HL Deb 22 January 2004 vol 657 cc1141-4

11.15 a.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made on achieving targets set in the rural White Paper of 2000.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, considerable progress has been made on the programme set out in the rural White Paper. The creation of Defra, with a clear remit for rural policy, and a Cabinet committee on rural regeneration significantly strengthen the rural agenda across government. The recent rural White Paper review, available on Defra's website, alongside new evidence from our rural research centre, shove s that the vision continues to command widespread support.

I must apologise that copies of the review were not placed in the Library on the day of release. They have been placed there this week, but that should happen automatically and I regret the failure of the system in this case.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, but he must be disappointed that of the aims and targets set, only 48 per cent have been achieved to date; that, according to the report, a further 35 per cent are in hand; and that 17 per cent have not even been commenced. Does that not reflect the Government's lack of priority on rural living and lack of understanding of the different needs of rural communities, especially with regard to distance and sparseness? Further, are not the Government now under an obligation at least to give the House government time to debate that important rural White Paper, which was produced back in 2000 and which the Government have given no time to debate?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, our figures in the rural White Paper review state that 83 per cent of all the commitments are either completed or on track. Of the remainder, there is some slippage in about 13 per cent. Those are our figures. Where there has been slippage, that clearly needs to be addressed. However, huge resources have been deployed for rural schools, policing, post offices, childcare and Sure Start, support for village enterprises and rural transport. There has been a substantial shift of resources to rural areas on all those matters. As I said, rural-proofing is now a significant part of assessment of government policy right across the board.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, it is a pity, then, that even with all that increased funding, rural post offices are still closing at an even faster rate than when the Government entered office. However, to deliver part of the programme requires regional development agencies to have a strong rural programme. Is the Minister aware that in the very rural south-west region, the funding for rural areas that should be on stream from the regional development agency, far from being on stream, appears to be behind a dam? The rural renaissance funding is simply not getting through.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I also know that a significant programme for rural enterprise has been established by the South West Regional Development Agency. It is true that deployment of some of those resources has not been as quick as either we or the RDA would like; I regret that that is true in some other areas as well. Nevertheless, the commitment of the South West RDA and other RDAs is clearly to have a major rural stream as part of their regeneration programme. The Government strongly support that.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I declare a direct financial interest as a woodland owner. Can the Minister hold out any prospect of prices for timber and up-take of forest products recovering to their level of 10 years ago?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is probably well beyond my powers. I am afraid that, by and large, the price of timber is set by international markets. Regrettably, even Defra does not have jurisdiction to determine the prices traded on world markets. But there has been strong support from Defra and the Forestry Commission for the development of all sorts of woodland enterprises.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, for rural areas to be sustained, we need a lot of imagination from councillors elected to represent those areas, who sometimes show undue parochialism in inappropriate attempts to keep open individual schools, whereas they might better be clustered for the future prosperity and strength of their area?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I must admit that short-sightedness by local councillors in rural areas has been known to exist. On occasion, councillors have turned down what seemed perfectly sensible planning proposals that might have generated jobs and prosperity in rural areas. More creative approaches to the loss of services in rural areas, both private and public sector, would have maintained those services had we clustered them in various ways. Greater creativity and a more flexible approach to at least part of the planning arrangements in certain difficult rural areas would help to recreate rural prosperity.

Lord St John of Bletso

My Lords, can the Minister elaborate on what the Government are doing to provide affordable broadband access to the rural community?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is a very important issue. It is important that all citizens of this land have equal access to broadband, which is not the case at present. The Government strongly support BT's commitment that 100 per cent broadband coverage of every UK community should be achievable by 2005.

Lord Plumb

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with the current progress of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme? Many farmers appear to be taking advantage of it, and there is movement, but can Defra cope with the requests being made? What effect will it have on future incomes related to the reduction of subsidies through CAP?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, by and large, the Countryside Stewardship Scheme has been a success. Clearly, there have been problems at the margins, but, in general, the take-up and delivery of the scheme have made an important contribution to the improved environmental performance of agriculture and provided an income to those farmers taking part.

As noble Lords will be aware, the Government are committed to creating an entry-level environment scheme, to which there would be relatively easy access, that would deliver both environmental benefits and income. Although there will be changes to the CAP, the exact details of which the Government will announce in several weeks' time, the total amount of money for agriculture remains by far the biggest support given to any industry. Although the nature of the subsidies may change, they represent a large element of support for the future of agriculture.