I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the Lancashire structure plan, but I find it more than a little extraordinary that no Liberal Democrats are present. I am sure that many of my constituents in wards which are represented by Liberal Democrat councillors and are facing significant pressure on the few remaining open spaces in the town will draw the appropriate conclusions in the local government elections tomorrow.
The Lancashire structure plan is still in its consultation phase and there is therefore little that my hon. Friend the Minister can say about its specific provisions, but it is right that Lancashire Members should have the chance to comment on them and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to respond to the more general issues that this and similar plans raise.
Much in the structure plan is commendable. It sets a broad strategic approach which attempts to deal with some of the main problems facing the county. It addresses the need to balance economic growth with a more sustainable pattern of development. It attempts to improve the image of the county so as to maximise inward investment. It looks at how to correct past imbalances in development between the west and east of the county. Those are all laudable objectives and important issues that the structure plan is right to identify.
The devil, however, is in the detail: the aspect of the plan that most concerns me is the damaging effect that it will have on Lancashire's environment and it is that aspect, above all else, that I shall concentrate on today.
There is now a widespread appreciation of the Government's environmental credentials. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in particular has demonstrated his personal commitment to the environment and has won the support and trust of many previously sceptical pressure groups. The Government have addressed with determination great global environmental issues such as climate change and global warming and as a consequence green politics appears less and less to preoccupy the minds of the public; yet still I sense a fundamental unease about the future, a feeling that what people care about—their own local environment—is under growing threat, and that the countryside of England is gradually but relentlessly being worn away.
Sometimes, perhaps as yet infrequently, that unease explodes into passionate demonstrations against plans to bulldoze ancient woodlands or to cover water meadows in tarmac. It is the same sense of unease about which the great English poet Philip Larkin wrote when he was commissioned by the Department of the Environment when it was set up in 1972. Conservative Members know that the Minister is particularly fond of poetry, so he will not mind my quoting Philip Larkin's poem, "Going, Going". He wrote:
I thought it would last my time—the sense that, beyond the town, there would always be fields and farms.
We cannot underestimate the despair, alienation and anger that people feel about the destruction of the countryside, particularly when it is happening in their own backyards on the edges of towns and villages. That is the big environmental issue today. That is what people are really concerned about: the destruction of their piece of countryside, their green lung, their little open space. We cannot underestimate the power of those feelings because we can only guess at the emotions, the memories, the sense of security, well-being and community that are bound up in the land.
I cannot help thinking that, unless we—all of us, the Government and local authorities—decide to stop bulldozing the countryside and look for sustainable alternatives, there will be dozens more demonstrations like the one this week against the M65 in Stanworth valley and hundreds more police will have to be deployed to pull protestors down from the branches and the blossom before, finally, the endless tides of concrete wash over us all.
When Larkin wrote his poem, much less of England had been bricked in and much less had been destroyed. This weekend, we will celebrate the end of the second world war, but I doubt whether many of those who did not return from the conflict would recognise their country today. In the south-west alone, since 1945 the urban area has increased by two thirds. That is an increase of 84,000 hectares. An area of countryside half the size of Greater Manchester has been lost to development.
One third of the north-west is now urban. It is the most urban region in the country; yet Lancashire county council is planning more concrete and more tarmac. Its structure plan—which it calls, perhaps ironically, "Greening the County"—plans to seize for building and industry 3,700 hectares, much of it green fields at the edges of our towns and villages. It plans to drive a new road through the heart of some of the most beautiful countryside in east Lancashire by extending the M65 beyond Colne, and it is planning a further 23 road schemes in the county. That is not greening the county but greying it.
I want to deal with four aspects of the structure plan before discussing some of the wider issues on which I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will elaborate.
Before my hon. Friend discusses those four points, does he agree that one of the ironies of what he has been saying is that the same people whom we have seen on television this week—the demonstrators in the trees and lobbying on the single issue—are frequently activists for left-wing parties, but are opposed by the very left-wing Lancashire county council? It is perhaps because of the irony of that conflict—it is the left arguing with itself—that just one Labour Lancashire Member dares to come to the debate; all the others cannot be bothered.
As usual, my hon. Friend makes a telling point. It is clear that the Labour party in Lancashire cannot be regarded as having any credible environmental credentials at all.
I do not want to antagonise the hon. Gentleman, but if it were not for the Scottish perspective and Scottish money, his town of Blackpool would be less prosperous than it is at the moment, as he knows. At the risk of ruining his career and mine, I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed his speech so far: it is nice to hear a speech that does not sound like a desiccated calculating machine when it comes to planning issues.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is great risk in trying to portray those who are concerned with the environment as merely on the left, for the sake of making a party political point? The points that the hon. Gentleman makes in such resounding fashion about the quality of life are of concern to people right across the political spectrum and to many people who are not involved in party politics or, indeed, in regional issues.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Of course I recognise the great contribution made by Scottish people to Blackpool's economy, and I accept some of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I had hoped that, inspired by my quotation from one of England's great poets, he would himself quote Robert Burns.
The Lancashire structure plan rightly concludes that much of the pressure on the countryside results from demands generated in towns, and identifies some of the problems associated with the quality of housing in urban areas. The Government must take those points seriously, and I hope that they will do so, particularly in the context of the assisted area and urban aid programmes. I must say—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) agrees with me—that it is a disgrace that Blackpool, whose town centre has pockets of some of the highest unemployment in the north of England, receives no assistance whatever at a time when some far less deserving cases in the area are inundated with it.
The plan is also right to state that there would be less pressure for rural development if towns were more attractive to residents, developers and investors. That is in line with much of the Government's current thinking. My own concern about the issue has led me to look more closely at what is actually being planned. The integrity of our rural areas is of paramount importance: the countryside is an important resource for everyone, town and country dwellers alike. Once despoiled, a landscape is lost for a generation or more; farmland, once built on, is unlikely ever to be returned to agriculture.
The structure plan therefore rightly proposes putting land use policy on a more sustainable footing. It stresses the need to protect the rural environment—yet it proposes a staggering amount of development, based on thoroughly unconvincing statistics, which constitutes nothing less than an assault on Lancashire's countryside.
