Rural and Urban White Papers

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th January 2001.

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[Relevant documents: Eleventh Report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1999–2000, on the Proposed Urban White Paper, HC 185–I, and the Government's response thereto, Cm. 4912; Seventh Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1999–2000, on the Rural White Paper, HC 32–I, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4910.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Clelland.]

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett Labour, Denton and Reddish 9:33 am, 26th January 2001

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the debate. It was allocated to the Select Committee to compensate us for losing a debate in November, when we were promised an estimates day to debate the Select Committee reports on the urban and rural White Papers. Unfortunately, as that date approached, the Government still had not published the two documents. It was therefore agreed that we should have the debate at a later date. I am grateful that we have this day, although it is not quite within the usual formal procedures for debate on a Select Committee report.

As Chairman of the Select Committee, I express my appreciation for all the hard work that the other members of the Select Committee put into the inquiries. My thanks are due especially to Richard Bate, David Lunts and Michael Parkinson, our specialist advisers on those inquiries, and to all the people who submitted evidence to the Select Committee, which was extremely important.

On both urban and rural policy, the Government can influence matters so far, but beyond that it is essential that people adapt and change their behaviour if we are to achieve success. The wide debate on urban and rural policy is important, and the Select Committee has contributed to that. The Government consulted widely on all the issues, which was very helpful.

Some might find it odd that we are debating the two Select Committee reports together, and ask whether there is not a total contradiction between urban and rural policy. I would argue—as would the Government, I think—that there is a total interdependence between the two Select Committee reports and the two Government White Papers. Unless we succeed with both, they will diminish each other. They are interdependent.

I begin by focusing on two issues, one from each report. The first is the urban problem. The perception is probably the reality: for most of last the century, there was a drain away from the cities and towns into rural and suburban Britain. That was a tragedy for the urban centres and for many of the rural centres.

The good news is that that drain has been stopped in some places. We can visit the centre of Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and many other cities and see how they are now thriving and attracting people back to live in them. Some of the housing often described as the worst, such as some tower blocks, has been improved and good security systems installed. People are clearly happy to live there.

What has been done successfully in a few places needs to be done in much more of urban Britain. The test over the next 20 to 30 years will be whether we revitalise urban living in this country, or look back and say that the improvement that took place in some city centres was the exception, rather than the rule.

The Select Committee identified as the major problem for rural Britain the decline of agriculture and the fact that only 4 per cent. of the people who live in the countryside work in agriculture. A new role for the countryside must be developed, not just to maximise food production but to provide a range of other services. Unless we can find a new role for rural communities, they will continue to decline and there will tend to be increasing conflict among different users.

Within that framework, the first issue that I shall discuss is poverty. We must recognise that in some urban communities, poverty is still a major problem, and also that rural poverty exists. It is easy to see urban poverty. One can go round and look at the housing, the way people live and the run-down shops, and it is evident that those are communities living in poverty. Often, rural poverty is much harder to see, because the properties have nice flowers around them and the scene looks idyllic. In fact, people in those communities are finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet.

One fact that emerged from both of our inquiries is that a huge amount of Government money is being spent in most urban communities and in many rural communities. The problem is keeping that money circulating in the places where it is supposedly being spent—making sure that there is a money-go-round, so to speak.

I talked to one or two farmers recently, following comments about the huge decline in agriculture and the problems involved. I pointed out that they had done quite well out of agriculture subsidies over the years. They were—rightly—pretty indignant because they had not done that well out of those subsidies. In many cases, the banks or those who owned the farms had done well, rather than individual farmers. One problem is that although a large amount of agricultural subsidy appears to have gone into our countryside, it has not stayed there but has come back quickly to the City of London or urban centres. Money in the rural community is important, not just because the farmer receives it, but because he proceeds to spend it on employing people in the countryside and buying and using local services. Keeping money in the community is important.

Exactly the same problem exists in some of our urban communities, where huge amounts of money are spent on social security and health and education services. Again, money comes into those communities and goes out almost immediately, as the people who provide education and health services do not live there. I want to emphasise that we need to try to keep money in the communities to which it is allocated by Government. Mainstream money will be far more significant to those communities than any special money that the Government can come up with.

Special money is welcome for neighbourhood schemes, rural bus services and things like that. However, the amount of that money is extremely small in comparison with the money that is already being spent by Government. It is crucial to get good value from the money that is already being spent and to get it to recirculate in the communities at which it is aimed. I am worried that, in quite a lot of those special schemes, consultants are appointed but rarely come from the community where the money will be spent. Again, money is being taken away from a deprived community and being spent in a much more affluent part of Britain, where people tell them what to do. The Select Committee particularly likes the fact that many schemes that are now being introduced insist on much more local participation. However, it is not just about participation; I emphasise that it is about keeping the money in those areas.

In the 20th century, there were major failures by Government to manage decline successfully. There was decline in the coal industry, shipbuilding and textiles. Too often, people in those communities suffered from that decline and we failed to produce policies to protect them from it. If we are to learn any lessons from the past, we must make sure in future that we protect people from the decline of the industries in which they work. That applies particularly to protecting farmers in rural communities from the decline in agriculture.

As an aside, may I say that we have to look at motor car manufacture in this country? Yesterday's announcement of the extra development in Sunderland is welcome, but we must recognise that cars are lasting longer and that the market for them cannot continue to expand. We probably have too many car plants in Europe now and too many people working in car manufacturing. We must find a successful way of protecting people who may not only lose their jobs, but find that their whole community is devastated by the decline of their industry.

I wish briefly to mention Ministers. I particularly praise the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and my hon. Friends the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for their full commitment to the two White Papers. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will appear before the Select Committee soon so that we can see his full commitment to the White Papers.

When the Select Committee again saw the ministerial team on Wednesday, on the issue of the urban White Paper, I was disappointed that the problem of gap funding still has not been sorted out. That is extremely worrying, as the gap funding scheme was one of the best mechanisms for urban development. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions still does not seem to have grasped just how serious is the damage to the whole Government regeneration programme caused by the abolition of gap funding. I was particularly disappointed that she could not answer questions about how far objective 1 schemes in Liverpool are being held up by the question of infringing European competition rules. I hope that she, and the Government as a whole, will take up much more vigorously with the European Commission the problem of being able to spend money on regeneration in and outside objective 1 areas.

On the question of housing, when the Select Committee made visits—I am grateful to all of those who helped us with that—we saw a problem in some of our northern cities that is completely unknown in the south of England: large numbers of empty houses. If we go around the north side of Manchester or much of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), we see houses that cannot be sold or let. On Wednesday, the Deputy Prime Minister told the Select Committee that about 6,000 houses could not be let in Hull. We must recognise that there is a serious problem in some northern cities.

I want to describe the situation in Manchester. It is amazing that in a place such as Didsbury, on the south side of the city, nice Victorian and Edwardian houses— some but not all of which have been modernised—are selling for £60,000 or£70,000, right up to£100,000. Identical houses on the north side of Manchester and in parts of Salford cannot be sold. Physically, there is no difference between those properties. However, the perception is that if one buys a house in south Manchester, one is investing in a property that will retain and almost certainly increase its value. It is therefore a good investment, and there is encouragement from the building societies to borrow money on it. As soon as one goes to parts of north Manchester, that encouragement disappears.

I have a constituent who is living in appalling overcrowding. He bought a starter home when he did not have children. He now has two small children, and his house is like living in a small matchbox. Coming home from work, he saw on the north side of Manchester a house selling for£25,000—the sort of property that he could easily afford. He went to the building society to inquire about a mortgage on it, and although he was not told absolutely that it would not lend money on it, he was given all sorts of reasons why it would be foolish for him to consider buying it.

The Government have to look at ways of getting the market back into those communities. One simple thing they could do would be to say that if people buy properties in those areas and cannot sell them, the Government or local authority will buy them back at the price at which they were sold. That would not cost the Government a great deal of money, but it would put confidence back into the market, and it is essential that we do that.

During the Select Committee's inquiry into the urban and rural White Papers, many people spoke about fiscal measures. We have still not got the Government to come to grips with the question of weighting VAT in favour of renovation and renewal, rather than of new build. Exemption from stamp duty has also been discussed. It is welcome as far as it goes, but an awful lot of the properties about which I have just spoken would not attract stamp duty anyway. I hope that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is pressing the Chancellor further to consider the fiscal measures that can be taken.

We must reduce dependence on transport in rural and urban communities. We need not only to secure better public transport, but to ensure that people need to use private transport less. We must allow rural post offices and shops to thrive so that people can use them. People in rural areas should not have to travel to towns to obtain basic necessities. We must ensure also that people in urban communities can walk to work and to places of entertainment. They should not find themselves stuck for half an hour in traffic jams when travelling to and from work.

I want to mention a small but important point on compulsory purchase orders. In some urban areas, such orders are very difficult to put together. The Government should consider the arrangements and propose new legislation to simplify them. The Minister for Housing and Planning disappointed the Select Committee about the matter on Wednesday.

I do not want to take up too much time. I finish with a plea on communal space, which was also made in the Select Committee reports. The Government have provided examples of good practice on communal space in the White Papers. Previously, all the emphasis has been put on personal space—people's gardens. The beauty that is to be found in lots of people's gardens is amazing, but often there are neglected public parks just around the corner. It is important for us to find ways of putting money back into run-down urban and country parks.

I do not want to say too much about cemeteries and churchyards, as the Select Committee is currently considering them, but I point out that they are another example of public space that is not being cherished as it should be. The Committee will go on to consider pedestrianised areas in towns. That is another matter in respect of which we are not making the best use of public space.

We need major discussion about the rural and urban landscape that we want in this country. We need especially to reclaim and revitalise public space and encourage the development of the public realm.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:53 am, 26th January 2001

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on introducing the debate so well, with a speech that was overwhelmingly sensible and pertinent. I apologise to the House, as I shall not be able to stay throughout the debate. As it is Friday, constituency duties require me to be in Kent by early afternoon.

I am delighted in this peculiarly orderly debate to see that the Minister for the Environment will be speaking on behalf of the Government, especially as his travails have provided an accompaniment in a minor key to the main discords that have affected the Government. It is a happy—or, rather, unhappy—coincidence that one of the key issues affecting both urban and rural areas is housing. We know that cities and the countryside have housing problems. We also know that the Minister's only housing problem is counting them all.

The Minister spoke about housing in a speech at the 1999 Labour party conference. He said that the Government were not necessarily going to bar second home ownership in the countryside. He went on to say, this is the way I'm thinking and I'm one of the players in this process. There are obviously questions to be asked about whether he remains a player in housing policy and still takes departmental decisions, especially on the rented housing market.

This country's housing problems—I refer not only to those experienced by the Minister, but to those mentioned by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish—are symptomatic of the failure from which the White Papers suffer. That failure is at the heart of the new Labour project. I refer to the gap between promise and performance. Again, the Minister might be said to symbolise my point. He wrote that great tome, "Socialism with a Human Face", which was published in 1982. Interestingly, however, the author of that fascinating tome, which I advise everybody to read, has now become that epitome of capitalism, the multiple landlord. I applaud his move across the ideological barrier, but I wish that his party's policies showed equal common sense.

I should like to deal with the White Papers separately, but I must point out some common failings before I do so. Delay in delivery was the first of those failings. It is interesting that this debate was introduced by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. Its subject was originally intended to be the Select Committee's response to the White Papers. However, the Government took so long to produce them that that debate had to be postponed. They fell behind the Select Committee's timetable. It was promised first that the White Papers would be published in 1998.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

I read in The Daily Telegraph on 15 January that the Conservative party was about to unveil a plan for 50 measures to help country areas. No doubt, the plan was trailed by central office. It seems, however, that the Opposition have not yet delivered on those pledges and that their manifesto—if that is what it is—has not yet been published. Are not the hon. Gentleman's remarks a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is true that our manifesto has not been published. Some of the 50 measures have already been published, however, and I shall refer to them later in my speech. If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, he will hear about them then. He spoke of a report published in The Daily Telegraph on 15 January, which is about two weeks ago. It took the Government two and a half years to produce their proposals. As I shall explain, they produced only a damp squib.

The proposals were not only delayed but were disjointed. We were originally told in the grand plan that the White Papers would be delivered together. Eventually, however, the Government realised that no common theme or vision existed, so their publication had to be announced separately. I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that it is impossible to solve the problems of the inner cities and of the countryside separately and that both need to be solved if a significant impact is to be achieved on either. One of the principal failures of the Government's approach, as it is expressed in the White Papers, is that there is no common theme.

Another underlying problem is the practical effect of the White Papers, which will be disappointing. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that each of the White Papers contains good ideas, but there is nothing like enough, especially to justify the hype that preceded their publication.

Before I turn to the urban White Paper, I should like to declare an interest, as I am a trustee of the Community Development Foundation. I am happy to be in that position. I know that Government Members always become excited when Opposition Members declare an interest, so I point out that I was appointed to the position by the Home Secretary. I am grateful to him for allowing me to serve on that foundation. It seeks to establish best practice so that communities and the people who live in them, who are often disadvantaged, can be empowered. All hon. Members have learned from various attempts at urban regeneration over many decades that permanent improvements are more likely to take root if the people in the communities feel that they can claim ownership of them and feel that they are an important part of the process. That is an uncontroversial conclusion

In the run-up to producing the White Paper, that conclusion was central to some of the more intelligent contributions to it, especially the Rogers report. That report was extremely interesting and full of good ideas, some of which should be taken up. However, the White Paper does not live up to the promise of that report. It contained 105 recommendations, of which only 14 were fully accepted. Action on 34 was fudged or delayed and 57 were ignored or rejected. It is regrettable that the Government have not been more enthusiastic about the Rogers report. In an article in The Independent on 17 November, Lord Rogers said: The … White Paper falls short of what is going to be required to engender a real urban renaissance. He is right.

Not many kind things have been said about the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) this week, but I shall be brave and quote him. He was absolutely right when he said on 24 November: There is a risk of having too many central projects and too many departmental programmes … it is clear that the more complex, more geographically specific problems of social exclusion will not be solved by a top-down approach from Whitehall. The urban White Paper assumes that a top-down, centralised approach is the way forward for urban renaissance. It will not work. So much hope and expectation has been invested in the urban White Paper that it is inevitable that communities will be disappointed.

The Select Committee noted last July that it was appalled by the slow progress of the Treasury in evaluating programmes. It criticised the way in which money is spent in too many of our urban regeneration projects. It stated that the quality of services provided to urban neighbourhoods was very poor despite the large amount of mainstream funds spent. That is probably true and will be made worse by the Deputy Prime Minister's creation of a series of quangos, regional bureaucracy and taskforces. There are too many disjointed initiatives, with little rhyme or reason to them, that fail to tackle deprivation.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

Does the hon. Gentleman concede that his party pioneered a top-down approach? In my constituency of Tottenham we inherited an unemployment rate of 16 per cent. We were never consulted about regeneration initiatives. The same applies to St. Paul's in Bristol, Chapeltown in Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. It is possible to look back and evaluate the record. My party can be proud of its early regeneration efforts in 1979, 1980 and 1981. The most visible result is London docklands, where successful initiatives were effected. Docklands in 2001 is unrecognisable when compared with docklands in 1980. It has improved beyond recognition. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) is right to say that not every programme worked and that a specific approach does not have the same effect in every area. However, I believe that those programmes made a positive difference.

In 1979, a Conservative Government were newly elected; by 1980, they were taking practical steps to deal with some of the most disadvantaged areas of this country. Those areas clearly flowered. One of my main objections to the Government's approach is that, for all the rhetoric, it has taken them almost an entire Parliament to produce a White Paper, let alone an over-arching vision.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

The redevelopment in Newcastle was not based on a top-down approach, but a bottom-up approach. It was carried out by the Tyne and Wear development corporation, which is a grass-roots organisation.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those programmes worked not only in London; they were effective in places where the community, especially the local business community, poured its energies into socially advantageous regeneration. Today, there are many disjointed initiatives, which often seem to exist for the press release rather than long-term benefit.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves his complaint about a lack of overview, could he remind hon. Members of the occasions when the Consevative Government published the equivalent of the rural White Paper? It was only in the fag-end of their tenure, when they knew that they were about to go to the electorate and be defeated, that they produced a White Paper after their many years in office.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I shall store up my comments on the Government's rural record and that of my party until I reach that part of my speech. I simply observe that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into the trap of assuming that publishing a White Paper means that something different happens in the real world. Government achievements are not measured by the number of papers that they produce. If that were the case, the Government would be the most successful Administration ever because the Department publishes approximately 15 press releases a day. However, the inner cities are not improving and the countryside is in crisis. If the hon. Gentleman goes round his constituency saying, "It's all right; we don't need to worry about rural areas because the Government's published a White Paper", he is in for a shock.

The Government have introduced an array of initiatives. There are too many of them; they are disjointed and they do not succeed. They include: drug action teams, action for jobs, excellence in cities, the neighbourhood support fund, education action zones, employment zones, new start, health action zones, sure start, new deal for communities, renewal areas, the European regional development fund, new commitment to regeneration, pathfinders, the single regeneration budget and on track. It is therefore inevitable that people are more confused than relieved by the announcement of another Government initiative.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett Labour, Denton and Reddish

If the Conservative party came to power, would it abolish all the initiatives or only some of them?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I shall refer to our key proposals shortly. We shall have fewer short-term, gimmicky initiatives than the Government—it would be impossible to have as many. People have seen through them; they simply do not work.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

The key problem is that the initiatives are overlaid with layers of authority and different bodies, which may play some role in implementing the schemes. For example, there is the voluntary sector, town and parish councils, borough councils, county councils, regional government, the Government and the European Union. Once the matrix is in place, it is impossible for people to understand how to assist with regeneration.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is right. People spend so much time working out the system that they have less time to do the work. The Chairman of the Select Committee attempted to ride to the Government's rescue, yet last July the Select Committee stated that there was a lack of co-ordination between local, regional and national government. It said that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions did not appear to have the same views about the role of cities in the regional economy, and that the DTI did not sufficiently recognise the need to make the economic competitiveness of urban areas a priority. The Select Committee that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish chairs made the same criticism as me of the way in which the Government proceed.

The Government's own performance and innovation unit, set up by No. 10 Downing street in the Cabinet Office, has said that the clear evidence from those on the ground … is that there are too many Government initiatives, causing confusion; not enough co-ordination; and too much time spent on negotiating the system rather than delivering … the variety of public funding regimes, particularly in the regeneration activity, is not helpful. I am afraid that the White Papers do nothing to resolve the problem.

The key charge against the urban White Paper is that it will make things worse rather than better. It will simply add to the plethora of schemes. In terms of measures that matter to those living in inner cities, things are already getting worse, not better. Three thousand more people are homeless and in urgent need than in 1997, and crime has shot up in urban areas. It has risen by 12.6 per cent. in London, by 16 per cent. in the west midlands, by 8 per cent. in Staffordshire and by 5 per cent. in Merseyside. One reason for that is the fact that the Government have cut police numbers since May 1997.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

Will the hon. Gentleman concede that in my constituency crime rose by 166 per cent. between 1979 and 1997?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows the figures. My point is that his Government have cut the number of police, and that crime has risen, especially in urban areas. The Conservative party is pledged to restore police numbers to the level inherited by the present Government in 1997, which is the most practical step any Government could take to combat crime in areas such as the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I hope that he welcomes that commitment.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will, but then I must make some progress; others wish to speak.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

The hon. Gentleman says that his party is committed to restoring police numbers to the 1997 level. Is that where he stops, or will he match the present Government's commitment to increasing numbers beyond that level, so that there is a record number of police on our streets and in rural communities?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is a great devotee of jam tomorrow. He has sat on the Labour Benches for three years while the Government have cut police numbers, and he now seeks to criticise a commitment to increase them.

