HL Deb 06 February 1997 vol 577 cc1769-800

3.34 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Local Government and Rating Bill be now read a second time.

The Government published their rural White Paper some 15 months ago. The White Paper was the first time ever that any government had undertaken such a comprehensive review of the countryside. White Papers were also produced for both Scotland and Wales, and the Government were widely praised for this, as one would expect, even by the party opposite, which one might not expect, but which was sensible enough to think that it was a good idea.

This Bill implements some of the main elements of the rural White Paper. It contains measures to help to preserve the general stores and post offices in our villages; it includes measures to help other rural businesses; and it ends the rating of sporting rights—which should prove a help to the rural economy.

That terrible word "subsidiarity" comes into this, in so far as it is a theme of the Bill. The Bill gives more powers to parish councils. When I say "parish councils", I include, of course, town councils in England and community councils in Wales. The Bill will give parish councils an increased ability to promote community transport and crime prevention. It will also give people in the locality the power to propose new parishes and to make changes in existing ones. For the first time, local electors will be able to petition for new parishes.

The most important role of many parishes is, of course, to represent their community. The Bill will strengthen that by encouraging principal councils—that is, the counties, districts and boroughs—to consult parish councils on local matters more than they do. In this way, we are trying to encourage that action is taken and that choices are made at the appropriate level. More often than not, that is at the local level, where decisions can be made close to and with the agreement of the very people who will be most affected by them.

It may assist your Lordships if I were to say what parts of the United Kingdom are covered by the Bill: the provisions on non-domestic rating in Part I extend to England, Wales and Scotland; Part II on parishes and parish councils applies to England only; Part III, which extends the powers of parish and community councils, applies to England and Wales but not to Scotland. That is because community councils in Scotland, which are different from community councils in Wales, have a rather different status, and, anyhow, Scotland is different. None of the Bill's provisions extends to Northern Ireland.

Village shops have been in decline recently. The vast supermarkets and the motor car have seen to that. But most people love their village shop and they want their village shop. It provides the day-to-day necessities of the village. The Bill will help to encourage the continuation of the village shop, and it should help the rural economy by providing financial help to rural businesses.

The lifeblood of the village is often the small general store and post office. They are particularly important to older people and to those who do not have ready access to private transport. They are also a source of human contact, which is frequently valuable, and news. They are often the hub of the community—where you find out that Mrs. Smith did not collect her pension—and probably why, too—or who is moving into the house next door.

But those village stores have been under great pressure lately. In recent years, many have been forced to close. We want to ensure that that does not happen so much. In particular, we must do the best that we can to see that the only store or post office in the village remains open.

Rates are a particularly heavy burden on those businesses. The Bill, therefore, will halve the rates bills for the general store or the post office where either of those is the only one in the village. That will reduce the rates bills of some 8,000 businesses in England, Scotland and Wales by an average of £500 per year. Local authorities will be able to provide further help to them by reducing, or by waiving altogether, the remainder of the rates bill.

We are also giving local authorities important new powers—discretionary powers—to help other businesses in the village. Some businesses, like pubs, your Lordships will agree, have an important social role in village life. Others will provide much-needed employment.

At present, the only way in which a local authority can reduce the rates bills of those kinds of businesses is if the ratepayer is experiencing actual hardship. Inevitably, this means that help goes only to those who are in particularly serious financial difficulties. But by then it is probably too late to save the business.

In future, local authorities will be able to reduce, or to waive, the rates bills of any business if, in the view of the local authority, the business is important to the community. Local authorities will, therefore, be able to help to ensure that the essential character of village life is preserved. We anticipate that this should help up to 35,000 businesses in England, Scotland and Wales.

The Bill will also end the rating of sporting rights; that is, rates on fowling, shooting, taking or killing game or rabbits and fishing. The rating of these rights is at present riddled with anomalies. Some sporting rights are rated, others are not. It depends on the type of land over which sporting rights are exercised and in some circumstances on the way in which the right is let. By ending the rating of all sporting rights we will remove all the anomalies and will make life easier for everyone involved. It will also give encouragement to the rural economy and to the large number of people who are employed in the sporting industry.

The Bill will also bring Crown property—for example, the buildings of government departments—within the rating system. At present, these buildings are technically exempt from rates, although since the late 19th century the occupiers of Crown property have always paid a contribution in lieu of rates which is redistributed to local authorities along with the other income from rates. This is a quaint anachronism and there is no reason why the Crown should not pay non-domestic rates, just like everybody else.

The Bill, therefore, will end the exemption from paying rates, except in the case of property which is occupied by visiting forces or the headquarters of international defence organisations. That property will continue to be exempt, in line with our international treaty obligations.

Part II of the Bill will make it easier to add to and to alter parishes in England, and it will help to strengthen their representational role.

There are already over 10,000 parishes in England, 8,000 of which have elected parish councils. They are immensely varied, both in size and character. Some are quite small villages of 200 people. At the other extreme, the largest in the country is Bracknell Town Council—which is a parish council by another name—which serves a population of nearly 50,000.

Many of these parish councils play an important part in reflecting the local views and interests of their communities. There are, though, some established communities which have no parishes and where people want to have a parish council. There are also some established parishes which need to change shape in order to reflect their demographic changes over the years.

Some of the provisions of this Bill incorporate elements from the Bill which my noble friend Lord Sandys introduced in the last Session, called the Community Representation Bill. And I would like to thank my noble friend for all the work which he put into that and for the suggestions which he made.

I know that he has a particular concern for charter trustee towns, which he has pursued with me both courteously and energetically. Indeed, my noble friend is very prolific because he has now laid a Bill on this subject called the Charter Trustees Bill. I hope that my noble friend will feel that we have been able to meet him, if not on all, at least on many of his points.

We need a flexible system to deal with parish reviews. Under the present system, even the smallest matter to do with parish arrangements has to be referred to the Local Government Commission for review. This is cumbersome and in many cases it is unnecessary. Many of these matters could be determined largely at the local level.

We have, therefore, provided three routes in the Bill by which parishes can be either created or altered. First, district councils can undertake a review and make recommendations to the Secretary of State, if they want to create a new parish or if they want to alter an existing one. Secondly, electors in the area of a proposed parish may submit a petition to their district council calling for the creation of a parish. The third route is for the Secretary of State to direct the Local Government Commission to carry out a parish review from scratch.

The Secretary of State will also be able to refer the recommendations and petitions of a district council to the Local Government Commission for its assessment before he makes the necessary orders to create or alter a parish.

There is one further refinement which I should mention; that is a provision in the Bill which will enable parishes on the Isle of Wight to hold elections at the same time as the unitary county council. This is a matter of deep importance to those in the Isle of Wight, in particular to my noble friend Lord Mottistone who was kind enough to draw the discrepancy to my attention. As usual, we have gone out of our way to ensure that my noble friend, as with any other noble Lord, can be satisfied, if possible. I hope that, as usual, my noble friend will be satisfied.

With regard to the representative role of parishes, the Bill will enable the Secretary of State to designate matters on which principal authorities—county, district and borough councils—would be required to consult parish councils. That could be done in one of two ways. First, he could designate matters on which all parishes in a principal authority area might have an interest and on which they should, therefore, be consulted. Secondly, he could set out matters which are likely to be of more selective interest.

In the second case, principal authorities would be required to consult only those parish councils which had given written notice that they wished to be consulted on a designated matter. It is our view that the best way of achieving improved consultations between principal authorities and parish councils is through voluntary action. Many principal authorities already have voluntary agreements in place. Regrettably, though, some do not, despite requests from parish councils that they should do so. That is why we need the legislation.

We took the view though that it would be unnecessarily bossy, as well as running the risk of upsetting existing voluntary arrangements, if we were to set out in legislation what these agreements about consultation should contain. We therefore intend to issue guidance which will make it clear that principal authorities are expected to establish agreements on consultation with parish councils where the parish councils request it.

The guidance will contain a list of matters which should normally be included in these agreements. If it became apparent that the voluntary approach was clearly failing in some respect the Secretary of State would consider use of the legislation.

Part III of the Bill will enable parish councils to support community transport and crime prevention. Many local councils are well placed to develop different transport solutions which can best meet the needs of their communities. The responses which we received on the rural White Paper showed that there was a broad welcome for the proposals which we had in mind.

