HC Deb 17 May 2000 vol 350 cc97-104WH

1 pm

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

The rural white Paper has been a long time coming. Its delay is one of many reasons why people living in the country believe that the Government do not understand rural issues and are not concerned about their needs. I ask the Minister to ensure that, when we finally see the White Paper later this summer, there is not too much talk about vision, and instead some tangible, practical ideas to make rural life better.

The last thing that we want is a White Paper full of spin and good intentions, covered with words such as "sustainable", "inclusion", "integrated", "empowerment" and "workable modernisation", which sound wonderful, but often to not add up to more than a row of beans.

The countryside is not afraid of change. After all, the agricultural revolution came before the industrial revolution. The replacement of the horse with the tractor between the two wars had far-reaching implications for rural life, and agriculture, on which the rural economy is still largely based, has undergone great swings in the agricultural cycle over the years.

The changes taking place are profound. If one had told a farmer even 20 years ago that the production of wheat was less important than the number of skylarks, he would have thought that one was mad. He may still think that, but wildlife and the environment are now considered more important than maximising crop yields. How the pendulum has swung over the past 20 years.

There is another major factor at work. The population in the countryside is growing, but the services that people expect are lagging far behind those available in the towns. Public transport is non-existent in many areas; police services are grossly overstretched; social services are poorly funded; and there is a lack of affordable housing for local people. There is a growing feeling that the Government have been content to spend more in urban areas at the expense of those living in the country.

Finally, the rural community, which used to comprise thousands of more or less self-contained villages, with shops, pubs, schools, police, houses, churches and chapels, is dangerously fragile. That has happened over many years. The car, the supermarket, and intensive large-scale farming practices have all had their impact. Especially for the old and the young, living in the country is often lonely and expensive, and it is difficult to make a living there.

The rural White Paper will need to address these and other issues. Inevitably, it will have to contend with multiple and conflicting objectives. There will be a temptation to descend into platitudes, and Sir Humphrey will have to be kept in close check.

I shall set out a few of my own ideas, drawn from my experience of having lived in the country for most of my life and of representing North Norfolk, a very rural constituency, for the past three years.

First, I shall speak about farming. Every aspect of farming—livestock, vegetables or arable—is going through the wringer. Rightly, subsidies for production are being phased out, and prices are coming down to world market levels. The post-war period in which food production and yield improvement were king, is over.

A new regime which provides subsidies for landscape management, less intensive farming systems, wildlife habitat and environmental benefit, is with us. I hope that that will increasingly be extended to include rural development. Area payments, graduated and linked to the environment or the intensiveness of agricultural practice are, in my view, the way forward.

Against that background, farmers must be able to rely on the Government to provide them with a level playing field so that they do not have to compete against other countries with less rigorous hygiene, animal welfare and environmental standards. It cannot be right, for example, to import from Asia chickens that have been fed on substances banned in this country, or to import from Europe pork from pigs that have been raised in welfare conditions that are rightly illegal in Britain.

Imports that do not comply with our own minimum legal standards should be banned, and to the extent to which farmers are saddled with extra costs not recognised in the market, they should be compensated. Furthermore, food labelling should accurately state the country of origin, not just where it was processed or packaged, and it should contain more accurate information about the production methods used.

Finally, the Government must cut regulation. The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), has just written to me stating that we must regulate only where it is really necessary…The Government's policy on implementing EU obligations in relation to farming will be to avoid all "gold plating" of the legislation, its implementation and enforcement; to regulate in the least bureaucratic and burdensome way and to avoid implementing legislation ahead of specified EU deadlines. We will also negotiate in Brussels to secures measures which minimise regulatory burdens. Tell that to the marines. Sadly, that does not apply in practice.

I shall deal now with the services that people need in the countryside. The Government must recognise that it often costs much more to provide local public services in rural areas, where the population is sparsely spread, than in towns. That applies to policing, school transport, social care and smaller schools.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

My hon. Friend is right about the sparsity factor in the allocation of Government resources. Will he also note that there are some rural communities in which the population is scattered, as well as sparse? That certainly applies to the Lincolnshire fens, which I represent. A scattered population must also be taken into account in the allocation of public services.

Mr. Prior

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is as valid in North Norfolk as it is in The Deepings. Lack of public transport denies access to goods and services that many people in towns take for granted. Central Government support for rural areas must reflect that.

