§ 5.30 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister on the rural policy White Paper. The Statement is as follows:
"The Government have today published a White Paper on the future of rural England, produced jointly by my department and MAFF. I am also publishing the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on the rural White Paper. Copies have been placed in the Library.
"A common message runs through both this White Paper and the urban White Paper. They are about tackling the real issues that matter to people—jobs, housing, services, transport and having a real say in what happens locally. We want communities in which economic prosperity, social justice and a healthy environment go hand in hand.
"Much of rural Britain is thriving, but there are real problems and many of them have got worse over the last 20 years. For example, farm incomes have fallen by 60 per cent in five years; many families cannot afford to live in the place where they grew up; and seven out of 10 of our poorest counties are rural.
"Our consultation with rural communities showed that person after person in rural areas complained that their basic services had disappeared. Over the last two decades, thousands of rural bus services have shut down, leaving only one in four parishes with a daily service; 450 village schools were closed—that is more than one every 1298 two weeks; more than 100 rural post offices closed each year; and, while the last administration permitted an explosion of out-of-town superstores, more than 4,000 village shops went out of business.
"The countryside is no stranger to change and our task is to give people the tools to respond to that challenge. This White Paper represents a new commitment to rural communities and gives them the powers and resources to manage change. It brings together a new, comprehensive approach incorporating legislation we have already agreed. It provides a framework for our rural policies for the future. It presents a more comprehensive approach to the needs of the countryside. Increasingly, rural areas will benefit from our main programmes on health, education, housing and employment. In addition, we have doubled specific rural spending from £600 million in 1997–98 to £1.2 billion this year; and we are committing an extra £1 billion to farming and rural programmes over the next three years.
"There are five main elements to our White Paper: improving services; tackling poverty; the rural economy; protecting the countryside and wildlife; and giving more choice to local people. Access to basic services for people in rural areas is what they really want and is the most important element of the White Paper.
"People in rural areas should know what services they are entitled to. So, for the first time, we are publishing a Rural Service Standard. It will set out minimum service standards and targets for the full range of public services, from education to health and childcare to emergency services.
"To improve healthcare in rural areas we are providing £100 million for one-stop primary healthcare centres or mobile units in 100 rural communities. To reverse the decline of rural post offices we are investing £270 million to turn post offices into one-stop shops with access to banking, prescriptions, local authority and other services. I can announce that the pilot scheme will be in Leicestershire, involving 280 post offices and starting next spring. Thousands of villages have lost their local shops. We propose to offer mandatory rate relief to more village shops, pubs and garages. And we are launching a new £15 million rural community service fund to support local enterprise and help local groups re-establish lost services
"To improve education in rural areas we have introduced stronger safeguards to protect rural schools from closure. We are providing rural police forces with an extra £45 million over the next two years. And, as the Chancellor announced, we are helping local communities which use their local church to provide community services by reducing the rate of VAT on repairs and maintenance from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent.
"The House will be aware of the importance of transport to rural areas. The Chancellor in his Pre Budget Report froze fuel duty and reduced VED on smaller cars. But public transport is absolutely vital. 1299 We have already increased funding for rural buses by £170 million, with 1,800 new services. We are now investing another £192 million over the next three years in rural transport.
"People have told us that in some places they need much more flexible transport solutions. So we are setting up a new £15 million special transport fund. The fund will give to those parishes that want it up to £10,000 each to provide their own small-scale solutions to local transport problems such as support for car clubs, taxi services and community transport. As announced in our Ten-Year Plan, we will extend the existing fuel duty rebate for buses to community transport schemes. For a typical minibus this could be worth up to £3,000 a year.
"There is growing concern about controlling speeding traffic in villages and on country roads. We will allow local communities to make villages and rural roads safer by reducing speed limits and investing more in traffic calming. We will also invest more than £1 billion over 10 years in rural bypasses.