Under Conservative Governments there were more police on the streets; under Labour Governments there are fewer. That is a fact of life which the hon. Gentleman would do well to accept.

Since the White Paper, the Government have had another try, announcing plans for the most deprived neighbourhoods, more programmes and more fragmentation. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), said that the Government's announcement earlier this month consisted of joining together four previous announcements and attempting to paint them as something new. That is why there is so much cynicism out there about the Government's efforts. People now recognise that they are simply trying to put a new coat of paint on old initiatives. It will not wash any more: people want to see effects.

People want to see more, not fewer, police. They want to see their schools improving. They want to see practical measures that will take the areas that have suffered most out of their current spiral of decline. That is why we have produced practical proposals. We have said that the first thing that must happen is a reversal of the exodus from the cities. We will abolish national and regional planning targets, and devolve planning decisions to local people. By ending the thrust to build on the countryside, we will encourage market forces to redevelop brownfield land in cities where that redevelopment is needed.

We think that making cities safe is an absolute prerequisite for improving them, and for spending taxpayers' money effectively on urban regeneration. That means providing visible policing on the ground, and the new regeneration companies that we propose will be able to finance extra policing in certain areas if they consider it necessary.

We think that our free-schools proposals will make it easier to tackle and change the management of failing schools. The regeneration companies will be able to facilitate that process too, and, if necessary, to assist the funding of new partnership schools.

We think that poorly designed estates and tower blocks can create long-term structural deprivation. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said, there are some good examples of tower blocks, but there are also some terrible examples, and we think that they should go.

We think that, if we are to avoid the disjointed and haphazard approach that I, like the Select Committee, believe is wrong, there should be a regeneration Minister to oversee regeneration initiatives across Departments. We think that the new regeneration companies will be a vehicle for urban renewal in our major cities. They will involve local communities, while also introducing the private sector expertise and private investment that will enable those communities to find the money to do themselves some good, and keep things under their own control.

I am afraid that the Government are comprehensively failing our cities, and that failure serves only to worsen the crisis in the countryside that the rural White Paper was meant to address. To judge the White Paper, we must assess the Government's attitude to the countryside. The Prime Minister is clear on that: there is no crisis in the countryside. In February last year, he said: Politicians and pressure groups, by seizing on the general crisis in agriculture, are seeking to exploit it by creating the impression that the whole countryside is in crisis. Such assertions were wrong, he said.

Well, it might not look like a crisis from Islington, but it does look like a crisis in the countryside. Farm industry bankruptcies have risen by 18 per cent. since the election, post offices are closing at a rate of two a day, country pubs are shutting at a rate of six a week and rural police stations are closing at a rate of 90 a year.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

After I referred to the plight of the countryside at Prime Minister's Question Time this week, I received a letter from someone in the countryside who was horrified by the first paragraph of the seventh report—especially the last sentence, which states: The role of rural England as the food provider for the nation is no longer an essential one. Will my hon. Friend confirm that in his view the countryside is not a vast leisure ground or a retirement home, and that it is, in fact, the essential food provider for the nation? Will he confirm that that is our policy, and that we will not retract our view that successful agriculture is essential to the countryside?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Absolutely. Agriculture must be at the heart of any economic regeneration of the countryside. The proposals that the Government are considering to remove protection against building on the best agricultural land are potentially damaging not just to the environment, but to agriculture as an industry. As my hon. Friend says, that is one of the central failures of the Government's analysis of the countryside's problems.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I want to tie my hon. Friend down. He will, I trust, dissociate the Opposition from the phrase in this important report that worries me so much: The role of rural England as the food provider for the nation is no longer an essential one. This is still our most important industry. I agree with paragraph 46 of the report, which says that many MAFF and CAP policies are misplaced. Fair enough: let us change some support for production to support for small farmers—but let us disagree with that very dangerous phrase, The role of rural England as the food provider for the nation is no longer an essential one.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is clearly essential for us to produce food, not just for long-term safety reasons but because food production is a big and important industry. We will develop the best standards, as we have in the past, so that Britain can continue to be an important figure in the world food industry.

There are some good proposals in the rural White Paper. We welcome, for instance, the deregulatory measures for small abattoirs, and measures to encourage tranquillity. There is, however, nothing like enough to meet the scale of the crisis in the countryside. The Government have promised £1 billion over three years, but all of that is respun and recycled money. All of it was announced in the previous spending review, when the Deputy Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and proudly announced £1 billion for the countryside. He was simply re-announcing old money.

Many of the policies in the rural White Paper are characteristically ineffectual. Of its 176 pages, only 11 are devoted to agriculture, and those contain very little substantive content. One of the big ideas of this much hyped White Paper is the creation of an electronic rural portal. I am sure many of my hon. Friends—indeed, hon. Members on both sides of the House—talk to people in the countryside, and visit pubs and talk to people in their constituencies. I can honestly say that I have never yet met anyone who said, "What we need is an electronic rural portal. That would solve the problems of the countryside." Even those who think that such a portal is the solution to the countryside's problems should be aware that, for all the hype in the White Paper, there will only be a prototype ready later this year—so there is not even an electronic rural portal available to solve the countryside's problems.

Other big ideas include the so-called rural advocate, who will have the right to attend the rural affairs Cabinet Sub-Committee. That sounds very important, except when we consider that in the whole of 2000 that body met only once. It is hardly likely to be at the centre of the Government's planning if it meets only once a year.

The White Paper also contains proposals to remove controls on development of the best and most versatile land. That symbolises better than anything the Government's neglect of agriculture. They have failed to provide a practical solution to the key problems that many people identify in the provision of rural services. Their proposals on rural post offices will do nothing to promote the long-term viability of the rural post office network.

The Government have talked a great deal about the new rate relief, but in the White Paper they step back and list it only as a matter for consultation. They talk about support for community transport schemes and rural buses, but their fuel tax increases have made it harder for people in rural areas to travel and to work. The Government have not thought through the effects of their bus policies. The gimmicks of a rural bus grant, a bus challenge fund and a rural transport partnership cannot mask the fact that the Government are taking more money away from local budgets, to the tune of £180 million a year—more than they are putting into rural bus services. [Interruption.] I shall come on to our proposals on these issues in a moment.

The Government have announced £30 million extra for rural policing at a time when people who live in rural areas now find a policeman one of the rarest sights in the British countryside. The blue line is becoming thinner and thinner under Labour.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think that this must be the hon. Gentleman's last go.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps, this time, he would care to answer my question. He said that the Government were making available £30 million in extra resources for rural policing at a time when people were seeing fewer and fewer police officers. Is he suggesting that we should not make that £30 million available?

In view of what the Conservatives say about the consequences of the Hunting Bill for the police, will the hon. Gentleman also tell us whether his Front Benchers propose to recruit further police officers—and pay for that recruitment—to take up the burdensome responsibilities that he believes lie in store?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is a bit confused on that last point. If he is saying, as I think he is, that the Hunting Bill will put unnecessary extra pressure on the rural police, I completely agree with him. It is an absolutely unnecessary Bill, and that is why I voted against it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman voted against it as well. I voted against it on Second Reading and I voted against a complete ban. Such a ban will have many deleterious effects, one of which will be to put extra pressure on the police.

I repeat what I said in response to the hon. Gentleman's previous intervention. We shall restore police numbers to at least their pre-election levels. We shall also make rural policing more visible and accessible, to cope with the real problem for people in the countryside, which is that they never see a policeman and they feel less safe as a result.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

I shall explain again what I was asking. Will the Conservatives underwrite the £30 million a year additional funding—which he has just denigrated—that the Government are making available for rural policing? As it is the hon. Gentleman's party, not mine, that believes that the Hunting Bill will result in a need for further policing, will it fund that further policing? Will he answer those two straightforward questions?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It seems slightly perverse of the hon. Gentleman to say, "We are passing legislation that will make the police's job more difficult. Will you, when you are in Government, support the consequences of that legislation?" That legislation has not yet gone through the Houses of Parliament.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The answer is that I hope the legislation does not go through. I hope that police resources will not have to be taken up by such ludicrous, unnecessary wastes of time. The hon. Gentleman apparently believes that it would be a good use of the time of our hard-pressed rural police to expect them to deal with a ban on a traditional countryside activity that criminalised large numbers of people. He should go away and examine his own position carefully, if he agrees with me that one of the effects of the Hunting Bill will be to make life more difficult for the police.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think that we have heard enough on this matter from Labour Members.

Our proposals, not only on rural crime but on all the other issues, seek to make a practical difference to the lives of people who live in the countryside.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

No, I really must make some progress.

We have said, without any of the prevarication shown by the Government, that we will cut business rates for rural shops and rural post offices. We will review the unfair changes to the local government finance settlement that penalise the shire agencies. We will abolish the regional development agencies and transfer many of then-responsibilities for economic development to county councils, together with their funding. We will abolish the national and regional house building targets. We will reform the planning system to give a new right of counter-appeal to allow local communities to specify the use of local architecture and local materials. We will streamline the local planning system to ensure that planning appeals are quicker and less costly.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

No, I must make progress.

We will give local communities new powers to control the spread of mobile phone masts, and more powers to local authorities to tackle the problem of troublesome travellers. We oppose the Government's plans for new taxes on driving into town centres, in particular market towns, as that would damage any attempt to improve the economic regeneration of that important sector of the economy.

Compared with the Government, we have a practical set of proposals that will make a real difference. The Government say that there is no crisis in the countryside, and that their White Papers are leading the way to solving the problems that exist. I have to tell them that, judging by the briefings that have arrived relating to this debate, no one out there in the real world agrees with them. The National Farmers Union makes the point that there are significant overlaps in such policy areas as pressures for housing development, meeting demand for recreation, and tackling crime (where there is increasing evidence of urban-based criminals transferring their attention to what are perceived as "softer targets" in rural areas). It is disappointing that this valuable opportunity has not been fully realised— by the White Papers.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England certainly believes that there is a crisis in the countryside. It states: Urban sprawl, traffic growth and damaging farm subsidies are destroying the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside. Farm incomes are in steep decline and rural communities are suffering from a lack of services. The Countryside Alliance states: No one in public life should doubt that the countryside is seething with resentment and discontent. This has been exacerbated by the "unfortunate remarks"— as the alliance politely puts it— from the Deputy Prime Minister at the Labour Party conference. The alliance is completely right. When the Deputy Prime Minister talked about the contorted faces of those who disagreed with him, he revealed everything that we needed to know about the Government's attitude to the countryside.

The Country Landowners Association states: As with all White Papers there is always a risk that once published and debated they become sidelined by events. The CLA fear that this might be the fate of the Rural White Paper, as evidenced by the fact that the Government have chosen to allocate parliamentary time to the Hunting Bill as the only significant piece of rural legislation before the expected General Election … These priorities will not be understood in rural constituencies. The CLA is right to make that point.

If I were asked to judge between the two White Papers, I would say that the rural White Paper was worse than the urban White Paper, because the Labour party has no knowledge or understanding of the countryside. It is one of the Government's more ludicrous claims that they now have more rural Members of Parliament than the Conservative party. Indeed, I am told that the Labour parliamentary rural group has 168 members. That is a fascinating figure. I think that they are fooling themselves that they represent rural constituencies, but if they do, they must take note of some very damaging figures on how they perform on behalf of their rural constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is today publishing a pamphlet entitled "Representing Rural Britain: Blair's Bogus Claim", and Labour Members who represent rural constituencies or claim to do so would do well to read it. Labour claims to have 168 rural MPs—more MPs than the entire parliamentary Conservative party—but the pamphlet reveals that more than twice as many questions on rural affairs were asked by Conservative Members as by Labour Members.

Perhaps those Labour Members are not present because they are drawing up written questions as well, but far more written questions on rural matters—101 to 88—have been asked by Conservative Members than by Labour Members. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats asked nearly as many as Labour Members. There are two possible explanations: either Labour does not have as many rural MPs as it claims, or those whom it has are idle in representing their rural interest in Parliament. That is the question that the Government and their Back Benchers must consider. Are they fooling themselves and everyone else when they claim to represent rural Britain, or are they neglecting rural Britain in Parliament? There is no other explanation of those figures.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett Labour, Denton and Reddish

There is a simple explanation, which relates to the quality of the questions. Will the hon. Gentleman note that more than one Member of the House has been pleased to boast that he has asked more parliamentary questions in a year than any other Member? Suddenly, people began to ask about the cost of asking those questions. Before praying in aid the number of questions asked, he should have made sure that they were relevant and useful.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is not a completely terrible point, in that I agree that those who measure their virtue by the number of questions that they ask are probably fooling themselves. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is fair-minded enough to accept that if all those Labour MPs have asked only half as many questions on rural matters as Conservative MPs, that tells us something pretty significant about how much they think and care about the countryside.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it sometimes takes five or six questions to get the basic answer, even though everyone knew what information was required when the first was asked? If we received proper answers to the first question, we would not need to ask another five.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That,too, is a good point. Furthermore, many questions are handed out by the Government to enable a soft answer to be given when they want to make an announcement; so, if anything, we are probably being too kind by including every question asked by their Back Benchers.

We have a stark contrast here: on one side, the Government's warm rhetoric and, on the other, the cold reality of life in our inner cities and rural areas. One reason for being angry about the Government's failures in their various policies is that the most poor and disadvantaged, in urban or rural areas, suffer most. The poor most need the police on the streets in the inner cities and most need the local school to be improved. In rural areas, the relatively poor need a car to get to work. They therefore suffer from the Government's many petrol price rises.

The overall failure of the two White Papers will not only create economic and environmental problems, but aggravate social problems. Conservative Members at least have practical solutions to offer, and we look forward to implementing them in the near future.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk 10:33 am, 26th January 2001

I listened attentively to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) and was surprised that he made no apology for what the Conservative party did when it had the opportunity not just to talk about what it would do in rural areas, but to take action; I intend to emphasise rural issues because I represent a rural constituency.

For 18 years, the Conservatives had the chance not just to preach, but to practise, so it is appropriate briefly to remind the House of what they did then as opposed to what they say they want to do now. I had the privilege to represent a county council constituency in the county of Norfolk for more than 20 years, mostly under a Tory-led county council and a Tory Government. We all agree that there are problems to be addressed in the countryside, but let us look at the major issues and at what happened over those years.

Many complaints are made about what has happened to village life. In my view, nothing is more important to a village than the village school and I led opposition in Norfolk to the proposed closure of the vast majority of the 100 village schools. The Tory Government rubber-stamped the approvals and the county council fed them through, largely because—although it denied this—it could not or would not find the money to provide the education to which everyone, whether they live in a rural or urban environment, should aspire. Only when this Government took office did we have a Secretary of State who within months would make the bold assertion that whenever a local education authority brought him a proposal to close a village school there would be a presumption against closure.

I acknowledge that, on occasions, we must accept that demographic change requires us to close as well as open schools, but I know of schools in my constituency that were threatened with closure for decades. Every five or six years, closure was on the agenda and there was always a battle against it. Now, rather than arguing with politicians about their future, head teachers, governors and staff can turn their full attention to using the new resources that the Government are providing to address the educational needs of the children.

I am afraid that the Conservative Government's record on supporting rural education, which is the foundation of the rural economy, was deplorable, particularly since during that time there was a major decline in the number of people in Norfolk working on the land. I used to go to the village pub and speak to people whose job was in, or associated with, agriculture, but that is no longer the case. These days, a tiny fraction of people in the villages that I visit work on the land.

Over the past decade or two, there has been a need for new skills and new aspirations among country people. In the days when it was obvious that village children would have jobs on the land, there was an understanding, at least to my mind, of parents who took the attitude that education was not for their children because it was unnecessary. Those parents had not needed education themselves, and there were good jobs waiting for their children, but over the past decade or more there has been a need in Norfolk to raise aspirations and to ensure that village schools have the highest educational standards. The situation was turned around only when the present Government took office. Of course there is a long way to go, and the figures for my constituency still reveal an underlying lack of skills and training, which the Government must continue to address, but I repeat that our inheritance from the previous Administration was deplorable.

Similarly, many crocodile tears are shed over rural post office closures. I heard no cries of anguish when hundreds of post offices closed during my time on the county council. Again, only this Government have been willing to provide real money rather than just words. I greatly welcome the commitment given in the White Paper to achieving a national standard for postal services and post office access. We can debate that, and ensure both that it is implemented and that the money is there to back up the words.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

I might have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but I thought that the greatest threat to the future of rural post offices was the Government's decision to stop making social security, pension and benefits payments across the counter.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

My grandparents ran a rural post office. My mother—who, regrettably, is long deceased—and the other nine children of that family all knew how to run a post office. Until a few years ago, if any of them had walked into a post office, they would have been able to take over and run it. The tragedy of the years of the Conservative Government was their long failure to invest in and modernise the Post Office to ensure that it was able to adapt. It was that Government who put the Post Office at the greatest risk.

Only the current Government have recognised two facts: not only do we need to modernise the Post Office— which has to exist in the 21st century, not the middle of the 20th, for which it was equipped—but we have to provide funding. The Government are to be congratulated on identifying the problem and grasping the nettle. They have made people face up to the facts, which has been challenging for people with a decades-long tradition of doing things in pretty much the same way.

The Government have also recognised the fundamental importance of the Post Office's social role and of preserving that role. They are giving the Post Office a new way of performing that role that is appropriate to the decade—indeed, the century—in which we live.

I could continue speaking on that subject. I could also describe the pain and anguish that I have felt on seeing social services becoming unable to deliver in rural parts of Norfolk, having been underfunded, understaffed and under-equipped for years.

As for transport, rural bus services in Norfolk were decimated, with only one in four or five parishes having a bus pass through them on the way to a market town. All those services were in decline and decay, suffering from a lack of investment by the previous Government

The list of problems was enormous. Rural people became unable to afford to live in their own villages because of low incomes. Those who complain that there are now too many initiatives have simply shut their eyes to the number of problems that there were.

There are, however, much more important matters for us to discuss in this debate than the sins of Conservative Members—many, important and damaging to my constituents though they were.

I should like to address some of the specific issues raised in the White Paper that are of particular concern to me. I should also like to tell Ministers that they have generally succeeded in identifying the issues. However, I want to ensure that we encourage them to ensure that solutions are found.

I have been sufficiently lucky in my time in Parliament— in collaboration with the university of East Anglia, particularly its politics department—to have had various students work with me who have brought their academic skills to bear in analysing some of the problems in my constituency. One of those students, Vanessa Strange, is working with me now. She is a third-year student who, with her supervisor, Dr. John Greenaway, has for some time been studying and working on questionnaires and surveys on the problems of second home ownership. Along the north Norfolk coast, various villages have very high levels of second home ownership—a situation which, as I have said in the House before, has its pluses and minuses. In representing my constituency, I want to ensure that we get the balance right.

Part of the way through the investigation—specifically examining Burnham Overy, which is one of the small villages along the north Norfolk coast—we identified various problems with second home ownership that need to be tackled. The fact is that 90 per cent. of those whom Vanessa questioned felt that house prices were very high; no one felt that they were low; and only 10 per cent. thought that they were reasonable. Everyone who had moved into a property in the past 10 years had had difficulty in finding a property in the area. Of those who had moved in 10 years ago, only 50 per cent. had had difficulty in finding a property.

