that the same could happen with the decision to charge consumers for the costs of getting electricity and gas to us.

I have done enough to highlight the problems of rural areas which have been caused partly by structural and economic change and too often hastened by Government policy. I deal now with what we must do to turn this around, and the kind of integrated policies that we need at all levels to rebuild the thriving, sustainable rural economy that Ministers say they are seeking. The Liberal Democrats published their proposals last year in the document entitled "Reclaiming the Countryside" and have already submitted it to the Government for consultation.

I must draw some conclusions from what I have said. The rural community cannot survive if all sections of that community cannot afford to live there. We cannot allow rural areas to become commuter dormitories or holiday home ghost towns, and that means affordable homes to buy and rent and helping young first-time buyers, for example, through a part-ownership scheme. Yet the private sector will not finance housing schemes with restricted sale clauses to meet local needs and, as housing associations have been required to get private sector finance, it is becoming a real problem to guarantee that the land specially set aside for rural needs will remain for local needs thereafter and councils are then naturally reluctant to make land available which would otherwise not get planning permission.

Many rural housing associations have suffered huge cuts for next year. For example, Cornwall Rural Housing Association will be unable to build any homes. The solution must be to relax the restrictions on the use of receipts from council house sales to build new homes to rent, whether by the council, housing associations or any other bodies, but present policies cannot continue without wrecking the nature of many of the rural communities that I represent.

I cannot speak for all areas of the country, but where there is high incomer pressure and pressure for second homes, one cannot service the need for local housing for local people without substantial Government investment beyond that which remains after the recent cuts.

Housing alone is not enough—with it must come jobs. The best way in which to tackle that desire is to give more muscle to backing local business. That means single, well-financed local development agencies. The highlands and islands and Wales have shown that they can work and it need not mean much more money. It means taking the funds already held by civil servants in Whitehall and the Government's regional offices, all of which, incidentally, are in big cities, taking money from the quangos and from the plethora of competing agencies and giving it to a single accountable local agency to back local business.

Much as I appreciate the efforts of those involved with, for example, Business Link, I simply do not believe that an office in or on the edge of some rural town, for which people have to pay, meets the need, with part-time attendance by people from various Government agencies.

Creating jobs also means taking a broader approach to development issues and planning and transport. It is nonsense that no assessment is made of the often negative economic impact of road schemes on local communities. We need to look at the transport needs of rural communities in a broader way to take into account the environment, the effect on local businesses and those who may have no access to private transport.

Much of the destruction of the countryside has been in the name of economic development, yet has contributed to the loss of economic and business success in the communities affected. It is extraordinary to find it confirmed in parliamentary questions that no assessment is made of the local impact of such road schemes on jobs, even though the Government have, over many years, claimed that the schemes have contributed to the creation of jobs overall. They may contribute to jobs in the cities because the cities can supply the rural areas more easily, but, too often, such schemes destroy jobs in rural areas for small local businesses that never have any intention or ability to go into the cities to compete in that direction.

Creating jobs also means adopting a new approach to agriculture and protecting countryside. That is why we have advocated replacing the common agricultural policy with a new European common rural policy, in which agriculture continues to play a core role, but not an exclusive role. More advice and assistance needs to be made available for the start-up and expansion of small businesses, marketing and business planning, and diversification out of food production.

We need to move away from indirect price management in agriculture, which is not popular with the wider public and never will be. Therefore, it is always under threat from Governments responding to that public concern. We need to move towards direct payments for economic, environmental and social goods, which benefit the wider community, such as maintenance of the best features of the British countryside, biodiversity and areas of special interest.

It has been said several times in this debate that farmers have created the countryside. People value that countryside and we need to make people more aware that they cannot have it without a successful farming community. One of the ways in which to do that is to make people more aware that their support in pay goes into things that they want to keep, rather than a general impression that it goes into the pockets of people who buy and drive new Range Rovers.

Local government is best placed to respond to many of those local needs, but it simply cannot if restrictions, which were originally designed to tackle the sins of a few over-spending, out-of-control, left-wing city authorities, are extended to hit traditionally low-spending authorities in rural areas. It is especially harsh when authorities which for many years—decades rather than a few years—were low spenders, conserved spending as the Government wished, and very often underspent in areas such as education, find themselves, because the capping ceilings are based on historic levels, having to cut many more core services than authorities in the cities which were large spenders in the past and which have more fat to trim. It is not always the case, but some hon. Members would agree that very often that is what happens.

Extending the restrictions is especially hard to accept when the cost of services in rural areas, which cannot be delivered through one unit but have to be spread out over a wide area, are inadequately recognised by Whitehall. I shall give a couple of examples from the south-west.

In the south-west as a whole, the Government allow us £130 a year less in the standard spending assessment for each child's education than the average for England. Yet our schools have to deliver the same national curriculum and pay the same national wage rates. In addition, there is a tendency to employ older, more loyal staff in smaller village schools, so their wage costs are usually higher than average. Schools which may have only four, five or six teachers in the first place sometimes have to make a borderline decision about being able to afford to employ another teacher.

Secondly, the area cost adjustment transfers funding to London and the south-east. For 1995–96, the effect on the south-west is a £1.5 billion loss of funding, despite the high costs affecting us in the ways that I have already outlined. Ministers have already agreed that that transfer needs to be examined, but I regret that they are not doing it more speedily. Throughout the south-west, while there may be a debate about the detail, there is broad agreement that there is a problem for us with the working of the settlements.