There is a consensus that we must have more front-line policemen. The number of policemen has gone down by 50 in Norfolk since 1997, and by some 2,000 across the country. That trend is in the wrong direction. Much crime in the countryside is not reported, particularly on farms. Response times are far too slow. Many groups of travellers seem to be almost untouchable and beyond the law.

There is little visible police presence in many of our market towns. The morale of the police is not high, swamped as they are by paperwork and bureaucracy. Too little of their time is spent out and about in the community. Moreover, even when convictions are obtained, the courts seem reluctant to hand out longer custodial sentences, most notably for persistent offenders.

The cost of policing geographically widespread areas such as Norfolk is not reflected in the current funding formula that determines the central government grant. That must be addressed as a matter of urgency in the White Paper.

I am sorry to have to say it, but the confidence in the police to maintain law and order effectively has been severely dented over the past few years. As Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, said earlier this week: The Police Service has now lost confidence in the system and the public has lost confidence in the Police Service. The public are not getting the service that they are entitled to. On transport, the Government's high fuel tax policy may make sense in big towns where there is alternative public transport, but it penalises the rural motorist. The Government should consider differential petrol and car tax for people living in the country, and should devolve resources and decision making to district, town and parish councils, so that flexible and voluntary community transport schemes can be supported.

The Minister should note that 75 per cent. of English rural parishes have no daily bus service, 94 per cent. have no train service, and 79 per cent. have no community transport service. For most people living in the country, the car is a necessity, not a luxury. Young people looking for jobs, and pensioners, suffer the most. How does one travel to work or to get training without a car? How does one get to the doctor or pick up one's pension or visit the hospital without a car?

Sadly, the Government's rural bus partnership fund has been a major disappointment. I hope that the White Paper will reassess that grandiose but unsuccessful scheme, so that the resources can be channelled into routes and vehicles appropriate to local requirements.

I debated the subject of housing with the Minister only a month ago. Many local people can no longer afford to live where they were born. As Bob Prince of the Broadlands housing association put it: Affordable housing is a big issue, particularly in hot spots like Cromer and Sheringham, where young families are being squeezed out of the market by second homes and high house prices. I have two proposals for the White Paper. First, I believe that owners of second homes should pay the full council tax, not 50 per cent. as at present. That should be at the discretion of the local council, and the additional tax raised should be ring fenced and made available for low-cost, affordable housing. That would be fair and would remove any resentment. It would be levied only in districts where there is a concentration of second homes, and the proceeds would help local people on low incomes or with special needs who wish to live locally.

Secondly, district councils should be able to negotiate between 25 and 30 per cent. of social rented housing in new housing developments. Those houses should be made available to local people. However, I do not believe that weakening the existing planning regulations is the right way forward, and I hope that there will be no such relaxation in the White Paper.

I turn last to the health of the rural community. I am indebted to a fascinating booklet by my constituent Alice Dennes, which is called "A Look at Neatishead". It describes the history of that village in north Norfolk over the past 200 or so years. She reminded me that villages used to be self-supporting, and that people had a range of trades. There were saddlers, butchers, bakers, tailors and people in many other trades that sadly have died out over the years, while forges, schools, brick kilns, chapels and churches were common throughout the countryside.

In the Countryside Agency's annual report this year, the chairman stated: There is an unsettling fear that villages and market towns are losing their sense of community… Many rural services are closing, posing particular problems for the less well off trying to get basic services if the post office, the doctor's surgery or village shop had disappeared. I hope that the Government will bring forward concrete proposals to help local services such as post offices, rural pubs, rural garages or village shops. Specifically, I want there to be greater relief from business rates for rural businesses and activities. I want the Government to reverse their policy of paying directly into bank accounts benefits and pensions that hitherto have been going through post offices.

I hope that the Government will do that in part by giving more resources to parish and town councils. The last thing that the White Paper should do is put any more power into the hands of regional government. This country needs less central control, and less of bureaucratic central government. What it wants is more solid, decent, feet-on-the-ground common sense from local people. Parish councils and town councils have a vital part to play in local government.

What I shall call the metropolitan view sees the countryside through rose-tinted spectacles. It regards the countryside as a place to visit at the weekend and as a theme park where the sun always shines. The reality often is not like that. For many people, the countryside can be a lonely place. Travelling around the countryside can be difficult, as can finding a job. Old people who live in the countryside can find it difficult to look after themselves. Moreover, farming—such a crucial part of rural life—is going through a period of profound and radical structural change.

