HC Deb 29 July 1998 vol 317 cc429-75
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

At the outset, I should say that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.14 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I beg to move, That this House deplores the Government's continued failure to protect both the Green Belt and greenfield sites from excessive development; is concerned about how transport and housing policy is neglecting the needs of the countryside; condemns the recent government proposal to cut the discount available to council tenants exercising the right to buy; and calls on the Government to end its systematic attack on the quality of rural life. I congratulate the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), on surviving this week's reshuffle. I do not know whether he was helped by the scorn poured on his head by a disgraced lobbyist a few weeks ago; he may care to enlighten us later. Even if the Prime Minister shared the lobbyist's view, he may have been reluctant to show it by moving the Minister from his post. I wondered whether the new Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), would attend the debate, but, apparently, he is not present. We may at least be relieved that the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), will not reply to the debate; he is famous for his comments that the green belt was up for grabs and that the green belt west of London was a tip.

It is six months and two days since the House debated the protection of the countryside, and that debate—like today's—took place in Opposition time. In that debate, the motion deplored the Government's decisions to allow large-scale development in the countryside. It expressed concern that the protection of the green belt and green spaces was being weakened. It urged the Government to increase the share of new housing built on previously development land. Such is the cynicism of the Government's approach that those concerns are as relevant today as they were six months ago. On that issue, as on so many others, the Government's rhetoric is not matched by substance; actions do not follow words.

Sadly, we are getting used to the fact that new Labour breaks its promises on a huge scale—on taxes, on NHS waiting lists and on school class sizes. I suppose that we can at least say that those promises were all made before the Government took office. What is so disgraceful about Labour's approach to the countryside is the fact that it cannot even honour the pledges that it made six months ago.

Today's debate, however, is about more than broken promises. It is about the damage being done, week in, week out, to the countryside and to rural communities throughout England—damage to environments that have been cherished for generations, environments that Labour is destroying with a ruthlessness that no previous Labour Government, however left wing, ever showed. [Laughter.]

The debate is about the destruction of the green belt, a subject that Labour Back Benchers—this will not be recorded in Hansard unless I say it, so it needs to be said—find hilariously funny. The cornerstone of the protection that the planning system has offered the country for half a century is being destroyed by the Government and laughed at by Labour Back Benchers.

The debate is about the development on green fields that should be protected; about the erosion of the role of local authorities; about the transfer of power to remote and bureaucratic regional quangos; about how the rural areas are being starved of cash; about the record increases in council tax; about housing and transport policies that ignore the needs of the countryside; and about tenants who want to buy their own homes and who are now being penalised. The tragedy is that so much of that damage is irreversible.

All that is made worse by the collapse of farm incomes—a collapse caused by new Labour and overseen by a Minister now promoted to the role of great enforcer. "Great executioner" would be a more apt title, after what he did to British farmers.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

I have frequently heard the hon. Gentleman, in Committee and elsewhere, mention the Government's damaging actions on the green belt. Does he agree that, considering the area of land on brown-field sites that has been built on since Labour came to power, our track record has been better—as have our targets for the next two or three years—than the last five years of the Government of which he was a member?

Mr. Yeo

I did my best to follow the hon. Gentleman's point. With regard to the target, under the previous Government, the proportion of houses built on previously developed sites rose from 38 to 50 per cent. and was steadily rising, year on year. That is a record of which the previous Government could rightly be proud. It was only under pressure from the Opposition that the Labour party accepted that the target should continue to be set at a higher level.

The Secretary of State—who is absent from his place today, as he was at the end of January when we debated protecting the countryside—made a statement in the House, on 23 February 1998, Official Report, columns 21–25, about planning for the communities of the future. He described the introduction of a sequential approach to the location of new housing and a phased approach to the release of land as "an important element" in his proposals. Recycled land in urban areas should be built on first, he said, before green-field sites were bulldozed. I agree.

What has the Secretary of State done to carry out that pledge? What has he done to take forward that important Government policy? Nothing. Six months later, we are still waiting for a single action to be taken in support of the policy. No new planning policy guidance has been issued. Not a single county has been allowed to revise its structure plan. There is no sign whatever that the Secretary of State has the remotest intention of altering his policy of forcing more and more development on to green-field sites—a policy that he pursues regardless of local opinion and the damage that his decisions cause.

On 23 February, the Secretary of State identified the first key element, as he called it, of the Government's new approach as "increased flexibility." Despite that, he has persisted in a totally inflexible manner with his legal battle to impose an extra 12,800 new homes on West Sussex, in defiance of the wishes of all three political parties on the county council. Even at this 11th hour, with the decision of the court expected any day, the Secretary of State could repent. His refusal to do so makes it clear that the Labour group leader on West Sussex county council spoke the truth when he said: This is the starkest possible illustration that the Government has no intention of trying to provide a greater share of the new homes said to be required by 2016 on brown field sites, rather than on green field sites in the countryside. Next door, in Hampshire, the county council has made clear its wish, in the light of the Government's February statement, to reduce the total of 56,000 houses in its draft structure plan to 42,000. As the leader of Hampshire county council said: The people of Hampshire expect us to do this. What will the Minister tell the people of Hampshire tonight? Does he accept their view, or is new Labour's claim that the top-down system of fixing the number of new homes needed in a county would be abolished just another empty promise—a promise given to get through an awkward debate and then consigned to the rubbish bin?

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I have the report of Somerset county council's consideration of the examination in public panel report. The county council is fighting against the proposal for more than 50,000 houses to be built in Somerset. It is as though the welcome statement from the Secretary of State those many months ago had never been made. The entire policy and process continue, with no move by the Secretary of State or the Department to draw up new rules and arrangements. Is not the situation grave? Pressure on green-field sites will not change, given the appalling crisis that agriculture faces, with farm incomes in the south-west—the worst affected region—predicted to be 80 per cent. below those of the previous year. The temptation for many farmers facing no prospect of a future in farming will be to sell their land for development.

Mr. Yeo

My right hon. Friend is right. The words that the Secretary of State spoke in February and when he replied to our debate in January were empty phrases, devoid of meaning and lacking any follow-up action. As my right hon. Friend points out, this is a crisis of particularly serious proportions because of the difficulty faced by farmers throughout the country.

The damage that results from the crisis and directly from the Government's failure to act on their previous statement is irreversible. In some senses, it is even more serious than the problem of someone who may be made redundant. It takes a week or two to get another job, but he does find another job. Once a green field has been built on, it practically never reverts to its original use. The damage that results, which my right hon. Friend correctly identified, is serious and permanent. It makes a mockery of the Government's claim in their amendment to tonight's motion that they are in favour of sustainable development. There is nothing sustainable about their present policy.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that redundancy is a serious matter, although he did not present it as such a moment ago? Does he also agree that unemployment in rural areas continues to fall? In the two rural constituencies in Cumbria, unemployment is 2 per cent. or below.

Mr. Yeo

Of course redundancy is a serious matter. The distinction that I tried to draw is that it is a problem that has a solution, but, once a green-field site has been concreted over, there is no solution. With regard to the figures that the hon. Gentleman cites, they vary from one part of the country to another.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

One in 20 homes in the north-west lies empty. There are more empty houses in England than all the houses in Birmingham. One and a half million homes are unfit for human habitation; 1997 was not year zero. What did the previous Government do to address those issues, which would have relieved the pressure on green-field sites?

Mr. Yeo

The hon. Gentleman conveniently overlooks the fact that a high proportion of those empty homes belong to, and are managed by, Labour local councils. The worst 10 councils in the country for keeping council properties empty are all Labour. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about resources, why do five Labour councils have £.100 million of uncollected rent on their council properties? Up to one fifth of the rent roll in five Labour councils remains uncollected. No wonder there are some repairs that need attention.

In Berkshire, 2,500 homes are proposed for a green-field site around the village of Grazeley. Wokingham council does not want such a big development there. The people of Grazeley do not want such a big development. Alternative brown-field sites exist nearby—sites that are closer to where all those new residents would work—but the Government refuse to act. This week, Wokingham council unanimously passed a motion urging the Government to redraft the relevant planning guidance. When will they do so?

Those examples make a mockery of the Government's claim that they want to achieve a target of 60 per cent. of new homes on previously developed sites. The Secretary of State is a modern-day Nero, but worse—not just fiddling while Rome burns, and not just dithering while the bulldozers move in, but going to court to cover England with concrete against the wishes of the people.

If the Government are to regain credibility, the Minister must first announce that all county structure plans currently in review must be halted to allow the counties concerned to change them in the light of the 60 per cent. target. Secondly, he must publish new planning guidance introducing the sequential approach. Six months have been wasted. No more time can be lost.

The second key element in the Government's approach was "more decentralisation". That claim was made at the very time when the House was considering the Regional Development Agencies Bill, which proposed new powers for the Secretary of State to abolish the planning role of any elected council in England. The new powers would allow him to transfer that role to an unelected quango answerable only to himself. Opposition pressure forced the Government to abandon that outrageous idea.

Regional development agencies will still take power and resources away from elected councils. Members of RDAs are appointed by Ministers, their budgets are set by Ministers, their strategies are determined by Ministers and they are accountable only to Ministers. Their entire agenda is urban based. It reflects what Country Life described as the Government's "fixation with Britain's cities." As the Rural Development Commission pointed out in its dying breath, policy makers are ignoring the problems of rural areas and the result is that rural areas lose out on essential programmes and funding. No wonder the commission is being abolished. Spelling out inconvenient truths is not acceptable to Labour's control freaks.

The Government's response is to cut the resources of local councils in rural areas. This year, the Government slashed £94 million from the standard spending assessments of rural local authorities. Support for the police in Lincolnshire and Wiltshire was cut in cash terms. Oxfordshire's SSA was cut by £8 million, Kent's by more than £7 million and Suffolk's by £4 million.

Two weeks ago, the small print of the comprehensive spending review warned that council tax will rise year on year on year as the Government cut their help for local councils. Council tax will rise in real terms by 5 per cent. in each of the next three years even if councils do not increase their services. Those rises will come on top of the record rises that we have already seen this year. In the current year, rural authorities are bearing the brunt of council tax rises. On average, council tax in the shire districts rose by more than 11 per cent., more than double the average increase in London. Many county councils fared even worse. In Norfolk, where central Government help was slashed, council tax rose by 15 per cent. How much worse will all this get?

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, alongside the swingeing attacks on standard spending assessment provision, there is a group of local authorities that is having special difficulties? Those groups are represented by the Town and Country Issues Group. They have combined rural and urban characteristics and, under the present regime, they are facing special difficulties that should be considered.

Mr. Yeo

My right hon. Friend is right. There are particular difficulties for councils whose populations straddle two very different types of area. The danger is that rural councils and the taxpayers who live in rural areas will be penalised yet again.

Last Wednesday, the Government sneaked out, by way of a press release, an important change in housing policy, using a procedure that prevented any hon. Member from asking a question. The document contained a warning that tenants wanting to buy their homes will now have to pay more than before. For almost two decades, council tenants enjoyed increasingly favourable opportunities for home ownership. This week, that policy has been reversed. From now on, councils will receive extra help to buy up privately owned homes in their areas.

The right to buy transformed the lives of more than 1 million families, including many in rural areas. This week, new Labour has started to dismantle the right to buy. The changed housing policy involves a big role for councils, a very old Labour approach. Predictably, the needs of rural areas were scarcely mentioned in last week's document. That is another example of how new Labour always puts the interests of the countryside at the bottom of its agenda.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) will refer to transport when he winds up on behalf of the Opposition. The Government's approach to transport appears to be based on old Labour tax-and-spend instincts. There have been three huge increases in petrol tax—

Mr. Gordon Prentice

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo

No. I have given way too often.

There have been three huge increases in petrol tax in less than a year, which have hit rural motorists hard. No amount of public spending, particularly that which is confined to buses and does not extend to taxis, can prevent people in small rural villages from remaining dependent on their cars.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the fuel tax inflator mechanism that was put in place in the Budget, resulting in price rises of 6 per cent. over and above inflation, will result in a rise in diesel and petrol prices this year of more than 45p per gallon? Will that not hit people in rural areas especially hard, and is it not a mean measure from the Government?

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. It is a most shocking increase. It is a huge burden and one which is disproportionately borne by those who live in rural areas.

I want to help the Minister when he responds to the debate because I shall ask for three assurances that are easy for him to give. None will result in extra public spending or require new legislation, but his answers will be the litmus test of whether his Government are willing to learn from their past mistakes. First, will the right hon. Gentleman publish immediately, without more delay, planning guidance incorporating the sequential approach supported by the Opposition and by many outside the House? Secondly, will he halt immediately further progress on all county structure plans in review so that counties may reflect the Government's target of 60 per cent. of new houses to be built on recycled land? Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman stop penalising rural councils and rural taxpayers by fiddling with the formula for distributing central Government cash to local authorities?