One concern that was repeatedly expressed to the researcher was that available housing had increased beyond the price range of most of the area's young people. Their hopes had been dashed also when there were new developments in the area, which they hoped would provide them with housing. Once the developments were under way, they discovered that the houses were to be used as executive homes or sheltered accommodation for the elderly.

There seems to be a reasonable relationship between "incomers" and the village's more traditional residents. However, at least four of five of those questioned felt that second homes were having a negative effect on their parish. I suspect that that is why 93 per cent. of those questioned supported the consultation proposals to remove the 50 per cent. council tax reduction on second homes.

Those questioned particularly feared—it is an obvious fear if one thinks about it—that their local school would be at risk because incomers generally did not have children. If local people can no longer afford to remain in their village, local school numbers will continue to decline, increasing the risk of school closures and the decline in village morale.

People were also concerned that shopping and other facilities in nearby Burnham Market—which is sometimes called the Chelsea of Norfolk—are aimed more at tourists and incomers than at meeting the needs of local people. I noticed that, this week in The Times, a London journalist recommended Burnham Market's main hostelry as a good stopping off point on the way to Fakenham races. Visitors may be very good for the local economy, but there is a real need to meet the needs of local people so that they can remain in their village.

I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government recognise that, in dealing with the problems generated by second homes, the solution lies not in a ban that would prevent people from enjoying their spare and leisure time in the countryside and near the coast, but in meeting the needs of local people. I hope that he will also reassure us that such a policy will be implemented and not only talked about.

The White Paper identifies the need to overhaul the planning process, and it is critical that that happens. I agree with the National Farmers Union, which wrote to me on the subject, that the ultimate test of the White Paper's philosophical principles will be the contents of the planning and policy guidelines that are yet to be issued, and the way in which those guidelines are reflected in structure and local plans. It is very important indeed that parish and town councils—which undertake the planning work and face the difficulties of implementing the guidelines, to create a masterplan for their area—see action on the guidelines and plans. They should have a formal role in the process so that their work cannot be brushed aside by a borough or county council.

Last week, I had the privilege of giving an outline of the White Paper's contents to representatives of the 60-odd parishes in my constituency. The meeting was well attended by people who wanted to know what the White Paper contained and its implications for them. They expressed concern about planning issues. Representatives of Brancaster parish council told me that, when they had previously done non-statutory, pre-White Paper planning work, they had been very chummy with the borough council until the work was finished. The parish council's complaint—which I have not yet investigated—is that, within three days of its planning work being given to the borough council, it was thrown away. The borough council ignored the parish council's work and went its own way. I hope that the Minister can assure me that I can tell the many parishes in my constituency that if they suffer the pain, they will get the gain.

I have had a lifelong interest in the educational problems of rural areas. A year or so ago, a student at the university of East Anglia, Sandra Ison, looked into the barriers to learning. As I am keen to see progress on the skills problem, I wanted to know what I had to do to get the Government to improve matters. Sandra Ison's academic approach—called, I believe, the key respondent approach—involves in-depth interviews rather than vast surveys. The interviewees included a secondary head teacher; a youth and community service representative; the training and enterprise council; the careers service; the Workers Educational Association, combined—in the same person—with adult education; and the Employment Service. It was a thorough piece of work. Not surprisingly, it found that there were various reasons why people were not taking up skills in their teen and adult years. The academic work found three main areas. The first was aspirational some children from rural areas had been indoctrinated with a "learning's not for me" attitude. The second concerned entrance hurdles; people did not have proper guidance, transport, child care or enough money. Finally, there were problems of completion, leading to drop-out, lack of support and the re-emergence of problems that had been overcome on entrance.

The clear message from the research was that the Government needed an holistic approach, and that a failure to address all the difficulties at once was damaging. Despite what the hon. Member for Ashford said, that is essential If we solve the attitudinal problem and the young person then finds an entrance hurdle, we will probably have done more harm than good. Interestingly, it was concluded that the greatest barrier to participation faced by people in rural areas lay not in the physical or attitudinal problems associated with living in isolated communities but, rather, in policy makers' perceptions of the idyll of rural England. That was a problem of the previous Government; the Tories thought that everyone in rural England had an idyllic existence, so that was thought to be the norm. It is not.

In one of Sandra Ison's interviews, a local head teacher mentioned that his Ofsted report had said that his school had inner-city problems in a leafy environment. He said that policy makers see the rural idyll and not the reality of drugs, crime and deprivation. I welcome the fact that by making sure that we look down to ward level for statistics, the Government are helping rural areas that are as deprived as the inner cities.

Having correctly identified in the White Paper a plan for action and having promised the resources, I hope that the Government will make sure that bureaucracy does not get in the way, as that can happen. In terms of transport initiatives, the message I get is that there is not enough delivery, particularly in partnerships. That might be because we have not been used to partnerships, but we do not want bureaucracy to prevent delivery. It will be important to have targets and figures against which those who will be given the money are measured.

The rural White Paper lays down an agenda for several years to come and I am confident that the Government will be given an opportunity to deliver it. It will be for Ministers and the House to ensure that we deliver what is promised. If we do, rural Britain in particular will be grateful.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall 10:55 am, 26th January 2001

The House will know that the Liberal Democrats have broadly welcomed many of the proposals in the urban and rural White Papers. They are a step in the right direction, and they contain a number of important proposals for regeneration and recovery throughout urban and rural Britain. We welcome the opportunity for a debate.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

The hon. Gentleman says that "we" welcome the debate. To whom is he referring, apart from himself, on the Liberal Democrat Benches?

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

I was just about to explain. We welcome the opportunity, but it is a great shame that two important White Papers, which address problems affecting every man, woman and child in this country, are being debated on a Friday morning when fewer of us are here. Furthermore, there is nobody in the Press Gallery and there is little opportunity for people to understand what we are debating. For many years, the relevance of Parliament to the general public has been questioned. It is a great shame that these two White Papers, which address many problems, are not debated by Parliament at its fullest and best. Perhaps people will never even hear what is said today.

The White Papers were introduced after good consultation. I do not think that anyone can be unaware of the problems that have built up in urban and rural areas over the past couple of decades. Unlike the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), I do not want to go into great depth about the policies of the previous Government, or indeed the past four years of the present Government. Most people want to know what is going to happen and what action will be taken to ensure that the problems are addressed in a way that will change people's lives.

Although we have two White Papers that recognise the fundamental differences between urban and rural problems, there is an inescapable interrelationship between the two. I warmly welcome the speech by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who emphasised the need for urban and country dwellers to recognise their interdependence and the relationship between them in terms of public policy. We expected the White Papers to set out an overarching rationale behind past and future Government action but, most importantly, we wanted to see where the definable action plans were.

I first entered politics as a district and parish councillor in the early 1980s, from a background of commerce and industry. I encountered real frustration at the process of decision making, which was elongated; perhaps that is part of the democratic process. Two other frustrations were getting hold of the money and getting the money to work quickly so that we could make policy decisions that changed people's lives.

Where, for example, in the urban White Paper was the commitment to providing outlets for local farm produce? I am pleased that we are talking about the regeneration of market towns, but where is the initiative to let those in the surrounding countryside sell their produce directly to those in the small towns? That would have a direct effect on the viability of agricultural businesses and would recycle the money in the area, improving the lives of both country and town dwellers.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that that would threaten the viability of many local tradesmen in town centres? I support farmers' markets, but if they are held regularly they take a lot of trade from local shops.

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

That is right in a narrow sense, but when I speak of local markets, I include local shops. When I first moved to Cornwall more than 20 years ago, the Tamar valley provided an enormous amount of fruit and vegetables to the local population. There were small agricultural and horticultural holdings whose main customers were small shops in local market towns.

With the growth of supermarkets, which favour larger suppliers, smallholdings declined. Supermarkets took business from small shops, so they in turn did not buy from local producers. If we want to reverse that trend and provide a real alternative to supermarket produce, local shops—sometimes including farmers' markets, but not in every case—must return to buying local produce. That would help the regeneration of both town and countryside.

I understand the gestation period of both White Papers, and the fact that they were late, but it was a huge disappointment that the Queen's Speech did not contain any real policy for urgent implementation. Members are often criticised for not understanding the urgency with which problems need to be tackled. Small farming businesses continue to go bankrupt and post offices to close, and deprivation continues to spread. We understand the ideas, but the action plans are not being implemented quickly enough to make a difference.

We need to link central and local government. Central Government often do not trust local government to implement action plans, despite the presence of an infrastructure that could provide a real service. If the Government continue to refuse the partnership that is necessary, action plans and the ability to strike at the heart of the problem will be pushed back even further.

Local government has been knocking at central Government's door for some time, offering to help in partnership, but central Government are not prepared to delegate powers and money to tackle local problems at the root. There is a great deal of talk in both White Papers about local self-determination and delivering local solutions to local problems, but without the power and the money the initiatives can never be properly implemented.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Great play is made in the White Papers of driving down decisions to the lowest level, to parish councils, but great play is also made of managing and funding at a regional level. The Government are squeezing local authorities the whole time.

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

There is a great deal of sense in that. We have not worked out the relationship between the various tiers. We need to practise subsidiarity within our own country, so that not only the decision making but the money for implementation go down to the lowest level. As a former councillor, I believe that we get much better value for money when it is spent locally, by people who understand what is needed, than when it is spent by people from far away. The further away the funding allocation is made, the less value we get for every pound that is spent. If we can trust locally elected and appointed people a little more to get on with the job, it will make a real difference.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

If we give a parish council £10,000 for a transport initiative, is not that money much more likely to be used wisely if it is spent in consultation with the county council, which has so many more resources? Is not partnership essential?

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

I entirely agree. As a former parish councillor. I welcome that £10,000. Parish councils have little infrastructure, so sometimes they cannot comply with bidding conditions. They welcome the opportunity to get the £10,000, but it is not always easy for them to get hold of it or to spend it. Over a period—perhaps 20 years—local government has been weakened. We need to reverse that trend.

There are so many hoops to go through in the bidding process, and so much time and effort must be spent, that only councils with the most energetic people are successful, so the money is not necessarily going to the most needy. Often, the areas of most need are the ones with the least chance of complying with all the bidding conditions. That is highly unsatisfactory. We should try to help parish councils to get hold of some of the money, so that they can spend it wisely for the people whom they serve. There are not enough people with enough clout on the ground in the local areas to get the schemes in place that would make a real difference to people's lives.

Late last year, the Government were forced to admit that the Countryside Agency—the very agency appointed to look after rural interests and to help to deliver local solutions to local problems—had been unable to spend most of the funds allocated to it for rural transport. That is a great shame, when we know that there are many opportunities for new rural transport schemes. The money is sitting there, waiting to be spent. Part of the reason is that we unreasonably expect local partnerships to have the expertise and time to go through all the hoops.

I hope that we will be able to support the rural councils, perhaps with some expertise from the Countryside Agency, so that they can make their bids and some of the money that has been allocated can be spent where it needs to be spent.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

There is nothing to stop Members of Parliament, including the hon. Gentleman, rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in rural and transport partnerships and, where they do not exist, creating them. I am involved in partnerships in my constituency, and we have benefited from Countryside Agency funding.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is not his party's policy that large amounts of public money should not be properly accounted for? I agree entirely about the need to do away with unnecessary bureaucracy, but we need bodies such as parish councils, elected by and accountable to their communities, that are capable of handling significant amounts of public money.

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

The overwhelming majority of parish councils operate frugally. What is achieved, considering the amount spent on administration, is tremendous; it is probably the best ratio there is. However, they need support. Of course we need accountability, but spending £5 to look after every pound that is spent is not what we want. We need to have a clear but light touch. The money gushing in at one end of the pipeline must not come out in drips at the other end because it has leaked away in unnecessary bureaucracy and accountability. It all comes down to trust.

In the rural White Paper, the Government trumpet their new commitment to quality parish councils, and I applaud that. More people would offer themselves for election if they felt that they could make a real difference to the community.

How does a quality parish council come about? It happens by achieving centralised criteria, yet I am sure that neither the Government nor parish councils want more centralisation. However, it is a means by which to loosen the strings, create more trust, delegate and provide real authority and real money. Governments should learn the important lesson of trusting and delegating to lower levels to deliver their policies.

My party supports regional development agencies. I know that the Conservative party would do away with them, which would be a tremendously backward step. However, I believe that the RDAs need to be released from central control. If they are to have an effective role in the regions, they must be accountable to a properly elected regional assembly, which I hope will be put in place. Regional development agencies are in their infancy; they are beginning to make real inroads into some deep-seated problems, but they need to be accountable to an elected regional body.

The Government quite rightly commit themselves to better and more housing in urban and rural areas. However, it is ludicrous that it should be financially more beneficial to build from new on greenfield sites than to renovate what we already have. I cannot understand why the Government did not take the opportunity to take on board an important policy, which would have joined up the efforts throughout Britain to protect the green belt and provided affordable housing—the equalisation of VAT with the lower rate on repairs than on new build. It makes sense that properties in towns should be renovated or repaired rather than building new on greenfield sites on the outskirts. The equalisation of VAT would keep more people in the towns and protect more greenfield sites in the countryside. That is a relatively simple joined-up policy that could benefit rural and urban areas.

I welcome the suggestion that the second homes council tax discount will be removed. There is little doubt that the sums discounted to owners of second homes could be much better spent. There is a difference of opinion about whether the entire 50 per cent. should be allocated to affordable housing or whether it should be the portion that is normally discounted to the district councils. The latter amount would be significantly less. Some councillors are working on the premise that the entire 50 per cent., including the portion usually associated with the county council, should be available That point needs to be clarified.

Money needs to stay in the communities. Money that has been invested needs to remain in the communities and, as far as possible, be recycled amoung the regions and areas. One idea is to have community banks, which keep money at the heart of communities. I hope that the efforts made by many, including those in the all-party group on banking, will arrest the decline in banking services in rural and suburban areas.

We are a major industrial country, with a banking system that revolves around an ever-smaller number of banks. The banks are far more interested in international opportunities, which creates a vacuum that could be filled by an almost separate tier of regional banking. Such a system could address the issues in each region. It could complement the system operated by the big banks, although it would be smaller and address local business issues.

What about the opportunities for capital investment in businesses? Since I have been in the House, I have heard on three or four occasions that the Government will produce local venture capital funds and that capital for small businesses will be a major feature of Government policy. As yet, nothing has been delivered. I know that it is a difficult area, but many people, particularly in the south-west, where they have retired, would be willing to invest in local businesses. However, the infrastructure simply is not in place.

The stock exchange encourages people to put money into huge companies with international obligations. We have no real opportunities for people to invest some of their wealth in local businesses—the sort of over-the-counter market that is prevalent in the United States. We need to consider the means by which money can be recycled at different levels within our regions and rural areas.

The Government have acknowledged that community transport does not consist only of bus services. We do not want to see buses carrying only a few people, but there are many other opportunities. It has been said that not only bus services should be subject to fuel duty rebate, and the issue has gone out for consultation. I am not against consultation when necessary, but I cannot see the need for it here. Most people recognise that if we are to address transport in rural areas, there must be a variety of provision and opportunities for new initiatives. At the heart of that, probably, is the fuel duty rebate. I am not certain what consultation is necessary; such schemes need be put in place quickly.

Even after consultation has taken place, I fear that complicated detail may keep people out of the market. The barriers that people have to cross to put such schemes in place put them off. Good ideas can be shot down by bureaucratic procedures. The rural bus partnership scheme has already proved too complicated; many people are unable to work out a suitable scheme. The rural White Paper offers not opportunities to support people who want to undertake such schemes, but more money for them. Welcome though that is, perhaps we should find out why we are not spending the money already allocated. The money allocated to such programmes is based on bids that are often expensive to put together, difficult to win and do not address the most needy.

There are some excellent policies. People do not misunderstand the problems. The Government have some good policy ideas, but they are often too keen on headlines, rather than on letting local people take the initiative and, perhaps, some of the reflected glory. They are too keen on complicated regulation that stifles speedy action. We are often too busy producing papers to make enough effort to put into practice the papers that have already been issued.

The patience of our communities—rural and urban—is clear, but it is running out. Hackney's workers have taken to the streets. In March, the countryside will come to town. Although the reasons for that may be denigrated, we should not underestimate the genuine frustration in urban and rural Britain; people's expectations are not being met.

The Government want to deliver those expectations; people want them to be delivered. Can we not cut the red tape, simplify the regulation, use a lighter touch and delegate some of the responsibility and the money to local people? Often they produce much better value for money. Why can we not more quickly spend that money on public services to bring about the change that we all want for our urban and rural communities?

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin 11:22 am, 26th January 2001

This is an important debate. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) said, the White Papers touch the lives of everyone in our national community. Perhaps it was ungenerous of me to point out that only one Liberal Democrat Member had attended the debate. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it does not reflect well on the House that we have timetabled this debate for a Friday morning and that so few Members are present—although I suppose that does increase our chances of appearing on "Today in Parliament". That might not apply to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), however, who, in 40 minutes of harangue and empty rhetoric, revealed that Conservatives are better at asking questions than answering them.

If the hon. Gentleman was pointing out that the cornerstone of the long-expected but unrevealed Conservative rural manifesto was that the Conservatives would go out into the countryside—into the villages and on to the doorsteps—and convince rural communities to vote Conservative because Tory MPs ask more questions in Parliament than Labour MPs, I do not know why he is wasting his time going back to Ashford. It would have been better if he had gone back halfway through his speech.

The White Papers are inextricably linked. Their interdependence has been rightly stressed by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister—not least because it is important that we reject the divisiveness forced into the debate by Opposition Members over recent years and recognise that there is genuinely a common agenda for people living in urban and rural communities. I know that because my constituency is semi-rural—and thus, by definition, semi-urban; it is where the industrial west midlands meets rural Shropshire. When I talk to people in Hadley, Donnington, Ketley and Leegomery—in the urban part of my constituency—I find they have the same agenda as those who live in the villages. Why should that not be so? Only Conservative Members seem to imagine that people living in villages are not interested in the quality of their children's education, do not care about the state of the national health service, are not concerned about job security and decent wages and are not worried about transport. Of course they are—they share that agenda with people living in urban Britain. We are not talking about a foreign country, with alien people speaking other languages and holding different values; they are the same people with the same agenda.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he—perhaps uncharacteristically—examine the policies of his own Government rather than trying to misrepresent those of the Conservative party? As he says, there are shared objectives between the Government and the Opposition on the problem—the need to regenerate and rejuvenate our inner cities while protecting our countryside. Of course, there will be differences between us over the policies that are required. The Opposition will make legitimate criticisms and will offer different policies, but let us at least agree on the shared objectives. If we can go forward from that, the hon. Gentleman will find that his speech is listened to with more care and consideration by Opposition Members.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that advice—he might be the exception that proves the rule. I have not spent too much time examining the record of Opposition day debates, but if we consider those held on the countryside during the past three and a half years, we find that the same issues are raised time and again—agriculture and green belt issues. Every time such a debate is held, I come to the Chamber with great expectancy to hear which new ideas will be unveiled, but there is none. The speeches have the same quality as the speech of the hon. Member for Ashford—empty rhetoric.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) led me to that point, because to listen to members of the Conservative party and its provisional wing—the Countryside Alliance—one would believe that the only issues of importance to rural Britain were farming and foxhunting. That is about as crass as suggesting that the only things that matter in urban Britain are factories and football. It denies the huge and extraordinary diversity of life in the countryside. It trivialises and distorts the debate. It plays into the hands of people who have a legitimate but extremely narrow self-interest.