"Like rural areas, urban areas require affordable housing. We are doubling the Housing Corporation programme by 2003–04. This, together with local authority investment and planning reforms, will provide a total of 3,000 affordable homes a year in small rural settlements and a total of around 9,000 homes a year across all rural districts. In some areas better use of planning rules could provide one affordable home for every new home built. Our new starter home initiative will also help key workers on modest incomes to buy their homes in areas of high prices and high demand.
"There are strong feelings of resentment in some areas that second home owners benefit from a 50 per cent council tax discount while local people cannot find enough affordable housing. We propose to give local authorities in England the same discretion as in Wales to end the 50 per cent discount. As a new departure we propose to use the proceeds for extra affordable housing. This will be discretionary but it could be worth up to £150 million a year. We are required to consult on this and will do so as soon as possible.
"Like urban areas, rural areas benefit from a strong local economy. Market towns are the heart of economic growth in rural areas. We are investing an extra £37 million over the next three years to help create new opportunities, new work spaces, restored high streets, better amenities and good transport links to surrounding areas. With partnership funds this will create a £100 million package for 100 market towns. We are giving the regional development agencies greater flexibility and a more specific rural remit within the additional £500 million in their budgets. There will also be special business support and training tailored for small businesses in rural areas.
"The House has often expressed the view that agriculture plays a crucial role in the countryside and rural economy. The Action Plan for Farming 1300 sets out our policies for the future of farming. Farming will continue to produce the bulk of the nation's food and contribute to exports. It contributes to a good quality environment and the wider local economy; but many farmers need to diversify in order to stay in business.
"The House will recall that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recently announced a £1.6 billion seven-year package for agriculture in the new England Rural Development Programme. This will increase environmental support for farmers and help them to start new business enterprises. And the Government are making available an additional £500 million to help the farming industry modernise and restructure, in addition to the £2.5 billion a year from the European Union. Recognising the real difficulties faced by agriculture, we will, in addition, reform our planning rules to help farmers diversify and we are today launching a consultation paper to give rate relief for rural diversification projects.
Our consultation has shown a great deal of concern for a small but important part of the rural economy—the maintenance of small rural abattoirs, which have faced increased inspection fees. We shall introduce additional targeted help to support local abattoirs without any detriment to food standards.
"Our beautiful countryside is valued by people who live in it and those who visit it. We all recognise the work that rural people have carried out over generations to protect the countryside. To relieve the pressure of development on the countryside, we shall be building on urban brownfields first and greenfields last. We shall build higher quality housing and make better use of land by building at more sustainable densities. Therefore, we now require local authorities to notify me of all major housing developments planned for greenfield sites.
"The House will be aware that we were reviewing our controls over roadside advertisements in the countryside. I can announce that we will not change our rules but will maintain our controls over advertisements in the countryside".
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I hope that the Minister will forgive me, but it seems to me that there is more to the Statement. I certainly have another two pages of it in front of me.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I knew that it was too good to be true! Some of my noble friends wish to be off early tonight, but, nevertheless, I apologise. I fear that the last two pages of the Statement were not before me. I must express my gratitude to the noble Baroness for making that observation. However, I shall return to the Statement:
"Following this debate, the House will move on to the final stages of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. This major Bill will give additional protection to our countryside, conserve its wildlife and make it accessible to all—something we have waited a long time for.
1301 "Our consultation showed that for too long local people have felt that they have not been able to take decisions for themselves. We want local communities to play a bigger part in shaping their own future because every community has its own priorities, strengths and distinctiveness.
"The performance of our parish councils varies. We shall promote new "quality" town or parish councils, which will be able to take on a bigger role in providing and managing local services in partnership with principal authorities. We shall provide £7 million to help parish and town councils to meet the quality standard and shape their own future and for the first time to help 1,000 communities develop town and village plans, which can then feed into the statutory planning process. In addition, the Countryside Agency will equip every town and parish with access to the Internet. Town and village plans will allow local people to set design standards and preserve the character of their villages.
