HC Deb 21 July 2004 vol 424 cc329-42 12.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

I am pleased to present to the House today the Government's rural strategy 2004. As in the rural White Paper 2000, our vision for rural communities is based on delivering genuinely sustainable development, with economic and social strategies consistent with our aim of protecting and enhancing our natural heritage for future generations. Rural strategy 2004 represents an ambitious set of policy priorities for rural communities and the countryside, coupled with radical reforms to the delivery of our policies.

Fresh evidence that we have commissioned confirms that there is relative prosperity in rural areas. For example, measured in terms of average household income. 55 per cent. of households in rural areas are above the median, but the evidence also confirms that the picture is by no means uniform across rural England. Rural society is changing in ways that are blurring the distinction between urban and rural. Farming remains at the heart of rural society, and an important focus of rural policy, but employees in rural businesses are now more likely to be employed in manufacturing, tourism or retailing. Within the overall picture of relative prosperity, there are pockets of economic and social disadvantage.

That evidence shapes our approach to delivering sustainable communities and so puts a premium on policies and on delivery mechanisms that focus on that deprivation. My reform agenda sees the devolution of decisions and delivery—to get help to the areas and people that need it most. To ensure that they are able to access that help, I will ruthlessly streamline the funding support we provide. The present 100 rural, agricultural and environmental funding schemes will be reduced to three major funding programmes linked to strategic priorities, allowing us both to sweep away unnecessary rules and to simplify application processes.

Our policy has three main planks. First, while supporting prosperity across the board, we will act to help the minority of rural areas that are lagging economically. I want rural businesses to have the support they need. This year, I will put an extra £2 million into the Business Link network, to improve support and assistance to businesses, especially those in lagging rural areas. I want all rural business men and women to know that they can turn to a service that understands their needs, including the needs of agricultural businesses and businesses diversifying from agriculture, and a service to help them through the existing maze of services and grants available.

I will devolve decision making and funding for economic regeneration to the regional development agencies, to allow decisions better to reflect the needs and pressures in each region. I am increasing the funding DEFRA provides to the RDAs' single pot from £45 million to £72 million next year. To ensure that it is spent in the most effective way, each region is to put in place arrangements to facilitate rural prioritisation within a strong partnership structure. I shall not impose a single structural form—I want to encourage maximum simplification and streamlining—so that regional delivery partners are set free to focus on doing, rather than talking.

Local authorities have a vital role as community leaders in joining up and delivering quality services, so I intend to look at innovative mechanisms for devolving delivery even closer to rural communities. Over the course of this year we will set up a pathfinder in each region, to explore practical ways of providing more joined-up and flexible approaches at local level in rural areas, including joining up services and funding at the point of delivery.

The second plank of our policy is to tackle rural social exclusion wherever it occurs and to achieve fair access to services. Access to transport, to affordable housing and to broadband helps to underpin economic prosperity and social justice for rural dwellers. Last week, the Government announced more money for sustainable housing. My Department will act as guardian, to ensure that that money helps to address social disadvantage in rural areas.

I will devolve money for building capacity in the voluntary and community sector to each region, to be managed through the Government offices, as that sector can truly understand local need and provide innovative solutions. However, I want to be sure that we get an independent assessment of results. The need for a rural advocate is as strong as ever, so I will create a small and well-focused new countryside agency by next April, initially within the legal framework of the existing body, to act as expert watchdog and advocate on behalf of rural communities. Its priority will be rural disadvantage, and it will act as a think-tank and futures body, drawing on its monitoring of progress and best practice to suggest innovative solutions to Government.

The third plank of our policy is to protect and enhance the natural environment in rural areas, and that of our seas, coasts and rivers, and our green spaces in towns and cities. A healthy and attractive countryside brings social benefits such as tranquillity, but also economic benefits; more than 300,000 jobs depend directly on it, and rural tourism brings about £13.8 billion to the rural economy each year.

Rural England is also a treasure trove of diverse and wonderful landscapes and wildlife. Its natural beauty is an asset to be cherished and enhanced. The countryside provides us with the essentials of life; improving its health is the most valuable inheritance we can leave. Our woodlands, for example, help to mitigate the effects of climate change—one of the most serious environmental problems the world faces. Visiting the countryside does much to improve our quality of life, providing recreation, better health and a source of education and learning.

