HC Deb 28 November 2000 vol 357 cc811-31 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the White Paper on the future of rural England, published today and produced jointly by my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am also publishing the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on the rural White Paper. Copies have been placed in the Library.

A common message runs through this White Paper and the urban White Paper. Both are about tackling the real issues that matter to people—jobs, housing, services, transport and having a real say in what happens locally. We want communities in which economic prosperity, social justice and a healthy environment go hand in hand.

Much of rural Britain is thriving, but there are real problems and many of them have got worse over the past 20 years. For example, farm incomes have fallen by 60 per cent. in five years, many families cannot afford to live in the place where they grew up, and seven out of 10 of our poorest counties are rural.

Our major consultation with rural communities showed that person after person in rural areas complained that their basic services had disappeared over the past two decades. In that period, thousands of rural bus services were shut down, leaving only one in four parishes with a daily service, and 450 village schools were closed—more than one every two weeks. More than 100 rural post offices closed each year and, while the previous Administration permitted an explosion of out-of-town superstores, more than 4,000 village shops went out of business.

The countryside is no stranger to change, and our task is to give people the tools to respond to that challenge. This White Paper represents a new and genuine commitment to the rural communities and gives them the powers and resources to manage change. It represents a more comprehensive approach to the needs of the countryside. Increasingly, rural areas will benefit from our main programmes on health, education, housing and employment.

In addition, we have doubled specific rural spending, from £600 million in 1997-98 to —1.2 billion this year, and we are committing an extra —1 billion to farming and rural programmes over the next three years.

There are five main elements to our White Paper. It is about improving services, tackling poverty, aiding the rural economy, protecting the countryside and wildlife, and giving more choice to local people. Access to basic services is what people in rural areas really want, and that is the most important element of the White Paper.

People in rural areas should know what services they are entitled to. So, for the first time, we are to publish a rural service standard. It will set out minimum service standards and targets for the full range of public services from education to health, and child care to emergency services. To improve health care in rural areas, we are providing £100 million for one-stop primary health care centres or mobile units in 100 rural communities.

To reverse the decline of rural post offices, we are investing —270 million to turn post offices into one-stop shops, with access to banking, prescriptions and local authority and other services. Today I can announce that the pilot scheme to test the system will be in Leicestershire, involving 280 post offices and starting next spring.

Thousands of villages have lost their local shops. We propose to offer mandatory rate relief to more village shops, pubs and garages. We are launching a new £15 million rural community service fund to support local enterprise and help local groups re-establish their lost services. To improve education in rural areas, we have introduced stronger safeguards to protect rural schools from closure. We are providing rural police forces with an extra £45 million over the next two years. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced, we are helping local communities which use their local church to provide community services, by reducing the rate of VAT on repairs and maintenance from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent.

The House will be aware of the importance of transport to rural areas. In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor froze fuel duty and reduced vehicle excise duty on smaller cars. But public transport is absolutely vital. We have already increased funding for rural buses by £170 million, providing 1,800 new services. We are now going to invest another £192 million over the next three years in rural transport.

People in rural areas have told us that, in some places, they need much more flexible transport solutions, so we are setting up a new £15 million special transport fund. The fund will give those parishes that want it up to £10,000 each to provide their own small-scale solutions to local transport problems, such as support for car clubs, taxi services and community transport. As announced in our 10-year plan, we will extend the existing fuel duty rebate for buses to community transport schemes. For a typical community minibus that could be worth up to £3,000 a year.

There is growing concern about controlling speeding traffic in villages and on country roads. We will allow local communities to make villages and rural roads safer by reducing speed limits and investing more in traffic calming. We will also invest more than £1 billion over 10 years in rural bypasses.

Like urban areas, rural areas require affordable housing. We are doubling the Housing Corporation programme by 2003-04. This, together with local authority investment and planning reforms, will provide a total of 3,000 affordable homes a year in small rural settlements, and a total of around 9,000 homes a year across all rural districts. In some areas, better use of planning rules could provide one affordable home for every new home built. Our new starter home initiative will also help key workers on modest incomes to buy their homes in areas of high prices and high demand.

There are strong feelings of resentment in some areas that second home owners benefit from a 50 per cent. council tax discount while local people cannot find enough affordable housing. We propose to give local authorities in England the same discretion as those in Wales to end the 50 per cent. discount. As a new departure, we propose to use the proceeds for extra affordable housing. This will of course be discretionary, but it could be worth up to £150 million a year. We are required to consult on that proposal and will do so as soon as possible.

A strong rural economy benefits both rural and urban areas. Market towns are the heart of economic growth in rural areas. We are investing an extra £37 million over the next three years to help create new opportunities, new work spaces, restored high streets, better amenities and good transport links to surrounding areas. With partnership funds, that will create a £100 million package for 100 market towns.

We are giving the regional development agencies greater flexibility and a more specific rural remit within the additional £500 million in their budgets. There will also be special business support and training tailored for small businesses in rural areas.

The House has often expressed the view that agriculture plays a crucial role in the countryside and rural economy. The action plan for farming sets out our policies for the future of farming. Farming will continue to produce the bulk of the nation's food and contribute to exports. It also contributes to a good quality environment and the wider local economy, but many farmers want, and indeed need, to diversify to stay in business.

The House will recall that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, recently announced a £1.6 billion seven-year package for agriculture in the new England rural development programme. This will increase environmental support for farmers and help them to start new business enterprises. The Government are also making available an extra £500 million to help the farming industry modernise and restructure in addition to the £2.5 billion a year from the European Union.

