Activities of Agencies in Rural Areas

Orders of the Day — Regional Development Agencies Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:07 pm on 1st April 1998.

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'(1) The Secretary of State shall cause an annual assessment to be made of the effect of the activities of each regional development agency upon the rural parts of its area (if any).

(2) The Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a report containing the assessments made under subsection (1) and his proposals (if any) to deal with any matters identified in the assessments.

(3) Any report made under subsection (2) shall also contain a statement in the respect of each regional development agency as to whether, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, it has fulfilled its purposes under section 4(2).'.—[Mr. Yeo.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 1, in clause 7, page 3, line 39, at end insert

'and (d) the needs of the rural areas within any region.'.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

New clause I would require the Secretary of State to assess the impact of regional development agencies on rural areas, and to report the results of that assessment to Parliament. Amendment No. 1 would require the Secretary of State, when issuing guidance to regional development agencies on their strategies, to take account of the needs of rural areas within their region.

I very much regret the necessity for the new clause and the amendment. I had hoped that, after almost a year in power, the Government would have at least begun to realise that rural areas have special needs, and that policies that are tailored for the urban areas, which they so much favour, are not automatically suitable to be applied to the countryside.

We have had a year in which the Government have systematically removed resources from rural local authorities by changing the funding formula under which standard spending assessments are calculated and under which the revenue support grant is distributed. Changes to the methodology for calculating standard spending assessments have removed £94 million from rural local authorities.

We have had a year in which protection of the countryside through the planning system has been ruthlessly undermined. We have had a year in which respect for rural traditions has been steadily eroded, and in which the incomes of farmers and others who earn their living from the land have been steadily falling. Against that background, it is perhaps not surprising that the Government's Bill establishing regional development agencies has completely neglected the needs of rural communities.

The Government's policy on the countryside has moved from denial, to panic, and into confusion. Ministers started by denying that there was a problem. Subsequently, they panicked at the extent of public hostility to their attitude. They are now in confusion about what to do. They are not only confused about what to do: they are confused about who should do it. Only a month ago, at the time of the countryside march, there was an unseemly struggle over who was in charge between the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The same hostility towards the countryside which characterises the Government's general approach has been apparent throughout the Bill's consideration. During the Second Reading debate and the Standing Committee's 13 sittings, we looked in vain for a single sign that the Government appreciate the real fear—a widespread fear—that those regional development agencies will be urban-based and urban-focused, that they will have urban-dominated boards, and that—at the request of the Secretary of State—they will pursue an urban agenda.

At one point in the Standing Committee proceedings, the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning seemed to take on the part of an Agriculture Ministry mole. His ignorance of rural matters constituted a powerful argument for transferring responsibility for countryside policy from his own Department to the Ministry of Agriculture.

On 12 February, in the Standing Committee, the Minister managed to confuse the Rural Development Commission with the Countryside Commission. Last Friday, the Government announced the merger of those two bodies—a somewhat drastic solution to the problem of a Minister who had not done his homework.

The extent of the Government's determination to prevent regional development agencies from having to consider the rural dimension was shown when they argued against and defeated an Opposition amendment that would have required the Secretary of State to consult such persons as appear to him to represent rural interests in the agency's area."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29 January 1998; c. 73.]

The amendment reflected the Opposition's concerns, but it also reflected the concerns of many organisations that had taken the trouble to respond to the Government's consultation exercise last year on regional development agencies. We know how much importance the Minister attached to that exercise, because he referred to it not only many times in Committee but right at the start of his speech on Second Reading. He said: our consultation paper received more than 1,500 responses, which universally supported the case for development agencies in England to match those which have worked so successfully … in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."—[Official Report, 14 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 373.]

Some of the organisations that responded to the consultation process found that their views were quoted in the White Paper. Unfortunately, the full text of their responses is not available to hon. Members in the Library of the House. The full texts are not even available to the organisations that the Minister quoted in the White Paper. They are available only to people who go to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in person and study them in its library.

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The full texts will repay study. People who take the trouble to study them will see how selective the Government were in the White Paper.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Canning Town

On the subject of omissions, when the hon. Gentleman was discussing elements that affected the decline of the countryside and the problems faced by rural communities, I did not hear him mention BSE. Does he accept that BSE was caused by the Conservative Government's deregulation of the food chain?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I regret having given way to the hon. Gentleman, given the limited time available. The idea that Ministers are directly responsible for diseases is patently absurd. If that were the case, I presume that the present Government continue to share exactly the same responsibility.

I was drawing to the House's attention the selective nature of the quotations in the White Paper, which is particularly apparent when it comes to rural issues. For example, the National Farmers Union is quoted on page 45 of the White Paper. The words chosen by Ministers are: There is clear merit in having one agency take a strategic overview of the needs and potential of a region"— a supportive quotation, as one might expect given that it has been carefully hand-picked.

Elsewhere in the response from the National Farmers Union, in a part that is not available in the Library but is kept well out of sight in the basement of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, we find something rather different. I quoted the NFU in the Standing Committee on 29 January as saying: The legislation which creates Regional Development Agencies should require them to have regard to the needs of their rural areas and reflect those needs in their policies and programmes."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29 January 1998; c. 74.] Clearly, that quotation puts a different gloss on the matter from the quotation in the White Paper.

A similar example occurs in the case of the Country Landowners Association. The Minister was very ready to quote the CLA in the White Paper, and on page 16 he quotes it as saying: The test for RDA involvement must be when the issue is too big to be resolved by a single County Council or Unitary Authority, yet not of a scale requiring national intervention.

However, the CLA had much more to say about regional development agencies, although for some reason its other comments were not quoted in the White Paper, and, as in the case of the NFU, they were not available in the Library. In the same response from which the Government chose to quote in the White Paper, the CLA said: There is a real danger that Regional Development Agencies will be biased towards representing urban interests.

The CLA, the NFU and the Opposition share the same concerns as many other individuals and organisations outside the House. Those concerns prompted us to table new clause 1.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

Has the hon. Gentleman considered clauses 7 and 8? Clause 7 says that the regional development agencies must follow a strategy in their work, and clause 8 says that a regional chamber must be set up in each RDA area and the strategy discussed with that regional chamber.

As the regional chambers are representative of all areas that fall within the region concerned, I should have thought that rural interests, as much as any other interests, would have a full opportunity to be consulted, to make observations and to participate in formulating the strategy.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I assure the hon. Lady that I have considered those clauses in great detail. Clause 7 allows the Secretary of State to give directions to a regional development agency about its strategy—the formulation of that strategy, the subjects that it can consider and the other matters that it can take into account when making a strategy. The clause gives complete control over the strategy of every regional development agency back to the Secretary of State, whose record over the past 11 months has shown that he cannot be trusted on countryside issues.