The county proposes that Lancashire's districts should allocate land for 66,000 new houses between 1991 and 2006. At present levels of density, that would require more than 6,000 acres—or 2,500 hectares—of land, much of which would be on green fields at the edges of towns and villages. Some of it would inevitably be on the few remaining open spaces in towns such as Blackpool, which is expected to provide some 4,000 extra houses at a rate of 270 units per year. In rural areas, the rate of development would be much higher.
I consider that level of development neither necessary nor sustainable. It is based on a projected population increase of 71,000 between 1991 and 2006, including a migratory element of 35,000. It also assumes a need to house growing numbers of smaller households in similar accommodation because of new social trends, such as greater longevity and the breakdown of traditional family relationships.
Those factors are bound to have an effect on population growth in the county, but I nevertheless believe that the county council is overstating its housing need. Official estimates of population and migratory change—in particular, those from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys—are lower than the projections used by the county. That is not always the case in other areas. The OPCS calculates a population increase of only 48,700, with 28,300 net migrations; it also notes the falling birth rate, which the county fails to take into account.
Whatever the true figures, there is little doubt that the county is prepared to surrender green-field sites far too easily, and has not concentrated nearly enough attention on brown-field and recycled land. It is extraordinary that the plan should concentrate in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans), for example, on developing green-field sites around Poulton, without mentioning the possibilities of housing development around the former commercial docks in Fleetwood.
It is also true to say that the type of housing proposed in such areas—mostly three and four-bedroom detached houses on small plots—does not reflect what is likely to be a growing demand for a higher proportion of smaller, low-cost properties built at higher densities for individuals and single parents rather than families. That important issue needs to be examined again, not just by the county council and local authorities but, in a wider context, by the Government. I hope that in the not too distant future the Environment Select Committee may be able to examine it, too; I certainly feel that it should be dealt with more fully in planning guidance.
I also believe that the Government should give much more consideration to the problems associated with migration from metropolitan areas, and the extent to which shire counties such as Lancashire are expected to plan for them. After all, such migrations are a sign of deteriorating quality of life in the cities: they show that life in the cities is becoming less and less attractive to ordinary people. In such circumstances, planned over-provision of land for housing by a county such as Lancashire simply fuels demand; it sends the wrong signals to people in general and developers in particular.
As we all know, the developer is much more likely to focus on areas of greatest demand, where the cost of land is lowest and the market rate for house prices is highest. We should give a much clearer signal to local authorities not to allocate precious land for housing simply to accommodate migration from metropolitan areas as a result of failure to satisfy the expectations of city dwellers in regard to their environment and quality of life.
The other main issue dealt with in the plan is transport. Much of what it says is good. It recognises the problems associated with increased car use. It suggests that there could be an extra 150,000 cars on Lancashire's roads by 2006—a truly horrifying statistic. It rightly emphasises the importance of public transport and the need to site development to reduce dependence on private cars, as well as the importance of traffic calming and management schemes and encouraging simpler forms of travel such as cycling and walking. All those initiatives are good, and the plan is right to concentrate on them. However, it also proposes a significant number of new road projects.
Those projects include what the plan calls a strategic route linking Lancashire with west Yorkshire and the Humber ports, which would mean an extension of the M65 beyond Colne. It also proposes 23 other road schemes. I shall not go into the details of every scheme, but that level of road building suggests a slightly less than "green" approach, to say the least. Some of the proposed schemes would have a severe impact on sites of special scientific interest, special protection areas and Ramsar and county heritage sites.
I believe that the county council is making a fundamental mistake in trying to solve traffic problems rather than transport problems. It also blandly assumes a direct correlation between road building and economic growth. The reality, as I am sure my hon. Friends will agree, is much more complex: sometimes that is the case, and sometimes it is not. Before we commit ourselves to such a vast increase in planned road building, we should be sure of the overall net benefits. The structure plan does little more than guess at those; nor does it estimate the amount of extra traffic that is likely to be generated by such a huge volume of road building.
In fact, most of those road schemes will not ultimately solve traffic problems. They will make them worse. In many instances, they will actually induce increases in traffic, with all the consequences that that will entail in terms of pollution, global warming and reduced quality of life. There is no doubt that in many instances the proposed road construction will seriously damage the environment and countryside and that will be widely resented by local people.
I genuinely welcome much of what the structure plan says about the development of alternative forms of transport, and particularly the emphasis on Blackpool's unique tram system, which has the potential to be developed as a light rail network for the Fylde. I know that many of my hon. Friends are keen on that idea and it should receive the closest possible attention both from local authorities and from the Government. I also welcome the plan's observations about the importance of Blackpool airport, which still has potential for significant expansion of great economic benefit to the whole of the Fylde.
I am concerned, however, about the structure plan's proposal for a massive new rail freight and regional business centre on a green-field site in South Ribble, despite the existence of suitable sites elsewhere. The proposal involves the unnecessary development of a green-field site and will undermine efforts to regenerate derelict sites in urban areas.
All these issues lead to general concerns, one of which relates to the planning process itself. How should the county structure plan fit into the broader framework of national objectives and regional planning? The Lancashire structure plan is being produced outside the context of regional planning and without regard to the general direction of recent Government planning policy guidance. The deposit edition of the structure plan was written before publication of the consultation draft of the Government's regional planning guidance for the North West. That seems very odd. In Lancashire, so far as I am aware, the chicken does not usually come before the egg; however, it appears to have done so on this occasion.
What is the point of producing regional planning guidance if it does not form the basis of county structure plans and if its assumptions are not accepted by county planners, as clearly in this case—particularly with regard to housing—they are not? There seems little point in employing a large number of civil servants to produce plans in Manchester if those plans are simply ignored by an even larger number of county planning officials in Preston. It is little wonder that our planning objectives sometimes appear confused and contradictory.
The structure plan also illustrates another major environmental concern about land use designations. Essentially, we must ask ourselves what price we put on the environmental landscape value of different parts of the countryside. Throughout Lancashire there are valuable landscape and amenity areas with widely differing characteristics which are outside the boundaries of national designations such as green belt land and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
The boundaries of an area of outstanding natural beauty are entirely arbitrary, and it cannot be argued that all land outside those boundaries is of lesser landscape value. Lancashire is full of examples of some of the most beautiful countryside in England, much of it in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). Much of that land is outside the boundaries of areas of outstanding natural beauty and is therefore without the protection that that designation affords.