The Bill therefore proposes new powers which would allow parish and community councils in England and Wales to promote community transport in five specific ways: first, to establish and support car sharing schemes; secondly, to pay grants for a community or a voluntary group which is running a bus for the benefit of the elderly and disabled, or which is providing a non-profit-making community minibus service; thirdly, to give concessions on taxi fares for people who are covered by local authority concessionary fares schemes; fourthly, to investigate transport needs and to publicise transport services; and, fifthly, to fund traffic calming works to be carried out by the highways authority.

Some parish and community councils already do many of these things. At present though any parish spending on transport—or for that matter spending on crime prevention—is limited to no more than £3.50 per elector. This is the sum which they can raise for spending on general purposes. The new powers in the Bill will give parishes the freedom to increase their precept to cover the costs of any new community transport initiatives. We are not imposing new duties. Those who live in the parish will benefit from these arrangements, so it is right that they should meet the cost, rather than the taxpayer at large.

Crime and fear of crime are, of course, just as important in rural areas as they are in our inner cities. In towns and villages, parish councils can play an important role in assisting the police. We have therefore taken the opportunity in the Bill to give parish and community councils in England and Wales a new power to help the police and to support local crime prevention efforts. Again, no compulsion is involved. Many parishes already do this but, as with transport, the amount which they can raise is limited to £3.50 per elector.

The new provision will give parishes a new and separate statutory power so that they can give whatever kind of help they wish to give to the police in the fight against crime. Parishes will be able to state on what they want their money to be spent, subject, of course, to the agreement of the chief constable.

The help could be very modest, such as equipment for the local constable or security lighting for a vulnerable or dark part of the village, or it could be more ambitious. Some of our larger town councils might, for example, wish to install closed circuit television in their hight street. Therefore, there are a variety of methods which could be used and of ways in which parish councils may now be able to play a part and contribute.

The Bill's purpose is to help the countryside. It follows the rural White Paper which was drafted in close consultation with all those who have an interest in the countryside; and I hope that the Bill will receive the support and approval of your Lordships.

It has been agreed by the usual channels that it is an ideal candidate for what the Procedure Committee has now recommended should be called the Grand Committee procedure but which most of your Lordships will more colloquially remember as a Committee of the Whole House in the Moses Room.

In fact, I understand that it will be the first Bill which will go before the Grand Committee under its new name. I hope that your Lordships will ensure that it will receive the easy passage which such a distinguished precedent should deserve. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Earl Ferrers.)

3.51 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for the very comprehensive way in which he introduced the Bill. He has made me see a lot more in it than I confess I saw the first time I read it.

As the noble Earl said, the Bill arises from the rural White Paper which was welcomed on all sides of the House and which is proving a very valuable document. I welcome in particular the part of the Bill which will give much-needed help to village shops and post offices. As the Minister said, those establishments are much more than trading points. They can be a village meeting place where information—sometimes unkindly known as gossip—is exchanged and social contacts made. They help to keep the rural community alive. If the Bill helps to save the premises that remain open, it will be of use. All too many village shops and post offices have already disappeared. I hope that we can find explore ways of bringing back at least some of them.

In recent years, such premises have been hit by the growth of out-of-town retail developments and consequent car-borne shopping expeditions. Village shops cannot hope to compete price wise. Therefore, although the proposed rate relief is a welcome step, other measures may be needed to ensure that these valuable social assets remain viable. The threshold of £5,000 rateable value for the mandatory scheme may need to be reconsidered; for example, where a post office and general store are combined. And there may be other cases.

Unlike some of his predecessors, the Secretary of State has indicated the undesirability of allowing further out-of-town development. That is welcome. But, as I said, in many areas the damage has already been done. We may need to remind residents of the importance of supporting their local shops before they become under threat. Some 30 per cent. of the population do not own cars and the closure of the local post office is a major loss. Often they are pensioners, unable to buy themselves out of a difficult situation.

It is helpful that the rate relief now on offer to shops and post offices can be considered also for other small enterprises which contribute to the wellbeing of villages and small towns by maintaining a diversity of choice and providing the seed corn for more important enterprises in the future. Therefore, it may be wise to remove the discretionary rateable value threshold and allow complete discretion based on the merits of each case. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, is to speak. The organisation which he heads has been extremely valuable in helping local communities. I only wish that it had been possible for its operations to be wider; they have been rather restricted. The noble Lord kindly invited me to see some of the results of his commission's achievements. It is very impressive.

The proposals for new powers for parish councils are interesting but, as we heard, there are implications for planning and finance which will need to be examined with some care. I seek reassurance from the noble Earl that nothing in the Bill will impede the efforts of local authorities to reach their Local Agenda 21 targets. Will the Minister say whether that aspect of the proposed changes was considered at all? Was it ever mentioned during the consultation period? Although, alongside the noble Earl, I support the devolution of decision-making wherever feasible, fragmentation of effort can, if not co-ordinated, be the enemy of good environmental practice. It would be extremely helpful to have some reassurance on that point. There are many other aspects to be considered in detail and I look forward to the Committee stage and to the opportunity to seek clarification. In the meantime, I give the Bill a qualified welcome.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hamwee will be turning her attention to the problems of local government and rating, which is the Title of the Bill, about which she knows a great deal more than I do, but I wish to concentrate on the effects on the countryside.

I dislike the term "subsidiarity" almost as much as the noble Earl but possibly for slightly different reasons. On these Benches we believe that all power should be exercised by those as near to the people as possible and as little as possible should go through the national channel before going down again to authorities of various kinds at local level. In other words, we are in favour of giving as many powers to the smaller councils as can possibly be given, with only certain necessary safeguards.

Having said that about the Bill in general, I have only one question in relation to this aspect. I wish to ask the noble Earl why Northern Ireland is not included. I am sure that there is a very good reason, but it would be quite handy to have it spelt out.

Moving on to Part I of the Bill and non-domestic rating, we welcome the establishment on a regular basis of payments of rates on Crown property. But why does the Bill provide for all Crown property in England and Wales to be subject to non-domestic rating? Surely some of the Crown property is domestic property. Should not that be subject to the appropriate rating, depending upon what it is? I imagine that there are no financial effects apparently listed in the summary of financial effects at that point because, as the noble Earl explained to us, in practice the Crown pays the equivalent of rates already and therefore there will be no gain. Perhaps the noble Earl will confirm that that is so.

Moving on to Part II of the Bill, Clause 9 gives to district, unitary and county councils power to review their area and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State about the creation, abolition or alteration of parishes in the area. In so far as this is a step towards an increase in parish councils, it is very warmly to be welcomed. I just hope that there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that it cannot be used in the future for the abolition of parish councils when that is not particularly wanted by the parishes in question. I would be grateful for the Minister's reassurance on that point.

Clause 16 states that where a parish, has no separate parish council, the district or unitary council must under certain circumstances establish a parish council". That, too, is to be welcomed.

I turn now to Part III of the Bill. I give an enormous welcome to Clauses 26 to 30 which confer powers in relation to transport and roads. Those powers would establish car-sharing schemes, make grants for bus services, arrange concessionary taxi fares schemes, investigate public transport and road needs and publicise local transport services and fund traffic calming works. Such powers will be immensely useful; and, indeed, that is a good way of returning power to where it belongs in such matters.

Part IV of the Bill relates to increased powers for parishes to introduce policies for community transport and crime prevention which will not lead to any financial effects for central government. That is good to know. Moreover, parish councils will have the power to increase the precept to cover expenditure on those activities. The power to raise money to run one's own affairs is a very important principle and one which we very much welcome.

There is one further matter that I have failed to address thus far; namely, the question of sporting rights. I am not entirely certain that I totally understand the situation which the noble Earl outlined. I understood him to say that the whole thing was so complex that we might as well abolish it altogether, because that was the simplest way to ensure that there were no complexities. However, I am not sure that that is a general rule that we would want to apply to all legislation. Nevertheless, if the noble Earl says that this is the simplest way, I am prepared to take his word for it. I say so especially because I see that the Country Landowners Association has told us that it thinks that this measure will ensure that there are more hedgerows, game coverts, trees, copses and so on being planted in the countryside.

Some noble Lords will be aware that there is a very interesting item of news in this week's edition of the New Scientist which states that investigations have proved that, where hedgerows have been planted or replanted, there is an immediate gain in wildlife. That is what everyone would expect and it has been proved by a certain amount of investigation which is now firmly on record.

