On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. After the statement that we have just had, my point of order may seem rather small beer, but it is right to draw to your attention that item No. 2 on the Order Paper today—the programme motion to the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill—is not debatable. In the first Second Reading debate in this Parliament, the Government have fallen into their bad old ways. Is there any way that we can protect the ability of the House to scrutinise legislation? Not only are debates on legislation curtailed but we may not even debate whether they should be curtailed.
Under item No. 2, the Bill will complete its proceedings within a little over four weeks. One may say that that is just bad luck, but we were elected here not to watch legislation go through like sausages through a machine, but to scrutinise it. After the farce at the end of the previous Parliament, when a huge number of Government Bills were rammed through this place without proper debate, we should not allow the Government to start the new Parliament in that way.
Order. Let me answer Mr. Garnier. The hon. Lady may not wish to raise her point of order after I have done so.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House should be given the right to look again at the question of programming Bills automatically. Has the issue been raised with you by the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House? The Government told us that they would not continue in the same programming manner. We should have the chance at least to debate procedure at the beginning of this Parliament.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill lays the foundations for a more holistic and, we believe, more effective approach both to the natural environment and to rural communities. I want to say at the outset how grateful I am to all who have engaged in the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny, debate and dialogue that has helped to shape our approach to this legislation. I am grateful not least to Lord Haskins, who undertook much public consultation and dialogue before producing the report on which we have drawn in framing the Bill and to our own former Select Committee.
I thank the Select Committee and our colleagues for undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill in draft so quickly in the previous Session. That enabled us to secure the Bill as the first Second Reading of this Parliament. Given that, and subject to the will and decision of Parliament, I now hope to secure Royal Assent for the Bill next year. As a result, I can announce that I have brought forward the potential vesting date for the formal establishment of natural England and the commission for rural communities to October 2006, three months ahead of the commitment that I made in "The Rural Strategy 2004".
The context of this legislation is the vision of rural England set out less than a year ago in the Government's rural strategy—a vision of a better quality of life for all, with particular emphasis on improving the quality of life of the most disadvantaged, and a vision that has at its heart the pursuit of sustainable development, so that social, economic and environmental issues are all taken into account in shaping policy.
Economic prosperity underpins the provision of good public services and other social and environmental benefits. Equally, a healthy environment and a just society are essential for economic success and enjoyment of our natural environment can make a huge contribution to people's health and happiness.
The Bill will create simpler, stronger organisational structures and transform the way in which we deliver rural and environmental services. It will establish natural England, a new agency to act as an independent and powerful guardian of our natural heritage that will be responsible for conserving and enhancing England's rich and diverse natural environment for the benefit of this and future generations.
For people in rural areas, the Bill will establish the commission for rural communities—a strong independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog with a duty to ensure that the Government's policies make a real difference to people in rural areas, especially in tackling the pockets of social disadvantage and economic under-performance whose existence has long been recognised but whose problems have not always been addressed.
One such area of social disadvantage is the villages in rural communities such as mine that have no connection to the gas network. Believe it or not, I have villages that are only half a mile from the gas network but not yet connected. Will my right hon. Friend look at what might be done to ensure that there is an initiative—supported, probably, by more money from some of the gas companies that made profits during the spike last October—to ensure that some of those rural villages in my constituency are linked to the gas network?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I understand his concern for the welfare of his constituents. I am not 100 per cent. sure that this Bill would do anything in particular to facilitate the cause that he advances, but I am sure that he will find a way to raise the matter in Committee.
The Bill will establish a flexible structure of delivery that is both fit for purpose today and able to evolve to meet challenges ahead. It brings together the strengths of English Nature, the Countryside Agency's landscape access and recreation role and DEFRA's rural development service to establish a new independent and powerful non-departmental public body—natural England—as one integrated agency. In natural England we are, for the first time ever in England, uniting responsibility for biodiversity and landscape—in rural, urban and coastal areas—with promoting access and recreation.
Our natural environment helps to make England what it is, from our beautiful coastlines to our historic dry stone walls and hedgerows. We have stunning landscapes, rivers and lakes, set in Shakespeare's "silver sea", a unique geodiversity and the flora and fauna that rely on this rich variety of habitats and ecosystems. The establishment of natural England will help to ensure that our distinctive landscapes and green spaces are the best they can be and that the habitats and ecosystems supporting our precious biodiversity are conserved and enhanced.
I welcome the Secretary of State's colourful description of the countryside, but 97 per cent. of the nation's wild flower meadows have been lost in the last 60 years. What measures in the Bill will ensure that that is addressed?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one does not put absolutely everything in the structure of legislation, but the establishment of natural England should help to bring together many of the different concerns that are expressed and give a greater focus. If, as I hope, the House carries the Bill, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find ways of drawing this matter to the attention of the new agency, although I doubt that he will need to do so, as it is exactly the kind of thing that will be among its major concerns.
My right hon. Friend's glowing description of England's green and pleasant land could have been a description of High Peak, which, as the House will recognise, is the most beautiful constituency in England. As High Peak is mostly within the Peak District national park, will she assure me that the proposals in the Bill will enhance not only the way in which the national parks protect the environment, but the support that the national parks can give to the communities that live in them?
I can certainly assure my hon. Friend on his first point: the Bill will do nothing to hinder—and, hopefully, much to assist—national parks. I share his admiration for the national park that he mentioned, which is also close to my constituency. The Bill will provide a means to express concerns about the interests of constituents and ensure that they are taken into account.
The right hon. Lady did herself less than justice in replying to Bob Russell because one of the strengths of the Bill is the fact that it contains measures to deal with non-native, invasive species, which have a big impact on biodiversity. Can she give an absolute assurance—many people are concerned—that, when the changes are made, the independence and scientific integrity of English Nature, which is so greatly valued and has played such an important part in preserving this green and pleasant land, will in no way be compromised?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance. I am grateful to him for his intervention and he will know that the issue was raised from the very beginning of our discussions. It was clear from the outset that there was great concern about preserving the reputation, strength and experience that English Nature brings to bear on so many issues. Part of the debate, both then and since, focused on the notion that the replacement body might be worse than English Nature, but I recall that exactly the same point was raised when English Nature was itself established and replaced its predecessor body. I give him the absolute assurance that it is no part of the Government's intention to weaken in any way the independence and scientific integrity that English Nature has brought to bear on its work.
I should like to take the Secretary of State back briefly to the Peak District national park. Much concern has been expressed about clause 57, which deals with the make-up of our national parks. It has been suggested that there might be a change in the representation of the parish in respect of the Peak District park. The Secretary of State knows that that park is unique in having so many local authorities making up its contributory members, so will she give an assurance that clause 57 will not be used to reduce local representation in respect of that and other national parks?
I certainly undertake to reflect on the hon. Gentleman's point. We will look with great care into the issue. I fully understand his point and I am conscious of the great contribution that many local people have made to the Peak District and other national parks.
The new agency that the Bill seeks to set up will not be an arid, inward-looking body. Natural England will promote access and open-air recreation to help people to reconnect with our natural environment, to enjoy it, respect it and understand it and to make the health and well-being benefits of our environment available to all. The agency will work with partners at the national, regional and local level, reducing bureaucracy and duplication by providing a single source for its services rather than the present three sources, and it will also bring savings for the taxpayer.
The Secretary of State mentioned that one function is to promote access. Another is to promote biodiversity and conservation. Those two functions can sometimes be in conflict, particularly in respect of off-roaders, motor cycles and so forth. What guidance will she issue or what other steps will she take to ensure that the interests of conservation and biodiversity are not damaged by the access arrangements?
If it were seriously suggested that guidance was needed, we would certainly look carefully into it and I am sure that we will be able to debate the issue in greater detail in Committee. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, to which I would like to respond. Concerns were expressed from the outset that the function of protecting biodiversity must not be diminished. Those closely involved in the preparation for establishing the agency—not least the present chairman of English Nature, who has been good enough to act as chair of the joint group of chairs of the constituent bodies—have taken the view that there is merit in bringing together the access and biodiversity functions and that there is something to be said for having one body to decide on the difficult choices and balances that have to be made. I understand the concern. The argument about the best way to handle the matter is legitimate, but I assure the hon. Gentleman both that the Government have taken the issues on board and that there is great recognition of the sensitivities that he described.
The Bill will also establish the commission for rural communities. As we said only a few weeks ago in our rural manifesto, this Government have undertaken unprecedented investment in rural schools, transport, health care and policing, and to support small local businesses, particularly rural post offices. However, I am clear that a particular focus of the commission's work, as we develop our public services in rural areas, should be on analysing and advising on tackling rural disadvantage. Some rural areas are indeed relatively prosperous, but there are some considerable disparities in wealth between, and even within, different rural areas, with pockets of deprivation hidden among otherwise thriving areas. It is only right that scarce public resources are as far as possible targeted towards those people, businesses and communities that need them most. The Bill emphasises that focus.
Some who responded to the draft Bill in February were concerned that that emphasis could in some way skew the commission's work away from the needs of rural England as a whole. That is not the Government's intention. The commission's remit clearly covers all rural areas and issues, but it will have a particular regard to rural disadvantage and economic underperformance. That approach is rooted in the Government's and the Labour party's core values and we think that it strikes the right balance.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great successes of the Countryside Agency has been the development of the rural-proofing of Government policies to ensure that they are fit for purpose in rural areas or otherwise differentiated to meet the special circumstances there? Will she give an assurance that, under the commission, that success in rural-proofing will continue?
As the Secretary of State is to deal with that point will she also take on board pieces of legislation, such as the Government's recent licensing laws, that have had the most adverse effect on the ability to hold functions in village halls? Does rural-proofing extend across all Departments? If so, what changes will she make to ensure that it works in future?
I have heard the concerns that the hon. Lady has expressed. It was my impression that much of the anxiety was ill conceived. I speak from memory, but I do not think that the legislation is yet in force, so it is hard to see how it can have had a disadvantageous effect. Of course, I take her point seriously and I assure her, as I assured my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney, that as it is absolutely the Government's intention that the new commission should maintain that watchdog role on behalf of rural communities, while we will try to ensure that there are not the disadvantageous effects that she described. If there are, I am sure that the commission will say so, and forthrightly.
The Government have already been pressing ahead with a radical transformation of rural funding to streamline the more than 100 schemes that Lord Haskins identified into just three core funds. Each Government office in the regions is brokering a draft regional rural delivery framework that will seek to set out regional priorities and partnership arrangements.
The Secretary of State outlined in her opening remarks the tightness of the timetable that she wishes to follow, subject to the House's approval of this Bill but, in her reply to the Select Committee's report on the simplification of rural funding schemes, she says:
"At this stage it is still too early to provide a detailed delivery design of the future arrangements which will result from this major programme of change."
Will she give a more accurate timetable of when these matters are to be resolved and whether there will be any consultation on the final plan?
I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman that information at the moment. If we have it available to us, I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Jim Knight, will include it in his winding-up remarks. Otherwise I undertake to write to the right hon. Gentleman, who might have another role in these matters in the not-too-distant future.
On the priorities for the rural aspects of the Bill and the partnerships that my right hon. Friend will look to build, what priority will be given to biodiversity and nature conservation in urban areas, especially those with sites of special scientific interest and local nature reserves? The Bill rightly places great emphasis on rural communities, but we should ensure that we do not lose sight of what is important in urban areas.
My hon. Friend is right and I take her point entirely. It is because the Bill makes different arrangements for rural areas, as well as setting up natural England, that it places great emphasis on those areas, and no doubt our debates will also concentrate on them. However, I can give her the absolute assurance that it is the Government's intention that the new agency, natural England, should have clear responsibilities for biodiversity across the country, in rural, urban and coastal areas. That is well understood by those who will be part of the natural England agency, should the Bill become law.
The role of the commission for rural communities in monitoring independently how well Government policies are delivering the right outcomes—which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford rightly called rural-proofing—is crucial. That is why we have included in the Bill a new provision requiring the commission to report publicly on the outcome of that monitoring and rural-proofing. That should ensure maximum transparency in its activities and underline its credibility as an independent watchdog.
As a consequence of setting up natural England and the commission for rural communities, the Bill will reconstitute the Joint Nature Conservation Committee as a UK-wide organisation, formally extending its remit to Northern Ireland.
We principally envisage that the commission will be able to draw on work by the research councils. Within its budget, it may have scope to do some analysis, examination and research of its own. The Department has funded research and will continue to find ways to do so, not least to provide evidence of, and a database on, what is happening in rural communities. The lack of such a database was a severe handicap in trying to implement the rural White Paper.
The commission will presumably look for partners in seeking to pursue its agenda. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the potential of the voluntary sector in assisting to deliver those policy objectives and can she assure me that, wherever there are appropriate and willing partners in the voluntary sector, that will be encouraged? Will she also acknowledge that the voluntary sector in rural areas suffers from issues of economy of scale, like other organisations that work in those areas, and that that issue would have to be addressed in any such partnerships?
My hon. Friend makes another important point. It is very much the Government's hope and intention that it will be possible to involve the voluntary sector and we may be able to explore that point in Committee. One reason for seeking to provide flexibility in the Bill for setting up such partnerships is to reflect the diversity and variety of potential partners, whether they be voluntary or other organisations, and to ensure that people can work in ways that best suit the tasks that they seek to perform. The means will vary from one area to another and we hope to allow for precisely that.
I mentioned the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The Bill will strengthen the breadth of scientific expertise on the committee by increasing the number of independent members from three to five. The Bill will also introduce measures to strengthen wildlife and habitat protection and to mainstream biodiversity considerations into public policy and decision making, because it provides that every public authority must have regard to the purpose of conserving biological diversity in the exercise of its functions. That duty should help to ensure that biodiversity becomes a natural part of policy making.
The Bill will introduce a package of amendments to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 aimed at improving protection for native animal and plant species and a new provision on the possession of pesticides, designed to help prevent their abuse to kill wild birds and other wild animals. Those measures, too, have been the subject of wide consultation.
The Bill will introduce new enforcement provisions to help ensure compliance with wildlife protection legislation to help redress some of the current imbalance of interests in wildlife enforcement. It also creates two new offences to assist in managing and protecting our sites of special scientific interest. One will enforce an existing duty on public authorities and the other, we hope, will help further to deter intentional or reckless damage.
The broads, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are recognised as both our finest landscapes and as leaders in sustainable land management. The Bill contains a number of provisions that stem from the review of English national park authorities that was published in July 2002 and the subsequent review of the Broads Authority to ensure that the statutory framework is sufficiently clear to enable them to operate efficiently and flexibly.
The Bill places some important limits on establishing rights of way for mechanically propelled vehicles by limiting vehicular rights that can be recorded on local authorities' definitive maps and statements of public rights of way in England and Wales. Norman Baker raised that issue and I understand that there are strong views on both sides of the argument. We have taken into account more than 14,000 responses to our 2003 consultation document and believe that the provisions in the Bill strike the right balance between the needs of all users of the countryside and the protection of our landscape and wildlife.
The Secretary of State rightly stressed the importance of legislation on rights of way and vehicles. My understanding is that part 6 will not come in until a commencement order has been made. Can she give us an indication—if not now, in the wind-up—of what date she has in mind?
I am not sure that we can, but if we can, we will. I understand that the issue gives rise to strong feelings.
The Bill reconstitutes the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council as an independent body supported by both DEFRA and the Scottish Executive in Scotland. It separates the council from British Waterways and gives it new, wider terms of reference so that it can advise the Government, navigation authorities and other interested persons about all waterway uses.
Part 8 contains a range of measures that aim both to modernise delivery at present and to secure organisational flexibilities for the future.
My hon. Friend Tom Levitt raised the issue of voluntary bodies. Chapter 1 enables Ministers to delegate specific functions to delivery bodies and introduces a parallel provision to allow them flexibility to enter agreements. That is intended to ensure that policies and services can be delivered by whoever is best placed to do so—that may be a voluntary organisation—and as close to the customer as possible. It will also allow us to adapt delivery arrangements to respond rapidly to new challenges in the future. However, in response to concerns raised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee during pre-legislative scrutiny, we have included a new provision to restrict the types of function that can be delegated to other bodies, so that inspection and enforcement functions cannot be delegated to private bodies.
Chapter 2 gives Ministers the power to establish new boards for the purpose of helping to develop and promote agricultural and related industries, or to abolish certain existing levy bodies. That will enable Ministers to implement the findings of the current review of levy boards, which enjoys strong industry support, without further delay. We will consult widely on the findings of that review and take all industry viewpoints into account, before deciding exactly how to implement them.
I apologise to my hon. Friend but I am almost at the end of my speech.
As Mr. Letwin had some fun during a previous debate by reading out a list of the many bodies that relate to our Department, I feel confident that he will be happy to support the provisions in the Bill that may reduce their number.