I do not believe that the structure plan acknowledges the importance of differing characteristics and the relative values of landscapes. The Government need to give much clearer guidance in this area. There is much more fundamental concern about the Government's response to the threat to the countryside, and I am sure that it is an issue about which the Government, the Secretary of State and Ministers are deeply concerned.
There are two ways in which the Government can respond to the threat: first, through the planning system and, secondly, through measures to tackle the problem where it can be most readily solved—in the towns. The marriage between environmental objectives and the planning system has hardly been a whirlwind elopement. The planning system has begun to acknowledge the enormous pressures on the countryside and the damage that that has caused.
Recent planning policy guidance for town centres and for out-of-town retail developments, for instance, have begun to place a greater onus on developers. I believe that that trend should be extended, so that the onus is on all developers, not just retailers, to prove that their proposals will not harm the local environment or substantially damage the character of the countryside. National planning guidance should seek to play a much greater role in influencing the type, character and design of housing and industrial development in or at the edges of the countryside.
There must also be a clear presumption that rural land should not be released for development if suitable urban or infill sites exist elsewhere. The Government are rightly concerned about the vitality and viability of our town centres. It is the state of many of our towns which, after all, has caused such overwhelming pressures to be placed on the countryside. If our towns become places of ugliness and despair, where crime and vandalism are rife, it is inevitable that people will seek to leave them and move to the countryside.
Other countries—particularly Germany—have addressed the problem and ensured that town centres are vibrant places in which people want to live. We must make towns popular and attractive places again, not only by loading the planning system in their favour but by ensuring that we maximise grants and incentives for inner urban and brown-field development and regeneration. That is the only way to realise the full potential of our towns and cities and restore them to their former glory. It is also the only sure long-term way to protect the countryside so we can pass on our magnificent rural heritage unspoilt to our children.
The next few years will show that this issue, as illustrated by the Lancashire structure plan, is the most important environmental challenge facing this country. I will end by quoting a few more words of poetry, from "The Deserted Village" written by Oliver Goldsmith some 200 years ago. I hope that this will inspire the Minister to ensure that Goldsmith's nightmare vision does not become a reality:
When I saw that the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) had been granted this debate, I wondered what line he would pursue. Like other Conservative Members, he has criticised Lancashire county council but, as a former county councillor himself, he is not quite as hostile to the council as some other Conservative Members.
I share the view of the majority of Lancashire Members of Parliament that we would have preferred a unitary system of local government for Lancashire, rather than the shire county, but I have never attacked the county council because I recognise the good work that it has done.
I found it strange that the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) described Lancashire county council as an extremist left-wing county council. I believe that it could be described as a moderate, sensible, progressive or positive county council, because it has tried to address the problems facing Lancashire since Labour took majority control for the first time under the present structure of local government in 1981.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North referred to VE day. I can remember VE day as I was evacuated to Burnley at the time of the V1s and V2s. I can remember having a bonfire just opposite where my grandmother lived in Burnley, and I also remember that that weekend was the first time I ever went to Blackpool. Lancashire is now very different from the Lancashire that existed during the war, and I have no doubt that local government—the boroughs, the former county borough councils or the county councils—has played a positive part in that.
One of the major changes in Lancashire has been in its industries. Burnley was dependent on coal mining and cotton, but coal has completely gone and cotton has almost gone from the whole county. When I was a young boy, I did not believe that the sun ever shone in Burnley. I never saw blue sky or the sun—even in summer—because of the pall of smoke over the town. Local government has played a role in changing that.
Under the structure plan, local government is showing how it believes Lancashire should address the problems that will face the county in the rapidly approaching next century.
I agreed with much of what the hon. Member for Blackpool, North said, but I fear that if restrictions and restraints were drawn round Lancashire, as he suggested, it could not attract industry, provide employment and survive in the 21st century.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North mentioned the M65, and I have always been a supporter of that road, which was originally called the Calder valley motorway. At present, a motorway goes from Blackburn to Colne—many local people call it the motorway from Tesco to Asda because it ends in a field and starts in a nonsensical place—and it is outrageous that we still do not have connections to the M6 and M61.
I recognise that people have the right to protest, which they have done and action has been taken against them. I have no doubt that if we want investment, jobs and people to create wealth, so that towns in east Lancashire such as Burnley and Blackburn survive, we must have those connections to the motorways. When people are considering investing they always ask about the communications and whether they can get their goods away from Burnley if they open a factory in the town. Communications are the key.
The M65 has been debated and argued about on many occasions. It was agreed that it should be reinstated in the roads scheme and is to go ahead. I look forward to the day when the westwards extension to the M6 and M61 is open and benefiting the people of my area. I accept that the argument for going eastwards into Yorkshire is very different. I support that proposal and make no apologies for doing so. I always support environmental causes, but one has to weigh the environmental advantages and economic benefits of motorways, as well as the disadvantages. There still needs to be a debate on that issue; I would not necessarily share the view of the hon. Member for Blackpool, North on that.
In referring to the other 23 roads and the M65, the hon. Member for Blackpool, North implied that the county council is obsessed with roads rather than other transport issues, which is misleading. The county council has supported rail development, electrification and improvement and wants more investment in our rail system. Opposition Members do not believe that privatisation will help to achieve those improvements—Conservative Members will probably disagree. The railways should remain in the public sector and investment should be made.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North failed to mention the tragic loss of the InterCity trains to Blackpool, although he must recognise that it is a loss. I am sure that, like me, he recognises that, if the Blackpool line were electrified through to Manchester, it would make it much easier for electrified InterCity trains to continue to Blackpool. I am sure that we would get unanimity on that view, as it is something that we all want, and the county council would certainly support it.
The county council strongly supports Manchester airport and the second runway proposal. It recognises, however, and has never pretended otherwise, the case for development and progress at Liverpool, if the investment could be made on its merits.
The county council has always said that three airports serve the north-west, with Blackpool being the third. Manchester is a major international airport and there is no doubt that it will be developed.
The people of Lancashire will express their view of the Conservative party's policies on many of the issues in the elections tomorrow. I am sure that I will be much happier about the election results than Conservative Members, or the Liberals, who are not represented in this debate.
It is somewhat strange that the debate should take place today because, as hon. Members representing Lancashire will know, consultation on the Lancashire structure plan is taking place in the Dunkenhalgh hotel at Clayton-le-Moors this week. It started yesterday. Mr. Philip Critchley CB, is acting as chairman of the panel and the planning inspector has appointed Mr. Ernest Smith as the second member of the panel.