"As our consultation revealed, all too often in the past, and at all levels of government, rural needs and priorities have been overlooked. We shall ensure that the commitments in this White Paper are followed through. To achieve that, the Countryside Agency will produce an annual report on how major policies have been assessed for their rural impact, we shall establish new rural advisory boards at national and regional level and a new rural advocate—Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Countryside Agency—will argue the case on countryside issues at the highest levels in government and outside.
"We are clear that it is impossible to tackle the problems of the countryside in isolation. We need to look at them as a whole across government. The White Paper will promote: a living countryside, with thriving rural communities and access to high quality services; a working countryside, with a strong economy giving high and stable levels of employment; a protected countryside, which we can all enjoy; and a vibrant countryside, which can shape its own future and have its voice heard by government at all levels.
"Some people want us to divide town and country. We are governing for the whole country. Our aim is a living, working countryside with better access for all people to enjoy. I commend the White Paper to the House".
My Lords, I believe that that concludes the Statement.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place earlier this afternoon. As noble Lords will have realised, it is a very full White Paper. The noble Lord's introduction took over 11 minutes to deliver. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I give a rather full response to a most important Statement.
We welcome much that is in the Statement. It is good to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is sitting next to the Minister. Obviously, the White 1302 Paper deals with both rural areas and farming matters. That is why the Statement is so welcome. We also welcome the greater flexibility that has been announced, especially the fact that this will bring greater responsibility to local parishes; in other words, it will bring such matters right down to the lowest level—something for which we have been pressing for some time.
The White Paper deals with the relationship between the working countryside—the farming side of it—and the rural aspects involved. We welcome, too, the money that the Minister said will he available to enforce some of the proposals in the White Paper. However, we are somewhat concerned that some of that money may be recycled money. We shall need several days to work out the total commitment in the Statement and the rural White Paper.
The White Paper also refers to the need for "multiple consultation". The Government came into office in 1997. Since that time, we seem to have consultation after consultation on rural matters. The one thing that we are looking forward to—and what we hope will come out of this process—is seeing some action. Just recently we had an extremely good report from the Better Regulation Task Force, Environmental Regulations and Farmers. This is an ideal consultation booklet. However, having consulted, we now need to move forward. With all the thrusts and the wide range of issues that are covered in the White Paper, I just hope that we shall quickly see some action and forward movement, rather than having to wait for it to take place in a little while.
I listened to the comments made this morning by the CBI and was slightly worried by the statements made about the responsibilities and extra burdens that small businesses in particular have to carry. I raise this issue because of taxation and regulation and because local small businesses are to be found predominantly in rural areas. I am very hopeful that the Government will take this matter on board and consider the issues raised by the CBI this morning. For example, do the Government intend to reduce the burdens on both large and small businesses, but especially on the smaller ones that were referred to this morning? Moreover, will the Government compensate the agricultural community for the extra costs that it has had to bear as a result of European directives, and the gold-plating that we have enforced on animal welfare rules? We are hopeful that this will be resolved by way of the White Paper's proposals.
Further, will the Government continue to follow our lead and not introduce EC directives in advance of the time set for them to be introduced? The noble Baroness and I have had discussions on that issue, which is a real worry to the farming community. Farmers are also concerned about the amount of regulations to which they have to adhere.
The Minister referred to the White Paper as "practical". Many of the examples given in the document are practical and most welcome. However, perhaps I may address one of the big issues therein; namely, the matter of housing. As has emerged from 1303 our many debates on the subject, housing in rural areas is crucially important. The White Paper proposes enforcing guidelines in respect of "affordable homes". Can the Minister give us a clearer classification on "affordable homes"? For example, how will those houses be protected if they are for local occupancy in the immediate future? How will they be protected in the future? Will people who are able to take advantage of affordable homes then become owners, or will they be only, say, life tenants? Will they stay in their local community for affordable homes within that area? I do not believe that the White Paper deals with that aspect of the matter.