Unless the Minister gives those assurances, the House will know that Labour's claim to be concerned about the countryside is just another failed soundbite. The Government's attitude to the countryside started with denial that any problem existed. From denial, it moved into panic at the huge level of public concern that was so effectively demonstrated in the march last spring. The Government now rest in confusion about how to tackle the mess that their policies have created. That is confusion for which all men, women and children in rural areas throughout the country are paying. It is confusion that is permanently damaging our rural heritage. This evening, we can take the first step to ending that confusion by approving the motion, and I commend it to the House.

7.36 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: `congratulates the Government on its commitment to promote sustainable development in all areas of the United Kingdom including rural areas; recognises the progress which has been made on improving rural services over the last fifteen months; welcomes the creation of powerful Regional Development Agencies which will promote prosperity in both towns and countryside; welcomes the creation of a new agency to promote the interests of the countryside in England by bringing together the Countryside Commission and parts of the Rural Development Commission; recognises the Government's determination to increase the proportion of new houses built on brownfield sites; and supports the Government's desire to give greater freedom for people to explore the open countryside.'. Having spent quite a long time in the House, I must say that I have rarely listened to such an over-the-top litany of synthetic whingeing. More than half the griping of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) was about green belt. No one would guess from his speech that 30,000 more hectares have been added to the green belt than have been taken away since the Government came to office.

As for Hertfordshire, which the hon. Gentleman made much of, more than five times as much new land will be designated as green belt than the area proposed for development. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, the hon. Gentleman did not mention Newcastle. It is true that 500 hectares will be deleted from the green belt compared with 25,000 which the other local authorities in the north-east propose adding to it. In both Hertfordshire and Newcastle, more than 50 per cent. of new houses will be built on brown-field sites. In Newcastle, 8,250 of the 10,750 new homes needed will be built within existing built-up areas—more than 75 per cent.

I ask—the House is bound to ask—what did the previous Government do? The previous Government—interestingly, this apparently escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice—directed three counties to increase their housing figures above those that they had proposed. In the case of Berkshire, that was an increase of 3,000 houses. It was an increase of just under 3,000 for Kent and one of more than 2,000 for Bedfordshire. As for West Sussex, which the hon. Gentleman also made much of, the proposal was that it should produce a 12,800 housing shortfall as against regional planning guidance, a cut of 25 per cent. What hypocrisy to suggest that the previous Government, having enforced increases on those three authorities, should have simply ignored the fact that there was to be a 12,800 shortfall in West Sussex.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that all the Tories do when they loudly proclaim their love for the countryside is reveal their affinity for sheep? In power, they fleeced the rural areas; out of power, they bleat about them.

Mr. Meacher

There are indeed quite a few fleecers and bleaters on the Conservative Benches, as this debate has shown.

Listening to Conservative Members, one might think that the countryside was in crisis and that that situation had arisen since 1 May 1997. That is not only untrue, but laughable. The Rural Development Commission's most recent survey showed what has been happening in rural parishes over the past two decades: 83 per cent. had no general practitioner; 75 per cent. had no daily bus service; 49 per cent. had no school; 43 per cent. had no post office; and 42 per cent. had no permanent shop. That survey was published in 1997, so which party presided over that unprecedented decline in rural services? Not Labour. It may be hard to believe that the motley crowd on the Conservative Benches were ever in government, but they were—for 18 years. What was their concern for rural Britain then?

We came to power to put an end to the decline in rural services. Tonight, I have heard the most selective misrepresentations that I have ever heard, so I intend to set the record straight, in detail. In our first 15 months, we have provided an extra £50 million for rural transport; there are new proposals for supporting rural bus services; there is new rate relief for village shops to protect—

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

That was our policy.

Mr. Meacher

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not concerned about extra shops. The aim of the relief is to protect single shops in some of our smallest communities. We have also provided extra protection for rural schools, so that any closure proposals must go to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment before a school can be closed. We are giving £150 million of extra support to the agricultural community as it begins to recover from the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, which certainly began under the previous Government. And we are providing financial support to the dispensing services of pharmacists who are more than 1 km from another pharmacist.

This afternoon, I announced details of my Department's proposed spending on rural programmes in the light of the comprehensive spending review. I am pleased to tell the House that spending will increase—[Interruption.] I do not think that that is particularly funny. If the hon. Member for South Suffolk was interested in the subject he purported to speak about, he would think it significant that spending will increase by more than 35 per cent. over the next three years. I shall discuss the announcement later.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

If all the Minister has said is true, why has the Labour MEP for Hereford and Shropshire said that the Government should listen to country people? He writes in Tribune: In Shropshire, people genuinely thought that a Labour government would see the end of cuts in services such as education and social services. They were bitterly disappointed".

Mr. Meacher

That is exactly what we are planning. There was a stream of closures under the previous Government, but we propose to put a stop to that, and any decision to close a school must come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. We are also concerned about the decline in social service provision in urban and rural areas, and the comprehensive spending review will make a massive difference after the decline of the past three to five years.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk is one of those who have continually said that Labour is an urban party and does not understand the countryside. Even he might have noticed that the electorate gave rather short shrift to that view, which is why the number of Labour Members representing rural constituencies is greater than the number of Conservative Members representing them. In fact, there are probably more Labour Members representing rural constituencies than there are Conservative Members.

Judgment is not exactly a Conservative strong point. I too looked back at the countryside debate of 3 March. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) argued then that there was division between the Prime Minister and the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) over the countryside march. No doubt thinking that he was scoring a clever little point, he concluded: It will not have done the right hon. Gentleman's career any good to have departed from the Prime Minister's line on the march."—[Official Report, 3 March 1998; Vol. 307, c. 914.] The career of my right hon. Friend, who is now the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is rather more successful than that of the right hon. Member for Fylde. With predictive powers such as that, no wonder the Tory Opposition lack credibility.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk also forgets his history. I remind the House that a Labour Government created the town and country planning system, which has done so much to protect our rural areas from American-style urban sprawl, the green belt, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. I admit that Labour did not create the Rural Development Commission, but then nor did the Conservatives. That was achieved by Lloyd George in 1909, in the teeth of fierce Tory opposition.

Mr. Yeo

The Minister claims for Labour the credit for introducing the current system of planning controls. Be that history as it may, what a tragedy it is that the current generation of Ministers so fail to understand the purpose of the green belt that they think that building on one section of it is justified if, further out, they create more land that is designated green belt. The green belt surrounds an urban area; once that urban area starts to expand, the very purpose for which the green belt was created is destroyed.

Mr. Meacher

That is simply nonsense. The purpose of the green belt is to provide an area surrounding cities for recreation in open countryside, but, as populations grow, as towns change in size, and as new towns are built, it is perfectly reasonable to intervene in the green belt if the overall impact is to increase its size. That has always been part of regional planning guidance note 2, and it is exactly the line that we have taken. Under the previous Government, there were interventions in the green belt without a corresponding increase in the size of the green belt overall.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Does the Minister recall the Deputy Prime Minister saying that the green belt was a great Labour achievement and that we must build on it?

Mr. Meacher

I remember that; my right hon. Friend has his own inimitable form of humour. As is always the case, we knew exactly what he meant and we agreed with him entirely.

Labour is once again addressing the key issue of jobs and growth in rural areas through the regional development agencies. Average unemployment rates in rural areas have been coming down and are lower than those of urban areas. Business creation is strong and there is a high level of self-employment, but it is undeniable that some of the more peripheral rural areas have particular difficulties. Even in more prosperous areas, there are black spots. Thanks to the Conservative party, rural coalfields have lost almost 60,000 jobs in the past 15 years. Conservative Governments treated rural coalfields with the same vindictiveness as they showed towards urban coalfields. By contrast, we are determined to tackle rural unemployment head on through our coalfields regeneration programme and the regional development agencies, which will be established in April next year.

We have been criticised for giving part of the Rural Development Commission's functions to the RDAs. That criticism is wholly misplaced. RDAs will be the key institutions for achieving sustainable economic development in their regions. It would not be sensible to exclude rural areas and to leave them isolated in a ghetto, as if there were no links between urban and rural economic activity. Integration is clearly the right route, but with safeguards.

I give the hon. Member for South Suffolk these assurances. First, RDAs will have a specific remit to promote rural development. Secondly, each RDA will have at least one member—probably more—with a background in rural development. Thirdly, the money spent by the RDC on rural development will be ring-fenced, and will continue to be spent on rural development by the RDAs.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Before the right hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of planning, will he address the important point made by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)? Six months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister made a welcome announcement. However, it has had no effect in areas such as Somerset. There has been public examination of a structure plan that has increased, not reduced, the number of houses required in the county. That is not sustainable. We want the Government's policy to be applied in the context of a structure plan. How will that happen?

Mr. Meacher

That is a fair point, and it is our intention to publish the regional planning guidance as soon as we can, which I expect to be shortly. The House should be in no doubt that we are still committed, as were the previous Government, to the best demographic data on housing requirements, which show that we need an extra 4.4 million houses in the 25 years to 2016. About 1 million of them have already been built.

We do not propose a reduction in the number of houses to be built, but we accept that there should be greater flexibility in the planning process. The regional planning guidance should allow regional and local planning authorities to have more responsibility for where those houses should be built.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

My right hon. Friend's comment about the possibility of there being more than one rural member on the board of RDAs will be widely welcomed in rural communities. When the Tories left office in 1979—[Interruption.] When was it? It seems so long ago now. Anyhow, when they left office, men in the rural county of Shropshire were 125th in a low wages league table of 151, and women were in 150th position. That is why they will profoundly welcome the introduction of a national minimum wage, which the Conservative party has consistently opposed, just as it did the introduction of RDAs.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) secured an Adjournment debate on rural poverty, only three members of the Conservative party thought it important enough to attend? One was the shadow Minister, who sat down after five minutes because he wanted to hear from the Minister; one was a rural Member and the other was—

Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must sit down when I am on my feet. That was too long for an intervention. The art of an intervention is to be concise—but it seems to be a disappearing art.

Mr. Meacher

It may have been a long intervention, but it was a very good point. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) is absolutely right that the minimum wage will have a great impact on improving household incomes in rural areas. There is no evidence that it will destroy jobs if it is pitched at a sensible level. I do not believe that it will do so: it will be very welcome in rural households on extremely low incomes.

Mr. Tom King

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher

Yes, but this is the last time.

Mr. King

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for seriously addressing the issue that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and I have raised. The regional planning conference has already produced revised guidance, with lower figures for the south-west. Somerset county council is producing figures that should be published in September. Can the council be sure that, if it produces proposals that are in line with the guidance that the Deputy Prime Minister has produced, no attempt will be made to override them and to go back to the old policy that has now been discarded?

Mr. Meacher

The old policy to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is the previous Government's policy of predict and provide. We are trying to move away from that deeply unpopular policy. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the Deputy Prime Minister's welcome statement. If Somerset county council can produce proposals that are compatible with the regional planning guidance, we shall consider them extremely carefully. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a commitment that we will necessarily accept them. We may, but we may not: it depends on the full content of the proposals.

The Opposition motion mentions housing. I presume that that was another mistake, because one of the greatest indictments of the previous Conservative Government was their 80 per cent. cut in the housing budget, and all the misery that that caused. We recognise that a fine balance must be struck between building new houses to ensure that there are enough places for people to live in and controls on development to protect the countryside. Housing is an issue on which the Conservatives have campaigned. I remember seeing the Leader of the Opposition posing in an anorak outside Stevenage. I suppose that that is better than the baseball cap.

The Opposition called on us to set a target of 75 per cent. of new houses to be built on brownfield sites. Or was it 66 per cent. or 60 per cent? The figure changes with bewildering speed, so I do not know what their position is. When they were in government and could do something about this matter, they actually achieved a figure of 42 per cent.—that is the most telling statistic. The hon. Member for South Suffolk alleged that there had been an increase, but the average figure was 42 per cent.

Mr. Yeo

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher

Hold on. The hon. Gentleman need not look through all his papers. We know what the figures are: they show an average of 42 per cent. He might as well throw his figures away, because we know what the facts are. Only since their election defeat have the Opposition discovered a concern to protect the green belt from housing. By contrast, we have recognised these pressures and have announced a new approach to future provision.

Mr. Yeo


Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman has found his figures, but we have now moved on. I am afraid that I must make progress.

Mr. Yeo

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister, unwittingly I am sure, has just quite seriously misled the House. The document that he—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I can tell already that that is not a genuine point of order. It is a matter of debate, and if the Minister will not give way, he has the Floor of the House.

Mr. Meacher

Once again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have saved the hon. Member for South Suffolk from himself.

By contrast, we continue to support the provision of affordable housing—for example, through the Housing Corporation's rural programme and the release of capital receipts of nearly £1 billion in the first two years. Following—I repeat again—the comprehensive spending review, which the hon. Gentleman somehow glided over, during the next three years an additional £3.5 billion will be allocated to start tackling the backlog of repairs to the housing afnd stock throughout England, including in rural areas.