I do not know how many hon. Members responded to the original consultation on the structure plan. I certainly did so and I am sure that others who responded will have received a similar letter to one sent to me, which said that I would not be invited to take part in the public consultation but that my views would be taken into account. The county is going about the plan in the right way, has allowed people to put their views and is examining the issues that are the subject of the debate.
Among the subjects to be examined during the consultation are the county road network, urban transport, which certainly covers public transport, the trans-Pennine strategic route and green belts, to which the hon. Member for Blackpool, North referred—I accept that the latter is very important, as we do not want the green areas of Lancashire to be totally eroded. The list of subjects under examination also includes regional business location, development in central, north and east Lancashire and in the countryside, minerals and waste.
The last two are of great importance. Waste regulation is one of the subjects affected by the Environment Bill, which is in Committee at present. I support the view that waste regulation should be taken over by the environment protection agency. That is not a criticism of Lancashire county council, but a view that I reached while serving on the Select Committee on the Environment some years ago, because I do not believe that one can be a poacher and a gamekeeper.
It is interesting that environmental issues in Lancashire, and the way in which the plan has been considered, have been recognised in Europe and internationally as an example to local government. The new Lancashire county structure plan, "Greening the Red Rose County", is one of the first in the country to be based on a strategy for sustainable development. The county council's pioneering environmental work has achieved European and global recognition. The pioneering green audit of Lancashire was announced at the Rio summit as one of the top 25 local environmental initiatives worldwide. In April, the European Commission presented the county council with one of Europe's most prestigious environmental awards for its green audit, environmental action plan and structure plan, which are all models of sustainable development for others to follow. With Lyon, it won joint first prize in the EC-sponsored European urban and regional town planning awards. The judges commended it very highly and it is important that we recognise that.
As I said, minerals are one of the subjects under discussion at the Dunkenhalgh hotel. As I have told the county council time after time, it should oppose all plans for opencast extraction and the re-opening of former coal mines. In 1995, there is no case for extracting what, in most cases, is low-quality and poor-value coal. Secondly, all my experience is that when any such developments have taken place in my constituency, agreements on aspects of reinstatement work and environmental protection have not been observed. I hope that, within the plan, we will be firm and of the overriding view that we should not approve such development.
Lancashire county council has suggested a sensible and balanced approach and has considered the needs of a county in which we can live, be educated and provided with all the services and all the other things that make for a normal life. The plan is balanced and the council has made a fair judgment of the environmental implications. I do not necessarily agree with every item, but the council's approach is positive and sensible and will lead to a vibrant and successful Lancashire in the next century.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) on his speech and on attending a debate that is clearly dominated by representatives of the Conservative party in Lancashire. We cannot fail to notice that the hon. Gentleman is the only Labour party representative from Lancashire in the Chamber. His colleagues have doubtless asked him to speak for them and I expect that Liberal Democrat representatives, who are so closely allied to the Labour party, have asked the hon. Gentleman to make their contribution as well.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) on raising this debate. He speaks with the valuable experience of a former county councillor with great knowledge of, interest in and commitment to Lancashire. He has done the House a good service by giving us an opportunity to debate matters of concern. Many local government issues have national implications on which we all have strong views, and it is only right that we should deal with them in this way. I hope that we can have such a debate every year. If my hon. Friend pursues such a course of action, I shall certainly attend.
As so many of my hon. Friends wish to speak, I shall deal with just one aspect of the county structure plan: the western bypass, an important road in my constituency. This matter will loom large in the debate in county hall next week when the roads programme will be discussed. I started to press for the road when I first became a Member of Parliament 16 years ago. It was then called the M6 link. I noticed that the hon. Member for Burnley called it something else. Over the years, those great ideas tend to change names. One reason why the road is no longer called the M6 link in my constituency is that part of it—the Lancaster to Morecambe bypass, phase 1—has already been built. We now need to complete that first stage by building a link to the motorway. The two options are a western bypass, favoured by the county, and a northern bypass, favoured by others. I shall not discuss the merits of the arguments, which will be considered next week.
I am anxious that the road should be completed. It would be a county road and is currently the subject of an environmental impact assessment. The completed road would link Heysham port and industrial estate to the motorway network. I hope that I can persuade the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North that the road will be of great importance to the county. I hope to take a delegation of local business men to see the Department of Transport next week.
In considering the impact of roads on the environment, it should be recognised that the arguments go both ways. Some reasons for road building are environmentally and economically benign. I believe that the M6 link, as I shall call it, in its generic way satisfies those criteria. The port of Heysham in the heart of the town is a significant but greatly under-utilised asset which, under Sealink's ownership, is developing ever-increasing trade. Over the past 15 years, capacity has been doubled and new trade routes have been opened to Northern Ireland.
I hope that I am not over-optimistic in saying that the trade may develop still further on the back of the peace dividend, which we all hope will succeed in Northern Ireland, and there will be even more trade from the port of Heysham across the northern Irish sea. If that happens, it is unrealistic to envisage that trade continuing other than by means of motor vehicle on to the delivery systems of the United Kingdom. The inevitable increase in traffic pressure cannot be met without relieving the urban centres of Lancaster and Morecambe by completing the motorway link.
The second important and strategic reason why Heysham needs that link to the motorway system is that it has a long-standing industrial estate. A great ICI plant was there and an enormous amount of land is derelict. The city council owns many acres of land on the estate and has allocated the area to building a new industrial estate. It plans to reclaim derelict land and put industrial units in the area. It is environmentally beneficial that that should be the location for new industry, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North recognised will be needed.
We must clean up the area. If there is no incentive so to do, the area will not be cleaned up. We must provide sites for industry but we do not want to take new green-field sites for that purpose. That old green-field site has already been rendered derelict and is available to industry. It must be right to build industry in such areas. As the hon. Member for Burnley said, developers who wish to enter an area want to know when roads will be built as road communications are a significant factor in assessing whether to invest in that part of the north-west.
I shall not dwell at length on the third reason, but simply say that terrific stresses are caused in Lancaster and Morecambe by traffic demands on the area. Everyone who visits the city at rush hour and other hours of the day will know that that is so.