Recognising the real difficulties faced by agriculture, we will also reform our planning rules to help farmers diversify. We are today launching a consultation document to give rate relief for rural diversification projects.

Our consultation has shown a great deal of concern for a small but important part of the rural economy—the maintenance of small rural abattoirs, which have faced increased inspection fees. We will introduce additional targeted help to support local abattoirs, without any detriment to food standards.

Our beautiful countryside is valued both by people who live in it and by people who visit it. We all recognise the work that rural people have done over generations to protect the countryside and keep it in its present state. We must relieve the pressure of development on the countryside, so we will be building on urban brown fields first and on green fields last. We will build higher quality housing and make better use of land by building at more sustainable densities. Therefore, we now require local authorities to notify me of all major housing developments planned for greenfield sites.

The House will be aware that we were reviewing our controls over roadside advertising in the countryside. I can announce that we will not change our rules but will maintain our controls over advertisements in the countryside.

Following this statement, the House will move on to the final stages of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. This major Bill will give additional protection to our countryside, conserve its wildlife and make it accessible to all—something for which we have waited a long time.

Our consultation showed that for too long local people have felt they have not been able to take decisions for themselves, especially in rural areas. We want local communities to play a bigger part in shaping their own future because every community has its own priorities, strengths and distinctiveness.

The performance of our parish councils varies. We will promote new "quality" town or parish councils which will be able to take on a bigger role in providing and managing local services in partnership with principal authorities.

We will provide £7 million to help parish and town councils to meet the quality standard and shape their future and, for the first time, to help 1,000 communities develop town and village plans which can then feed into the statutory planning process. In addition, the Countryside Agency will equip every town and parish council with access to the internet.

Town and village plans will allow local people to set design standards and preserve the character of their villages.

As our consultation revealed, all too often in the past and at all levels of government, rural needs and priorities have been overlooked. We will ensure that the commitments in this White Paper are followed through. To achieve that, an audit will be developed. The Countryside Agency will produce an annual report on how major policies have been assessed for their rural impact. We will establish new rural advisory boards at national and regional level, and will appoint a new rural advocate—Mr. Ewen Cameron, the chairman of the Countryside Agency—who will argue the case on countryside issues at the highest levels in government and outside.

We are clear that it is impossible to tackle the problems of the countryside in isolation. We need to look at them as a whole across government. The White Paper promotes a living countryside, with thriving rural communities and access to high quality services; a working countryside with a strong economy giving high and stable levels of employment; a protected countryside that we can all enjoy; and a vibrant countryside that can shape its own future and have its voice heard by government at all levels.

Some people want to divide town and country. We are governing for the whole country. Our aim is a living, working countryside, with better access, for all people to enjoy.

I commend the White Paper to the House.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. The White Paper has been long awaited and much delayed. The right hon. Gentleman said that he did not want to divide town and country. It is a pity, therefore, that he was unable to deliver on his promise to issue the urban and rural White Papers simultaneously, so that we could see how they related to each other.

None the less, we are glad that the rural White Paper is finally here. There is no doubt that, when Conservative Members have studied it, we will welcome some of its proposals—not least tranquillity measures and access to emergency services, about which we have read in the newspapers, and, as we have heard today, help for small abattoirs. All those measures will be welcome.

However, may I remind the House of the state of rural life under this Government, to which the Deputy Prime Minister referred? We face an unprecedented crisis in farming. It is probable that, during the life of this Government, some 50,000 farmers will lose their livelihoods for good. The suicide rate among farmers is

the highest on record, and there is a rapid and increasing loss of green fields to development under this Government—[Interruption.] Yes. Crime is rising in the countryside faster than anywhere else, rural pubs are closing at a rate of six a week and post offices at a rate of two a week, and the stealth tax burden is falling most heavily on the shire counties. There has been a 34 per cent. increase in fuel duty and, as we heard yesterday, council tax in the shire counties is likely to rise by 30 per cent. during the life of this Government.

The test of the White Paper will be whether it addresses the guts of that a crisis. What, if anything, in the White Paper will result in a single farmer staying in business as a farmer? Will anything lead to a single housing estate not being built, or to a single crime being prevented?

The White Paper relaxes planning restrictions in a number of areas, but does it do anything to reverse the accelerating loss of green fields to development—the vicious circle of the decline of the inner cities and the concreting of the countryside? Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that his commitment to force councils in the south-east to build 900,000 new houses—50 per cent. on green fields—and those in the south-west to build 460,000 new houses, of which more than 60 per cent. will probably be built on green fields, will only perpetuate the loss of the countryside? Proposing in a White Paper to build over it is no solution. We need less interference and more local control over local planning. All the tranquillity measures in the world will be as nothing unless the right hon. Gentleman's central planning diktats on housebuilding are revised.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister realise how hopelessly superficial some of the measures in the White Paper, such as those on e-inclusion, are? Post offices are closing at rate of two a week. It was the Government's decision to withdraw cash services from post offices, putting them into crisis. Putting a computer terminal into a post office is a perfectly nice idea, but it is completely superficial and will make no substantive difference. Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that the real issue for e-commerce in the countryside is the rolling out of broadband? Every forecast and everything that the Government have done suggests a permanently disadvantaged countryside—because of the Government's failure to deregulate telecoms in order to ensure that such rolling out takes place.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify the position on rate relief? He said in the statement that the plan is to ensure that rate relief for village shops and post offices is made mandatory. However, the White Paper states:

We are consulting in our Green Paper Modernising Local Government Finance on an expansion of the village shop rate relief scheme. I do not want the House to be confused about that issue. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will clarify whether he is consulting, or whether the scheme will be rolled out on a mandatory basis, and if so, when.