When we come to study the Bill in the Moses Room, I can assure the Minister—at least, I hope that I can do so—that we on these Benches will do our best to give it an easy passage. However, that is not say that we will not look at it in considerable detail but there may not be many more questions to ask. I do not believe that it will necessarily be a short passage for the Bill, although it should be an easy one. On behalf of noble Lords on these Benches, I welcome the Bill.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Shuttleworth

My Lords, I am delighted that the Bill is now before us. I welcome it. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his explanation and apologise to the House in advance if I reiterate some of his points. I shall confine my comments to two matters: first, the proposed rate relief scheme for village shops and post offices; and, secondly, the widened powers of parish councils.

I must first declare an interest: a family trust owns a village shop, although I am not a beneficiary of it. I am also the chairman of the Rural Development Commission, a government agency which is concerned with the economic and social well-being of the people who live and work in England's rural areas. I was most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, for the appreciation of our work that she expressed a moment ago.

The Bill may seem modest and, apparently, uncontentious but it addresses one of the most serious concerns of small shopkeepers in rural areas. It will also enable rural communities, through their parish councils, to play a more active role in meeting their own needs.

I turn, first, to the proposal to give rate relief to village shops, post offices and other essential services. The Rural Development Commission has had a long standing concern for village shops and post offices, which have been declining in number for many years. Our survey of rural services in 1994 showed that 39 per cent. of England's rural parishes had no permanent shop, which was a decline of 2 per cent. since 1991. Although 2 per cent. does not sound very much, it is a loss of more than 150 village shops in three years—one a week. Our survey also showed that 40 per cent. of parishes had no post offices. Not surprisingly, the most vulnerable category is the sole shop in the smaller village. Less than six out of 10 parishes of between 1,000 and 3,000 inhabitants have a permanent shop and less than one in 10 parishes with fewer than 500 people. A recent survey of rural community councils for the commission confirmed a widespread concern from around the country about those continuing closures.

It is well recognised—indeed, it has already been recognised in the House this afternoon—that that decline is not just due to the difficulties of running a small shop, but also to the major changes which have taken place in rural areas over the past 20 to 30 years, different shopping patterns and the greater mobility of the population.

Nevertheless, as my noble friend the Minister explained, the village shop continues to play a vital role in the community, especially for the elderly, the disabled and those without a car. More likely than not, the shop will also include the post office and perhaps some other useful services; for example, some village shops in Norfolk provide computerised access to the county library service, while village shops elsewhere act as information points on transport services.

Because of their importance in rural areas, the commission has provided some support for those shops in England for several years. We do that in a number of ways. I must tell the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that exhorting people to use the village shop is all very well, but it is no substitute for a business run by a competent business man. So we offer a broad range of expert business advice and training to help shopkeepers with the viability of their business. We have also published a good practice guide giving examples of successful village shops. We have published a guide on how communities themselves can finance or even manage their village shop. We have worked with local authorities on local schemes of support, including discretionary relief.

Last October the commission announced a new grant scheme in partnership with local authorities, and others, specifically to assist village shops. It is called, the "Village Shops Development Scheme" and will provide small, 50 per cent. grants to shops in villages of less than 3,000 people to allow them to invest in areas of activity which can boost their long-term viability. The money can be used, for example, to brighten up the sales area of the shop or to provide new equipment for use within it. There has already been a great deal of interest in the scheme. Earlier this week I visited the village shop in Greenodd in Cumbria to award the first of those new grants.

That sort of support will help to keep a village shop going. However, surveys conducted by the commission have consistently shown that the rates burden is one of the main concerns for small shops and businesses. The commission has made several representations to government, since the introduction of non-domestic rates, about the impact on small rural businesses and village shops in particular. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will not mind therefore if the commission claims some small contribution to the proposals in the Bill now before your Lordships. They reflect those representations that we have made both in the preparation of the rural White Paper and our subsequent discussions with my noble friend's department.

In particular, I support the twin-track approach: mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief for village shops and post offices, combined with a discretionary scheme which will not only allow local authorities to top up the mandatory relief, but also to extend relief to other premises which, in the words of the Bill, are used for purposes which are of benefit to the local community", such as pubs and garages; indeed, there may be other more exotic and colourful examples of that. We shall see.

I believe that it is right to target the mandatory scheme on the most socially important and needy shops and post offices; that is, the sole businesses in communities of 3,000 people or less. I am pleased that the Exchequer will bear the full cost of the mandatory scheme and 75 per cent. of the discretionary help. It will be a relatively small cost in comparison to the benefits that it will bring.

I particularly welcome the flexibility which the Government have encouraged, both in discussion and in the debates in another place, in the operation and interpretation of the rate relief scheme by local authorities. However, there is one aspect of the rate relief scheme which could be strengthened further, and that is the level of rate relief available to small part-time community post offices, the majority of which are to be found in rural areas. Community post offices are at best marginal commercial propositions, often replacing ordinary post offices where it is no longer possible to keep those open. The evidence of the commission's rural services survey suggests that community post offices are not replacing all those closures.

I believe that there is a case for giving 100 per cent. relief from rates for all community post offices in rural areas by extending the terms of the mandatory relief scheme within the Bill. However, if that proves impossible, I at least urge the Government to give clear guidance to local authorities to give priority to helping community post offices in using the discretionary element of the scheme. That would encourage more consistency than currently exists, where some smaller post offices around the country already enjoy some rate relief at the discretion of the local authority, yet others of a similar size and performing a similar function have to pay their rates in full. My proposal would apply to a relatively small number of post offices and it would not add greatly to the cost of the rate relief scheme already proposed in the Bill. I have written to the department about this and I hope the Minister may be able to respond positively today.

I now turn briefly to another element of the Bill relating to the new powers for parish councils to respond to transport needs in their area and to implement various crime prevention measures, and the reserve powers which the Bill will give to the Secretary of State to ensure consultation of parish councils on key local issues. Those are useful measures which the commission welcomes. As my noble friend the Minister reminded us, one of the themes in the rural White Paper of 1995, which we strongly supported, was that local communities should be encouraged and assisted to play a greater role in their own futures. Parish councils are an excellent means of doing that and they are particularly well placed to undertake the modest, local measures which are proposed in this Bill to tackle two serious concerns of rural residents.

I think it is sensible that the new powers on transport and crime prevention will be exercised only by those parish councils that wish to do so. Parish councils vary in their size—we have heard some examples of that today—and their capacity to undertake work of this nature. It is important to recognise that parish councils may need help to enhance their role, for example through training or through access to information on good practice. The commission has already produced some such help; we have published or supported a number of good practice guides, including ones on transport and crime prevention, which show ways in which parish councils can take action locally. We are supporting a modest study of the training needs of parish councils. However, we have only limited resources and government and others, including the principal local authorities, need to consider further how they can also help parish councils in developing their role in the life of the countryside. For the good it will do for rural communities throughout England, this Bill deserves the whole-hearted support of the House.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I support the Bill. I understand from what my noble friend the Minister said that its purpose is to help the countryside. I particularly welcome the proposals for rate relief on general stores, post offices and other important businesses in an area, for all the reasons which the Minister and other speakers have given. All have far greater experience of rural matters than I. I hope that they will allow me to say that many of the problems faced by people living in rural areas when they lose a shop or a post office are shared by people in more urban settings and in larger towns.

I should not want anyone to think that that is a criticism of the Bill because I understand its purpose. However, the fact remains that the reasons for the loss of shops in urban and suburban areas are much the same as have been put forward in relation to rural areas; namely, the increased number of larger shops, whether within or outside the centre, competing with the traditional shops. These shops are not content to sell their traditional groceries; they now want to sell newspapers, greetings cards, records, lottery tickets and all the things that took people into smaller shops. And they are not nearly so accessible for all the community, as already stated.

I am not suggesting that we should stop competition or that we can or should prevent changing shopping patterns. Larger shops with particular things in particular places are wanted and needed in the right place, but so are the smaller shops. I hope that I may introduce a metropolitan or urban voice into the debate. I welcome the Bill not just for what it will do for rural communities but because I believe it establishes a principle which in rural areas may help to make the competition between the larger stores fairer. That is a good principle and one which I hope at some time my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues in the Government may be able to examine further in order to counter the same problems in urban areas. I support the Bill.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I am indeed grateful on behalf of the Isle of Wight for this Bill and to my noble friend the Minister for his part in ensuring that this legislation is before Parliament. As was touched upon by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, the Isle of Wight's concern is that since it was established as a unitary authority the timescale for elections to the Isle of Wight council became out of step with elections to parish councils. My noble friend's department was warned that that might happen when the relevant legislation introducing unitary authorities was being prepared. However, that is now a matter of the past.