In his opening words, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North said that we should make town centres environmentally enjoyable places. I entirely agree. Lancaster is not my constituency but my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) could not be here this morning. I am sure that she wants cities such as Lancaster once more to be pleasant places in which to live. No one could dispute that Lancaster is not an environmentally pleasant place to live because of the enormous amount of traffic generated in the city centre. Traffic must be relieved in such areas. I am reliably informed that the completion of the western bypass or M6 link would relieve traffic that comes through Lancaster on its way to my constituency by some 31 per cent. and would end some of that painful congestion.
It is a national policy to move away from road building. I subscribe to that general principle as I do not want our countryside to be destroyed, but that objective has not been as openly and clearly defined to the House as I should like. I hope that, in his reply, my hon. Friend the Minister can give us a more precise idea about it. Any policy to move away from the sort of road building that occurred in the post-war period must be qualified in many areas. I can think of only two, but they are particularly germane to the road that I am discussing. The policy should be qualified by recognising that we must, none the less, build roads where congestion has become intolerable. We must have a policy that deals with such congestion. It is no use making the bald statement that we shall build no more roads if we have no policy to deal with appalling congestion.
One aspect of that policy is to build a road as, in some cases, it would be good for the environment to do so. I accept the proposition that we should build no more strategic motorways across the country and that people should travel by rail or public transport, but it is absurd to say that we do not need roads if they could relieve appalling congestion.
That criterion must apply to the road that I am discussing. I recognise that this is a complicated matter and that, every time a road is built, road usage increases, but we still need a policy on congestion.
Roads that have already been started must be completed. Phase 1 of the Heysham to Morecambe road has already been completed and phase 2 would link that road to the motorway. If we do not complete phase 2, we shall invalidate and fail to take advantage of the potential benefits of phase 1. This road goes virtually nowhere. It is by no means over-utilised, so we must build on the investment in phase 1 by completing phase 2.
Both those qualifications apply to the road about which I am speaking and I look forward to the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister in due course.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to say a few words in this excellent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) on obtaining the debate and I identify myself with his remarks, which he made based on his deep knowledge of Lancashire over many decades and that of his family over many centuries.
I am a reasonably recent immigrant to Lancashire, but, as a result of my experience elsewhere on planning committees and local councils, I am convinced of the importance of local and structure plans. Certainty is needed to get the planning process moving in the right direction and to allow people to plan for the future. But if we have such plans—my remarks relate particularly to Lancashire county council's structure plan—they must be based on accurate data.
One of the most worrying assumptions for the coming decade in the Lancashire county structure plan is the inflow of population to my borough at a rate of about 850 people a year. Therefore, we should look closer at whether such assumptions are correct. I do not think that they are, in which case all the other assumptions concerning housing are inaccurate. We shall be driving forward a process which is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because one builds the houses, people will be encouraged to live in Lancashire when, without such assumptions in the first place, there would probably be a much better balance involving people in the county, people coming in and the amount of housing and green belt.
It is suggested that my borough will have 6,000 more houses in the next 10 years. I believe that that is totally wrong. It is a large increase. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North said, it is a 66,000 increase across the county. One tenth of those new houses in Lancashire will be built in the borough of Wyre.
My borough council has looked closely at the figures and it says:
On the basis of the socio-economic trends, the borough council proposes to challenge these assumptions. Perhaps more importantly"—
I emphasise this—
the borough council does not view the continuation or encouragement of development on such a scale as being desirable because it would seriously compromise environmental and other legitimate planning objectives.
If I have a criticism of the Lancashire county structure plan in relation to housing, it is that it has not taken into account those other factors.
If we analyse the present situation, we do not see in Lancashire, and particularly in Wyre, a huge increase in house prices. Therefore, there is no evidence on the ground that there are not enough houses. Indeed, the opposite happens. My hon. Friend mentioned Fleetwood. For the past four or five years a development site next to the old commercial dock could have been used for residential development, but no one has come along to build houses on it and, most recently, some of the land has been taken for retail space.
If there is a pent-up demand for houses, why has that development not gone ahead? My real point is that we should look less at the predictions of experts at county hall of what will happen to the population in Lancashire during the coming years and much more closely at what is happening on the ground where sites are available but have not been taken up.
I am afraid that I cannot because I have only a couple of minutes.
I am convinced that the right way forward is for us to concentrate our developments in towns, as has been said, and ensure that we revitalise towns such as Fleetwood and Lancaster rather than gobbling up green belt around towns such as Garstang and Poulton-le-Fylde and villages such as Knott End, Preesall and Pilling. There is a suggestion that 60 acres adjacent to Knott End should be used for 600 new houses which would increase the village's population by 50 per cent. That would change the character of that village. There is no doubt that that would happen across the borough and the county if the county assumptions on the increase in population during the next 10 years were to be realised. That is unacceptable.
There is much good in the document on the greening of Lancashire, although I rather agree with my hon. Friend that in many ways it could be described as the browning of the county. What is important is that we concentrate on urban areas and do not gobble up any more green belt.
I have been involved in planning and local government for many years and the one thing that is striking is the constant change in the guidance that comes out of the Department of the Environment. I am pleased that such guidance is now in tune with what I have been saying. I am convinced that certainty and encouragement to developers to develop brown lands within towns, rather than green belt around towns, will be to the benefit of communities and have a useful on-going effect because the lack of development will mean a reduction in transport and other needs.
I sincerely hope that the public inquiry into the structure plan comes up with the sort of proposals that my hon. Friends and I have articulated this morning.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak in the debate. I shall be brief so that my hon. Friends can contribute. It is a matter of enormous pleasure to all my hon. Friends that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) has obtained this important debate. I echo the remarks that have been made about his distinguished previous service as a Lancashire county councillor for the Wyreside ward. I think that I am right in recalling that he was at that time, by some distance, the youngest Lancashire county councillor and one of the youngest ever to have served on the county council. I have no doubt that the experience that he gained during his time as a Lancashire county councillor has been of enormous importance to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) touched on the great historic tradition of the family of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre, unfortunately I do not have that benefit. I am a more recent arrival in Lancashire, but my wife's family has been in Lancashire for generations. In the few years that I have had the honour to represent Blackpool, South, I have acquired some knowledge of some of the problems that arise as a result of the peculiar approach of Lancashire county council, under its current leadership, to these matters. In the short time available, I want to touch briefly on one or two issues that I think are particularly important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North stressed the crucial importance of getting planning policy right by basing it on accurate statistics. I very much share his disbelief, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre, in the projected figures for the incoming population in the next few years. As has been said, if they are wrong, the planning policies are wrong. I am sure that we shall not see a massive influx of population into Lancashire and that, therefore, we should not be seeing vast amounts of building.