I do not want it to be said that I am not concerned about what is undoubtedly a crisis—not throughout rural Britain, but certainly in many sectors of agriculture—as much for farmers in my constituency as for farmers elsewhere. However, we should remember that agriculture constitutes as little as I per cent. of gross domestic product. In the rural economy, it constitutes no more than 5 per cent. It accounts for 1.7 per cent. of the national work force; even in intensively rural areas, it accounts for only 7.5 per cent. of the work force.

I do not deny that the sector is experiencing serious problems that demand Government attention. Indeed, reference has been made frequently to the new direction for agriculture; there have been numerous statements and policy documents on forthcoming funding from the Government. It is right that the White Paper should devote 11 pages to agriculture—I take the hon. Member for Ashford at his word. That constitutes about the same proportion of the White Paper's 176 pages as agriculture does in the rural economy.

I do not say that we should underestimate the problems faced by agriculture and the importance of addressing them. However, if agriculture accounts for no more than 7.5 per cent. of employment in the rural economy, we also have a duty to consider, understand and address the interests of the other 92.5 per cent. of people who live in rural Britain and who have legitimate concerns, priorities and aspirations.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many non-agricultural businesses nevertheless depend for a slice of their business on a vibrant agricultural industry? For example, a proportion of the clients of an accountant practising in a small town will be agricultural; to lose those clients would be to jeopardise the whole of that accountant's business—to lose even 10 per cent. of such clients could be fatal to the business.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I might be arguing against its centrality, but certainly not against agriculture's importance in the environment of the countryside, and also in the social structure and the economy. I am trying, and meeting some resistance along the way, to state the case of the other people who live in rural communities who are not involved in or dependent on agriculture, and who, for that matter, have no view on, or are opposed to, foxhunting. Their voice should be heard, but it has not been heard for decades.

The Conservative party claims that the whole of the countryside is in crisis. I understand why it does so—that is what Oppositions do, and no doubt we claimed the same when in opposition. It is the Opposition's duty to claim that the countryside and urban Britain are in crisis, and I suppose that it is the Government's responsibility to deny it. However, the genuine problems that people face in rural communities have not been properly understood because the debate has been distorted and the focus has been exclusively on one important, but limited, dimension of rural Britain.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman says that only a sectional voice of the rural areas has been heard. Would he care to comment on the fuel protests and on the closure of rural post offices, village shops and pubs, local police stations and magistrates courts? Those problems have become significantly worse in the past four years under this Government.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

I should be delighted to comment on them. In fact, I wanted to make a short speech, but I cannot resist all those invitations to comment, and my speech will probably be equivalent to the last address to the Soviet presidium, which went on for three days and four nights.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to comment on the closure of post offices. Although the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall did not repeat the calumny this morning, the Liberal Democrats have been as guilty as the Conservatives of talking people, especially pensioners, into a blind panic about the future of post offices, despite the fact that, time and again, in statements to the House, debates, written answers and all the voluminous policy documents that the Government are criticised for publishing, the Government have stated their commitment to the future of the sub-post office network, including that in rural communities—a commitment simply not matched when the Conservatives were in office.

Some 3,000 post offices were closed when the Conservative party was in office, and the rest were threatened by the privatisation that many Conservative Members promoted when in government. We do not need to take lectures from Conservative Members about the state of the Post Office or its future. The encouraging thing about the future of rural post offices is not that the Government are handing them a rescue package and saying that they will support an otherwise declining landmark in rural communities, but that the Government are challenging them and saying that one of the reasons why they are in decline is that they are not able to offer the range and quality of services that people would otherwise expect of them.

The Government are saying that they will support post offices through a difficult transition so that they can re-enfranchise and re-empower the village communities to which they are so important. Opposition politicians who scramble around the countryside, spreading doom and gloom about the future of post offices, do not help that confidence-building process.

The hon. Member for Ashford made much of the electronic portal. I am not surprised that it is not discussed much in the village pubs of rural Britain. I imagine that it is discussed as often as the rate at which Conservative and Labour Members ask questions. However, it would be foolhardy to deny its importance, and I shall return to the issue in a moment. It is such as shame that the hon. Gentleman is not now here to listen to the debate in which he featured at such length, but Conservative Members never have listened to the voices of rural Britain or to their own constituents. That is precisely why there are 180-odd Labour Members in rural and semi-rural constituencies. That is more than the number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members whose constituencies are rural or semi-rural; it constitutes 40 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party—and it is an unprecedentedly large parliamentary Labour party.

That is one reason why the rural White Paper is not only important, but well informed by active Labour Members consulting and working with their rural communities. The Government need not make that much of an apology for the long delay in the rural White Paper's publication. I would have liked to have seen it sooner, precisely so that we could have implemented many of the measures that it features sooner. I have no quarrel with Liberal Democrats who say that, but the response that I have heard most often from the groups, organisations and local communities to which we should be paying attention is that the rural White Paper was long awaited, long overdue, but worth waiting for.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has invited me to review the Conservative party's record in office, and I shall do so briefly but, I hope, tellingly. The rural White Paper has had to address the countryside not as the Conservative party would like to imagine it is, was or will be, but how it left it after 18 years of criminal damage. Between 1991 and 1996, one in three people living in rural Britain were touched at one time or another by poverty. Many people have a chocolate-box image of rural Britain, but many people there live in heavily disguised poverty. It is heavily disguised because it does not have the graphic, black and white, Sunday magazine texture; it is not tenement-type poverty. Rural poverty is difficult to find; it occurs cheek by jowl with wealth and privilege in places such as the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Shropshire—my own county.

Shropshire's share of gross domestic product is 68 per cent. of the national average contribution. A couple of years ago, Shropshire women enjoyed an average wage of £239 a week, whereas the national average—not the top figure—was £310. Those are telling statistics after 18 years under the previous Government. The Conservative party still foolishly believes itself to be the party of the countryside.

In 1991, it was estimated that 40 per cent. of people living in rural communities could not afford to buy their own homes, not least because the previous Government's planning and housing policies accelerated a process of gentrification and geriatrification of rural communities that priced the next generation of rural dwellers out of the market and out of their communities. It was estimated in 1990 that in the next six years, 80,000 new units of social housing were required to replace the 91,000 that had been sold. In that period, as few as 17,700 were built.

I lament the leaving of the hon. Member for Ashford, not least because of the key issue of rural transport. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and, in a serious and thoughtful contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), talked about the three quarters of rural parishes that were left without a daily bus service after the deregulation of bus companies. Of course, back in 1996, the hon. Member for Ashford said that bus deregulation had not proceeded far enough. If he still holds that view, that is another mighty reason why people living in rural communities would think not once or twice, but probably three times when considering how to vote at the next election.

In my own county, 86 per cent. of parishes have no access to a daily bus service. If people in the countryside do not have access to transport, they have access to very little at all. They do not have access to goods, opportunities and services that people living in towns take for granted.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk referred eloquently to schools. Under the previous Government, 450 village schools closed between 1982 and 1987. That policy did not just deprive children of educational opportunities: it loaded on to education authorities the additional burden and cost of providing transport to other schools, and it took the heart out of village communities. According to the Rural Development Commission, 50 per cent. of villages were calculated as having no school and 90 per cent. no nursery. We have already discussed the 3,000 post office closures; 43 per cent. of villages were left without a post office and 42 per cent. without a shop.

For all the protestations of Conservative Members and for all their criticisms of the Labour party in government, we should not forget that one of the key causes of the collapse of confidence in British agriculture was the BSE crisis over which they presided. The hon. Member for Ashford was wrong to talk about an escalating rate of bankruptcies in farming and horticultural companies. The statistics tell a different story. Between 1994 and 1996—the last two full years of the previous Government—971 horticultural and agricultural businesses went bankrupt. In the first two years of this Government—from 1997 to 1999—there were 652 bankruptcies. Let us not forget, either, that in the 10 years up to 1997, no fewer than 14 per cent.—60,000 people—of those working in agriculture lost their jobs.

It may be attractive for the Conservative party to play party politics with these serious structural issues for agriculture and other sectors of the community, but to pretend that all the problems have arisen since 1 May 1997 is not credible. It is foolish, because people who lived through the difficulties know that the problems arose a long time ago and that the previous Government neglected them.

There is privilege and poverty in the countryside. To a large extent, the rural White Paper should be judged on how it tackles social exclusion, as the Government have pledged to do. Even discounting the promises in the White Paper, Labour has a pretty respectable record on that. For example, the minimum wage, which the Conservative party opposed, and the working families tax credit, which it also opposed and which is scheduled for abolition should it ever take office some time this century, have arguably done more good for rural than for urban communities.

I explained earlier that the people at the very bottom of the economic ladder tend to be women in part-time, seasonal or temporary employment. Their wages have traditionally been the lowest of any sector in the British work force. Such people in the countryside have been exploited for centuries, but they have received the greatest benefit from the minimum wage and the working families tax credit.

Other national policy outcomes, such as the establishment of NHS Direct, have also had a disproportionate benefit for people in rural communities. The further people are from the source of health care—local GP surgeries and hospitals—the more useful NHS Direct is. People increasingly depend on it.

The £170 million provided for rural transport is recognition of the fact that lack of access to private or public transport means that people have no access to schools, job training, employment, friends and family or even to shopping and entertainment. Transport is a key issue and that £170 million has already created or extended 2,000 bus routes. The money has been broadly welcomed in rural Britain, not least in my constituency, which had the benefit of the very first grant.

The Wrekin Rider bus service, which was established two years ago, already has 32 routes in my constituency. I have travelled on the service's small buses and people—many of them elderly women—have told me that, before the initiative was taken, they were entirely trapped in their village communities where there were often no facilities, shops or services. They depended on the good will of friends and neighbours to take them into town to do their shopping and to access services.

We have also provided the support for the schools to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk referred. The Tories closed 30 schools a year up to 1997, but last year only two village schools were closed. Investment has been made in capital projects and in repairs to village schools. For example, basic improvements and modernisations have been made to ensure that children do not have to go to outside privies to relieve themselves Such schemes had been neglected for many years.

I have also referred to the rescue plan for post offices and to rate rebate relief for shops. Some £30 million has been provided for rural policing and I have been hard put to get a commitment from the Conservative party's spokesmen on that point. In addition, £1.6 billion provides real hope to farmers under the English rural development plan.

We have a steady record of achievement. Progress might not be as fast as Opposition Members—or, indeed, I—would like, but that record is recognised in rural constituencies. Although Opposition Members might not like it, the polling that I have seen over the lifetime of this Parliament has shown Labour further ahead in rural and semi-rural seats than nationally. That was just as much the case during the fuel crisis, when our poll ratings dipped alarmingly for us and our constituents, as it was in less troubled times One of the reasons for that is that for decades the Conservatives have taken for granted—the speech of the hon. Member for Ashford reflected this—the support of rural communities, which they neglected and ultimately betrayed.

When I visited villages in my constituency after the election, I was invariably told that I was the first Member of Parliament whom people had seen there for up to 40 years. Touch wood the village of Roden in my constituency will shortly have a new playground, which is much needed by the children who live there. [Interruption.] I did not hear what was said, but no doubt Conservative Members were scoffing because a playground for Roden does not appear to them to be terribly important in the scheme of things. It may not be important for them, but it is important for the people who live there. One builds the future of rural communities village by village and initiative by initiative, with all levels of government working together with local communities. I am not claiming a quality or virtue that other Members of Parliament do not have when I say that it was only because I went to the village of Roden and talked to people on their doorsteps and in their front rooms that I learned about their problems and needs. That enabled us to involve the parish council, the unitary authority and a charitable trust in forming a partnership to fund, design and construct the playground. Indeed, the villagers were consulted on the design before we installed it this year. The previous Government neglected such bread-and-butter issues for decades.

I am proud of the work of the rural group of Labour MPs which, Conservative Members may be interested to know, has 97 members. I am also proud of our contribution to the development of the rural White Paper. We called on the Government to focus on five key issues. The first was the use of joined-up policies. The second was the importance of access to services, which is a matter not simply of providing transport so that people can leave villages to get to the services, but of bringing the services to the villages. The third was the key issue of equity and adequacy of public service provision. The fourth was the importance of rural governance and the fifth was the importance of quality-of-life issues.

It is crucial to understand the importance of strategic planning as a key to the sustainability of rural communities. The White Paper addresses that, but it does not go far enough.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

My hon. Friend well knows, because he led the work, that the rural group of Labour MPs published an audit of rural problems and a manifesto before publication of the White Paper. The manifesto was broadly endorsed by the Countryside Alliance and a range of other bodies that represent rural interests. Is he aware of any such work being undertaken by the Conservatives, who boasted earlier about how much they have done in this Parliament?

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I read The Daily Telegraph and am aware that the Conservatives have been slaving away for many months on their White paper—their rallying call to rural communities—but that it has not yet seen the light of day. On 15 January—

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to test your patience, but could hon. Members impose a self-denying ordinance rather than rambling around the subject, so that Members who have participated in the drafting of the reports are able to contribute to the debate?

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Mr. Speaker has not imposed any formal time limit on speeches, but I hope that all hon. Members will ensure that as many Members as possible can participate.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can reassure the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that I have now finished my preamble. I am sure that she will have an opportunity to address the House before too long.

I want to focus on strategic planning. The problem for people in rural communities—especially the younger generation—is that if they cannot find affordable housing, they migrate to the towns. By the same token, even if they can find affordable housing in such communities, they also need to find employment. Otherwise, they have to migrate to the towns. That outward migration is what causes a decline in services, which is reflected in the fact that too few children attend the village school and too few customers use the village shop. It also leads to an unhealthy dependence on private and public transport.

The provision of housing and jobs together will create the virtuous circle that will restore the sustainability of rural communities and produce the environmental dividend of reducing dependence on travel. When people have homes and jobs in the same community, they send their children to the village school, do their shopping in the village store, do their business in the village post office and relax in the village pub. Those cornerstones of rural communities have been under threat and in decline for many years.

We need to break out of the development control mentality of planning policy that has been a feature of the system for so long and to which Conservative Members still cling. According to their NIMBY's charter, local people should have the sole discretion to approve or disapprove development. We need a creative planning system. After all, planning should not be a way of simply saying no to development; it is a creative force for social change. We need a planning system that is creative, flexible and enlightened and is led by need rather than the demand of private developers. It should be based on a local appraisal of need and on consensus.

I am little worried about the White Paper's dependence on planning gain with regard to the provision of affordable housing in rural settings. I want affordable housing to be provided because it is needed. It should not be provided on the coat tails of executive commuter housing that is not needed.

We need increased funding. I welcome the provision in the White Paper, although it is still not quite enough. I want innovative partnerships between the Housing Corporation, local authorities, contractors and housing associations. I want the Government to consider the use of compulsory purchase orders to acquire the land that is necessary to meet local needs, which brings me to local governance, another key theme in the rural White Paper.

It is essential that we revitalise parish councils. Many are well capable of exercising the powers that they should be granted and the discretion that they deserve. They should be given extra powers, extra budgets and a greater role in local government. It is important that there should be a top-down approach, with a strategic policy framework and funding coming down from Government, but to make that work it is crucial that there should also be a bottom-up approach, drawing on the local intelligence in village communities—a partnership between the village hall and Whitehall.

The parish councils have the key responsibility to lead communities in developing a vision, assessing what is needed and building the consensus that is required if we are to have a more flexible planning system.

The planning system and the Government should accept that if homes are to he provided where people need them, rather than where it is convenient for them to be located, that means building homes and providing jobs in rural settings on greenfield sites and sometimes, where the case can be made, even in the green belt. We should not be frightened of that. Let the community lead the way in assessing its need and developing a consensus about how to meet it. We should not embargo that. In my constituency, the regional district council is considering its local plan review and the allocation of some 2,700 houses to the town of Shifnal, and the village of Albrighton in the green belt.

I share the view of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall that it is ludicrous that empty homes that could provide housing but are in need of repair remain neglected and derelict, while we consider the building of new housing on precious green fields. I agree that when all things are equal, it is preferable to build housing where there are local services, motorways and rail stations close at hand, but if we do that exclusively, we will merely drive people out of the villages where they need housing and into the local market town, at a cost to the quality and character of those market towns.

I do not want a continuation of old policies of speculative housebuilding. I want needs-driven housing in rural, as in urban, settings. I fought for that right as a city councillor in Westminster—the right of people to remain in their own community in the inner city in London—as much as I do now as a Member of Parliament with a semi-rural seat.

We need the investment that is being made, and we need to understand the centrality of IT not just in restoring services to communities that have lost them long since, but in bringing services to them that they have never had before. I am disappointed, therefore, that there is not greater emphasis on accelerating the process of broadband delivery in rural areas. In my view, they need it first, if there is to be competition between town and country.

I shall touch briefly on the issue of public services. I welcome the service standards initiative in the White Paper, but we should recognise the force of the argument that it is more expensive to deliver public services to rural than to urban communities. That has been recognised in the case of policing, and the allocation of an extra £30 million a year is welcome. The same must surely apply to other aspects of public service. As a matter of principle, people in the countryside should have access to the same quality and quantum of public service, social services and child care provision as people elsewhere.

I am conscious that I have taken up a great deal of the time of the House, though not quite as much as the hon. Member for Ashford. I shall not go into great detail about the importance of market towns, which are the prime example of the collocation of services—a significant feature of the White Paper. That is important not just for people who live in market towns, but for those who live in villages around them. The White Paper is right to focus on their needs and on the necessity of ensuring that the £100 million is dispensed expeditiously. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will have more to say, but I understand that the implementation paper, which will take the White Paper one step further, will be with us shortly.

The last issue on which I shall focus is quality of life. Working with local communities, I am having to fight a battle with Severn Trent Water to ensure that the villages of Preston upon the Weald Moors and Kynnersley in my constituency get mains sewerage this year. It is extraordinary that we should be fighting for that basic right in the 21st century. Hundreds of communities throughout the country do not have mains sewerage and water; indeed, some communities do not even have mains gas or electricity. In the White Paper, I should have liked the Government to have committed themselves to work in partnership with the utilities to develop a schedule of connections at an affordable cost for consumers in the coming years.

Those bread-and-butter issues matter to people in rural communities. I should have liked the White Paper to go a little further on the issue of speed limits in country lanes and villages. It is ludicrous that, in my constituency and elsewhere, one can drive at 60 mph through village centres, even past village schools, because there is no restriction on C roads and village roads. I acknowledge that the Government are making moves in the right direction, but I should like them to work with local authorities on a scheduled programme of speed reduction, where that can be justified and where it is wanted.

As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, the White Paper is a big step in the right direction. It has not been plucked off the shelf, but is the result of widespread consultation. It shows clear understanding of issues and problems. Now we have to deliver. We have started the process, and we must now accelerate it. However, we need a greater quality of debate than has been demonstrated by Opposition Members today. The Tories are interested not in addressing poverty but in retaining power and privilege. They do not want a right to roam; they want a right to rule. They do not understand the countryside as they say they do: they understand it from the perspective of the manor house and not of the villages. They resent the fact that what they characterise as an urban metropolitan Government has the right prescription for the countryside.

When the Countryside Alliance marches on London on 18 March, it will march for its own special interests, as it is entitled to do. However, it is marching for foxhunting, not rural communities. When its members say, "Listen to us," they mean, "Do what we say." That is the problem: for a long time, people have suffered from the Opposition's partial view of their needs and priorities. However, times have changed. The Opposition have not listened, but the Government have. Rural communities do not want to be stuck on the end of a heritage trail. They want change and, if it is the right change, they will embrace it. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues on producing a rural White Paper that promises the precise change for which those communities have waited for so long.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York 12:02 pm, 26th January 2001

I welcome the opportunity to discuss urban and rural policies. At one stage, it looked as though no one else would be able to contribute to our debate. Without realising it, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) gave us 45 minutes-worth of good reasons why he might have given his last speech in the House and why there might be someone better qualified to represent The Wrekin who could join us on the Opposition Benches after the election.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

It was perhaps clear from the speech of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) that he would much rather address the Soviet presidium than the House.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York

Yes, with the consequences of which the hon. Member for The Wrekin reminded us.