We welcome the changes in some of the planning guidance indicated in the booklet, but I wonder whether some of the proposals are strong enough. For example, both the Statement and the booklet say that for every new house built, one affordable new home should be built. However, that may be impractical in many of our villages. Some villages may need only 10 or 12 new homes and other types of housing may be required. I should be grateful if the noble Lord would clarify that.
We welcome the U-turn on the Government's proposed controls on advertising in rural areas. During debate on the countryside Bill we said that we did not wish to see the countryside covered in hoardings. With regard to housing, I understand that a reduced rate of VAT will be levied for the conversion of buildings to residential use. Does that apply just to the conversion of barns to houses or does it include the conversion of bigger houses into smaller units? The document does not make that clear. Will the VAT burden in this regard be removed altogether from houses built more than 10 years ago or will it be reduced only down to the 5 per cent which I believe is recommended in the case of the conversion of other buildings?
As regards grants for brownfield sites which we have discussed in this House on many occasions, I understand that the EC has to give approval for grants to develop brownfield sites. I understand that that approval has been challenged. What progress has been made on that front?
I turn to agri-environment schemes and rural development. The Government stated in their response on page 11:We urge the Treasury to explore the potential for greater use of pooled budgets. The comprehensive spending review provides a timely opportunity to improve the effectiveness of spending in rural areas".Will the Government consider simplifying the multiplicity of agri-environment schemes and rural development initiatives that exist? At the moment there are so many that it is confusing for those who wish to apply. Again I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that point.
The document is full of useful points. We are particularly delighted with the implications of the proposals for strengthening parishes. With regard to the restrictions on speed and—this is not mentioned—the whole issue of parking in parish areas, will the 1304 parishes decide these matters for themselves or will local authorities at a more senior level decide which parishes will be able, and will be allowed, to develop in the way the document suggests? I should be grateful for clarification on that point.
I have just touched on a few of the many points in the document. However, I am aware of the time constraints that apply to the debate. I hope that we shall be able to debate the document at greater length in the New Year. The document deserves a full debate. I am concerned about whether the funding will be adequate for what the Government are trying to do. Will it improve the life of those who live and work in the countryside? The document seeks to allow greater diversity to farmers and others to adapt their businesses. However, I am concerned as to how we ensure that some of the new jobs that are to be created will be taken up by people who currently live and work in the countryside. Will they not result in many people who live in urban areas being attracted to rural areas and thus not solve the problems that the Government seek to solve?
There is much to recommend in the document. I am sorry that I have spoken for rather a long time. I have not addressed many of the areas which I hope others will cover. Again I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, we on these Benches very much welcome the Statement and the publication of the rural White Paper. However, if it was in my fridge, I would suspect that it was rather past its sell by date. Having looking beyond the packaging, on the other hand, it seems to offer some good reading and some good thoughts.
The fact that the document is a joint publication of the DETR and MAFF suggests a new way of working between them. That is to be greatly welcomed. The document offers a new start in reversing the trends of decline of the past two decades when, as the Statement made clear, the countryside suffered badly from such developments as out of town shopping, the decline in services and, not least, the pressure on local authorities' budgets which forced them to cut back many of their important rural services.
However, the rural White Paper contains no definition of why we value the countryside and the unique qualities of its economy. That is regrettable if the document is to be a vision for the future. A little more attention could have been devoted to the land based nature of the economy and the extent to which people want to move away from that. However, we welcome the development of a rural services standard. We have pressed for such a standard on several occasions in this House and in the other place. We are absolutely delighted that the Government will introduce it.
We are concerned about the introduction of a strangely named "regional rural sounding board" and a "national rural sounding board". I say with all due respect to the chairman of the Countryside Agency, 1305 whom I admire and respect tremendously—I believe that he is a rural advocate or a czar for rural areas—that he is not really accountable to anyone. I believe that the Countryside Agency is accountable to the DETR. Therefore he is almost judge and jury in his own cause. Having said that, I hope that such an appointment will in the future prevent government departments from inflicting on rural areas disasters such as that which has occurred with post offices. The Government will have to have to try to rectify that situation. We welcome the pilot scheme that is mentioned in the White Paper with regard to post offices and hope that it will be successful.