Finally, the Bill allows land drainage bodies to take the environmental effects of drainage works into account. Currently, they do not integrate such considerations in the decision-making process.
Our rural strategy, together with the rural manifesto, sets out a vision of thriving rural communities, tackling rural social exclusion wherever it occurs and developing and maintaining a rich, diverse natural environment. The Bill contains an ambitious, but, I hope, not too controversial, programme of change and reform that should bring real and practical benefits for this and future generations. It should radically transform our ability to deliver rural and environmental services at present, and to respond quickly to the challenges of the future. It should mean that rural people will have a stronger voice and rural businesses will find it easier to access support. Our natural environment, in all parts of England, will be better conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of all—now and in future generations.
The Bill has been warmly welcomed by the organisations that will be most affected by it and I am happy to commend it to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill because, whilst making welcome amendments to wildlife protection and rights of way legislation, it nevertheless creates a new public body with far-reaching powers affecting the landscape of England and Wales and rural communities without setting the protection of the natural environment as the priority, without creating a simplified scheme of support for either the environment or rural communities and without any accountability at local or national level;
and because it also creates a second public body with no function that cannot be effectively delivered by existing local authorities and by other elected bodies and gives the Secretary of State powers to abolish existing public bodies and to create new public bodies, endowing them with significant powers."
Let me begin with the good news: we can welcome many parts of the Bill. First, the provisions in part 6 that relate to byways open to all traffic are welcome. However, by contrast to the plea from Labour Back Benchers, we would like to tease out a concern in Committee about the fact that the forthcoming announcement of those measures has stimulated a large number of applications by those who are concerned with increasing access for off-roaders and trail bikes. That issue stretches from my constituency to that of my hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin.
In fact, a rudimentary check by my hon. Friend Mr. Paice, who is the shadow Minister, suggests that more than 200 such applications are in process around the country, and extrapolating from my local knowledge, I expect that there may be many more in the pipeline between now and the commencement date. I doubt whether it is the Government's intention—certainly, we would not wish it to be the case—that those applications should have a smooth passage simply because people have been stirred into action by the Bill. I hope that we can find some means to resolve that with the Minister in Committee.
During the general election campaign, a trail rider in my constituency brought my attention to an article in one of the trail riding magazines—I understand that it has a circulation of about 100,000—that advised its readers to vote Conservative if trail bikers wished to stop this onslaught against their sport. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman could advise the House whether the editor of that magazine was wrong in his assessment that voting Conservative would be a vote for trail riders' rights to be expanded across the countryside.
I am afraid that the editor of that magazine was wrong if that was his view. For a long while, we have taken the view that such controls are needed. Of course, the essential issue is that there is no reason why the existence of a horse-drawn carriage in 1600 on a track that is now virtually unusable should establish a right for those in four-wheel-drive vehicles today if such a right would be grossly environmentally insensitive. There is consensus on that, probably between all parties in the House, and the question is whether the precise drafting of the Bill captures that well enough to deal with the interim situation that has been created by the announcement.
Not only is there consensus, but I said in my election address that something needed to be done about the issue. The national parks have been mentioned, but the issue needs to be addressed, particularly in areas such as Foolow, Eyam and Teddington, which have had tremendous problems over the past few months, given the growth in the notoriety of those sites. There is great concern that the problem will be compounded because the Secretary of State has given such a long lead-in period, and I hope that it is one of the things that is considered carefully in Committee.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is exactly the point that I am making. I hope that we can achieve some sort of rubric that at least allows local authorities to consider in the interim the environmental effects of a BOAT—byways open to all traffic—application. Of course, the law is structured in such a way that such things cannot be considered. There is an immediate transition from the legal fact of the previous use as a carriageway into permission—something on which I hope we can reach agreement on the need for change.
The second part of the Bill that we can welcome is part 3. It deals with biodiversity and wildlife and several of my hon. Friends and Labour Members have already mentioned that. It is clear that the duty on public authorities to conserve biodiversity, which appears in clause 40, is a good one. However, we will want in Committee to consider the effect on local authorities of the lists that the Secretary of State is empowered by the Bill to draw up so as to ensure that local authorities do not find themselves with an undue and unbearable duty to implement lists of actions prepared by her.
Clause 43 has been mentioned in questions to the Secretary of State, and we recognise that the offence of using pesticide to poison wildlife should exist. However, we will want in Committee to consider carefully the test of intent. The case I have in mind is that of a farmer who has a perfectly legitimate and lawful pesticide and who maintains that he or she is about to use it in order to do proper things with pesticides on the farm, but where the authority believes that there is an intent to use it for another purpose. What will be the test in such a case? We clearly need to ensure that, in our correct and consensual ardour to prevent effects on biodiversity, we do not end up with an assault on civil rights and civil liberties.
Clauses 46 to 50 contain the protections for wildlife, including those against invasive non-native species that were mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth. I am delighted to see those provisions. As he pointed out, they are a valuable part of the Bill but, again, we will want to look at the details in Committee.
Finally in this category, I want to mention part 4 and the protections for sites of special scientific interest. Again, we welcome the offence of recklessly and/or intentionally destroying SSSIs and the idea of court restoration orders. However, we have doubts about the provision for a penalty to be placed on public authorities. To have a criminal offence for a public authority may not be unprecedented—it may apply in the case of the manager of a nuclear power station in certain circumstances—but it is very unusual. We will want in Committee to consider exactly how the provision will work and whether it can be sustained in its present form.
Beyond those parts of the Bill that we welcome, there are at least three parts that we do not think are particularly controversial. The first relates to the joint nature conservation committee covered in part 2, but we will want to consider its scope in Committee. Part 5 refers to the national parks and the broads and, when we consider them in Committee, we shall certainly want to take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire. Part 7 on inland waterways also looks relatively uncontentious.
Chapters 2 and 3 of part 8 are contentious in point of process rather than substance. Ironically and perhaps suitably, chapter 2 is essentially a Henry VIII clause—in fact, it contains a whole succession of such clauses. We have no concern about the general idea of the Government continuing their current review to its conclusion and restructuring the levy boards. There is wide agreement in the industry on the need for restructuring, but we have concerns about the use of such a wide power to change primary legislation. We recognise that there is an affirmative order provision in the Bill, but we will want in Committee to look very carefully at whether it is sufficiently constrained and whether, in practice rather than in form, the House will have an opportunity to debate sufficiently what emerges. Perhaps we shall receive ministerial undertakings in Committee that will satisfy us and help to ensure that the provision is properly scrutinised.
In the same vein, clause 89 in chapter 3 of part 8 deals with financial powers, and we will want to look carefully at the scope of those powers. As I read the Bill—I may have missed a subtle point of drafting—it gives the Secretary of State powers that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has not yet fully understood. Someone in the Treasury might not have been as eagle eyed as they might have been, because I think that the Secretary of State would be able to do something that this Secretary of State would not wish to do—subsidise any number of nuclear power stations. However, the Secretary of State would also be able to do something that this Secretary of State might wish to do—subsidise any number of people complaining about nuclear power stations. In fact, the Secretary of State could do both, the powers are so widely drawn. Broadly, anything that the Secretary of State takes into her head to do—which could be described as anything to do with the environment, which is really almost anything when one comes to think of it—she could pay for, subject to the Treasury providing her with some funds. We shall want to examine the clause carefully to ensure that it is not over-widely drawn.
Having said that there are parts of the Bill that we welcome—parts of it that are uncontroversial and other parts that are questionable only in terms of process—I fear that we have big problems with one part. That is why we have tabled a reasoned amendment. I refer to part 1, which is the largest and most important part. I shall deal first with chapter 2, which establishes clearly, as the Secretary of State said, a commission for rural communities. It is pretty clear in the Bill, in policy statements and in previous ministerial statements what the commission is meant to do. There is no complaint about that. Clause 18 provides that
"The Commission's general purpose is to promote . . . awareness among relevant persons and the public of rural needs" and to promote meeting rural needs. It defines relevant persons as a "public authority". It provides that the commission
"must take such steps as appear to it to be appropriate for . . . representing rural needs to relevant persons", namely, to public authorities.
So far, so good, it might be said, except when we come to clause 25, which makes it clear in subsection (1) that the
"Secretary of State may give the Commission general or specific directions as to the exercise of its functions."
As if that were not sufficient, subsection (4) states:
"The Commission must comply with any directions given under this section."
Either the commission is an independent rural advocate or it is not. If it is not an independent rural advocate, what is it for? If it can be given directions by the Secretary of State without limit, and if it must comply with those directions without qualification, it is not an independent rural advocate. Indeed, the Secretary of State might just as well appoint one of her officials, one of her Ministers or herself as the independent rural advocate. It is an advocate that will have to do exactly whatever the Secretary of State tells it to do. What is the point of spending public money on having an independent rural advocate that is not remotely independent?
I am interested in the philosophical direction that the right hon. Gentleman is taking. I hope that he will concede that Government quangos are subject to considerable pressure, often from behind the scenes, from Government Departments that wish them to follow a particular line. They then produce a policy that appears to be independent, but is actually one that is advocated by the relevant Department. At least in clause 25 that is out in the open. We will know what the Government are arguing and we know what the response will be. Are there not some advantages to that approach?
The hon. Gentleman is ingenious.I suspect that our approach might recommend itself to him, given his party's predilection for local independence, autonomy, delegation and subsidiarity. Our view is that there is no need for such a quango; that it is difficult for such a quango, in practice, to represent anybody much; that it will not be independent in a full sense anyway, because it is funded in just the way in which the hon. Gentleman has described and open to the degree of pressure that we all know exists; and that it is even less worth having if it is subject to explicit direction, which I agree is honest but extremely powerful. It would be far better to rely on local authorities, Members of Parliament, Select Committees and so on to represent genuinely the interests of the countryside. We would then avoid the need for yet another quango. That is our position on part 1, chapter 2.
The main issue is with part 1, chapter 1.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into an old trap, which some of us feel is a great danger, and that is to imply that rural Britain is one homogeneous entity. Instead, it is a very varied landscape, both natural and human. For the first time, through the CRC, we could ask the Government actively to involve themselves where communities ask for help and need that help. Is not that level of involvement an advantage?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in his premise, but his conclusion is entirely a non sequitur. He is right that rural Britain, like urban Britain and suburban Britain, is hugely diverse. It is impossible to imagine the man from Whitehall having the slightest sense of all the variations that provide protection. That is the very reason why powerful and eloquent advocates for particular parts of the country who know those areas—people such as the hon. Gentleman—are employed by the taxpayer in this place to make representations: not to some intermediate body without power, which the CRC will be, nor to any other intermediate body, but direct to the fountainhead, the Secretary of State, sitting not 20 ft from the hon. Gentleman. That is a marvellous example of what can happen by way of genuine representation. Likewise, local authorities representing the many hundreds of parts of our kingdom, right down to parish councils, exist precisely to represent people living in a particular place at a particular time, to understand their concerns, and to raise them with the mandate that democratic legitimacy gives to those bodies. That is a better way to represent rural and other interests than creating a quango in Whitehall that is, in effect, under the close direction and supervision of the Secretary of State.
Part 1, chapter 1 deals with natural England—the critical element of the Bill. The same observation as I made about the CRC has to be made about natural England. The Secretary of State said today that natural England would be independent. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend Mr. Jack, observed in its recommendations on the new body that
"in order for it to be successful, it is important that it has a strong independent voice . . . The independence of the new Agency must be clearly enshrined in its establishing legislation."
At the same time as they produced the Bill, the Government published their response to the Select Committee's report, in which they stated, "The Government agrees." Just in case that could be taken to be a slip of the draftsman's pen, the Government say in paragraph 5a of their policy statement on the Bill that they will give "a strong independent status" to the commission and, in paragraph 5b, that natural England will be "independent of government". Alas, it is not the policy statements of Ministers, however well intentioned, or Ministers' responses to Select Committees that determines whether a body is independent: it is the law that does so.
"to give Natural England general or specific directions", and subsection (5) states:
"Natural England must comply with any directions"—
[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary, Jim Knight, says that the directions will have to be published. That is splendid. We are all in favour of publication, because we want to know the extent to which the body will be under Ministers' control. However, publication will not make natural England independent.
In a previous post, I frequently argued about the independence of the judiciary with the former Home Secretary, Mr. Blunkett. The House would not be impressed if it were told that the independence of the judiciary consisted of the ability of the Home Secretary of the day to give directions to the judiciary about which persons were to be acquitted or convicted, what sentences were to be handed down, and so on. People are independent of Government when they are not subject to direction; they are not independent of Government when they are subject to direction. Natural England will not be independent; it will be an arm of DEFRA.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that people living in places such as the Norfolk broads want a body that is truly independent? They do not want scope for extra bureaucracy and Government meddling in the countryside. Does he also agree that the Government's track record on bringing various bodies together into one organisation is not a sound one? Only the other day, the Prime Minister said of the Financial Services Authority that it is now destroying wealth and damaging business.
My hon. Friend is right. He will recall from the recent months in which he and I worked together in the shadow economics team that we made the very comments that the Prime Minister has now made about the FSA, only to be met with shrieks of horror from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I am delighted to see that the Prime Minister now recognises the problems with the FSA.
However, I fear that the position with natural England is even worse than my hon. Friend imagines. Not only is it not independent, not only is it a composite of many things, and not only do we have some fears because of the track record, but it is a body with an astonishingly wide and conflicting set of remits. Let me go through what the Bill establishes as the roles of natural England. Ministers will recognise the description from the text of the Bill. In clauses 2 and 4, natural England is to be an adviser; in clause 3 a research body; in clause 6 a grant giver; in clause 7 a manager of land, indirectly, through contract; in clause 8 an experimenter; in clause 9 a provider of information; in clause 10 a consultant; in clause 11 a consultant even for commercial purposes; and in clause 12 a policeman and a prosecutor. That provides scope for immense confusion, rather than clarity.
Can the right hon. Gentleman point to ways in which English Nature, the Countryside Agency and others are in conflict now? Why does he assume that we are standing at the top of a slippery slope, down which we will inevitably go towards the anarchy and chaos that he describes? I do not recognise that at all. If we are to have a strong and independent guardian of rural areas, which the new agency is intended to be, the Government must give direction to ensure that it remains a strong and independent guardian of rural areas. My final thought, while I am on my feet, is that surely the right hon. Gentleman, in the spirit—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In a way, I am sorry that you did not allow Tom Levitt to continue. I suspect that he was about to fall into yet another difficulty. If he waits approximately a minute and a half, I shall give him a blissful example of the sort of confusion and disharmony that the Bill will generate, from the mouth of somebody whose evidence he will find it difficult to resist.
The Bill offers clarity about nothing and a lack of clarity and delineation of roles with respect to DEFRA, the Environment Agency, the commission for rural communities, the regional development agencies, local authorities, other environmental bodies and natural England.Let me give the example that the hon. Gentleman seeks. It concerns the relationship between natural England and the Environment Agency. There is a theoretical way in which one can express this, before I come to the quotations that I promised the hon. Gentleman. One can ask whether the Sandford principle—the principle of putting the environment first—really applies to natural England. The answer on page 16 of the Government's response to the Select Committee is very interesting. There the Minister states that
"where the level of importance of biodiversity and landscape has been predetermined, the Sandford principle should . . . apply".
I do not know what that means. I do not suppose that anyone listening to it was intended to know what it meant, but it leaves us with a clear question: does the Sandford principle apply to natural England? If it does, how will it avoid overlap with the Environment Agency? If it does not, how will it avoid conflict with the Environment Agency, unless of course the answer is that, through ministerial directive, DEFRA will constantly be holding the ring? In that case, what is the point of the bodies?
That is not just my view; it is brought out beautifully in one of the classic expositions of what goes wrong in government, despite good intentions, by no one other than Baroness Young, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, who was asked in the Select Committee a series of questions about the relationship between the two bodies. I shall read at some length the observations of Baroness Young, which deserve to be taken seriously. She said:
"I think there is a potential for confusion. For example, if we"— that is, the Environment Agency—
"are all to do with air, land and water, the primary role of the Environment Agency is the protection of air, land and water, and the new land management agency, the Integrated Agency, will have a clear role in air, land and water, but it must not be its primary role, its primary role is bio-diversity, landscape, access, recreation. Our primary role is air, land and water. We will work very closely together because without clean air, land or water they cannot have decent bio-diversity, access, landscape and recreation. We, likewise, have got a responsibility for things that the Integrated Agency delivers, in that we have to give them the building blocks of clean air, land and water. I hope that has not confused you completely."
Illuminatingly, she continued:
"I think there is a clarity and it is there to be got, but it needs to be written down very carefully otherwise we could tread on each other's corns."