Much of the quality of our landscape and its biodiversity depends on how it is managed by farmers and others. The changes that we are introducing as a result of CAP reform will enhance the positive and reduce the negative impact of farming methods and land management on the environment. As recommended by Lord Haskins, we will establish an integrated agency to deliver our policy objective of a healthy countryside valued and used in a sustainable way. The new agency will be a powerful, independent statutory non-departmental public body, building on the world-class strengths of English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service. Its remit will be the integrated management of our natural heritage that the challenges and environmental threats of the 21st century demand. That will include biodiversity, landscape, and the sustainable use of the countryside, including recreation and access. It will have a remit to carry out its functions within a sustainable development context. It will work closely with the RDAs—and elected regional assemblies, if established—to ensure that the natural environment is taken into account in regional policy making and activity.

The formal establishment of the integrated agency will require primary legislation. I hope to introduce legislation next year and to publish a draft Bill, as an early step. In the meantime, while each of the three bodies will remain responsible for their own statutory duties, they will come together into a confederation of partners by April next year. To help that partnership working, I will move the Rural Development Service from the policy core of DEFRA and give it the autonomy that befits a major delivery body.

This package of policy and delivery reform is aimed at delivering services in a more streamlined and customer-friendly way, through radical devolution to regional and sub-regional partners, as well as to our own delivery agents. The significant streamlining of our funding should make things easier and simpler for our customers. These arrangements are aimed at improving effectiveness in the delivery of our three policy priorities, within an enduring framework of sustainable development. They will also deliver efficiencies, exploiting operational synergies and removing duplication. They have been developed in an inclusive and transparent way. They will build on the excellent work being done across the country by those working for DEFRA and its family, and beyond DEFRA. They will provide greater freedom to staff to get on with delivering what our customers need from the Government, and I am confident our people will rise to that challenge.

I want these reforms to be workable, but sufficiently flexible to meet future challenges and changes. I commend the approach and its implementation to the House.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)(Con)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the letter that she sent me first thing this morning, although the website referred to in it did not contain any detail of the rural strategy, and for a copy of her statement, which for various reasons, including a mishap—I am not sure whose—I have only seen in the past 15 minutes or so. I welcome the recognition that some rural areas do not share the prosperity enjoyed by other areas, but I am afraid that I do not share her view of how their needs should be addressed.

First, on agriculture, I appreciate that the Government may have more to say about farming-related issues tomorrow, but the Secretary of State's two-and-a-half- page letter—headed, "Rural Strategy 2004"—does not mention either agriculture or farming, and the statement that she just made scarcely did so. That will alarm many people who depend on that vital industry for their livelihood. It suggests that, even now, Labour Ministers do not recognise the central role that farmers play in protecting, maintaining and enhancing the rural environment, and the extent to which prosperity in many parts of the countryside is still very directly related to the fortunes of agriculture.

The statement is made against the background of severe problems in many rural communities. Under Labour, rural councils receive less cash support from the Government than their urban counterparts; under Labour, rural communities have fewer police per head of population than their urban counterparts; under Labour, rural bus services receive less support than their urban counterparts; under Labour, homelessness in rural areas is rising; under Labour, police stations in rural areas are closing; and under Labour, post offices in rural areas are disappearing and the proportion of households in rural areas with access to affordable broadband connections is only a tiny fraction of what it is in towns.

Against that background, the proposals summarised in the Secretary of State's letter this morning and in much of the statement that she has just given to the House are vague, often riddled with jargon and sometimes of limited relevance to the needs of rural communities. A dairy farmer worried about the spread of TB, a rural community whose environment is about to be destroyed, against its wishes, by the development of nearby greenfield sites at the insistence of the Deputy Prime Minister or a neighbourhood blighted by illegal fly-tipping will draw no comfort from the waffle that we have just heard from the Secretary of State, such as setting up regional pathfinders"; bringing together partners at regional and sub-regional level"; consultation about the Department's list of indicator districts in relation to PSA targets". So much for the DEFRA family.