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that most people living in the countryside depend not just on buses but on cars? We welcome investment in rural bus services, but does he not understand that less well-off farmers—whose incomes have, as he said, dropped by 65 per cent.—pensioners and parents taking their children to school in remote areas rely on the car? They have borne the brunt of stealth taxes. A 3p cut in fuel duty would go much further than any proposal in the White Paper to boost the rural economy.

Is there anything in the White Paper that will prevent a further rise in rural crime? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware—he did not mention it in his statement—that there was a 6 per cent. increase in burglaries in the countryside in the last year alone, which was a reverse of the trend experienced under the Conservative Government; that there was a 23 per cent. increase in car crime; and that the driving force behind the increase in crime is the reduction in the strength of rural policing by 1,750 under this Government? People in the countryside now have to go to town to see what a policeman looks like. Is there anything in the White Paper that will prevent a similar rise in crime next year?

Is not the £40 million that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned money that had already been announced, representing no real-terms increase in the expenditure on police in the countryside? Is any of the £1 billion-worth of investment in the countryside that he has claimed genuinely new money? If any of it is money that has not been previously announced, what is it and how much does it amount to?

Does not the White Paper make the Government's attitude to farming clear? Of the 176 pages of the document, only 11 relate even remotely to agriculture. To sum it all up, on page 86, in response to the worst crisis in agriculture since the 1930s, the Deputy Prime Minister unveils—wait for it—the "electronic rural portal". That was not quite what the farmers had in mind.

Is not the real truth that the urban White Paper was the right hon. Gentleman's top priority? That was seen as something of a flop, and the rural White Paper is the afterthought. It lacks any vision; is fragmented; and is degraded by emphasis on glossy gimmicks. The right hon. Gentleman made his view of country people clear at the Labour party conference. He gave the impression today that he was talking about a foreign country. The fact that he does not understand the countryside may be understandable, but the fact that he does not care about the countryside is unforgivable.

Mr. Prescott

The more questions the hon. Gentleman asks, the less definitive becomes his approach. I shall respond to some of his questions—I think you would rule me out of order if I attempted to answer every one of them, Mr. Speaker.

May I deal first with the delay. We announced in 1998 that we would commit ourselves to a White Paper. We are within the timetable for that. I said that the document would possibly be published before the summer. A number of decisions, especially those announced in the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement, made it necessary to publish the White Paper after that statement, and we decided to do so today.

There has been some debate about whether the urban and rural White Papers should be published at the same time. Different views have been expressed, but I arrived at the view that we should separate them. People in rural areas and Labour Members representing rural constituencies said that if we put the two together it would look as if the urban view was overwhelming the rural view. I did not necessarily accept that view, but I could see the difficulty. I accepted that it was better to make two statements, and I hope that the House welcomes that and that we can concentrate on rural matters today.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a catalogue of decline. After my statement, 1 thought that he might have held back. I have referred to the decline in the number of village schools, shops and transport services, which we are addressing in the White Paper. All of it took place during the Conservative Administration. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that a rural White Paper is necessary to deal with these matters, I have to tell him that it took the Conservatives 16 years to produce a rural White Paper, and 12 months later they produced a progress report that said that not much progress had been made. There was plenty of talk but no action, and no policy was implemented. Within three years, the Labour Government have produced White Papers on urban and rural affairs and implemented a series of proposals for change to meet the requirements. That is a far better response than one White Paper in 16 years under the previous Administration.

On the question whether farming is in decline, that has been pretty evident not only for the past two decades, but for longer than that. The population employed in agriculture has continued to decline. Although Tory Members now represent only a minority of rural areas, they must know from their experience, as do my colleagues, who represent the majority of the rural areas, that there has been considerable decline in the industry and many difficulties resulting from the changes in agriculture policy.

That is undoubtedly true, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has produced a number of agriculture policies to deal with those difficulties. The most recent is the action programme to tackle the problems facing the industry in the past few months. Yes, the industry is in decline. At the request of the industry and rural communities for more favourable circumstances for diversification, we have produced our proposals and made extra resources available.

It is true that we have given greater priority to affordable housing. That is largely because many authorities were engaged in selling their housing stock as second houses—or executive homes, as the hon. Gentleman would call them. [Interruption.] Yes, whether we like it or not, the quaint country cottage has become the executive second home, and that has denied people who want to live in the area the chance to have a home.

Yes, we have increased the amount of money available for affordable housing. We have also increased the possibility of new resources by removing the 50 per cent. discount on council tax. That is a matter on which I must consult, but Wales has already introduced such a measure and shown that it can work. I want to make sure that the extra money taken by local authorities who withdraw that discount will be directed to providing affordable housing. That is a priority and it is one of the matters on which we differ from the Opposition.

On the question whether we are building on greenfield sites, we have carried out a review of PPG3 and PPG6, which deal with supermarkets—a subject on which the hon. Gentleman has much more experience than I do. Much of the greenfield area was developed for that purpose.

The same argument applies, whether the planning is for the south-east or the south-west. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot comment on planning arrangements still to be brought before the House. In general, however, as we have made it clear time and again, priority should be given to brownfield sites for housebuilding. We also believe in greater density and better quality design. That, in our view, would meet the demand for housing in the south-east with no greater land take. It is simple mathematics to divide the land by the number of houses and determine the density required. Our proposals will not lead to a greater demand for land.