That relationship will be very rich. If one has ever heard a senior bureaucrat—if I can describe Baroness Young in that way—identifying a problem of overlap and confusion, that is it. Her exposition of the problem is beautiful.
I repeat—briefly, so that I can make a second point, Madam Deputy Speaker—that such confusion is not inevitable. The problem does not arise under the present system, so why on earth should it happen when English Nature and the Countryside Agency are integrated?
When the right hon. Gentleman was shadow Treasury spokesperson, he was wedded to the James report and the James principle. Would not the James commission applaud the proposal to bring those bodies together?
I am about to address the hon. Gentleman's second point, which he will have cause to regret making, too.
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, almost everyone involved in the countryside today will tell him that confusion and conflicts have arisen and that various bodies and people, including local authorities and farmers, have been affected. That is not only my view, but the Government's view, which is why the Government say that they will bring those bodies together. The problem is that they will be left with a different set of confusions between natural England, the Environment Agency and, while we are at it, regional development agencies and local authorities.
I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's recitation of Baroness Young's comments. Will he square those comments with the Environment Agency briefing that has been sent to all hon. Members? It states:
"We welcome the fact that the purposes proposed in clause 2 for Natural England remain distinctive and complimentary to our own functions . . . Natural England's general purposes as set out in the bill are distinct from our own."
It seems that the concern may have dissipated.
The hon. Gentleman has produced the most marvellous example of the effect of the power of direction. The Secretary of State does not need to direct the Environment Agency. When the chief executive of the Environment Agency gives evidence to the Select Committee, she says what she thinks. When the Environment Agency writes something down and sends it to MPs, however, it is conscious of the power of direction, which is the problem that we are currently addressing.
Perhaps my right hon. Friend's assiduous reading of the Select Committee evidence did not include the supplementary memorandum submitted by the centre for rural economy at the university of Newcastle, which points out that the Environment Agency was not originally included in Lord Haskins's first examination of rural delivery.
Because my right hon. Friend and I have discussed these matters—he sent me to the Library to read the reports—I have come across that contribution. I was about to mention that a problem has arisen from the failure to do what the James review made clear needed to be done, which relates to the intervention by the hon. Member for High Peak.
The original intention was seriously to examine all the bodies involved and to try to come up with a simpler, less confusing architecture. I attribute that motive to the Secretary of State and her then Ministers, who, interestingly, had in mind an image that was shared between the providers of evidence to the Select Committee, the James review and, while we are it, Lord Haskins, who wrote an admirable report that I studied about a year ago.
DEFRA is involved in delivery—so are the Rural Payments Agency, natural England, RDAs and local authorities. Natural England and the Environment Agency are involved as policemen and prosecutors, as are some other bodies—the inspectorates. Natural England, the Environment Agency and the commission for rural communities are all engaged in advocacy, but under direction. Who is doing what? At the end of all this, no ordinary person could possibly really know.
I fear that this pea soup is reflected in the costings, which are instructive. In the regulatory impact assessment, we find under the notes on clauses—as, indeed, we find in the Government's response to the Select Committee—the Government admit that this simplification measure has very considerable one-off costs, which they assess, if I have understood it correctly, at between £32 million and £45 million over the period 2004–05 to 2008–09. That is in paragraph 11 of the RIA. Yet the annual savings are to be only £11.3 million by 2007–08 and are forecast to reach only £21 million by 2009–10. It does not take long to calculate on the back of an envelope that, during the lifetime of this Parliament, the total effect of these measures will be to save roughly zero. That assumes, moreover, that the one-off costs are not greater than anticipated, which would be a unique occurrence in Government. That is not a partisan point—as far as I am aware, nobody in any Administration has ever managed to reorganise a Department with savings as great, or costs as little, as they hoped.
We have before us a marvellous example of Sir Humphrey at work. There are Ministers and advisers with good aims—to simplify, to reduce excessive staffing, to clarify roles, and to give more independence in delivery and advocacy. And what has Sir Humphrey achieved? It is a system that complicates, saves little or nothing, confuses roles further and has one salient effect, which Sir Humphrey will celebrate—the extension of the powers of the Department. I do not doubt the good intentions, but I cannot possibly ask my hon. Friends to sponsor those results; that is why we tabled our reasoned amendment.
It is interesting to reflect that we have just come through a general election campaign in which the criticism was made, especially by environmental non-governmental organisations, that green issues had been given little priority. I welcome the fact that the first Bill to be given its Second Reading in this new Parliament is one that is precisely about environmental issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has worked assiduously to ensure that this Bill gets an early Second Reading, and I compliment her, her team, and many of the officials in her Department, who worked extremely hard to bring this proposal forward.
The proposals have been widely welcomed. Mr. Letwin was positive about many aspects of the Bill, although he was critical of others; perhaps I will echo some of those views later. He was destructive about the two new agencies—the commission for rural communities and natural England. I would modestly remind him that the powers of those two bodies are already possessed by English Nature and the Countryside Agency. As my hon. Friend Tom Levitt said, it has been entirely possible over recent years to deal with the dilemmas and conflicts that arise. The notion behind the Bill—that of DEFRA as an advocate and policy-maker with delivery bodies underneath it—is correct. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that one cannot entirely distinguish between policy and service delivery, as the two are linked and need to work together.
Only a few months ago, the Opposition opposed the Second Reading of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, and lived to regret that decision. I hope that in Committee we can consider many of the right hon. Gentleman's points, and improve the Bill. The Bill has already been improved—it has been subject to widespread consultation and scrutiny—but I believe that it can be improved even further.
I want to reflect on the right hon. Gentleman's manifesto, issued at the very recent general election. It said:
"We instinctively understand the importance of conservation, natural beauty and our duty of stewardship of the earth."
That is a profound statement, but the right hon. Gentleman's contribution today, in relation to the two new agencies, was profoundly destructive. He gave no prescription for the way forward, and no indication of the kind of institutions that he would like to preserve and enhance our environment. I look forward to the winding-up speeches, when Mr. Paice may do that. I also look forward to the Committee stage, because I think it important for those who propose reasoned amendments also to make reasoned suggestions for a better way forward.
I was always interested in the comments that the right hon. Gentleman made as shadow Chancellor. I hope that he will do as much for rural communities as he did for his party's well being in the economy, and I believe that in time he will regret his destructive attitude.
The Bill has been criticised for concentrating on institutional arrangements rather than having a vision of the countryside. We should bear in mind that it springs from a range of other measures, such as the rural strategy, the research on the future of food and farming that was referred to earlier, the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy—a Government achievement that has not received the recognition it deserves—and the work of Lord Haskins. The creation of DEFRA, a body just four years old, also requires thought about the structures we need in order to deliver in the countryside.
I am interested in natural England, which I think will be an important and powerful body in the countryside. It will face tensions and potential conflict. Clause 2, which deals with general purpose, sets out what natural England will do. It lists five policies that it needs to deliver. The right hon. Gentleman was right to point out that tension and confusion exist, but he should also recognise the importance of setting clause 2 against the guidance given by the Secretary of State.
I see conflicts between some of the proposals for natural England. There are, for instance, the notions of maintaining and enhancing biodiversity and of promoting access and recreation. Some have argued—the right hon. Gentleman mentioned this—that the Sandford principle must be paramount. I feel that we should reflect on that. We have a countryside that needs to live and work and change. The countryside has always lived and worked and changed; what is important is the timetable for change, and the management of change. I suspect the conflicts set out in clause 2 are not as real as some would have us believe. With good consultation, good land management and a thoughtful approach, hard cases will be few and far between. I agree with the Select Committee that if biodiversity and conservation are threatened, those interests must be paramount. However, we also need to be clear that the countryside provides a landscape, a background and a fabric for people to visit. There would be no point in having a living, working countryside if people could not have access to it.
It is vital that natural England should be truly independent. I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said about the guidance set out by the Secretary of State. He will see, however, that the Bill provides for the guidance to be subject to consultation before it is introduced.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is always helpful in these matters and with whom I share a great deal in this regard.
Natural England will be a public body, spending public money, and it is important that the Secretary of State should have a right to be able to set down some guidance. At the same time, however, I accept the essential point that the right hon. Gentleman made that natural England should be as independent as English Nature was. The Secretary of State was right to remind us that, when English Nature was set up, there were similar complaints and concerns. However, that body has proved itself adequate and totally independent. All hon. Members want that independence for natural England, and I believe that that is what it will deliver.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at Hansard in due course, he will see that I very carefully used the term "directions", not "guidance". For the edification of those on the Liberal Benches, clause 15 deals with guidance and clause 16 deals with directions. There is a procedure for consultation under guidance, there is no such procedure under directions. The only thing that the Secretary of State needs to do in regard to directions is to publish them. That is a lacuna. If the hon. Gentleman is now an ally, at least in seeking to modify the direction power to that extent, that is good news.
The right hon. Gentleman has made some interesting points; they were also made by the Select Committee. Natural England needs to be totally independent, and it needs to have the confidence of the people living and working in the countryside. I suspect that those of us who are lucky, or unlucky, enough to serve on the Bill's Standing Committee will have some good discussions on this issue. It is of paramount importance that natural England maintains the independence that English Nature has had in the past.
The hon. Gentleman did an excellent job in chairing the sub-Committee that considered this legislation. Does he agree that independence really means the willingness to speak one's mind, irrespective of the consequences, if one is in a position of responsibility? Does he also agree that many of the personnel from English Nature who appeared before the Select Committee gave a robust and critical appraisal of this legislation? They are the same people who will transfer to natural England.
Of course I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, the former Chairman of the Select Committee, that it is important that natural England is as independent as English Nature. Let me remind him of the background. He will remember that when these proposals were announced, there was criticism that English Nature was being disestablished because it had written reports that criticised the Government's approach to genetically modified crops. That was completely wrong. But it is absolutely clear that the staff who work for the new natural England, and the board of natural England, should be totally independent and in a position to criticise the Government. I agree with the right hon. Member for West Dorset when he rightly says that the relationship between natural England and the Environment Agency needs further clarification. Again, that is an issue on which not only is the Secretary of State to issue guidance and direction but on which a good deal of careful work needs to be done by the new body, natural England, and the Environment Agency. That is paramount in the implementation of the water framework directive, which will have a real influence on our landscape and environment. Unless there is a clear understanding between natural England and the Environment Agency of their roles, there is a danger that problems could occur. Again, the Minister would do well to consider that issue during scrutiny of the Bill.
I need to remind Ministers that the Countryside Agency included a rural advocate section, part of which was the body that rural-proofed Government policy. That has been criticised in the past, but I remind Members of the work that has been done on maintaining small schools and extending broadband across rural areas, rural transport initiatives, and maintaining, with difficulty, rural post offices. Those have been successes. There is a strong case for a body such as the commission for rural communities that acts as a watchdog and that, again, is not frightened to criticise the Government. I am delighted that the Government, following the publication of their response to the Select Committee's report, made it clear that the chairperson of the commission will also be the Government's rural advocate, who has traditionally had direct access to the Prime Minister. It is important that the body is independent and is not afraid to criticise the Government and other public authorities—it must be a body with real teeth, which is not afraid of the consequences of doing so. Part of the guidance that we might consider is enshrining that in legislation.
I am more concerned about the third leg of the delivery mechanism—the rural development agencies. It is absolutely right that rural development agencies should, in principle, take responsibility for economic development in rural areas. Their experience and history so far, however, has been patchy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that correction. There are some excellent regional development agencies, such as Advantage West Midlands. I had the privilege to visit the East of England Development Agency, which is at the forefront of working in rural areas. There is real concern, however, that regional development agencies have historically had an urban base, and that the needs of, say, big urban conurbations outweigh those of rural areas. We must ensure that regional development agencies follow through the tasks and guidance with the resources that the Government have made available. That is a potential problem and weakness, which must be monitored carefully.
Ultimately, a whole range of partners and bodies will still work in rural areas. I am concerned about co-ordination, which, again, was an issue raised in evidence to the Select Committee. Natural England will have powers and resources. The Environment Agency will be doing other things. The RDAs will be doing other things. The commission for rural communities will be focusing on other things. It is important that there is co- ordination across the piece, across the regions and across the neighbourhoods. The Secretary of State mentioned that the Government offices would have a role and that regional rural delivery frameworks would need to be set up. It is essential, if we are trying to build rural communities, enhance the environment and lift the landscape, that local needs inform policy. I am not sanguine at the moment that we have the right co-ordination body in our vision. There is a good deal of further work to be done on that issue.
As a Welsh Member, it ill behoves me perhaps to comment on the creation of natural England, but during the recent election I talked to a lot of regional wildlife recorders in my constituency. They certainly welcomed the proposals that will affect Wales in the Bill. I pick up on my hon. Friend's comment about rural communities. Often, the local wildlife recorders will be the drivers behind local biodiversity issues, and they will be critical to making this Bill a success. All the local wildlife recorders to whom I talked welcomed the provision to extend the duty under section 74 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to conserve and enhance biodiversity to all public bodies. They repeatedly see—I take up the comment that was made by Mr. Letwin about local authorities being a major force in moving that forward—local authorities put under pressure when planning applications are before them to ignore the biodiversity issues, rather than to enhance them.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I want to build on her comments about local authorities. I am slightly surprised that, in the Bill as it stands, the role of local authorities receives scant attention. She rightly says that, under clause 40 and others, new biodiversity responsibilities are to be placed upon all public authorities, including local authorities. We must ensure that local authorities are key deliverers and part of the package of deliverers to maintain and to enhance the environment. Again, I have been interested to look at some of the pathfinder schemes to see how local authorities have been involved in that way.
I want to make one final point about the direction of the Bill. Again, I pick up on some of the points that have been made by the Opposition. This is a hard change programme. In effect, existing organisations need to keep running while new organisations are built and put in their place. I was interested in the Secretary of State's comment that the timetable would be brought forward to October 2006. I say mildly to my ministerial friend who is now sitting on the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Jim Knight, that that change process will have to be monitored very carefully. Like the right hon. Member for West Dorset, I am not sanguine about the savings that allegedly can be made out of the change process. It is right that we should try to reduce the number of bodies, but the costs of the change may outweigh the savings that are talked about.
Let me give one example. Mr. Jack, the Chairman of the Select Committee, made the point, as did the right hon. Member for West Dorset, about the three methods of payment. The Secretary of State talked about bringing us more information on how far the discussions had got on that matter. That is an essential element. We need to make progress on it more quickly. We need to monitor change management very stringently.
As always, my hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge of this matter. Having chaired the sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, he will know that I raised concerns about schedule 7 and the way in which the different bodies and boards were all subsumed within it. There was discussion about the Agricultural Wages Board being included but, pleasingly, the Government did not go down that road. Does he agree that we must keep that board separate from the new legislation, as it is an important body that needs to be treated in its own right?
I agree that the Agricultural Wages Board is an important body, and I shall make a point on schedule 7, which concerns levy boards. This is enabling legislation and there is widespread agreement that change is necessary, if not inevitable, but when the work is done, the solutions may not be consensual. It is important that the House, Members and outside bodies play an important role in scrutinising whatever comes out of the process. The Bill is right to provide a peg for change—I have no worries about that—but I do worry that the result may not be adequately scrutinised.
Part 6 of the Bill has been mentioned and there is a need again to update rights of way legislation. I am keen for an early commencement date for part 6, for the reasons given by the right hon. Gentleman. It is crazy that people can ride four-wheelers, quad bikes or trail bikes down tracks that were designed for coaches and horses. We must change that situation, and the Bill does just that.
I look forward to the Minister telling me what the commencement date will be but I am told that the reason why a long commencement date is envisaged is that the Government have received legal advice that there are human rights implications. People from Eakering in Nottinghamshire have written to me to say that they have been out with their wheelchairs and pushchairs and have been run down by trail bikes and quad bikes; they know that there are human rights implications. We need action quickly. The Government have not so far published their legal advice and I understand the constraints upon them. But perhaps the Minister will give an undertaking this evening to explain what advice he has received and, at the very least, put a summary of it in the Library.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is difficult to imagine how Human Rights Act considerations could possibly necessitate provisions that mean that local authorities may not take into account environmental effects, which is why I suggested that that might be a route through during the interim period.
I am pretty sure that the right hon. Gentleman made a plea that we look at this in Committee and I am sure that we will. There have been 14,000 representations on this issue and we need to get on with it. It is a festering sore that will get worse, not better. At the end of the Bill's scrutiny, I hope that we have a better set of proposals to deal with the problem.
As I have made clear, the Bill is not perfect, but it is a useful step forward and recognises that there have been difficulties in rural areas. There is no point in pretending that the farming sector or rural communities have not faced difficulties. But we must ensure that we do what we have always done on this small island—perceived that the countryside will only live if it is prepared to adapt and change. That is why I welcome the new institutions. I know that they have been criticised but I believe that they are policy instruments that can help us to drive through the change that is so needed to enhance our environment and lift our landscape. I look forward to further discussion of the Bill.
