I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a Rural Development Agency with appropriate powers to sustain rural population by encouraging small scale agriculture in less favoured areas; by co-ordinating an integrated public rural transport system by land, sea and air; by sponsorship and development of small craft and other enterprise including retail outlets and post offices; by providing housing in rural areas for lease or sale by direct build or joint venture providing appropriate housing stock for all age groups; by sponsoring tourism; by promoting village venture schemes; and by providing support measures for rural schools; and for connected purposes.
In introducing the Bill, I start from the position that the Government have a responsibility to maintain basic standards in the fabric of social and economic life throughout the whole country. Of course, resources are finite, and I accept that. Of course, urban decay and economic decline should be given due priority when committing scarce resources to alleviating the grinding poverty and distress that are evident in some of our major and great cities.
There are signs, which are clear for all to see, that rural parts of Britain require co-ordinated and concentrated attention if future problems of rural deprivation are to be avoided. The needs of rural areas may differ in scale and in their nature; they may not always require only hard cash, as often advice and support are as important as grants and loans. However, the needs of the country areas are as great as those identified in the urban and industrial centres.
The need for action now is great, and it has been made greater by a series of fairly recent changes. The European Community is in the process of reforming elements of the common agricultural policy. Whatever our view about the merits of the changes and the method of their introduction, they will bring in their train acute problems for some sectors of the agricultural and related industries. The structural changes in the CAP, if they continue, will make economic life for the smallholder and small-time farmer on marginal land almost impossible.
Also in the European context, we have seen the way in which the British Government's restrictive monetary policies inhibit the full potential of the regional and social funds that are available from the EEC. Much more support for rural areas could have been provided.
In the United Kingdom, the Government are undertaking a review of regional development assistance. Interpreting the signs—they are evident for all to see—there is reason to believe that the areas covered by development status will be curtailed and the amount of money available reduced. In the past, local authorities have been able to allow a measure of direct or indirect support—for example, by maintaining village halls and supporting community and parish councils—but they are being obliged to withdraw that support because the Government have reduced their financial ability to give it.
The same applies to other aspects of country life, including transport. Operators such as Eastern Scottish, in my constituency in the Borders of Scotland, are demanding ever-higher subsidies to maintain fare stage trunk route services. The Post Office is attempting to rationalise its services and is thereby putting its smaller retail outlets under increasing financial pressure. Tourist authorities which see the potential of developing the industry in remote areas do not have enough capital to assist appropriate tourist schemes.
For all those reasons, the need for development in rural areas should be faced squarely and urgently. The evidence of decline is there for all to see. The results of the 1981 census show, across the board, a continuing drift from the landward areas into the towns. As the population falls, services are withdrawn. It is an endless spiral which we ignore at our peril.
I noticed with interest the announcement two days ago by the Development Commission for Rural England to set up a number of rural development areas in England. I warmly welcome that development and will watch with close interest the five to 10 year programmes to be implemented in selected areas.
The Government will no doubt say that that announcement, affecting England, fits the bill and that there is no need for a United Kingdom policy on development in rural areas. They will argue, for example, that the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, the Development Commission for England, the Scottish Development Agency and the Highland and Islands Development Board already have the necessary powers to achieve the ends set out in the long title of my Bill.
I beg to differ, and so do at least two of my local authorities, the regional authority in the Borders and Berwickshire district council. We take the view that large gaps still exist. Indeed, the work done by the boards, councils and development agencies to which I have referred is commendable, but anyone who pays heed to the powerful and constructive case argued by such influential bodies as Rural Voice in England and Rural Forum in Scotland recognises that major gaps still exist in the provision tnat could, and should, be made in rural areas.
Any meaningful attempt to tackle the problem must be adequately backed by the Department of Trade and Industry via a properly constituted and funded development agency. My Bill seeks to set up such an United Kingdom agency to bridge the gaps that I have identified. It need not require vast sums of money. Indeed, it need not make a significant impact on the volume of public expenditure. It could even be phased in by setting up the agency and charging it with the responsibility of undertaking a series of pilot schemes in different villages and localities to see what could be achieved before the decision to scale up the amount of funds required was eventually taken.
Imaginative and practical steps are necessary now if we are to preserve the best of our rural way of life and stem the slide towards depopulation and deprivation. The Bill offers an opportunity to take a positive step in that direction, and on that basis I commend it to the House.