Clause 8 gives the Secretary of State the power to decide which body constitutes the regional chamber. That is not a matter for the RDA, the local authorities or the people of those regions to decide; it is solely for the Secretary of State. Almost every decision on RDAs ends up on the desk of the Secretary of State, who has proved beyond doubt that he cannot be trusted with the English countryside.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

Will my hon. Friend consider new clause 4, which has not been selected for debate? It highlights the question whether regional development agencies should have regard to the general interests of rural areas and the agency to be created from the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission when formulating their strategies. It would be highly desirable if RDAs should statutorily have regard to the general situation of rural areas.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is right. I heartily endorse the sentiments expressed in new clause 4, which has not been selected for debate. It contains much good sense. The Minister could show the Government's sympathy for it when he replies.

This afternoon provides an opportunity for clarification on the Government's merger of the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission. The concerns expressed by the CLA, the NFU and the Opposition are widely felt outside the House. I hope that the House will show this afternoon that it shares those concerns.

It is difficult to understand why the Government may want to resist amendment No. 1. However, given their past form, I fear they may, so we are offering them new clause I as an alternative. It would force the Government to come clean about what regional development agencies are doing in rural areas. The need for the new clause is best illustrated by the tortuous history of how the Labour Government dismembered, and are now destroying, the Rural Development Commission.

Back in December, the Government announced that the rural regeneration work of the RDC would be transferred to the regional development agencies. That decision provoked the resignation of the chairman of the RDC in protest. Then came the publication of the Bill, which provides in clause 39 for the Secretary of State to wind up the RDC. That clause provoked questions about the Government's intentions towards what was left of the RDC—a rump of a body whose viability many people were questioning.

Initially the Minister was, perhaps uncharacteristically, rather coy. On 3 February, he claimed that, until the comprehensive spending review had been finished, nothing could be said about the future of the RDC. On 19 February, following the occasion on which he confused the Rural Development Commission with the Countryside Commission, he told the Standing Committee that the outcome of the comprehensive spending review might result in the retention of the Rural Development Commission.

Just five weeks later, we are being told that the RDC is to be merged with the Countryside Commission. That is a fast-changing policy, in which the only loser is the countryside. With this Government, the interests of the countryside always come last.

Will the Minister assure the House that all the existing functions of the Rural Development Commission will continue? Will he guarantee that a sum equivalent to the budget of the RDC will be added to the budget of the Countryside Commission, and will continue to be spent in rural areas? Will the Minister today end the uncertainty over the future employment of Rural Development Commission staff who have suffered protracted anxiety about their jobs for more than three months?

No amount of spin-doctoring has been able to prevent the public from realising what a miserable record the Government have in rural areas. Today's debate is yet another chance, after so many have been thrown away, for the Government to rescue their position. To regain a shred of credibility in the countryside, they merely have to accept the new clause and amendment No. 1, which I commend to the House.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

I did not have the opportunity to serve on the Committee, but, as a member of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, I had the opportunity to receive evidence on the most important issues facing the new regional development agencies.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) mentioned that the Government do not seem to realise the importance of the countryside. I think that I have found an occasion when they did. In their response to the Select Committee report, the Government say: It is the Government's aim to ensure that the rural and non-rural areas are treated equitably according to their needs, and that RDAs do not become urban-centred bodies that neglect the needs of their rural areas.

I am sure that we would all share that sentiment. However, the risk that the agencies become such bodies is very great. Given the size of the RDAs—they are giant; there is nothing about them that is even vaguely local—it is only natural that major urban centres will dominate, and that most of the expertise will come from such urban centres.

Given the shock wave that seems to have hit the Government, following two very large and important countryside marches, they have made a number of concessions to the countryside. Such concessions are against the backdrop of significant reductions in funds available to county councils and district councils in country areas.

We know that changes with regard to green-field sites came on the back of the two marches. We know that, apparently, no village school will close without the Prime Minister's decision. We know that the Government are looking at the future of cottage hospitals in rural areas. We are suggesting, in a fairly constructive way, that we pull together all the expertise and experience in order that we may see once a year what is happening to rural areas.

There is a need for a distinct voice for the rural economy among the new giant RDAs. The Select Committee is currently taking evidence about housing needs, and some would argue that there is quite a lot of pressure on urban areas, where various civic authorities want an uprating of the economy. They look to the provision of jobs and manufacturing, and want services largely to be supported from suburban areas and the countryside.

As one hon. Member said this morning, that is part of the process of civic uplift. If we are not to become a country dominated by the suburbs and ignoring the needs of the countryside, the countryside must have—and deserves—a distinctive voice.

The countryside was not set in aspic, in some rural dream, when we began passing Town and Country Planning Acts; it is a living place. We must understand that there are some real issues that need to be addressed.

Let me give a simple example. Because of changes in agriculture, there are now many redundant farm buildings, and one of the great challenges is how they should be used. The easiest solution, which is often favoured, is that they all be converted into dwellings.

However, several authorities have taken the sensible view that the most appropriate way to deal with redundant buildings would be to introduce some light industry, so that jobs start to come back into the countryside. Several authorities have tackled that question, but, given the size of rural England and the nature of the problem, even the giant regional development agencies will not be able to concentrate on such needs.

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That is why it is important that, once a year, we should receive a report outlining what is happening. After all, the restrictive nature of some of our present development plans would almost certainly have ensured that blacksmiths, for example, would never have been seen in the countryside.

We need to ensure that the regional development agencies do not take an anti-countryside view. Such a view was best expressed by Mr. Tony Travers, I believe, in a recent article in the Evening Standard suggesting that one way to deal with the problems of the countryside would be actively to ensure that the services available there deteriorated—reducing health and education services, for example, so that people would leave the countryside and return to the urban areas.

I do not believe that anyone sensible would suggest that we repeat some of the mistakes of the 18th and 19th centuries, when our countryside was depopulated. Nor would we wish to suffer the fate of some rural places in France that are becoming depopulated, in which smaller and smaller groups of people pay for increasingly restricted and decrepit services.

What would be the key task of the annual report? One of its responsibilities would be to reduce commuting in the countryside, and to bring back life with light industrial and high-tech developments. There are examples of that in and near my constituency, and I have seen how a dedicated local authority has intelligently tried to attract such development. We do not want isolated communities, because all the jobs are a long way away. We want communities in which people do not normally have to travel far to earn a living. We must see the countryside as a living place, not as a place to visit at weekends.

That is why the old Rural Development Commission was so useful, because it could bring in expertise from people in Essex, for example, and apply it to, say, Somerset or Gloucestershire. It could spread the cost of such work and of research. Breaking it up into nine areas will make that more difficult. That is why it is so important to have an annual report, to concentrate people's minds on the subject at one particular time.

I started by talking about the Select Committee report and the Government's response to it, and I shall finish with another quotation, from paragraph 27 of the Government's response:

It is envisaged that RDAs will design rural regeneration programmes targeted on the particular needs of their deprived rural areas. They will monitor, consult and report on rural programmes and how they are being tackled.