I welcome the fact that the first Second Reading debate of this Parliament is of an environment Bill and I look forward to many more such opportunities during this Parliament.
When I looked at the Bill with my colleagues, we took the view that, by and large, it was a move in the right direction and contained more good than bad. It was an improvement on the present arrangements and although there were issues to be sorted out, we felt that the Bill was worthy of support on Second Reading. Our conclusion is that we should support the Government if there is a Division later this evening.
I listened with interest, as I always do, to Mr. Letwin in his analysis of the Bill and I agree with much of what he said. He listed those sections that were beneficial and moved matters forward, and he was right in that analysis. He then majored on one or two areas about which he had significant concerns. Those concerns are legitimate and he was right to raise them, but I find it difficult to understand why they are of such magnitude that they justify voting against Second Reading. Those concerns appear to be based on clauses 16 to 25 and the issues of the independence of natural England, in particular, from the Secretary of State and of giving directions.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw the distinction between guidance and directions, and there is a difference in the way in which the Government deal with those matters. It would be advantageous if there were to be consultation on directions, as there is proposed to be on guidance. I hope that an amendment to that effect will be successful in Committee.
However, I do not see the deep conspiracy in the Government's intentions towards natural England that was seen by the right hon. Gentleman. It is normal for the Government to give directions to arm's length bodies of different departments. Indeed, the difference here is that they are in the Bill; we will know what the directions are. If those directions are an attempt to muzzle natural England and are clearly in response to an effective body that is doing its job as we would expect, that will become apparent and the Government will be discredited as a consequence. I would prefer that there were no directions, but if we are to have them, it is better that they are out in the open, rather than behind the scenes.
The great difficulty is that the Government's current power to lean on its agencies inevitably exists in any case. It is there through the budget process, the appointment of members and a number of different matters. The right hon. Gentleman appeared to accept that when he suggested that the change in the Environment Agency's position from that set out by Baroness Young to the one represented today was as a consequence of Government pressure. That, however, is under the present regime, where we do not have these matters in legislation but where apparent pressure is being exerted to force an agency to change its view. How much better, in a sense, if that were out in the open.
I do not dissent form the view of hon. Members around the Chamber that we want natural England to be an independent and effective body, but a relationship with the Government is inevitable and proper. There is bound to be a relationship in terms of the budget and it is better that that be out in the open for scrutiny, rather than behind the scenes, as has so often been the case with quangos. I do not share the fundamental objection to those clauses, and they are open to amendment to try to deal with some of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made.
In terms of independence, time will tell, but a range of bodies have broadly welcomed the proposals on natural England, and that has been influential in terms of our approach to the Bill. We took into account representations from the Wildlife Trusts, the Environment Agency, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Farmers Union and English Nature, all of which broadly welcomed the creation of natural England. Liberal Democrat Members who support that proposal are more in line with those bodies that understand the issues than are Conservative Members, particularly the right hon. Member for West Dorset. Indeed, we Liberal Democrats claim to speak for the countryside more than the Conservatives on this and many other issues—[Interruption.] On everything, as my colleagues point out—well, on nearly everything: I shall leave a gap in case a claim could be made for them on one or two issues.
As with any new body, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I remember the National Rivers Authority, which was an effective body under the Conservative Government. Indeed, it was too effective, and was abolished by Nicholas Ridley, if I recall correctly. The Environment Agency was then established in its place. It was seen at the time and was clearly designed as an attempt to muzzle the effectiveness of the NRA. As it turned out, the Environment Agency was pretty effective, so if the Conservatives had that objective for the organisation, they clearly failed in that particular case.
If a variety of functions are transferred to natural England, it will have more clout and be in a better position to stand up for natural countryside issues than even English Nature, which has done a good job, has been. The proof will come when we see how it deals with key issues of importance to the country—I mean the country in both senses of the word. English Nature has a good track record on many issues—for example, in opposing road schemes, as with the Hastings bypass; in standing up against GM crops and the damage that they would inflict on biodiversity; and in opposing Cliffe airport in Kent. I would expect natural England to follow the same line, and there is no reason to believe that it would do otherwise. If the Government started to issue directions to say "Thou shalt not complain about GM crops" or "Thou shalt not oppose road schemes", it would become apparent to many people, and the Government would lose heavily in respect of presentation as a consequence, but I do not believe that that will happen.
Frankly, the right hon. Member for West Dorset raised this issue as an Aunt Sally, which needs to be knocked down. He knows that I usually have considerable time for him, but I hope that he is not falling into the trap of the previous incumbent of his role. In my short time as Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, I have faced a bewildering succession of Conservative Front Benchers—I have lost track of exactly how many. I hope that the newest incumbent stays for rather longer than his predecessor, but they have all fallen into the trap of opposing for the sake of opposition, as has the Conservative party more widely. The Conservatives opposed the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill and they were forced to change their minds on both Iraq and ID cards. Once again, they seem to be adopting positions in order to justify short-term political gain.
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats take a principled position on this matter—assessing the Bill on its merits and supporting it on Second Reading, subject to the caveat that we shall table some amendments in Committee, which will be designed to improve the Bill. We will then look at what emerges on Third Reading and decide whether to support the Bill on the basis of what it looks like at that stage. That seems a far more sensible and constructive approach towards the Bill than we have heard from Conservative Members this afternoon.
Having dealt with the new agency's independence, I shall move on to other issues. The establishment of the so-called commission for rural communities is an important aspect of the Bill and I have to confess to having some sympathy with the Conservative position on it. It is a "guns" rather than a "teeth" body, and it is not clear how effective it will be in championing the interests of the rural communities that it is supposed to represent. Some of the Countryside Agency's powers have been stripped away from it, so it is becoming a very small player in this scene. It seems to me not much more than a shibboleth or a token body, which is there solely to enable the Government of the day to say that they care about and listen to rural communities as evidenced by the establishment of the body. Frankly, in the form proposed in the Bill, it is scarcely worth having. It is neither one thing nor the other; it is neither fish nor fowl. It possesses neither the real teeth nor the powers that it needs to achieve anything worthwhile. Without such powers, it may as well not be there at all. There is the further democratic argument that such powers as it will be allowed could be delivered more properly by local authorities, which, after all, represent people and are accountable to them. Serious questions need to be asked about why the proposed body is justified and whether money could be saved by abolishing it.
The hon. Gentleman is espousing the position of Lord Haskins, who argued in his report that once an integrated agency for delivery was in place, there was no need for the Countryside Agency, which should be abolished. The hon. Gentleman is consistently setting out Liberal Democrat policy today, so will he confirm that it is his party's official position to have no commission for rural communities?
Yes, as set out in the Bill and in the light of the structure proposed for natural England, it makes little sense to have such a second body, and we shall advance that viewpoint in greater detail in Committee. When the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jim Knight, concludes the debate, I should be grateful if he would clarify the budget for this particular body. That would enable Members to assess whether it might be better spent by local authorities, for example, in delivering similar functions.
I disagree with Mr. Kidney about the effectiveness of rural proofing. It seems to me that present arrangements have not been very effective at all in certain regards. Angela Browning referred earlier to the Licensing Act 2003, which has been an enormous bureaucratic burden for many small businesses in rural areas. I have heard nothing about that in respect of rural proofing from anyone. One business in my constituency has been happily selling the odd bottle of sherry or whisky to villagers for some considerable time, but must now comply with a gigantic amount of paperwork to qualify to continue to sell such produce under the Licensing Act. The business was even asked to send a detailed sketch of the premises to the district council. Quite why the council needs to know how wide a shop is in order to allow it to sell bottles of sherry is beyond me. The rural proofing element, which is supposed to be present, seems not to have worked terribly well so far, and there is no indication that a smaller body would be any better—it may be worse.
The proposals for tightening up on the improper use of pesticides to kill particular species are welcome, as it is important to tackle that issue. We remain concerned, as I mentioned previously, about whether a law of unintended consequences might apply. We must ensure that the Bill does not catch unintentionally those who have legitimate uses for such products. That applies most obviously to the farming community, but it could apply to someone with a garden shed in Luton. We must ensure that neither are caught by the proposals. Will the Minister scrutinise the wording further to ensure that that will not happen?
Clause 49 provides another welcome initiative, dealing with the sale of invasive, non-native species. It must be right to tackle that issue, which has been the cause of enormous problems in the countryside over many decades. I am sure that Members will be aware of many examples in respect of both flora and fauna. Missing from the clause, however, is any recognition that the problem needs to be turned back. In other words, we need to make progress in unwinding some of the damage that has already been done. A case could be made for the Secretary of State to produce an extra schedule to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which could be used to identify particular species. Duties could be given to local authorities, providing that they were properly recompensed, or to natural England to ensure that further ingression did not occur. We must roll some of it back, particularly with respect to species such as Japanese knotweed. Far too little has been done so far. Clause 49 should go further, as we shall explain in greater detail in Committee.
I should also mention the Forestry Commission. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee asked why that commission's work was not included in natural England's remit. On the face of it, there is a good argument for saying that it should be. If people are concerned about overlapping functions and lack of clarity between bodies, they should bear in mind the potential for significant overlap and lack of clarity between natural England and the Forestry Commission. The Government's response to the Select Committee that everything will be all right on the night did not strike me as particularly convincing. I hope that the Minister will look at that again when the Bill is in Committee and as it goes through the House of Lords. We want to ensure that natural England works and that therefore wherever possible different organisations are not pointing in different directions.
The issue of bodies having overlapping functions and how that might be dealt with was raised by Paddy Tipping. At present, of course, there are bodies with overlapping functions and those that can take their remit to a degree that overlaps another's territory. There is nothing new about that. The Bill simplifies matters and reduces the potential for confusion. That is not to say that confusion has been entirely eliminated, but there could be less than at present. Nevertheless, there is a case for clear guidance on which bodies do what, and the Government should take the opportunity to make that guidance clear during the passage of the Bill so that we may analyse the various functions of the different bodies—perhaps through some organogram—and assess how they relate to each other. That has not been done so far. I know that No. 10 is fond of organograms, so perhaps it can help.
I turn to the question of rights of way and to what in some ways is the most controversial part of this legislation—certainly outside the House. I entirely agree with the observations of the right hon. Member for West Dorset and the hon. Member for Sherwood about the commencement date and the need to deal with that quickly. Governments always recognise that they should not announce on Budget day a date 12 months ahead when fuel duty, for example, will change, enabling people to stock up their garages with petrol. Any change is made from 6 pm that evening in an attempt to avoid that problem. The Government recognise that when legislation is to the disbenefit of particular groups, such as the motorist, or when it prevents those who wish to use four-wheel drives or off-roaders in a certain way, it makes sense to limit the time to exploit the loophole that might be created.
It is very worrying that the Government have not yet given a commencement date. I urge the Minister to take on board Members' points. The danger is that if no commencement date is given or it is miles ahead, the problem that the Government are trying to address will not be cured but will be exacerbated by the arrangements proposed in the Bill. That would be a tragedy that nobody in the House wants. We must deal with the matter head on and not worry too much about what lawyers are saying. It is clear what people want to happen. I suspect that there is near enough unanimity in the House on the provisions and, as the hon. Member for Sherwood said, we should get on with it.
Although there is unanimity on the issue, personally I would go further. Roads used as public paths were not designed—if they were designed at all—for the uses to which they are put nowadays. In fact, they evolved for the use of different classes of vehicle. They evolved for the use predominantly of horses and walkers—perhaps even cyclists, although that is difficult on occasions—and of farmers accessing their property. Those are perfectly normal countryside uses. When the destinations were created, it was not envisaged that such roads—as they technically are—would be used by people who deliberately churn them up, preventing other legitimate users from accessing them. The chance of getting a horse down a path that some four-wheel driver has deliberately churned up by going in first gear and seeing how high they can rev is pretty remote.
I have listened to my hon. Friend's point; the Bill will probably make some progress on the matter. Does he agree that now is the time for a fundamental look at legislation that deals with rights of way, to bring it up to the modern requirements of those who want to use it and of the land over which the rights of way cross?
I agree; the Government had an open consultation exercise to which they received a large number of responses—14,000 I think the Minister said—but they have tried to do the impossible and to find some theoretical mid-point that satisfies everybody, as they did with hunting. There is not a mid-point with hunting; there is either a for or an against, as there is over rights of way. There are legitimate views on either side of the argument, but a mid-point satisfies nobody. The provisions in the Bill are welcome in so far as they will limit further damage if introduced quickly, but they will do nothing to undo the damage of legitimate use of roads used as public paths. The Government have ducked that issue; it should have been addressed in the Bill, but has not.
I conclude by reiterating my main point that we welcome the Bill in principle. The Government are right to address the issue. There is a number of sensible provisions in the Bill. There are legitimate questions to be asked in Committee about some of the consequences, but those who value the countryside and who have read the views of the NFU, English Nature, the RSPB and others would be perverse in the extreme if they sought to vote against the Bill on Second Reading.
I heard on the radio this morning that the shadow Secretary of State, Mr. Letwin, who just got up to leave but has now sat down again, was to make a speech today about beauty. I instantly thought that it would be made in this debate, but my hopes were shattered within minutes when it was announced that it was to be made elsewhere. That is a pity, because we could have enjoyed a great speech from him in a debate on the natural environment in this Chamber. It was left to the Secretary of State to give a wonderful, lyrical description of the great beauty of our natural environment, including the alliteration of Shakespeare's "silver sea". I am sorry that the shadow Secretary of State has come off second best in the Chamber, but I hope that the speech that he delivered elsewhere received the reception that it deserved.
I was not a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament and took no part in the pre-legislative scrutiny, but I read the draft Bill and strongly support pre-legislative scrutiny as a general process for this Parliament to follow. It is satisfying to read, in the many briefings that I have received in preparation for this debate, that so many organisations took part in the pre-legislative scrutiny, making some sensible suggestions that were mirrored in the recommendations of the Select Committee's report. It was also satisfying that, in their response to the Select Committee, the Government accepted many of those suggestions and recommendations. The exchange between the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping highlighted a case in point. The Select Committee recommended several detailed changes to the provisions on guidance, all of which the Government accepted. That is a positive note on which to begin the passage of the Bill.
It is important to put the Bill in context as a crucial component of the Government's rural strategy. It is worth reminding ourselves that, among many other good things in that strategy, there is an intention to reduce 100 funding streams to three and to offer farmers a single payment scheme in what is increasingly becoming a whole-farm approach to regulation—be it inspections, audits or funding issues. The Bill contributes to the deregulatory direction of the strategy by bringing the three organisations dealing with the natural environment and conservation into one body and thereby providing one focal point for the customers of the natural environment such as land managers.
In essence, this is a deregulatory Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood pointed out, this will be the first Bill to receive its Second Reading in this Parliament, and it is a deregulatory Bill. Just as the emphasis on the environment for the first debate in this Chamber is welcome, so is the deregulatory nature of the Bill—keeping promises that the Government have made. As a Bill that deregulates, does away with duplication and streamlines bureaucracy, it is inevitable that the Tories oppose it. I thought that they were in favour of deregulation, but apparently not when it comes to any particular Bill.
The Bill will be good for sustainable development and the natural environment, and some of the briefings that I have received show just how popular it is. The Wildlife and Countryside Link tells me that it supports the establishment of natural England as
"a powerful champion for our natural environment".
The Wildlife Trusts also welcomes the establishment of natural England and points out that we face many challenges in ensuring England's biodiversity, including climate change, protecting the marine environment and regionalisation—I know what it means by that. For example, how far does the natural environment of the coastline extend into the marine environment, especially as the Government propose another Bill on marine issues?
The Woodland Trust warmly welcomed the Bill, because it foresees that natural England will be a strong and independent body. Its briefing states that it will be a body
"adopting a landscape scale approach which looks beyond designated sites, allied to a strong focus on adaptation to climate change [and] the possession of a strong regional presence".
All those issues require our urgent attention, retaining the regional and local focus of some of the work that has been done. We need to be able to withstand the pressures for economic development because the natural environment should come first. I am sure that we will explore such tensions in Committee.
I accept the statements by the bodies that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but can he assure us that natural England will have the independence necessary to be a powerful body?
That is a good point and it was raised many times in the pre-legislative scrutiny responses that I mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was specifically asked to give an assurance about the independence of natural England and I do not think that she could have said more strongly than she did that it will be independent. Concern has been expressed about the direction provisions in the Bill, but similar provisions apply to the Environment Agency, the Countryside Agency and, since 1990, to English Nature. It was satisfying to hear Mr. Jack talk about the independent nature of those who work for English Nature. I totally agreed with his assessment of their ability and capacity.