Why will the Government not stand up for rural communities in a practical way and give local councils, which are democratically accountable, the power to decide how much development takes place on greenfield sites in their districts, what kind of building is allowed and where it should go? Why will the Secretary of State not address the rapidly growing menace of fly-tipping, a problem partly caused by her Department's incompetence in not preparing for the implementation of new laws? Why not, for example, make fly-tipping an arrestable offence now? Without such practical steps her claim— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be allowed to speak.

Mr. Yeo

I am afraid that Labour Members do not like the truth about what they have done to our rural communities. Without such practical steps, the Secretary of State's claim that her policy will protect the rural environment will ring very hollow indeed in many parts of the countryside.

In turning to that part of the statement that deals with the response to Lord Haskins' review, I make clear our support for the broad thrust of many of his conclusions and, in particular, that too many organisations have become involved in the delivery of rural policy, leading to confusion, inefficiency and a lack of co-ordination and accountability. Proposals to reduce the number of organisations to a more manageable number are therefore desirable. However, as the Secretary of State has said, since legislation will be needed to set up the new integrated agency, there seems a danger that, until parliamentary time is available, uncertainty may now blight some of the work of the existing bodies. Since the Countryside Agency is apparently to continue as a rump, there still seems to be a lack of clarity in the Government's mind about how the new arrangements will work.

Let me also make it clear that we do not agree that the regional development agencies are the right bodies to perform an expanded role in delivering any aspect of rural policy. The idea that using regional development agencies—and, possibly, and even worse, elected regional assemblies—will bring the delivery of services even closer to rural communities is so absurd that it can be proposed only by a Minister who neither knows nor cares what life is like in the remoter parts of East Anglia and the south-west.

Regional development agencies are unaccountable, bureaucratic quangos that are wasteful in their use of public resources. They exercise powers that have mostly been seized from elected local authorities, particularly county councils. The fact that their main champion is the Deputy Prime Minister should alone make anyone in rural communities suspicious of them. We all know that the Deputy Prime Minister has only one view of the countryside and that is as a vast potential building site.

It is a pity that the Secretary of State has done nothing in her period in office to protect our landscape from the unwanted and intrusive developments imposed by the Deputy Prime Minister or to defend the rights of elected county and district councils to exercise local control over the scale of new development. We will fight the transfer of any more responsibilities to regional development agencies in the context of rural policy.

I am also concerned that the important independent advisory role at present entrusted by law to English Nature will still be performed properly under the proposed new arrangements. From time to time—for example, over the issue of GM crops and their environmental impact—the independent advice that English Nature has provided has been uncomfortable for the Government, but the need for that advice and the need for an independent voice able to speak up with the authority of a statutory body remain. I am therefore concerned that the new arrangements will not fully recognise this need.

I am concerned also that, although the aim of the proposals is to streamline the machinery through which rural policy is delivered, the situation will, in certain respects, get more complicated. For example, the role envisaged for regional rural affairs forums is a move in the opposite direction. They will be talking shops for so-called stakeholders and nothing more.

People in my constituency of South Suffolk and in other rural areas are used to plain speaking. There has not been much of that from the Secretary of State today. For too long, rural communities have been at the bottom of the Government's agenda. They have been discriminated against in terms of financial support and neglected through the provision of new services, with their age-old traditions held in contempt by urban new Labour Ministers, their industries endangered by imports, often produced to lower standards than those required here, and their environment destroyed in too many areas by a stroke of the Deputy Prime Minister's pen. Judging by what the Secretary of State said today, only the election of a Conservative Government will start the process of addressing their real and urgent needs.

Margaret Beckett

I got the distinct impression that the hon. Gentleman had understood neither the statement, nor, despite his experience, the reality of what is happening in rural areas. Let me pick up on a couple of the many points that he made. He talked about ignoring the central role of farmers, but I specifically identified and recognised that, as we do through the £17 billion that goes to farmers under pillar 1 of the common agricultural policy. He is right that there are other occasions to make more detailed announcements about farming—today's statement was about rural areas as a whole. Some 25 per cent. of those employed in rural areas are employed in manufacturing, which is more than in urban areas. Some 9 per cent. are employed in tourism, with 7 per cent. in retailing and 6 per cent. in agriculture. I share his view that agriculture is enormously important, but it is a pity that he seems to think that unless we are talking about farming, we are not talking about rural areas.