If the regional development agencies are to do that, it would make sense to gather the reports together and present them, as we suggest in the new clause. That would give us an opportunity to debate the subject every year. Our principal concern is that if the House does not accept the amendment, the countryside will be swamped by the needs of the urban sprawl.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

The fact that regional development agencies need to address the real concerns of rural areas is unquestioned. I have the privilege of representing a middle England seat that is 50 per cent. rural—the urban areas of Ashby and Coalville have a population of 44,000 from a total in North-West Leicestershire of 88,000.

Rural villages deserve their share of attention, and would protest vigorously if they were neglected or overlooked. We need to monitor the progress of rural regeneration in the new RDA structures, but it would be costly and unnecessary to require yet another report to be laid before Parliament each year. Existing and planned reporting mechanisms are more than adequate.

Most of the North-West Leicestershire and South Derbyshire rural development area is in the two former mining areas of my constituency. I am pleased to say that the Rural Development Commission has been an unqualified success in its local activities. It has pursued a strategic, needs-led economic and social development programme, led by local partners with strong local government involvement. Its emphasis has always been on a planned partnership approach to rural regeneration, catalysing public, private and voluntary sectors to secure lasting economic and social improvements that reflect local circumstances.

The local RDA strategy, which was first prepared in 1994, was thoroughly reviewed in 1996, and further changes were incorporated last year. Three of its reported key aims are to improve the local transport infrastructure, the skills of the local work force and the image of the rural development area, to attract more inward investment. The realisation of those objectives is urgently needed to prevent the former coalfield areas from becoming an offshore island of the east midlands economy—low-pay, low-skill, low-tech ghettos that are cut off from mainstream development and surrounded by the relics of two centuries of mining.

Recent Budget announcements on rural transport and welfare-to-work initiatives on training, and the more coherent approach to rural regeneration that the Bill will provide, will tackle the RDA strategy concerns that I have mentioned. They have been widely welcomed throughout the rural villages of my constituency, including the one in which I live.

We currently receive regular and helpful RDC reports, but we want continued action, in the form of projects such as the "Heart of the Forest" rural challenge at Moira, a large former mining village surrounded by derelict land and continually threatened by opencasting and landfill— the two ugly sisters of the minerals world.

That £5 million project—with an RDC contribution of £1 million—will create a major tourist attraction at the former British Coal Bathyard site, with the potential to encourage a further 150,000 visitors a year to our area. It will provide a visitors centre, training workshops, office accommodation and a forest experience trail. The "Heart of the Forest" project has, in many ways, levered in a further massive £6 million lottery grant towards a £12 million millennium scheme that will transform the immediate vicinity. I need no convincing of the virtues and successes of the RDC.

At the other end of the financial spectrum, the most recent RDA report referred to the £100,000 Concept network, which is a project to increase the supply and access of information technology and training advice and information through the establishment of four resource hubs in North-West Leicestershire. The Concept network will allow local people to take advantage of changing employment trends in rural villages, offering necessary training, access to information technology resources and on-site child care.

I am confident that such RDC successes will feature regularly in the annual reports of the new RDAs. The future East Midlands RDA will report to the Secretary of State, who will lay a copy before each House of Parliament, under clause 17. That is a more coherent channel of accountability than exists at present or would exist under new clause 1.

Our rural development area in North-West Leicestershire and South Derbyshire has been supported by both single regeneration budget and RECHAR 2 finance. English Partnerships has also contributed cash via the derelict land grant programme. My local village, Ibstock, won a national competition with a prize of £100,000 for development and improvements to our area, led by Ibstock Community Enterprise, of which I am a management committee member.

Co-ordinating all the agencies has been a real challenge. I am optimistic that the new East Midlands RDA will provide a more coherent strategy, tighter co-ordination and better reporting than currently exists, but it will have a hard act to follow in North-West Leicestershire, where the Rural Development Commission has been an outstanding success.

In Committee, Conservative Members expressed ad nauseam their alleged concern for rural areas, and said that they had been neglected by the new Labour Government. That belated concern apparently fuels the new clause. If there were regular reports to Parliament from the previous custodians of rural interests, I am wholly unaware of them.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that the widely acclaimed White Paper "Rural England" was the subject of an annual update under the previous Government—a procedure that the present Government have stopped?

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

I am aware of that, and I have read the report; but the debates that took place after its publication were most unhelpful, and scarcely critical of the previous Government's record.

Reports not actions, and words not deeds, would have been the order of the day from a party that in government closed 450 rural primary schools, built on vast tranches of green-field sites, and walked away from the 25 per cent. of the rural population who live in or on the margins of poverty. Under the previous Administration, we who live in the villages experienced an unacceptably indiscriminate approach to rural development in many areas, simply encouraging footloose businesses to abandon the towns and cities, and doing little or nothing to meet the specific needs of rural communities.

The born-again rural advocates in the Conservative party are urging on us the need for a new and separate reporting mechanism for rural areas. Had that existed at the end of the previous Government's term of office, the annual countryside report would have condemned them for incoherence, inertia and incompetence in policies for the rural areas, the majority of which are now represented by Labour Members.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

Would it be fair, then, to say that the hon. Gentleman is opposed to the annual report because he fears that it may be critical of the Government?

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

We have nothing to fear on our track record so far. We are but 11 months into government. I am surprised that we have not had an eleven-twelfths-of-a-birthday card from the Conservative party. The Government will transform the prospects of rural areas in a way that was not their fate in the previous 18 years.

The deathbed conversion of the Conservative party to the need for a distinctive approach to regeneration in the countryside fools no one, least of all the rural voter. The Conservatives espousal of openness and accountability in rural reporting is absolutely at odds with their record in government.

I endorse the view that the momentum built up by the flexible and well-planned regeneration work undertaken by the Rural Development Commission must be maintained by the new RDAs. I welcome the new role that the RDC will undertake after its merger with the Countryside Commission, and I am sure that it will carry it out with distinction.

I am confident that the needs of the rural areas will be more coherently addressed in the future regional development agencies, whose reporting and accountability mechanisms, as spelt out in the Bill, will be more than adequate. The new clause is unnecessary and would be costly, so I do not support it.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

When the Government announced the introduction of regional development agencies early in their programme, there was considerable optimism and support—particularly from rural areas, which felt that, for a substantial period, their needs and requirements had been ignored. The destruction of the public transport system following bus deregulation; the closure of many small businesses in our high streets because of the indiscriminate building of out-of-town shopping developments; and the reduction in the number of post offices and other services made many people in rural areas feel that their livelihoods and way of life were being attacked.