My constituency is entirely urban. I want proper housing policies to exist which develop existing urban land with good-quality housing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North rightly said, unfortunately there are areas of great deprivation in his constituency and mine. Those are the areas where there needs to be new building. We need rejuvenation of the town centres, not more despoliation of the countryside.
I am lucky enough to come from a farming family, and I have seen the destruction of the countryside in other regions. I do not want to see any more of it in Lancashire. Let the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and Labour members of Lancashire county council be in no doubt that, if the daft policy of building vast numbers of new houses is carried through by that council's Labour leadership, they will be blamed by future generations and the people of Lancashire will never forgive or forget that the Labour party came up with that policy.
The problem with the council's Labour leadership is that it thinks that, by producing glossy reports and using titles such as "Green in the Red Rose County", people will not bother to read them and will think that the council believes in green environmental policies because it says so on the cover. I tell the hon. Gentleman and Labour Lancashire county councillors that people are wiser than that; they do read the contents.
I should like to draw attention in particular to another bulky and glossy report on environmental issues recently produced by Lancashire county council's Labour leadership. It was launched at an expensive reception at the Cafe Royal in the presence of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. It is called "Public Perceptions and Sustainability in Lancashire". It was produced with taxpayers' money—the people of Lancashire's money. Those people would be angry if they were aware that the bulk of that glossy report—pages 24 to 70, not including the introduction and the appendices—contained vernacular quotations from focus groups. Under the heading "Sustainability and Environment", we have such quotes as:
Who would actually come up with this term? A speech writer. Political. A slogan. It's too long to be a slogan. Not catchy. Could be used on management courses. You are saying this is not catchy, it's a long word. Is it not catchy because it's too long or is it something else about it? It's quite a good word because when you think about it you know what it means.
Is that the sort of nonsense that the people of Lancashire want their taxes spent on? There are 40 to 50 pages of such rubbish and they cost Lancashire taxpayers a lot of money. Lancashire county council should have a better structure plan and stop wasting taxpayers' money on that sort of thing.
I should touch on a couple of other issues. I agree on one point made by the hon. Member for Burnley. It is crucial that we have electrification of the rail link to Blackpool and that we have proper public transport services. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North rightly says that great scope exists to develop the Blackpool tramway system into a proper light rail system. Plans were recently made by one of our local tourism entrepreneurs, Mr. Michael Taylor, to reopen the Poulton-Fleetwood rail link, which I strongly support and from which we would benefit.
I agree with the concern expressed by my hon. Friend about the development of a green-field site in South Ribble for a rail terminal. We need a rail terminal, but we do not want it on a green-field site. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside will have his own views on that.
I agree that we need to safeguard areas of outstanding natural beauty much better, and to pay much closer attention to the important contribution that farmers make to the environment throughout Lancashire. Coming from a farming family, I know only too well that it is farmers who have looked after the British countryside. The problem with the Labour leadership of Lancashire county council is that it almost never listens to farmers. That is why farmers have the sense to support the Conservative party and Government.
Some road developments in the county are good. Yesterday, I attended the opening in my constituency of the new Squire's gate link road, 50 per cent. of which was funded by the Government as a result of my lobbying the then Minister with responsibility for roads, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle).
The Labour party and, in particular, the Labour leadership of Lancashire county council should be aware of one more piece of poetry from the immortal Robert Burns, who wrote:
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) on securing today's debate. Structure plans map out the future of a county for many years ahead. Too often, we leave it to the last minute and then start complaining when it is far too late.
The previous version of the structure plan showed that the bulk of development in the county would take place in what is called central Lancashire. On closer examination, one saw that it referred to the area just around Chorley, Leyland and Preston to the south of the river. That is only a small portion of the county. As we can see from the document, there have been enormous growth rates in my region of Chorley—it has by far the largest urban development rate in the county.
As other hon. Members have said, the number of houses forecast for the next 15 years is far too large. On page 33 of the document, the county council refers to Chorley, saying that it will ensure that the rate of build is below that of market trends and requirements; but when one turns to the actual figures, there is no reduction in the current rate, which has been the largest in the county. That is not good enough. We should ensure that we respond to market trends and do not over-build housing.
In the Chorley, Leyland and Preston area, far too many estates are the aftermath of the actions of the Central Lancashire development corporation. That ended some nine years ago. The Labour Government were trying to bend the process and ensure that all housing was rented. As soon as the Conservative Government came to power in 1979, they stopped that. They allowed only housing for sale to be built. I appreciate that measure and the closure of plans for the central Lancashire new town. Housing trends must be strictly, and only, in line with local people's requirements. We do not want massive immigration, about which hon. Members spoke this morning.
The motorway service areas of Charnock Richard on the M6 and Rivington on the M61 are in my constituency. I am delighted that they are referred to in the development plan, but I would like some transport link route towards Chorley at Charnock Richard. I pay tribute to those farsighted people who on the A43 junction of the M1 near Rothersthorpe have built a superb transport link by the service station. I hope that we can look forward to such a link at Charnock Richard.
I welcome very much the intention to have railway stations rebuilt at Coppull and Euxton, the village in my constituency where I live. That is good news, but, with full resources, it has taken the county council and British Rail three or four years to introduce disabled access to platforms at Parbold, one of the villages that I represent. We need a faster rate of growth and we need those railway stations to be built in the next few years if they are going to make sense in terms of transport links.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member or Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) on his success in securing the debate. It is an important debate for all of us who live in and work on behalf of the people of Lancashire. I was going to quote from three poems this morning, but they have all been used by other hon. Members, so I shall press on speedily and talk about how important the environment is in Lancashire and, especially, in the Ribble valley.
Like many other hon. Members, I was not born in the constituency that I represent, but I am proud to live in the Ribble valley and I am passionate about wanting to preserve that region. Many people will know my constituency well. It attracts many tourists. When I first came to the Ribble Valley, I lived in Downham, a small, superbly managed village owned almost in its entirety by Lord Clitheroe. Dominating one end of the village is Pendle hill. At the other end, one has the Assheton Arms and the church. From that church, one has a most splendid view over the whole of Downham.