The hon. Gentleman listed ways in which he thought that rural areas were discriminated against under Labour, but ignored the fact that under this Government, all councils have received more money and every area has more police services. Under this Government, —450 million has been put into supporting rural post offices. He was foolish enough to talk about post offices disappearing, but it was because many commercial rural enterprises disappeared under the Government of whom he was a member that we were forced to introduce a special rate relief for villages with only one such enterprise left. They did not all disappear under us, but under them.

The hon. Gentleman made a totally unwise and inaccurate remark about English Nature and GM crops. English Nature advised us to run the trials, which we did, and after we received the results of the trials, a scientist from English Nature told us that he could not understand why anyone would oppose something that was better for the environment. Of course, however, that is quite consistent, because the only Government who brought GM products on to the market in this country were the Government of whom he was a member.

The hon. Gentleman said that people like plain speaking and that rural areas have been at the bottom of the agenda under this Government. The plain-speaking truth is that if the Conservatives' stewardship of rural areas had been as he said, and if they had not taken many rural areas and their support completely for granted, we would not now have some 180 Labour MPs representing rural and semi-rural constituencies.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

I thank the Secretary of State for providing me with an advance copy of her statement, although that happened after the Prime Minister rose to his feet for Prime Minister's questions—within half an hour of the statement itself. I did not receive a letter from her, although I have received a communication to tell me that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who shares my surname, received the letter rather than me. Perhaps the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs to examine its bureaucratic procedures.

I understand why the Department has been drawn into the vortex of incredibly fluffy thinking that often arises when talking about rural development. Indeed, paragraph 40 of the candid report that the Secretary of State penned in autumn 2003 to review the progress of the rural White Paper said that defining effectively what is meant by the concept of 'rural areas' versus urban areas has been a challenge. In the same report, she said: The White Paper's inevitably aspirational nature means that it has not always been easy to pin down what it has actually meant in practice, and different groups and individuals have tended to interpret it differently. This in turn has made it harder to be specific about the outcomes that the Government wants to see in rural areas and to target resources to those areas and people with greatest need. At least she acknowledged that, three years after the publication of the rural White Paper, the Government were not clear about what they were intending to do in the first place.

The problem is that on top of the labyrinth of strategies, initiatives, pilots and projects, the rural strategy will fail if it merely adds to the strong sense of fatigue among the agencies, local authorities and Government Departments that are expected to implement it. The streamlining of initiatives and the funds announced today by the Secretary of State will help, but at least she was honest in her review of the rural White Paper when she said that among its "successes" it was "increasingly understood". It should now recognise the problems conventionally found in strategies created to give the impression of purposefulness, compared to the determined action required in rural areas today.

I agreed with the principles that the Secretary of State set out, the general thrust of the reforms that she mentioned to clarify and devolve matters and the work to avoid rural areas becoming the exclusive preserve of the better-off. What has she done since the autumn to define what rural areas are, and do all Departments agree with the definition, especially the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in its delivery of housing policy? Does the strategy supersede the rural White Paper? Will she explain in plain English the core objective of the strategy and is she confident that it will this time be understood across Government Departments?

Has the Secretary of State discussed the strategy on rural-proofing with her colleagues in the Treasury, who I understand are working tirelessly to ensure that Britain is removed from objective 1 and other European regional development aid? If that is the case, the money that the Government are proposing to add to rural regeneration might not even begin to match that withdrawn from the most needy rural areas that will lose aid.

The Secretary of State said that money will be given to regional development agencies, but will it be apportioned according to need or simply on the basis of rural populations? What will be the role of the fully independent sector in rural delivery? Over decades, we have had the tried and tested process of rural community councils throughout rural England providing an excellent means of delivery, so bypassing them or giving funds to regional development agencies so that RCCs must try to draw money from them would not be a good mode of delivery. She should use the existing method of delivery to ensure that the money gets to the ground, and I would like some reassurance on that matter.

On the environment, farmers are pivotal to delivering what the Government want throughout the countryside, but they are going out of business at the rate of 12 a day. Lord Haskins says that he thinks that the fact that farms are becoming larger is a good thing, although I do not know whether that is Government policy. What are Government doing to ensure that there are sufficient farmers so that their targets for the countryside may be met?