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Since then, the Bill has been published and some of the optimism has been eroded: people increasingly feel that some of the early hopes may not be fulfilled. I hope that the Government will press on. There is no doubt that one of the most important parts of the Bill and the strategy is to address the needs of rural areas in each of the regions. These areas are fundamental to the remit of the RDAs and to the strategies which each and every one of the RDAs will draw up. RDAs will need to ensure that rural areas and their needs are properly addressed.

In many regions, there are significant differences between the different areas. In the south-west, people are aware of the plight of Cornwall, as opposed to the more prosperous areas of Bristol and Swindon. Any large RDA will need to address clear disparities within its region. It would be wise to ensure that the RDAs address the issues not just by drawing up strategies or action plans, but by carrying them out. New clause 1 seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State can guide, direct and monitor the RDAs. We hear that great words have been spoken and great reports written, but people are looking for action.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is so worrying about the Bill is that very point—the contrast between the prosperity of many of the towns and the great difficulties of the rural areas?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

It is the RDAs' role to ensure that that disparity is properly addressed so that, no matter where people live, they have the opportunity to participate in the economic prosperity of their region and of the country.

New clause 1 seeks to ensure that the strategies, directions and policy papers of all the RDAs are translated into action. The Secretary of State will have the opportunity to review those programmes to ensure that action is taken. I understand that the view of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) was that the measure was unnecessary and costly, but that is not the case. I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Department will ensure that each and every RDA reports regularly—at least annually. That will happen anyway. It will not be beyond the wit of the Department—or cost too much—to bring the reports together into a formal report by the Department, under the Secretary of State, and to lay that before this House.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. In their response to the Select Committee report, the Government stated that it is a responsibility of the RDA to monitor and to report annually. He is quite right—it will involve no extra expenditure to bring the reports together, as the RDAs have to report precisely on rural matters.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who reinforces my point. I hope that the advantage will be that rural areas will continue to be considered regularly by hon. Members. We could ensure that plans drawn up and implemented by RDAs were working, and could compare the relative performance of RDAs. There should at least be a competitive edge between them, which would ensure that they do as much as they can and that best practice is used. I hope that the cost would not be huge and that the profile of rural regional affairs would be raised.

Rural areas clearly have special requirements. Firms operating in them are often small; employment is fragile at times, and often seasonal. They will need special assistance to ensure that employment generated by small firms helps those who are looking for new jobs.

Transport is important for people in rural areas. The issue of public transport must be tackled more vigorously if people are to be able to travel to work, visit people and enjoy a social life.

The cost of housing in rural areas must be considered. Although we agree with the Government that green-field sites should not be taken up, policies must address the cost of housing in smaller towns and villages and the problems of second homes.

The social side of rural life is becoming low grade. Low wages and the high cost of transport—or the lack of it—make it difficult for people who live in villages and small towns to lead an active social life.

Those issues, under the guise of sustainable development, must be addressed in the round. Pockets of deprivation, which exist in many rural areas, must also be addressed. The sparsity factor is connected to those issues and must be included in any calculations for provision of services in rural areas.

Overall, we support the principle of establishing regional development agencies. We want to ensure that they are introduced as quickly as possible to address the economic deficit. New clause 1 and amendment No. 1 would not impose additional cost and would raise the profile of the problems of regional rural areas in the House. The functions of RDAs, and their successes and failures, could be properly examined so that the regions of England could move forward positively, not only in urban but in rural areas.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Canning Town

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although a number of hon. Members feel disquiet because Front Benchers are able to place their feet on the Table, I acknowledge the tradition. But is it appropriate for Back Benchers to place their feet on the Bench in front of them? I refer, with great respect, to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). Surely it is a bad example to set in respect of posture.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was responding to the point of order. I have to strike a balance across the House. I was distracted for a moment. I must call an hon. Member from the other side of the House. I call Ms Jenny Jones.

Photo of Ms Jenny Jones Ms Jenny Jones Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I wish to speak briefly to amendment No. 1.

Clause 7 charges regional development agencies with developing economic strategies for their regions. The problem with amendment No. 1 is that nothing in clause 7 suggests that the needs of rural areas will not be met by RDAs. Most, if not all, the nine regions will contain large rural areas. It is for the Secretary of State to ensure that RDAs do their job properly. Clause 7(3)(a) states that RDAs must develop strategies relating to "the agency's area". They cannot help but understand the needs of the rural areas and meet their needs. That is one of the major jobs of the RDAs.

Most regions have strong sub-regional identities. In my region, West Midlands, that is especially so. Last month I went to a large, well-attended conference in the midlands region on the proposed West Midlands RDA. The local authorities, businesses, voluntary sector bodies and colleges from the rural areas—there are large rural areas in the West Midlands region—were well represented and made their case. No one denied the needs of rural areas. There was no dissent. If anything, there was an acknowledgement that, if the West Midlands RDA was to do its job properly, it had to ensure that rural needs were not only properly represented on the board but represented in any strategies. Amendment No. 1 is unnecessary because clause 7 already makes it clear that a regional development agency has to make a strategy for its entire area.

Amendment No. 1 is also potentially divisive because it implies that an RDA will not understand the rural needs of its area. As I have said, if the boards are properly constituted and do their work well in representing the constituents within the areas, they cannot help but represent rural needs.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

I rise to support new clause 1 and amendment No. 1 especially in relation to new house building arrangements for rural areas. I am aware that a subsequent amendment deals with RDAs not acquiring specific planning powers, and that the Government intend to accept the amendment, but I am concerned that RDAs will acquire the present structural planning powers of county councils in a new and changed form. When we questioned civil servants in the Department as part of the housing review undertaken by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, they gave the distinct impression that that was the way in which they understood developments would occur.

Yesterday, the citizens of West Sussex presented a petition signed by 28,000 people against the well-known demand by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for the building of an additional 12,800 houses. The petition represented only a part of the county.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Is my hon. Friend aware that, last week, representatives of Mid-Sussex district council of all parties, led by myself, presented a petition signed by some 10,000 people, in addition to those who signed the petition to which my hon. Friend refers? It was addressed directly to the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing street and expressed concern about the appalling consequences of the Labour party's proposals for the rural health of West Sussex.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

I thank my hon. Friend. There are, indeed, more to come from all parties.

It is widely believed that the Deputy Prime Minister made the decision on this famous issue not out of the blue but on the advice of the south-east regional office. The advice was given on the ground that, if West Sussex was permitted to get away with it, other county councils within the south-east area would do likewise. It seems to me that the Government office for the south-east is indeed going to be the handmaid and bureaucrat of the new South East RDA. The Government's new-found intent to abolish plan, predict and provide and replace it with manage and consult—more of a bottom-up approach—risks being defeated by RDAs if they drive through broadly regional strategies for housing numbers and force them on county councils by using their increased power. I support the new clause specifically in relation to the subject of housing. The experiment in West Sussex of a bottom-up environmental capacity study is precisely what other county councils should be doing.