Those problems are typical of rural areas, whose support the Conservatives have taken for granted for too long. If nothing else, the growing political success of the Liberal Democrats has helped at least to turn the political spotlight on the needs of rural communities. I have always argued that a marginal seat is best for the constituents in it. Politicians will always work harder and Governments will always seek to win or defend them as a result. The fact that the south-west has become an area of many marginal seats and a tight political battle has led to a change of attitude.

It is time that the documents on the lack of economic development funds, sitting currently on the Prime Minister's desk, the rhetoric about cutting water bills, and the rhetoric about greater investment in our needs and responding to the concerns that I have mentioned was turned into action. If the White Paper is to lead to real change, it will have to lead to a change of policies in areas to which the Government have wedded themselves ideologically. But embrace that change they must.

8.56 pm
Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)

I shall be brief because it is a great shame and very selfish of ministerial colleagues, Opposition spokesmen and other hon. Members to take so long on their speeches late on a Thursday night when so many of us wish to speak in this important debate on rural England. I condemn hon. Members from all parties for taking far too long and I shall make an example with my speech by making it short and cutting it down to specific questions. I hope that the House finds some ways in which to prevent such use of its time, especially late on a Thursday night.

I have a different problem with my rural economy. I have the only county seat in the west midlands—Meriden; the bit between Birmingham and Coventry, which includes all the farms and all the countryside. It is doing too well. It is encouraging too much economic activity. With the M6 and the M42, the national exhibition centre, Birmingham international airport, Birmingham international station and Birmingham international business park, there is far too much concentration on the use of the green belt.

We also have the problem that the people with those jobs, which is great for the economy and great for the west midlands, need homes. We now have an extra 3,300 homes in the green belt. My first question for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), is this: will she accept my strong concern about the unitary development plan and the extra houses required in the green belt? In my small constituency, that involves more than 3,000 houses. Will she comment on that? Is that really right in terms of the arrangements for the countryside?

Secondly, has my hon. Friend the Minister heard about the proposal, because of the magnet of the roads and all the rest of it, by Aston Villa and Birmingham City football clubs to build a new football stadium? That proposal could cause immense problems on the roads.

Thirdly, has my hon. Friend the Minister heard about, and what does she feel about, the widening of the M42 in the area by a further two lanes on each side which will lead to a super super-highway? What does she feel about that and its effects on local residents?

I have given my hon. Friend the Minister's office advance warning of my next question. All the developments to which I have referred pose questions for the rural countryside dweller who moved to the rural countryside in the belief that he would enjoy it. As I understand it, a judgment was made recently on appeal in the House of Lords that compensation can be paid to someone who can demonstrate that a property has lost value as a result of public works.

If the unitary development plan or a ministerial judgment gives rise to a planning permission in respect of which a rural dweller can prove loss of value in respect of his dwelling—whether due to a motorway, to airport expansion or to the construction of new houses close to the urban dweller's house—what does my hon. Friend believe will happen as a result of that judgment? My hon. Friend may have to reply to that later. I am not sure whether I am correct, but I believe that the judgment related to Colonel Owen.

I promised to be brief and I will be brief. I represent a rural constituency, but it will not remain a rural constituency unless we have concentrated and effective help from the Government and from all those concerned in preventing further development.

9 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West)

I noted what you said about brief speeches, Madam Deputy Speaker. Many of my hon. Friends asked me to use their 10 minutes, but I shall refrain from doing so. However, I shall not speak for as long as the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key).

When discussing this topic, it is very hard not to produce a shopping list of problems in rural areas. My constituents would expect me to do that and they would probably like to write such a list for me. My constituency is typical of scores of constituencies. It comprises a huge rural area between Merseyside and the River Ribble with a substantial new town, Skelmersdale, in one corner and two smaller towns, Ormskirk and Burscough, in the middle.

My constituency has eight rural parishes and four semi-rural parishes. It has the usual tensions between the contiguous rural and urban areas. While the townspeople envy what they see as the wealth of the rural parishes and strive to move into them, people in the rural areas envy the facilities in the urban areas. The solutions to reconciling those tensions lie in increasing ease of communication and the decentralisation of many public services. That has not proved easy in recent years. While the councils have done a great deal to decentralise some services into rural areas, recent swingeing cuts in local government finance have made progress very difficult.

For example, Lancashire county council's plans to extend nursery school and library provision, which have produced two excellent libraries in rural parishes and one nursery class in an area outside the towns of west Lancashire, have been put into reverse by the huge cuts in standard spending assessments that Lancashire has suffered since 1992.

Ease of communication effectively means the private car for rural west Lancashire. Three vital bypasses projected for the district have been considered again recently, partly by the Minister for the Environment and Countryside in his previous job. The most crucial bypass has been completely cut out; one has been put on the shelf and the remainder seems to be permanently stalled.

The two rural railway lines are under constant threat. British Rail's inability to alter platforms or to prevent the decrease in the frequency of trains has left many people in rural areas, particularly the elderly, isolated. That situation has been made worse by the virtual collapse of rural bus services since deregulation. That issue has already been discussed and I shall not repeat it.

I often hear hon. Members attacking tax rises on petrol on the ground that rural people need cars. That may be true, but the complaint does not cover many elderly people who do not drive. Nor does it cover, crucially I believe, young people for whom rural life becomes an irritating and limiting experience so that they cannot wait to leave.

My constituency probably has the greatest total mileage of moss roads of any constituency in England. Those roads are built on peat moss. A combination of drought years—we are not experiencing such conditions now, but we have in the past—and increasing vehicle size, especially farm vehicles, is destroying those roads. The county has come up with imaginative solutions involving patch, make-do and mend solutions. It has made yearly bids for transport supplementary grant, but it has not been able to secure any. Therefore, some of those roads must be closed, which will divert more traffic on to fewer roads and increase maintenance problems.