Significantly, the Opposition motion says nothing about the Government's support for countryside and rural programmes—I presume because it is so good. As I announced this afternoon, money for my Department's countryside and rural programmes will rise from £128 million this year to £146 million next year, £162 million the year after and £174 million in 2001–02. That is an increase of more than 35 per cent. over a three-year period.

Nothing shows the Conservative party in its true colours more clearly than its opposition to our proposals to improve access to the countryside, so that all those who love the countryside, not just those who are lucky enough to own large chunks of it, will in future be able to visit more of the countryside than ever before. For all their rather feeble attempts at modernisation, the Tories remain rooted in the 18th century—the party of exclusivity and inherited privilege; the party of the few determined to shut out the many.

We will open up the countryside of England and Wales. Let no one be in any doubt about that. We have consulted on the means and we are still considering the responses. But the ends are not negotiable. We will deliver to walkers new opportunities to roam over mountain, moorland, heath, down and registered common land. If we decide to rely on the voluntary approach, we will need to be convinced that the access delivered will be of the same extent, quality and permanence as would be achieved through a statutory right.

The Government have done more for rural areas in the past 15 months than the previous Government did in nearly two decades. The sheer vacuousness of the Opposition's motion is patent for all to see, and I invite the House to reject it with all the contempt that it deserves.

8.2 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

I shall not follow the Minister all the way in his self-congratulation at the end of his speech, but I shall follow him a considerable way in his attack on the Opposition's extraordinary motion and the no less extraordinary speech of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). The Conservatives' record of 18 years has magically disappeared. I thought that the motion was rather like a shooting gallery, with a set of feet neatly lined up for Conservative Members to shoot themselves in before our turn came.

The range of issues for which people in rural areas have far from forgotten—let alone forgiven—the Conservative Government is immense: a debate as short as this does not allow us to cover it fully. We could consider what they did in relation to farming or fishing, which has affected many of the communities in my part of the world. We could consider the erosion of traditional industry in many rural areas, particularly heavy engineering in my part of the world. We could consider the extraordinary lack of funding for local authorities, not least in rural areas, many of which were discriminated against by the Conservative party's funding formulas, particularly in the rural and more peripheral areas of the United Kingdom.

Mr. David Heath

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. Does he agree that it is. extraordinary that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) should have talked about the funding of rural counties, given that, in my 12 years' experience of leading and being a member of a county council under a Conservative Government, there were reductions each year in essential services in rural areas and a capping regime which caused enormous trouble? The tragedy is not that something has changed but that nothing has changed.

Mr. Taylor

My hon. Friend is exactly right. We do not have time to pursue every area, however, so let us concentrate on the matters dealt with in the Opposition's motion. I had assumed that that was what the hon. Member for South Suffolk would do, but, having written the motion last night, he clearly thought better of it, realising that there was little Conservatives could say on transport or on rural housing, homelessness and council house sales. I shall not let him off from my attack, but I understand why he did not mention those, and that may become a little more obvious later.

The motion starts by concentrating on development in the countryside. Development in the countryside, indeed: we are talking about a policy of predict and provide; about 4.4 million homes; and about the real concern in county after county about the impact that that will have on the countryside and in some-green belt areas.

All that concern is about policies pursued by the Conservative Government in their 18 years in office. Those policies were at their most rampant some years ago, when, as Secretary of State for the Environment, Nicholas Ridley approved every possible development in the countryside, encouraging out-of-town shopping, which has done so much to destroy our market town centres, and abolishing the Nature Conservancy Council because it so effectively argued the case for the protection of rural areas, leaving us instead with an emasculated and underfunded English Nature.

Those developments did not stop, even in the last years of the previous Government under the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who, sadly, is not here to defend his policies. In Berkshire, the right hon. Gentleman forced up housing numbers against the wishes of local people. The same thing happened in Kent, and 400 acres of woodland in an area of outstanding natural beauty were turned over to the holiday village of West Wood, which includes 1,200 parking places. It is rather ironic that, on the site itself, cars are forbidden, in order to protect the rural nature of what is left of the wood.

It is precisely the Conservative party's record that is under attack in the motion. The Government might have taken inadequate steps to change that—that they have not acted with enough speed is a realistic criticism—but for the hon. Member for South Suffolk to argue against the policies in such terms is an act of outstanding forgetfulness, if not hypocrisy.

The Labour party's record has been mixed. There have been some wrong decisions, but the Deputy Prime Minister promised to break the mould and to abandon the predict and provide premise. The trouble is—the Minister did not adequately address this—that predict and provide is still all too much with us. For example, after his statement, Hertfordshire county council requested that the Deputy Prime Minister reconsider the number of houses in the structure plan, and the proposals for the release of green-belt land around Stevenage, but they were adopted unchanged.

Last December, the Deputy Prime Minister overruled West Sussex county council's argument for lowering housing figures and imposed an extra 12,800 houses—despite the fact that its case was well argued. The county council then applied for judicial review on the basis of what it understood from the Deputy Prime Minister to be the new policy, but there has been no change.

Today, the Government approved a major opencast coal-mining site on green-belt land in Nottinghamshire, against local opinion and planning guidance and against the position taken by Labour before the election on opencast mining and green-belt development.

Labour's rhetoric is good, and I think that the Government's intentions are genuine, but the practice clearly lags some way behind. Much worse than any individual examples is the fact that, on 1 April this year, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions issued a statement outlining the implications for development plans and regional planning guidance of the Government's White Paper "Planning for the Communities of the Future".

That statement on transitional arrangements showed that the full implications of the new policy await not only new regional planning guidance, which has yet to be seen—I hope the Minister is right when he says that it will be soon; he will forgive us if we are a little suspicious, but we have been used to 18 years of misleading statements from the Conservative party, and need proof rather than promises—but the reviews of the structure and local plans already in place. That process could take about 15 years. No wonder many developers are acting on a "business as usual" basis. It is hard to see how anyone could, as yet, act in any other way.

The plans are already there. Much of the development has already been given permission, and more is being given permission all the time on the basis of outstanding policies. Exactly that case was argued for Somerset by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), and exactly the same problems are arising in Devon. We have seen them in Cornwall in the past, and we shall doubtless see them again. Indeed, we see them throughout the country. Hard work will be needed to change what is perhaps not yet set in stone—but the stones are rolling down the hill in a process that it will not be easy to stop. Change will have to be made within a certain time if it is to make a real difference, enabling people to judge Labour not by what it says it wants, but by what has happened at the end of the current Parliament—or the next, or, even worse, the one after that.

Labour's argument that more green-belt land is being given than is being taken away misses a fundamental issue. Of course nothing can be guaranteed for ever, but the principle of the green belt is that, once allocated, it provides a protection on which people can rely. If new green-belt land is allocated, that is a bonus; but we are not talking about a mathematical equation in which people say, "We will take two pieces from here and add two here, and that will be all right. We might even add another half piece on top to make it look a little sweeter". The green belt is intended to provide genuine protection for the countryside around developed areas. If we are to provide that protection, it must be long-term protection; it must not be eroded as needs are seen to arise.

The Minister said that the figure for new homes was still 4.4 million. We could argue for ever about whether that figure is right, but there will certainly be a good many. It seems to be assumed that, county by county, broadly the same allocations should continue to apply as now, even if they do not apply to exactly the same locations within counties. An extraordinary feature of this country, however, is the erosion caused by people moving out of cities into rural areas. They are doing so for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons is clearly our failure to make our cities attractive places in which to live.

People do not aspire to live in the centres of our great cities. I understand that London is virtually the only capital city in Europe to experience a major reduction in its central population—a reduction which is continuing. For a number of social reasons, if for no other reasons, policy must aim to reverse that process, and to make cities attractive. That does not simply mean that Sussex or Surrey must change where their new housing is, opting to use a little less green-field land and a little more brown-field land; it means that there should be less housing overall in the counties.

Mr. Martlew

In other parts of Europe, the problem is that populations are leaving rural areas and moving into cities. Does the hon. Gentleman advocate that?

Mr. Taylor

I do not want a problem to be caused. I want to see vibrant cities in which young couples with children can live and work, benefiting from good schools, freedom from crime and an attractive environment. That is important from the point of view of those living in cities now, as well as those whom we would like to live in them.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Taylor

I will, but I shall take no more interventions after this.

Mr. Drew

I thank the hon. Gentleman. No doubt he knows of the Richard Rogers task force. Surely that is one of the most fundamental and innovative projects that any Government could take on, and we look forward to the results.

Mr. Taylor

I do not think that a task force is ever fundamental or innovative, although its conclusions may be. Let us hope that the conclusions of this task force will be.

The Liberal Democrats published detailed proposals today, including a proposal for immediate revision of planning policy guidance note 3 on housing, and a proposal for the calling in of controversial major development plans to be assessed in the light of the new PPG3. I believe that that would mean the calling in of plans for Stevenage new town, and no increase in housing figures for West Sussex. We propose a clear development hierarchy, with real backing from Ministers—particularly as regards the reuse of existing buildings, as well as redevelopment of old sites, before the development of green-field sites. We believe that there should be a levy on green-field development, which could fund urban regeneration and provide new parks. That could improve the urban environment and, perhaps, lower council tax for all.

I also believe—this is a more difficult issue—that we should consider the difference between the nil value added tax on new build and the 17.5 per cent. VAT on renovation. The equalisation of VAT could fundamentally change the way in which older buildings in urban areas are treated, and the state of existing housing stock. All those measures could minimise new development. I understand that some work has been put into that. Belgium, for example, imposes a low rate of VAT, not just on energy conservation materials—as is often said—but on all renovation work on buildings that are more than 20 years old. Some balance between VAT on renovation and new build might be needed so the programme could be self-financing, which would doubtless be controversial for new build. It should, however, be considered.

There are two other key issues. I must be brief, because I have already used too much time. The first is transport. Not tonight, but on many other occasions, the Conservatives have attacked the fuel escalator. How ironic that is, coming from the party that introduced it in the first place. Over 18 years, the Conservatives increased excise duty on fuel by 600 per cent. Between 1992 and 1996 alone, they raised £58 billion from fuel tax, as well as selling off public transport services, taking no action over the loss of rural bus routes and cutting money for transport packages for local authorities. However, they cannot possibly claim to be friends of the motorist—quite apart from their ignoring the fact that one in four people in rural areas have no access to a car. Incidentally, whereas the real total cost of running a car has fallen since the early 1970s, bus and train fares have nearly doubled.

Labour has tried to tackle one element of the problem by providing extra money for bus routes in rural areas over the next few years, but it is still a drop: £50 million is a small amount. If it were all spent on new buses, it would not even be enough to provide one new bus for every major town. Although the rhetoric is good, we must compare that with the extra £9 billion that Labour plans to raise in fuel duties.

I believe in environmental taxation. I believe in a fuel duty escalator. I am not attacking that; I am attacking the hypocrisy of those Conservatives who now say that they oppose it, having implemented it in the first place. I also make a fundamental point about environmental taxation. I do not think that it will command public support if it is always "take" and never "give": it needs to be about changing taxes, not increasing them. That is why Liberal Democrats have consistently argued that the fuel escalator could be used to abolish vehicle excise duty for all cars up to 1,600 cc—two thirds of cars—and so encourage people to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The proposal means that people are getting something back in return for the increases that they are paying. It is supported by the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club and other motoring organisations. It is supported by the public in general. It means that people pay as they go—rather than paying to tax the vehicle up front, which gives them an incentive to maximise their return by using it as much as possible.

Although Labour has suggested that it will consider a small cut in vehicle excise duty to just £100 for some more environmental vehicles, it is not clear which vehicles will be covered. It does not appear that many will be covered, and I do not think that the public will see this as a bargain. I do not think that it is enough to make a difference; for the amounts involved, more could be done.

Finally, let me say a little about rural housing. The real issue of council house sales, which is touched on in the motion, is the lack of replacement affordable homes for rent—either council or housing association homes—under the Conservatives. The percentage of socially affordable rented accommodation was always lower in rural areas. Between 1980 and 1991, 30 per cent. of rural local authority housing was sold—95,000 properties. In the same period, housing associations built just 10,800 rural properties, and much of that involved shared ownership schemes.

That has meant that, while the wealthy have been moving into rural areas, displacing rural people and forcing up house prices so that private accommodation has become harder and harder to afford, there has been an increase in rural homelessness. According to the Rural Development Commission, homelessness is increasing fastest in rural areas—fastest of all in the deep rural areas, and especially in the south, where prices have risen as people have moved out of the cities and bought holiday and second homes, while also investing in homes to rent for the holiday market rather than full-time homes.