The biggest challenge facing rural areas today is housing, so what is the Department going to do about that? If rural areas are not to become the exclusive preserve of the better-off, sustainable action is needed to ensure that rural areas are there for rural people.

Margaret Beckett

I share the hon. Gentleman's view that if the changes that we are announcing today merely add to the sense of fatigue, we will certainly have failed. However, I understand from the extensive discussions that my officials, ministerial colleagues and I have held with all those engaged that there is recognition of the need for change and a great willingness to embrace that change and take it forward.

The hon. Gentleman asked about definitions and data. It is a symbol of the failure of the Conservative party that when we came to power and endeavoured, through the implementation of the rural White Paper, to find out how to address some of the problems that unquestionably exist in rural areas, there was a dearth of evidence, information and reliable data. We had to start from scratch in building an evidence base. We now have an agreed definition. I shall not share it with the House, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and ensure that the letter gets to him this time. Perhaps someone had not been to Walsall and misunderstood the nature of the countryside there.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Someone in the Department.

Margaret Beckett

Someone in the postal service.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we discussed the issues with the Treasury. We certainly did and it is very much on board. It has taken on board the issues of rural proofing in its approach to expenditure and assessment of need. He referred to objective 1 status. He will know that no one fought harder than the Government to secure objective 1 status, not least for the area that he represents. Money has been pouring into his area under this Government in a way that has never been seen before. I am conscious of the difference between the concerns and the hopelessness that people saw six or seven years ago and the hope, optimism and fresh opportunities that exist in such areas today.

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood the position of rural community councils. We recognise the dangers he identifies. It is not intended that their funding should come through RDAs; the existing role will be retained. The general distribution of moneys between different RDAs will follow the overall picture because we will be contributing to the single pot.

I agree that farmers are critical to the environment and land management. The hon. Gentleman asked what we had done to assist their enduring participation in farming. There have been many initiatives, gestures and support of various kinds, but the most important thing we have done is to reform the common agricultural policy, which sets them free to farm to the best advantage of their business, not because that is how they get the subsidy. On housing, I said that the resources will also apply to housing in rural areas.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean) (Lab)

I warmly welcome the statement, in particular the reduction of the 100 rural agricultural and environmental funding schemes to three major ones. Will my right hon. Friend provide more detailed guidance on that, and if so when? Which funding schemes are going into which programme? Many organisations are delivering in rural areas and will want to know which section they have been put into.

Will my right hon. Friend say a little about funding for areas of outstanding natural beauty? It was clear in the Haskins review that national parks will get 100 per cent. of their money directly from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the future of the money for areas of outstanding natural beauty was not clear. At the moment, some of it comes from local authorities and some from DEFRA.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must insist that supplementary questions are brief. Perhaps I can also put down a marker for Front-Bench spokesmen. Back-Bench Members also have to be called and that should be taken into consideration.

Margaret Beckett

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ). We will obviously publish more detail. A rather attractive diagram shows what schemes will go where. Broadly speaking, the three major funds will focus on natural resource protection, sustainable food and farming, and sustainable rural communities. Although initially there will be an indication of how existing funds fit into that framework, one of my key goals has been that we do not simply introduce three headlines under which remain the existing complexity of schemes, rules, application forms and so on. I am determined that there will be three funding streams and that their delivery will be devolved as much as possible. We will also honour existing commitments, so it will take a little time to introduce the scheme.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall write to her about areas of outstanding natural beauty. Those are covered by a range of issues and different sources of funding.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

If support for rural business is important, which it is, why are the enterprise agencies in Tiverton and Crediton in my constituency closing? The enterprise agency in Honiton will no longer be run locally, but from Plymouth—hardly rural—on the other side of the county, which is also the case for my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), whose constituency covers Exmouth.

On social exclusion, why are the learning and skills councils cancelling from 1 August all courses that do not lead to a qualification for work, thus depriving all the adult population with learning disabilities of the opportunity to prepare for voluntary work? The Secretary of State painted a rather twee picture of the beautiful countryside, but when animals leave Devon in the next decade, which they will, it will not look like a chocolate-box picture; it will look like a wilderness.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Those were supplementary questions. Perhaps the Secretary of State will answer just one of them.

Margaret Beckett

A number of the questions raised on specific policy developments are for other Departments, although I recognise the potential knock-on effect. As I said, we are not only putting more resources into support for businesses in rural areas, but intend to introduce a much more simplified and more effective way in which that support and information can be accessed.