The Bill will be good for rural communities. It is important that we will retain the policy advice and advocacy role of the Countryside Agency in the form of the commission for rural communities. I disagree with Lord Haskins on that and with Norman Baker and the Liberal Democrats. The CRC will have an important role to play, including the promotion of the meeting of rural needs in ways consistent with sustainable development, with bodies such as local authorities. Its functions will involve representation, providing information and advice and monitoring. They will also include rural-proofing, about which I shall have more to say. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman cannot wait.
That is a reasonable argument but, to give one example of rural-proofing, the Countryside Agency has named and shamed Departments that do not take into account the impact of their policies in rural areas. That job is a good one for a body at arm's length from the Government to do, and it receives the hearing that it deserves in the media and among parliamentarians and Departments. I argue that the CRC would do a better job than DEFRA, but I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument.
The remaining function of the Countryside Agency will be to perform that very role and it will be a critical part of the spectrum. The rump of the CA could also undertake the rural-proofing role to ensure that it is effective and the local authorities could get on with the rest of the job.
If the hon. Gentleman and I both serve in Committee, I look forward to taking the debate further. I disagree with him that others could perform that role, for reasons on which I would be happy to expand in Committee. I say with no great certainty that the CRC will be up to the job, but the role of rural advocate—and direct access to No. 10—will be an important part of having a strong voice for rural communities at the heart of Government. That is what the CRC is intended to be. However, I have concerns about rural-proofing and about the loss of other good work that the Countryside Agency performed, such as seedcorn funding for projects at local level in rural communities and the vital villages programme. That will be lost to the CRC and pass to the regional development agencies. It worries me that a thematic programme that was designed especially with rural areas in mind will be diluted to the regions. If, as I hope, the CRC is to be a watchdog that speaks up for rural areas, it should be able to pick up such programmes.
The Bill builds on much good work that has already been done. The Countryside Agency has done good work and English Nature has been a superb defender of our rural and natural environments, with a direct impact on our constituencies. I am happy to give examples from my constituency of work done by those bodies. For example, Cannock Chase is a huge expanse of what was once a royal hunting forest and is now managed by Staffordshire county council. It has one area of outstanding natural beauty and several sites of special scientific interest, all supported by the work of English Nature and the Countryside Agency. Doxey marshes, an area visited by birds from all over the world, is managed by Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which benefits from advice and assistance from English Nature and the Countryside Agency. The wetland meadows at Wheaton Aston are owned and managed by English Nature and provide a superb example of that habitat that would not exist without that body's work. The work that the Countryside Agency has done with grants for bus services and rural transport partnerships, such as that in west Staffordshire, has helped to devise innovative ways to ensure that people from the smallest villages can reach the bus routes so that they can go where they want by public transport—truly, a success that has benefited many people in my constituency and in others all over the country.
The Countryside Agency has worked on improvements to rights of way and the creation of local access forums. With British Waterways, its work on the canal network and towpaths has been important in areas such as my constituency, which is criss-crossed by three canals. Great work has already been done by the predecessor organisations. They deserve Parliament's thanks and praise and I hope, as they do, that by combining their efforts in one agency they will do even greater work for the benefit of our constituencies and our country.
I know less about the rural development service, another of the predecessor organisations. I am told that, as a directorate of DEFRA, it manages the agri-environment scheme. The British Ecological Society has asked us to ensure that some of DEFRA's science budget goes from that directorate to natural England, so I am happy to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that that sounds like a good idea.
Lord Haskins's report was an important forerunner to work on the strategy and the Bill, as was the Curry report. Each led to the Government producing substantial strategy documents—the sustainable farming and food strategy and the rural strategy. Parliament, too, has done good work on which the Bill can build. We passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which opened up mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land to open access. Each time that a new area is mapped and made subject to open access, there are ever greater outpourings of praise from walkers and others who enjoy our countryside, with many thanks to people such as us who have made that possible.
As has been mentioned before, we also passed the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which has had some influence by giving local authorities and parish councils new powers to clean up their local environment. There are good things in the Bill and good things have been done in preparation for it.
I turn to some of the challenges ahead where more attention is required. The first of these is in the field of rural-proofing. I give credit to the Countryside Agency for what it has already done. During its short existence, it has made an impact nationally in rural-proofing by naming and shaming Departments that were formerly incapable of devising policies that could be assessed for their application to the special challenges and needs of rural areas and of distinguishing where a different solution was required. As a result of naming and shaming year after year, the last rural-proofing report that I read showed that only two Departments were not pulling their weight in that regard. By then, the Countryside Agency had extended its rural-proofing activities to the Government offices of the regions. Although that was only a couple of years ago, the agency has been able to report that some improvements are visible.
We need to look beyond that and consider the rural-proofing of the policies of regional development agencies and every local council. If the Countryside Agency is to be reduced to a rump, as the hon. Member for Lewes described the commission, which will none the less be responsible for issues such as monitoring, research and advice, is it really the body that can take forward the rural-proofing agenda and extend it to RDAs and local government while still retaining the influence that the agency has developed over the past few years? I have my doubts and I want to be assured that what we are putting in place of the Countryside Agency's rural-proofing will be effective in the future.
Regional development agencies have recently been given the Countryside Agency's economic function and it is important to look beyond the economic activity of RDAs to the social, environmental and rural issues for which they are now responsible. When Advantage West Midlands, the west midlands RDA, was set up, its focus was on economic activity and on urban rather than rural areas. Over time that has changed. The biggest single factor was the disastrous foot and mouth disease outbreak and its effects on many businesses, far beyond what some people anticipated at the time. The response and support given to rural businesses was fantastic, thanks to Advantage West Midlands moving so quickly. The agency saw that the importance of the rural economy went beyond farming and it has developed much better policies, so I have more confidence in RDAs now. However, when I look back at their short existence and the economic regeneration focus in the Act that established them, I wonder whether they have developed so far beyond their statutory basis that we should consider amending it. The Bill may not be the place for that, but the commission for rural communities should consider whether we are getting a fair deal from RDAs in rural areas.
Lord Haskins had a clear vision that much of what was needed involved the devolution of power and service delivery to regional and local areas. Rightly, he saw local councils at the sharp end of delivering services because they are the elected, publicly accountable bodies—not the quangos in their offices in places such as Birmingham, but the local councils elected every four years. He thought that they would be much more in the driving seat under the new system for the delivery of services, but I am not sure that we have yet seen the devolution of power to them and the accountability from them that we should have.
I think that there are two places in the Bill where local authorities are mentioned: the extension of the biodiversity duty to councils and the possibility that new organisations such as natural England and the commission may enter agreements with local councils to deliver services on their behalf. The Government's response to the Select Committee included the example that licensing functions could be carried out by local councils on behalf of natural England. That is not a great response to Lord Haskins's call for democratically accountable, elected local government to take a leading role. I want to prod the Government by reminding them of some of their promises, especially during the recent election campaign, to encourage them to look further at that matter.
Is not the hon. Gentleman arguing against himself? He has just praised RDAs and the devolution to them of the Countryside Agency's rural development responsibilities, yet he decries the fact that county councils have not been given enough responsibilities. Surely if all the Countryside Agency's work had gone to county and district councils, there would be no need for the commission for rural communities as a bureaucratic body overseeing another bureaucratic body, neither of which is accountable.
I do not agree for two reasons. First, I was praising not the giving of powers to RDAs, but my RDA in the west midlands for getting better. I made the point that I am not particularly satisfied that the statutory basis for the existence of RDAs is good enough for the roles that we envisage for them. In that sense, I was not praising RDAs, so I am consistent in saying that I prefer those roles to be taken by local government.
Clearly, the commission for rural communities will not have such roles. It will advise the Government and monitor what happens on the ground, so its role would be valid even if we gave all the new roles to councils, because the Government still need to hear where the problems are and, indeed, where the best practice is, and the commission is the body to have that role.
I want to remind the Government why local authorities having a greater role in the delivery of those services and rural communities fits with the Government's pronouncements. I shall quote a speech made by the new Minister of Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend Mr. Miliband, whose speech was obviously so good at Nottingham on
"Local solutions need to be organised locally, and local government is there to make it happen."
However, there is another quote that is excellent to pray in aid of my point. He says:
"The modern world places a premium on people and places who or which have knowledge, creativity and networks, so countries which succeed will be those where there are many points of dynamism and innovation, not a single national plan. That is why I see local government as a key agent not just to help central government deliver on national priorities, but as a leader and shaper of local priorities."
I wholly endorse that statement, which should apply to this issue as to any other.
I shall move on—a slight digression—to give a case study of the kind of problem that rural areas come up against frequently and need people to help them to cut through to the necessary outcome. The Staffordshire biomass project, which hon. Members may have seen featured prominently on Channel 4 news just yesterday, involves more than 40 farmers who farm more than 1,200 hectares in Staffordshire. They plant miscanthus—elephant grass—to burn to produce power and, later, heat as well. An industrial estate will be an end user.
The scheme will be carbon neutral because the growing elephant grass takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, just as burning the grass creates carbon dioxide. The scheme meets many of the Government's policy objectives, such as those on climate change; on farmers diversifying, into growing non-food crops in this case; and on science and innovation leading to new industries and jobs—for example, Talbott's Heating Ltd. of Stafford makes the converters that burn the crops, creating the heat and power.
The project has been good enough to receive grants from DEFRA and the Department of Trade and Industry, yet those involved are still unable to secure its future, although it is a wonderful addition to our renewable energy sources in this country, partly because the excess electricity produced by the scheme needs to be sold into the grid and the project cannot find an electricity company that is willing to guarantee it a long enough contract at a high enough price to make the scheme stack up.
Thus Government help is needed to extend the system of renewal obligation certificates beyond the current end date of 2017. A review of the renewables obligation is under way, and more people need to be given access to renewable obligation certificates so that such projects need not go to third parties for support. Perhaps the Government need to use their good offices to lend a helping hand to secure the use of biomass to generate electricity. Failing that, perhaps the Government need to ensure a minimum price for producing electricity with that source of energy, just as they guarantee a minimum price for renewable energy provided by the emerging tidal and wave technology.
I hope that the Minister can take away from the debate the fact that there are some serious issues in Staffordshire right now that involve a renewable energy project that meets all the Government's obligations and yet is still not secure, although it wants to be, and the Government can do much to help it to ensure that it is.
All that shows my role as a rural advocate, until we have the commission to do such work for me, but I now want to measure the Bill against the rural delivery review of 2003. A quote from Haskins is worthy of repeating. On page 8 of the report he said:
"I would like to see rural delivery in England becoming much more decentralised than it is, with key decisions being taken at regional and local levels. This is where services can most effectively address public need and where deliverers can be held more clearly to account."
The Bill and the rural strategy contain some movements towards the views stated by Haskins, especially in clarifying the roles for policy making and delivery, but is enough in place to establish the regional and local accountability that he called for in his report? I am not sure whether we are there yet, and I hope that we can examine that in detail in Committee. Haskins reminded us that the direct customers of the new set up will include land managers, non-land-based rural businesses and rural communities, but he helpfully reminds us, too, of the indirect beneficiaries—all the visitors to the countryside every year, those who live and work in rural areas and, indeed, taxpayers, who pay for those services.
I am backing the Bill, which will make the most of our natural environment—the beauty of our landscape, the marvel of its biodiversity and the human desire to enjoy both—while contributing to helping farmers reconnect with markets and strengthen their role in the food chain, and supporting myriad other rural enterprises. Rural businesses are now growing at a greater rate than those in urban areas. The Bill will also stand up for the quarter of the population who live in rural locations, while facilitating visitors—obviously, sustainable tourism only is required—to our countryside. More than 1 billion visitor days contribute over £10 billion a year to local economies. This is the sort of Bill that can made rural winners of us all.
The health and sustainable prosperity of the countryside and rural economy are extremely important to my constituents in south Wiltshire. That was evident during the general election campaign. I spoke at 22 public meeting during the campaign—and I assure hon. Members that the environment featured at every one of them, because I made sure that it did—and important questions were raised and discussed.
Although I had hoped to see a Conservative Member of Parliament representing South Dorset, it is nevertheless a great pleasure to welcome the Under-Secretary, Jim Knight, to the Dispatch Box tonight. It will be a pleasure doing business with him. It is reassuring to know that there is Member of Parliament for central southern England who represents the broader views of our part of the country in his Department, and I wish him well.
I was quite overwhelmed that I had briefings from 16 different organisations for this debate on Second Reading, from the National Gamekeepers Organisation to the Woodland Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and all the others. This is a matter of intense importance to a very large number of people. I therefore broadly welcome most of the Bill. I share the reservations expressed by my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin and therefore will have pleasure in supporting his amendment.
One of the first things that I should like to mention—I plan to be mercifully brief—is the machinery of Government issue. Haskins had a good point when he said that how delivery took place was very important to those who would be empowered by the function at stake; but, too often in this country, we simply have not made up our minds about whether we want to have centralised power in Whitehall or whether we genuinely want to devolve decision making, and the money that goes with it, to local authorities.
I hope very much that, in thinking about the way forward for the Conservative party in the coming months, we will at least be able to say that the time has surely come to reverse the trend of the past 20 years, to my certain knowledge—I was part of it, as a Local Government Minister—to centralise, but we must ensure that the money follows. That is always the problem. We can have great discussions with local authorities, the Local Government Association and all the others, but in the end, the Treasury has the finger on the till.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset might think that it is not a very good idea to establish natural England and to give it a lot of fairly arbitrary power, but the position could be worse. Only last week, when I was in France observing the remarkable referendum proceedings, I spoke to Mr. Arnaudinaud, the mayor of St. Michel l'Ecluse et Leparon, and he told me the frustrations of being a mayor in a devolved local government system. He said that he was responsible for the delivery of environmental policies for forests in his commune. Two years ago, his and 29 other communes obtained the signatures of three Government Ministers for a project for the satellite observation of fires in the forest areas of south-west France. However, because of all the local government interests, the brakes were on at every turn and the project still could not be delivered even though the Ministers' signatures and the money were lined up. The position could be worse, and I was able to assure him that we did not do business like that in England. I hope that I am right.
Above all, as an old-timer in this place, I want to say how much I appreciate the quality of the specialists and scientists in the Countryside Agency, and particularly English Nature. I have worked with them for many years, and they are absolute stars. I hope very much that their work will be valued in the transition that will occur.
I agree that the commission for rural communities will have a lot of functions that could have been given to local government. If we wish to see how not to do it, we need only to look at the South West regional assembly in my region to see how locally elected councillors at county and district level feel that they have been disempowered by the process. Although they are indirectly represented, much of the power to make decisions affecting planning, schools and transport is now at the regional assembly, rather than local authority, level. I wish the councillors well none the less.
The second point that I wish to make is about clause 40 and biodiversity. I am delighted to see this provision as it represents important progress. I welcome the clause, but I wish that it went a little further. It says that local authorities must "have regard" to biodiversity, but I hope that, in Committee, we will be able to persuade the Government to say that local authorities should "further biodiversity". "Have regard" does not mean anything at all except "Good morning. What a nice day", but a provision furthering biodiversity would be welcomed by wildlife trusts across the country and by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust in particular.
On a good day, local authorities already provide quite a lot of taxpayers' money for such functions. For example, in my area the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust receives money from the county council and Salisbury district council for the biological record centres that are vital if local authorities are to know where the rich wildlife sites are or, indeed, used to be. Such centres are a key data tool for biodiversity protection, enhancement and restoration as well as making it possible to produce all the reports that are now necessary. The county and district contribute to the biological record centres, the wildlife sites project, ecological footprint studies by volunteers and so on.
Quite a lot of money is going in, and I am pleased to see that the clause makes it clear that the term "local authorities" specifically includes parish councils. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about how he envisages the role of parish councils. They are an important part of our local government structure. I know that it is true that 50 per cent. of our country is not parished. Those of use who represent parished areas perhaps do not realise that, but it is true. We therefore need to be a bit clearer on what the role of parish councils might be.
My third and final comment is about part 6 and rights of way. I should declare an interest as a fully paid-up member of the Motorcycle Action Group. Although I do not ride a motor bike, when I was Minister for Roads and Traffic, I formulated motor cycling policy and became quite a convert to the activity. I remain a convert and champion of it, and that is why I was disappointed that the British Motorcyclists Federation put out a press release last week deploring the Government's actions in respect of rights of way. We must tackle the issue head on and go for an early commencement date. My highway authority, Wiltshire county council, has been inundated with hundreds of applications—I think 400 in that area alone—and it is a serious issue.