My county of Cornwall is thought to be the one with the biggest gap between house prices and incomes, which are the lowest in the country. It does not have Britain's highest house prices, but they are fairly high and incomes are very low. Such poor rural areas have been devastated by council house sales, and matters have been made worse by the benefit restrictions that apply to the under-25s. They hit hardest in rural areas where private accommodation is limited. Many people do not get housing benefit that is equivalent to the rents that they pay. One of my local authorities, Carrick, has asked for a meeting with the Minister for Local Government and Housing to address the fact that it already has 88 people in unsuitable temporary accommodation and that there will be 27 more in the next three weeks for whom the council cannot find public housing. That escalator will continue to rise.

A recent survey researched the number of those sleeping rough in rural Cornwall. They proved difficult to identify because, unlike such people in urban areas, those in rural areas may be in fields and will not necessarily remain in the same place. They move between towns and between short-term jobs, such as fruit or flower picking. The survey nevertheless showed that a significant number of rural homeless people were sleeping rough. That should not happen and it is an often forgotten rural problem. I hope that the Government will address it, and that the House can be united on the issue.

8.20 pm
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) described a trip around Britain. In fact, it was around the south-east. The Official Report will show that he probably went as far west as Somerset and as far north as Lincolnshire, and ignored the north-west, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Northumbria and the midlands. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should be the Opposition spokesman for the south-east.

I am worried by Conservative rhetoric, by the propagation of the myth of town against country. Opposition Members want to divide the country to win back rural seats, but that is dangerous. My local paper, The Cumberland News, carried reports of Cumberland agricultural show, which is the largest one-day show in Britain and which is held in Carlisle. The British National party was there trying to recruit people, and it used the same language as the hon. Member for South Suffolk.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)


Mr. Martlew

I do not accuse the hon. Gentleman of being a fascist, but I issue the warning that people should not try to set one part of the country against the other. That is what the Conservatives have done.

Cumbria has done well under a Labour Government. It received extra money for rural transport. Deregulation and the abolition of cross-subsidy were not mentioned by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. The people of Carlisle were happy to subsidise rural bus services, but the previous Government made sure that that was not possible. As a result, many rural bus services were lost, and the Government's grant of £50 million will help to restore them.

Cumbria got an extra £7 million in its education budget. I was a county councillor for many years, and during that time such an amount was never put into the budget. Some of that money will pay for rural transport for schoolchildren. The pupils in Cumbria's rural schools probably do better in Ofsted reports than children in urban schools. Perhaps that should be tackled in urban areas.

The county council is trying to introduce information technology to villages. Its two projects, Credits and Genesis, will take IT into village schools and also to the villages. The Department of Social Security is discussing with the county council a system under which people can communicate with a jobcentre from a kiosk. That gets rid of the need to take a bus, if there is one, into Carlisle to sign on. Village schools face a strange dilemma, because, although it is said that we should not close village schools, it is also said that we should not build any more houses. Lack of pupils poses a danger to such schools. In some way, affordable houses must be provided for young families, because it is often primary schools that are at risk.

It is said that 60 per cent. of building should be on brown-field sites, and that is obviously pertinent to places such as London. Perhaps we should see whether there are brown-field sites in villages. Sometimes there are, but in my constituency one or two factories would have to be closed to meet the 60 per cent. requirement, and I am sure that that is not what the Government are about.

Unemployment in my constituency is 4.9 per cent. In the neighbouring constituency of Penrith and The Border, it is 2 per cent., and the rate has fallen by 20 per cent. in the past two years. There is no crisis in the countryside there, but, even so, the Government have tackled the problem. They have made Cumbria a pilot area for the new deal. It started in January, and in urban and rural areas, it is getting young people back to work.

My constituency is to get a new district general hospital costing £80 million to serve Carlisle and the rural area. There were many objections when it was suggested that the name of the hospital should be changed. It is called the Cumberland infirmary, which shows that it will meet the needs of people in rural and urban areas. Rural north Cumbria is a health action zone. The Government have specifically designated it as such, and one of the key objectives is to tackle ill health in rural areas. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will visit Cumbria next week to launch that.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I do not claim the hon. Gentleman's expertise on Cumbria, but does he think that people in remote rural villages will welcome the building or the improvement of hospitals to which many of them will have to travel 10 or 15 miles, as would be the case in my constituency? That is not delivering health care where people need it in rural communities, is it?

Mr. Martlew

If I had a heart attack, I should prefer to go to a district general hospital rather than to a cottage hospital down the road. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that we should spend even more to build district general hospitals in villages? That would be nonsense. We should have had a new hospital 18 years ago, but the Conservative Government did nothing about it. We are now to get one that will also serve the rural community.

Agriculture is facing difficulties, although they are not showing up in the unemployment figures. BSE is a major problem in a dairy area such as Cumbria, and we all know who caused BSE. Opposition Members cannot say that problems in farming have been caused by the present Government. I hope that the common agricultural policy is reformed, and that Agenda 2000 works. We must help farmers, and especially those in the uplands and the national park—another innovation by a Labour Government. The Lake District national park suffers from overgrazing. Such problems need to be examined and resolved.

Cumbria does not do enough to add value to its food products. The European Commissioners want to get rid of Cumberland rum butter, but I think that we may win that battle. We seem to have forgotten how to market Cumbrian food. The county has millions of tourists, and the tourist board, the county council and the National Farmers Union should work together to ensure that tourists to Cumbria eat food that has been sourced there. That has to be done.

Even when we had a problem with BSE, this Government did something about it for the Cumbrians. We need a British Cattle Movement Service headquarters because of BSE. I understand that civil servants were going to put it in deepest Guildford; we may have a Labour Member for Guildford, but I am not sure.

What happened? It was decided to put the headquarters in Cumbria. The Tories attacked the Ministry of Agriculture for sending 200 jobs to Cumbria—Workington, in fact: an area of high unemployment. Where else should they have gone than to a rural area, but the Tories said that they wanted to put the headquarters in Guildford.

Therefore, we have done well under a Labour Government. We have had extra money for rural buses, for rural schools and for a health action zone, a new hospital, extra money for the new deal and more than 200 extra jobs at the British Cattle Movement Service headquarters. The Labour Government have not let down rural areas in Cumbria. I look forward to the further expansion of the rural economy and to the bringing together of urban and rural people. This division between the two that has been created by the Conservatives has to stop, because it is in no one's interest.

8.30 pm
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

When I came into the Chamber, I was intent on making some comments about the position of Berkshire and the threat to countryside and open space in the county in which my constituency lies, but, having heard the speeches of the Minister and of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), I want to comment on what they have said.

First, may I say something about the frankly disgraceful opening remarks of the hon. Member for Carlisle. At the end of his speech, he returned to the issue of division between town and country. If anything is dividing town and country, it is the policies of the Labour party. It is the Labour party that has shown, time and again since May 1997, that it fails to understand the needs of rural areas and of the countryside.

Personally, I have always said that we should look for a better balance of development between town and country, but the Government do not help the towns and cities by putting all the development into green-belt and green-field sites. The hon. Member for Carlisle should think again, reflect carefully on his remarks, and look at the policies that his party has produced, because it is those policies which are dividing town and country.

The Minister will genuinely come to regret having said in the House that it was perfectly reasonable to make inroads into the green belt. I think that that statement will come to haunt him and the Labour Government. Throughout this country, Members of Parliament and councillors are desperately trying to defend their green belt from development proposals, and what do we see tonight? This Government are giving yet more comfort to developers that it is okay to build on the green belt. That is what the Minister said.

Mr. Meacher

May I just help the hon. Lady by making it clear what I did say? I said that it is reasonable to go into the green belt as a last resort if no alternative means of expansion are available, and if there is a compensatory, much greater increase in green belt. In those circumstances, it is very different. I am not suggesting that there should be ready intrusion into the green belt. It is reasonable to go into the green belt only in exceptional circumstances, and in the two circumstances that I have mentioned.

Mrs. May

It is obvious from that intervention that the Minister is already ruing his earlier statement. Hansard will show what he said, and I do not recall his making any reference to a last resort.

Even so, what the Minister has just said again shows a complete lack of understanding about the purpose of the green belt. It is there as a protection and as an area of open space around an urban development. It is not something where we can say, "If we get a few more people, we'll build into this and stick another bit somewhere else." That would fail to act as a protection. That is what the Government seem to be saying about green belt—that they can mix and match green belt and urban development here and there, and it does not make any difference.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

Has the hon. Lady discussed what she has just said with the Country Landowners Association, which in the briefing that it sent us this week says: The CLA accepts that some Green Belt areas will have to go to protect other countryside areas of even greater importance"?

Mrs. May

The Labour party is desperately attempting to show that it is suddenly the friend of the Country Landowners Association. The Minister's remarks on open access and the right to roam will have been listened to with great interest by the CLA.

Mr. Meacher

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May

No. I have to make some progress.

The Minister referred to rural schools and their closure. I tried to intervene on him at that stage and he did not accept my request, but he stated that the Government were protecting rural schools and stopping their closure. The House should be aware of exactly what happened on rural school closures.

On the eve of the countryside march, the then Minister for School Standards, who has been promoted to the Cabinet, possibly because of all the mistakes that he was making in the Department for Education and Employment, stated that people need not worry about rural school closures, because, although the procedure for deciding on the closure of schools had been changed in the School Standards and Framework Bill, so that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment no longer had a role, the Secretary of State would have a role in the case of rural schools, and the Government would ensure that all rural school closures went to the Secretary of State before the decision was made.

When pressed several times by Opposition Members, myself included, to enshrine that intent in legislation, the Government refused to do so—little wonder that people often feel that what they say is mere empty words. Again, we saw that the reality of their policy was different from the rhetoric. Their soundbite in the television studio did not reflect what the Government intended to do. Rural school closures are a prime example of that.

I said that I wanted to comment on the position of Berkshire. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) has already referred to the problem faced by Wokingham district council over the proposed development of 2,500 houses at Grazeley. Those are the development pressures that Berkshire already faces, but I want to take the debate forward, to look at future pressures and the problem that we have at present.

The south-east regional planning committee—Serplan—is putting forward proposals for the number of houses to be developed in Berkshire and the rest of the south-east by 2016. Once again, we have the difficulty that, despite all the rhetoric from the Government about 60 per cent. of development being on brown-field sites and protecting the green belt, planning conferences are having to prepare their proposals for the future without the changed guidance in respect of planning policy guidance 3 that is required.

Berkshire is the smallest county in the south-east—it represents only 4.9 per cent. of the area. Despite that, 15.4 per cent. of the county has been built on. It is three times more urbanised than Oxfordshire, for example, but the proposals from Serplan are that 46 per cent. of the additional green-field development in the south-east until 2016 would be in Berkshire.

The plans provided by Serplan in respect of current potential supply from the housing capability study and in terms of options for the future show that, in every other county, the additional number of houses over and above the potential supply is either relatively small or reduced. In Berkshire, they envisage up to an extra 50,000 houses being required in the period to 2016.

One of the difficulties in the way in which Serplan has put together its proposals relates to the guidance from the Government. The Berkshire housing development figures have been set so high because the Serplan planners say, "All the jobs are in Berkshire, and we need economic regeneration elsewhere in the south-east if we are to put housing development there." Yet the Government have asked Serplan to produce housing development figures before the regional development agencies—on which I take a different view from the Government—that the Government claim will be involved in the economic development of their areas, are in place.

The Government have got it the wrong way round. They are requiring housing development figures based on the current economic position to be prepared, agreed and in place before the RDAs look at potential economic regeneration in other parts of the south east. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain why the Government are so keen to have the housing development figures in place before the RDAs are up and running and doing what the Government intend them to do in economic regeneration. The housing development needs could be so different if the figures were produced once the RDAs were in place.

I am conscious that a number of hon. Members wish to speak on this very important issue. I have outlined just a few of the problems we face in Berkshire in respect of pressure for development. That pressure does not apply just to housing. We are also facing pressure for the development of a motorway service area, as are other parts of the country. The potential for noise pollution, light pollution and the impact on countryside areas is significant, and I sincerely hope that the Government will be able to give us some comfort in terms of reviewing the minimum distance rule between motorway service areas, which is currently 15 miles.

I hope that the Government will take action on such issues. So far, we have heard a lot of words and seen a lot of glossy brochures, but the Government are failing to act. As in so many other sectors, Government policy does not match their rhetoric.

8.41 pm

Mr. Cohn Pickthall (West Lancashire)

I start by welcoming the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment at the end of his speech on access to the countryside. He has been steadfast on the issue. I agree with what I think lies behind what he said—that it is unlikely that landowners will be able to deliver a watertight voluntary system, and that sooner or later, legislation will be inevitable.

The Opposition motion

deplores the Government's continued failure to protect both the Green Belt and green-field sites from excessive development". During the past couple of months, the Labour Back-Bench rural affairs group, led by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), has met some 25 organisations concerned precisely with the quality of life in rural areas. Almost without exception, they urged on us the need for flexibility in planning in green-belt areas, and raised that as a major issue. Their plea was reiterated by the Country Landowners Association in the quotation that I used in my intervention on the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May).