As for Devon being a wilderness and everyone leaving, the Government of whom the hon. Lady was a member would have been proud to deliver CAP reform in the way in which this Government have.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab)

I thank my right hon. Friend for an insightful analysis of rural life and the view of the future. Will she consider the renaissance market town development of Yorkshire Forward? It has been extended to Marsden and Slaithwaite in my constituency and allows the local community to develop its own plan for sustainable development. Will the new money be accessed more easily so that those plans are not just talked about but properly implemented?

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is entirely right—the local project and initiative that she describes is exactly the sort of thing that we want to see spread more widely. The greater resources that we are putting in and the greater freedoms that we are devolving to a local level mean that others can learn from best practice, which can be widely replicated.

Mr. McLoughlin

May I draw the Secretary of State's attention to your ruling on a point of order yesterday, Mr. Speaker? Her Department could comply with that by close of business tonight if she gave the necessary instruction, and I beg her to do so.

On the more substantive issue, she mentioned the RDAs in paragraph 6 of the statement. Will she look at how her proposals will affect the Peak park, which falls into four Government areas—the east midlands, the west midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west? Certain parts of the park qualify for grants given by RDAs, but other parts do not. Will she consider that particular problem?

Margaret Beckett

I shall certainly check what the hon. Gentleman says about your ruling, Mr. Speaker. My understanding is that the matter is for Departments to determine, but I shall look into it.

Secondly, we are conscious of the problems faced by areas such as the Peak park. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality discussed that with the relevant chairs of RDAs only yesterday. Although I recognise that hon. Members get upset about the use of what they regard as jargon, it is sometimes hard to explain organisational change in any other way. We are anxious to encourage partnership working among and with the RDAs.

Chris McCafferty Calder Valley) (Lab)

I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, in particular her proposals to prioritise access to transport and affordable housing. Is she aware that £2 million has been invested in rural transport in my constituency in the past 18 months? The improvement in the quality of life of my constituents has been immeasurable. Is she also aware of the housing problems that arise for people born and bred in semi-rural areas, like Hebden Bridge in my constituency, that have become tourist honeypots? Will the new agency prioritise and address those issues of affordable housing in such areas?

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her words, which are in stark contrast to those of Conservative Front-Bench Members. I do indeed recognise the huge difference made by the resources that have been put, for example, into rural transport, which has certainly undergone a transformation. I share her concern about access to affordable housing, about which the Conservative party seems to have nothing to say, except to try to pretend that it would all be in greenbelt areas so nobody wants any of it, which is not a very constructive approach. I also understand and share my hon. Friend's concern that we should carry on making such improvements, and we will certainly continue to do what we can.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

The right hon. Lady constantly used the word "delivery". Is she aware that delivery depends on reliable IT systems that do not fail? The Rural Payments Agency is under strain and the cattle tracing service has been criticised. The besetting sin of this Government is introducing schemes before they can deliver them, as with the whole tax credit system. Will she make sure that nothing is introduced until she is absolutely certain that it can be delivered?

Margaret Beckett

Some of the criticisms made of the cattle tracing service had validity but are well out of date. I entirely share the right hon. Gentleman's view that successful delivery depends on reliable IT, not least because, as he will probably recognise, when our Department was set up not only did neither of its constituent parts have reliable IT, but they could not talk to each other, so we are very mindful of the need for IT to underpin successful delivery of services.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab)

The final sentence of my right hon. Friend's statement stressed implementation. These are major changes for the Department and the various agencies involved, and they require primary legislation according to a timetable yet to be ascertained. What mechanisms and management structures will be put in place to handle those major changes and make them successful?

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his recognition of what the Government are trying to achieve. We will be making much more information available to Members in, I hope, the near future. We believe and hope that a number of changes on the ground can begin next April, but as he says, changing the legal structures will require primary legislation, and obviously that depends on the Government's overall approach. I believe that we will begin to see differences next spring.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD)

I welcome the additional £2 million for Business Link announced by the Secretary of State, which is probably just as well as there will be few farmers left in Devon and we will need other businesses. Can she speak to the other agencies that may be undermining her efforts? Royal Mail is about to reduce postal collections in Teignbridge and south Devon; BT is shutting and removing telephone boxes; and the Post Office is about to close seven post offices.