In housing and many other matters, citizens relate to their county councils or to their metropolitan districts. The danger is that, in future, central Government will say that they have devolved powers down to RDAs on questions such as the number of houses and where they are to go; county councils and metropolitan authorities will say that they have lost their real power to the RDAs in such matters; and a bureaucratic, undemocratic body in the middle will be driving forward that crucially important issue, about which citizens care passionately.

5 pm

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the Conservative Government's rather threadbare record on the use of brown land for development purposes? Despite a 50 per cent. target late in the day, their achievement was 42 per cent. over their whole period in government.

The Labour Government are aiming to achieve 60 per cent. and will probably achieve an even greater proportion. West Sussex was more threatened in the 18 years of the Conservative Government than it will be under the Labour Government of the next 25 years.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

First, I am talking about the future, not the past, and, secondly, I am talking about how decisions are to be made. As for the past, the House will be well aware that the proportion of green land that was being used declined. In their last two years in office, the Conservative Government realised the error of the country as a whole in building too much on green land and they went into the election with a specific target.

However, with all due respect, I am not making a party political point. I care passionately about the preservation of our countryside, as, I hope, do Labour Members. I do not want decisions about building on green land to be taken by unaccountable bureaucrats who cannot be got at in the House, or at county council level.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate on new clause 1. It is terribly important that we understand that we are talking about the establishment of a quango and that it is in the nature of quangos that, if one does not set out from the beginning what is intended in terms of their accountability for specific purposes established by Parliament, it is easy for them to pursue their own agenda. Notwithstanding the provision in the Bill for a regional chamber, we have to be clear that it should have particular regard to the purposes agreed by the House during the passage of the Bill.

In East Anglia, there is a substantial rural component, which will be reflected in the regional chamber and, I hope, in the membership of the regional development agency. Even so, there is a feeling that, when the RDA comes to consider the strategy to be established under clause 7, it will be under pressure to deliver targets and measurable outcomes—large numbers of jobs, good figures on inward investment and so on. The RDA's response to that pressure will be to target areas which have the highest concentrations of unemployment, which will tend to be urban areas; and to compete for some of the higher-profile inward investment projects, which, by their very nature, will come from large firms that are essentially interested in locating in or near urban areas and not in rural areas.

One example of a drift in that direction was seen in policing in Cambridgeshire. For a couple of years, Cambridgeshire's crime statistics were not dropping in the same way as other police force statistics from around the country. To restore its reputation as a police force that was succeeding in reducing crime in its area, Cambridgeshire's response was to target resources inside Peterborough and Cambridge—urban areas in which there are relatively high concentrations of crime. The net result is that we do not see police in villages. The same thing will happen in other areas if regional development agencies are allowed to proceed unconstrained to set their own strategies and report on them. They will concentrate on urban areas to the exclusion of rural areas.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

In saying that regional development agencies must be accountable to the House, does the hon. Gentleman seek to relegate the importance of regional chambers in influencing the work of the regional development agencies? Is he aware that the regional chamber in the North West is due to meet this week and that it has the full support of all partners in that region, including many partners from rural areas?

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

I am sure that you will stop me if I elaborate too much on that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is an important point. The hon. Lady and other hon. Members must understand that it is not acceptable to establish regional development agencies on a relatively non-accountable basis, with the Secretary of State designating regional chambers as and when he chooses. It is not then sufficient to say that the regional development agencies are not accountable and that regional government is required in order to make them accountable.

Regional government is not desired in East Anglia—or, I suspect, in other regions of England. We require that the regional development agencies be accountable to the House. There must be a structure of accountability—we shall discuss that issue later—for regional development agencies to local authorities. That is my point. The hon. Lady has an interest in local authorities, as do I as an honorary vice-president of the Local Government Association.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

No. I have given way once and time is pressing. Regional development agencies should be increasingly accountable to local authorities. Through that accountability, the agencies will place greater emphasis on rural issues. If they respond only to a regional chamber where rural interests will be once again submerged by a larger body, it will be difficult to identify from the aggregate figures and reports what is occurring in rural areas.

I hope that Labour Members understand that point—I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends do. We can often operate on the basis of aggregate statistics and larger numbers in urban areas, but we cannot do that in rural areas. For example, it is not satisfactory to say that there have been X number of successful projects or that certain organisations have come, by way of inward investment, into a rural area. Such factors tend to affect only one village. It is important to understand—it is a difficult, labour-intensive operation—what is happening in rural areas, village by village.

The requirements of each village may differ. I do not claim that the regional development agencies will be able to report village by village, but the mechanism in new clause 1 and other measures will require the agencies increasingly to have regard to the diverse needs of rural areas. That will involve relationships even with parish councils, because such bodies often have a distinct and entirely legitimate view about what is required in their areas.

I have one other general point. Even if regional development agencies do not have general planning powers, they will none the less be powerful in relation to the acquisition of land and the dispersion of industry. It is important that they understand that they cannot simply try to create jobs in aggregate numbers without recognising the need to balance those jobs in rural areas.

South Cambridgeshire is the fastest growing district in England where there is a heavy emphasis on technological development and high-tech industries. Left to its own devices—a regional development agency may view it as an attractive option—the Cambridge phenomenon could spread to most of the villages that surround the city, and thus create a relatively large number of jobs in those areas. However, those villagers would not necessarily feel that they had been well served if, 10 or 20 years later, the only jobs available were high-tech jobs that were filled by people who had moved into the area for that reason.

If we are to sustain the character of rural areas at a time when there is a relative reduction in jobs in agriculture and related industries, we need to ensure that a balanced set of other jobs comes into the area, such as service jobs and light industrial jobs—jobs that the young people will be able to take, to allow them to remain in the villages.

If we do not, young people without the appropriate skills or qualifications will move into urban areas, and people from urban areas with higher qualifications relevant to high-tech industries will move out into the villages. Once and for all, we shall lose the character of those villages; we shall lose those communities; and we shall lose many of the young people who have a deep understanding of the countryside, of the way in which it works, and of the jobs that have been taken in the countryside in the past.

On that basis, although the Government reject other options—such as a rural development agency, as suggested in new clause 4, or the Rural Development Commission—I find it difficult to see why they resist what is, on the face of it, a modest requirement that the regional development agencies should set out clearly, for report to the House and, if necessary, for debate, how they are responding to the specific and diverse needs of rural areas.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

This has been an important debate. Although we rehearsed quite a lot of its substance in Committee, it is good that matters have been raised on the Floor of the House, and I thank hon. Members, especially my hon. Friends, for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) made an excellent speech, showing real understanding of rural issues.

The debate has given us a snapshot of the Conservatives' current thinking, as well as of the position that they adopted in government and the failures of many of their policies. The policies which they relentlessly pursued in government were effective only in creating divisions within the country. They broadened the gap between the rich and the poor, between those with work and those out of work, between the north and the south, and between themselves and the majority of the electorate. That was made clear on 1 May 1997.