We have increased the green belt by 30,000 hectares in three years, whereas the previous Administration added only 1,500 hectares to the green belt. Again, that shows the difference between us. Our record on the green belt, development and planning agreements is far better.

On rural crime, the hon. Gentleman cites the statistics rather selectively. We all accept the British crime survey report; I have heard it quoted by the Opposition. Let us first remind ourselves that throughout the period of the Tory Government, crime doubled in rural and urban areas. It doubled. The hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that it had subsequently got worse. The British crime survey report shows that between 1997 and 1999, burglaries went down 20 per cent, rural violence went down 22 per cent. and vehicle theft went down 20 per cent. That is not consistent with the suggestion that crime has got worse in rural areas.

The statistics deployed by the hon. Gentleman are typical. The greatest hypocrisy in his argument is not only that he asked what new money there is—clearly, there is new money, as I have told the House—but that he made no commitment to continue that extra public expenditure. We know that the Opposition would maintain the expenditure on health and possibly education, but they would not maintain other expenditure. Recently, the Opposition Treasury spokesman, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), said: We have made it quite clear that we do not intend to match the Government on public spending. The question for the Opposition is what they would cut from new expenditure in rural areas. That is the reality. We shall be posing that question in every rural area when we fight the next election.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response to the Select Committee's report and for the White Paper. Will he say specifically when he hopes rural post offices, shops and garages will be eligible for rate relief? How soon does he expect money to be available to small market towns to enable their shopping facilities to be enhanced? Does he agree that if these measures are to work, it is essential that those who live in rural areas use their local shops? To that end, will my right hon. Friend look a little harder at the way in which supermarkets still insist on receiving discounts that are not available to small rural shops?

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive remarks. As regards rate relief, he will know that first we must complete the consultation process. Timing will be a matter for the Treasury. However, we have committed ourselves to the policy.

My hon. Friend referred to supermarkets and discount pricing disadvantaging shops selling higher-priced products in rural areas. I have been discussing with

supermarkets whether they should not consider having shops in rural areas that sell at the same prices, and allow a sort of social service to be provided. To be fair to supermarkets, they have begun to do so in some areas. I hope that we can encourage them to do more.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Liberal Democrats unequivocally welcome the broad thrust and many of the details of the White Paper. There has clearly been much parallel thinking between the parties. That is why we welcome plans to allow local authorities to charge full council tax on second homes and to abolish the outrageous privilege of a 50 per cent. discount. I urge the Deputy Prime Minister to speed up implementation of the policy. He need consult us no further on the matter. We entirely agree.

We welcome the plans for mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief for rural pubs, shops and garages, and the plans for renewing the Post Office network. We are delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has dropped plans to allow the mushrooming of advertising hoardings throughout the countryside. To ensure that there will not be the mushrooming of unnecessary mobile phone masts, is he now willing to accept in full the recommendations of the Stewart report to allow local councils to have full planning control?

Will the extension of the fuel duty rebate for all forms of community rural transport be introduced immediately? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that implementation of the plans will not be delayed for further unnecessary consultation?

Having welcomed the bulk of the White Paper, I shall express one deep concern. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many of his plans will be brought to fruition only with the support of active and willing local government that is given the necessary resources and the freedom to meet local needs? Will he explain why yesterday the Government further restricted that freedom by tying up yet more funds in specific grants, thus providing more central rather than local control?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. I would not want the House to think that there is any joint consultation on these matters—certainly not with me! I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments in support of the ending of the council tax discount and the granting of extra rate relief for shops. There was rate relief under the previous Administration, and we are building on that policy. That policy was right and other shops, areas and services are entitled to that relief. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes our decision on hoardings in the countryside. As he knows, we are consulting about mobile phone masts, although I think that much more could be done in the industry to unify signal stations rather than just duplicating them from place to place.

The time that it will take to implement the transport plans varies. I announced plans for £10,000 which, in some areas with only 1,000 people, is almost the size of a parish budget, so that is a substantial amount of money. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are more than 8,000 parishes and it is not assumed that they will all get that grant—indeed, from what they have told us, not all of them would want it. Certainly, we are prepared to give that grant, but parishes will have to make a case for why they should receive it. As public money is involved, we will want to check properly that their schemes are sound, which, perhaps, will cause some delay.

I understand the controversial matter raised by the hon. Gentleman because I have had discussions with local authorities, who often make a point about ring-fencing of what were—and still are—local authority resources. However, there were real difficulties when we tried to identify those resources, whether for education or services. When the Government commit themselves to delivery in partnership with a local authority, they have to get the best balance between their responsibility and that of the local authority providing the resources.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)

I welcome the statement. As a Member of Parliament who represents a semi-rural constituency, I have consulted 8,000 of my constituents on these issues in the past year. I assure my right hon. Friend that the vast majority of those people wish to see health, education and transport—which are all included in the White Paper—being tackled. Hon. Members who try to divide the countryside and rural areas from urban areas do a great disservice to the whole country.

Will my right hon. Friend give further details about the proposed pilot scheme for post offices in Leicestershire? Will he look at speed limits in smaller villages so that they can be reduced as much as possible? Finally, will he look in more detail at ways in which we can assist market towns such as Loughborough and others in my constituency and the rest of Leicestershire, including Shepshed and Sileby, that have suffered from the decline in textiles? [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."] Will my right hon. Friend look at extending help to those relatively large villages? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had a good try, but I suggest that from now on we have one question per Member.