Margaret Beckett

Contrary to the carping that we hear across the Floor of the House, very many people in the farming community fully recognise not only that this Government have done an enormous amount to help and support British farming, but that the changes that we have negotiated and are putting in place will help to create a sounder future for the farming community over the next half-century and beyond, not least because the resources that it will receive will be given in return for public goods and are therefore much more likely to be accepted and welcomed by the public.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's further comments, I am of course mindful that changes are taking place in rural areas, but I have already pointed out how much the Government are already doing to try to help to support rural post offices, which were one of his examples. He must be well aware of the changes that took place before we came to power, not all of which we can reverse.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

I am not sure whether I heard my right hon. Friend mention rural governance in her statement, but I know that she will appreciate the importance of parish and town councils, in which I declare an interest. Does she accept that there is still a problem in rural Britain regarding the capacity of parish and town councils and the level of disagreement that sometimes takes over? Will she make sure that resources are put into the first layer of our democracy, because those bodies are, and will remain, very important?

Margaret Beckett

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that there is an enormously important and valuable role for parish councils. He will be familiar with the quality parish council initiative to which we have often referred in the House. I am also mindful of the fact that it is often at that level that the voice of the rural populace can most clearly be heard. I assure him that capacity-building, support and training is very much part of the picture that we hope to create.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con)

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has considered getting rid of her rural policy and the galaxy of institutions and public officials that surround it, and whether the people living in the countryside might be better off as a result.

Margaret Beckett

I am not entirely sure what the hon. Gentleman means. All I can say is that the Conservative party did their best to get rid of the prosperity of rural areas when they were in power.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the statement; it reminds us why many of us voted for her 10 years ago in the leadership election. She is right to refer to the priorities of rural business, rural exclusion and rural environment, and she cites tranquillity as an important characteristic of the countryside. Where in her Department is the co-ordinated liaison with the aviation industry to try to tackle the problems of those villages that lie under flight paths or are scattered around regional airports, where environmental controls are particularly defective?

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome for the statement. I understand his point keenly, because shortly after the planes that he refers to fly over villages in his constituency, they fly over mine. I am therefore mindful of his concerns. I simply say to him that we endeavour to maintain the right balance between economic development and social and environmental concerns—it is not easy, but we will continue to try to do so.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con)

Following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and the Secretary of State's inadequate reply, will she at least seriously consider shutting down the talking shop regional assembly in the south-west and the regional development agency, with all their glossy brochures and strategy documents which do absolutely nothing for the people who live and work in the south-west, and instead spend the time and effort on cutting taxes and reducing regulations on those people?

Margaret Beckett

We are doing a great deal of work on whether and how we can achieve a better, more consistent and light-touch approach to regulation. The right hon. Gentleman may want all the voices for rural areas—what he calls a talking shop—silenced and the regional development agencies closed down, but many people in rural areas, as elsewhere, recognise the valuable and viable role that those bodies can play. Maybe they do not like to say so to the Conservative party because they know that it is pledged to abolish them.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

The general approach of much more devolution has to be right, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that, but will it place new and greater demands on the rural proofing that has been so well championed by the existing Countryside Agency? If so, what does she think will happen to rural proofing in future?

Margaret Beckett

Obviously, responsibility at Government level remains with my Department, but we believe that a new, smaller and more focused Countryside Agency will be able to act very effectively as an independent adviser, advocate and watchdog for the interests of the countryside. That is certainly my hope and my intention.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)(Con)

The Secretary of State referred to the valuable role of woodlands in tackling climate change, but not to their valuable role in the landscape, the forestry industry and local economies. How does she square her comments with the fact that private planting of woodland is at an all-time low and the losses being incurred by Forest Enterprise are at an all-time high, at the expense of the taxpayer? What is her strategy for putting that right?

Margaret Beckett

We are looking at how we can best develop and make use of the economic opportunity, and indeed the social as well as the environmental opportunities, of woodland. The policy responsibilities for the Forestry Commission will in future move to my Department, but the commission will work with the other agencies to establish delivery of policies on the ground in rural areas, and it will look afresh at the approach to woodland.