I hope that the White Paper will recognise those problems and that it will make concrete proposals that will help the great transition through which agriculture is going; that it will provide greater financial support for local services by recognising the greater cost of delivery; and that it will accept that rural deprivation exists and that it must be addressed. I hope that it will begin the regeneration of our village communities and market towns.

1.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) made an interesting speech. It contained some tangible proposals on many matters that will be given consideration in the rural White Paper. The hon. Gentleman has picked a good day for this debate, as I believe that the report on the rural White Paper from the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs is published today.

Before I deal in detail with some of the issues that have been raised, I shall make one or two comments about what the hon. Member said and about the general tone of his speech. People listening to him might be forgiven for thinking that all the problems of the countryside—which I acknowledge exist—began on 1 May 1997. They might not know, if they confined themselves to what he said, that many of the policies pursued by the previous Conservative Government exacerbated the problems rather than helped solve them. The previous Government's social policies widened the gulf between the fortunate and the less fortunate, and problems of the sort that the hon. Gentleman outlined are the inevitable result.

I note that much of the hon. Gentleman's speech consisted of calls for more subsidies. That comes ill from a member of a party that is for ever going on about the need to reduce public spending. When the Conservatives were in office, cutting public spending was exactly what they did—year by year, and on many of the matters for which the hon. Gentleman now calls for greater subsidies.

The Conservative party is willing to organise mass hysteria at the drop of a hat when there is any suggestion of a tax increase, but money for greater public spending on public services has to be raised from somewhere. I think that it is about time that the hon. Gentleman and his party paid more attention to that point, as we could then have a realistic debate.

However, one of the lessons that the Government have learned over recent years is that problems cannot be solved merely by chucking money at them. I think that the hon. Gentleman, in a sober moment, would agree with that. He mentioned agriculture subsidies, but if problems really could be solved by chucking money at them, the farming industry would have been sorted out years ago. Enormous sums of public money have been poured into agriculture. Often, the result has been increased production of products for which there is no market. It does not make sense to go on doing that, and the Government are facing up to the problem—indeed, the previous Government, in their latter days, were beginning to do the same.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Government's high fuel tax policy. I thought that that was particularly cheeky. I see that the hon. Gentleman is grinning, so it is clear that he acknowledges the point that I am about to make. He knows as well as I do that the fuel tax escalator was introduced by the previous Conservative Government, and that its operations were suspended by this Government.

With regard to affordable housing, I repeat the point that I made earlier: a lot of affordable housing disappeared during the 18 years in which the Conservatives were in office. I accept that the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about a serious problem, and I shall come to some of the details in a moment. However, it ill behoves a Conservative Member to complain about the lack of affordable housing, given that the previous Conservative Government presided over a huge redistribution of wealth in favour of the fortunate and away from the less fortunate.

I turn now to the substance of the debate. First, I want to state that thriving rural communities are an integral part of the Government's vision of a fair and decent society. I know that the hon. Member does not like the word "vision", and I, too, have my suspicions about it. The Government's manifesto included specific pledges on the countryside—to recognise the special needs of rural areas, not to allow rural transport and other public services to deteriorate, and to give greater protection to wildlife, even at the expense of a bit of production. In addition, we are taking a series of measures to help farming through its current crisis, the seriousness of which I readily acknowledge.

Secondly, although there are problems specific to the countryside, it would be wrong to look at rural areas in isolation. People who live in the country will benefit as much as those who live in the cities from the huge amount of extra money that we are putting into health and education. The new deal programme has lead to a huge fall in long-term youth unemployment, and young unemployed people in both rural areas and the cities have benefited.

However, the Government recognise that country areas have distinctive problems that require distinct solutions. That is why we are in the process of producing a rural White Paper. It is being prepared in tandem with the urban White Paper, and both White Papers share a common set of themes.

The first aim is to achieve sustainable—I know that the hon. Gentleman does not like that word, but the Government are in favour of sustainable economic growth—with a better balance between regions, in regions and in individual cities and rural areas. Secondly, we must tackle social exclusion and ensure that everybody has the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Thirdly, we want to ensure that we meet the need for more homes in the most sustainable—that word again—way. Fourthly, we must ensure that everybody has access to the services that they need. Finally, we must strive both to ensure that everyone has a reasonable quality of life wherever they live, and to protect and enhance the environment.

We expect the rural White Paper to focus on sustainable growth and regeneration in rural areas, new directions for agriculture, access to services in rural areas, social exclusion, conservation and recreation, and ensuring that the whole of government is aware of the rural dimension.