My constituency is almost all in the green belt which prevents the spread of urban Merseyside and Greater Manchester towards the Ribble and the Irish sea. To that extent, the green belt performs the function described by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor). The green belt is very jealously guarded by West Lancashire district council, although some farmers and landowners are very adept at getting around the restrictions. I could take my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment to an agricultural worker's cottage that was built about 10 years ago in the middle of the green belt, which has 10 bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a kitchen—the only room I was allowed into—which is larger than my house.

There is a serious and detailed debate to be had, which the terms of the motion and the recent sloganising about the countryside obscure. There is clearly a need for some appropriate development in the green belt. In my area, there is a desperate need for small industrial estates to serve the interests of packers and transporters who service the horticultural industry. There is clearly, too, a need, which I think is recognised generally on both sides of the House, for small housing developments, covenanted—hopefully—to needs in villages and hamlets. In the Lancashire green belt, however, it is vital that large residential and industrial development is strongly resisted. That is made more possible and important in my area due to the large concentration of brown-field sites in the north-west.

Last week's report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology—I pay tribute to its reports, which are always timely and very informative—showed that, in the north-west of England, 21.8 per cent. of the total area can be classified as derelict land. That is far and away the largest percentage of any English region. At the same time, the projected increase in demand for new homes in the north-west is 10.2 per cent.—the sixth lowest of all English regions.

Obviously, the availability of such land and the demand for new homes differ from region to region. The needs and pressures in the north-west are obviously very different from those in some of the areas represented by Opposition Members. I strongly welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's policy to devolve strategic land use decisions to the regions, to Regional Development Agencies—and I hope, ultimately, to regional government.

Mr. Hayes

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's interest in these matters. On the Library's figures, he represents the 97th most rural constituency in Britain, which is pretty high as Labour Members go, as I shall explain in my speech. Will not rural Britain—this is certainly true of Lincolnshire and, I am sure, his area—be dominated by urban areas? People in Lincolnshire are frightened that the regional development agency will be dominated by Leicester, Derby and Nottingham. What will such cities care about south Lincolnshire, the Lincolnshire fens and other rural areas?

Mr. Pickthall

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If he will allow me, I shall come precisely to that point a little further on in my speech.

The use and abuse of green belt and other countryside areas must be subject to the most sensitive planning considerations, and decisions must be made as locally as possible. I hope that, as far as possible, the presumption will always be against building in such areas except in the direst necessity. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment say almost exactly that in his intervention a few moments ago.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

It is of course said that the presumption will always be against building except in the direst circumstances, yet, in Hertfordshire, we are being asked to agree the building of 10,000 homes on a piece of unspoilt green belt west of Stevenage. The Deputy Prime Minister was personally approached and asked to intervene to save that green belt, but he totally ignored the request. Does the hon. Gentleman really believe all the Government's crocodile tears and weasel words?

Mr. Pickthall

Of course I believe my right hon. Friend—what a silly question. The hon. Gentleman describes a region and county with which I am not intimately familiar, but, clearly, the pressures of population and the need for new homes are much greater in his region than in mine.

The megaphone debate about rural areas has done no favours to the sensitive issues of green-belt and rural development. That is true also when we consider any aspect of rural life and conservation. We have had an extraordinary period of ersatz claims by the Conservative party that it represents, in some mystical way, rurality. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) recoined the phrase "truly rural" to describe herself and her colleagues, in an attempt to show that Labour Members, such as me, who represent rural areas—and Liberal Democrats—are not rural. On the other hand, she might simply have been proving that she could pronounce "truly rural".

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton spoke with real knowledge of the problems of rural areas, but that is not, by and large, the Opposition's concern in this debate. The trumpeting of "We are the party of rural England" by the Opposition has prevented the proper discussion in this place of the complex needs of people in rural areas, and has prevented us from asking—let alone answering—some awkward and serious questions. I am thinking of the sort of debate that the Local Government Association has undertaken in its recent document, "Behind the Scenery".

There has been a tendency to separate the nature of rural life completely from urban life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) pointed out, ignoring, incidentally, suburban life in the process. Conservatives and the Countryside Alliance paint a picture of Britain where towns and cities are dark conglomerations of howling multitudes, whose involvement in rural Britain is to plunder—or, at best, ignore—it, while those in rural areas cower in fear of proletarian invasions.

Life is not like that. My area is not untypical of the countryside. I have Skelmersdale in one corner of a huge rural area which has the small market town of Ormskirk in the centre.

Mr. Hayes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickthall

I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me. I want to sit down as soon as I can to allow as many hon. Members as possible to contribute.

The area is surrounded by Liverpool, Southport, Preston and Greater Manchester. All the transport systems, rail and road, have their roots in those towns, and serve the rural areas—however unsatisfactorily—on the way through. That interdependency of rural and urban areas is reflected in the county of Lancashire as a whole, which has vast rural areas edged by quite large towns. The county council—and, on a smaller scale, my district council—has worked over many years to hold together the interests of urban and rural areas and to explain each to the other in terms of their needs.

The problems of service provision in areas of sparse population are well recognised and, at least in part, addressed by Lancashire, involving some redistribution of wealth from towns to rural areas. Urban areas constitute the largest part of the tax base of this country. Three of my villages have libraries, one of which is brand new. Two have sports complexes, and one large village has two sports centres. All of those have been provided largely by urban taxpayers.

As bus deregulation destroyed rural bus services, the council has had to provide what alternatives there are, financed by urban and rural taxpayers. I am not trying to suggest that the rural areas of Lancashire are okay—far from it—but I am asserting their interdependency with urban areas and the need for greater understanding, rather than the constant drive to polarise.

I wish to refer to a report by the Rural Development Commission, which—I ought to point out to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo)—has not been abolished; it has merged, and is still going strong. We have received briefings from it this week. The report states that, in rural Lancashire, the average weekly earnings are £45 lower than the national average, £41 lower than neighbouring Cheshire and £14 below neighbouring Cumbria. It is a fact that earnings in rural areas for those who work there are lower than those in urban areas. Employment is harder to come by and the new deal is harder to deliver. Services are much more sparse.

Those crucial disadvantages must be addressed. I want to highlight the disadvantage of isolation. Of course, it is more than possible to be isolated physically and psychologically in urban areas, but the possibility of help or of pursuing solutions is much less in the countryside. There is a sort of gulag archipelago, and generally prosperous and thriving rural communities, often composed of those who travel into urban areas to earn a living, disguise pockets of poverty and misery. Elderly people and those with mobility problems often occupy the gulag.

The services—whether medical, environmental or housing, and whether public or private—are at best problematic and often non-existent. Where the services are supplied, they are vastly expensive, and shire authorities are well aware of the cost disparities. Lack of transport also isolates young people, leading to problems in many villages, including the importation of some of the difficulties that we more usually associate with towns and cities.

Those with access to private transport travel to towns or to out-of-town supermarkets to shop, while lamenting the collapse of their village shops and post offices and demanding public funds, through council tax rebates, Rural Development Commission grants, or whatever, to shore them up.

Many projects are designed to pick away at the problems of economic hardship and isolation in country areas, and they are all valuable, but, in the face of the dwindling of employment in agriculture, the slowness of replacing those jobs through new small enterprises and the collapse in transport, their impact is limited.

To begin to resolve some of the social difficulties in the countryside, we need vision and determination such as is being exhibited in local government in the shires and shire districts. "Behind the Scenery" encapsulates that, and I congratulate the Local Government Association on it.

Mr. Hayes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickthall

No, I want to finish as soon as I can.

"Behind the Scenery" concentrates on identifying social exclusion in rural areas and seeking solutions to it. The Local Government Association sees a large part of the solution lying in increased resources, and we have heard this evening how some of that, at least, is happening. The need to carry the rest of the tax-paying population along with that view has not been addressed.

Maintenance and improvement of the quality of life in rural areas depend largely on enlightened local government and on the success of regional development agencies in improving economic performance and investment. There has been much debate about rural representation on RDAs. Personally, I do not think that putting one member from a rural area on the board is any answer. It would be all too easy for the rest of the board to listen respectfully and then carry on regardless, rather like the role of Dr. Weakling among the 40 thieves in "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists".

The RDAs—I am speaking especially about the north-west—should have a rural filter so that every decision involves enhancing the rural economy as well as protecting the landscape, ecology and biodiversity of a region.

I have long believed that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be replaced by a rural affairs Ministry, but further thought and discussions have changed my mind—not that I want to retain MAFF as it stands—and I now believe that plucking rural bits out of so many different Departments would be likely to produce paralysis. There is, however, a need for a body that considers the needs of rural areas across the boundaries of existing Departments, and the LGA's suggestion of a Select Committee has some attractions.

The megaphone debate on rural affairs has prevented us from asking some serious questions, which I would like to ask now. What do we do if and when people in rural areas wake up to the fact that 93 per cent. of public support for rural areas goes to agricultural production—excluding horticulture, pigs, poultry and egg production, which are the backbone of the industry in my constituency? What happens if, and perhaps when, common agricultural policy reform fails to curb production subsidy?

What relationship should we foster between agriculture, tourism and leisure? Can we justify organising agricultural subsidy to run stock in inhospitable hill areas to keep the fells trim for tourists? Is there anything that Government or Parliament can do to check the power of the big supermarket chains that control farmers and growers? They tear up contracts at a minute's notice and switch their buying policies at the drop of a hat, to the ruin of certain sectors and regions.

We do not discuss those important questions because we are too busy shouting about who is more rural than thou. We do not live in two countries, however much the hon. Member for South Suffolk sought to suggest it. I thank him for visiting my constituency—without telling me, of course. He figured prominently in my local newspapers, standing in the middle of an empty street. I am not sure whether he was trying to comment on the disappearance of rural shops.

The Opposition are seeking to create a party political war between rural areas and the rest. If their pursuit of that objective is not ended, rural areas can only lose out as the rest of the country has forced down its throat what the Tories present as a rural whinge. In my patch at least, I do not hear that from rural people.

9 pm

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

West Sussex has been mentioned several times and my constituency forms the greater part of it. There are four important points about the case of West Sussex.

First, 45,000 people have signed the petition against the imposition of an extra 12,800 houses. Petitioners come from across the full range of party politics and there is cross-party support on the county council. An important plank of the new policy announced by the Deputy Prime Minister—something that will help judgment on whether it is to be believed—is that the new approach to housing should involve an element of bottom-up consideration and dilution of what has been accepted across the board as too many orders from on high under the old predict and plan. West Sussex is a classic test case from which we will judge whether the new policy is for real. The citizens of West Sussex have spoken more than loudly with those 45,000 names opposing the extra homes.

Secondly, simple arithmetic shows that, under the structural plan, about 40 per cent. of the new housing will be on green-field sites and 60 per cent. on brown-field sites. With the extra 12,800 houses, the balance swings the other way. Such housing would have to be entirely on green-field sites and the balance would change to 60 per cent. on green-field sites and 40 per cent. on brown-field sites. In deciding whether the Government's policy objective of reducing the extent of green-field sites is to be believed, their decision on cancelling their order to add the 12,800 houses, or reducing the number, will be important.

Thirdly, West Sussex went to the length of having an independent environmental audit, for which it won a significant award. It succeeded in convincing the Department's inspectorate. In effect, the Minister overruled his own inspectorate. If we are to have a rational approach to the amount of additional housing with which rural areas can cope, without—in the words of the Minister—turning them into American rural suburbs, the principle of independent environmental assessments is important. They should be encouraged.

Fourthly, and I am surprised that this has not come out in the debate on green-field and green belt, in a large metropolis such as Birmingham or London, one effect of the success of the green belt has been to tip the pressure out to the next layer, to the perimeter lying on a 40-mile radius. Country areas have been hit by issues such as overbuilding and whether the Government's change of policy is for real; the problem of agriculture going seriously bust; and the gerrymandering of the standard spending assessments with the result that counties such as West Sussex have had a 10 per cent. increase in rates but no effective increase in real spending. To put it candidly, country areas like my own want to stop being dumped on by the Labour Government.

9.5 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

In an effort to allow as many people as possible to contribute to the debate, I shall keep my remarks brief.

Contrary to what might be imagined, I welcome this debate on the basis that, although we have debated similar topics five or six times before, the Opposition have yet to land a glove on us. I see that that proud record is continuing tonight. Much of the rhetoric in the Opposition motion is understandable, although their points about the green belt and green-field sites stick in the craw of Labour Members who spent the past 15 years working under Tory planning procedures, fighting those procedures through appeals and all manner of other processes, only to find that central Government had undermined what we were trying to achieve, with the result that we lost out to developers—developers who were often contributors to the Conservative party. Let that not be misunderstood.