As soon as the non-synchronisation of election dates became a certainty, with the publication of the Isle of Wight council order nearly three years ago today, in consultation with Mr. Barry Field, our Member in another place, I started inquiries about when the necessary correcting legislation might be introduced by the Government. Notwithstanding reminders from time to time by both Barry Field and myself, and help when needed from my noble friend Lord Ullswater and, latterly, my noble friend Lord Ferrers, it has taken all of three years to have this small piece of legislation, which everyone agrees is essential, before your Lordships, with a statutory general election date looming ever closer as time has slipped away. Indeed, it is jolly lucky for the department that the casualty rate of the Back-Benchers of the Government—which might have happened with any party—was not a little higher or the measure would not have been achieved. I am sure that there is a lesson worth learning here by officials of all government departments to try to make sure that similar administrative lack of care to detail does not arise in the future, particularly when there is more than half of a five-year parliamentary term in which to deal with it—as there was in this case. I am sorry to have pressed that point but it is quite a lesson to learn, and it will happen again. The lesson is particularly relevant when the government of the day have a small majority.

As well as being a recently retired Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight with a particular interest in that part of the world, I am a vice-president of the National Association of Local Councils, as indeed is the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, who was present for the introduction of this Bill, and others of your Lordships' House and of the other place. In that capacity, I have been asked by the NALC president, the noble Lord, Lord Feversham—sadly, he cannot be with us today—to say a few words on behalf of the national association.

The association, being principally concerned with Parts II and HI of the Bill, thoroughly supports its proposals in those parts. NALC will, however, recommend some amendments to improve the Bill by strengthening Clause 9 to require district or unitary authorities to carry out parish reviews more on the lines set out in the Local Government Act 1972 and the widening of Clause 21 to include consultations with parish meetings in parishes which have no councils. NALC also draws attention to there being no special provision in Part III for the funding of parish councils for new statutory functions. It is suggested that there should be some mechanism whereby the local council can have access to central funds to carry out duties conferred by statute and not have to rely solely on the precept raised from council tax payers in the parish. Examples of such duties relate to community transport and to crime prevention and detection, to which my noble friend the Minister specifically referred in his introduction. The noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, chairman of the RDC, drew attention also to the need for help and finance to deal with those problems.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, I welcome the contribution made by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth. The Rural Development Commission is a profoundly helpful body to assist country life of all kinds, including parish councils. The remarks of my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth are of special value to the debate.

This is a good Bill. Parts of it are essential for good government. I trust that the whole House will give it a speedy passage.

4.22 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, when it was published in 1995, I welcomed the rural White Paper as a positive and well intentioned programme for rural Britain. Consequently I welcome the Bill with equal enthusiasm.

The White Paper is a comprehensive package designed to achieve a balance between the rural communities and wider countryside. I appreciate that the wider countryside is not a specific part of the Bill. However, despite a great number of welcome initiatives by the Government towards conservation schemes and the like, there is still a basic and essential need for a proper and comprehensive review of the CAP if we are to see constructive and helpful conservation methods in this country. The Government's initiatives have beer helpful so far as they have gone. But until this basic problem is addressed, I fear that we shall not see the progress that many of us wish to see within the wider countryside.

I remind the Government that there are certain other aspects of the White Paper which many of us will be interested to see brought forward. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister the Government's agenda on hedgerow legislation. My noble friend on the Front Bench will no doubt be aware of my interest in the subject of water. He and I have had considerable correspondence on the matter for some time. During the passage of the Environment Bill the Government gave a commitment to review the process of water abstraction licences. Again, can my noble friend give some indication as to when we are likely to see progress on that issue?

There appears to be a basic recognition in the Bill that local communities need to be given more encouragement to help themselves through a degree of financial independence and responsibility. I am sure that that will be much welcomed. The Government are clearly heeding the recommendations of the House of Lords Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt.

I do not think it is an exaggeration for me to say that relationships between central and local government have become somewhat strained over the years. I hope that the Bill will go some small way towards developing mutual confidence albeit at a very local level.

It is all too easy for local communities, and society itself, to become overreliant on the state. It is therefore partly through giving such communities the opportunity to manage their own affairs and resources in a more independent fashion that there is likely to be any real renaissance in true community spirit. Tackling crime—it is one of the fundamental platforms of the Bill—is a perfect example where local communities now appreciate that there is a limit to what local police forces can do, and are beginning to take it upon themselves to overcome increasing levels of rural theft and vandalism.

Many initiatives are now emanating from local level. There is Crime Watch, Neighbourhood Watch, Farm Watch and, in my part of the world, even Sheep Watch. They are all successful. In my part of the world the initiative has been so successful that the level of crime has dropped, and the method has changed. No longer does crime take place at midnight or in the early hours of the morning; it has switched to about six o'clock or seven o'clock in the evening when people are at home with their families. Clearly the local vigilantes (if I may so call them) will have to change their methods to meet the change in crime methods. But the scheme is working, and working well.

I have the honour to be patron of what I think is an exciting new community crime prevention initiative in North Yorkshire: the Hambledon and Richmondshire Partnership Against Crime (HARPAC). We have excellent examples where local initiatives work closely with the police but are community led. We are tackling auto crime, rural crime and retail crime. With support from local businesses and individuals, the initiative is beginning to show success. Indeed, we have just published the first edition of what we call the HARPAC Hound, a splendid publication which gives useful information on crime to district councils, parish councils, libraries, schools, and so on. It is an example of the way in which local communities are now beginning to take it upon themselves to sort out many difficulties which perhaps all too easily in the past they have relied on the state and local services to solve.

I welcome the new powers in the Bill to support local crime prevention through grants to help provide the installation of crime prevention equipment, along with financial help to provide special constables. That is another good initiative.

I wish to take this opportunity not only of congratulating my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth but also his quango on the excellent work that it has done. Many other noble Lords have mentioned it. There is no doubt that the initiatives taken by the Rural Development Commission have been welcome. The noble Lord said how much he welcomes the rates relief for businesses in the Bill. I shall not expand on that. I thoroughly endorse the remarks he made. I am sure that those measures will give considerable help to village shops, stores and so on.

However, perhaps I may pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. She is right to say that it is up to local communities, residents, and visitors to rural areas to use the local shops. It is no use complaining when the shops go if people do not make a conscious effort to ensure that the local retailers have the opportunity to survive. I welcome that aspect. I welcome the transport initiative. I also welcome the opportunity for greater liaison between parish and district councils.

Finally, I turn to the abolition of sporting rates and bringing the system in England and Wales into line with that in Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, expressed some confusion as to how that had come about. I regard this as a most helpful step, particularly in view of the massive—I do not think that is too strong a word—contribution made over the years by field sports to the conservation of habitats that would otherwise have long since gone. Heather moorland, woods, ponds and other important landscape features owe their very survival to field sports interests and initiatives.

I think it is true to say that sporting rates were a tax on conservation. I therefore very much welcome their abolition. As chairman of the Game Conservancy Trust I have seen a number of initiatives developed over the years—conservation headlands, beetle banks and wild bird cover—none of which would have come about without sporting interests. They have played a big role in helping to stem the decline of a number of threatened species, particularly in arable Britain. Many of those initiatives are now part and parcel of government conservation schemes.

I very much welcome this initiative. The Bill is extremely apt. I am sure that it will serve its purposes in helping to give a great impetus to rural communities. I wish it a very speedy passage through this House.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I am also delighted to welcome the Bill. It makes a change from the reaction to other Bills in recent weeks. I declare an interest. I own a business which could well come into the category of village shop.

The Government are to fund the first 50 per cent. of any rate reduction that might be given to a village shop, a proposal that is extremely welcome. On the other hand, many shops require total rate relief, and many local authorities are so strapped for cash that they may well not produce the extra 50 per cent. It will be very interesting to see whether they are prepared to give the full 100 per cent. reduction that they are allowed to give.

There is, however, another point. I have in mind a particular, very small village which has no shop but does have a pub. It is not a very good pub, but it just survives. A cafe has started up beside it which is also just surviving. It is, however, not strictly a shop. Both premises sell chocolate, but one tries to sell tea and the other beer. It is rather like the notice saying, "We guarantee not to cash cheques and the bank guarantees not to sell beer".