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who opened our debate. He gave a well-constructed, thoughtful and though- provoking speech. We still face the continuing problem of transition from towns and cities to the countryside, to which he eloquently referred. I make what is intended to be a friendly challenge to the Minister who will respond to our debate: there is still a need, in Government thinking, for more joined-up government between urban and rural policies. I should like to explore that in my contribution.

In the context of evidence for the urban White Paper, I am delighted that the Select Committee visited the Vale of York. It briefly passed through Boroughbridge in a coach, and spent the afternoon taking evidence in Thirsk. What emerged from the evidence was recognition of the fact that there might be poverty in many parts of the country that is greater, I accept, than that which I personally experience in the Vale of York. However, in constituencies such as mine there are pockets of rural deprivation. That is an omission from the rural White Paper, and we have not yet had the opportunity to address it.

There is a crisis in the farming sector. It may not have started on 1 May 1997, but it has certainly been compounded since. It has impacted on market towns, which fall between two stalls: rural and urban. The Vale of York is a strongly rural community and contains the market towns of Thirsk, Bedale, Easingwold and Boroughbridge. There is also a strong hinterland on the outskirts of York, which includes Haxby, Wigginton, Poppleton, Skelton and other areas. The delivery of services in North Yorkshire is hampered because it is an especially sparsely populated rural area. The proposed focus on market towns is helpful in the light of the continuing agricultural crisis in rural communities.

North Yorkshire is the largest county in England. It has a population of 565,000 and covers more than 8,000 sq km. Not untypically, the county has experienced considerable growth in its population, economy and housing during the past 40 years, mostly because of inward migration. The problems caused by that growth are relevant to urban and rural policies and they require solutions. One such problem is low incomes, which were compounded in the past three years—and especially in the past Year—by falling farm incomes. Other problems include access to employment training services and facilities for people who do not have their own transport, the narrowly based economic structure that exists in many areas and the environmental problems that are caused by inward migration, which can be compounded by housing growth and tourism.

The centralisation of facilities in larger urban centres often undermines the role of market towns. When the Select Committee visited Thirsk, we saw an increasing preponderance of charity shops in the empty premises vacated by businesses that cannot now earn a living in market towns. Northallerton, the county town of North Yorkshire, is situated in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The town has recently seen the sad closure of two well-known family firms of many years' standing: Dressers, the high street stationers, and the local butchers, which is another excellent shop. Dressers closed after approximately 164 years of service. Those closures demonstrate the problems that market towns continue to suffer—problems with which the measures contained in the rural White Paper do not adequately deal.

Other problems arise from of the remoteness of rural and coastal communities. Such communities are typified in North Yorkshire. Furthermore, the county has a distinct shortage of appropriate areas for development. It lacks brownfield sites. During its site visit, the Select Committee visited some successful schemes such as the Workhouse at Bellington close on Sutton road in Thirsk, where a brownfield land development site is being successfully converted into affordable housing for private purchase.

During the visit, a plea was made for the urban White Paper to provide clear guidance on the so-called development calculation. I hope that the Minister for the Environment will acknowledge the additional costs involved in the development of brownfield sites. I hope also that he will recognise the impact on those costs of legitimate planning requirements such as affordable housing and the need to enable developers to meet such costs.

I urge the Minister and the Government to consider ensuring that no proposed development should occur on brownfield sites that are on functional flood plains. The Select Committee also visited Todd's yard, which was developed in accordance with exigent Environment Agency criteria as it is situated on a river bank. The development produced social housing on a site that was formerly occupied by a haulier and a builders merchant. Regrettably, after the Committee's visit, the site suffered badly because of the unprecedented weather conditions that caused the recent flooding.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish adequately expressed the point that gap funding has made a positive contribution, through English Partnerships, to North Yorkshire and other parts of the country. It has made a particular contribution to helping developers to develop brownfield sites in urban and rural areas when they would not otherwise have had the means to do that. It is regrettable that the Government seem to be on a collision course with the European Commission about developing gap funding in a revised form, or an alternative to it.

I endorse conclusion k in the Select Committee's report about the urban White Paper. It states: Greenfield sites should only be the location of last resort for development. We on the Committee see no compelling reason for changing policy on the green belt. There are examples of breaches of the greenbelt policy in the Vale of York. One of the most recent examples is the building of a park-and-ride facility at Rawcliffe Barr. A huge area of greenbelt land, which had been tarmacked, contributed to and aggravated the flooding at Rawcliffe, where 170 homes were evacuated. It will be months before people can return to them.

City of York council wants to increase the development by 250 places. That would lead to an extension of the roundabout on the A 19 and the inner ring road. That will cause seven months' work until at least August. The Minister probably knows that the development is proposed on what is considered to be a functional flood plain. I ask him to use the proposals in his report on the White Papers and especially in the forthcoming PPG25, which will establish guidelines on developments on flood plains, to stop such developments on functional flood plains.

I want to consider rural policy, especially the role of the market town in serving not only its location but its hinterland. The Government have failed to grasp the nettle of rural areas. That is why Labour Members who represent so-called rural areas find themselves in an especially precarious position in the run-up to a general election.

The Select Committee recognised in its conclusion the special role of market towns in providing services, employment and economic development opportunities for rural communities. Lack of services such as transport in very rural areas is a particular problem. In the first year after my election to the Vale of York as its first Member of Parliament, I supported Knayton's application for a rural post bus. As the Minister knows, generous grants are available to run such services. They are administered by North Yorkshire county council in conjunction with the Post Office.

The demographic composition of villages such as Knayton near Thirsk can pose a problem. The working population who do not have their own transport want a bus to take them to work in the morning and bring them home at night. The older population, especially retired people, want to travel to market towns such as Thirsk to do their shopping and return after a light lunch. The younger people want to go to the market town for leisure and entertainment, such as swimming and meeting their friends. They want to return in the evening. Bus services constitute a problem in constituencies such as mine.

The difficulties are compounded by the problem of school buses. We are all familiar with the concept of a catchment area, but, regrettably, some children have to walk to school in Easingwold from the outlying villages because they are not covered by the formula for the distance by which they qualify for a school bus. It is unacceptable to ask children to walk to school through narrow lanes in treacherous winter conditions, especially in view of the recent flooding.

The Government must now accept that they have failed to deliver on their five so-called early pledges. Let me give an example that causes particular difficulties in constituencies such as mine. Class sizes are continuously unacceptably high in primary schools. Just one instance is a school in Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe. The village is delightful, as those who visit it and go up Sutton Bank will know, but the school building is very old. Given that the school—happily, in one sense—is enjoying a rise in school rolls, the facilities are inadequate. If the school hall were enlarged, it could be used as a village hall, and the whole community would benefit. Notwithstanding the extra funds that they have provided, the Government are not going far enough in widening sparsely populated rural areas.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

The hon. Lady has mentioned the funds provided by the Government to reduce the number of five, six and seven-year-olds to under 30 per class. Given that her party is committed to scrapping grants under its so-called free schools policy, and given that our Government were able to provide the money because they scrapped the assisted-places scheme that her party intends to reintroduce, can she tell us how her party will fund solutions to the difficulties that she is describing?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York

We heard some imaginative proposals from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). In any case, I do not want to spend too much time discussing education policy, as this is not an education debate. I have been highlighting what I consider to be very rural issues. I accept that the hon. Gentleman, who does not represent a constituency as obviously rural as mine, is probably less familiar with our problems, for his own good reasons.

The crisis in the countryside is real. Rural crime is posing a great threat to stability. Recently, Santa Claus did not visit Millgate in Thirsk. Having visited the curiosity shop and, indeed, resided there, at the considerable height of 14 ft—this was a rather small Santa Claus, only 3 ft 6 ins tall—he was stolen from the roof on the morning of Christmas eve.

Although we now have a closed-circuit television system, operated by Hambleton district council and introduced by North Yorkshire police, there are no cameras pointing towards Millgate. I have taken the matter up with the chief constable, but I think the figures speak for themselves. The Government will go into the general election—there is no secret about the election: we all expect it to be this year, possibly in May—with fewer police officers in North Yorkshire than there were at the same time in 1997. By the end of the next financial year, we shall not even have reached the 1997 figure.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York

I have been very generous; now I want to make some progress.

CCTV cameras in Market square now have the perverse effect of pushing crime down Millgate. Recently, a young man who, I gather, was in a state of grief and shock because his mother had died that very day, proceeded down Millgate—having eaten a pizza at the pizza restaurant there—and kicked in the laminated glass window of ECL Computers Ltd.

The owner of that business was not amused to hear that the suspected perpetrator of that crime will not be charged. That sends a bad message. The message that the computer company would like to send to the Government is not only that we need more police in rural areas such as North Yorkshire, but that we need to see them out of their cars and on the beat. I accept that mine is a sparsely populated rural constituency, but the visibility of a police officer is very effective in preventing crime. I make a plea to the Minister to urge the Home Secretary to deal with that issue.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York

I think that we have heard quite enough from the hon. Member for The Wrekin for one day.

I welcome the fact that the Select Committee report states: The local Post Office has long been a focal point for villages: its retention is essential for the well-being of the community. Post offices should not be closed where communities would suffer … adverse consequences. The report goes on: The Government must move rapidly to re-confirm that individuals will continue to receive benefit payments through the Post Office and that any loss of income to the Post Office brought about by the changing pattern of payments should be offset by additional opportunities to gain custom. Since we adopted that report, which reflects our opinion in the Select Committee, I have compiled a list of 10 post offices that have closed or been placed under threat of closure over the past three months—approximately one every two weeks: Sandhutton, Kilburn, Maunby, Brandsby, Little Ribston, Sessay, Aldborough, Nether Poppleton and Scotton. Reduced opening hours have been enforced at Leeming post office.

One of the Government's first actions when they came to power was to cancel the computerisation programme that the Conservative Government had sought to implement. They have now proceeded with their own computerisation programme. The postmistress at Little Ribston opens her kitchen on Wednesday and Friday afternoons to the residents of the village. She is so generous that she makes them a cup of tea while she deals with their postal services in the usual way. She has been given an ultimatum by the Post Office that if she does not computerise and install three or four sizeable pieces of equipment in her kitchen—leaving no room for her cooker and other normal kitchen facilities—she will no longer be allowed to remain open.

The postmistress in Huby, in the Vale of York—not to be confused with the Huby between Harrogate and Leeds—received a letter from her utility company: Yorkshire Electricity, I believe. She was told that, as a local business, she will now be eligible to pay the climate change levy. That is outrageous. Do the Government really intend to clobber a post office whose postmistress is of a considerable age—she would probably accept that she is past the normal retirement age—and offers a service to that village? She is alarmed that she might have to pay up to a 5 per cent. charge and be expected to pick up the cost on all sources of energy that she uses because she runs a business. If she is to be exempt, why do not the Government tell the utility companies to inform the post offices that that is the case?

The biggest threat that the post offices face is that, from 2003, the Government have said that they will lose 40 per cent. of their income from the loss of benefit and pension payments through the Post Office. Statistics show that two thirds of the population of England and Wales do not have a bank account, and process then benefit and pension payments through post offices; only one third have a bank account.

Why are the Government imposing a system whereby two thirds of those people will be forced to alter their way of life in that regard? We no longer have a huge network of rural banks in our villages and market towns, and in many places there is simply no choice or even no bank. Why have not the Government considered enhancing the role of the TSB? I take this issue very seriously indeed: the Government, by stealth, are seeking to close our post offices because they consider them to be too expensive to run.

I give an example involving Sessay. An advertisement for a replacement for the retiring sub-postmistress was placed, but held back because the advertised annual salary represented an hourly rate of £2.90, which is 20 per cent. below Labour's minimum wage. The replacement would receive an annual bonus and commission for selling Post Office products, but that was not referred to in the recruitment letter. Who in his right mind would respond to such an advertisement? If the minimum wage does not apply to post offices, is not it incumbent on the Government to say so? Should not they have said so when the legislation was passed? The Minister has every opportunity to make that clear.

Post offices are under threat, but the debate gives the Government the opportunity to say that they do not want to close the network. There is a clear lack of affordable housing in constituencies such as Vale of York. Farming is clearly in crisis, in every sector. The floods have caused great difficulties for arable producers—the wheat that was sown and much of the sugar beet and potatoes that should have been harvested over the past two months have been lost.

In addition, this very Minister—the Minister for the Environment—imposed extra burdens on farmers and landowners under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I urge him to join me on the march on 18 March to show that we want not only to continue country pursuits as we have known and enjoyed them over the years, but to put a stop to a ban on hunting for a very good reason.

I want country pursuits to continue as normal and I recognise that the fox is a pest, but the Government's own report, which was produced by the Burns inquiry, ruled that foxhunting is probably the least cruel and most humane way to control the fox population. The perverse consequence of banning foxhunting would be the eradication of the fox from the English countryside. I cannot believe that that is the Government's intention, and the Minister will have the opportunity to deny it.

I urge the Government to be more joined up in their thinking. Most crime in constituencies such as Vale of York is perpetrated by those who live in towns and cities. Let us consider how to control crime in such circumstances and let the Minister prove that this is an opportunity to be grasped. We can generate and regenerate the economy, economic development and employment in inner cities, market towns and rural areas through the policies set out today. That opportunity should not be wasted. Will the Minister tell us precisely what priority will be given to the various measures proposed in the White Paper and how many will be in operation before the general election?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central 12:29 pm, 26th January 2001

I am afraid that I cannot concur with the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on foxhunting, but it is nevertheless a pleasure to follow her, as she is a most assiduous member of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs.

I should like today to focus principally on the urban challenge. In his report, Lord Rogers, set out a vision of what cities could be like. What matters, however, is not so much what the Government or the House does to provide the right framework, but that cities have their own clear vision of their future. I am very proud that the city of Leeds unquestionably has shown such a vision.

Leeds is obviously a city with a great many assets. In recent years, it has had unparalleled success in creating jobs. In the past decade, the city's employment growth has been three times the regional average—particularly in financial and business services, but it still provides 55,000 manufacturing jobs. I think that that change is best illustrated by Marshall Mills, in the Holbeck part of my constituency. In the 19th century, it was one of the largest flax mills in the country, employing 700 people. Today, refurbished, it is home to a wide range of high-tech and new-media businesses and still provides 700 jobs. They are, however, very different jobs from those of the previous century.

There is a large student population in Leeds. Having been to university in Leeds, students often like it so much that they stay on, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the proportion of the Leeds work force who have a university degree has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

We have two major hospitals—the LGI and Jimmy's—with national and international reputations. We have the busiest railway station outside London—when it is open. However, when Railtrack finally completes the job, we shall have a city station that provides a gateway to the city fit for the new century. We also have a revitalised riverside and a very wide range of cultural attractions. I should like to highlight the fact—I think that it is relevant to the regeneration of urban life—that we have one of the largest temporary outdoor skating rinks. It opened yesterday in the brand-new Millennium square in the middle of Leeds and will provide an attraction to bring people into the centre of the city.

Clearly some of those are gifts from the city's proud history; but others are the product of a lot of hard work. I, believe that Leeds's success, particularly in the past 20 years, owes a great deal to the leadership that the city council has provided, under its current leader, Brian Walker, and under his two predecessors, both of whom are hon. Members—my hon. Friends the Members for Hemsworth (Mr. Trickett) and for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie).

In the past year and a half, since becoming the Member who represents the centre of the city, I have learned that, many years ago, Leeds city council recognised that partnership with business and the wider community was the way forward. Working particularly through the Leeds initiative, the council, the business community, the chamber of commerce and the training and enterprise council have all pulled in the same direction to try to deliver the type of vision that Rogers offers us.

That, however, is only half the story. Within the first, successful city of Leeds lies, often hidden to the visitor's eye, a second city, and the daily life of that city is as distant from Rogers's vision as it is geographically close to the heart of the city. I am speaking of the communities that the Select Committee saw when it visited Leeds; they have acute social deprivation, high levels of educational under-achievement, unemployment, dependence on benefits and higher levels of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Those are places where crime and anti-social behaviour are rife. Last night, I spoke to a constituent whose elderly mother is now terrified because, last Sunday night, some kids from the local community threw a stone through her window as part of a campaign of harassment that she and her mother have suffered. I think of the residents of Clyde court, in New Wortley, who in recent weeks have been subjected to a campaign of arson and destruction that has made the place in which they live hard to bear. I think of areas where the local environment resembles a rubbish tip, as if no one cares at all.

I think of areas where—as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who chairs the Select Committee, said in his opening speech—for all those reasons, house prices are low. They are low because the quality of life is low. Indeed, as a society, we use house prices to measure many aspects of the quality of life in its broadest sense Nevertheless, very many people still live in those areas and care passionately about the place where many of them were born and brought up. They want to see change for the better.

The one common factor in those parts of my constituency is, in a word, poverty—poverty of income, poverty of opportunity and poverty of expectation. If we are honest, a joint failure across the House has led to such areas existing in this country. What was incredible about the contribution of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was his attempt to say that his party now has the solution to the difficulties, when it was not capable of that in 18 years in office. We face a joint challenge to make a difference.

The challenge was described succinctly this week in an editorial in the Yorkshire Evening Post, which said: It is a responsibility of all who benefit from the prosperity of Leeds to ensure that the advantages can be shared by all. I concur with that view.

First and foremost, those communities need someone to listen and to look at what is happening. Frankly, I have been shocked by some areas in my constituency. It is not acceptable that people should have to live in that way. We must keep alive a flame of outrage at the fact that places such as those I am describing continue to exist in a relatively wealthy country in the 21st century.

Communities also need mobility; 60 per cent. of households in my constituency do not have access to a car. The bus system is absolutely vital in Leeds, and I wish that the bus companies would stop messing about with some of the routes, as they have done recently in Hunslet and Belle Isle in ways that disadvantage my constituents who are dependent on buses—particularly the elderly.

I could not let this opportunity pass without saying that we await with eager anticipation the news that the long-awaited supertram—a product of the city of Leeds demonstrating, over the past decade, a vision of transport for the future—will finally get the funding it so richly deserves.

Education and skills are also important. I believe passionately that investment in education is the best long-term investment that we can make in the city. The more we can enable the next generation to acquire the skills that employers want, the larger the share of the burgeoning jobs market in Leeds they will command. We have high hopes for the Aire Valley employment area. I echo the comments made about the problem with gap funding, which we debated just before Christmas. We have to sort that out and the Commission has to get its act together. We need that support to provide employment opportunities, particularly in that part of Leeds suited to industrial and manufacturing uses.

We need safe communities and targeted policing. Oh, that it were a simple matter! Even if today we had the number of police officers that we had in 1997, would that solve the crime problem? I do not believe so. We need to target the police effort and provide time for community beat officers to do their jobs. There are some imaginative schemes in my constituency. In the Beeston part of the single regeneration 4 area, four additional police officers have been recruited specifically to work in that community. In Halton Moor, there is a joint police-housing officer team, one of whose principal responsibilities is to collect evidence to pursue potential evictions or anti-social behaviour orders against those who make the lives of their neighbours a misery.