The rural White Paper acknowledges the dramatic fall in farm incomes of 60 per cent in five years. When I said that the document was rather past its sell by date I had in mind, for example, the Government's lack of response to the Maclean report on small abattoirs. I hope that the fine words in the rural White Paper will produce some rapid action in that area and will not just be fine words.
There are some good points in the White Paper with regard to the "local food, local people" issue and developing local markets for farmers' produce. However, those points need to be followed up with firm action. The Government need to consider further their attitude to suppliers' relationships with supermarkets.
The White Paper mentions funding that can be bid for. The figures appear large, but if one divides them into the number of rural communities and small towns, many of them will gain nothing more than a new bus shelter and a notice board. I do not believe that that kind of funding should be the bottom line. We on these Benches believe that local authorities should be given a fair deal.
I draw the Minister's attention to the neighbourhood renewal fund. The DETR proposes to allocate less than 8 per cent of that renewal fund to address deprivation in communities served by two-tier local government structures; that is, rural communities. The inequity of that can be readily demonstrated as two-tier areas contain 46 per cent of the population and just under a third of the top 10 per cent of deprived wards. However, around half of the most deprived wards in two-tier areas will receive no funding because their needs are not apparent in data which are averaged out at council level. This is in stark contrast to modestly deprived wards falling within unitary authority areas. They will receive only 4 per cent; and then will not receive that funding. It may seem a complicated point but I hope that there is no disguise, with rural areas appearing to receive better funding which is, however, taken away in other ways. The Government need to bear in mind that rural areas are typified by pockets of localised deprivation.
While we welcome the strengthening of the role of parish councils, we are worried about the development of a two-tier system—quality parish councils, and the remainder. I hope that the Government will consider removing the Section 137 restriction upon what even 1306 small and excellent parish councils can do. There is no mention of creating parish councils throughout the country. That is surely something we should press for.
We welcome the doubling of the rural housing programme from almost nothing. As regards key workers, will the same criteria apply to them in rural and urban areas? Village halls are the key meeting point for rural communities. It is a shame that the Chancellor has reduced VAT only on church repairs but not village hall repairs. Perhaps the Government will reconsider the issue now that they concede that rural churches are important, as indeed are village halls.
Finally, the White Paper demonstrates what good practice can produce. The funding is still ring-fenced. The RDAs are being given more money. The money is being targeted through quangos but without a great deal of accountability. It is tiring for rural communities to have to bid again and again, without always receiving such funding.
Although we welcome much that is in the Statement and the good practice put forward, we believe that the services that local authorities can offer have been underplayed. I echo the wish for a fuller debate on the White Paper. However, I believe that we should have a debate on the urban and rural White Papers. There is a lack of reference between the two in the White Paper. The House would benefit from a further debate on the two issues together.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, this will be a brief Minister's response in view of the time. I am grateful for the welcome given by both Front Benches to many aspects of the White Paper.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to the burden on small businesses. The action plan for farming already has a number of commitments to review and remove regulatory burdens and planning requirements in relation to farming, all of which are being acted upon. We shall have further consultation with regard to the environmental burdens identified recently.
As regards affordable housing, the options in the White Paper are available to local authorities and existing planning powers can achieve quite a lot. Whether the one-for-one approach were adopted would be a matter for the local market and local authority. But it would be useful in certain circumstances depending on the local housing market. Substantial additional powers and additional resources for affordable housing run through the White Paper.
The noble Baroness asked whether one could convert a larger building into a smaller building with VAT benefit. The answer is yes. Brownfield sites, previously developed land, must be discussed with the planners. Applications will need to take account of a range of considerations. But the intention is that the sequence of the planning hierarchy would mean that 1307 brownfield sites as defined locally would be the first to be built upon. We would restrict greenfield development, therefore, in the countryside.