In my constituency, like many others, there is increasing pressure on rural schools. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) says, the county has supported the tiny rural schools in my area. One now has 20 pupils. Figures—they are public—show that, per pupil, a small rural school can cost four times as much as an urban school, and there is great pressure from other areas to do something about that. Again, the shortfall in revenue support grant, particularly for education, makes it more likely that such schools will remain under threat.

If the argument for the retention of rural schools is based at least partly on their essential nature in the community—I support that, of course—and if small local communities are to flourish, perhaps we should consider other methods of top-up funding, possibly from the Department of the Environment, to relieve pressure on the education budgets of certain areas. Perhaps parish council precepts will even be considered.

There is increasing unease in the farming community of west Lancashire, which is brought about by pressure to sell county smallholdings, and uncertainty about medium-term and long-term effects of the abolition of minimum-term tenancies. The Prime Minister was wrong to suggest a few weeks ago in Parliament that all members of the National Farmers Union favoured the abolition of minimum-term tenancies. In the north-west, they certainly do not. The majority of tenant farmers, even though the decision will not be retrospective, are dead against it. Both developments, they believe, could stifle new entrants into farming and horticulture, and, far from encouraging them, might point young people away from careers in agriculture.

Shops, post offices and housing have been adequately discussed, but the planning policy guidance to which the Minister referred still continues to use the wonderful phrase "limited affordable housing". When many of my constituents in rural areas see the word "affordable", they fall about laughing. What is affordable in the opinion of someone in Whitehall is different from what people in west Lancashire and others in the north can achieve by putting their hands in their pockets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) tempted me to refer to matters such as the police service. Hon. Members might know—the Minister certainly does—that it was announced that Lancashire's police budget was to be cut by £280,000. A letter was received a few days later, saying, "We are terribly sorry, but we got the decimal point in the wrong place," and the budget was to be cut by £2.8 million. That is the equivalent of 100 policemen. It is likely that we shall see a reduction in police numbers in rural areas, whereas in west Lancashire there has been the opposite tendency in the past.

I wish to spend a few minutes dealing with green belts. I intended to ask the Minister, "Where is the new PPG2?" Of course, it was published on Tuesday. That spoilt my best line. However, I am pleased to read revised PPG2, particularly paragraph 3.2, which states: It is for the applicant for planning permission to show why permission should be granted for development which is inappropriate within the Green Belt. I am pleased also to note the stiffening of controls on building adaptation. The regulations have been substantially clarified, and my local authority will certainly be grateful for that.

I am sure that green belt policy commands support across the House and with the large majority of the population. But for local planning authorities, balancing the need to defend the green belt against the needs of the rural economy is like dancing on ice. The huge changes in rural employment, and hence in the make-up of the rural population, since 1955 when the green belt got going, have created stresses and pressures that planners find hard to resist and even harder to accommodate. It is something of an indulgence, but I must pay tribute to Les Abernethy, the chief planning officer in west Lancashire, and to Councillor Bob Pendleton, the chairman of the planning committee, who have both retained a clear, flexible and forward-looking attitude throughout all the difficulties.

In PPG7, published in 1992, the Government said that the retention of as much land as possible in agricultural use no longer has the same priority. The priority now is to promote diversification of the rural economy so as to provide wide and varied opportunities for rural people, including those formerly employed in agricultural and related sectors". That passage, coupled with the drive to reduce agricultural surpluses, has led to substantial pressures to diversify in rural areas, which naturally push at the limitations in the green belt. Most of the diversification involves new or altered structures, and those involving leisure and sporting activities can be extraordinarily ugly. The pressures continue to increase.

In my constituency, one of the most important industries is horticulture, which presents the familiar problems involving acres of derelict glasshouses, and land clearance. In horticulture, the influence of the main retailers—the large supermarkets—has been significant. They require produce to be packed under set conditions and delivered direct within a specified period, and the costs of meeting their requirements, as well as the introduction of tougher hygiene regulations over the years, have been prohibitive for smaller agricultural holdings. That has resulted in the rise of specialists providing facilities to wash, pack and distribute not only their own produce but that of other holdings.

Now, however, it seems that diversification is going back the other way. For example, because of demands to decrease the amount of handling of tomatoes, the tendency is to move back to the holding where the tomatoes are grown, and to do the handling and packing there, which will increase demand for buildings and new structures in more areas.

Similarly, it was common practice for most holdings to own vehicles for use in the distribution of their produce. Use of such vehicles was ancillary to the operation of the holdings, and therefore did not require planning permission. The move towards greater efficiency has led to an increase in the numbers of haulage contractors who primarily transport agricultural produce but may not themselves own land.

The number of farm holdings that use their vehicles to transport not only produce grown on their land but that grown on other holdings is increasing. That leads to enormous rows about planning permission, about which I have had endless nightmares over the past couple of years. There is a clear and obvious need for small industrial estates to accommodate hauliers and others close to the main roads, but also close to the farms that they serve.

That is difficult to achieve even under the revised green belt regulations, if I understand them rightly. Moreover, confusions in the wording of the original PPG2 and the resulting court cases, especially concerning alternative uses for agricultural buildings, have soured relationships and in some cases set for local farmers and landowners what they take to be precedents. The precedents are still there for local planning authorities to tackle, even now that the revised PPG2 has been published.