We need balanced developments. I mentioned Leeds riverside, and I want to draw attention to a planning application to demolish a block called the Chandlers that was built only 15 years ago. In the context of Leeds city centre, it provides relatively affordable housing. One can understand that the owner might wish to cash in on the value of his asset, but I think that that is wrong, as we need a mix of affordable homes in the heart of the city.

My right hon. Friend the Minister might like to reflect on the fact that we are encouraged to think these days about sustainable development in planning terms. Could someone explain how it is sustainable in energy and resource-use terms to knock down perfectly good housing that is only 15 years old and that, compared with the life span of many of Leeds' back-to-backs, has been up for only five minutes?

Finally, we need to nurture community spirit; everyone can agree with that, but I know from experience that it is not a cosy concept. It is an essential ingredient of inner-city regeneration. Such spirit recently led the people of East End Park to establish a community association, because they had said to themselves, and to the wider community in Leeds, "We don't want to go on living like this."

Similarly, two women who came to see me at my surgery in Osmondthorpe just before Christmas asked how they could go about setting up a residents group, because they are fed up with the joyriding and vandalism in their area. Such community initiatives are the building blocks of community spirit. They grow out of the community, act as its eyes and ears and become its voice, making demands of us as elected representatives, locally and nationally.

My constituents want practical steps, not policy. When things begin to change for the better, community organisations are the best guardians of the fragile sapling of hope for a better future, as it grows, we hope, into a sturdy and permanent feature of the landscape.

The Government should be congratulated, because one of their defining characteristics has teen the attention that they have paid to communities such as the ones that I represent, through the social exclusion unit and the fact that they have been willing to target resources to try to make a difference. They have certainly encouraged innovation.

There has been consensus today on the fact that we need to learn from that experience and recognise that co-ordination presents a real challenge—a point ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish. It clearly makes sense for some programmes to be run nationally—the new deal, for example, and excellence in cities, which benefits several schools in my constituency—but we must recognise that, in the pockets of deprivation, local communities, councillors and voluntary organisations, working together, are best placed to make decisions about how to fit together the various initiatives to meet local needs. In that way, we can combine the helping hand from Government with self-help from the community.

It would be useful if the Government said, as we come to the next round of schemes, that they are prepared to allow local authorities, local strategic partnerships and community organisations, working with neighbourhood managers, to make proposals about how the sources of funding could be pulled together to meet local needs. For instance, a local authority could say that it would like to take some money from sure start, some from excellence in cities and some from the neighbourhood renewal fund, to extend the principles of sure start to older children. I was talking about that to people from Leeds home start only last Friday.

As another example, a community safety partnership or the neighbourhood warden could say that they wanted some money from the single regeneration budget, some from the new deal for communities and some from crime reduction funding to employ more police officers as community constables, whose time would be ring-fenced so they would not be diverted to other duties.

In either case, the Government could still say that the local organisations must be accountable for the outcomes while allowing people to decide at local level how best to bring resources together to make a difference.

The challenge is enormous and goes to the heart of creating a fairer and more equal society. It became clear in the course of the Select Committee inquiry that regeneration cannot live by bricks and mortar alone: it has to engage people's hearts and minds. We all know from experience that ideas that come from the bottom up—from the very communities on whose behalf we are holding this debate—have a better chance not only of winning local support but of realising the vision that we all share for our cities.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham 12:44 pm, 26th January 2001

I will endeavour to be as brief as the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) was. I agree with a great deal of what he said, and especially his closing remarks about the regeneration of inner cities being more about people than about buildings. I refer him to Newcastle city council's proposal to demolish 6,000 houses in the west end of the city, which has created an outcry among local people. For the first time, the people in that part of Newcastle are beginning to fight for the future of their community. That must be a good thing.

I was reminded, when I saw the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) in the Chamber, of the recommendations of the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs: We recommend that the Rural White Paper be a short, strategic paper … In fact, it is well over 170 pages. The report says: The Rural White Paper should aim to bring coherence to rural policy, overcoming the current, fragmented approach. The report also says: We welcome the Government's decision to publish the Urban and Rural White Papers at the same time and hope that this reflects the strong links which will exist between the two documents. That proved to be a false hope. As we know, the Government did not do that, and the documents were published separately. That is a pity, because what happens in cities has a major impact on what happens in the countryside.

The amount of building in the countryside depends on the health of the cities and the inner cities. Rural areas such as mine in Northumberland suffer from crime that has been displaced from the cities. Sadly, although ours is the most sparsely populated county in England, we suffer from pollution from neighbouring conurbations. Even on the Cumbrian fells, on six days last year, the ozone level reached UK standards, showing that town and city are dependent on each other.

There are two communities in the countryside: people who have moved there to live but continue to work in the towns and cities, and those who retire there. Unlike the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), who talked of "gentrification" and "geriatrification"—words that I suspect will haunt him in the election campaign—we welcome those people into our communities. Retired people, in particular, make a substantial contribution to the life of rural communities. They serve on parish councils; they make the effort.

Those who move to the countryside because they want a better life are not squeezing children out of village schools—they are putting children into village schools. Without the arrival of those new families, villages would increasingly die.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He spoke for more than 42 minutes, during which time three other Members could have spoken. He took an unduly large chunk of time out of what should have been a sensible debate, which means that we all have to truncate our speeches, including the Minister.

The problem lies with the community that works in land-based industries, predominantly agriculture—forestry and quarrying, in my constituency. Those industries have suffered, and the challenge of the White Paper for any Government is how to rebuild that local economy.

The rural White Paper talks about rural "proofing", which is clearly important. If the White Paper circulates anywhere, surely it should circulate in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Time and again what the DETR does with one hand damages something else in rural Britain. For example, my constituency has three large quarries that are substantial employers of people directly and also, indirectly, of people in the haulage industry. Jobs will be lost because of the aggregates tax that will be imposed. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is proposing to create a rural development fund, but half of that will be paid for by removing farmers' grants. The Government say one thing and do another.

The White Paper talks about the importance of access to cars. It says that the vicious circle of no job, no car/no car, no job, is all too familiar to some people living in the countryside. The Government say that they aim to offer more help to individuals who need a car. Why therefore do we have the highest petrol taxes of any country in Europe? That is very damaging.

If we are to make something of this White Paper, we will have to see some product from it. People in the countryside are suffering from initiative fatigue. My local council has a member of staff, who is almost full time, to determine where grants can come from. There are so many different schemes that they are completely incomprehensible.

Three key matters need to be addressed in order to revive our important rural economy. First, the profitability of farming must be rebuilt. I shall not trouble the House with a long discourse on how that should be done. In essence, farmers need a fair price for their commodities. Unless they can produce profitably, farming will be damned. They can be helped by various marketing initiatives, but the trouble is that so often, when farmers try to band together to promote a product, they fall foul of the competition authorities—as we saw with Milk Marque. The mass of red tape and regulation that continues to surround farming adds considerably to the costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) welcomed—as do I— the paragraphs in the White Paper stating that the Government would simplify the rules and regulations for abattoirs, especially the small, rural abattoirs that are so essential. However, the document was still hot from the press when we learned of another directive—the introduction of regulations that will change the way in which animals are slaughtered. That will mean expensive re-equipping for small, rural abattoirs and will result in closure for many of them. Regulations introduced by one Department will have completely the opposite effect of proposals made by another Department.

An improvement in education is the second aspect of rebuilding the rural economy. The hon. Member for Leeds. Central touched on that matter. We have some extremely good schools in rural Northumberland, but there are problems of distance when young people go on to further or higher education. Many of the practical courses that are of such value to them are many miles away from people's homes. For example, members of a family living in Haltwhistle in the west of my constituency have to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning to drop two children off with a neighbour, while they drive their 17-year-old son to catch a bus so that he can travel to a college in Ashington in south-east Northumberland—a journey taking several hours each day. Although bursaries are available for accommodation costs for young people, they are seriously limited.

The Government could do much more to make access to such training easier for people living in rural areas. We need additional skills. As has been pointed out, many people used to follow their fathers or grandfathers into agriculture, but those jobs are now closed to them. Better and higher skills are needed in other spheres. It is vital to improve that aspect of education.

My third and final point is on infrastructure. One of the great successes of our Conservative Administration lay in the development corporations. In Newcastle, for example, Tyne and Wear development corporation cleared derelict environments, allowing independent private capital to construct new buildings and give new life to a down-at-heel area. Anyone who visits Newcastle can see the effects in the success of the quayside area.

Development corporations have brought the same results to other parts of the north-east—[Interruption.] I hear some grumbling from the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) who, as a Whip, is unable to speak. However, I am sure that even he would admit that the redevelopment of the Newcastle quayside has been particularly successful.

Why cannot we apply the same techniques to rural areas? The problem is that we lack infrastructure in rural areas—especially fibre-optic cable, which will be of huge importance in the future. Fibre-optic cabling is now being installed across the country, but there are no plans for it to reach rural communities—nor is broadband communication likely to reach those areas, as has been mentioned. If we are to develop independent businesses to encourage diversification in the rural economy, they will need the tools to do that.

A third missing element in our rural infrastructure is a simple one—a supply of gas. In 2001, it is extraordinary that the only parts of north-east England that regularly fail air quality tests are country villages—there are certainly three such villages in my constituency. Newcastle now has, after London, some of the cleanest air of any city, yet the air in the country and villages miles from anywhere still fails air quality tests. There is no gas supply, and therefore heating is still largely done by burning coal, which causes pollution.

The estimates for the cost of in installing gas mains in those communities are fantastic. It would cost about £3,000 a house in the village of Bellingham and about £600 a house in Haydon Bridge—far beyond local people's ability to pay. If we want to improve the environment of our country villages, we must develop their infrastructure, which includes supplying gas to those communities.

Agriculture is going to change, and it faces great challenges. However, it can rise to the challenge, provided the Government stop making it difficult for that to happen. If any lesson can be learned from the rural White Paper, it is that we have too many inflexible structures. Individual farms and other rural businesses need the freedom to prosper.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party 12:56 pm, 26th January 2001

I warmly welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate, especially on the urban White Paper. I also want to praise the neighbourhood renewal strategy, published more recently, which has put additional flesh on the bones of the White Paper. The renewal moneys announced in the strategy, the English cities fund, the Phoenix fund and the consultation that is taking place on the recommendations from the social investment taskforce offer for the first time an opportunity to provide significant investment not only in the fabric of our cities, but in the people who live there. The community action and individual enterprise opportunities needed in urban areas have, in many cases, been missing for too long.

I want to take this opportunity to make the case for our suburbs. Further action to assist suburban regeneration is needed. There is still a belief in some quarters that everything in suburbia is positive and that, even when it is not, things are not quite bad enough to warrant the serious attention of policy makers. Almost daily, the press devotes numerous column inches to the countryside and the inner cities, but there is far less coverage of the suburbs.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) referred to the inner cities and the countryside, but not to the suburbs. I do not criticise him for that; I merely suggest that that shows part of the problem that suburbia faces. The logic appears to be that, yes, the countryside and inner cities have problems, but suburbs can be ignored. That complacency is driven by the fact that some of our think tanks and media commentators on regeneration seem to think of suburbs as timeless, quiet, affluent places. Perhaps they still hold Cyril Connolly's view. In the late 1940s, he wrote: middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium. Some 30 years later, Judith Viorst, in a book entitled, "It's Hard to be Hip over Thirty …" —I suspect that many hon. Members will recognise that problem—wrote:

  • With four walk-in closets to walk in,
  • Three bushes, two shrubs, and one tree,
  • The suburbs are good for the children,
  • But no place for grown-ups to be.
I suspect that that attitude is still lurking out there, preventing us from focusing on the real problems that exist in suburbs, too.

Harrow, West is a classic suburban constituency. If one thinks of Harrow, one may perhaps think of the famous public school in beautiful Harrow-on-the-Hill, with St. Mary's church steeple lurking—for want of a better term—above the school and looking out across the rest of Harrow, which John Betjeman described as the serried avenues of Harrow's garden villages. He also referred to the "leafy lanes in Pinner". The garden village atmosphere still exists in much of my constituency. The leafy lanes can certainly be found in all of it, but along with them are poverty and deprivation and a need for action to tackle the problems of suburban regeneration.

Let us dispel the notion that there is not dynamism, innovation and energy aplenty in suburban areas. In my constituency, residents associations are particularly active. South Harrow residents association, Harrow Hill trust and Harrow recreation ground users association are powerful and energetic advocates for the district centres in which they operate. They are determined to press for improvements in public services, and the investment that we are putting into the public services is beginning to tackle some of the problems that have been flagged up. As we all know, that investment is at risk from the Conservative party's spending plans.

Associations and residents in my constituency have also shown great imagination. As part of the millennium celebrations last year, Hatch End association organised a triathlon, and I have just about recovered from the experience of taking part in it. The Pinner association has an imaginative partnership with the Heath Robinson foundation to devise the beginnings of a future for West house, an important historic building in Pinner that has been neglected for some time.

Many suburbs remain leafy and affluent, but a number of them are having to adapt to a range of socio-economic changes and they need help in doing so. In 1989, Peter Hall wrote a book called "London 2000" in which he said: The suburbs will not last for ever, in the late 1980s, they were between 50–70 years old. Not all were well built, not all have been well maintained. The cost of maintaining them will rise and owners may not be able to meet it. Ten years on, the suburbs are 60 to 80 years old. Some of them require urgent pro-active, community-owned development every bit as much as the other urban areas that have been referred to in the debate. Under the Conservative Government's regeneration funding schemes, many suburbs did not receive the investment that they needed.

The urban White Paper does not reflect the traditional mentality of ignoring the suburbs. As a proud suburbanite, I very much welcome the 100 per cent. capital allowance for creating flats for letting over shops. However, we need to tighten up our understanding of suburban areas, and to build on the one think tank report that exists on them—the 1999 Joseph Rowntree survey—to sharpen up our solutions to the problems that suburbs face today.

We need to give our time and thought to understanding what is happening in suburban areas, so that we know what they need for regeneration. Where is decline taking place? What are its causes, and how can it be reversed? The high levels of funding for neighbourhood renewal that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced recently must go to the areas of deprivation that are most in need. However, we must consider what else we can do to make the funding streams available to assist the suburban communities that are fighting to reverse decline.

The Joseph Rowntree survey charted the symptoms of suburban decline and said that they were an increasing number of empty shops, a poor general street environment, ageing private housing in need of repair, crime hot spots and, often, a more transient population.

Other bodies highlight more specific pockets of deprivation and decline that need tackling. For example, Rayners Lane estate in my constituency has 680 properties, but probably covers just one or two enumeration districts and has not qualified for the tranches of regeneration funding. The individuals who live on Goldsmith close on the estate have to put up with substandard accommodation and are just as much in need as people who live on much larger estates that are able to benefit from the tranches of regeneration funding that the Government are making available.

More individuals and families who are in need live in suburban areas than is recognised. The right-to-buy initiative significantly reduced the amount of social housing stock and the previous Government failed to give sufficient funding to local authorities and housing associations to build more homes, so not enough social housing has been built. Many people on the housing register have moved into private rented accommodation or have been placed in temporary accommodation in cheaper, less popular suburbs. That creates a more transient population, with the additional problems that that brings.

The urban White Paper rightly highlights the impact on district centres of out-of-town shopping malls, which were a feature of the 1990s. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) charted the departure of many banks from our suburbs. That creates a vicious circle. When one store pulls out of a district centre, that reduces its attractiveness to other retailers, who then also decide to pull out. The pattern of decline continues and often only fast-food stores want to come into an area.

The urban White Paper also acknowledges that regeneration was inhibited by the way in which local authority funding has been hit in the past 20 years. Before I came to the House, I served for seven years as a councillor on Harrow borough council. In that time, 1,000 jobs were lost and £50 million of expenditure was taken out of the area as result of the Conservative Government's underfunding. Even though it can be a real challenge to them to do more than just deliver mainstream and essential services, local authorities are often expected to provide a financial commitment before they can lever in other moneys. When acute pressures suddenly build up on authorities, their job of regeneration is even harder. For example, my local authority is experiencing pressures on its social service; budget. The costs of children's non-maintained placements have risen by two thirds in the space of just two years, and fostering and adoption costs have risen by a third.

Decline has many causes. Only by having an effective partnership between the public and private sectors, in conjunction with local people and local businesses, can we deliver a serious strategy to address the problems. In Harrow, that strategy is being put in place under the auspices of the Harrow Partnership. Local strategic partnerships, focusing on Rayners Lane estate and Wealdstone, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), have been put together. The local council plays a key developmental role, and the partnerships have been successful in involving local tenants on the estate, local businesses and, in the case of Wealdstone, traders.

When local suburban strategic partnerships are robust and the serious homework has been done to identify the priorities for an area, what other opportunities are there for a suburban local authority to secure the initial funding that it needs to stimulate wider investment? Strategic local partnerships need to be able to draw down funding to help to stimulate regeneration or to stop decline in their areas. The Government should commission wide-ranging research on the state of the suburbs and identify best practice for renewing ageing suburban district centres.

I am proud of the part of suburbia that I represent. We are rich in history, parts of the constituency have great beauty, and there is still a real sense of community. In our schools, thanks to the work of our teachers, standards are rising, and investment in our hospitals is improving services, although in both areas there is still much work to be done. An efficient and imaginative council has secured beacon status, begun to modernise its structures and successfully sought to engage local stakeholders in sustained and detailed partnerships.

The people of Rayners Lane estate in my constituency and of Wealdstone in the other part of Harrow, and those in other district centres in suburban areas, know that if it was ever true, the picture of suburbia in the past as universally affluent and sleepy is not true now. We have our leafy lanes, but side by side with them we have poverty and deprivation and areas in need of renewal. The urban White Paper is a strong document, and I hope that, building on it, my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider what further action he can take to facilitate suburban regeneration.

I cannot pass up the opportunity to raise two unrelated matters. In her speech about the rural White Paper, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) spoke about countryside pursuits. As I pursue the sport of canoeing, perhaps I can flag up to my right hon. Friend the huge difficulties of access to water. There are some 10,800 miles of waters appropriate for canoeing, but canoeists have access to just 376 miles. My right hon. Friend argued powerfully that voluntary access would not work for the right to roam on land. I hope that he recognises that, thus far, the voluntary approach has not been at all successful for canoeists.

One industry that holds out real possibilities of jobs for rural areas is the renewable energy industry. I urge my right hon. Friend to continue to fight for the cause of renewable energy in his Department.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate 1:12 pm, 26th January 2001

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). He chided me for not mentioning the suburbs in my intervention in the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley). Had I done so, my intervention would have been as long-winded as his hon. Friend's speech.

I listened with care to what the hon. Member for Harrow, West said about the suburbs. As I represent Reigate, which includes Redhill and Banstead, he will not be surprised that I agreed with much of his analysis of the challenges facing the suburbs, and the danger of their falling between attention on the countryside and attention on the inner cities.

The hon. Gentleman will have great difficulty responding to the intellectual challenge that he will face from Danny Finkelstein, who will be the Conservative candidate in his constituency. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take it amiss if I say that if he is unsuccessful in defending his constituency, as of course I hope he will be, the House will gain an intellectual heavyweight, although I freely admit that it will be denuded of a sporting heavyweight, in the person of the hon. Gentleman. My friend Danny Finkelstein would, I suspect, never recover from a triathlon, rather than taking some time to do so. One of my fondest memories of the hon. Member for Harrow, West is sharing some time on a parliamentary skiing trip. His sporting prowess goes rather wider than canoeing.