There are more important issues that should be discussed in a debate about rural Britain. I am sure that the fact will have escaped no Labour Member that all is not well in rural Britain, but we shall look at what we consider to be the real analysis of the real problems and the real dilemmas facing rural Britain—poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) pointed out, earlier this year there was an Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ), but only a limited number of Conservative Members bothered to turn up for that debate, albeit more than were present at this morning's debate on concessionary television licences.

The Labour Government are prepared to accept that rural poverty exists, although it might be dispersed and difficult to measure. One of the previous Government's legacies, and something that should never be forgotten, is that they commissioned a report on rural poverty during the mid-1980s. Even though it was their own report, they chose not to publish it or to own up to it; instead, they buried it. That is a disgraceful record. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment said, that report would have shown the scale of the problems of deprivation that were identified in the Rural Development Commission report published in 1997. I shall not reiterate the figures given by my right hon. Friend, but it is important that we understand how many communities suffer the problems of not having public transport or easy access to a GP.

Why have the problems occurred? There are five key elements in the Conservative's legacy of failure. First, there are village services, which have declined out of all recognition. It was not without remorse that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) recognised at last the folly of the policy that he kept in place for so long—out-of-town shopping development. He came to realise the damage that that was doing to villages and market town centres.

Secondly, deregulatated public transport—which has been mentioned several times by my hon. Friends—and rail privatisation have done immense damage to our rural communities.

Thirdly, I could speak at great length about housing, but I shall concentrate on the provision of affordable housing. It is all very well to talk about taking away people's rights to a discount on a council house sale, but what about the people who have no access to housing in rural Britain? The Conservative party practised social exclusion because it failed to allow any reprovision of council stock and denuded rural housing associations of any opportunity to provide the housing that is desperately needed. That is social exclusion of the worst sort.

Fourthly, low pay is ever present in many rural areas, including my constituency. The Government can be proud that they have been able to introduce the national minimum wage, which will deal with low pay in all areas, whether urban or rural.

Finally, there has been an overall deterioration in services such as health, education and social services, which of course has a disproportionate effect on the old, the young, the disabled, the low paid, the unemployed, lone parents and parents who are left at home.

There is therefore no reason for the Opposition to warn us or tell us what we should be doing because the previous Administration let us down badly on rural matters. This Government take rural issues very seriously. We are fortunate to have so many Members who represent rural constituencies that we were able to form the rural Back-Bench group a year ago.

Mr. Hayes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Drew

No, time is very short.

We formed that group and, only the other day, the Conservatives aped us. It is pleasing that they are now taking rural issues seriously.

We have considered many rural matters and we shall continue to battle to get across our point of view on transport, on the reprovision of services and on dealing with the ever-present rural housing issues. The Government will continue to listen to people in rural Britain and act on their views.

9.11 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

This is an important debate on a subject that is of great interest to my constituents. The Government now know, if they did not before—I suspect that when they took office, they did not fully appreciate—how important the green belt is to many people, particularly those in certain parts of the country, including my constituents in Hertfordshire. More than anything else, those people want the full force of existing protection to be given to the green belt. There has been a change in the Government's pronouncements on this issue and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, we shall seek proof of that in the Government's actions in future.

We want full protection for the green belt and development to be permitted there only in exceptional circumstances. I was slightly concerned by what the Minister said about the contents of the White Paper, particularly the doctrine of compensation in other places through extension of the green belt, rather than protection of the existing green belt. I counsel the Government against moving too far in that direction. People want the existing green belt to be protected.

I know that the Department is responsible for protection and conservation of wildlife as well as environmental protection. It would be strange if it applied its green belt principle to the conservation of wildlife. Ministers might say, for example, "The song thrush has become extinct, but never mind because we have added the skylark and the sand martin to the protected species list, which is a great triumph for conservation." They might say, "The Siberian tiger has become extinct, but we are now giving protection to the Indian elephant and the white rhino." We want a better policy than that.

I was also concerned by the Minister's comment that, under the previous Conservative Government, there had been no corresponding increase in the size of the green belt. That is strange, and I seek an explanation because, under the previous Government, the green belt doubled, with the addition of 837,000 hectares.

The Minister for the Environment produced an interesting figure of a 30,000 hectare increase, under the Government, in the area of green-belt land. It was an improvement on the one that the Prime Minister recently gave, when he told the House at Prime Minister's Question Time:

We have always made it clear that we will protect the green belt. In fact, there has been an increase in the amount of green-belt land since 1 May, so we do not need any lessons from the Conservative Opposition".-[Official Report, 4 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 1046.] When the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions was asked about the Prime Minister's answer in a written question, we were told that the basis of the Prime Minister's boast was

a net increase of nearly 4,000 ha"—[Official Report, 11 February 1998; Vol. 306, c. 234.] in the green belt. That compared with an increase under the previous Government, between 1979 and 1993, of 830,000 hectares. According to my—admittedly shaky—maths, that means that, if the present rate of increase continued, we would have to wait until 2205 for the Government to match the previous Conservative Administration's record. Even if the figure of 30,000 is correct, it would take the Government about 26 years to achieve what the previous Government achieved in 14 years. Has the figure of 30,000 been achieved, or does it represent an aspiration for the future? Perhaps the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), will tell us. She is bound to know the answer.

The Under-Secretary can help us on another point. I listened carefully to the Minister's comments and claims about the Government's achievements. Some of them, especially on village shops, had a familiar ring; I wondered where I had heard them before. Then it occurred to me that, in the previous Parliament, I served on the Committee considering what is now the Local Government and Rating Act 1997, which introduced the rating discount for village shops. I know that it was late in the previous Parliament and, to give the Government credit, the then Opposition did not oppose the Bill, but the legislation was carried through by the previous Government. I am pleased to note that it is now an achievement of the present Government.

More than anything else, we want proper protection of the existing green belt—the full force of existing protection. That is what my constituents want in Hertfordshire, that is what we want in the rest of the country and that is what Conservative Members will press for.

9.16 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

The 1997 general election result produced a major benefit for rural areas—it introduced political competition into parts of the country that had not experienced it for many years. We have a—

Mr. Hayes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Todd

My goodness; I have only just started. Time is short, so I am afraid that I must decline.

As I have said to rural voters in my constituency—many of them have agreed—that political competition will be of benefit, because we are starting seriously to discuss issues that had previously been dealt with complacently by the Conservatives and with relatively little interest by Labour.

The misguided Opposition motion fails to address the rural quality-of-life issues that my constituents care about. They are the ones that would be familiar in an urban constituency—the quality of schools, the availability of jobs, decent transport, affordable homes, crime and the quality of our environment. Those are the issues which most people in South Derbyshire care about, as I suspect do most constituents throughout the country.

The previous Government's record on some key indicators reveals why their motion has been severely rubbished by all participants in the debate from other political parties. For example, in Derbyshire, in the last six years of the previous Government, the percentage of parishes with no rural daily bus service increased from 54 to 62 per cent. Eighty-seven per cent. of parishes in Derbyshire had no nursery, and there was a massive loss of council housing in the rural areas. Many villages in my constituency have less than half the council housing that was once constructed, substantially reducing my constituents' choice of housing.

The Government have focused on addressing those key issues. First, the additional £700,000 plus given to Derbyshire county council for rural bus services is gratefully received, with very many thanks. It will provide the platform for restoring services cut in the past—even for introducing new ones—and must be applauded.

Secondly, the emphasis, within the comprehensive spending review, on nursery provision and on pre-school education generally, will increase the availability of pre-school places in rural communities in my constituency. I am delighted with that, too.

Thirdly, if one examines the state of schools in my area, one sees that there has been a transformation, even in the 15 months since the last election. Schools in Findern, Hartshorne, Long Lane, Hilton, Barrow on Trent, Netherseal, Rosliston, Melbourne, Overseal and Egginton have already received promises of money from last year and during this year. By my reckoning, perhaps one of those schools would have received some resources under the previous Government. To put the matter in context, more than £1 million has been committed to those rural schools, as against the Conservative Government pledging in their last year just £2.1 million for the entire county of Derbyshire. That is the kind of thing that my constituents care about most.

There remain issues to address. First, we must have a self-sufficient rural economy, diversifying away from agriculture. We must ensure that homes are available for workers in rural areas. We must sustain the environment of rural Britain and ensure that our citizens can enjoy it. We must recognise the increasing threat and fear of crime in rural areas, and we must maintain viable key services such as pharmacies and post offices.

We must address those concerns holistically. If we accept a rural economy dependent on commuting, we shall damage our environment, force up housing costs in our rural areas, undermine critical rural retailers and other key services, and entrench a stratified society with a hidden minority of seriously deprived individuals concealed in our midst.

Farm diversification is clearly critical to the task. The focus should be on trying to build local small businesses based around the food industry and providing additional jobs through that route. Local low-cost housing is essential to support that economy, together with cheap, reliable public transport. We do not need sprawling suburbia or protective nimbyism. In South Derbyshire, we require a clear balance between extra housing in our local plan and job growth. I would criticise the current county structure plan for lacking that balance in my area.

We must build around local successes. We have many attractive, highly successful local primary schools. We should aim to build other key services around those schools, making them the focus of community life and maximising the efficient use of scarce resources. We must recognise the shortcomings of existing deprivation indicators in the standard spending assessment—in this context, I have considerable sympathy with some of the points made by Opposition Members, but they should recall that the rules were drawn up under their own Government.

The useful Rural Development Commission report on that shows that the current disadvantage indicators in the standard spending assessment are built around an urban slant, which clearly needs to be substantially altered. Deprivation is hidden in rural areas. Lack of advice services, paternalism and self-help often hide disadvantage that would be much more evident in an urban setting. Regression analysis based on past spending levels also works against low-spending rural authorities. Key services face higher unit costs than in urban areas. The Government's promised review of the SSA should correct those faults.

The development of rural development agencies obliged to produce rural employment strategies should start to address farm diversification, as should the Government's lead on Agenda 2000. Other initiatives include the minimum wage, which has been applauded already by some of my colleagues, the new deal for unemployed groups and the work of the coalfield task force. My community has a significant coalfield legacy. The coalfields were largely in rural areas. The task force will be an important component in redressing the balance for our rural communities. All those initiatives will provide a platform for improvements in rural quality of life.

Extra health spending will allow us to address the alarmingly poor performance of the Derbyshire Ambulance Service NHS trust, which currently produces the worst performance in the country in terms of response times—something which is a particularly acute problem in a rural constituency like mine. That is something that I am keen to see addressed.

The Government are taking on board the key quality concerns of my rural constituents while the Opposition motion addresses the Opposition's old obsessions in their old way and offers no future.

9.24 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Representing as I do one of the most rural constituencies in the country, I can inform the House that the Government's long-term policies will cause extreme difficulties for rural areas.

In Shropshire, an extra 36,000 houses are due to be built between 1996 and 2011, to conform to the ludicrous plan to build 4.4 million that the Secretary of State will impose on the country. That will lead to a 10 per cent. increase in the population of Shropshire, with an increase of 34 per cent. among those of retirement age. It will lead also to jobs and homes not being in balance with the economy—and certainly not with the services offered to the public by local agencies. The local council says that in Oswestry, for instance,

all options will require environmental capacity to be breached. The provision of 2,400 houses a year is being made at twice the rate required to cope with the natural change that would occur if immigration were ignored.

In 1891, there were 236,000 people and 49,000 houses. Since then, there has been an incredible 70 per cent. increase in population and an amazing 330 per cent. increase in housing. That is partly due to social changes, but the Government must think about their long-term policies because so many more people will be divorced and single. By 2011, one-person households will take up one third of all houses in Shropshire.

The pressure on local services has not been taken into account. Funding in Shropshire has been cut drastically since the Government came to power. For example, £100 million has been taken from the rural areas to the inner cities. It is ludicrous that an area such as Shropshire should have a standard spending assessment only 80 per cent. of Newcastle upon Tyne's. Shropshire is twice the area of London, but has only 4 per cent. of London's population. The Government do not understand that it costs more to provide services in a sparsely populated rural area.

There are 522 settlements in Shropshire with fewer than 2,000 people. That is 26 per cent. of all our settlements. We need seven primary schools to serve 1,000 people—twice the number required in an urban area. However, we have an urban Government who do not understand that.

Mr. Hayes

I notice that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who represents the 110th most rural constituency, according to Library figures, is laughing. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, despite the claims made by the Labour party, the truth is that it does not represent rural Britain psychologically. If we take the 50 most rural seats in Britain, the Labour party is the third party of Britain after the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps that is why the Government do not understand the issues that my hon. Friend is speaking about.

Mr. Paterson

That was a most helpful intervention; I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Labour party won many rural seats last year, but it does not understand rural issues. Nothing more clearly showed that than the local government settlement this year, when £10 million worth of cuts were imposed on Shropshire and there was a 17 per cent. increase in council tax. It was only after I led a march of 4,000 people, with the Bishop of Ludlow, who I suspect is not of my political persuasion, that the Government graciously lent Shropshire another £2.5 million.