We must make it clear to those who use our lanes what they are doing. More than a year ago, I spent a day with an off-road club four-by-fouring in south Wiltshire's green lanes. I talked to trail bikers, had meetings with them and tried to understand where they were coming from. Many of them are responsible, genuine, careful people who do much good in supervising rallies and so on, and some of them—especially the Trail Riders Fellowship—mend tracks, keep back hedges and keep roads open. However, they are let down by the vast majority who do not act in that way and who have ruined miles and miles of ancient, historic and beautiful rights of way in my constituency and right across the south of England and beyond. It is a tragedy that that has happened, and I feel that most of those people have no idea of the damage that they do. It is totally inappropriate to put powerful bikes or four-by-fours on to very delicate surfaces that are only earth tracks most of the time. Many tracks have no foundations, and they are ruined for ever.
Many of the riders do not realise the significance of the routes that they use; they do not look at the maps and realise that they might be running along a road that went from Lincolnshire to the south coast in pre-Roman times. As in the case of Mack's lane in Grimstead in my constituency, the riders are interested only in opening up another 400 m so that they can power their vehicles through and get a thrill from it. I am sorry, but that has got to stop, otherwise those tracks will not exist for future generations. I hope that the riders will understand that, in the interests of the majority, we simply have to say no.
If anyone doubts that the majority is involved, I can tell them that, 18 months ago, I was contacted by 100 per cent. of the parish councils in my area and 100 per cent. of them said that we had to stop such activities. They said Parliament had a duty to them and to future generations to stop the conflict between pedestrians, horse riders and people with buggies and those who wish to use totally inappropriate motor vehicles.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are responsible users of motor cycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles. Surely part of the answer to the problem is to provide facilities so that they can enjoy their activities without destroying the tracks that they use.
That is right, and it brings us to the issue of the recreational use of farmland. We have had our little arguments with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that, and we have come to a sensible compromise. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that there are alternative routes and my county council has spent a lot of money preparing basic gravel and stone tracks that are more appropriate. We must be sensible, and I hope that the riders will be sensible too. I believe and hope that they will be.
I broadly welcome the Bill and will fight in Committee to see whether we can make changes. I am sure that the Minister is keen to reciprocate our good will, so I shall finish my short speech by saying that we shall return to these issues. Whenever the Government decide that it is time to change structures for delivery, it is reasonable to assume that, within a few years, they will want to change them again. Let us not kid ourselves that we are writing anything in stone with the creation of these agencies. However, the Bill represents a good start. I wish it well.
Noting the packed Labour Benches behind me and given the intense competition that will ensue, I humbly offer my services as a member of the Committee that will consider the Bill. I trust that it will be considered in Committee.
There are matters that the Government could consider adding to the Bill. I echo the comments that have been made about the importance of local democracy—for example, the points made by Robert Key about the importance of parish councils. In constituencies of all sorts where parish councils exist—there are more than 60 in my constituency—it is clear that their remit and role is too small. They should be given greater powers. However, we may differ when I say that that move should be twinned with a coherence of local government structure that removes the duality of district and county councils in areas such as the one that I represent. In the context of rural communities—in England, my Labour constituency has the most trees in its 500 square miles—the Government may wish to consider that we might be better served by the abolition of the two-tier system of local government and the introduction of unitary authorities, allowing parish councils a greater say over the longer term. There would be a coherence in the strength of local government rather than the paper chase that I have witnessed on many issues between district and county. I am sure that, if not during consideration of the Bill, sense will prevail at some stage during this Parliament and we shall consider the financial savings to council tax payers in Bassetlaw and elsewhere that would result in the implementation of such a sensible proposition.
As for clause 78, it would perhaps take not only a leap of logic but also some bravery on the part of the Government to see whether one of the new boards should consider one of the changing features of the rural landscape, and that is the labour market. I had an interesting meeting with the National Farmers Union during the general election. It wished to talk to me about immigration problems. It said that it was facing difficulties because of the ever stricter controls on work permits that were being introduced by the Government. In the heat of the general election, I encouraged the NFU in a considered way to raise the issue in public debate.
Some newspapers and some parties were concerned to ensure that a vigorous debate should take place on immigration issues. I trust that we can now have a considered and continuing debate on the issue. In the area that I represent, it is estimated that 3,000 migrant workers work in farms every summer. During the four years of my incumbency, there has been a move from fairly large-scale unemployment to full employment. There is an unskilled labour shortage for the first time for 40 to 50 years. There will be increasing demands from farmers in my area to build to access the Iraqis, for example, who are here at the moment. There are also the Poles, the Ukrainians and the Malaysians who were here last summer. There are members of other nationalities who are contributing to the profitability and the sustainability of key sections of English agriculture.
It is incumbent on various bodies, not least the NFU, to highlight exactly how they see the future of labour markets for the agricultural work force. I do not believe that in a community such as the one that I represent we shall be able to provide sufficient people—our youth—to volunteer to work the fields, picking peas and strawberries, for example, in the way in which people have done for centuries. If we are to sustain an English agriculture industry—I am sure that this applies also to Wales and Scotland—we are faced with a key issue. The conditions in which people are working and living become paramount because there is a great difference between the enlightened employer and others.
Enlightened employers offer a modicum of reasonable payment, relatively good living conditions and a social programme. For example, there are farmers who partake of the opportunity to visit the Palace of Westminster on day trips every summer, which I have facilitated for them. There are other employers who are much less convinced of the need to look after their work force in terms of the pay, conditions and opportunities that they grant their employees. The issue will continue to return on the agenda, although perhaps not too directly because it is not spoken about as often as it should by members of the farming community. That is because in my constituency, as in others, there are many wanderers. They may be described in terms that are less endearing than those that are applied to legally and gainfully employed agricultural workers. They are described as asylum seekers, for example. The approach is sometimes rather hostile in their presence.
Consideration should be given by the Government to agricultural labour and migrant labour from Europe and beyond so that we avoid problems with gangmasters, for example.
I accept some of the things that the hon. Gentleman is saying about work permits. Does he agree that a proper system of work permits is entirely reliant upon a proper system of border controls?
A work permit system needs to ensure that people are able to work in the UK if there is a demand for them, and that those people are working legally. It is not only farmers in the rural section of my constituency who demand this. Horse traders, for example, are demanding the ability to bring in jockeys from Mauritius, but they have been barred from doing so by the Home Office. The trainers' case is that there are not enough small men in England to train the future Derby and Grand National winners, for example. There should be a board to examine the pay and conditions of such people to ensure that they are here legally and properly remunerated. That may go beyond the scope of the Bill, but I am sure that there will be the opportunity to consider such matters in greater detail in Committee.
I am more confident that the Government will be prepared to examine that issue than the next matter that I raise, which is land ownership. I spent a rather pleasant three days in the Brecon Beacons. I am not sure whether I was in the constituency of Mr. Williams. I saw his rather garish orange-bedecked office while I was there. During more pleasant times in the past few days, I took the opportunity legally to trample on some of the land now open to us mere commoners. I noted that some of the routes that have historic rights, which could previously be walked, were the coffin roads. These roads took people from the collieries of south Wales back to agricultural lands. These were the bodies of people who died in the early days of the mining industry. They worked in terrible conditions.
In my constituency, the dukeries had many such collieries. There were the four dukes who owned, and still own, most of the land. They profited greatly. A modest contribution that the Government could contemplate would be to take the ethos of private ownership and emancipation a stage further by allowing tenant farmers, who for centuries have farmed the land in my area, the opportunity to buy the land—for a modest, reasonable and perhaps peppercorn price—that they and their families have farmed so that they may become farmer owners rather than farmer tenants.
In some ways, that was a demand of the original Labour party in its early days and going back to the 1890s. The third-term Labour Government have an opportunity to examine issues of land ownership and to show that our party is the friend of the farmer, particularly the tenant farmer. Such people should be given the opportunity of ownership and entrepreneurship. Their land should not able to be disposed of by the diktat of a landowner; they should be able to benefit their families by bequeathing their land—not just the tenancy—from father to son or father to daughter. Judging by the nods I see from Opposition Back Benchers, I am sure that such a proposal would have all-party support.
It seems to me that there could be no more populist cry from all quarters of the House than the right to gas. In my four years in Parliament, I have been amazed that the House has not promoted the right to gas more strongly. We know much about the subject—4.5 million of our constituents across Britain do not have a gas supply. I hope that the Labour party will have the wisdom to include such a right in our next election manifesto, if it cannot be squeezed into the Bill or some other measure. To give people in all parts of the country, and particularly in areas such as mine, the right to gas would be a very popular move, especially in rural communities and mining villages that do not have access to a gas supply. It is clear that suppliers in the so-called competitive gas market are not interested in extending their supply to more remote villages, but are content merely to compete in areas that already have a supply or new estates. We should give the whole population the right to gas.
Part 6 deals with an issue that I have raised many times. Many right hon. and hon. Members signed my early-day motion on the subject—[Interruption.]—and I am sure that the hon. Members heckling me were among the first to sign it when I resubmitted it in this Parliament. It urges the Government to tackle the menace of motor bikes and quad bikes on our bridleways and footpaths. We raised the problem in an unsuccessful ten-minute Bill in the last Parliament, early-day motions, Adjournment debates and contributions to other debates. I spoke about it on many occasions and raised it privately with Ministers. We have to deal with the legal anomaly that has allowed organised groups—in particular, the Trail Riders Fellowship and the Land Access and Recreation Association—to submit thousands of applications to upgrade a bridleway or footpath to a byway open to all traffic, based merely on the existence of an historical right for horses and carts to use them. In the Littleborough area of my constituency, that historical right is based on the route of a Roman road. If such a right is deemed to exist, an application can lead to a route being upgraded automatically, with no other factors—opposition to the application, environmental damage, present land use, other uses of the footpath or bridleway, or changes in the built environment—being taken into consideration. After such an upgrade, any motorised vehicle can be used on the route.
That loophole needs to be closed and I am pleased to see that action is being taken. I hope that the Standing Committee will examine the matter in minute detail to ensure that in closing one loophole, we do not open another. The problems do not arise from nowhere. Highly organised groups are involved. Their websites contain clear advice from solicitors and others on how to submit an application or applications to cover every part of an area. In some areas in my constituency, 20 or 30 applications have been made in respect of land that completely surrounds a village. That has happened before many of the historical maps have been fully examined; the applications submitted so far are the easy ones.
The public meetings that I held in my constituency during the election campaign and will continue to hold attracted mass turnouts and strong views were expressed—people are demanding action. Horse riders told of their horses being spooked by a quad bike, motor bike or four-wheel drive vehicle. The idea that the drivers of such vehicles are present in the area at random is false. My investigations in the Warsop area in my constituency—a group of mining villages plagued by the problem—revealed an organised competitive sport. White vans appear, motor bikes and scrambling bikes without number plates are taken out and raced around for an hour or two, then they are put back in the van and off they go. People are paying to be taken to my constituency and elsewhere to conduct their activities.
I urge caution regarding the concept of organised places for such activities. In my experience, people who want to go off road do not want to go to organised sites. In Nottinghamshire, we have the desert—an organised site for driving quad bike and four-by-fours. The problem is the illegal activity that takes place in an 80-mile radius around the desert. People might dip into the legal or semi-legal site, but then they leave it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification, which shows that we should be tackling the menace even more vigorously. The police in my area have argued that areas such as the desert can be a legal magnet, which will draw people into one place. They seem to think that people will go to the area—perhaps in smaller white vans—to participate in a legal activity. However, whether the land is public or private, that argument is fallacious. People going off road do not want to participate in organised events on certain tracks; they want to go off road. Such a magnet simply attracts people into breaking the law, whether deliberately or inadvertently.
We should also consider the growth in quad bike ownership. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, I saw farmers on quad bikes going about their lawful business, but many of the quad bikers in my area terrorise the community. Now, quad bikes are explicitly advertised for sale to under-seven's. They are a growing menace that requires additional action under crime and disorder legislation.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that in the last Session I introduced a ten-minute Bill on this very subject. Does he agree with me that many drivers of off-road vehicles, whether quad bikes or other vehicles, get most enjoyment from their so-called sport by going when the lane is at its muddiest, and that they utterly destroy wildlife and the enjoyment of others who might want to use the lane afterwards?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which is exemplified by some of the websites. I have received quite a large number of hostile e-mails, some of them helpfully directing me to websites, and some of the websites I have looked at glorify the creation of such problems. For some people, though not all, the creation of particularly large—one might say spectacular—ruts in a footpath or bridleway is exactly the enjoyment that they are looking for. I walked the Pennine way last summer. As one crosses the north Yorkshire section, one sees where motorbikes have deliberately created routes that are perhaps more exciting to ride, but a great danger to a mere pedestrian, never mind a horse-rider.
The hon. Gentleman's presence in my constituency and his knowledge of the problems gives me cause for concern, particularly if he was there at election time. All I can say is that his presence did not do his party much good. In promoting areas where activities such as he describes can take place legally, I was thinking not of small private areas, but of Forestry Commission land where the effect on the landscape could be hidden and the noise muffled. On state-owned land there are opportunities for motorised activities.
I have no objection if a farmer in my constituency wishes to set up a route for people to go round on mini-bikes, larger bikes or quad bikes. If it does not disturb any of his neighbours, I am more than happy for that to take place. What I am against is specific routes that take one across an entire area—places such as Clarborough Hill farm, where the entire farm is surrounded by applications for an upgrade that would allow motorbikes to create a rat-run—a race track—around the farm. Such an unbridled increase in opportunity is the loophole that needs to be absolutely and, as others have said, immediately removed by the Government.
I have two final points to make to the Minister, who I hope will respond specifically to them. The first concerns existing applications. The Bill could get rid of future applications, but there is the problem of existing applications. As has been said, there are many thousands across the country. How does my hon. Friend intend to ensure that we are not bedevilled by the problems through any legal loophole because of existing applications?
My second question to the Minister, whom I should congratulate both on his excellent election result and on his promotion to his position, concerns the approach and correspondence of his predecessor, the present Minister for Industry and the Regions, my right hon. Friend Alun Michael, who identified the use of traffic regulation orders as a short-term measure to restrict the use of motorised vehicles, should any motorised use have been inadvertently accepted because of the loophole in the law. Will that still be relevant in the context of the proposals in the Bill, or will the Bill be sufficient to remove the future menace and the current one?
As the new Member for Scarborough and Whitby, I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech on a subject of key importance to many of my constituents who, like me, live and work on the land. Before I do so, however, I shall respond to the comments of John Mann with regard to trail riding. As we heard, trail riding is often illegal and certainly takes place without the landowner's permission. It desecrates many of our rights of way, and it is rightly to be condemned.
However, the exhortation in Trials and Motocross News to vote Conservative was in connection with trial riding, the sport of Yorkshire hero Dougie Lampkin, which is done with the landowner's permission and is a sport that should be encouraged. The problem with that was not the use of green lanes, but the DEFRA guidelines on cross-compliance on the single farm payment. I am pleased that Ministers have seen some sense and relaxed those rules. There are still one or two outstanding issues relating to waterlogged land, where we need further clarification. Also, people who wish to practise on their own land are currently restricted to 28 days per year, so we need a little more flexibility from the Government.
I am blessed to have been elected to represent such a magnificently beautiful constituency. I am sure many right hon. and hon. Members have had occasion to visit Scarborough and Whitby. Scarborough is the classic family holiday resort, with the combination of Victorian elegance and 21st century excitement—[Laughter.] My hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood has obviously been there—possibly on a Saturday night. Scarborough is the home of the oven chip. A thousand tonnes of potatoes are processed every day, which, combined with the harvest of our sadly much depleted fishing fleet, provide the quintessential seaside fare that so many come to enjoy. Forty-five miles of magnificent countryside contain such gems as Robin Hood's Bay, Cayton and Staithes, but the jewel in the crown must be Whitby, the home port of Captain Cook, the place where Dracula made landfall, and the resort voted No. 1 weekend holiday destination by the readers of Saga Magazine, a publication with which, I am sure, many hon. Members and certainly many Members in another place are familiar. There is friendly rivalry between Whitby and Scarborough—the editorials in the Whitby Gazette invariably refer to my constituency as the Whitby and Scarborough constituency.
Recently, my constituency received national prominence as the location for Yorkshire Television's series "Heartbeat". Aidensfield is in fact Goathland, which is served by the north Yorkshire moors railway, and the railway itself features as the Hogwarts express in the Harry Potter films. Sixty per cent. of the north Yorkshire moors national park lies in my constituency, where the north Yorkshire moors railway travels.
Being such a beautiful part of the world has its downside. The average price of a house in the north Yorkshire moors national park is £235,000, well beyond the reach of many working people in the countryside.