Mr. Prescott

I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to the consultation, which was pretty extensive and cost 12 months of the time that we took to prepare the White Paper. We thought that it was important to find out what people in rural areas felt and, perhaps, to embody their recommendations, views and ideas about policy in the White Paper, which confirms what my hon. Friend said about consultation in his area. I shall write to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who represent constituencies in Leicestershire with details of the post office scheme.

Recommendations have been made on speed restrictions, and we shall seek to give local authorities an opportunity to discuss them with the police and the authorities involved to see if speed limit changes can be achieved without the need to go through my Department to confirm a change. That will speed up the process and will be welcome.

Market towns are an important economic consideration for the development of rural areas. We want to make sure that they get support, even though they may not all want to do what we propose in the White Paper. We have given them an opportunity: they have a choice. The urban and rural White Papers are complementary. The more we can help to improve life in our cities, the more we increase the possibility of people wanting to stay there instead of moving out of the area. The urban and rural White Papers both aim to achieve that end, on which the development of market towns and villages depends.

Sir Richard Body (Boston and Skegness)

Does the Secretary of State accept that many of us in the countryside, especially those of us who are concerned with farming, would really like form filling, regulatory control and other bureaucracy to be reduced to the level now prevailing in France and other EU countries with which we have to compete?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman has a long history of dealing with countryside matters and brings an experienced viewpoint to the House. He will know that we have changed some regulations dealing with environmental requirements in the countryside. However, the common agricultural policy, whether in France or Britain, carries a burden of bureaucracy and red tape. We are required to observe those arrangements. Of course, they were introduced under the previous Administration.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that the White Paper will be welcomed the length and breadth of this country? That will happen not least because it addresses the agenda of ordinary men and women with ordinary concerns and priorities in rural communities. The White Paper is not limited only to farmers, as one might have imagined after listening to Opposition Members. It is a rural White Paper, not an agriculture White Paper.

Will my right hon. Friend also accept that people will be delighted that affordable housing and jobs are at the centre of the programme? They are the best, indeed the only way of sustaining rural communities. Will my right hon. Friend endeavour to ensure that local authorities understand that we need a more flexible planning regime? That is necessary to secure affordable housing, as well as the jobs and local services that go with it, and provide the promise of the White Paper.

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. The White Paper meets the needs of ordinary people in rural areas, men—and women—[Laughter.]—in York and outside it. My hon. Friend will know that many policies that affect rural areas are implemented by different Departments, so it is important to achieve proper co-ordination. That is why we sought to appoint a rural advocate to impose a check and to see how Departments are delivering what the Government promise in the White Paper, as well how they are delivering their policies. Ordinary people can express their views using that sounding board, and so ensure that Departments carry out their responsibilities.

On flexible planning, we are, as I said, making changes in the planning process to make it easier to deal with the problems of diversification. Members of rural communities, including farmers, are asking for action on that.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister remember the hidden countryside industry—residential and nursing care for elderly people? Does he realise that residential and care homes are the largest employer in many small towns and villages? Many farmers can hang on in business only because members of their families have found employment in such homes. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that industry is under pressure because of inadequate fee income from local authorities and changes in standards? When the right hon. Gentleman deals with local authority finance, which also causes problems, will he bear in mind the importance of those homes, not merely in terms of care for elderly people, but as part of the interdependence of the entire rural economy?

Mr. Prescott

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When I consider rural areas, I am sometimes reminded of the city of Hull, which was often said to be a fishing town when only 6 per cent. of its economic activity was associated with fishing. The same can be said of agriculture in rural economies. The care industry is an important part of the diversification that is currently well under way in the farming industry, whether people gain employment in that sector or make a living driving trucks around—as we have seen in the past few weeks.

Diversification is important in the farming community—and I suspect that it always has been. We are seeking to remove some of the obstacles, to ensure the provision of services that give people jobs. That includes the introduction of extra resources and changes in planning regulations to allow more effective use of buildings than is currently possible.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

I especially welcome the Government's investment in rural transport, as a quarter of households in rural areas do not have regular access to a car. However, I am anxious about rural school transport, which would be threatened under Tory plans to abolish LEAs. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about charging post-16-year-olds for use of the free bus service? That acts as a tax on learning and staying on at school, and conflicts with the Government's view that we should reduce congestion in the areas around schools.

Mr. Prescott

I agree a great deal with my hon. Friend's comments. It is true that transport is a critical requirement in those communities. As she said, about a quarter of the people in rural areas, and 30 per cent. in the United Kingdom generally, do not have access to cars. Public transport is critical for them. My hon. Friend also mentioned access to school transport. In rural areas, demands for transport are much more variable than in urban areas. That is why we increased the funding for the provision of rural bus transport, which was originally £170 million. Everybody thinks that that has been quite successful, in producing 1,800 new bus services, plus other services.