These circumstances will lead to real pressures to resist an increase in population. Cuts in services have not been thought through. There are real costs involved in delivering services to a rural area, and the most obvious is transport. The Government do not understand that. The White Paper which was introduced last week—[Interruption.] The Minister jumps up and down, and laughs, but 60 per cent. of people in Shropshire drive to work. It is just not on to pretend that we can impose a Gosplan-type fixed system—[Interruption.] It is not possible to impose a coherent publicly planned transport policy on an area such as Shropshire. In my constituency, which has 98 villages, that cannot be done. As I have said, 60 per cent. of people drive to work. [Interruption.] The escalator tax on petrol is a tax on every business throughout north Shropshire, as is the increase in the price of diesel. Distribution is a major business in north Shropshire. Diesel costs 30 to 40 per cent. more in this country than on the continent, the rate of vehicle excise duty in France is a sixth of the rate in this country—and the Minister laughs, even though 95 per cent. of goods are transported by road freight. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Until now, the debate has been very good natured. Hon. Members should not be shouting across the Chamber.

Mr. Paterson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have used the last minute of my speech to show how exasperated my constituents are at the policies that are being imposed by an urban Government who do not understand rural areas.

9.29 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

As often happens in such debates, Back Benchers have provided original and relevant contributions. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) posed a number of questions that the Government would do well to answer, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) raised the West Sussex drama once again, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made striking comments about the extraordinary admissions by the Government in respect of their new and bizarre philosophy for the green belt, which has turned it into an ever-moveable feast for developers.

The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) forgot to mention that the Government have rate-capped his county council, which is the only one in the country that has been capped. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) spoke of the 10 per cent. increase in population that is being been forced on Shropshire by the Government; and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) for making such a welcome and useful intervention about the nature of the Labour party.

When he replied to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the Minister for the Environment did it again—new Labour has consistently shown that it does not understand the countryside. Nothing showed that better than the countryside march in the spring, and nothing surprised country dwellers and their supporters more than the strength of feeling that was mobilised against the Government, who were evidently surprised as well.

New Labour means new taxes on the countryside. The people who live there know that, because they are already feeling the pain and bearing the brunt of the record council tax increases that the Government have imposed on the counties and the rural districts. The Minister for the Environment comprehensively failed to answer that point, which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk.

The other taxes targeted on rural areas are taxes on the motorist. The Government will raise an extra £9 billion in fuel duties during this Parliament, over and above what would have been raised by our tax plans had they remained in place. The impact of Labour's tax rise is most cruel for those in far-flung areas, where there is no practical alternative to the car for the vast majority of journeys.

In many cases, the car makes it possible for rural communities to survive. The Government campaigning against the car in today's countryside is as paradoxical as making a film about the wild west without horses. The urban dweller does little mileage, so increased fuel costs are of little consequence. Country dwellers have to travel much greater distances; moreover, they have to pay the taxes, because they have no alternative to the car.

The purpose of these taxes is to raise tax for the Treasury. The Government say that they are against regressive taxation. What is the choice for rural people? Pay the taxes and use the car, or lose their jobs, incomes and businesses, their contact with friends and family in neighbouring towns and villages and their ready access to public services and benefits that should be theirs by right.

These motoring taxes do not redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Excessive motoring taxes hurt the poorest most, and those who need the car are often those who can least afford it: single mothers in part-time work; pensioner households, for whom the car is the last and most precious luxury; people on low incomes; and in particular, the self-employed. Come to rural areas and find forms of social exclusion that simply do not register on new Labour's urban radar.

Under the Conservatives, there was a huge increase in access to cars across rural communities, and women and pensioners were the biggest beneficiaries. The car brought them freedom to travel and unparalleled opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. New Labour does not realise that, or it does not care. It may think that it is modernising, but it seems determined to turn the clock back. Those are the very people whom new Labour says it champions. Under new Labour, people who need their cars suffer most. If fuel poverty is bad, why is car fuel poverty acceptable?

Yes, there are some public transport alternatives scattered across rural Britain. The Minister said that 75 per cent. of rural parishes have no daily bus service. Community transport alternatives are on the increase. Parishes with dial-a-ride schemes increased from 8 per cent. in 1991 to 15 per cent. in 1997. Conservatives will support any practical alternatives to the car in rural areas and anywhere else, particularly if they harness the enterprise of the private sector and the good will of the community. We have never pretended to have all the answers.

Mr. David Taylor

I am pleased to hear the shadow Front-Bench spokesman say that the Conservatives will support any alternatives to the car. How does that sit with the deregulation of bus services, which removed much of public transport from the most rural areas which hon. Members on both sides of the House now represent?

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to what I was saying. One of the reasons for the decline in rural bus services is that people have the superior alternative of the car. In the last six years we were in office, there was a big increase in dial-a-ride services and community transport, which is much more applicable to rural areas.

New Labour is a byword for wanton cynicism and opportunism. In March this year, the Chancellor announced that the Government were to devote an extra £50 million to rural bus schemes. That is a classic example of new Labour spin, and the Minister wantonly spun it again today. This tokenism has gained publicity out of all proportion to the scale of the commitment. It would be instructive to compare that figure with the amount of extra money that the Treasury will suck out of the countryside through its draconian increases in fuel duty. The Library estimates that to be at least twice as much every year.

As for the Minister's announcement of an increase in money for the countryside, the real increase is 26 per cent. spread over three years. The increase of 11 per cent. in the first year is only £18 million. How does that compare with the £9 billion in extra fuel duties? How many new bus services per village would £50 million buy? Even if it were to double the provision of rural bus services, a village would get perhaps four services a day instead of two. What alternative is that to a car? [Interruption.] The answer to that question was thought to be the transport White Paper. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must calm down: we need to hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jenkin

I shall take it out of the Minister's time. The answer to that question was thought to be the transport White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", but it is a very poor deal for rural areas. Like the bad old days of British Rail, the Chancellor's £50 million for rural transport is announced again and again throughout the White Paper, but the policy itself never arrives.

The White Paper is almost exclusively about urban and inter-urban transport. Virtually nothing in its 170 pages of waffle pays more than lip service to the transport problems of rural areas. Its central thesis is "pay up now and benefit some time in the future"—by way of little more than the faint prospect of improvements to public transport. When the Deputy Prime Minister made his statement last week, he called that hypothecation. In the here today, gone tomorrow world of Labour's Transport Ministers, that is what passes for a victory over the Treasury.

The only other money the Government have to spend for the next five years comes as a direct benefit of rail privatization—the money freed up by reducing rail subsidies. The Government will take people off the road long before adequate alternatives are in place. The Council for the Protection of Rural England complains that the Government are creating a two-tier transport system—a new deal for the towns, but no deal for rural areas. It is new Labour tax on tax on tax from the party which, before the general election, solemnly promised no new taxes at all. No concessionary fares scheme can possibly compensate people in isolated communities for being priced out of their cars.

In the section "Reducing social exclusion", the Government come up with another novel solution. Paragraph 4.88 states:

Planning has a role here, for example, in promoting the growth of key villages." What exactly does that mean? I am reminded of the words of Jon Mendelsohn, the famous lobbyist and crony of the Prime Minister:

Tony is very anxious to be seen as green. Everything has to be couched"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. When we refer to the Prime Minister or any other hon. Member we use his constituency name.

Mr. Jenkin

Speaking of the Prime Minister, the lobbyist said:

Everything has to be couched in environmental language—even if it is slightly Orwellian. In this Orwellian world, what is a key village and what do the Government mean by growth?

The integration of planning and transport is meant to be a key part of the Government's integrated transport strategy. But the Government's house building policy flies in the face of what they say about land use planning.

The Government rightly acknowledge the Conservative Government's changes in planning policy guidance. It was the Conservatives who took the first initiatives towards the integration of transport and land use planning—in PPG 13. However, the Government have not only accepted unquestioningly the projection that 4.4 million new homes will need to be built in the next 20 years, but the Deputy Prime Minister has set about the task of ensuring that they are built. Moreover, half of them are to be targeted on rural areas.

We are pushing for two thirds of new build to be situated on brown-field sites; for the planning guidance which the Minister has yet to produce to reflect changes in Government policy; and for a halt to the structure plans until the guidance is issued—another point to which the right hon. Gentleman did not refer, not least because the Government do not seem to appreciate that the people who choose to live in those houses on green-field sites will need to own cars.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister understand that, even if he realises his golden age of racehorse buses, his integrated transport policy will be no more than a pantomime horse if more and more people live away from the large conurbations and continue to use their cars? The whole purpose of land use planning is that people should live nearer where they work and the shops, offices and facilities that they need so that alternatives to the car can become available by choice.

The Government's policy is a mess. The transport White Paper is the most manifest evidence that they have failed to appreciate the problems facing rural areas. The CPRE has made public its fear that

Transport corridors could become a location for 1990s-style ribbon development. As every schoolboy knows, that is exactly what the green belt was designed to prevent. As well as hammering the rural motorist with ever higher taxes and creating rural car fuel poverty, they are targeting housing in rural areas or, to reuse their Orwellian rhetoric,

promoting the growth of key villages". That is not integration; it is a massive fudge. The Government's policies are destructive of the environment and ultimately self-defeating. But that should come as no surprise when key former advisers regard key green-belt areas as

just a bunch of mud tracts on the edge of town". Those are the words of Derek Draper, whose key contact in the Government is Mr. Geoff Norris of the No. 10 policy unit. It was he who ripped the guts out of the transport White Paper even before it had reached the dim world of off-the-record briefings.

What happened to the environment? Let Mr. Draper explain:

He"— the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher)—

is very weak and basically he's irrelevant and nobody should have to take him into account … He's nobody going nowhere. I don't think he'll be in his job much longer. Mr. Draper got that bit wrong. I pay tribute to the outgoing Minister of Transport. The Government might well have done better to listen to his advice. I welcome his successor, the hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), but he has some catching up to do to win an Oscar nomination like that of the Minister for Transport in London.

The real problem lies in the Government's mindset—in the Labour party's fundamental bias in favour of its urban heartlands. New Labour's first-hand knowledge of the countryside is from an Islington perspective: it is a mixture of James Herriot, "The Archers" and Postman Pat, laced with the poison of coercion and political correctness. The Liberal Democrats are completely divided on the countryside. They say what they want, depending on where they happen to be at the time. It therefore falls to the Conservatives to speak for rural Britain.

The Government are determined to make the countryside pay for their failures and their policies. They are not just harming those who live and work in the countryside; they are failing Britain as a whole. Today, the populations in our great towns and cities may far outnumber those in the countryside, but the few are no less a part of our nation's history and greatness. When we sing

And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountains green?", we want to sing about the England of today, not about an England that has been laid waste by the Government's dogma and incompetence. While the Government and their cronies are trying to build some new Jerusalem of their own, the rest of us can see that the countryside is already our inheritance. It must not be squandered.

9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

This is, I believe, the third Opposition day on which Opposition Members have chosen to debate rural issues. On each occasion, they have markedly failed to convince either the House or the country that they are even vaguely what they continually claim to be—the party that speaks for rural interests.

What we have heard tonight has been the usual recycling of, in the main, inaccurate statistics, along with empty insults directed at the Labour Benches—where sit a Government and a party committed to the interests of our rural communities. If the Conservative party genuinely wishes to present itself as a party with even the slightest interest in the countryside and its people, all that it needs to do is apologise for the grievous damage that it inflicted on rural communities during the 18 years of its lamentable Government. It is the party which was responsible for vast unemployment in rural areas, for the reduction of housing in rural areas, for taking away public transport in rural areas and for causing grievous damage not only to agriculture but to the human food chain. It sat idly by and allowed BSE to take a poisonous grip on the country, and taxpayers are still paying vast amounts as a result.

Let me now adopt a rather more factual approach to the issues raised tonight, and, perhaps, set the record straight on some of the issues that Opposition Members introduced time after time. The most obvious is the canard that the Government—and, indeed, the Labour party—are giving away the nation's green belt. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment pointed out, it was the Labour Government who introduced a green belt. It may interest the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who asked a direct question, to know that, since 1 May last year, the green belt has increased by 29,547 hectares.

The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and, I believe, the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) were much exercised by what they claimed to be the Government's plans for new house building over the coming decades. I understand that the need for 4.4 million new houses was first suggested by the previous Government who significantly failed to meet their target of 50 per cent. of new build on brown-field sites. They managed to average only 42 per cent. on such sites.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) was much concerned about the effect of new build on Sussex. It is impossible for the Government, and it would have been impossible for the previous Administration, to accept a shortfall of 12,800 houses in that area. The hon. Gentleman claims that 60 per cent. of them will have to be built on green-field sites. The figure for the previous Government was 58 per cent., and our clear commitment is that the majority of our houses will be on brown-field sites.