The Conservatives' view of life is dominated by the conflict between seemingly irreconcilable opposites—left and right, wet and dry, pro and anti. It comes as no surprise therefore that, throughout, they have tried to base much of their opposition to the Bill on the division that they see between the country and the town—between urban and rural areas. Their amendments to the Bill would only perpetuate those divisions.

The Government, by contrast, believe in diversity, not division. We want to harness the different parts of each region so that they can contribute to increasing regional prosperity overall. We believe in an integrated approach. Of course, there are important differences between urban and rural areas, and our proposals will cater for them; but it is also important to look across regions as a whole. Rural and urban areas do not exist in isolation from one another, and should not be treated as though they do.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

No; I must continue. If the hon. Gentleman had spent less time on points of order earlier, we would all have had more time to contribute to the debate.

We need to understand the specific needs of rural areas, and to address them within an overall framework for each region as a whole.

The Opposition always claim that we do not understand the needs of rural areas; nothing could be further from the truth. As Labour Members have said, we are getting on with delivering on our commitments to build a decent society and tackle the real problems of the rural areas. We are putting more money into health care in rural areas, to treat more patients and set up projects such as night nursing care and nursing and residential homes. The shire counties are receiving £447 million extra in the year ahead, to raise standards and tackle the backlog of school repairs left by the previous Administration.

We are linking every school, however remote, to the information super-highway. We are releasing £900 million from council house sales to provide new social housing and refurbish existing stock, to help to avoid young people having to move away from the village where they were born.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

No; I shall give way in a moment.

Our view of those living in rural areas includes rural workers, who will reap the benefit of the national minimum wage.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Does the Minister agree that the credibility of the RDAs will depend on who is appointed to them? Does he agree that part of the problem that the national parks have in their relationship with the wider area is that they do not have on their governing authorities people who command the respect and understanding of those who live in rural areas? Does he agree that it is extremely important that the RDAs have that full rural representation?

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

When it comes to appointing the RDAs' boards—a subject which I shall discuss shortly—we shall factor in very much the concerns of the rural areas.

The countryside march was mentioned several times in the debate, but it was about ordinary people, from communities throughout the country, coming together to express their fears about the future and to help raise awareness throughout the country of the vital roles that farming and the wider rural community play. To a Government built on belief in the community, that was very welcome. However, in the main the march was about joining up the towns and the country, about which the previous Administration did little.

5.15 pm

The RDAs will be regionwide bodies, responsible for economic development and regeneration of rural as well as urban areas. Those outside London will be given a specific remit to serve the rural areas of their region, and at least one member of their board will be a person with rural knowledge and expertise. By taking on the rural regeneration work currently carried out by the Rural Development Commission, and by having its associated staff transferred to them, RDAs will be able to take a broad view of regeneration needs throughout their areas.

In our White Paper, we said that our strong commitment to rural regeneration would continue to be reflected in the RDAs' funding for rural areas. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) raised that point. Rural funds will be separately allocated, to ensure that rural areas' needs continue to be addressed. We shall give RDAs guidance on how they should use their budgets for the rural areas, including the determination of rural areas of need. At least initially, RDAs will take over the RDC's existing regeneration programmes, which are targeted at the priority rural development areas.

Earlier this year, the new chairman of the Rural Development Commission, Miles Middleton, wrote to me, offering the RDC's help in developing guidance to the RDAs. I was very pleased to take up the suggestion, and my officials have been in discussions with the RDC staff about how to take that forward. Despite what Conservative Members may say, we are receiving full co-operation from the RDC in setting up the regional development agencies.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

When the Minister said that there would be separate funding for the rural elements within the RDAs, what did he mean? Will the money that comes to an RDA be divided into two piles, as it were? Will there be one specifically earmarked for rural affairs? How will that be defined, and how will the Minister know that the money is spent on such matters? The hon. Gentleman said something that I have not heard him say before, and I should like an explanation.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The RDC's budget is about £40 million, about £25 million of which goes into regeneration work in rural areas. When matched against what the single regeneration budget covers—we announced the fourth round of the SRB earlier in the week—that pales into a much smaller amount. About £150 million to £200 million of SRB money is going into rural areas, compared with £25 million from the RDC. I am informed that, following the RDC's regeneration work in the rural areas, the RDC's money will be specifically earmarked; I hope that it will be. I believe that the great success of the RDC has been, not the amount of money that it has been given, but the skill that it has shown in levering in public and private money.

We are committed to retaining a focus at national level for expertise, advice and information on rural matters. As has been said, as part of the comprehensive spending review it has been decided that the Countryside Commission will merge with the RDC, to create a new body. I spell that out specifically for the hon. Member for South Suffolk. The new body's remit will include the role regarding expertise, advice and information, and it will also have responsibility for conserving and enhancing the countryside. When it has been set up, the new body will take over from the RDC the role of advising Government on the content of any further guidance to be issued to RDAs in respect of the rural areas. It will also provide a national overview on rural economic and social issues, using information that the RDAs will be required to provide.

One of the main functions of the RDAs will be to produce a strategy for their region, reflecting the five purposes set out in clause 4, which form the heart of the Bill: to further economic development and regeneration; to promote business efficiency, investment and competitiveness; to promote employment; to enhance the development and application of skills relevant to employment in the area; and to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom where it is relevant to the area to do so.

One of the objectives of the Bill is wealth creation and tackling the weakness of our competitive base. It may be helpful if I inform the House of the statistics that were made available this week. We were challenged in Committee because we cited the 1993 figures to show that, of the 10 English regions, only two marginally came up to the average of the European regions in gross domestic product per capita.

In the past week, the 1995 figures have been released. Every region in the United Kingdom, and specifically in England, is performing worse than in 1993. The figure for the United Kingdom as a whole has gone down by three percentage points. Gross domestic product per capita has gone down in the north-east by 3 per cent.; in the north-west and Merseyside by 2 per cent.; in Yorkshire and Humberside by 1 per cent.; in the east midlands by 3 per cent.; in the west midlands by 2 per cent.; in the eastern region by 3 per cent.; in London by a staggering 8 per cent; and in the south-east and south-west by 1 per cent.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk said in Committee that, when the new figures came out, they would be considerably better in terms of wealth creation in our English regions, but they are considerably worse. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will comment on that, in the light of what he said so forcefully in Committee. Everything that we said in Committee has been borne out by the statistics, which show our under-performance. Now only London is above the average of the European regions. That is a pathetic performance, and it is the legacy that the Labour Government must address.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

The Government made great play of justifying regional development agencies on the ground of the under-performance of British regions compared with those on the continent. Would the Minister be prepared to set a target for the relative performance of our regions compared with those on the continent, to judge whether the RDAs have been a success? Will he tell us what he would expect that relative performance to be five years down the road, so that we can assess whether, by his own standards, RDAs have worked?