Would that sort of business (that is, not exactly a shop but a cafe) which is at the centre of village activity be eligible for the full reduction in rates; or, because it is not strictly a shop, will it not qualify? That sort of case should be included in the provisions.

I support the remarks of my noble friend Lord Peel about usage. The Rural Development Commission has always said that if local people do not use local facilities, those facilities disappear. The more we say, "Use it, or lose it", the better.

I also wish to raise a point about sports facilities. At home, there is a ski slope and two tennis centres, one of which is very precarious; indeed, the ski slope is so precarious that I am not sure that it has not slid down already. Those sorts of facilities also need full rate relief until the business gets off the ground. Once it is off the ground, then it can pay rates. Many local authorities are so keen to levy rates on such facilities that they, as it were, cut their own throats—businesses go down the drain and facilities are lost that were extremely good for the community. Or sometimes a local authority is tempted to take a facility over and run it at a loss. How much better it would be to provide a reduction in rates, allow a business to get off the ground and have somebody other than the authority running the business. I hope that those sorts of facilities, even if they are not out in the country, can be included in the provisions for rate relief until they are off the ground.

I am very glad to see a provision in the Bill to help with crime prevention. That will prove very valuable.

In addition, I welcome the transport initiatives in this measure. Several years ago I was inveigled into investing in a small way in a scheme to collate figures relating to all people who moved from the country to live in towns. It was simply not possible. There were too many movements of people for the project to work. Perhaps if it were applied to villages, it might have more success.

Certain areas have private bus services which travel from village to village picking people up. It is very important to make certain that no grants are given to communities to aid competition with existing services. Quite clearly, that would be anti-competitive. I hope that my noble friend will assure me that there will be no unfair competition with any existing services. I very much welcome the Bill.

4.36 p.m.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, almost exactly a year ago, on 7th February, on a snowy evening, this House gave a Second Reading to the Community Representation Bill to which my noble friend Lord Ferrers referred. That Bill expired at the end of last Session. However, thanks to my noble friend and his officials, very fruitful discussions were held in his department from February onwards right up to the present. My first, and very pleasant, task is to thank my noble friend for his continued interest in the Community Representation Bill that we discussed a year ago and especially that aspect with which I and my colleagues are particularly concerned. I declare an interest as the high steward of a charter town; namely, Kidderminster.

Noble Lords may be interested to know that although charter towns are mentioned in the guidance there is no reference whatever to them in the Bill. But, as I hope we shall see in due course, it will be perfectly possible to make full use of the Bill as drafted. I greatly commend what the Government have done in producing the Bill.

Last year my noble friend Lord Mottistone pointed out most successfully how defective the Local Government Act 1992 was, especially in regard to powers for creating parishes and the way in which they had been removed from local democracy and placed in the hands of the Local Government Commission. I shall not touch on that situation. However, I wish to point out a problem in relation to charter towns. Such towns are only 22 in number. As noble Lords may be aware, many are of very ancient foundation. In the 1972 Act they were permitted, as part of a new district, to preserve some civic authority. In a titular sense they retained a mayor, and in a civic sense they retained their robes and armorials. However, they have no function as such.

Since the 1972 Act a number of towns in this category have gained parish council status. The remaining 22, all of which very much wish to do so, fall into the somewhat difficult category of towns with large populations. My noble friend Lord Ferrers mentioned parishes at the lower end of the scale with quite small populations. At the upper end is the parish of Bracknell with a population of 50,000. There are particular reasons why I should mention Bracknell.

But there is one town in particular on which I should like to concentrate to see how it is affected by the Bill. I refer to Bath, a charter trustee town of enormous antiquity, one which not only has world heritage status environmentally and architecturally but one which has been an important centre of civilisation in this country since Roman times.

Noble Lords will be aware that King Edgar, the first King of England, was crowned in Bath in 973 and thus the city holds an important place in the history of this country. It was incorporated by charter in 1189. The area of the city has remained almost unchanged since the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. In essence, Bath is unique in that the whole area contained within ancient and historic surroundings is the present active community.

My concern is that were Bath to make application to gain parish council status, either by the process of a public petition or through one of the other two methods described by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, it would lead to the fragmentation of the city. Bath consists of wards, as do nearly all the ancient cities. Under the Bill as drafted, the City of Bath is likely to break up into a substantial number of individual parishes and thereby lose its unique status as a city, with all the advantages which have been mentioned. Almost precisely the same thing would happen in the case of the City of Salisbury, which is very similar, with a population of 36,000, compared to Bath's 85,000, according to the most recent census.

I therefore ask my noble friend Lord Ferrers and his officials to consider the grave problems of fragmentation and to take into account the careful handling that these ancient cities and towns deserve, not only to add to their vitality but also to make them more pleasant places in which to live.

I am delighted to hear from noble Lords the effect that the Bill will have in rural areas. In urban and town areas, too, it will have a very marked effect, for reasons which have been described.

Finally, I am sure that noble Lords would wish me to thank all those who participated in the earlier Bill. If I may say so, it has helped the composition of the Bill before us. It is often the case that a Private Member's Bill can affect the composition of a government Bill which will have the full panoply of the machinery of government behind it. The little Bill we looked at 12 months ago is enormously enhanced in the Bill before us. I thank my noble friend for all he has done and for what I hope we shall do as far as charter towns are concerned.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, perhaps I too may thank the Minister for his explanation of the provisions of the Bill, which we on these Benches welcome in principle and, perhaps a little churlishly, wish went a little further and did some things a little differently. 'Twas ever thus.

I deal first with non-domestic rating. As always with any provision regarding taxation, questions arise regarding its fairness, clarity and transparency. I am by no means certain that this Bill passes those tests; or, if it does, I do not think it receives top marks. The main problem is admittedly the UBR itself. There is, after all, a pretty wide consensus that it is not a good tax. The Bill does not address that matter and does not pretend to do so.

With regard to transparency, I am sceptical enough to believe that the cost of the new relief is likely to translate itself into increased council tax. If the Minister is able to say that aggregate external finance, of which UBR is a part, will be made up to balance the relief, that will be a good thing, although I imagine that he is not in a position to respond to that point this afternoon.

If the relief does lead to an increase in council tax, if that change is clearly understood, then one could not grumble too much, save to say that lower-rate taxpayers and those who pay no tax are hit by council tax in a way that does not happen through income tax. That is the relationship between the two areas. That has been the experience from the last Budget.

Will the relief work? I support any proposal for helping small shops and post offices, which are, as many noble Lords have said, at the heart of many small rural communities, although like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I also acknowledge the needs of urban areas. Support for regeneration of urban areas is an important topic, not just for those areas but for the countryside too because, if towns are regenerated, the countryside is preserved. That raises the whole issue of saving the countryside by using our urban areas properly and as intensely as possible without being over-intense.

I support too the help for post offices. That raises another, perhaps peripheral, question as to whether that indicates that their privatisation is being taken off the agenda. I invite the Minister to comment if he feels it appropriate.

The terms of the Bill refer to purposes "beneficial to the local community" as a criterion for relief. I would have thought that almost by definition the shops and post offices in question would be beneficial. I hope that there will not be difficulties if neighbouring local authorities exercise their discretion in different ways. That might be an interesting area. That is not to say that I believe that local authorities should not have a discretion. I have said many times that I support local discretion. The Bill allows only a very limited discretion within a tight framework, perhaps too tight both philosophically and practically. We shall perhaps address at later stages practical difficulties, such as what to do with a shop which is not owner-occupied and what to do in a situation where there are two stores, both of which seem to be good candidates, one of which is a post office.

The terms of the Bill are also perhaps too tight in the designation of rural areas being a matter for the Secretary of State, setting the context for the local authority to designate a settlement and which shop might qualify. Perhaps at a later stage we shall pursue matters of criteria, guidance and consultation.

Finally, there is an omission from the Bill with regard to non-domestic rates. Can the Minister explain whether or not there was an opportunity in the Bill to provide for the enforcement of UBR against companies in administrative receivership? That matter is not central to the topics dealt with in the Bill but I understand that it is a matter of considerable concern that companies in administrative receivership are able to avoid paying UBR.

My honourable friend the Member for Newbury in another place referred to the colonial attitude of the Government, which was an expression I rather enjoyed. I think it is quite apt as regards the Bill, particularly with respect to Part II.