I shall now address one or two specific issues that the hon. Member raised. First, let us consider crime in rural areas. At the outset, I want to emphasise that it is important to keep a sense of proportion. We should not pretend, on the basis of one or two well-publicised incidents, that people in the countryside are somehow "under siege". I saw those very words in a recent Sunday newspaper headline. It is simply not true. There is significantly less crime in rural areas than in cities, especially inner cities. Crime in Norfolk in most of the main categories—robbery, burglary, sexual offences, car theft—is well below the average for England and Wales. There is less crime in the part of Norfolk where the hon. Member lives than there is elsewhere in Norfolk. I say that to put his remarks in context, not because there is cause for complacency.

There is no cause for complacency. The Government are anxious to encourage rural bids for some of the money that we are making available to fund 5,000 extra police officers. We also want more closed circuit television cameras in rural areas. Policing in rural areas will be one of the issues that the White Paper tackles.

The White Paper will also consider how to ensure that rural communities have access to the services and quality of life that they can reasonably expect. That will cover local facilities such as shops and post offices, health, education, transport and affordable housing. The Government have already taken action in a variety of ways to support rural communities and services.

One scheme, already in operation, is the mandatory rate relief for village shops and post offices. That means that the sole shop or post office, with a rateable value of less than £6,000 in a settlement of fewer than 3,000 people, is eligible for 50 per cent. rate relief. That can be increased to 100 per cent. for any rural business with a rateable value of less than £12,000, if the local authority believes that that would benefit the community.

The Government also recognise the importance of access to financial services in rural areas. As the hon. Member pointed out, we debated that recently. We are committed to maintaining a nationwide network of post offices, which increasingly give bank customers convenient access to their accounts. That is an area of potential expansion for the Post Office.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that it was Government policy to do away with rural post offices. Nothing could be further from the truth, but we have to face the reality that more and more people choose to have their benefits and pensions paid directly into a bank account. There will therefore be a decline in that aspect of post office business. It happened under the previous Government, and it will happen under ours. Post offices must build up alternative services. They can expand into banking services, especially when banks are progressively withdrawing from rural areas.

The Government have invested almost £500 million in supporting the Horizon programme to automate every post office in the country by next year. That will enable the Post Office to offer improved services under agency agreements with banks and building societies. Some post offices already do that.

Let us consider transport. The hon. Member expressed disappointment, but Norfolk has not fared badly from the extra subsidies that we provided for rural bus services. Overall, we have provided an additional £170 million in the three years since 1998, including new support for rural bus services and encouragement for community transport initiatives. We have also extended the rural bus subsidy grant for three more years until at least 2004, and provided an extra £5 million for the rural bus challenge. That makes a total of £20 million this year. Norfolk has received £1.5 million each year through the rural bus subsidy. That has already supported 66 new and improved services in Norfolk.

The Government recognise the need for a good supply of affordable, good-quality housing in rural areas, especially to enable people to live near their work, and young people to live where they were born and bred.

We have taken steps to improve the quality and increase the supply of affordable rented housing. We have also introduced measures to help people who want to buy their own homes, through the low-cost home ownership scheme in rural communities.

The Housing Corporation continues to have a significant role in providing new housing. We set a rural housing target each year to ensure that sufficient priority is given to the needs of small communities. The current target is for 3.4 per cent. of new homes to be in villages with populations of fewer than 3,000. Since 1989, when the programme began, it has provided an additional 16,000 homes in rural areas.

The planning system also has a part to play. Where there is evidence of need for affordable housing—low cost and subsidised—local planning authorities can require the inclusion of an element of such housing as part of a wider residential development of suitable sites.

The rural development regulation, which is worth £1.6 billion over seven years, signifies a substantial boost to agriculture. That is part of an ambitious plan for a major switch in farm spending from simply increasing production to advancing environmentally beneficial farming practices, modernising and restructuring.

To bridge the gap until the rural development regulation comes into effect, the Prime Minister announced in March £200 million extra funding, including some £26 million for the restructuring of the pig industry, in which the hon. Member for North Norfolk has an interest. Our programme covers all parts of the agri-food chain, from the farm to the supermarket shelf, and is aimed squarely at helping to chart a way out of the current crisis, helping farmers to find new and better ways to make their businesses more resilient, efficient and responsive to demand.

I hope I have said enough to demonstrate that, like the hon. Gentleman, we take rural issues seriously. That will be apparent when he reads the rural White Paper. I hope that he will address some of the issues a little more generously when we next debate them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

We can move to the next debate a little early as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), who has initiated it, and the Minister are in their places.