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

As we are creating the RDAs to tackle the competitiveness weaknesses and wealth-creating potential of our regions, we obviously want a better performance than there has been to date. It would not be wise for any politician to set such targets. We must address the legacy of the previous Government and the fact that only London comes up to the average of the European regions in wealth creation. That is poor by any standards.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Labour, Gillingham

In light of the up-to-date figures that are now available, it is worth reiterating that even in the region from which I come, the supposedly prosperous south-east, the figures show that there has been a fall. In Committee, the Opposition, particularly the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), argued that the up-to-date figures would show that the RDAs were not required. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should withdraw his words, as the Opposition case now falls.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My hon. Friend expresses the position succinctly. We shall no doubt return to the matter in our discussion of later clauses.

An RDA's strategy will provide a framework for economic decision-taking in the region and, to be effective, will have to command the support of the regional partners. Clause 4(2) makes it clear that the RDAs' purposes apply equally in rural and in non-rural areas. Therefore, it follows that RDAs' strategies will have to relate to all parts of the region.

Clause 7 provides for the Secretary of State to give guidance and directions to RDAs on various issues that the RDAs should take into account when framing their regional strategies. The clause makes it clear that that may include issues relating not only to an RDA's own area, but to the area of another RDA or to any part of the UK outside England.

Amendment No. 1 would add to that the needs of the rural areas within any region. The amendment is unnecessary. The Secretary of State would already have powers under clause 7 to issue guidance or directions to RDAs on the necessity to take into account the needs of the rural parts of its region, as rural areas will be part of an RDA's area. We do not wish to create a lengthy and all-encompassing list of issues on which guidance and directions might be issued. The Bill allows for flexibility on issues that might be covered in guidance, and we wish to retain that flexibility.

The amendment would not require the Secretary of State to give guidance on rural issues, nor is there any need for the Bill to do so. On 19 February, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary informed the Committee that it would indeed be appropriate to give RDAs guidance on rural issues. We expect such guidance to cover matters such as how RDAs should assess and monitor rural needs, but there is no need to set that in statute. As I have already said, the RDC is involved in the preparation of draft guidance.

New clause 1 would require the Secretary of State to make an annual assessment of the impact of RDAs' activities on rural areas, and would require that assessment to be laid before each House. Again, that is an example of the Opposition singling rural areas out for special treatment, as if they existed in isolation from the region as a whole.

Clause 17 already requires RDAs to submit annual reports of their activities to the Secretary of State. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the motion.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

This has been a valuable debate, although not for the reasons that the Minister may have imagined.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) reinforced the fears that people have about the effects that regional development agencies will have on the countryside.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) recognised the value of the Rural Development Commission's work, but I was sorry that he did not also recognise the value of the White Paper that the previous Government produced on rural England, and the value of the annual update of that White Paper that the previous Government started to produce and the present Government have discontinued.

The hon. Gentleman made an astonishing intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) about housing in West Sussex, apparently ignorant of the fact that the Labour party has joined the Conservatives on West Sussex county council to oppose the Government's decision.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) rightly stressed the point that, contrary to some of the Government's claims, the cost of producing a report of the kind required by new clause 1 would be negligible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs referred to the impressive petition signed by 28,000 people, which is powerful evidence of the public concern about the Government's approach to building new homes in West Sussex. He also highlighted the sense of identity that many people feel between themselves and their county. That goes back for generations, or even centuries. It is hard to imagine that that will be replaced by a similar sense of identity between individuals and the South East regional development agency.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) quoted from his direct experience in Cambridgeshire of how resources and effort can be diverted from rural to urban areas.

The Minister claimed that the Government were addressing the needs of rural areas. Let us consider law and order, an issue that is important to many people living in rural areas. This year, as a result of the Government's decisions and the changes that they have made to the formula, the standard spending assessment for the police has been cut in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Wiltshire—all rural areas. It has been cut in dozens of shire districts, including the one where I am a resident and council tax payer—in Babergh. It has been cut in south Cambridgeshire, Chichester and Cornwall. In every case where the Government have a choice, they favour the urban area and neglect the rural area. This is a Government who are trying to berate their predecessor for creating divisions during their term of office. The Government have embarked on a systematic attempt to discriminate against rural areas.

Mr. PaulClark:

rose—

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am sorry, but there is no time to give way.

The Minister gave some assurances about the future use of funds previously spent by the Rural Development Commission. I should like to examine that to see exactly what he was saying. I am not sure that the House has had an assurance that the funds will continue to be allocated in full to the rural areas. If we have had such an assurance, we welcome it.

The Minister also referred to some 1995 figures for regional gross domestic product. I will examine those. However, it is scarcely up to date to say that 1995 figures can be used to judge the position in 1998. In any event, they are wholly irrelevant to the question whether the new clause is needed. Nothing that the Minister said has allayed the fear of Conservative Members that regional development agencies are likely to operate to the disadvantage of rural areas, unless the check that we—

It being half-past Five o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order [27 March] and the Resolution [this day], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 166, Noes 295.