Like my noble friend, I am of the "subsidiarity tendency". By that I mean not more government, but government at the right level. I welcome the possibility of more parishes, although I would prefer to see—this is one suggestion—a presumption in favour of parishes with a mechanism for a regular review rather than the somewhat ad hoc approach in the Bill.

Decisions are matters for the Secretary of State, although there is consultation. One of those to be consulted, of course, is the Local Government Commission but that would only be at the instigation of the Secretary of State. Again, the Bill raises issues on consultation which will bear discussion at later stages. I will be seeking assurances later about the processes. Many individuals and organisations may have views. I am thinking, for instance, of other parts of the public sector.

On the question of how parishes will relate to charter trustee areas, I was delighted to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Sandys—I remember his Bill well. But the concern not to destroy the identity of historic communities by fragmenting them is something I well understand.

To me, a glaring omission is the failure to take the opportunity to allow for parishing community councils in London—a world city made up of villages. I see no good reason for refusing Londoners the right to have their own local councils. That is a right that the rest of the country will have but not those of us who live in our capital. Our capital has many different characteristics and the identity of the small areas of London which go to make it up add to its character.

In Committee on these Benches we shall pursue the issue, which was raised in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Newbury and in this House by my noble friend Lord Tope who, almost 20 years ago, when he was a Member of another place, brought forward a Private Member's Bill to do just that. That Private Member's Bill had a most interesting list of sponsors.

I believe that overseeing the operation of parishing would be just the sort of thing that your Lordships' Select Committee on relations between central and local government had in mind. It was suggested that there might be a committee of this House or another place to review that relationship. The Select Committee made comments on the need for a body which would assist the process of good relations. It is a pity that that proposal is not being taken forward because I can see a real role for such a committee in the parishing process.

That committee also made recommendations on the powers of competence of local authorities, which takes us to Part III of the Bill. I support the extension of specific powers for the councils in question so far as they go. But I cannot help but feel that it is odd that it is necessary to spell out such powers in detail. It is far better always to start from allowing the general with restrictions rather than requiring the spelling out of the specifics. The subject areas are important—I do not deny that—and I am sure that good use will be made of the new powers, although it did occur to me that an extension of the right of local authorities to make grants to the police seems something of an admission of defeat by the Home Office.

I have talked of relations between central and local government. Relations between tiers of local government are important too. Principal local authorities are developing charters and agreements with their local parishes to formalise the relationship, and I understand that a lot of very positive work is going on. At the interface between principal local authorities and central government work too is advancing on some charter or concordat—I do not think the term has yet been agreed. I would like to take this opportunity to say—perhaps not with complete relevance to the Bill but nevertheless I will say it that I hope that work goes forward quickly and is successful as I believe it is very important.

I will end, again not with strict relevance but perhaps appropriately as I think this may be the last debate on local government matters before April, by wishing good luck to the new Local Government association. I am sure all your Lordships will wish it well and will wish well too the ever-better local government of this country which I am sure the new association will assist.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, let me first thank the Minister for the very clear way in which he went through the detail of the Bill, explained it to the House and generally spoke in favour of rural areas.

Having said that, in the run-up to an election it is not surprising if people throughout the country look suspiciously at any measures brought forward by government. After all, it is understandable that the Government want to try to look good in the last weeks before they face the electorate. Nevertheless, the conclusion one must reach about this Bill is that it is a good Bill coming from a bad government. I do not know whether the Minister heard that: it is a good Bill coming from a bad government, and I think that it is very generous of us to say so.

Over the years it has been clear that our countryside, the rural areas of Britain, are all too often forgotten. It is therefore welcome that we have a Bill which will make a positive contribution to the problems of rural areas. Before going into the details, let me try to set the context. All is not as well as some of your Lordships have suggested this afternoon. In the wider context, the Government have over many years given approval to large out-of-town shopping centres which have had the effect, inevitably, of destroying village shops in the surrounding areas. I appreciate that the present Secretary of State appears to be against out-of-town shopping centres, but I fear that much of the damage has been done.

Secondly, neither the Bill nor the Minister has said anything about the high levels of unemployment in the rural areas of this country, which in turn have an effect on the living standards, which in turn have an effect on economic vitality in those areas.

Thirdly, there are enormous housing difficulties in some of these parts of the country, and there is a drift away from these areas on the part of young people either because they are looking for jobs where they can find them or because they cannot afford the fairly high prices for houses in the areas in which they have been brought up.

My next general point is that public transport is pretty lousy in many of these areas, and the dependence on the motorcar is far too heavy. Government deregulation policies have certainly played their part in damaging public transport in these areas.

My last general point is that sometimes in this country the beauty of the countryside masks the poverty of some of the people who live within it. Some of the difficulties that the Bill tries to tackle stem from the poverty, unemployment, housing difficulties and poor transport in the areas about which we are talking.

Let me be more positive in terms of the Bill itself. It goes some small way towards tackling the problems that I have described. I welcome the move to help village stores and post offices. As many noble Lords have said, village stores and post offices may well be the centre of the village. They may well be the focus of village life, gossip and discussion. But for elderly people or those without motor cars, they are even more vital because they may provide the only possible access to shopping. The more vulnerable people in country areas are those who are most dependent upon the facilities provided by the village shop or post office within walking distance, when other larger shops require a motor car to get to them.

I welcome what the Bill says about shops and post offices. I also welcome what it says about transport, tackling crime and possibly the help it will give to setting up more parish councils to enable local people to express themselves through elected representatives when dealing with the problems of their areas.

Further, I welcome the fact that there will be a power of precept given to parish councils to enable them to raise some money for those purposes. In passing, I notice that the power has been widely welcomed on all sides. It is not that different in principle from the power that we in the Labour Party would like to give to the people of Scotland in setting up a Scottish Assembly. That seems to attract a lot of criticism, whereas the very sensible wish to give parish councils the same power passes without criticism. I welcome that power for parish councils; and, if there is an assembly or parliament for Scotland, I should welcome it as giving the people of Scotland, if they choose that way, the power to raise some money for their own needs.

Let me deal with some of the specific difficulties which stem from the Bill. Some of the proposals are quite detailed. First, there is the cut-off point of settlements above 3,000 to exclude them from the safeguards that can be brought in for village shops and post offices. I suppose that there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, but I wonder whether the figure of 3,000 may be a little low for scattered communities.

I am also somewhat concerned that the emphasis is placed on the "only" store. If there is more than one store, these benefits will not apply. I wonder whether that is appropriate. A community which is getting on for 3,000 may be very widely scattered. At each end of it there may well be a store but, as I understand it, neither would benefit from the provisions of the Bill, although the spirit of the Bill suggests that they should do so. I wonder, therefore, whether the Bill is unduly restrictive about that.

Secondly, given the rateable value threshold of £5,000, what happens where the village shop and the post office are a joint enterprise? That may well put the joint shop and post office above the £5,000 threshold, even though they might qualify if they were separate. I hope that that will not prove too restrictive.

I should also like to know the answer to the question of who gets a particular concession: whether the shopkeeper gets the concession or the owner or landlord of the property gets it, if the two are different individuals. Like other noble Lords this afternoon, I too question whether the definition of "rural settlement" may not be too narrow. What about shops that are on the edge of small towns where similar conditions apply in terms of distance from a large store? People there can be just as isolated as they may be in small villages. I refer to country towns. Again, the distances may be fairly large. I hope that we can find some way to have the provisions made more flexible to include such areas.

I wonder too whether it might be possible to make the definition of "shops" more flexible to include other types of shop, perhaps garages that sell a variety of goods. Pharmacies and pubs have already been mentioned.

There is a difficulty when the home of the person who runs the post office or village shop is part of the same premises. Is it possible for the shopping part to attract the benefit described? That is a technical difficulty but I hope that some way can be found to resolve it. I understand that some 1,200 or so such establishments might be affected up and down the country.

My noble friend Lady Nicol drew attention to the need for people in rural areas to use shops and post offices; as one noble Lord said, "Use it, or lose it." Of course, that is true. But possibly other measures could be added to the Bill to help attract business or interest in, say, a post office. One suggestion given to me is the possibility of a public access terminal. People could go to the post office and use a computer terminal—with advice; people like me would need it—in order to tap into a wide range of information, such as governmental information and information from the local authority, which they might otherwise have to travel some distance to obtain. That is a small way in which post offices might, as it were, exert a pulling power in the locality.