My predecessor, Lawrie Quinn, is a railway engineer, and in the House he took particular interest in rail transport. Lawrie Quinn was the first Labour Member to represent Scarborough after nearly a century of Conservative representation. I am pleased to say that none of the name-calling and personal vitriol that sometimes characterised the national campaign spilled over into our local campaign in Scarborough and Whitby, which was carried out in the best traditions of British democracy. Lawrie Quinn was a hard-working Member of Parliament and loyal to his party. Perhaps that was his problem. On behalf of my constituents, I put on record their gratitude for all he has done over the past eight years.
Lawrie Quinn's maiden speech was on the subject of agriculture. I was a candidate in the 1997 election in Leicestershire, and I wish I had 10 bob for every time a farmer said to me in that election that farmers always do better under a Labour Government. I did not hear those comments in 2005. The Yorkshire countryside, which is often gold with fields of wheat, green with shoots or yellow with the oil-seed rape that has recently become part of our countryside, in 2005 was blue with the posters of my supporters in the countryside.
Farming has seen many changes since my family came on to our farm in north Yorkshire in 1850. In my own lifetime, we have seen deficiency payments replaced by intervention buying, which in turn was superseded by the integrated administration and control system—IACS—and set-aside. Now we have the chaotic birth of the single farm payment. In her response to Lord Haskins' report, the Secretary of State heralded the report as a less bureaucratic framework for applicants. I wonder how many hard-pressed staff at DEFRA regional service centres would agree. Given the choice between an area-based scheme and a history-based scheme, the Secretary of State opted for both, giving us double the number of forms to fill in.
The single most exciting event on my farm in the past century was the construction of a land army hostel, which was very popular with the local lads, during the second world war. We now have a new kind of land army in the countryside: it is not made up of sturdy lasses from the west riding driving Standard Fordsons; it is a new army of bureaucrats with clipboards clutched to their chests. I know that the Bill promises to cut red tape, but having read the entry-level stewardship handbook, which relates to a scheme that natural England will administer, I know that the reverse will be the case, and I wonder how many anoraks the author of that document owns.
The entry-level scheme makes the Domesday Book look like an unambitious project. DEFRA's new Domesday Book will log every tree, ditch and hedge in the United Kingdom, but what will be the environmental gain? Shortly after I was elected, I attended a roadshow organised by DEFRA. I went incognito as a farmer and sat at the back, where I was interested to hear that under the entry-level scheme most farmers will not have to do anything that they are not already doing—other than filling in forms to qualify for the £30 per hectare payment. Surely such a scheme should produce a greater environmental gain. Farmers who attended that roadshow questioned the value of a scheme by which we fill in forms and continue to do what we are already doing in order to qualify for money.
Farmers and sportsmen have created the British countryside—I am a pro-hunting campaigner who has entered this Chamber by more conventional means than some—and the people who create the countryside environment that we enjoy need less red tape, not more, which I fear that this Bill will deliver.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Mr. Goodwill on his maiden speech. I pay tribute to the work done for my constituency by my Labour predecessor, Mrs. Linda Perham, who held Ilford, North from 1997 to 2005. I also mention Vivian Bendall, who was Mrs. Perham's predecessor and who held the seat as a Conservative Member for 19 years. Both of my predecessors worked tirelessly for local people, and I wish Mrs. Perham every success in the future, although that does not include success in Ilford, North.
It is a huge privilege to be elected by the people of Ilford, North and an even greater honour to represent the areas in which I have lived for most of my life. I will work hard to match the efforts of previous MPs and to serve the interests of my constituents. Some of my predecessors are hard acts to follow. Part of my constituency was previously included in the Wanstead and Woodford seat, which was represented by my right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot and before that by Lord Jenkin of Roding. Looking further back, that part of the seat was also represented by Sir Winston Churchill, an act that it is impossible to follow.
My constituency is composed of eight local government wards in the London borough of Redbridge in east London. Ilford, North borders the county of Essex, and it runs from Woodford Bridge and Roding in the west, through Clayhall, Fullwell and Barkingside and on to Aldborough, Fairlop and Hainault in the east. If hon. Members ever need to find my constituency, it covers most of the stations on the eastern end of the Central line.
Ilford, North is home to many licensed London black cab drivers. The M11 runs through the constituency and the A12 provides its southern boundary. It is an area from which large numbers of commuters come and through which a larger number of commuters pass, which is why projects such as Crossrail and the docklands light railway extension are vital for the area.
Ours is a diverse community made up of many different cultures and religions, and we all get along very well. I believe that we are a beacon for others to follow, and my constituency is renowned for the harmonious relationships among the people who live there.
I want to recognise the enormous value of the work undertaken by the voluntary sector in Ilford, North. Without their substantial efforts, our community would be a much poorer place, because they make a massive contribution to the quality of life of so many people. I must mention four organisations in particular, although that is not to the detriment of other organisations in the area. First, the Hainault youth action group gives hope to young people and keeps them off the streets. With its help, we have built a skate park and a cycle track, which are situated away from residential areas and which do not result in antisocial behaviour. Secondly, the Open Door project in Barkingside allows young people to visit a place where they can drop in and have a good time after school, which, again, keeps them off the streets. Thirdly, the Chahad drugs line is a centre that is open to the whole community to try to stop the blight of drugs. Finally, Redbridge victim support, which I am honoured to be part of, helps victims of crime.
Redbridge has an enviable reputation for the quality of its education service with successful schools that continue to attract large numbers of pupils from across and, indeed, outside the borough. I have the privilege of serving as chairman of governors at Clore Tikva school, and I know and recognise the immense value to a child of a first-class education.
I had the honour and the privilege to serve as cabinet member for regeneration and the community on Redbridge council from 2002 to 2005—I must admit that I did not mind relinquishing that position to enter this House. In that role, I learned the importance of listening to the views of local people and taking those views on board in setting out plans and making decisions. As Ilford, North's MP, I pledge to continue to listen to all residents' views.
During the recent general election campaign, I promised my constituents that I would hold regular open forums open to all local residents to discuss important issues that impact on Ilford, North. Two weeks ago, more than 150 people attended a regeneration forum, which is a sure sign that people remain interested and involved in local issues.
There are many explanations why turnout at elections is so low. My view is that we, as politicians, must give people a reason to trust us. When we make a promise, we should do all in our power to ensure that we deliver on it. We can get people to re-connect with political processes, and we must get people to re-connect with political processes.
During the election I had many visitors, including Lord Tebbit, my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram and my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell and his dog Spike. I want to stop a rumour here and now—Spike did not eat any of my opponents' supporters.
More than two years ago, I was selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Ilford, North. In that time, we produced many leaflets and local questionnaires seeking the views of and input from residents. Local people raised many issues that concern them, and crime, the health service, the congestion charge, tube fares and high taxes came up again and again, but one issue made the top three anxieties in every survey.
It may seem odd that a Member of Parliament who represents a suburban east London constituency wants to join a debate on rural affairs. Aldborough ward in Ilford, North contains farms, although I must confess that there are only two of them. However, my constituency is blessed with a number of open green spaces. Roding and Bridge wards have the Roding valley park; there is Hainault Forest country pack and Fairlop plane; Fullwell is backed by Claybury forest; and even Barkingside and Clayhall have their parks and playing fields, while the streets have a tree-lined aspect. Ilford, North has a fundamental link to many rural constituencies and to almost all urban ones. The issue that was raised most frequently by my constituents over the past two years is the threat posed to our open spaces by current planning laws.
In recent years, a great deal of new building and redevelopment has taken place in my constituency. Some of it has been sympathetically finished, reflects the character of the local area and matches the desires and needs of local people. I single out for particular praise the sensitive conversion of the old Claybury hospital buildings, which has turned them into desirable modern apartments and ensured that the magnificent buildings continue to be used, and the Newbury Central development, which includes a number of affordable homes.
Areas of green belt land and other open spaces have been built on, and blocks of flats are being shoehorned into small spaces. There are plans, which are currently with the Deputy Prime Minister, to build an all-weather racecourse with a colossal stand. My predecessor and I opposed that racecourse, which is the last thing that Ilford, North needs.
I do not want to stop progress, and we cannot stop making provision for people's changing needs, but a lot more power should be given to local views when planning permission is sought. I feel very strongly about the way in which local democracy is trampled on by current planning laws. Where is the justice in local wishes being overturned by inspectors, except in extremely rare cases of overriding national interest? Local authorities must be given powers to control their own destiny. They must be given powers to ban mobile phone masts in heavily residential areas. Local councillors are constantly blamed for decisions that are beyond their control, and councils can have costs awarded against them when locally welcomed decisions are overturned on appeal.
Implementing planning reforms would be a real step towards local democracy. We must take care of the future needs of our residents but also encourage development on brownfield sites, not on our green fields. However, we must have a definition of "brownfield" that does not include existing perfectly habitable homes and their gardens. All too often, family homes are demolished and replaced by huge blocks of flats that end up occupying the whole site. As that practice continues it destroys the local character of the area. Furthermore, these high-density developments put an undesirable and detrimental strain on the local infrastructure such as transport, hospitals and schools. The only way forward is radically to alter the balance in planning decisions. Far more weight needs to be given to the views of local residents and the decisions of local councillors on planning matters, as those people know the local area better than a visiting inspector. Planning authorities and builders must work together with community groups to ensure that we build quality homes that people can afford to live in.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you again for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this debate. I thank the people of Ilford, North for having faith in me in electing me, and I promise that I will not let them down.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this debate. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Scott, with whom I share that pleasure, and I congratulate him on his speech.
I will return to the subject matter of the debate, but I know that the House will indulge me if I start on a personal note. It is a huge privilege and pleasure to represent in this House the people of Rugby and Kenilworth—a constituency whose name combines two very different towns. From the moment that William Webb Ellis picked up the football and took it down the pitch at Rugby school, the people of Rugby have demonstrated, shall I say, a certain independence of mind, and they do so very often at election time, when they tend to disregard the prevailing political winds and instead send to this House a representative who they believe will best serve their interests. I hope that I shall follow in that tradition. Rugby is a town with a proud industrial heritage. Because of its location and transport links, it is an essential hub in our national distribution network; and because it is the home of the sport that bears its name, we could certainly exploit it far more as a tourist destination.
Kenilworth, which shared a constituency for many years with the towns of Warwick and Leamington and was represented most famously by Sir Anthony Eden, is a very different town with its own challenges—for example, the threat to its very distinct character by indiscriminate and unfettered back land development. That is a challenge that must be faced by all those in this House, and it is certainly one to which I shall address myself in the course of my time here.There is also cause to be optimistic about the future of Kenilworth. I am pleased to say that wholesale reinvigoration of the town centre is under way. Last weekend we enjoyed a very successful festival of arts, drama and music, which showed Kenilworth in its best possible light.
Since Rugby's association with Kenilworth in this place, I have been preceded by two well-regarded and well-liked former Members of this House. My predecessor-but-one was James Pawsey, who has left, if I may put it this way, some large shoes for me to fill among the very many of my constituents who fondly remember the last time that my seat was held by a Conservative. I suspect that many Members on both sides of the House also recall Jim Pawsey's time here.
I know that it is traditional on these occasions for a new Member to speak well of his immediate predecessor. I know also that that is harder for some new Members than it is for others. In my case, it is particularly easy. Andy King, my immediate predecessor, who represented this seat on the Labour Benches for the preceding eight years, was a Member of Parliament who always put his constituents' interests first, and I pay tribute to his hard work over those eight years for the constituents of Rugby and Kenilworth. On a personal note, I thank him for his grace and generosity during the course of the general election campaign, even when I know that it must have been difficult—the point at which the result was announced.
I am eager to move from my constituency's past to its future, particularly that of the substantial rural part of it that will be most affected by the Bill that we are discussing today. For example, in my constituency stand the home of the Royal Agricultural Society at Stoneleigh park, Ryton organic gardens, which is a leader in its field, and Draycote water, which is a fine example of the co-operation that can exist between private industry and the wildlife agencies. I also represent a great many farms and villages. I therefore hope that this debate will not simply be about process and structures, but about objectives and aspirations. Before we decide what types of agencies will best serve the British countryside, we must decide what we want the British countryside to be. We must not fall into the trap of regarding it as merely a theme park for those who dwell in the cities to visit at weekends, but see it as what it is—a place to live and to work.
If we are not to regard the countryside as a theme park, neither should we look at it as a museum. It is vital that the agricultural sector, and the rural economy more widely, can prosper, develop and diversify where that is appropriate. Farmers across my constituency and, I expect, across the nation take seriously their obligation to maintain the land and to sustain the beauty of our landscape. I do not accept that the conservation of our natural environment and the practice of agriculture are mutually exclusive; indeed, I would argue that they are interdependent. As my hon. Friend Mr. Goodwill observed, it is beyond doubt that farmers do not need from this place another large mountain of paperwork and extra regulation; they need support from us in carrying out the vital work that they do in caring for the countryside.
Other matters in the countryside need to be addressed: problems of rural crime and policing; the lack of adequate public transport, and the isolation that that can bring about; the absence of affordable housing in our villages; and the often overlooked but very important issue of drug abuse in rural, not just urban, areas. Those are the real problems of the countryside, and they are daunting. I hope that natural England and the commission for rural communities, if they come about as a result of this debate, will be capable of addressing those problems and will have the full support of the Government in doing so if that is their task. I look forward to the continuing debate on this subject, and I look forward also to serving my constituents and this House to the best of my ability.
I congratulate Mr. Goodwill on his maiden speech. I also congratulate Jeremy Wright, who may know that the first competitive rugby match was played between a team from his constituency and a team from mine. I am sure that that spirit of friendly competition will continue, although possibly with less physical contact.
I especially congratulate Mr. Scott on his maiden speech. I support his call for no more racecourses in Ilford. Please send the punters to Cheltenham: that will be no problem. He also set an important precedent in this debate on rural communities by stressing the importance to urban populations of rural England. Cheltenham, too, is not precisely a rural constituency, although it sits in what I would describe as probably the most beautiful countryside in England, nestling as it does on the edge of the Cotswold hills. It is important to note, however, that there are green spaces on the fringes of Cheltenham. The Countryside Agency, which is based in my constituency, stresses that 10 per cent. of the United Kingdom's land area is urban fringe, and that 50 per cent. of all visits to the countryside are made within five minutes of people's homes. Both rural and urban green spaces are important to people in towns.
I join the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Salisbury (Robert Key) in paying tribute to the work of the Countryside Agency, which has extremely skilled staff. If Ministers are looking for somewhere to locate the headquarters of either of their new quangos, I offer Cheltenham as the best possible location. After all, one would not want the headquarters to be too close to one's own office; that might raise suggestions of partiality. The agency, however, was a little premature in releasing its 10-year strategy in 2001. As with a few other quangos, the Government managed to set it up and abolish it in a remarkably short time. I hope that the new agencies will have a longer shelf life than the Countryside Agency in its current form. Like other Members, I fear that they may not have the same clear, independent remit as some of their predecessors and will not enjoy their specific terms of reference. I fear that the objectives of those predecessors may be diluted in these new super-agencies.
The Secretary of State said that she wanted an independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog, which would also be responsible for ensuring that Government policy made a difference. The two requirements strike me as somewhat incompatible: either the body will serve Government policy, or it will be an independent watchdog. Certainly I see nothing in chapter 2, relating to the commission for rural communities, that establishes it as an independent advocate, adviser and watchdog. That was, in part, the Countryside Agency's role, and—I am sure that the hon. Member for Ilford, North agrees with this—it made the point that the countryside was not there just for those in rural communities. It seems that the new commission will serve only the interests of those people, whereas the agency's role was explicitly to serve those who visited the countryside. It valued the contribution that the countryside could make to them.
I want to say a little about decentralisation and partnership. The Secretary of State said that she wanted to reduce bureaucracy, and the Haskins report praised the corporate example, saying that responsibility for delivery should be allocated
"to those who are most competent and best placed to influence things"
—in other words, to those on the front line. Commenting on the Bill, however, the Countryside Agency identified problems in the roles and responsibilities being allocated, particularly those involving regional development agencies. It said that the roles and responsibilities of regional and sub-regional bodies needed serious clarification and that time was needed for those bodies to adapt. It said that there was
"a risk of a hiatus, that much good work will be lost and that rural areas may suffer during this implementation period."
My worry is that the countryside may suffer even more after implementation, because of the increased role of the regional development agencies. That is the way in which regional government seems to be developing under the present Administration. In London and Scotland, elected assemblies have taken powers down from Whitehall. I fear that, as has happened in the south-west, an agglomeration of unelected regional bodies will take powers up from local councils. We have the apparatus of the South West regional development agency, the South West regional assembly and the Government office for the south-west, which constitute a great concentration of power and currently act as bully boys for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—if he needs bully boys—in supporting the plans for unsustainable development around Cheltenham and Gloucester, using as a starting point a document that looks green but is not. I have a copy here.