Downham was the village where the film "Whistle Down the Wind" was made in 1961, with Alan Bates and Hayley Mills. I am sure that many people remember that film, which is a classic of its time. The surprising thing is that the village has not altered at all in the 30-odd years since that film was made.
It is a superb region. It is preserved, but not fossilised. It is a warm community. In my constituency, I have many villages such as Downham—I am loth to mention them just in case I miss some out—which are superb and attract many visitors. The problem is that the structure plan is a threat and a warning to those villages. It aims to target a certain area in my constituency—a path stretching from one side of it to the other, which is referred to as a "corridor". It would be a corridor of concrete, and would destroy the peace and quiet and the distinct character of many of the villages.
I know that the cry will go up, "It is only one more green field," but then, there will be "only" another green field, and then one more. Will that continue until there is only one green field left? We must do something about it now. We have the area of outstanding natural beauty, which constitutes 70 per cent. of my constituency, but many areas outside it are equally beautiful, and they should be protected and guarded, too.
That is not a case of "not in my back yard", because we have already given way to much development in the Ribble valley. Clitheroe, Barrow, Whalley, Ribchester, Longridge and many more of my villages have succumbed to some development already. We need to protect the distinct character of the villages so that the Ribble valley's front garden does not become Blackburn's or Preston's back yard, so that one cannot distinguish between some of the villages and the sprawl that would cover many of the areas to the south and west.
I am not against all development. I fully support many developments based on former large institutions—acceptable developments on the footprints of existing buildings. I have already supported one such development in Brockhall, and I shall support another in Calderstones. But that development must take place only on the footprint of the hospital and not on any of the green-field sites around it. Whittingham hospital is another site where development should be allowed on the footprint of the buildings but not on the surrounding green-field sites.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover), I believe that Lancashire county council has got the number of people in our area, and therefore the number of houses needed, totally wrong. The figures do not equate. Given the number of people who occupy the houses now, and the number we think will want to live in our area up to the year 2006, we should be thinking in terms of 15,000 houses, not 66,000. Such a move would release a lot of the pressure on the area.
There is much more that I wanted to say, but I shall finish now. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North said about regenerating the towns and cities so that people will want to live there. That would relieve the pressure on the villages.
I do not want future generations to look back on old photographs of our green and pleasant land and have to ponder why we let it go. It is not ours to let go; we are the trustees for future generations. The countryside is their inheritance; it is not for our consumption. How green is my valley? It is very green—all shades of green—and flooding it with concrete will kill it for ever. We must not allow that to happen.
I, too, begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) on securing the debate. I feel rather ashamed that I did not consult the "Oxford Book of English Verse" or the "Oxford Book of Films" so that I could refer to suitable titles and poems, and I wait with great interest to see whether the Minister has his own stock of poems ready to read out—in appropriate accents, of course.
I am delighted to see so many Lancashire Members here, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). Another Lancashire Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), has asked me to pass on his apologies, as he cannot attend; he very much wanted to participate in the debate.
I also take the opportunity to congratulate Gordon Johnson, the chief executive of Lancashire county council, and his officers and the members of the council, on their excellent work. Hon. Members have acknowledged that work and, although they have also criticised aspects of the plan, they have generally welcomed what it has said.
Being in local government over the past 10 years or so has not been an easy task, and I believe that Lancashire county council has done its best to provide decent services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley said, the county council has been acknowledged as a pioneering authority in several respects. It is required by sections 30 and 32 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, to keep under review matters that might be expected to affect the development or planning of its area, and to update its structure plan.
Secondly, the plan sets out the county council's long-term policies for development, use of land and traffic management, and provides a strategic framework for local planning and the control of development. Thirdly, it secures consistency between local plans for neighbouring areas within the county. Fourthly, it provides developers with initial and general guidance as to whether major proposals for new developments are likely to accord with the overall planning strategy for the county. That gives developers a strategic context in which to make investment decisions, by giving long-term guidance concerning, for example, the scale and location of population, housing and growth.
The structure plan is therefore concerned with identifying the very issues that hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned. It provides that context as a background for future investment and development decisions by both the public and the private sector throughout Lancashire as a whole, to achieve sustainable economic growth and environmental protection and to take the county forward into the 21st century.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley has mentioned the pioneering environmental work that the county council has done, and the European Community prize that it won, with the city of Lyon, for work that, in the words of one judge, showed a pioneering effort to provide sustainable development planning at a regional level.
My hon. Friend did not have time today, and nor have I, to mention the level of jobs and investment that the county council has brought into the area, although I can mention some examples. The council and its economic development agency have brought a clear strategic focus to bear on the county's economic needs. Over the past decade, 22,000 jobs and training places have been created by Lancashire Enterprises, which has invested £15 million in more than 200 small and medium enterprises.
Other notable achievements, as I am sure the House is aware, include the rescue of Leyland Trucks, which is now a prospering manufacturing centre of excellence, the regeneration of the Leeds-Liverpool canal corridor, which has levered in investment of £80 million, and the help for Lancashire's seaside resorts, including Blackpool. I am sorry that the hon. Members for Blackpool, North and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) did not take the opportunity to thank the council for that work.
No, I shall not give way. The Opposition have been generous to Conservative Members, and have given them all an opportunity to participate in the debate. The Minister also wants to speak, and it would not be right for me to give way when I have several more points to make on behalf of the Opposition.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North, as we heard, was a member of the county council for four years, and he had several things to say. Echoing Larkin, he chose to speak for England and to describe the despoiling of the countryside. However, I know that he has participated in previous planning debates, so he ought to know that the enormous difficulties with planning have been caused by the Government's guidance.
As the Minister announced during a recent debate on retail planning, a review has been undertaken of PPG6 and PPG13 precisely because the Government's guidance was not clear. On other occasions, the hon. Gentleman spoke of the need to invest in town and city centres. He was right to do so, but the reason why that investment has not happened over the past 16 years is that Government planning policy has not been clear. That is why so many out-of-town developments have emerged in so many parts of the country—and, indeed, why his own town centre is threatened by such developments. He is right to say to the Minister that it is extremely important that the Government should come up with clear guidance on out-of-town developments.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the fact that so many people—5 million in four years—have left our major towns and cities in Britain. Over the past few years, they have left our towns and cities in such great numbers because the Government have failed to invest in our towns and city centres. Even the new policy of the single regeneration budget has not provided the necessary means by which local authorities and the public and private sector can work together to put forward bids to regenerate the town centres. We need to look at the way in which our urban areas are run. We need to ensure that there is proper investment and that local councils are aware of the importance of town centre management. That is the only way in which we shall obtain effective and sustainable growth in our town and city centres.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned transport—a subject mentioned by other Conservative Members as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley. Without an effective and efficient transport system which does not require the public to pay vast amounts of money to travel on it, we shall never achieve sustainable towns and city centres. We fully support the hon. Gentleman's desire to see Blackpool airport developed. He will know that the structure plan contains specific points in support of that proposal.