The more careful wording in the new version will help planners, but will hardly prevent the rows stemming from those precedents. Regulations concerning agricultural building for housing for essential workers have been mightily abused in the green belt. I could take hon. Members to see great mansions. No doubt the Minister will be seeing some of those—or at least, whoever defeats him in South Ribble will see them—because his constituency will inherit large sections of the territory that I am describing. I could take the Minister to mansions resembling Southfork, which technically are agricultural dwellings.

It is appalling, and the new annexe D in PPG2 is welcome, as is the inclusion of hospitals in paragraphs 3.8 and 3.9. That would solve many wrangles, such as at Greaves Hall, where we are dealing not only with the hospital but with the local authority and the health authority, which is not even in Lancashire. The new annexe on white land is also welcome.

I have some questions for the Minister, which I shall rattle through. This is a little unfair, as I have not given her notice of my questions, but I would welcome an answer at any time. What is the precise meaning of the phrase in paragraph 1.7 of the new PPG2 which states that the purposes of including land in green belt are of paramount importance to their continued protection and should take precedence over land use objectives? Frankly, I cannot explain that.

Will the Minister also look at the extra difficulties caused by the sections of document that deal with the height of buildings and their visual impact? In an excessively flat area, such as the area that I represent, those buildings can cause enormous problems. One can sometimes see a house with a new roof from four or five miles away, and planners and inspectors have often said that someone cannot have a development in an area because it can be seen from five miles away.

On the question of sports facilities, the document says that possible examples of facilities include small changing rooms or unobtrusive spectator accommodation for outdoor sport, or small stables for outdoor sport and recreation. I can see what it is getting at, but most sports facilities require to be underpinned by a clubhouse or bar. There is tremendous pressure not just to develop a sports facility in a rural area, but to build a bar or a similar facility as well.

What does the Minister think the new policies—either those in the White Paper or those in the green belt document that I have been talking about—will do about farm fragmentation, which presents us with a terrible problem? The pressure to break up a farm is followed by the pressure to put a new building on each of the fragments of that farm.

It is possible to detect in the slow changes evidenced in planning policy guidelines, Department of the Environment circulars and subjects connected with the White Paper the evolution of an integrated approach to green belt policy, which will be enhanced by sensible district, strategic and structural plans, and by imaginative proactive policies that are emerging in some areas.

I read an imaginative document published by Halton borough council in Cheshire, which the Minister might like to look at. The document suggested—among other things—that rundown rural railway stations might be revitalised by planning proposals that allowed the reasonable development of affordable housing in the area of railway stations, in return for developer input into modernising the stations. That could include—crucially, in my area—raising platforms to allow people to get on to trains.

There will always be a problem in finding flexibility to allow the development of small businesses in the green belt. At some point, the problems of regulating farm shops must be sorted out, as must the problems of allowing non-agricultural businesses to occupy agricultural buildings. In the northern half of my constituency, the local economy depends to an enormous extent on such small enterprises.

The farmers and landowners of west Lancashire retain the sympathy and support of the rest of the population because the people in general like the countryside that has been constructed—to an enormous extent—by farming practices during the centuries. The people of the area enjoy their access to the countryside for leisure activities, but they also enjoy their footpath access. Many farmers accommodate such access easily and with total co-operation. The other day, a farmer complained to me about the amount of time that he wasted talking to the nice people who walk along the path close to his land. Many other farmers are more hostile and sometimes actively obstruct footpaths.

The Minister was right to say that the countryside is a working and a living area and not merely a "chocolate box picture" for visitors to enjoy. I recall with pleasure the former Minister responsible for food saying that one should not set the countryside in aspic. One of my hon. Friends retorted, "If it was, you'd bloody well eat it." While we recognise that the countryside is a working and a living area, we must also acknowledge that there is poverty and isolation—I was pleased that Conservative Members also acknowledged that. Most rural areas suffer from homelessness, overcrowded homes and a drastic shortage of some services. If those issues are dealt with seriously in the White Paper, it may well gather widespread support—including support from Opposition Members—but if it does not, it will descend into platitudes and irrelevance, which will not help the future of rural England.

9.20 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I shall follow the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) and be brief, as some of my hon. Friends still want to speak.

When we listened to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) outline Labour's plans, we had a fascinating insight into what the Opposition would do for the countryside. He spoke for approximately half an hour—indeed, for more than half an hour—but he did not say one word about farming. How can the Labour party construct a rural policy without mentioning farming once, when they know that it is the bedrock of our rural life?

The hon. Member for Leicester, East listed a heap of new regulations. He seems to want a new Domesday book, a tougher environment protection agency, more national parks bringing more regulation, a policy for woodlands and a legal right of access to roam on common land, moorland, mountains, woodlands and heaths, which would destroy many country jobs, especially those that depend on grouse shooting, and affect the status of many wild birds for which privacy and quiet are essential.

To cap it all, in between talking about telecottages—I thought that I knew what a cottager was, but I am not entirely sure what they are—the hon. Member for Leicester, East proposed a ban on hunting. In my constituency—I also defer to your opinion on such matters, Madam Speaker—there are seven packs of hounds and the local hunts provide a social life and dances, and are an integral part of the community, but the hon. Member for Leicester, East wants to ban them. In contrast, my hon. Friend the Minister produced some good ideas, and showed his firm commitment to the countryside, and his understanding that it is not a plaything for urban people, but predominantly a place where people work and live.

The countryside has manifest problems. First, there is far too much bureaucracy. Interestingly, my county of Northumberland has a population of just over 300,000, but it has no fewer than six district councils, one county council and one national park with planning powers. Now, the hon. Member for Leicester, East wants to add a regional development agency and the north of England assembly, on which the Labour party is especially keen. The poor Northumbrians would sink under that weight of bureaucracy.