I note a contrast between the speeches of the hon. Members for Harrow, West, for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) and for The Wrekin. Both parties have had to wrestle with the issues. The speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central was well crafted and a good contribution to the debate, as is usual from him. I had the pleasure of sharing time with him on the Environment Committee and have considerable respect for his contributions.

The hon. Gentleman made it clear that responsibility for deprivation in our society is shared between the parties, that we all have a duty to try to address the problem, and that the state of some communities is a reproach to those of us who live in more fortunate circumstances. I share that point of view. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention that the number of graduates in Leeds has doubled over the past 10 years. I wonder which Government was responsible for that, as he did not point it out himself. Clearly, both the major parties share those objectives, and that was the point of my intervention on the hon. Member for The Wrekin.

It is worth stepping back to look at trends in our society and consider where population has migrated from and to, so that we can try to see the challenges in a global context for the 21st century. In the 19th century, we saw the flight of people from rural communities to the towns. Now, more than 100 years later, we are living with the consequences of the pattern of employment and housing that developed in the 19th century. In the 20th century, we began to see the reverse, and witnessed a move from the towns to suburbia and, especially in the last few decades, the countryside.

As we look forward to the 21st century, we begin to see a new trend. In statistics on population growth, it is noticeable that about half of that growth is coming from outside the United Kingdom. Our own population is now relatively stable. As for population movement, more people, especially if they have the benefit of having English as their first language, will increasingly be expected to spend part of their working lives overseas. We shall increasingly see a more mobile pattern of life both within the United Kingdom and around the world: that will be an effect of globalisation.

It will not be just a few professions that will work around the world. As globalisation takes place, the attraction of being able to have globally mobile people, especially English speakers, will increase. More and more professions and workers with particular skills will move around the world. That will be a consequence of trends that we are now seeing in the 21st century, and will be of particular advantage for the United Kingdom. It will obviously mean more interesting lives for those who can pursue careers that include time spent working overseas. We will also be able to draw on people's talents, as we have been able to historically through the pattern of immigration to our country.

However, we are still faced with challenges, especially in the inner cities and rural communities, which are not benefiting as we would like from the growth in the economy. When we look back at this period, we will see that it was an historic era of opportunity, especially for our country. One simply has to look at the size of the national debt to see the speed with which it is decreasing. Since 1992, there has been an era of sustained economic growth. Since the International Monetary Fund came in to sort out the previous Labour Government's fiscal disaster in 1976, the UK's fiscal position has begun to be addressed. From 1979 onwards, our country has woken up to the fact that it has to be competitive to succeed in the world.

That vision is now shared across parties. In a commentary on the White Paper on inner cities produced by Lord Shore in 1976, Michael Parkinson said: although the 1976 White Paper introduced the idea of structural partnerships through the Inner City Partnerships in the largest cities, the partnership was essentially between the public and community and voluntary sectors. The private sector was not invited to the party. This White Paper recognises that we have left that kind of ghettoised thinking behind. That is the nature of the change that has overtaken our country and altered particularly the nature of the political debate between the two parties. It recognises the importance of the private sector in regenerating areas of our country that face the greatest challenge.

However, we still live in a state where policies take effect from the top down. The widest and most important policy in that respect is housing projections. We still have housing projections whose effects nobody wants. People want the inner cities to be regenerated and rejuvenated. We want talented and able people to be attracted to the inner cities, so that they will stay in them and help in their regeneration. None of us wants the countryside to be concreted over or the rural environment that we currently enjoy to be destroyed for future generations. We do not want to bequeath to our children, grandchildren and, in 100 years, to our great-grandchildren, the problems of a south-east England that is completely covered in suburban sprawl. Nobody would want to live in an area from which people were leaving to go elsewhere in the country or even the world simply to escape. We do not want to replicate in 100 years' time the problems in employment patterns that we now face.

We must think carefully about the policies that are being established. On housing projections, the Government have told us that they have moved from predict and provide to plan, monitor and manage. That is merely words. The number of houses that are to be imposed on the south-east has remained pretty much unchanged since predict and provide produced the global total of 50,000 houses a year from 1996. I want to draw attention to my party's policy, which is the right one. We want to move from top down to bottom up. Such a change can be achieved only by empowering local communities to make the decisions for themselves. Communities in inner cities and the most challenged areas will be more liberal about their planning policies, as they want to attract investment. Areas such as my constituency want to be more restrictive about development as they want to protect their environment and because their economic challenges are different from those faced by the inner cities, which, in many cases, remain a blight and a concern to us all.

My party will end central Government's interference in housebuilding levels. Housebuilding is fuelling the exodus from urban areas. It must stop. The most able families are leaving the cities, which causes the problems of school decline, shop closures and rising crime. If my party is elected, it will abolish regional and national housebuilding targets and end regional planning guidance. It will also reduce the power of the Secretary of State and of Whitehall bureaucrats to interfere in local planning decisions. Instead, local communities will decide how much development should occur in their areas.

The Government's plans for new towns in the countryside will be replaced by a Conservative emphasis on urban regeneration, making existing towns and cities attractive and sustainable places in which to live. On its return to government, the Conservative party will also maintain greenbelt land and resist attempts to downgrade existing protection against excessive development on farmland.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to give other hon. Members a chance to contribute.

It is the wider picture that concerns me. As a soldier, I see it in terms of the strategic versus the tactical, but it might be better to say that the Government cannot see the wood for the trees. The fiscal changes promoted in the urban White Paper include what the Government say is a comprehensive package of £1 billion over five years. The package proposes exemption for stamp duty for all property transactions in disadvantaged communities. We heard from the Chairman of the Environment Sub-Committee, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), that many of the disadvantaged communities do not attract stamp duty because their properties are not valuable enough.

The White Paper also proposes accelerated payment of tax credits for the cleaning up of contaminated land, 100 per cent. capital allowances for the creation of flats for letting above shops, and a package of VAT reforms to encourage additional conversions of property for residential use. Those are fine as far as they go. However, the big target that we needed was equalisation of VAT for development on greenfield sites and on brownfield sites. We did not get it. The Government have failed to produce the necessary fiscal measures, even in their terms.

We have to set the figure of £1 billion over five years alongside the disaster of the European Union's ruling on gap funding, which has contributed £3.6 billion to urban regeneration in the past six years. That take-up rate was growing as people learned about the scheme and development companies started to focus on it and were able to appoint experts, some of whom gave evidence to the Select Committee during our inquiry. The scheme was accelerating and successful. The combination of the two factors that I have mentioned means that, in fiscal terms, urban regeneration has been a disaster.

Far too many schemes exist and too many bureaucrats are required to put them in place. That criticism is made not only by me; I am joined by Tony Bosworth, transport campaigner of Friends of the Earth, which is hardly the provisional wing of the Conservative party, unlike the Countryside Alliance He said: Mr. Prescott's plan has so many incentives that councils and developers will be drowning in a sea of carrots. But these will only be partially effective without any real sticks. Mr. Prescott's plans will help turn cities a greener shade of grey and make them better places to live and work. But he has stopped short of taking the radical measures that we need to promote brownfield housing and to tackle traffic. Without these, our urban areas will still be cities for cars and not cities for people. I want to conclude by concentrating on the specific comments of the Chairman of the Environment Sub-Committee about core funding and scheme funding. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central talked about empowering communities to have some control over the use of money from different schemes. The Committee Chairman was right to point out that those amounts are dwarfed by the core funding—in housing benefit, social security, social service money, health money and education money£that is allocated to communities. He was right to say that the money is mainly spent on outside experts who come into those communities to provide services. To some extent, therefore, that money disappears.

The Government and the Conservative party should seriously consider schemes for empowering people£individuals or communities£so that they can get hold of some of the core money and use it to rejuvenate their communities. Difficult hurdles will, no doubt, have to be surmounted to enable them to do that. However, we should begin to consider enabling individuals or communities, whatever their size—blocks of flats, streets or villages—to get control of core funding. As individuals, families or communities, they should be able to opt out of being told how to spend the central provision of money and gain some control over it.

I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, Central that local people have a far better idea of how to spend the money than bureaucrats in all levels of Government. Dozens of bureaucrats currently make those decisions for people. We need to empower local people through the money that the public already provide and thus ensure that it is better spent.

The rural and urban White Papers are a worthy attempt by the Government to deal with the issues that our country faces. They do not go far enough; they do not empower the people who should make the decisions. Local communities should be given real authority on planning. That would enable great changes to be made to the benefit of the strategic objectives that all parties share. Until we can get to grips with delegating power to local people and communities, we will not make the progress that all parties desire.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham 1:30 pm, 26th January 2001

The urban White Paper contains many of the ingredients that are necessary for a true and genuine urban renaissance.

Many Members have mentioned inner cities. I hope they used the term with some regret. I believe that the urban White Paper sets in motion a paradigm in which we no longer have inner cities, but united cities. My constituents in Tottenham, certainly, want to be part of London and to feel part of London, rather than being socially excluded as many currently are. It is well over 100 years since Dickens wrote "A Tale of Two Cities". We need to move on, and I welcome the White Paper because it encourages the process.

May I he a little reflective? Let us imagine a place that is ripe for urban renaissance—a place with a good and successful transport interchange, with high-speed communication links 20 minutes from the capital; a place with a beautiful canal, and a population who are not car-dependent but use local transport. Let us imagine a place where people live in high-density housing, and there is no shortage of people wanting to move in—a place with a highly developed sense of community, which has the most diverse community not just in London or Europe, but in the world. I am, of course, talking about my constituency. Recently, Tottenham had the third highest unemployment in England, and ranked ninth on the deprivation index. Now I believe it must be ripe for that urban renaissance.

Tottenham will eventually have its day, because we have a Labour Government who believe in supporting the areas most in need of support, helping people into work, helping poor families and the poorest pensioners, investing millions in schools, and regeneration schemes. A lot has been invested in Tottenham in the four years of Labour government—much more than the Conservatives chose to invest.

In areas such as mine, and in many other parts of the country, this is about social exclusion. We use that term very glibly nowadays; we should think about what it means. It means being born into damp and decrepit council housing, sometimes on the 14th or 15th floor of a tower block, and sharing a single bedroom with three or four siblings. I am thinking of housing estates that are, unfortunately, not so dissimilar from the one where poor Damilola Taylor met his end, or the one where my constituent Anna Climbie met hers.

Life continues as mum and dad, under such pressure, split up. If mum is strong and can cope under the pressure, she will not give way to alcohol and drugs but, instead, will do two or three jobs to provide for her children. The children go off to school and—surprise, surprise—by their early teens they have developed behavioural problems. In the decades during which I have lived in Tottenham, hundreds of children in areas such as mine have been excluded from school, and the Government have inherited a situation in which many of those children are now perceived as unemployable. Many of them are at home or roaming the streets during the day, and are smoking dope from the age of 12 or 13. That is what the Government inherited, and we have chosen to do something about it; the Conservatives did not. That is the context in which we must view social exclusion, and the context that the urban White Paper aims to address.

The legacy of Tory neglect that allowed the free market to dictate which areas would attract private investment created a most unequal and unjust landscape, resulted in an exodus from inner-city areas for those who could afford it, and abandoned those who could not to suffer decline and deprivation. Poverty and social exclusion increased while the Conservative Government's regeneration spending decreased, leaving a legacy of high unemployment, a £19 billion repair backlog in social housing, more than 1 million homes repossessed between 1990 and 1997, and an unhealthy national economy.

I remind the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) that it was under his party that crime rose by 166 per cent. in my constituency—where I was born—between 1979 and 1997. It was under his party that the odds of being a victim of crime increased from 32 to one to 13 to one. In Tottenham, as in all inner cities, the trends were even more severe than the national picture suggested. The Tories allowed the drugs war to escalate, and violence and theft soared, making people hostages in their own homes.

Hon. Members will appreciate that I am one of the few Members who can truly describe themselves as part of the generation labelled "Thatcher's children". As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) implied, I am truly hip. To that extent, I am uniquely placed to elucidate the inner city problems that the Government inherited.

I remind Opposition Members that it was their leader who, in 1987, said that she wanted to do something about the inner cities—that was her description. She proceeded with a relentless attack on vital public services, and introduced the youth training scheme—which failed—and the deplorable poll tax, which left our communities completely debilitated. I also remind Opposition Members that it was their leader who, in 1992, promised us a classless society, but went on to part-privatise the national health service and opt out of fair European employment legislation that would have changed the lives of the people of my community.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made much of the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) believes that we share responsibility for deprivation. I concur with part of that. But let me be clear: I grew up in a working-class community called Tottenham. That community changed to a community of the underclass during the 1980s. In the 1990s, it became a community of the socially excluded. I do not believe that my party shares that responsibility with the Conservative party.

I do not want Tottenham simply to attract the wealthy, forcing authentic urban people out of where they live. A spatially-led or design-led vision of our cities and towns is not enough, although it has been the emblem of past regeneration schemes. The urban White Paper makes it clear for the first time that we cannot foist regeneration on a community; regeneration must come from the community. Where capacity does not exist, it must be built. That is why the Government have been brave to take on local education authorities that have consistently failed their children for well over a decade. Capacity must be built. Children cannot be excluded from school. We must work from the bottom up.

Regeneration in places such as Tottenham cannot revolve around building cafes and erecting big multiplexes alone. Plans must take account of the aspirations of communities such as mine. Education is key to that, but we must also encourage people to start their own businesses, increase their spending power and fashion their own renaissance. We must ensure that high fliers brought up in constituencies such as Tottenham do not get out, but choose to stay there. We must encourage and bring in private investment in our high streets.

I do not know which football teams hon. Members support, but I invite them to go to Spurs to watch one of London's finest clubs. We are to have a new chairman, who I hope will be successful. I also invite hon. Members to examine our high road as they travel from Seven Sisters tube up to the Spurs ground—they would see the legacy that we have to fix in Tottenham.

The constituency has much to offer physically. It is in north London—where, I understand, air quality is better—and only three stops from King's Cross. The River Lea runs through the constituency and I believe that we have a rich resource in our diverse community; we have 159 known languages. How will we achieve that regeneration? We will achieve it all through the vision set out in the urban White Paper—a clear vision for our inner cities and genuine regeneration of our people.

The hon. Member for Ashford made fun of a list of Government initiatives that are turning round parts of urban and suburban Britain. The new deal for communities has brought £50 million to the poorest parts of Tottenham. How can he make fun of that? Sure start is getting our kids off to a good start and has been proven successful in Tottenham. We have three centres of early-years excellence in Tottenham. How can he make fun of that? How can he make fun of a Government who are taking on and turning round a failing LEA? We do not want to be an inner-city area. We want to be part of a united London, and the urban White Paper moves us in that direction. I welcome it.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge 1:44 pm, 26th January 2001

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) who, like me, has a passion for his constituency. Indeed, we were brought up in our respective constituencies. He may be pleased to hear that I share his support for Spurs, although these days I watch Uxbridge a lot more and the team seems to be doing a little better.

As I shall address some comments to town centres, I ought to declare a vested interest in town centres, as I am the fourth generation of my family to run the family retail business.

I was delighted to be a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and his fellow Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Many of the problems that we are debating today were discussed in previous Select Committee inquiries.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) address the issue of suburbia. Although I realise that we cannot have a suburban White Paper, the fact remains that, as has been said, suburbia falls between the two stools of city and countryside. Whereas it shares some of the problems of inner cities, perhaps ironically, it also shares some of the problems found in rural areas. On many suburban estates, the small shopping parade is the equivalent of the small village shop, with the same problems of closure and isolation.

As the hon. Member for Harrow, West said, the suburbs are usually portrayed as leafy areas ideal for a good BBC sitcom in the 1960s and 1970s. The truth, sadly, is different from that portrayal.

I feel slightly guilty when I hear of the problems in other hon. Members constituencies, such as that of the hon. Member for Tottenham—which I had the pleasure of visiting just before his election. When I hear of the problem of unoccupied houses in other parts of the country, I recognise—as I hope all hon. Members do—that it is not an easily solved one. Whereas some parts of the country have a housing shortage, other parts have houses but not enough people to live in them.

Today's debate has been mostly constructive. However, I am sorry that, as election fever starts to grip the Chamber, doses of party politicking—which in this type of debate is about as constructive as a dose of dysentery—are beginning to break out. If we do not start now to deal with our problems in suburbia, the problems that inner cities are facing, and have faced, may increasingly become our own.

In my constituency, the West Drayton estates already have problems such as burned-out cars, people fearing to go out and gangs of youths hanging around. People are leaving the area. Work has to be done there. I realise that, as resources are always limited, priorities have to be set. I also realise that, as the Select Committee report said, there are probably too many Government initiatives. However, it would take fewer resources to tackle the problems now than to wait for the future.

As I said, I should like to say a little about town centres, which may be the core for regeneration of the urban environment. Various people and organisations have spent time identifying problems in town centres. I should like to recognise the work of the Hillingdon and Harrow branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, and I ask the Minister to consider some of the issues that it has raised. Upward-only business rents are one problem, and business rates are another. As business rates are calculated as a percentage of rent rather than turnover, businesses can be crippled in recessions or downturns in trade.

An increasing problem is posed by businesses operating from residential areas where they have substantial advantages in rates, and probably do not even pay business rates. Although I would not want to stop those businesses—such as mobile hairdressers working from home—operating, they are starting a knock-on effect that reaches to businesses trying to Operate on high streets or in parades of shops. We need a level playing field.

I think that most people recognise how important it is to promote a resurgence of community feeling. Some Labour Members may be surprised to learn that I am a bit of a fan of devolution. However—before they get too excited—I should say that I am a fan of devolution for Middlesex and of devolution by the London borough of Hillingdon to the old urban district councils from which it was constituted. One of the problems in Hillingdon is that there does not seem to be a communal spirit throughout the borough. Libraries may be able to help here. There is a perception that they are just full of hooks, but they can be used as community meeting rooms, for example.

Many problems are shared throughout the country, such as the fall in police numbers and the problem of recruiting people to public services because of the lack of affordable housing. Any Government will find it difficult to deal with social trends, but we must realise that more people are living further away from work. Before I came to this House, I could walk into work and it was pleasant also to get home early. Following modernisation, I am now getting home later than when I first came to the House. I am sure that that will be addressed when we revert to the good old system.

The White Paper recommends a standard of one parking space per dwelling. That sounds good but, in practice—at a time when public transport is not as good as we want—it will further discourage people in the suburbs. I understand that the constituents of the hon. Member for Tottenham are not so dependent on the car. In my constituency, public transport is not so good. I ask the Minister to give his colleagues in DETR a nudge regarding the extension of the Central line to Uxbridge, and our tramways proposal.

I support business improvement zones. When I was part of a town centre steering committee, I found it difficult to get businesses to chip in for projects unless they knew that everybody else was putting in money too. Many businesses feel that such zones would be positive. I also agree very much with what has been said about litter, as the environment in which we live and work affects our view.

Previously, the Select Committee inquired into parks and urban spaces. Although money comes from the centre to local authorities, as the hon. Member for Harrow, West said, increasingly SSAs are not reflecting the needs of local communities. There may be a need to grant money for this matter specifically. Parks and open spaces are very important for the community but they are the first thing to go when there are budget cuts.

There are too many initiatives, and there is too much talk and not enough action. There are good intentions; previous Governments as well as this Government have had good intentions. Generally, we are waiting to see some action. I ask the Minister to remember the plea from the suburbs. We must look at the problem now before it is too late.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:54 pm, 26th January 2001

It is a privilege to sum up for the Opposition from the Dispatch Box for the first time. This has been a thoughtful debate, with constructive speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I do not mention all of them and everything that they said, as we have had a long debate.

