HC Deb 13 December 2001 vol 376 cc984-6
2. Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

What measures she is taking to support (a) shops and (b) essential services in rural areas. [20555]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael)

Since the rural White Paper was published a year ago we have provided substantial extra funding to boost basic services in rural areas. We have helped village shops and pubs, extended rate relief, helped rural schools and other services, extended sure start to rural areas and assisted bus services, to name just a few.

Mr. Pond

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the opening today of the refurbished Shorne post office in my constituency? Is he aware that more than 1,000 of my constituents have signed a petition calling for improvements to a small parade of shops in Meopham called Camer parade? The viability of those high-quality businesses is threatened by poor access, especially for elderly and infirm people, and by the need for environmental improvements for which resources are not currently available. Does my right hon. Friend agree with those petitioners that local shops and other services are the life-blood of rural communities, and will he advise parish councils on how to access resources to make the improvements that are needed to such facilities?

Alun Michael

There are several ways in which we can help local shops to remain viable. I especially welcome the news that efforts to stem the loss of post offices have succeeded in the case that my hon. Friend mentions. I congratulate him on undertaking an extensive consultation with his rural constituents. He has pointed to one conclusion and I look forward to hearing more about his constituents' views when I see him shortly, as he has requested.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

Will the Minister confirm that his Department has received a letter from my constituent Sir John Cave, chairman of the Council of the Devon County Show? Will the Minister acknowledge the real importance of the return of livestock to the show next year, and will he ask his officials to let the organisers of county shows know before the end of January whether they will get the necessary permits?

Alun Michael

I am aware of the importance of the Devon county show, which is why I visited it this year. Despite the fact that livestock were absent, it gave a tremendous boost to communities in Devon to get together and it was a welcome event. We are aware of the importance of livestock to the Devon and other shows, but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we must be careful not to jump ahead of the veterinary risk assessments that are available to give certainty that might turn out to be uncertainty. However, we will bear the hon. Gentleman's point in mind and give the organisers of such shows the best information possible as soon as possible.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

Will the Minister join me in congratulating all those involved in the successful award this morning by UNESCO of world heritage status to the Dorset and east Devon coasts, which are the first in England to receive it? What support can his Department give us in co-ordinating across that rural area the essential services that we need to provide for the visitors whom we look forward to attracting to our world heritage site?

Alun Michael

I am delighted by that news and the fact that my hon. Friend has made the link between the environment, conservation and the quality of the landscape, and the ability to attract people to the area to help the local economy. We are helping with the provision of services in a range of ways. I commend to hon. Members on both sides of the House the document "England's Rural Future", which as I said yesterday has been made available to the Library and the Vote Office. It describes the extensive work that has been done in the past 12 months, as well as giving our detailed response to the rural taskforce and the Haskins report.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The Prime Minister said on 20 September 1999 that This is not a Government that has turned its back on rural areas. Why should anyone believe the Prime Minister when ever more rural shops are now going out of business and rural post office closures accelerating? In much of rural Britain, businesses are being forced into bankruptcy at a rate unprecedented since the war, and £700 million has been filched from county councils by a Government who fiddle the figures to favour their political friends.

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman's question is as much a caricature as it is a predictable and boring way of trying to talk up problems in rural areas. I suggest that he reads the facts in "England's Rural Future". He would then see that the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have been justified by the actions that the Government have taken over the past 12 months. Not least among those actions is the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a powerful Department that is able to work for rural communities. We are getting on with that work seriously, while Conservative Members merely mock.

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