There is another difficulty. What about the villages which have already lost their shops? There are many of them. I wonder whether there is not some way in which the same incentive given to village shops and post offices to keep them there could also be applied to enable village shops and post offices to be restored. I appreciate that that is more difficult. Once a shop has gone, it is hard to bring it back. However, there may be some communities which might band together to bring back their village shop and might need a little help to do it.

I turn now to local transport and crime prevention. I hope that some of the poorer parish councils will be able to raise enough money locally to enable them to carry out the functions that they will be given in this legislation.

Nothing has been said about local schools, although the White paper drew attention to the importance of local schools and the difficulty that children might have making long journeys, should the local village school disappear.

I also regret that there is no mention of possible improvements to railway services, either retaining railway services in these areas or—dare I even suggest it—in some of those areas where railways services have been closed down, bringing them back as a way of attracting more life to local areas. We all know areas where the local railway system, if run perhaps on a different basis, could possibly be restored and at least pay for itself in the new circumstances.

I understand that the Bill will enable parish councils to make grants available for bus services wholly or mainly for the benefit of members of the public who are elderly or disabled. That is quite right and proper. But if a local bus service is to be provided or supported by these means, everybody will start to use it because there are so few bus services in some areas. I would hope that the fact that we shall all pile on to those bus services in those areas would not make the Government say that it is not within the terms of the Bill. Again, I hope that the provision will be sufficiently flexible.

Lastly, I welcome the opportunity given to parish councils in regard to crime prevention. Anything that enables local people to be involved in decisions about their own safety can only be for the better. In my experience, it is the local people who know where the dangerous areas are; they know where there should be an additional streetlight; they know the roads down which some villains might travel. That kind of collaboration between local people and the police can only be to the good. Anything that makes such collaboration better, as I believe this Bill might do, is to be welcomed.

As I said at the beginning, this is a good Bill from a bad government. We shall need to look at it in detail when it goes to Committee. I hope that the Bill, with these principles, will get through the House quickly.

Earl Peel

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he make a comment about the abolition of rates on sporting rights? He did not mention them at all in his speech and I am curious to know what his and his party's views are towards that part of the Bill.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I did not mention them because I was somewhat bemused both by the discussions here and in the other place about them. Frankly, I would rather leave the matter to the Committee stage to see whether we are helping to make Scotland the same as England or England the same as Scotland and where the benefits are. The Minister said very little about it in his speech. I was hoping that he would give us a lead.

5.10 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is a very good way of saying, "I don't know". I do not blame the noble Lord because he was caught on the hop and he made a jolly good fist of getting out of the situation. I am grateful for the welcome that noble Lords have given to this Bill. It has been a considerable welcome and that is deeply appreciated. There were not many noble Lords who disagreed with it.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is a very nice man and I like him a lot. It does not come easy to him to be nasty. He did try to be nasty because I believe that his brief says that he must say something horrible about the Government. So he said that it was a jolly good Bill, but that it came from a bad government. I expected him to say something like that. However, he said that it was a "good Bill" and that was the great thing about it. He did try to bring in a little party politics in saying that we had not done very much. I was amused and wondered how his party was going to make a much better fist of all this. Only one Member on the Benches behind him participated in the debate on this great Bill, which shows the interest that his party has in the countryside. However, she is an excellent Member and she too said that it is a good Bill.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, she is a very good Member.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, indeed, she is a very good Member. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, always has a percipient attitude towards matters concerning the countryside. She said that it is a good Bill.

I was glad to note so many of my noble friends behind me enthusing about the Bill and the Government. My noble friend Lord Gisborough pointed out that he was happy to be on the side of the angels today. I merely say that we noted that some of my noble friends behind me have not always been minded to support the Government in the way that they should. Because my noble friend made those nice remarks today, I hope he will not consider that he is storing up brownie points for any future misdemeanours. I will accept the fact that he has seen the light and that in future he and most of my noble friends will continue to support the Government in the way that they usually do.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I am quite certain that the remarks that my noble friend makes are made in jest. Perhaps I may just make a serious point. As regards the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, it did not give me nor any of my colleagues any pleasure whatsoever to vote against the Government which, principally, we support. The reason we did so was because we thought that it was a thoroughly bad Bill. That in no way implies criticism of the Government themselves generally speaking, but only on that specific occasion.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, perhaps I may add that I was principally voting against the Opposition Front Bench.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I think we should get back to the Bill. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth for what he and the Rural Development Commission do for the countryside. They put in a considerable amount of work from which the countryside benefits greatly. His intervention today is a mark not only of the importance of the countryside, but also of the work of the Rural Development Commission.

My noble friend Lord Mottistone referred to the Isle of Wight, as I would expect. I thought that he would be glad about the steps we have taken to deal with the Isle of Wight and its problems. But my noble friend was not wholly satisfied. He said, "We warned the Government of the problem. We have tried for years and years. Why have we not altered things before now?". We have not necessarily had the opportunity to do that, but this Bill provides such an opportunity. However, my noble friend said that he tried; Mr. Field tried; and my noble friend Lord Ullswater tried. But my noble friend said that we had to wait until Ferrers came to the Department of the Environment before he got the satisfaction which he sought. I hope that at least he will now find that satisfaction.

My noble friend Lord Gisborough and many others referred to the importance of keeping rural shops and that they should be supported. They have to be supported, but inevitably one has changing demands because of the advantages of the large shops with cheaper prices and so many things being available. However, people do require small shops. I believe that it was my noble friend Lord Bowness who said that we cannot alter the patterns of shopping and that it would be wrong of us to try. He is quite right in that respect. We should not alter the patterns of shopping, but we should try to help those shops which find themselves in specific difficulties.

One of the points to which many noble Lords referred was rate relief. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was concerned about the threshold for mandatory relief being too low at £5,000. The rateable value threshold is not on the face of the Bill. We are minded to set it at £5,000. When we consulted about the threshold in the summer most respondents supported that level. We shall certainly consider the noble Baroness's comments before we set the threshold for mandatory relief. At the moment it is not set in stone, but that is the figure which we believe should be set.

The noble Baroness asked why we needed a threshold for discretionary relief. Our research shows that small businesses are most in need of help. That is why it is right to limit the discretionary relief to businesses which have a rateable value below £10,000. Again, we have not set such a threshold and it is not on the face of the Bill. We shall certainly consider the points made by the noble Baroness before we reach a final decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, wanted to know why the Bill provided that Crown property will pay only business rates and not domestic rates. There is a fairly simple reply to that. The domestic rate no longer exists. It is now called the council tax. The Bill provides that only non-domestic Crown property will be removed from Crown exemption and that is why they will pay non-domestic rates. The amounts will be broadly the same as the contributions in lieu of rates which they make at the moment. Domestic Crown property is generally subject to council tax because the occupiers themselves are not exempt. Only empty domestic property and houses owned by the Ministry of Defence are exempt. In that case a contribution is made in lieu of council tax.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I completely accept what the noble Earl said and he has certainly cleared my mind on the subject. If there is still some area where money is paid in lieu of council tax, why is that anomaly not also being cleared up in this Bill? The main anomaly is that money paid in lieu of tax out of goodwill has been tidied up and tax is being paid. Why cannot that be done in the area which the noble Earl just mentioned?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if I understood the noble Lord's problem correctly, it is this. Non-domestic rates are paid on property. Therefore, when the property is in the hands of a government department, until now it has not paid the non-domestic rate because it has been exempt. However, a similar amount has been paid in lieu. Domestic rates now no longer refer to a place, but are domestic rates paid by individuals. Therefore, people who live in what may be a non-domestic place will still have to pay the council tax.

I may have misunderstood the noble Lord's question. I shall read it again in Hansard and write to him about it. From the expression on his face, I fancy that I may have misunderstood him—

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, before the Minister continues, my noble friend has a point, because the council tax is in part a property tax, as we were told on many occasions when the legislation was going through. That is why, for instance, a sole occupier gets only 25 per cent. relief—it is a relief on only part of the tax. It might be helpful to my noble friend if, on the point about empty properties—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I see now that there is a point of which I may not be fully seized. I shall address my mind to the point that the noble Lord and his noble friend have made. Incidentally, I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said that he "hugely welcomed" the Bill. That is helpful.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Bowness referred to small business rate relief and said how good it was for the countryside, but that town businesses suffered also. We are aware that rates continue to be a considerable burden on small businesses whether they are located in the country or in towns. We recognise that more needs to be done. I can advise my noble friend that we are looking at what steps might be taken further to reduce the rate burdens on small businesses, wherever they are located.