Mr. Yeo

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Jackson

No, I will not.

Mr. Yeo

Give way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady is not giving way.

Ms Jackson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Despite being exhorted by their leader to listen, Opposition Members are totally incapable of doing so. When I say no, I invariably mean no.

Opposition Members have dwelt on the issue of the Government overruling local councils that want to build on the green belt. Their assertions were untrue. The Tories overruled councils and approved building on green-belt land in Manchester, South Bedfordshire, Kent and Woking. In one of his last decisions as Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) approved development on 50 hectares of metropolitan green belt in Surrey.

I hope that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) expressed her concern to the previous Administration. As I have said, Berkshire was one of the three counties that the previous Government directed to change its plans by increasing the number of houses to be built by 3,000. That direction resulted in adjustments to Berkshire's green-belt boundary. The hon. Lady spoke about the number of houses that the south-east regional planning conference has announced, but those are for consultation only. She also asked about motorway service areas. I am sure that she is aware that my noble Friend the Minister for Roads was paying particular attention to that issue and examined it in no small detail.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead castigated the Government for what she decried as a policy for the closure of rural schools. We have made it abundantly clear that a proposal to close any rural school will have to be submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment for a decision. The hon. Lady may be interested to know that, in 1997, a rural council survey highlighted the fact that, in 49 per cent. of rural areas, there was no school at all.

In a sense, the debate began with the contribution by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) who touched on the issues that are genuinely important to people in rural areas. We would argue that they are also important to people in urban areas. Those issues relate to improving the quality of life. The hon. Gentleman made a valid point to which the Government have paid, and will continue to pay, particular attention. It was about how the previous Administration for 18 years allowed the quality of life in urban areas to deteriorate so lamentably that people moved from towns to rural areas. That happened despite loud pronouncements by the then Prime Minister, now Baroness Thatcher, that that Government had to take action on the cities. They markedly failed to do that. That is an issue to which we are, indeed, directing attention.

The hon. Gentleman will know of Lord Rogers's task force. The whole thrust of our transport policies, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is to offer genuine alternatives to over-dependence on the private car. We are looking at issues such as home zones and the use of information technology to ensure that traffic does not pollute urban areas to such an extent that not only people but industry, business and retail outlets wish to move from urban areas.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

I touched on rural homelessness. I have now had information that, in Devon and Cornwall, the Government office has confirmed a 23 per cent. increase in homelessness acceptances. There seems to be a genuine problem, with the increase in homelessness perhaps linked to the increase in repossessions and to benefit changes. I hope that the Minister will ask some of her team to look at that problem.

Ms Jackson

I have little doubt that my colleagues will read this evening's debate because, as I have made abundantly clear, rural issues and the quality of life in rural areas are of prime importance to this Government, but I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's point to my hon. Friends' attention.

It was Labour Members, who have direct experience of life in rural areas because they represent those areas, who touched on the issues that are of real concern to people who live in rural areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) pointed out, those issues include unemployment. He paid tribute to the Government's policy on the new deal. He also touched on the health needs of rural areas, again an area which was mercilessly attacked by the previous Administration, and highlighted again the Labour Government's health action zones.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) also raised many precise, particular and detailed points as they affect his constituents in a rural area. He again made the point that it is only Conservative Members who have a desire to foster the entirely false premise that there is a difference between rural and urban. He made the point, as he has on previous occasions, that town and country are mutually dependent. It is certainly this Government's policy, as we have said on more than one occasion, to govern for all the people, which is why we are targeting so many of our activities and, indeed, so much of our finance, towards redressing the appalling damage that was inflicted on rural areas by the Conservative party. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. Too many conversations are going on.

Ms Jackson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I repeat that it was left to Labour Members to introduce into the debate the issues that are of real importance to people in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) touched on the total lack of transport in many rural areas because of the previous Administration's approach to public transport as a whole. They deregulated the buses and privatised our railways, leaving many rural areas totally isolated.

My hon. Friend touched on social exclusion, which was introduced by the previous Administration: they denuded many rural areas of affordable housing and refused to allow rural housing associations to attempt to redress the balance. My hon. Friend paid tribute to the historic introduction by this Government of a national minimum wage, which will do much to redress the appallingly low pay that exists in rural areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) again touched on the real issues—it was my hon. Friends who raised many of them for the first time in the debate—including crime. That is an issue, as this Government are aware, which is and can be as prevalent in rural areas as it has been in urban areas. Here, too, we are taking steps to attack and tackle the problem so that the quality of life in the rural environment can be improved.

The Government are determined to address the real, everyday concerns of people in rural areas. They are the same concerns as those of their neighbours in towns and relate to jobs, schools, health, transport and the provision of services. As my right hon. Friend said earlier, the Government have a clear vision for rural areas—a living, working and sustainable countryside that contributes to the general prosperity of the country.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 159, Noes 304.

Division No. 352] [9.59 pm
Amess, David Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Hunter, Andrew
Arbuthnot, James Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Jenkin, Bernard
Beggs, Roy Johnson Smith,
Beith, Rt Hon A J Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Bercow, John Keetch, Paul
Beresford, Sir Paul Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Boswell, Tim Key, Robert
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Brady, Graham Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Brand, Dr Peter Kirkwood, Archy
Brazier, Julian Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Browning, Mrs Angela Lansley, Andrew
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Leigh, Edward
Burns, Simon Letwin, Oliver
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Lidington, David
Cash, William Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Livsey, Richard
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Clappison, James Loughton, Tim
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Luff, Peter
Collins, Tim Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Cormack, Sir Patrick McIntosh, Miss Anne
Cotter, Brian MacKay, Andrew
Cran, James Maclean, Rt Hon David
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) McLoughlin, Patrick
Donaldson, Jeffrey Madel, Sir David
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Malins, Humfrey
Duncan, Alan Maples, John
Duncan Smith, Iain Mates, Michael
Evans, Nigel Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Faber, David Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Fabricant, Michael May, Mrs Theresa
Fallon, Michael Moss, Malcolm
Fearn, Ronnie Oaten, Mark
Flight, Howard Öpik, Lembit
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Ottaway, Richard
Foster, Don (Bath) Paice, James
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Paisley, Rev Ian
Fox, Dr Liam Paterson, Owen
Fraser, Christopher Pickles, Eric
Gale, Roger Prior, David
Garnier, Edward Randall, John
George, Andrew (St Ives) Redwood, Rt Hon John
Gibb, Nick Robathan, Andrew
Gill, Christopher Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Gorrie, Donald Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Gray, James Ruffley, David
Green, Damian Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Grieve, Dominic Sanders, Adrian
Gummer, Rt Hon John Sayeed, Jonathan
Hague, Rt Hon William Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Shepherd, Richard
Hammond, Philip Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Hancock, Mike Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Harris, Dr Evan Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hawkins, Nick Spicer, Sir Michael
Hayes, John Spring, Richard
Heald, Oliver Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Steen, Anthony
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Stunell, Andrew
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Swayne, Desmond
Horam, John Syms, Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter Whitney, Sir Raymond
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton) Whittingdale, John
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Taylor, Sir Teddy Wilkinson, John
Thompson, William Willetts, David
Tredinnick, David Wilshire, David
Trend, Michael Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Tyler, Paul Woodward, Shaun
Tyrie, Andrew Yeo, Tim
Viggers, Peter Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Wardle, Charles Tellers for the Ayes:
Webb, Steve Mr. Nigel Waterson and Mr. Stephen Day.
Wells, Bowen Mr. Stephen Day.
Abbott, Ms Diane Colman, Tony
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Connarty, Michael
Ainger, Nick Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Cooper, Yvette
Alexander, Douglas Corbett, Robin
Allen, Graham Corbyn, Jeremy
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Corston, Ms Jean
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Cousins, Jim
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Cox, Tom
Atherton, Ms Candy Cranston, Ross
Atkins, Charlotte Crausby, David
Austin, John Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Banks, Tony Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Barron, Kevin Cummings, John
Battle, John Cunliffe, Lawrence
Bayley, Hugh Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Beard, Nigel Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Dalyell, Tam
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Darvill, Keith
Bennett, Andrew F Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Benton, Joe Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Bermingham, Gerald Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Best, Harold Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)
Betts, Clive Dean, Mrs Janet
Blackman, Liz Dewar, Rt Hon Donald
Blears, Ms Hazel Dismore, Andrew
Blizzard, Bob Dobbin, Jim
Boateng, Paul Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Borrow, David Doran, Frank
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Drew, David
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Bradshaw, Ben Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Edwards, Huw
Burden, Richard Efford, Clive
Burgon, Colin Ellman, Mrs Louise
Butler, Mrs Christine Ennis, Jeff
Byers, Stephen Etherington, Bill
Caborn, Richard Field, Rt Hon Frank
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Fitzpatrick, Jim
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Flynn, Paul
Canavan, Dennis Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Cann, Jamie Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Caplin, Ivor Foulkes, George
Caton, Martin Fyfe, Maria
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Gapes, Mike
Chaytor, David Gerard, Neil
Chisholm, Malcolm Gibson, Dr Ian
Clapham, Michael Godman, Dr Norman A
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Godsiff, Roger
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edingburgh Pentlands) Goggins, Paul
Golding, Mrs Llin
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Grocott, Bruce
Coaker, Vernon Hain, Peter
Coffey, Ms Ann Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Cohen, Harry Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Coleman, Iain Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Hanson, David Mallaber, Judy
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Mandelson, Peter
Healey, John Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hepburn, Stephen Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Heppell, John Martlew, Eric
Hesford, Stephen Maxton, John
Hill, Keith Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hinchliffe, David Meale, Alan
Hodge, Ms Margaret Merron, Gillian
Hoey, Kate Michael, Alun
Hood, Jimmy Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hoon, Geoffrey Milburn, Alan
Hope, Phil Miller, Andrew
Hopkins, Kelvin Mitchell, Austin
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Moffatt, Laura
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Moonie, Dr Lewis
Howells, Dr Kim Moran, Ms Margaret
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Humble, Mrs Joan Morley, Elliot
Hutton, John Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Iddon, Dr Brian Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Illsley, Eric Mudie, George
Ingram, Adam Mullin, Chris
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jamieson, David Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)
Jenkins, Brian O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) O'Hara, Eddie
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Olner, Bill
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW) Pearson, Ian
Pendry, Tom
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Pike, Peter L
Jowell, Ms Tessa Plaskitt, James
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Pollard, Kerry
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Pope, Greg
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Pound, Stephen
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Powell, Sir Raymond
Kidney, David Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kilfoyle, Peter Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Prescott, Rt Hon John
Kingham, Ms Tess Primarolo, Dawn
Kumar, Dr Ashok Prosser, Gwyn
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Purchase, Ken
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Quin, Ms Joyce
Laxton, Bob Raynsford, Nick
Leslie, Christopher Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Levitt, Tom Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Rogers, Allan
Liddell, Mrs Helen Rooker, Jeff
Linton, Martin Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Livingstone, Ken Rowlands, Ted
Love, Andrew Ruddock, Ms Joan
McAllion, John Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McAvoy, Thomas Ryan, Ms Joan
McCabe, Steve Salter, Martin
McCafferty, Ms Chris Sarwar, Mohammad
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield) Savidge, Malcolm
McDonagh, Siobhain Sawford, Phil
Macdonald, Calum Sedgemore, Brian
McDonnell, John Shaw, Jonathan
McFall, John Sheerman, Barry
McGuire, Mrs Anne Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McIsaac, Shona Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Skinner, Dennis
McLeish, Henry Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
McNamara, Kevin Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McNulty, Tony Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Mactaggart, Fiona Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
McWalter, Tony Soley, Clive
McWilliam, John Spellar, John
Mahon, Mrs Alice Squire, Ms Rachel
Steinberg, Gerry Vaz, Keith
Stevenson, George Vis, Dr Rudi
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Ward, Ms Claire
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Wareing, Robert N
Stoate, Dr Howard White, Brian
Straw, Rt Hon Jack Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Wills, Michael
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S) Winnick, David
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Temple-Morris, Peter Wise, Audrey
Timms, Stephen Wood, Mike
Tipping, Paddy Woolas, Phil
Todd, Mark Worthington, Tony
Touhig, Don Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Truswell, Paul Wyatt, Derek
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown) Tellers for the Noes:
Twigg, Derek (Halton) Mr. David Clelland and Mr. Jim Dowd.
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House congratulates the Government on its commitment to promote sustainable development in all areas of the United Kingdom, including rural areas; recognises the progress which has been made on improving rural services over the last fifteen months; welcomes the creation of powerful Regional Development Agencies which will promote prosperity in both towns and countryside; welcomes the creation of a new agency to promote the interests of the countryside in England by bringing together the Countryside Commission and parts of the Rural Development Commission; recognises the Government's determination to increase the proportion of new houses built on brownfield sites; and supports the Government's desire to give greater freedom for people to explore the open countryside.