The countryside already has too much bureaucracy. There are Ministries, organisations such as the Countryside Commission, English Nature and English Heritage, which are all valuable in their way, countless protection agencies, such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and animal welfare organisations, such as the League against Cruel Sports and others that want to stop us enjoying ourselves. The countryside is over-managed and, in many respects, over-governed.

I believe that the environmentally sensitive areas programme has been successful, but it gives rise to a problem. The danger is that the ESAs create environmental ghettos in parts of the countryside. Jobs inside the ESAs are slowly being destroyed. As farmers in those areas get more funds for not doing various things on their farms, so they have more money to spend renting grazing land in countryside belonging to other farmers who do not get the benefit of such grants. That is causing serious problems on the edges of the ESAs.

People who have listened to this debate have had a warning about the kind of countryside that there would be if the Labour party were in power—one run by urban busybodies wanting to tell rural people how to live their lives. If we ever had a Labour Government it would be a case not of merry England, but of a very dreary countryside indeed.

9.25 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) for keeping his remarks so short.

Although I am a Scot, I have the privilege of representing a Hampshire constituency which is the epitome of what rural England is all about—beautiful, vibrant, productive, historic, well conserved, but probably over-gentrified by townspeople who have come to live there. It is certainly facing enormous pressures from nearby conurbations and from the spread of the concrete jungle.

I have an interest to declare, as a farmer. I get a slice of my income, and probably of my losses, from farming. I am also a member of the National Farmers Union, of the Country Landowners Association and of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I acknowledge that there can be conflicts between the former and the latter. They may not always march in step, but they march towards the same objective: a viable rural economy. That is how they will achieve what they both want, and perhaps people like me can be a bridge between the organisations.

Rural England is not just fields, woods, valleys and rivers. It is nearly a quarter of the nation's resident population. They live there, but they do not all work there. This evening, I shall try to suggest one or two items that the Government should consider for their forthcoming White Paper. That paper is timely, because another debate is under way about the common agricultural policy—the so-called CAP 3. It has been interesting to hear what hon. Members have to say about it this evening.

I hope that CAP 3 will be much more about the whole rural economy, not just about agriculture. Farmers and landowners are not only responsible for our food production; they are also the stewards of the nation's land and as such they must remain the focus of countryside policy. Farming remains the dominant land use in rural areas. CAP 3 must embrace agriculture but must also have clear objectives for the rural environment and for rural social economies. A sustainable rural policy for the United Kingdom must be the objective for CAP 3. In that way, we shall get a better return from the European Union and from the Commission than we have hitherto enjoyed.

Agriculture has already moved closer to the marketplace, but I should like it to reduce still further its reliance on supply control, and on subsidy payments. As a fanner I am only too well aware that my activities are already subject to many environmental regulations, because of the impact of agriculture on the environment, but I resent the compulsion of what is known as cross-compliance, which attaches conditions to subsidies or grants under the CAP.

For example, the small print on the back of the IACS—integrated administration and control system—forms says that farmers will receive no set-aside payments unless, for instance, they retain ponds and stone walls. The CAP insists on retention only: there is nothing to help with maintenance. It would be better to have separate, positive incentives for landowners and managers to maintain ponds and walls, and the moss roads to which the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) referred, so as to deliver the clean, attractive countryside, rich in wildlife, historic features and recreational opportunities, that we all want. At present, only 1 per cent. of last year's CAP budget of 36.5 billion ecu was devoted to agri-environment measures.

What about the workers in the countryside? Only a small proportion of that growing quarter of the nation's population who live in the countryside actually works there. Structural changes in farming have radically reduced the agricultural work force, while improved transport has extended from the cities the distances that people are now able to commute. Twenty years ago, only people like Sir Cedric Brown could commute to London from my home town. Now, the car park at the station holds 200 commuters' cars. Over the past decade, both population and employment have grown faster in rural areas than in urban areas, in spite of poor local communications and services, and higher infrastructure costs.

What about diversification? That is the way in which we shall retain the viability of our rural economies. My accountant constantly reminds me that the current tax rules are hideously complex and a real deterrent to farmers and landowners who wish to diversify. Two years ago, the Country Landowners Association proposed the idea of the rural business unit, which would allow all those commercial activities traditionally associated with a rural estate, with those that are being integrated, to be assessed as one trading unit for tax purposes. That is something that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor really should look at, because it would not only help the rural economy, but could also increase his tax revenues.

For most people, the countryside will be seen as a place for recreation, and therefore good access is essential. We are all pleased to see what has already been done to make the countryside easier to enter and enjoy for those who are welcome, and more difficult to invade for those who are not.

Forestry has been mentioned. I am sorry that it will not be part of the White Paper. It took a terrible knock in the 1988 Budget. We have now seen a welcome trend towards broadleaf woodlands rather than conifers, thanks to the Government's woodland grants schemes, but there is a need to increase our woodland cover and also manage our existing woodland better than we are doing. We must look again at the tax provisions for woodland owners and forestry. If we do not, although we may well continue to see an increase in woodland planting, we may see less proper maintenance of existing woodlands, and we want them to be maintained so that they can be enjoyed in the way that we are accustomed to.

It is unlikely that we would have much woodland were it not for countryside sports, which have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members this evening. It would be a dreadful omission if, during a debate on rural England, we did not mention the financial and amenity benefits of field sports. The Cobham report, sponsored by the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports and updated three years ago, estimates that field sports generate £2.7 billion-worth of business and give recreation to more than 5 million people, of whom some 3.9 million are fishermen. Perhaps that is the only reason why the Labour party supports fishing. Field sports are estimated to support some 65,000 jobs. They improve access to the countryside. Those who manage them help to keep Britain beautiful and rich in wildlife, and they also assist in maintaining employment in both urban and rural areas.