Division No. 240][5.30 pm
AYES
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Duncan, Alan
Allan, RichardDuncan Smith, Iain
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelEvans, Nigel
Arbuthnot, JamesFaber, David
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyFabricant, Michael
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Fallon, Michael
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Fearn, Ronnie
Baker, NormanFlight, Howard
Ballard, Mrs JackieForth, Rt Hon Eric
Beggs, RoyFoster, Don (Bath)
Beith, Rt Hon A JFowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Bercow, JohnFox, Dr Liam
Beresford, Sir PaulGale, Roger
Blunt, CrispinGarnier, Edward
Body, Sir RichardGeorge, Andrew (St Ives)
Boswell, TimGibb, Nick
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Gill, Christopher
Brady, GrahamGillan, Mrs Cheryl
Brazier, JulianGoodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair
Breed, ColinGorman, Mrs Teresa
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterGorrie, Donald
Browning, Mrs AngelaGray, James
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Greenway, John
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Grieve, Dominic
Burns, SimonHague, Rt Hon William
Butterfill, JohnHamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Cash, WilliamHammond, Philip
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)Harris, Dr Evan
Harvey, Nick
Chidgey, DavidHawkins, Nick
Chope, ChristopherHayes, John
Clappison, JamesHeathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)Horam, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Hunter, Andrew
Clifton-Brown, GeoffreyJackson, Robert (Wantage)
Collins, TimJenkin, Bernard
Colvin, MichaelJohnson Smith,
Cormack, Sir PatrickRt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Cotter, BrianJones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Cran, JamesKennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Curry, Rt Hon DavidKey, Robert
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)Kirkwood, Archy
Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenLaing, Mrs Eleanor
Lait, Mrs JacquiSt Aubyn, Nick
Lansley, AndrewSanders, Adrian
Letwin, OliverShephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)Shepherd, Richard
Lidington, DavidSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterSmith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Loughton, TimSoames, Nicholas
Luff, PeterSpelman, Mrs Caroline
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir NicholasSpicer, Sir Michael
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnSpring, Richard
McIntosh, Miss AnneSteen, Anthony
MacKay, AndrewStunell, Andrew
Maclean, Rt Hon DavidSwayne, Desmond
McLoughlin, PatrickSyms, Robert
Major, Rt Hon JohnTapsell, Sir Peter
Maples, JohnTaylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Mates, MichaelTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Maude, Rt Hon FrancisThompson, William
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir BrianTownend, John
May, Mrs TheresaTredinnick, David
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)Trend, Michael
Moore, MichaelTyler, Paul
Moss, MalcolmTyrie, Andrew
Nicholls, PatrickWallace, James
Norman, ArchieWalter, Robert
Oaten, MarkWardle Charles
Öpik, LembitWaterson, Nigel
Ottaway, RichardWebb, Steve
Wells, Bowen
Page, RichardWhitney, Sir Raymond
Paice, JamesWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
pickles, EricWilletts, David
Prior, DavidWillis, Phil
Randall, JohnWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Redwood, Rt Hon JohnWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Rendel, DavidWoodward, Shaun
Robathan, AndrewYeo, Tim
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)Tellers for the Ayes:
Ruffley, DavidMr. Stephen Day and
Russell, Bob (Colchester)Mr. Oliver Heald.
NOES
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Ainger, NickCampbell-Savours, Dale
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Canavan, Dennis
Alexander, DouglasCann, Jamie
Allen, GrahamCaplin, Ivor
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Casale, Roger
Armstrong, Ms HilaryCaton, Martin
Ashton, JoeChapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Atherton, Ms CandyChisholm, Malcolm
Atkins, CharlotteChurch, Ms Judith
Austin, JohnClapham, Michael
Banks, TonyClark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Barnes, HarryClark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Battle, John
Bayley, HughClark, Paul (Gillingham)
Beard, NigelClarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Begg, Miss AnneClarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Benn, Rt Hon TonyClarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Bennett, Andrew FClelland, David
Bermingham, GeraldClwyd, Ann
Blackman, LizCoaker, Vernon
Blears, Ms HazelCoffey, Ms Ann
Boateng, PaulCohen, Harry
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Coleman, Iain
Bradshaw, BenColman, Tony
Brinton, Mrs HelenConnarty, Michael
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Cooper, Yvette
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Corbyn, Jeremy
Browne, DesmondCorston, Ms Jean
Buck, Ms KarenCranston, Ross
Caborn, RichardCrausby, David
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Iddon, Dr Brian
Cummings, JohnIngram, Adam
Cunliffe, LawrenceJackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Darling, Rt Hon AlistairJamieson, David
Davidson, IanJenkins, Brian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Dawson, HiltonJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dean, Mrs JanetJones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Denham, John
Dewar, Rt Hon DonaldJones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Donohoe, Brian HJones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Doran, FrankJones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Dowd, JimJowell, Ms Tessa
Drew, DavidKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Drown, Ms JuliaKeen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Dunwoody, Mrs GwynethKelly, Ms Ruth
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Eagle, Maria (L 'pool Garston)Khabra, Piara S
Edwards, HuwKilfoyle, Peter
Efford, CliveKing, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Ellman, Mrs LouiseKingham, Ms Tess
Fatchett, DerekKumar, Dr Ashok
Field, Rt Hon FrankLadyman, Dr Stephen
Fitzpatrick, JimLawrence, Ms Jackie
Fitzsimons, LornaLaxton, Bob
Flint, CarolineLepper, David
Flynn, PaulLeslie, Christopher
Follett, BarbaraLevitt, Tom
Forsythe, CliffordLewis, Terry (Worsley)
Foster, Rt Hon DerekLiddell, Mrs Helen
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)Linton, Martin
Fyfe, MariaLloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Galloway, GeorgeLove, Andrew
Gardiner, BarryMcAllion, John
Gerrard, NeilMcAvoy, Thomas
Gibson, Dr IanMcCabe, Steve
Gilroy, Mrs LindaMcCafferty, Ms Chris
Godman, Dr Norman AMcCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Godsiff, RogerMcDonagh, Siobhain
Goggins, PaulMcIsaac, Shona
Golding, Mrs LlinMcWalter, Tony
Gordon, Mrs EileenMcWilliam, John
Grant, BernieMallaber, Judy
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)Mandelson, Peter
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Grocott, BruceMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Grogan, JohnMartlew, Eric
Gunnell, JohnMaxton, John
Hain, PeterMeale, Alan
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)Merron, Gillian
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)Milburn, Alan
Hanson, DavidMiller, Andrew
Harman, Rt Hon Ms HarrietMitchell, Austin
Healey, JohnMoffatt, Laura
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hepburn, StephenMoran, Ms Margaret
Hesford, StephenMorgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hinchliffe, DavidMorris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hodge, Ms MargaretMorris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Hoey, KateMudie, George
Home Robertson, JohnMurphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hood, JimmyMurphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Hoon, GeoffreyNaysmith, Dr Doug
Hope, PhilNorris, Dan
Howarth, Alan (Newport E)O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Howells, Dr KimO'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)O'Hara, Eddie
Humble, Mrs JoanO'Neill, Martin
Hurst, AlanPalmer, Dr Nick
Hutton, JohnPearson, Ian
Pendry, TomStinchcombe, Paul
Perham, Ms LindaStoate, Dr Howard
pickthall, ColinStott, Roger
Pike, Peter LStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Pond, ChrisStraw, Rt Hon Jack
Pope, GregStringer, Graham
Pound, StephenStuart, Ms Gisela
Powell, Sir RaymondTaylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Prescott, Rt Hon JohnTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Primarolo, DawnThomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Prosser, GwynTimms, Stephen
Purchase, KenTipping, Paddy
Quin, Ms JoyceTodd, Mark
Radice, GilesTouhig, Don
Rapson, SydTrickett, Jon
Raynsford, NickTruswell, Paul
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Roy, FrankTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Ruane, ChrisTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Ruddock, Ms JoanVis, Dr Rudi
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)Walley, Ms Joan
Salter, MartinWard, Ms Claire
Sarwar, MohammadWatts, David
Savidge, MalcolmWhite, Brian
Sawford, PhilWhitehead, Dr Alan
Sedgemore, BrianWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, BarryWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Wills, Michael
Skinner, DennisWilson, Brian
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, Angela (Basildon)Wise, Audrey
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)Woolas, Phil
Soley, CliveWray, James
Southworth, Ms HelenWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Spellar, JohnWyatt, Derek
Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Steinberg, GerryTellers for the Noes:
Stevenson, GeorgeMr. Clive Betts and
Stewart, David (Inverness E)Mr. John McFall.

Question accordingly negatived.