The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Sir M. Lennox-Boyd) supports the roads that help his constituents but does not support the roads that the hon. Member for Blackpool, North supports. I do not intend to intrude on the private or public grief of Conservative Members, but the county council has advanced proposals that it believes will alleviate the distress and anxiety caused to many thousands of people in the local area. It has advanced the proposals that it believes will best meet the needs of local areas.
The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) said that he believed that local plans and structure plans should provide certainty. He is right. But that is precisely what is not provided at present. That is why the Labour party has instituted a review into the planning process. Unless there is certainty, the private sector and local authorities cannot plan sufficiently and properly. That is why we believe that planning guidance should be considered extremely carefully by Ministers and civil servants before it is issued. There is no point in issuing guidance, then coming to the House and telling the public and private sector that unfortunately the guidance will have to be withdrawn and the ministerial speech will have to be taken as the best example of planning policy. That is clearly not sufficient and the problem must be seriously addressed.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, South talked about the need for rejuvenation of town centres. He has said that before and he knows where the blame lies—clearly with the Government's failure to invest in our towns and city centres. The new single regeneration budget does not provide the means to deal with the problem.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, South spoilt his contribution by his attack on the leadership of the county council. I throw him a challenge and invite him to let me show the glossy brochures sent to us by Ministers of the Crown. We can compare them with what Lancashire county council has produced to see whether Lancashire has gone over the top in providing information. All local authorities should provide information and whether it is glossy or not is not a serious political point.
The hon. Members for Chorley (Mr. Dover) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) also spoke.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley said that he believed that the structure plan provided a sensible and balanced approach. He also said, which may sound obvious, that a consultation process is taking place. I urge each of the Conservative Members and their local councils to participate in that consultation process. If the evidence given to the public inquiry and the consultation process is as good and the points are as serious as most of the points made today, that will help Lancashire county council and the people of Lancashire to fashion a structure plan that will be able to provide a basis for the development of Lancashire into the next century.
I must add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) on today's debate. We have received much good advice and heard some interesting points. As ever, he never misses an opportunity to put in a bid for more finance for his area.
My hon. Friends the Members for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Sir M. Lennox-Boyd), for Wyre (Mr. Mans), for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins), for Chorley (Mr. Dover) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) also contributed to the debate. Even with the contribution of the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), it felt as though we were listening to a family debate. There was plenty of excellent advice, particularly for the county council. The comments of the hon. Member for Burnley made me feel young—certainly in the way in which he approaches privatisation and the benefits that it will bring.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) blamed the Government for the failure of Labour councils in the inner cities, which is to be blind beyond belief. One has only to walk across the river to see the incompetence in London and the way in which that is carried through to the inner cities up and down the country. It is not a case of investment, which is being made. The destruction of the inner cities by Labour councils is beyond belief. The only reason why we are starting to make some progress is that the Conservative Government have had the gumption to move in and utilise partnerships to bring in the private sector and bring about a change in the ethos of inner cities which will give us much greater hope of doing something in terms of the countryside and attracting people back into the inner cities.
We have been discussing Lancashire, particularly its new structure plan, which is the subject of a public examination that started yesterday and is programmed to run until the end of the month. Therefore, as noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North, the timing is delicate and it is difficult for me to do more than comment in broad outline.
The county has appointed a panel to carry out the examination in public. It has the job of considering the key issues and objections and to make recommendations to the county council in the light of them. The Lancashire structure plan is an essential component in the overall planning blueprint that will take the north-west of England into the 21st century. But it is only one element: the plan must comply with national policies, which are reflected in the planning policy guidance notes and regional planning guidance.
I should like to draw my hon. Friends' attention to three recent initiatives which seek to enhance and safeguard the quality of the environment of town and country. First, I should like to refer to the recently revised guidance note on green belts, PPG2. The Government continue to attach great importance to green belts. They have been an essential part of planning policy for four decades and are intended to serve several purposes, including separating towns and villages and restraining encroachment on the countryside. The purposes of the green belt policy and the related development control policies set out in 1955 remain valid today with remarkably little alteration.
Secondly, of equal importance is the need to conserve and enhance the environment of town and country. In that respect, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has initiated a discussion on quality in town and country. That seeks to take a fresh look at our villages, towns and cities and asks how we can best safeguard their distinctive character and future viability—the essence of my hon. Friends' points.
Thirdly, the Government's intention to produce a rural White Paper was announced jointly by my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for the Environment last October. The rural White Paper will cover the full range of economic, social and environmental issues affecting today's countryside.
The regional context for Lancashire's new structure plan is provided by the Government's draft regional planning guidance for the north-west which was launched recently. The guidance is largely based on advice from the north-west regional association of local authorities in its document "Greener Growth". It outlines a framework for providing new homes and jobs, but emphasises that new development should be located to reduce the need to travel and should be well served by public transport. The emphasis is on sustainable growth in line with the thrust of our national policies—particularly those that I have just mentioned.
The guidance makes it clear that we are planning for prosperity and a region fit for the 21st century, with the aim of maximising the north-west's competitiveness and quality of life without damaging its magnificent heritage. With the next Conservative Government, we shall be able to continue that. We are looking for regeneration and sustainable economic development. We use those as the key watchwords.
Within Lancashire, the guidance proposes allowing for regeneration and modest development associated with the main self-contained towns along transport corridors. As my hon. Friends have emphasised, the county's agricultural land, landscape and natural environment are second to none. For example, Fylde and south-west Lancashire contain some of the best farming areas. We have the forest of Bowland, Morecambe bay and the Ribble estuary. I shall make no comment on green valleys.
The examination in public of the structure plan's proposals is now under way. We have had some excellent guidance and hints today from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the way in which we should approach the plan and move forward. I can assure my hon. Friends that the panel will consider fully all the issues—