There is no doubt that, if one is to be able to diversify out of agriculture, the planning process must make it possible. At present, I do not believe that the development control system can do that. We must see a proper balance. I wish that other counties would take an example from Hampshire, which some time ago set up its Committee for Rural Hampshire, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord the Earl of Selborne, to address the problems of reaching balanced decisions on planning matters.

The committee's membership is drawn from councils at all levels—county, district and parish, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Hampshire Council of Community Service, the Hampshire Wildlife Trust, MAFF, the National Farmers Union and the Rural Development Commission. It brings together all those bodies to promote a just and fair balance in the use and management of Hampshire's rural resources and sustain the well-being of balanced rural communities. It will make a submission on what it thinks should go in the White Paper. It will be extremely valuable. If only other counties around the country had similar committees, it would be extremely useful.

Much has been said about the countryside, but one important subject that has not been touched on is rural crime. I am glad to see farm watch schemes springing up everywhere, as criminals go for what they imagine will be easy pickings in the countryside. We have some schemes around us.

I have put down a few markers for CAP 3, which is crucial and should be part of what is considered within the rural White Paper. I particularly welcome the Agricultural Tenancies Bill, which we shall be debating on Monday week and I look forward to the levelling of the European playing field.

It is with some authority that I can say that British farmers and landowners, together with many other people, will ensure that the rural England remains not only economically viable but the green and pleasant land that we want to see.

9.34 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

This has been an important debate. I am only sorry that many of my colleagues from rural constituencies in the north of England have had to return home tonight because of the deplorable weather conditions of which the Minister will be aware.

However, they have made it clear that they give me their full support, along with those of my hon. Friends who are here, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) who made an excellent contribution on behalf of his constituents. Not all Opposition Members can at cord to live full-time in London, so they go home to their constituencies as soon as they can.

In Britain, 23 per cent. of the population live in rural England. When it comes to the way in which they are treated, they sometimes rightly think that they are the forgotten people. Many live in what some Conservative Members might regard as Conservative fiefdoms, but a great deal of good that has done them. We have seen their response to that in the verdicts delivered by local people in the recent county council elections.

Many British people have the same needs wherever they live, but the rural areas result in different emphases and circumstances. As has been said by some hon. Members tonight, not everything in the country is rosy. For example, 8.1 per cent. of the rural population is over 75—a higher percentage than in urban areas.

The elderly have particular needs. For example, they rely on rural sub-post offices. Despite what has been said today, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made it clear that it is still his intention to privatise the Post Office. The privatisation of the Post Office is bound to affect the range of services provided by sub-post offices.

Even now, the move to have pensions paid directly into bank accounts is affecting the viability of many sub-post offices.There is no doubt that a privatised Post Office would ultimately lead to two-tier pricing for postal services, with higher charges for those who live in rural communities.

Some Conservative Members might say that that guarantees have been given and that there will be protection in law for single pricing for the postal service, but similar guarantees were given with regard to single pricing for the delivery of gas. That is no longer the case. The further away one lives from the points of entry in Britain, the higher the gas charge will be.

With regard to health, 74 per cent. of parishes have no general practitioner practices to which they need access.

Transport has been mentioned. The deregulation of buses has been a disaster for country areas. My village used to have an early morning work service going into the town. Now, some people who live in villages in my constituency are asked when they go for a job interview whether they have a car. Employers want to ensure that they can get into work. They do not have a car because they do not have a job and cannot buy one. They cannot get into work because there is no bus service. There is no bus service so they cannot get a job. That is the situation in many rural villages.

What new services there have been as a result of deregulation have not been extra services on Sundays or services to the more remote areas. They have been provided by the odd bloke in the second-hand coach with a bit of cardboard in the windscreen saying where he is going.

Mr. Atkins


Mr. Morley

I see that in the rural areas in my constituency. Such people do not provide a comprehensive service; they move in on the peaks. Many long-standing small private operators who have provided a good service should not have to face such unfair competition.

A quarter of all women living in rural areas have no access to a car, and 73 per cent. of parishes have no bus service. I see no Government policies to help that.

The trains are under threat. I do not believe that the rural train service in my constituency will survive if British Rail is privatised. I hope that the Government will see sense in the matter and recognise the feeling of people who live in rural areas who do not want to see British Rail privatised and who fear for the future.

I was amazed by the comments of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), who said that there were enough empty homes to meet the needs of the homeless and that Government policies would help. Government policy, however, has moved towards market rents, which are not much different from mortgage repayments in many parts of the country. If people cannot make mortgage repayments, they can hardly pay market rents. The Government have accepted that in recognising the increasing cost of housing benefit, which they intend to cut, placing more strain on those who must find the shortfall. Moreover, those who lose their jobs will no longer receive as much mortgage support, which will increase homelessness and other problems.

A large proportion of people living in rural areas are self-employed-16.6 per cent.—and there is a wide variation in unemployment statistics. Wages tend to be lower in the country: 55 per cent. of workers in agriculture, forestry and fishing earn less than £200 a week. A minimum wage policy would therefore be very welcome in rural areas.

Low pay means that affordable housing is needed. People are being priced out of rural areas; they are being forced to leave the villages for the towns. Between 1990 and 1993, only 8,800 public sector homes were provided in rural areas, meeting only 11 per cent. of housing need. The Housing Corporation target in 1994 was 1,850 new homes, 6 per cent. of the total need.