We are trying to provide extra resources: the £230 million plus. I do not know whether the Opposition are prepared to retain that—it is new money to provide more transport services in rural areas. The special transport fund is also relevant as it will allow parishes and smaller communities to adjust to the relevant requirements. I hope that the extra resources will not be the total amount available. Often, extra resources can be used to multiply other resources to get better transport and to meet the particular requirements of an area. They can also help to ensure that decisions are made by those most affected by them.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Although accessibility to vital services, a reduction in the cost of fuel, the increased availability of affordable housing and an increase in rural policing are essential to the success of rural communities, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that unless farming is making a profit, there will be no maintenance of our countryside, to which he referred in such glowing terms? Will he co-operate more fully with other Departments and ensure that they introduce policies that will enable our farmers to make a profit? Does not the fact that Heathcote's, a rural abattoir in my constituency, will face an additional bill of £80,000 in the immediate future demonstrate what the Government are doing? Is that the way to ensure the survival of rural abattoirs?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman's opening remarks have already made my case. He catalogued the areas that are important for maintaining strong and good community life£and there was a decline in every one of those categories during the 18 years when he was a member of the previous Government. He obviously accepts his responsibility for the reduction in quality of life.

Mr. Winterton

I was a Back Bencher.

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman may have been a Back Bencher during that period—I know that he was quite independent on occasion—but he belonged to that Administration and fought under a Tory banner at elections.

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the importance of fanning. It may account for a small part of our GDP, but a great deal of the life in those communities is dependent on farming. The new plans and resources that have been announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are directed towards that. The hon. Gentleman must accept that the resources that go from the public purse to farming mean that one cannot argue that the industry is getting a hard deal. It may not be getting enough resources, but if one compares its situation with that of other industries, one sees that a fair share of public resources go towards maintaining agriculture in this country.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will my right hon. Friend accept warm congratulations from Labour Members, and also the fact that the comments of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), the Opposition spokesperson, had nothing to do with what really matters in rural Britain? Will my right hon. Friend also put to rest the canard that we were going to get rid of parish and town councils? Instead, we have shown that we will enhance their powers and give local people a true voice. There will be a proper decision-making process for planning and housing, which is what local people want. [HON. MEMBERS: "Question?"] Will he accept our congratulations?

Mr. Prescott

I agree with my hon. Friend. He is a supporter of rural communities and his comments explain why the Government have more Members of Parliament representing rural constituencies than do the two main opposition parties—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Not for long.

Mr. Prescott

—a fact that shows what people in rural areas thought about 18 years of a Tory Administration. We want to reverse that decline and give people a decent opportunity to enjoy good services.

The White Paper will give people a choice, and a chance to make their own decisions. One way to do that is through parish councils. My hon. Friend knows, as I do, that the quality of parish councils varies considerably. There are more than 8,000 of them, and I propose in the White Paper to provide more powers and resources for som—but they must come up to a quality standard. They cannot just hope to receive the money.

We want to see a professional management in control—a management that approaches the provision of services in a professional way. We also want councils to be accountable through elections; councils in many areas do not seek endorsement by that means. We want better councils, and as we say in the White Paper, accountability is at the heart of that.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Much of what the Deputy Prime Minister has said will be welcomed in Herefordshire, but may I raise the subject of real food, which is now a growing aspect of rural life? What is in the White Paper to support farmers markets, which are an increasing and important part of rural life? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider again the compensation that should be offered to organic farmers who lose soil accreditation status because their crops have been affected by genetically modified pollen?

Mr. Prescott

I think that I have been advised that no one has been affected in that way.

It is important for us to try to improve rural economies by helping to strengthen agriculture. I have already mentioned some of the resources involved. I have referred to the need to help abattoirs—a point that may seem small in itself, but is really very important. People living in rural communities argue strongly that it is too costly to use abattoirs that are some distance away, and that it would be helpful if we could maintain local abattoirs and enable them to meet both the desired standards and the extra costs. Abattoirs are an essential ingredient in local economies.

The same is true of what the hon. Gentleman described as "real foods". I assume that he meant organic foods. More needs to be done, and we are doing some of it now. Organic food commands a higher price, which is of interest to local economies. We are doing all that we can to encourage it.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

The inclusion in my right hon. Friend's statement of support for parish and town councils will be warmly welcomed. Can he assure me that that support will assist Woodley town council in my constituency, so that it can maintain the area, which is not urban but nestles against an urban area, as both an inclusive and a distinctive community?

Mr. Prescott

I am not too sure how to reply to that question, as I only picked up half of it. I apologise to my hon. Friend for that, and I will write to her. I assume that she was talking about a town council in the Reading area—I picked that up through natural intelligence.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

If the right hon. Gentleman wants local people to be able to make bigger decisions about their own future, why, in giving local authorities discretion to charge the full rate on second homes, does he not permit them to use the money as they think fit? Instead, he insists that he must get his hands on it. Is that not merely another stealth tax? The Government make the local authority take the lash, then take the money back so that they can pay for their own housing policy.

Mr. Prescott

This is about housing policy. The proposal is in the interests of every local authority that I can think of.

At least I give the right hon. Gentleman credit for deciding that there should be a rural White Paper when he became Secretary of State for the Environment in, I believe, 1995. As he knows, however, his observation document showed that little had been done. Recommendations had been made, but had then been rejected. We have embodied some of his proposals in the White Paper.

I think that the money is an extra resource that should go towards affordable homes. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's essential point that local authorities should make their own decisions about resources, but as we are removing a discount, I feel that the money is required because of the desperate need for affordable homes—especially in view of the Conservative Government's record.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

My right hon. Friend will know that, with 67 parishes, mine is a truly rural constituency. I can tell him from my surveys of parish councils that 70 per cent. of them will welcome the proposals in the White Paper, and the continuing attention paid to the many deprived rural areas that developed during the 18 years of Conservative government.

I especially welcome the proposal to evaluate progress on the rural agenda, which I am sure will be welcomed throughout the House. Has my right hon. Friend considered the establishment of an annual report on rural issues, which could be debated annually in the House?