My noble friend Lord Gisborough was concerned about new businesses receiving rate relief. The Bill will provide mandatory rate relief to general stores and post offices because they provide an essential service. Local authorities will have discretionary powers to help other rural businesses, but we are considering how to help small businesses in general with their rates bills and we shall certainly consider my noble friend's points before we reach a decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also spoke about property and was concerned about whether the relief would be available if only part of the property was used as a general store. Relief will be available if only part of the property (be it a general store or a post office) is being used. The noble Lord was also concerned about the position of owner occupiers. Rate relief will apply only to an occupier, not to an owner, because the property must be in use.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also said that the specified figure of 3,000 for a village population was too low for a rural settlement. It is always difficult to come to a fair or right figure. We thought that 3,000 was about right. We consulted on that figure and, on the whole, most people considered that it was right. I claim no immunity about it being the perfect figure, but it is the one that we think is right. However, whatever the figure on which one decides, reasons are always given as to why it should be higher or lower.

My noble friend Lord Shuttleworth referred to community post offices. I agree that community post offices play an important role in providing essential services to rural communities, as do all post offices. Community post offices already tend to have very low rates bills—far lower than the bills of full-time post offices. The rate relief scheme may reduce them still further by providing that the sole post office—and it has to be a sole post office in a village settlement—receives 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief. My noble friend said that it will be open to local authorities to grant community post offices 100 per cent. relief if they so wish. I am sure that local authorities will look with particular favour on applications from the very smallest post offices, but I do not think that it would be appropriate to issue guidance on such decisions. The use of discretionary powers should reflect local circumstances. Any guidance is, by definition, bound to be more prescriptive than no guidance. This is one of those occasions when one wishes to leave the discretion with the local authorities.

My noble friend Lord Sandys referred to the Charter Trustees Bill. I had a funny feeling that we would not get through this debate without my noble friend referring to that. I am bound to say that I do not entirely share my noble friend's view that the Local Government and Rating Bill will adversely affect charter trustee areas or that special provision needs to be made for them. Our general view is that a parish should be based on the smallest area which would reflect local interests and form a convenient administrative unit. It may well be that charter trustee areas meet that test, but we do not think that it would be right to ensure that a charter trustee area can only become a single parish. Communities are never fossilised. They inevitably ebb and flow. If the identities of old communities change, it is the modern communities, not the older ones, which the boundaries of any new parish should reflect.

Where a proposal to parish a charter trustee area is brought forward by a district council or as a petition, local views will be presented to the Secretary of State. It should therefore be quite clear where local interests and identities lie with regard to the proposed parish. If it is not clear, the Secretary of State can call on the Local Government Commission to consider the matter further.

We have taken steps to ensure that the effect of any proposal for a new parish in an existing charter trustee area is to be taken into account properly. Our draft circular on parish reviews cites a charter trustee town as a possible case where a larger parish would best suit the needs of the area if division of a town would not reflect the sense of community which should lie behind all those parishes. The draft circular also refers to particular factors for consideration where there is a proposal to parish a charter trustee area, such as whether the area has a cohesive history and demonstrable community identity and whether it contains separate smaller areas which themselves have separate identities and would be viable as parishes in their own right. We think that that will provide perfectly clear and balanced guidance about charter trustee areas and new parishes. As always on these matters, my noble friend's speech was most interesting and I shall certainly study what he said carefully.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was concerned about the risk of the decision-making process being fragmented. She was also worried about Agenda 21 issues. The decision-making responsibility will not be transferred by the Bill. The Bill provides only that there should be better consultation between the local authorities and the parish councils. It should enable the principal authorities to make better decisions. Agenda 21 issues may well be suitable for wider consultation. We are not intending that that should be made more difficult.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked whether parish councils could be abolished under the Bill. The answer is that they could be. It will be possible for the Local Government Commission or a district council to recommend that a parish council should be abolished, but a review will have to be conducted first. The Secretary of State will require very good reasons as to why a parish council should be abolished. Mere dissatisfaction with the current parish council will not be enough. We expect few such abolitions.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, also referred to Northern Ireland and asked why Northern Ireland is not included in the Bill. It will be open to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to bring forward an Order in Council to bring Northern Ireland rating into line with these changes where appropriate, if he wishes to do so.

The noble Lord was also worried about sporting rights. My noble friend Lord Peel gave the noble Lord a very good answer. The rating of sporting rights is riddled with anomalies. The only way to solve such problems is to remove such rights from rating. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said that saying that, if something was inconvenient or contained lots of anomalies, it should be removed was a funny approach to take. I think that that is a rather good basis on which to approach such matters, but most of government does not operate like that because it is too complicated. This case, however, is not too complicated; it is quite simple. Therefore, we think that it is a good thing to do because it will help local country interests. It will put about £5 million per year into the rural economy. We shall be getting rid of regulations. Indeed, we shall be getting rid of a nasty tax, so I think that everyone should approve of it. Indeed, even the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, might think that that is a good idea.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, in view of the utter complexity of the tax system, can we also get rid of that?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am always very keen to help my noble friends. However, I think that he asks a little too much of me on this occasion. I will bear in mind his sentiments. Even though I may be in agreement with him, I do not believe that I would be able to persuade my colleagues in government to take such a generous view.

My noble friend Lord Mottistone has received proposals from the National Association of Local Councils which would require district councils to carry out regular reviews, extend the consultation provisions to parish meetings and give financial support to help parishes to carry out their new functions. These are fairly detailed matters that we can return to at Committee stage. The regular reviews under the 1972 Act achieve little. It is not the carrying out of reviews that matters. What matters is that it is taken seriously when it is done. Some districts do not take it very seriously. The petitioning procedure in the Bill provides a better remedy in case the district council is not interested or is agnostic. There are powers, not duties, to provide something extra. It is right that the local taxpayer should meet the bill for that. I believe that to ask the national taxpayer to subsidise local choices is wrong.

My noble friend Lord Peel referred to the reform of the common agricultural policy. I agree with him that reform is essential, especially before the European Union's membership greatly increases. We are working to that end. He asked whether I could say anything about hedgerow legislation. Our proposals went out to consultation and some 530 responses were received. Those responses are being considered. With regard to a review of water abstraction licences, I am bound to say that my noble friend has caught me on the hop. I am not totally familiar with the present position, since it does not have very much to do with this Bill. However, I will find out the situation and write to my noble friend.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was concerned about non-domestic rates and whether the implementation of this measure would cause problems. We are discussing with local authorities exactly how to implement the village shop scheme. They do not consider that there are very many problems, but if necessary we will have to issue guidance.

The noble Baroness was also concerned about companies in administrative receivership. She said that they do not have to pay non-domestic rates. We are considering how to proceed in the light of the responses to consultation which took place in the autumn.

The noble Baroness said that it should be possible to establish parish councils in Greater London. Maybe it should. However, London is different from other parts of the country. There is no evidence of local demand for parish councils in London today. This is not surprising. We believe that there would be difficulty in defining communities on which parish councils in London might be based. The primary role of parishes is to represent small individual communities whose particular interests might otherwise be unrepresented. Of course, that happens to a much greater extent in the country than is likely to be the case in London. However, I join with the noble Baroness in wishing the Local Government Association great success when it takes on its new tasks.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about out-of-town shopping centres and unemployment. It is now clear government policy in policy planning guidance notes that there should be a presumption against out-of-town shopping centres. First, one must look at the town centre to see what can be done and, secondly, one looks at the edges of the town to see what can be done there. Greenfield sites are the last resort.

The noble Lord referred to unemployment in the countryside. That difficulty always exists for obvious reasons that one need not go into in detail. For example, there are difficulties in getting to and from particular business locations. But one should not forget the work of the Rural Development Commission under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth. Its work is designed primarily to ensure that the worst hit country areas are regenerated where that is possible.

The Bill is designed to help rural communities. I believe that in the speeches this afternoon your Lordships have agreed that on the whole the Bill strikes a common chord. It is about small businesses and small areas. It may be that in the totality of national statutes this is not as high up the order of priorities as some may believe, but in rural areas and the countryside this measure will have considerable effect. It is in order to help those areas that this Bill is brought forward. I am grateful for the suggestions that your Lordships have made. I beg to move.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.