The noble Baroness also referred to the possible influx from urban areas. The answer is that we have to get the urban policy right at the same time as we are getting the rural policy right. Therefore, the urban and rural White Papers fit together. The House authorities may well deem it sensible for us to have a debate on those issues.
My allocated time is up. I shall write to the noble Baronesses on other points.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, I welcome the White Paper and the commitment of the Labour Party to govern on behalf of rural and urban communities. For too long the Labour Party has been regarded as a representative party only of city and urban communities.
I welcome the commitment to a vibrant and working countryside. There is no point in talking about improving the post office facilities here and there unless one gives people the opportunity of employment in the countryside. I have a special interest in forestry matters. I contacted the Forestry Commission on the continuing decline in opportunities for workers in the forestry industry. In 1993–94 the Forestry Commission lost 1,100 employees in countryside towns. The figures for private estates dropped from 15,000 to 10,000, and so it goes on. One will not have continuing employment opportunities in the countryside unless one continues to plant trees. At present there is a dramatic drop in planting trees. In this country, we are now planting more hardwoods than softwoods. Hardwoods have a rotation of 100 years. Even on a diminished planting programme, one is providing employment for 100 years' time.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, I would have welcomed some reference to the opportunities for a developing forestry policy and the sustaining of this natural resource.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I note the points my noble friend makes about forestry. Clearly, the decline in forestry employment has helped the shift away from primary production in rural areas. There are opportunities for planting new forests; and for reviving forestry. Under the REDP there are woodland grants; and we give support to both private and corporate forestry proposals.
When we refer to the decline in some of the traditional industries in rural areas, it is important that we also paint the other side of the picture. Many small businesses have been built up in rural areas over recent years. Until the relatively recent decline in agricultural 1308 incomes, there were booming parts of the rural area with new industries and new enterprises which employed many people. To gain a full picture of the rural economy we need also to take that into account, important though agriculture and forestry are.
§ Baroness Knight of Collingtree
My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister. I appreciate that he had to encompass a great many facts in a short Statement. However, I wish to ask about two issues of importance to many people.
The Minister mentioned the one-stop shop for post offices, chemists and banks. I cannot imagine a man or a woman handing out stamps, aspirin, and cheques. I do not know whether the reference means a kind of lobby involving several businesses together. Will people be directed, or will they volunteer, to go there?
Finally, when the Minister mentioned that the special council tax arrangements for single dwellers would be withdrawn, was he referring to anyone who is a single dweller in the country or only to someone whose house is his second home?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, with regard to the noble Baroness's second point, I believe that she is referring to second homes. In cases where a 50 per cent reduction in council tax applies to second homes, we are giving local authorities the opportunity to raise that tax to the full level. It is a discretionary opportunity and local authorities will have to judge their own housing situation. The money raised would also provide the resource for developing more affordable housing within mainly rural local authority areas.
With regard to the noble Baroness's first point about one-stop shops, it is a tragedy that in many of our villages there is no shop. What remains may be a garage, a pub or a post office. Our objective is for a wider range of services to be provided in that shop or for a new shop to be opened which will not depend simply on the delivery of groceries or post office services but which will have greater opportunities for delivering government services or providing inter-medical or other services.
Historically, post offices have often provided that range of services. Therefore, I do not believe that the situation is quite as difficult as the noble Baroness suggests. Nevertheless, not every such shop provides all the services, and we want to encourage them to deliver as wide a range as possible. The support for rural post offices, in particular, of £270 million should enable such shops to develop in order to do so. The experiment in Leicestershire will be directed at indicating how well that can be achieved.
§ The Earl of Carnarvon
My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer. I want to raise two points with the Minister, one of which is a question. In the Statement he said that much of rural Britain is thriving. With regard to economy, the White Paper states that farming is in crisis. How can he square that circle?