Mr. Prescott

I do not know whether I should congratulate my hon. Friend on having 67 parishes in his constituency or commiserate with him, but that statistic shows the diversity of the parish council structure. I hope that our proposals will help parish councils to provide a better service by giving them the resources and powers to meet the needs of people in their areas, as I am sure my hon. Friend will explain to them.

My hon. Friend raises the important issue of whether there should be an annual report. Governments—I do not have one particular Government in mind—often make statements advocating that something be done for rural or urban areas. All too often that commitment is not checked, except from time to time by Select Committees, as was said earlier. We intend to produce an annual report on the state of the countryside, which will be available to Departments, Select Committee and hon. Members, so we can have a proper debate in the House on the provision of the services that I have announced and make a proper assessment of their effectiveness.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on his statement. It contained many good ideas and I support a great many of the sentiments behind it—and when he said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) had given him those ideas, I understood why the White Paper was so good.

I have one question. Last July, the European Commission told the Government that grants could no longer be given to clear polluted brownfield sites. That drove a coach and horses through the Government's policy to build on brownfield sites first and greenfield sites second. Has the right hon. Gentleman solved that problem, because if he has not, the green fields of our countryside will be destroyed, whether he likes it or not, with the customary knock-on effects of light and noise pollution?

Mr. Prescott


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the Deputy Prime Minister replies, I should remind hon. Members that the shorter the questions, the better for everyone concerned.

Mr. Prescott

I do not want to leave the impression, nor, I think, would the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Central—[HON. MEMBERS: "Coastal."] Sorry, I meant the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I do not want to leave the impression that even 1 per cent. of the ideas that we are putting forward came from his White Paper. There were ideas in it, but he implemented only one of them. He did not manage to implement the rest, which I have here before me, even after his one-year observation report on his White Paper. Where the ideas make good sense, I have included them. For example, it is right to build on the rate discount for such places as shops and pubs—but perhaps it would be better not to recognise the actions of other politicians by congratulating them on their contributions, because it only leads to silly remarks such as that made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen).

The EC definition of state aid has concerned the House. It is a real problem. We have cleared much land of pollution by using such resources, especially through English Estates and English Partnerships, and we need to contest the EC's contention that those resources are state aid. We have allowed for that problem and made changes to deal with it while we continue to argue our case. We are not a lone voice in that argument.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

I commend in particular the initiative that my right hon. Friend announced for supporting innovation in parish and town councils. A number of parish councils in my area—perhaps in Melbourne and Barrow upon Trent—would welcome the opportunity to develop local plans and new solutions for services. Can he suggest a timetable for that?

Mr. Prescott

We would be happy to discuss that matter with town and parish councils as soon as possible. It is important to get on with it, and I am sure that many

of my hon. Friends will want to make that clear to parish councils. The ideas are innovative. I have always believed that parish councils have a role. They clearly do not have the major role of other local authorities, but they have a part to play and we have dismissed them for too long. An effective parish council could play an important part in democratic accountability, which the White Paper seeks to increase.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

The Deputy Prime Minister and his boss are always saying that they listen to people, so why will he not listen to the local authorities and give district councils the right to decide the level of new housing in their districts, rather than its being dictated by the Ministries?

Mr. Prescott

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman attended the debates when the previous Government forced their housing requirements on Kent and other housing authorities.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

As Doncaster council claims that it will take it 10 years to introduce 20 mph zones, will my right hon. Friend consider delegating responsibility for such traffic management schemes to parish and town councils, which represent people who are crying out for those zones now, not in 10 years' time?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those are difficult matters. Certain rights are given under statutory powers to the various authorities involved. I have said that there is an opportunity now for us to decentralise some of those powers to the areas most affected by them. Speed limits may be suitable. It makes sense to give more responsibility to those who are directly affected in the immediate area.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I too welcome the interesting and worthwhile proposals in the White Paper, but does the Secretary of State recall that the main problem in my rural constituency is that the borough council is being required by a four-year-old structure plan to provide land for 14,400 new dwellings over the next 10 years, in a rural setting? Many thousands of commuters will move into new homes, yet the road developments have all been cancelled and the improvement schemes have been postponed. Why does the right hon. Gentleman still refuse to call in those old structure plans and reopen them in the light of the many new policies that he has announced over the past three or four years, which he says are designed to preserve the quality of life and the green fields in our rural environment?

Mr. Prescott

I think that I can recall demands for that road being made for some time under the previous Administration, who found that they could not provide either the resources or the time to build it—so he is not bringing a new problem to my attention, although it may be made much more difficult by the 14,400 houses. I do not know enough of the details, but I understand that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had a meeting with some of my Ministers. Through PPG3—new planning guidance—we are trying to achieve a proper balance between such transport matters and housing development. I will look into the matter and write to him.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Will my right hon. Friend meet the excellent new Minister for rural affairs in Wales to ensure that the best principles of the White Paper will be applied in Wales, too? I represent a rural constituency, and does he agree with me that what people want is a quality environment and access to good quality public services, not the right to hunt animals with dogs for sport, which is the obsession of the Conservative party?

Mr. Prescott

I think that I will swerve past that one—but I believe that I have made it clear that I shall vote against.

We are on dangerous ground if we say what people in Scotland or Wales should do under the decentralised Administrations, but I have referred to the fact that we learned something from Wales when it ended the 50 per cent. discount. Both areas have much to learn from each other, and we should take that into account for the sake of improving the lives of people in all our areas.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

When determining the transport policies in the White Paper, did the Deputy Prime Minister declare his interest to his colleagues—a financial interest involving a transport union, which is worth perhaps £1,000 a month—as required by paragraph 110 of the ministerial code?