I am especially pleased to see the Minister for the Environment here. He is a part-time constituent of mine, so he will know the area well, and if I have particular pleas about where things are going wrong, he will have an incentive to put them right.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Minister also has a series of properties in London? Is that a cottage industry that he would like us to pursue in other parts of the country?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend has made her point.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and I were on the Environment Sub-Committee even before he became Chairman, and for some time afterwards. We had disagreements, but they were always good-natured. His chairmanship has been impartial and constructive, so the Committee's comments are viewed even more seriously than they might otherwise be. Three members of the Committee and one former member have spoken today, adding to the weight of this debate.

I declare an interest—it is on the register—as one of only two chartered surveyors in the House and the owner of a farming business.

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that we should be able to manage decline better. He mentioned some of the industries that, sadly, have undergone huge decline in the past few decades. Shipbuilding and coal mining have suffered, and now we have the sad situation in the farming industry, with 40,000 jobs lost in the past two years. If that had happened in one hit in any other industry, it would have been seen as a national catastrophe, but because it has been dispersed throughout the country, it has sometimes not been given the prominence that it deserves.

The Government rightly took the decision to publish the two White Papers on separate days, to give the House and the public a chance to digest them. We welcome that, but we do not welcome the lack of co-ordination between them. The Select Committee report on the proposed urban White Paper said: There is a lack of co-ordination between local, regional and national government … DTI and DETR do not appear to have the same views about the role of cities in the regional economy … The DTI does not sufficiently recognise the need to make the economic competitiveness of urban areas a priority. We are one nation and one economy, and we should not seek to divide the rural from the urban. Perhaps the most profound comment in the debate came from the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy): we want a united country and a united city, not a tale of two cities. We do not want to divide society.

Unfortunately, there is an increasing north-south divide, with 24,200 people migrating from the north to the south, and 23,800 to the south-east from 1996 to 1999. The figures are from the Office for National Statistics population trends survey and from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. One reason is that we are allowing more houses to be built in rural areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) so rightly said, in the previous century there was a huge migration from the cities to the countryside. That is contributing to the north-south divide, and we must avoid it if we are to maintain one nation.

The Deputy Prime Minister, in launching the urban White Paper, said: I recently visited a deprived pre-war estate in my constituency. Most constituencies contain estates like it. There was graffiti, litter, empty houses and a general air of decay, but a very strong sense of community too. I met a woman who had lived there all her life. She said, "I love living here, but I don't want to go on living like this, John."—[Official Report, 18 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 1088–9.] And so say all of us—we would all echo that sentiment. We have a duty to ensure that we are one nation.

The excellent contribution of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) was marred in one particular. I know his area quite well, having fought the by-election campaign of which he was the victor. Leeds, in common with some of our other major cities such as Glasgow and Bristol, has seen huge city centre regeneration. That happened under the single regeneration budget initiative introduced by the previous Government. Such initiatives have transformed city centres, and the hon. Gentleman would have done well to acknowledge that.

I know that it is true of Leeds, as it is of many other major cities, that just a mile away from the city centre exists some of the worst deprivation anywhere. That is what we want to address. We want thriving city centres, but we want to do something about very deprived areas as well. The hon. Member for Tottenham mentioned social exclusion, and others have mentioned education. I concur wholeheartedly.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish will know, because he came on the same visit, that when I was on the Environment Sub-Committee, we saw tower blocks in Glasgow where, in winter, despite the fact that people on basic benefit were paying electricity bills of £20 a week, the temperature inside was lower than it was outside. That is terrible, and Conservative Members wish to see more initiatives to demolish such sink estates and tower blocks.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett Labour, Denton and Reddish

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that when the Select Committee visited Leeds, not only did we see substantial deprivation fairly close to the town centre but in Ebor Gardens we saw an example of an estate built in the 1960s, with tower blocks and walk-up flats, which had been transformed by extremely good management, it appeared, from the city council?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not dispute for a moment what the chairman of the Select Committee says. Some extremely good work is being done by the local community and local authorities. That is why Conservatives Members want to support local authorities. I so agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I support town centre management schemes—called district improvement schemes in the United States. In New York, for example, they have been of huge benefit to the communities and the environment in inner-city areas. Indeed, we started work, much of it sponsored by private companies. Marks & Spencer, for example, has done some splendid work on town centre initiatives in Bristol. There is aid for that—the urban White Paper provides for a top-slicing of the business rate, which we welcome wholeheartedly.

As time is limited, perhaps the House will allow me to deal with some of the many points that were raised in the debate. Much was made of the real problems in rural areas. I had intended to say more about urban areas, but hon. Members have devoted their time in this debate more to the problems of rural areas, which, in many ways and in individual communities, are perhaps just as acute as those of the urban areas.

The hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) mentioned the closing of rural facilities. All of us who represent rural constituencies have seen a sad decline in their facilities. I do not want to make a political point, but I think that the trend has accelerated in the past four years The Government cannot deny that.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk seemed to be fighting the last election all over again. However, he neglected to tell the House that, whereas 333 rural post offices have closed in the past six months, for the entire 18 years during which we were in office, only 200 a year closed. Some of the changes, particularly the way in which benefits and pensions are to be paid, will exacerbate the problem. My constituency has seen the closure of rural police stations, post offices and magistrates courts. Such closures cannot continue, because if all the facilities in a rural area are closed, what is left? Many right hon. and hon. Members mentioned that problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York made some interesting comments on planning in rural areas. We wholeheartedly approve of the increased development of brownfield sites. However, the problems of building in such areas lie in some of the reasons for their designation as brownfield—for example, problems of contamination or flooding. If we are to take a bipartisan approach to the greater development of such contaminated areas, we must find more resources—levering in, it is to be hoped, some from the private sector—to ensure that they are cleaned up. That must be in the interests of all of us. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and I served on the pre-legislative Committee that considered the Environment Act 1995, which resulted in a step change through the establishment of a contaminated land register, which we wholeheartedly applaud.

The Government have not devoted sufficient attention to the problem of building on flood plains—that is becoming a real problem in rural areas. When the Minister for the Environment sums up, I hope that he will comment on that. We want to lend cross-party support to ensuring that PPG 25 has real teeth and that, whenever we build on flood plains, we are fully cognisant of what we are doing.

In the past, developments have been built on flood plains, on a one-in-100-year flood estimate, but during the recent flooding, the groundwater drainage systems have not been able to cope with the run-off from those estates. I witnessed that on a small scale in Cirencester. A Tesco store was built on the flood plain with flood provision as I described; flooding did not occur at the store site, because its drainage system was adequate, but was diverted to an estate in the nearby village of South Cerney.

Sewage flooding causes considerable problems throughout my constituency. It is one thing to have one's home flooded with water, but quite another when it is flooded with sewage. I hope that the Minister will lend his support to a joint meeting that I have set up between Thames Water, the Environment Agency and Cotswold district council to investigate why the South Cerney sewer is inadequate and what we can do about that. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in urging the district council to impose a moratorium on any new housebuilding until the problem is resolved? Other Members with rural constituencies have experienced similar problems—

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Indeed, and my hon. Friend mentioned some of the problems in the more urban areas. A particular problem is that of gap funding. As my hon. Friend so ably told the House, £3.6 billion was provided through gap funding. If there is a problem with the European Community, will the Minister advise us what is being done about it? There is a problem with objective 1 funding in Liverpool—as I think the hon. Member for Leeds, Central pointed out.

What is happening in the European Court case regarding the discretionary powers of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to call in planning applications? As the right hon. Gentleman has asked for all applications for larger developments on greenfield sites to be called in, that could cause particular problems. The Opposition want to streamline and simplify the planning system. At present, one structure plan is hardly being completed before the next one is due to come into effect. That is a crazy situation—it needs to be simplified and sorted out.

Among other problems mentioned by hon. Members—especially the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall—is that of VAT harmonisation. One of the best ways to regenerate our inner cities and, indeed, our rural areas is tax incentives. VAT is a major tax incentive. The Government have come up with a scheme for VAT on houses that have been empty for 10 years, but that is an Aunt Sally; there are not many houses that have been continuously empty for 10 years. It would be much more constructive to harmonise VAT rates both on houses built on brownfield and greenfield sites and on residential conversions.

This has been a useful debate during which we have been able to concentrate on some of the real issues. I hope that the White Papers will lead not only to spoken and written words—to the bits of paper that tend to shower down on all our institutions—but to real action. What we want from the Government is not soundbites but sound action.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Environment) 2:10 pm, 26th January 2001

I have always thought that Friday debates were rather better than many other debates in the House because they are generally more thoughtful and less confrontational. This was certainly one of those debates—and a rather good one.

I welcome the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) to the Opposition Front Bench. He made so many interventions as a Whip in the Committee that considered the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 that I had not realised that he was not already a member of the Opposition Front-Bench team. He made a very fair and constructive speech today; I hope that there will be many more like it. In particular, I should very much like to echo his praise for the one nation concept and for the inspiring speech—he was good enough to say so, too—made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). That was not quite our experience of the Thatcher Government, but I am glad that he is now a full-hearted convert. With the exception of the opening speech made by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), this has been a constructive debate. There is a significant degree of consensus about the solution, which suggests that the Government have got it about right.

I welcome the opening speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), and congratulate him on his excellent chairmanship of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. The Sub-Committee has made a considerable contribution to the production of the urban and rural White Papers.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the interdependence of urban and rural areas and that, in many cases, the exodus to the countryside is beginning to be slowed down. I agree about the importance of addressing rural poverty, which lies at the heart of the rural White Paper. Even if such poverty is difficult to identify, it is certainly a major issue. I also agree about the need to keep money in circulation in deprived local communities—a point that was echoed by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, referred to gap funding. I understand that the European Commission has formally indicated that it has approved the direct development scheme. I also understand that written confirmation is due imminently and that, when it has been received, the regional development agencies can begin to operate the scheme. Perhaps it is risky to give specific dates where the Commission is involved, but it has said that we can expect a decision on the two gap funding schemes by the end of February.

The Commission recently approved two gap funding schemes administered by the Welsh Development Agency. Those schemes are virtually identical to ours, and there is no reason why they should not be approved by the end of February. The Commission is still considering the neighbourhood renewal scheme and the environmental regeneration scheme, but we are pressing it for an early response.

On housing—clearly, a key issue—my hon. Friend proposed the pretty radical solution that the Government might be prepared to underwrite house prices. It is unlikely that we will be able to adhere to such a policy, but much else that we are doing bears strongly on the issue. He mentioned VAT. The VAT on the conversion of residential properties will be cut to 5 per cent. That cut is worth about £2,500 for someone spending £20,000 on converting a house into flats. Cutting VAT on conversions is expected to create another 1,000 homes a year, eventually increasing the number of people living in converted property by up to 40 per cent.

My hon. Friend also mentioned compulsory purchase orders. We have consulted on CPOs and are taking steps to help local authorities to use them, and the urban White Paper states that we will introduce the necessary legislation when parliamentary time is available.

My hon. Friend also referred to parks and open spaces. We feel particularly strongly about this issue and we have comprehensive proposals to improve parks, play areas and open spaces. I do not wish to be overly political, because Opposition Members have not been in this debate, but it is true that, under the previous Administration, spending on parks fell by about 20 per cent. in real terms in the six years before 1997. We have turned things round, and net expenditure is beginning to rise. It rose from just over £500 million to nearly £550 million in the latest years for which we have figures. The spending review 2000 included a 3 per cent. real-terms increase in local government revenue funding for this purpose and, on top of that, £96 million is being provided for parks and green spaces. We are committed to doing what my hon. Friend asked.

I understand why the hon. Member for Ashford is not present, but that does not mean that I shall respond any less forcefully. The hon. Gentleman said that he could not espy any common themes. However, the general view that emerged in the debate is that there are common themes. Our policy is concerned with the things that matter most to people, wherever they live—good jobs, decent housing, access to health and education and a good quality environment. It does not matter whether they live in urban or rural areas; that is what people want.

Both White Papers are also about empowering people. That important theme has come out of the debate. I agree that bureaucrats and Ministers should not tell people what to do. Both White Papers contain significant mechanisms to increase local empowerment, giving people the tools to make their own decisions.

The hon. Member for Ashford suggested that we had neglected Lord Rogers' recommendations. The hon. Gentleman could hardly be more wrong. We wholeheartedly support Lord Rogers' vision for an urban renaissance. That is demonstrated by the positive response that the White Paper gave to his recommendations. He welcomed the White Paper as a positive step forward, and he disagreed with certain commentators' assessments of the extent to which it had responded to his recommendations.

In fact, we have rejected only a handful of Lord Rogers' recommendations. All the others have been taken forward in full or in part, and that was made abundantly clear in the White Paper. Even when we have rejected recommendations—and we have—it is not because we disagree with the objectives behind them, but because we believe that there are better ways of achieving them.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If the Minister believes that the urban White Paper will have such an effect on the inner cities, why was there not an urban regeneration Bill in the Queen's Speech to implement those recommendations in the White Paper that need legislation?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Environment)

I shall come to the implementation plans for both White Papers. I am glad to say that, in the next month or two, the whole roll-out of the programme for implementing the recommendations in both White Papers will be published.

The hon. Member for Ashford complained that there were a multitude of schemes, a plethora of initiatives and top level bureaucratic stuff as though we shall not deliver precise proposals. I strongly disagree with him. For example, there is a comprehensive £1 billion package of national taxation measures to deliver the urban White Paper in towns and cities and to increase investment in urban areas. The package includes an exemption from stamp duty for all property transactions in disadvantaged communities, accelerated payable tax credits for cleaning up contaminated land 100 per cent. capital allowances for creating flats over shops for letting and a package of VAT reforms to encourage additional conversion of properties for residential use. There is to be a third millennium community, with four more to follow, and up to 12 more urban regeneration companies, which is relevant to the question just asked by the hon. Member for Cotswold. As I said, we also have a comprehensive programme to improve the quality of parks, play areas and urban spaces.

On the promotion of economic development, we are giving regional development agencies a strength and focus and—something that they have all asked for—a significant increase in funding and greater budgetary flexibility. A range of proposals to reform the tax system will provide better incentives for boosting investment in enterprise, especially in under-invested areas. We are trying to create the conditions for e-commerce to thrive. For example, we have launched UK online. I could say more about such developments, but I am, of course, truncating my contribution.

No one has mentioned the important fact that we are providing substantial extra resources for services. There will be an additional £33 billion a year for key services by 2003–04, which is on top of the £106 billion baseline. New policies and programmes will deliver step changes in all services that are essential for our quality of life. If anyone doubts whether that will be monitored, those initiatives are backed by public service agreement targets that, for the first time, include floor targets, which specify minimum standards to be achieved in all areas. Local authorities that cover the most deprived areas, which are at the centre of the debate, will benefit from the new neighbourhood renewal fund of £800 million in 2003–04. That will help to improve services in poorer communities.

Let me ram my point home. This is about delivering. We are establishing a new Cabinet Committee on urban affairs and policy to follow up and deliver the White Paper. We will hold an urban summit in 2002—if we are re-elected—to celebrate progress and ensure that implementation is on track. We will issue a report on the state of our towns and cities in 2005, which will give a comprehensive picture of the progress that has been made. I reject the idea that we are simply providing a plethora of rhetorical initiatives, because that is not the case.

The hon. Member for Ashford criticised us on police numbers. In the last four years of the previous Government, slightly more than 1,100 police officers left the force. Some £15 million from the police modernisation fund has been earmarked to improve rural policing. A further £30 million will be available next year.

The hon. Gentleman also criticised our position on best and more versatile agricultural land. The rural White Paper makes it clear that we will continue to protect the countryside for its own sake by strictly controlling development in the open countryside. However, rather than centralise those powers—and many Conservative Members objected to centralisation—and make them automatic, we think that elected local authorities are best placed to balance agricultural quality with other factors, such as landscape, wildlife and recreational value, all of which are relevant when considering alternative sites.

We all know that agriculture is experiencing its worst crisis for 50 or 60 years. The causes go deep and wide. There is more money for agri-environment schemes and for marketing grants to help to modernise agricultural holdings. There is also help for planning, so that farmers are able to use surplus farm buildings, and for diversification, marketing and skill training. The hon. Member for Ashford was good enough to mention small and medium-sized abattoirs. There is an important protection for those. Time-limited rate relief for new small farm diversification projects will also help.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) mentioned post offices. We have accepted all 24 recommendations of the performance and innovation unit report on the future of the post office network. The Government have demonstrated their continuing commitment to the maintenance of a nationwide network of post offices We fully recognise the valuable role played by post offices in local communities, especially for elderly and less mobile people. We are the first Government to give a commitment that we will maintain that national network in rural areas. That is why we have ring-fenced funding in the spending review. We have set aside £270 million of new investment over the next three years to start—not to finish—the implementation of the PIU recommendations.

It is important that I respond to the hon. Gentleman's comments about transport. We are providing the means for local people to get the transport services that they need. Let us be clear that transport in rural areas was decimated under the previous Government. We are providing £239 million over the next three years for a range of new and improved travel services in rural areas.

I shall mention just one important innovation—new money to help rural parishes meet their travel needs. I agree with much of what has been said. It is all very well to provide for an increase in buses—my goodness, they are needed, and we stand by that—but, above all, people want to decide what local transport provision is most appropriate to their needs. That is why we are providing £15 million over three years for grants of up to £10,000 to fund transport services such as car clubs, social car schemes and support for community transport for each parish settlement that applies and wins its funding.

I was asked about help for rural motorists. Motorists in rural areas will benefit from the measures announced in the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement to reduce taxation for motorists. All fuel duties will be frozen in cash terms until 2001. We intend to reduce duty on low-sulphur fuels and remove the 2p per litre premium on lead replacement petrol.

We were all left agog, waiting for the wonderful presentation of a new rural manifesto. We were a little disappointed. When it was finally presented, it turned out to consist of the removal of the RDAs, the ending of regional planning guidance and the end of housebuilding targets. That would simply undermine economic regeneration. As with the previous Tory Government, it would lead to a steep decline in housebuilding and the resultant misery that was so much a mark of that Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) focused on affordable housing. He was right to do so. We are doubling from 800 to 1,600 a year the number of affordable homes for small settlements of fewer than 3,000 people funded by the Housing Corporation's rural programme. That represents an increase from 3.5 to 6.5 per cent. of the total programme.

Through the planning system, local authorities will be able to negotiate the right element of affordable housing in new developments. We propose to give local authorities the discretion to charge the full council tax on second homes and to use the extra revenue for more affordable homes or local services. I strongly support that.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Environment)

I cannot take any more interventions, but I am just coming to the hon. Gentleman's contribution. I was pleased that he said that there were some excellent policies in the rural White Paper. He spoke of quality parish councils, which we support. If they are to take on extra powers and responsibilities, they must show that they have the necessary skills. We are giving £2 million to strengthen training and support for those parish councils, and £5 million to help 1,000 communities develop their own village or town plan and carry it through. That is extremely important.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) made a speech that was clearly unpopular with the Opposition, because in many respects it got in the way of their fantasy that until 1997 everything was fine and dandy in the countryside, and since then it has all fallen apart.

The hon. Member for Cotswold rather unwisely criticised closures under the previous Labour Government. I will not go into the list of facts and figures that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin produced about closures under the previous Tory Government, but they were at a considerably higher level than they are now.

I shall respond by letter to the hon. Member for Vale of York, as I want to spend just one minute on the excellent contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and for Tottenham on community initiatives, the need for support for the suburbs and the need to deal with social exclusion. Those are central issues, and my hon. Friends made constructive, thoughtful and analytical speeches—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.