1309 My second point is that I do not believe that the Minister answered the important point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, with regard to the tenure of social housing in villages. For example, would the occupier of a social house built in these circumstances have the right to buy?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, we are talking about support for social housing principally through housing associations. Therefore, in those circumstances the housing association would have to be prepared to sell in order for a person to have the right to buy. We are discussing the provision of social housing and the encouragement that is required to build cheaper housing in order to keep younger people and key workers in particular in villages where the pressure on prices puts housing out of their reach. That is the case both in terms of rented accommodation, for which people would go through the social housing route, and in terms of smaller, more affordable owner-occupied housing.
With regard to the noble Earl's first point, the question of how far the decline in farming incomes affects the prosperity of a rural area as a whole obviously varies from one country area to another. Total incomes in rural areas have been more buoyant than has been the case in urban areas. The problem is that there is both a geographical difference between areas and, in some cases, a polarisation between people who have done well and are living in the country on relatively high incomes—possibly working in the town or running their own businesses—and those who in recent years have suffered a decline in their agriculture-based income.
It is also true that agriculture accounts for only approximately 4 per cent of GDP in rural areas. In some cases that figure is 16 per cent or so, but not higher. Therefore, 80 per cent or more of the population is employed in industries other than agriculture, even if some of those industries are partly dependent on the buoyancy or otherwise of agriculture. Therefore, the pattern is mixed. There is considerable prosperity and economic success in rural areas as well as a decline in many sectors of farming.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, I should be grateful if the Minister would answer two questions in relation to market towns, which he rightly identified as crucial focal points for rural communities. First, does the White Paper mention (because the Minister did not) the importance to the pride and self-determination of market towns and their hinterlands of the maintenance of local courts—county courts and magistrates' courts—which are being closed in unprecedented numbers? If it does not, would the Minister none the less give consideration to and become involved in some joined-up policy on that matter?
My second point concerns local voluntary organisations. Self-help is the key to any long-term revival of market towns. I note the fact that there are over 100,000 amateur sports clubs in this country, the majority of which are in market towns and villages.
1310 None of them has charitable status, whereas other forms of local organisation, such as horticultural societies, archaeological societies, scouts, guides, choral societies and most others, have charitable status and the benefits that come from that. Does the White Paper mention the need for local amateur sports clubs, which are so important to the local social cement, to be given, if not charitable status, the benefits in tax terms of charitable status?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord's last point, I do not believe that we deal with the charitable status of sports clubs. We refer specifically to the need for support and encouragement Col rural voluntary activity. The noble Lord is right that the self-image of many market towns and other rural communities depends on the level of commitment and activity in rural areas.
With regard to the specific point about magistrates' courts, I believe that the noble Lord will find in the White Paper a table—which at present I cannot locate—which indicates that one of the facilities in larger market towns should be a magistrates' court.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I rise to give an unqualified welcome to the totality of the White Paper. There is no doubt that it seeks to put right the deprivation which exists. I was taken by the part of the report which refers to the fact that farm incomes have fallen by 60 per cent over five years. Many families cannot afford to live in the place where they grew up.
I should not like to accuse noble Lords of collective amnesia. However, when Members on the Opposition Front Bench rightly point out that there is a lack of affordable housing, do they not remember that years ago their government gave the residents of rural communities the right to buy their council houses? As a result, there is an absence of council housing and, thus, in many communities no affordable housing. I believe that Members opposite should reflect before they criticise this Government's policy.
The other part of the report puts that right. It talks in terms of doubling the grant to the Housing Corporation. For five years until 1997 the grant to the Housing Corporation progressively decreased. The report refers to 3,000 houses which are to be earmarked as starter homes. Therefore, the Government have nothing to be ashamed about in their attempt to put the situation right, especially with regard to rural transport. I have taken up enough of your Lordships' time. I believe that the White Paper is all good stuff.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that endorsement. He is certainly right that we are almost doubling the resources to the Housing Corporation. It is important that we learn from past problems of mismatch of supply and demand in the housing market, particularly in relation to affordable housing. The resources for the Housing Corporation and housing associations go some way to meet that.