The right to buy has been a disaster in rural areas. Even Glanford borough council, in my constituency—which is Conservative-controlled—has complained bitterly about what it has done in the countryside, removing affordable homes and not giving local councils, whether Labour or Conservative, an opportunity to replace them because of Government restrictions. Some members of Conservative local authorities, however, do not recognise the problem. When challenged about homelessness, Glanford borough council's Tory housing chairman said that there was no homelessness in the area: he had asked persistently for the names and addresses of those involved, and no one had been able to give them to him.

In 1992–93, 46,270 adults and children were accepted as homeless. In January 1993, 4,542 families were in temporary accommodation. No one can deny that there are positive aspects of living in the community; it is often a nice place in which to live. As someone who lives in a village, I feel that the greatest advantage is the strength of the local community, shown in community action and village hall committees. I am proud to have played a modest part in the provision of a village hall in my own community. Good work is also done by parish and town councils, women's institutes, community councils, Action for Communities in Rural England and the Coalfields Communities Campaign. There is huge support for the voluntary sector—more than £20 billion worth, according to an estimate by the Centre for Policy Studies.

Football and other sporting clubs, such as Winterton Rangers, have applied for rate relief. As the Minister will know, it is discretionary. Winterton Rangers complained to the ombudsman about Glanford borough council, and the ombudsman criticised the council—finterruption.1 As the Minister suggests, it is a local authority decision, but he should realise that some borough councils—such as Scunthorpe—give 100 per cent. rate relief, while others such as Glanford are very difficult about it. Community organisations are being treated unfairly, and 1 hope that the Government will do something about it.

The problem may, in fact, be solved. Glanford and Scunthorpe are being amalgamated along with part of Boothferry, to form a new authority. The difference in political control will affect the situation, and I hope that all the rural football clubs who want their rate relief will support the establishment of a Labour-controlled North Lincolnshire authority. That will certainly provide better quality services.

There is no point in trying to duck the issue of Government policy towards the shire counties. We have heard about the problems of rural schools. Many shire counties have done badly out of the standard spending assessment calculation. A great deal of money has been shifted to the south-east, so it is little wonder that many rural schools are under threat. Labour-controlled councils, such as that in Humberside, have an excellent record of providing nursery facilities and of supporting tiny rural schools in my constituency. I doubt whether those schools would survive under any other political control.

Under Nicholas Ridley there was a huge growth in out-of-town planning and that had an impact on village and town shops. It will be said that people have a right to go to supermarkets and that is a fair point, but there should be balanced out-of-town development and a central balance, and the impact that too much out-of-town development can have on rural shops and small towns and their centres must be recognised. We are currently experiencing that impact and there is a need for greater awareness. I hope that the Minister will confirm that planning systems within strong structural plans will be the principal future means of resolving land use conflicts. I hope he will recognise that planning in particular should meet local needs and should not be market driven.

We need a sensible roads policy, but if road building is reduced—and there are arguments for that—people must be provided with an alternative, and that must be public transport. Policies such as the privatisation of the railways and bus deregulation will not provide that alternative. Bus deregulation has led to higher fares, fewer services and a falling number of passengers.

Agriculture has an important influence on the countryside. Sadly, only about 3 per cent. of the population are employed in agriculture, and that percentage is declining. Between 1987 and 1998, it is projected that 38,000 full-time agricultural workers will be made redundant. In that period 20,000 farmers will leave farming. We must meet that challenge and the impact that it will have on the rural economy.

We must tackle the issue of the common agricultural policy which urgently needs reform. I pay tribute to the National Farmers Union, which produced an excellent document entitled "Real Choices", for recognising these changes and challenges. Support for agriculture has an important part to play in terms of agri-environment policy. We must support new entrants even in a declining market.

I am sure that the Minister has read, as I have, the 1993 report on agriculture in the European Union which contains some interesting statistics. For example, Britain is at the bottom of the European league for support given to entrants to farming. We are even below Luxembourg. Support has declined from 159,000 ecu in 1991 to 127,000 ecu. We should compare that with France, which supported new entrants to the tune of 100 million ecu. That is a considerable difference.

I recognise the impact of farming on the landscape and on recreation and leisure, nature conservation and jobs. There must be a balance between those, and schemes such as those for set-aside are especially important in that regard. The countryside is important to everyone in England and everyone pays for supporting it through taxes, the common agricultural policy and other schemes. The importance of tourism and recreation in supporting the countryside must not be underestimated.

There is great scope for agricultural reform that will support new access and diversification. We must support farmers in adapting farm buildings so that they can be used for businesses such as farm shops which sell everything from meat to ice cream.

The right to roam has been mentioned. I am strongly in favour of what most people see as a popular and sensible policy which applies only to uncultivated and common land. It is unacceptable for people such as the Duke of Westminster, who owns large areas of Bowland, to restrict access for millions of responsible people who simply want to walk on the land. There is no point in the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) saying that that would destroy nature conservation when I know that many birds, such as the hen harrier, are being illegally destroyed in that area by gamekeepers. When there is better nature conservation, I might have more sympathy with restricting access.

Conservation is an important issue, but time does not allow me to deal with it now. Indeed, it is worthy of a debate in its own right. The Minister will have seen the recent report called "The Bio-Diversity Challenge", produced by the Butterfly Conservation Group, Friends of the Earth, Plant Life, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature. I know that he will welcome it, as I do. I hope that he recognises the targets set in the report as being achievable and important. Above all, I hope that he recognises that rural policy needs an integrated and balanced approach. All Government policies are relevant to both rural and urban areas and many of our people in both those communities feel that the Government have failed them miserably.