Mr. Prescott

Daft question.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Many people in Scarborough and Whitby will be pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have listened to them, but I particularly welcome the new guidance on rural strategy that my right hon. Friend suggested would be issued to regional development agencies, including Yorkshire Forward. Can he say when that guidance will be available, so that I can ensure that I do my best for my rural constituents in dealing with Yorkshire Forward?

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. To be honest, I do not know when the advice will be produced. If he will allow me, I shall write to him with more detailed information.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

What new money has the right hon. Gentleman announced today?

Mr. Prescott

We have announced the £1 billion—the hon. Gentleman can read the statement. We have announced extra money for transport and housing, and extra programmes for housing, education and health. All of those things are important to rural communities, so the hon. Gentleman will have great difficulty explaining to his rural constituents why he would cut back expenditure on those programmes.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend's White Paper will be welcome in my semi-rural constituency, especially the Penistone area. Will he say a little about the mechanism whereby market towns might gain access to the extra £37 million that RDAs have been given for regeneration? Is it likely to be available for projects proposed by the market towns?

Mr. Prescott

The RDAs have a remit to deal with and report on such matters, whether the areas involved are rural, partly rural or partly urban. In some cases the money will be made available by project; in others, other criteria will be used. The RDAs have been instructed to take account of rural areas in their programmes of expenditure.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

It is wrong that this year, under the existing council tax loophole, £168 million of national taxpayers' money will again be spent subsidising wealthy people's ownership of second homes, when there are many thousands of rural families who do not have their first home. The right hon. Gentleman's announcement will therefore be warmly welcomed. However, my constituents in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, where there is a high incidence of second home ownership, will want to know how soon the policy can be implemented and whether the consultation process will consider other provisions to ensure that people on rural wages are not priced out by wealthy second home owners.

Mr. Prescott

As I made clear, we shall consult on the matter as soon as we can. I have announced other resources in connection with key housing and affordable housing. The 50 per cent. discount is not the sole issue, but under the scheme that I have announced, money will be ring-fenced for the development of affordable homes. That extra money will be welcome wherever in England it is applied.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

One of the biggest problems in the rural parts of my constituency is the degradation of the environment caused by illegal fly tipping and encampments. Will my right hon. Friend say how his White Paper will enable the Government to clamp down on illegal fly tipping and improve the environment in rural areas?

Mr. Prescott

That is a particularly aggravating problem in many areas and it is difficult to deal with, as most hon. Members know. However, as my hon. Friend says, the practice is often illegal, so it is a question of catching offenders and enforcing the law; those are matters for the Home Office.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the countryside would be more reassured by his statement if the Government were not actively working against the interests of British agriculture? [Laughter.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must have a hearing.

Mr. Hogg

Why are the Government supporting the inclusion of sugar in the EBA—everything but arms—initiative? Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that that policy will destroy British agriculture, undermine employment and damage the countryside itself?

Mr. Prescott

I do not know about BEA—[Horn. MEMBERS: "EBA."]—but I wish the right hon. and learned Gentleman had shown as much concern about BSE, which affected more rural areas. He has more responsibility—

Mr. Hogg

You haven't a clue, have you?

Mr. Prescott

If he had shown greater knowledge and wisdom in respect of BSE, this country would be a lot better off, our agriculture industry would be a lot better off, and so would our people. It is a disgrace that he should make such an announcement.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the past 18 years, one of the most dramatic changes in coalfield rural constituencies such as mine, which has 20 parishes and 20 villages, is that all the pits have been closed? My suggestion to him—I hope that he and the coalfields taskforce will take it on board—is that the accent must be on jobs, jobs and jobs again. And while he is at it, will he accept from me a couple of short sentences that he might want to use in the future? They are, "Ban French beef", and "Stuff the euro".

Mr. Prescott

I can tell my hon. Friend that those phrases are not in the White Paper. However, the point that he makes about jobs, jobs and jobs has been at the heart of the Government's policy—which has created a million extra jobs when the previous Administration told us that that was not possible. If this Government achieve nothing else, getting a million more people back to work is a record to be proud of. We have done that by recognising the need for social justice.

Coalfield communities suffered greatly from the previous Administration's policy of closing down 100 pits, which wiped out whole communities. We responded to that by providing £350 million and other resources and powers to coalfield areas, enabling them to begin rebuilding their own communities. The difference between this Government and the previous one is that we are concerned with social justice. We give a lot of time and attention to that.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The Deputy Prime Minister will understand the difference between sparsely populated areas and areas with scattered populations. He will also understand the difficulty of providing public services to those different types of communities. What proposals does he envisage will be necessary to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of public services in areas of scattered population, and where in the document does he deal with those proposals?

Mr. Prescott

A central plank of the White Paper is the need to ensure that local decisions are made by local people. In transport, for example, local people should be able to decide local priorities and how to use the extra resources provided for bus services. We shall also target other services such as health and education, and make it clear—as other Departments already do—that those services have to be provided. However, we do not rest there. We want to ensure that there is an audit of all those services, to be reported in an annual report to Departments, to the House and to Select Committees, so that we can check progress. That way of providing services is substantially different from the way in which the previous Administration did things.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have let the statement run for an hour and 10 minutes, and we must move on.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Let me introduce the new Members first.