§ Lord Roberts of Conwy
My Lords, does the Minister agree that without a revival in the wealth-creating industries in rural areas—agriculture, forestry 1311 and so on—the rural population cannot possibly be sustained? Therefore, many of the schemes advanced in the White Paper will become peripheral, if not inoperable. I am thinking of the transport schemes. Bearing that in mind I have a key question. Does the Minister believe that the Government have right the balance of the distribution of resources? Would it not be better to concentrate on supporting and nourishing those wealth-creating industries in rural areas?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, clearly the future of the countryside in part depends on the revival of agriculture and its ability to make the changes required of it. The very large sums of money which the Government and the EU have put into rural areas to support agriculture and the new provisions which were announced earlier this year and those in relation to support for diversification for farming incomes are an important part of that. Agriculture must change but, as the noble Lord said, it is absolutely key to the future.
The only point I make, which I made earlier, is that there are, and will increasingly be, many other entrepreneurial successes in the countryside which already provide positive prosperity and employment for our rural citizens. Therefore, while it is vital that we continue to support agriculture, forestry and so on, those other industries also require encouragement.
§ Lord Hardy of Wath
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that as the policies are announced and the commitments realised, this White Paper will come to be seen as a historic landmark which is perhaps deserving of rather more time than is available today? In particular, I commend the environmental interest which was illustrated also by the announcement on field boundaries, which has not yet been appreciated by the House.
I welcome my noble friend's comment about brownfield sites as an alternative to greenfield sites. That is highly desirable. But would it not be possible for the department to ensure that where achievement is either under way or already attained in regard to brownfield development, more and more attention is given to the possibilities which such development can provide?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, yes. The development of brownfield sites must be part of the diversification of the rural economy. We have a lot to learn from the successful innovations which have already taken place in many of our rural areas.
§ Lord Walpole
My Lords, I wish to make two comments in relation to transport. Research by the University of East Anglia over 30 years ago showed that the motor car was the ideal method of transport 1312 for travelling around rural areas. But now, of course, there are far too many cars running round the roads in rural areas which are totally unable to stand that amount of traffic because they were never designed for it. Therefore, workers in rural areas take their cars to drive to work. Villages then become bereft of cars. People then find themselves stranded in villages and that is when car-sharing comes into the picture.
I wish that I had seen a copy of this White Paper a lot earlier. I am interested in trains and not only in ensuring that trains run. Obviously, they do not always compete directly with buses. I believe that in Norfolk, we should re-open some of those lines which Dr Beeching manged to close. If that is done, an enormous amount of transport is taken off the roads. I am involved with people who are doing that at the moment. Many heavy goods vehicles can be taken off the roads, especially those transporting sugar beet.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I have no doubt that in some cases an extension of the rural train service would be possible and would meet some of those needs. But more important is the provision of rural bus services and what are regarded as more flexible, on-demand services, somewhere between a taxi and a bus, which will meet most of the demands of rural dwellers.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I was glad to hear the Minister admit that agriculture has a part to play in the countryside. I am sorry to hear him go on again about diversification because people must produce potatoes, milk and fruit. It is primarily the marketing with which the producers need help. I did not hear any word about that in the Statement. Marketing has broken down since the abolition of the Potato Marketing Board, and with the curtailment of the Milk Marque, prices have dropped by over 20 per cent. Is that not a cause for alarm?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the Statement recognises the need for local markets to be revived and for there to be an increase in the number of local markets. Better distribution facilities need to be provided for farmers. It is certainly the case that agriculture requires a distribution network and a system which is more appropriate to the needs of agriculture.
But I fear that a revival of the old-style marketing boards is not on the agenda and would not be appropriate for the agricultural and food policies of today.