9.50 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)

As my hon. Friend the Minister explained at the beginning of the debate, it has come at an opportune time. It is important that at the start of an exercise such as the production of a White Paper we establish the views of all those with an interest and identify the issues that are important to them. It has been helpful to hear the views of hon. Members tonight, especially those who represent truly rural constituencies. They have spoken with the depth of knowledge that that representation brings to them.

Mr. Garnier

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene at this early stage of her remarks, especially with the short time that is available to her. Does she agree that the speech that we heard for 26 minutes from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) was a diatribe of nothing but ignorance and prejudice? Does she further agree that his absence from the Chamber during the winding-up speeches is discourteous not only to the House but to the rural residents of Leicestershire and the country?

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I had intended to draw attention to the fact that the speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) was based on his experience of travelling on and looking through the windows of InterCity trains at night. Speaking as a truly rural Member representing a constituency in the heart of Devon, I can tell him that people there would have sussed him out in a couple of minutes. He certainly does not have any real muck on his boots at home. In fact, I would be surprised if he even possessed a pair of boots. His knowledge of working life in the rural communities is somewhat suspect. However, he made a good try, given the fact that behind him were the massed ranks of Labour Members who show great interest in rural communities and the important issues that the House has discussed tonight.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) was the one token representative of the Liberal Democrat party, which trumpets its support for and knowledge of rural life throughout the country. However, even the hon. Gentleman is not here for the end of the debate.

Mr. David Faber (Westbury)

My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted the fairly typical absence of the Liberal Democratic spokesman for the wind-up of the debate. Some of us have sat through the debate but not had an opportunity to speak, so we consider that to be a gross discourtesy.

Had the hon. Gentleman stayed, he might have had an opportunity to comment on the issue of rural schools, which he has said are so important to the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps he could have told us why, last Thursday evening, Liberal Democratic councillors in my constituency went around a village with a small school threatened with closure promising that the school would be safe in their hands, yet the next morning they voted with the Labour group to close the school. Only the Conservative group opposed it.

Mrs. Browning

I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents will be glad that he has put that fact on the record. As we all know, the difficulty with the Liberal Democrats is that they say what people want to hear, but when they go to another area or when they have an opportunity to vote they speak or vote in a different way. The rural areas have come to understand their tactics.

We welcome the fact not only that the White Paper will be produced for England, but that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced today that the Scottish Office will embark upon a similar procedure for Scotland. I know from conversation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales that the Welsh Office is also showing great interest and has done some work in that area.

Many Conservative Members made significant speeches, talking with the knowledge of the issues that affect their constituents in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), speaking not only as a rural Member of Parliament, but with the background knowledge that he gained as a Minister, raised many issues appertaining to his constituency, such as the military, housing, law and order, special constables, the pattern of agriculture, tenancy and derelict land.

All those issues are for debate and discussion. The Government hope that hon. Members who have spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, are happy that the White Paper, when it is produced, will not simply be an introspective look at what is going on. It will be a way of taking forward and fashioning policy.

That is in stark contrast to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), who again played the politics of fear with post offices, and other policies that affect people in rural areas, who are genuinely worried when the facts are not put to them, and when they are frightened into thinking that somehow they will be deprived of their post offices and other facilities. Playing the politics of fear is cynical. Many hon. Members mentioned that many people in rural areas are vulnerable and elderly. That tactic is especially deplorable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) raised many issues. I can give him some positive answers to the specific issues that he raised. One concerned the case of Colonel Owen. I assure him that the guidelines on purchasing property will be amended following the Court of Appeal judgment. The matter is in hand, and I hope that he will be reassured.

so far, no planning application has been made to Solihull metropolitan borough council to build a new football stadium in the green belt. I am aware, however, that the matter has been discussed. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden heard hon. Members raise other issues, and I hope that he will allow me to pursue them.

The hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthal I) raised many issues, but especially referred to several points in planning policy guidance note 2, which we welcome. I am grateful for the support that he gave to it. He raised specific issues and I assure him that I will draw them to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister, who will write to him. They are technical and detailed and I cannot cover them all this evening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), again speaking with the knowledge of a rural Member, raised the issue of CAP 3. As he will know, my right hon. Friend the Minister has asked a panel of people to consider specifically the future of the common agricultural policy. My hon. Friend was especially anxious that environmental issues should be taken into account in fashioning the future of CAP. I assure him that the panel that has been appointed by my right hon. Friend will consider that.

Many hon. Members said that agriculture is still at the heart of rural life, although we understand the changes that agriculture has undergone. It is important, both for this country and for our role in the European Community, that we press on with reform of CAP and that we get it right. The introduction of new member states, many of which expect to enter the Community by the year 2000, will pose a great challenge to the CAP. That policy would not bear the additional costs and strains of widening the Community, although we support that widening.

I assure hon. Members that we want to influence our European partners so that the CAP will be reformed. We do not always have the support of all our partners, which is needed, but it is no good just saying that reform must be introduced. We must tell our partners how we believe it should be done and we should set out a strategy. It is for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Minister has formed the committee, which I hope will report with a positive and practical structure for reform.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Watersicle mentioned his support for rural business units. The House will be aware that the Bunbury report was presented to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The issues are being dealt with and they have been discussed. I am sympathetic to suggestions for rationalisation of rural taxation, but those are matters for my right hon. and learned Friend.

I am grateful to the truly rural hon. Members who did not allow a little snow to prevent them from being here this evening. Those of us who live in rural areas are not put off by the elements; we get on with life just the same. I am grateful for their contributions, and I am sure that the White Paper will benefit from the suggestions that we have heard tonight.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.