Only last week, hundreds packed a public meeting in my constituency to object to the development of urban fringe green spaces near the community of Leckhampton, which is in both my constituency and that of Mr. Robertson. There was huge opposition to that development. Tewkesbury borough council, which had initially given permission for it, had been bounced into it by the Government office of the south-west, acting on the instructions of the Deputy Prime Minister. Because the green space in question is so close to an urban area, it is not green belt and does not enjoy the same protection, but it is nevertheless of distinct and beautiful rural character, and all the more valuable for being on the fringe of an urban area.
If the Bill supports the defence of green land and green spaces on the fringes of towns, it will have my support, and I will join the many bodies, such as the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, that have given it broad support. I cannot support the Conservative amendment, because it strikes me as factually wrong. It says that no priority is given to the protection of the natural environment, although the first priority of natural England is the promotion of nature conservation and the protection of biodiversity and the second is the conservation and enhancement of the landscape. Those are objectives with which I agree, but I hope that the Bill will be improved in Committee and in its implementation, to ensure that my concerns are addressed.
It is an immense honour for me to give my maiden speech today. I pay tribute to all the thoughtful and constructive contributions that we have heard so far, including that of Mr. Horwood. I am particularly pleased to follow the maiden speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Goodwill. It was appropriate that he chose a debate on the environment, because he has a distinguished record on environmental matters. He served his constituency and his country very well in the European Parliament for five years.
It gives me great pleasure to follow the long-standing convention for maiden speeches and ask the House to reflect for a few minutes on the work of Sir Sydney Chapman, my predecessor. For over a quarter of a century, he represented the constituency with charm, compassion and kindness. Throughout his 26 years as the local MP, he worked assiduously for his constituents, whatever their problem and whatever their political affiliation. He had endless wells of patience. No problem was ever too small for his attention. Every constituent met with courtesy and concern when asking Sydney Chapman for help. He was also a staunch defender of the green belt and our natural environment, the subject of today's debate.
Sydney too gave his maiden speech on the environment. He was an environmentalist not only before it became fashionable, but almost before anyone had even heard of the concept. As instigator of national tree-planting year, he urged people to
"Plant a Tree in 73", setting in train events that led to the creation of the Tree Council and many other environmental projects that continue to make a hugely valuable contribution to conservation work in Britain today. Throughout his career, Sydney planted trees at every opportunity. There can be few parliamentarians who will leave such a visible and lasting green legacy for future generations.
Sydney graced the Chamber with a warm and witty speaking style. Just one example is the occasion on which, during a debate on the work of the Church Commissioners, he famously asked whether the Church insured its property against acts of God. If it had such insurance, asked Sydney, did that not suggest a certain lack of faith? If it did not, did that not suggest a certain lack of acumen? The House will not be surprised to hear that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs was stumped by the question.
I know that Sydney will be sadly missed by his constituents, and I have no doubt that the House too will be a poorer place for his absence.
Let me say something about my constituency. Chipping Barnet is not, as some seem to assume, a rural retreat in the Cotswolds—it is on the northern edge of Greater London. Barnet is where the metropolis meets the countryside. Nor is it an indeterminate suburban sprawl: it is made up of a number of distinct and different villages and communities, including Totteridge, Arkley, Old Fold, Hadley, Hadley Green, Hadley Common, High Barnet, Chipping Barnet, New Barnet, East Barnet, Friern Barnet, Brunswick Park, Oakleigh Park, Woodside Park, Lyonsdown, Underhill, Southgate, New Southgate, Cockfosters, Whetstone and a narrow slice of North Finchley. My apologies to any that I have missed out.
I want to take this unique opportunity to look at the history of Chipping Barnet. The House might be worried to hear that I intend to cover about 1,000 years, but relieved to learn that I intend to do so in about four minutes. The source of the name is Anglo-Saxon: "chipping" means "market" and "barnet" means "clearing by burning", hinting at the area's woodland origins. The first real growth of the community occurred when the main road north out of London to York was routed through the area in about 1100, and the Great North road still runs through the constituency today.
Chipping Barnet took off as a settlement in 1199, when an enterprising bishop set up a market at the top of Barnet hill to provide refreshment for passing travellers. Barnet's early commercial success was not without its disadvantages, however. In 1413, for example, Barnet high street was reported to be so blocked with
"pigs, pigsties and laying of timber trunks and other filth that the transit of men was much hindered."
Sadly, Barnet still has significant traffic problems today, and it is famed for the pioneering work of the local council in removing speed humps to get the traffic flowing again.
A little known fact about Barnet is that it is a spa town. No less a person than Samuel Pepys came to take the waters there in 1664, overindulging by drinking five glasses and making himself ill in the process. And demonstrating that today's youth crime and antisocial behaviour are by no means new problems in the constituency, Barnet was the place where Dickens chose to set Oliver Twist's first meeting the Artful Dodger.
Boom time came to Barnet when it became the first coach stop from London on the journey north. At one point there were between 30 and 40 inns and nearly 1,000 horses stabled around Barnet high street. Equestrian sports remain an important leisure activity in the area although, despite the Government's new laws on 24-hour drinking, there are probably rather fewer bars and pubs in the area today than in more raucous past centuries. Back in the heyday of the coaching era, however, customers were certainly in need of rest and refreshment by the time they arrived, because Barnet hill was the highest point on the old Great North road, at 400 ft above mean sea level. The keyhole in the door of Barnet parish church is said to be on the same level as the top of St Paul's cathedral.
As the coaching trade was killed off by the railways, Barnet began a transition to its modern role of a pleasant residential suburb. The various villages that make up today's constituency expanded gradually when the mainline rail service was built through Oakleigh Park and New Barnet in 1872, and the Northern line reached its furthest extension point when High Barnet station was connected to the underground network for the first time in 1940. That marked the end of London's outward expansion, along with the creation of the green belt by the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938. It is difficult to overstate the role of transport in Barnet's development, and the chronic need for improvements to the Northern line and local rail services remains one of the most important issues for the area.
For many years, much of my constituency was in Hertfordshire, but the whole of Barnet became part of Greater London in 1965, a fact that many people still regret today. However, a significant proportion of the constituency retains its Hertfordshire postal addresses and a strong residual Hertfordshire identity. Other parts of the constituency retain their historic links to the county of Middlesex to which they once belonged.
Despite its nominal inclusion as part of our capital city, Chipping Barnet has a vast number of green spaces: parks, commons, open land, even farms and ancient woodlands, some of which may date back to the end of last ice age. Well over a third of the constituency is green belt land or metropolitan open space, and one of my top priorities as its MP will always be the preservation of the green belt and green spaces. I will fight to protect the green belt, both for the sake of our environment and to preserve the quality of life of my constituents. That is why, like my predecessor, I have chosen to make my maiden speech in a debate on the natural environment.
There can be few tasks more important for our community than the wild life, countryside and conservation that are entrusted to English Nature and which we are debating today. The new natural England body proposed in the Bill will, as the Minister explained, have a much wider remit than the conservation focus of English Nature. I believe that it is vital to ensure that the creation of natural England, with its multiple responsibilities, does not undermine or detract from that vital conservation work.
As we have heard, natural England is to be responsible both for conserving our environment and for facilitating access to it by people who wish to use our open spaces for recreation and enjoyment. Vesting these two responsibilities in one body will give rise to an immensely difficult balancing act, and to the even more difficult conflicts of interest that my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin mentioned earlier. Most importantly of all, the new bodies set up by the Bill must retain their independence from the Government, as many previous speakers have said. They must be unafraid to stand up to Ministers when the need arises, as I am sure it will on a regular basis.
I should also like the Government, and the new institutions proposed by the Bill, to give much more power to local communities on conservation matters, and to work much more closely with local people. If we are to face today's hugely important environmental challenges successfully, we need to harness the support of those in our local communities, including the members of the clubs and societies I met yesterday in my constituency who had gathered together to mark world environment day.
For many of Chipping Barnet's residents, care for the natural environment is at the heart of what it means to live there. For many, that is the main reason that they chose to make their home there. The constituency is almost entirely residential, and it is best known simply as a great place to live. The cluster of houses between Hadley Green and Hadley Common were described by Pevsner as:
"one of the most felicitous pictures of Georgian visual planning which the neighbourhood of London has to offer".
However, Barnet is perhaps best known for its rows of 1930s family homes, nestling among parks and countryside and attracting fierce loyalty from their residents.
Sadly, Barnet's suburban character is under threat from overdevelopment to a worrying extent. As we heard from my hon. Friend Mr. Scott, family homes are too often being demolished and replaced by blocks of flats. I shall not make the mistake of straying too far into political subjects, but it is almost impossible to talk about Barnet without expressing concern about Whitehall's housing targets. The Government's targets and plans are placing immense pressure on our suburbs and our environment, and I believe that they seriously threaten the conservation goals that the Bill is designed to serve. For about 150 years, the suburbs have been the bedrock of social stability in this country and we jeopardise them at our peril. They are too often overlooked and undervalued.
Many people in Barnet are plagued by antisocial behaviour, yet, time and again, Barnet has been short-changed by the Government, both on police numbers and in the grant given to the local authority. The Bill covers rural communities and it is right and proper that their interests should be protected, but I call on the Minister to ensure that the Government also focus much more strongly on suburban communities and on the distinctive problems and challenges that they face.
In conclusion, one of my major political aims is to ensure that Barnet, and suburbs like it, are given the status and priority that they deserve, that they are valued as they should be, that they get the additional police officers and resources that they desperately need, and that Government housing targets do not end up destroying communities, damaging the environment and creating the sink estates of the future.
I compliment everyone who made their maiden speech earlier today, including my hon. Friend Mrs. Villiers, who has now brought the grace and talent that she has been displaying in the European Parliament to help us here in Westminster.
I also have difficult shoes to fill in trying to live up to the reputations of my predecessors as MPs for Weston-Super-Mare. My immediate predecessor was Brian Cotter, who sat on the Liberal Democrat Benches. He was caring, hard working and determined. He told me that he managed to get through about 10,000 items of constituency correspondence and case work in his two periods as MP for the constituency. His predecessor was Sir Jerry Wiggin, who served in the House for a good deal longer than a quarter of a century, and whose family's proud tradition of parliamentary service continues today: his son, my hon. Friend Bill Wiggin, also serves on the Conservative Benches.
Part of my constituency has probably changed little since Sir Jerry first took his seat. A scattering of pretty Somerset villages still reaches inland from the coast through the Mendip area of outstanding natural beauty as far as Blagdon, which, as any angler here will know, also plays host to Blagdon lake, one of the most famous and long-established man-made still-water trout fisheries in the country.
Weston-Super-Mare is a cheerful, buzzing seaside town. It has a beautiful bay, donkeys on the beach, not one pier but two, and a buzzing, thriving night life. It is perhaps most famous as a destination for holidaymakers, and if I can be allowed a little pardonable exaggeration and bias in my maiden speech, if anybody here is thinking of places to take their families for the summer holidays, they should come to Weston-Super-Mare—it is wonderful and they will have a great time. The sun always shines, the sea is always clear and blue, and even if the tide goes rather a long way out into the bay, it always comes back in again later.
Members might think that acting as the parliamentary representative for such a wonderful place would be rather cushy. We have our problems, however, like everywhere else. I wish to draw everyone's attention to three or four issues that received cross-party unanimity and support in the recent general election campaign.
The first issue is drugs. We have already heard about the problems of rural drug addiction in the excellent maiden speech of Jeremy Wright. The town of Weston-Super-Mare has 11 per cent. of the country's drug rehabilitation beds, most of which are excellent organisations, which are inspected under the Care Standards Act 2000 and which cause no problems. The difficulties in the town of Weston are caused by the unregistered, unlicensed drug rehabilitation treatment centres. Those places are inspected by nobody, and no one knows precisely how many there are, where they are, or how many addicts they purport to serve. The problem with them not being inspected is that no one can be sure of the quality of treatment that they provide. I am told by local professionals working in the sector that many of them provide a dubious quality of care. Clearly, that is not fair on the addicts, who are often tremendously vulnerable and deserve the best possible opportunity to break their addiction, get back into society, get jobs and contribute once again. Nor is it fair on the residents of Weston-Super-Mare, who end up having to deal with the effects when addicts are imported from other parts of the country, relapse, drop out of whatever treatment centre they were in, stay, and turn to crime to finance their habit.
It is essential that the House addresses the problem of the shortage of registered, high quality, licensed drug treatment and rehabilitation centres in this country. Without increasing those numbers—in other parts of the country, please, as Weston-Super-Mare already has more than its fair share—drug addicts will always find that they are at risk of being sent to unlicensed and therefore substandard treatment centres, and places such as Weston-Super-Mare will potentially act as a magnet for drug addicts from the rest of the country.
The second issue that Weston faces, which picks up on various points made by other Members, is associated with the planning laws. Weston has had one of the fastest rates of new housing development in western Europe over the past 20 years. The growth in the population of the town has run ahead of the amenities, facilities and infrastructure needed to turn a dormitory into a community. The effect on the local health service is perhaps most easily visible—the amount of money received by the local primary care trust is approximately £11 million a year below the Government's targets based on capitation for the area. My predecessor had contact with the Department of Health on that point, and I also intend to raise the matter.
The effect of that is straightforward—we are chronically short of GPs. Trying to find a surgery that will accept one as a patient in Weston is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. As a result, Weston's hospital, which receives excellent marks for the quality of medical care that it is able to provide, is too small to cope with the demands of the communities on which it is now called to serve. That is reflected in a growing budget problem, which is also reflected in its difficulties in satisfying the Government's waiting times targets.
Those problems are not just confined to the health sector—they also apply in the local education sector. Many local head teachers—I am a governor of a local further education college—who are trying to cope with the increased population and therefore increased number of pupils feel that they are receiving less money than their compatriots running institutions of equivalent size in other parts of the country.
Perhaps the most immediately visible example of the rapid growth with which local infrastructure is not keeping abreast is in transport. Junction 21 of the M5 is the major hub, or route, between Weston-Super-Mare and Bristol. The road network and local job creation have not kept pace with all the housing development. As a result, many people have to commute into Bristol for their jobs, rather than being able to make a much shorter journey to work to reach local factories and offices. The effect is that queues now reach back into the middle of town every weekday morning as people endeavour to get to work.
Recently, the former head of the Strategic Rail Authority came to visit Bristol, and was asked whether there were any plans to upgrade the local rail service to give people an alternative to going to work in their cars. He said that there were not, and advised Westonians to take a bus. If we are to reform the planning laws of this country, it is crucial that we make sure that infrastructure and community amenities are built in advance of new housing development, rather than behind it. That lag has caused the problems in Weston and, given current plans, is, I am afraid, likely to cause further problems unless the process is reversed.
The difficulty also knocks on into rural areas. The village of Banwell, in the middle of my constituency, suffers from appalling queues and delays every day during rush hour. It also has, on occasions, some of the worst air pollution in the whole of the south-west. The medium-term solution for the village of Banwell must be to find an alternative route for that traffic, which does not simply transfer queues and problems along the road into the neighbouring villages of Sandford, Churchill, Langford and Congresbury. In the short term, I will consult with both the local council and neighbouring authorities on how we can set up a ban on long-distance heavy goods vehicles, which currently thunder through those villages on their way to Burrington Combe. For those who do not know the area, Burrington Combe is a local beauty spot to rival nearby cheddar gorge, and is completely unsuited to having enormous lorries thundering up and down it. I shall push forward with that.
The final issue, which, significantly, all parties raised during the election campaign in Weston-Super-Mare, is council tax, and its impact on pensioners in particular. Weston-Super-Mare has for a long time been a retirement town—we have a high proportion of pensioners in our local population. They feel that the recent rapid increases in their council tax have not been matched by increases in their pensions. In fact, many of them have made the point to me that having paid into the state pension scheme for their entire lives, and having been told as it was set up and as they were paying into it that they were paying their stamp and that it was a saving scheme to create a pot of money for their retirement, it has been switched—it is no longer a saving scheme and is instead a mean-tested benefit for the poorest pensioners. They feel that they have paid into it, and that it is not a benefit but a right to which they are entitled, which they have earned, and which should not be taken away now that it is too late in their earning lives to do anything about it.
Let me finish on an upbeat note. Many Members may have read recently in the press that the donkeys on the beach at Blackpool are to get an hour off for lunch. Weston has its own donkeys on the beach. I am pleased to report that the Weston donkeys have for many years had an hour off for lunch, so clearly in this case where Weston leads, Blackpool follows. The town's motto is, "Ever forward". Perhaps in this case it is demonstrating that it is a forward-looking place. I hope to be part of contributing to that forward-looking nature here in Parliament over the next four years.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend John Penrose. My constituency abuts Blackpool, but unfortunately Blackpool's donkeys perhaps do not quite have the energy to reach my constituency. They can reflect on that point in their hour off. My hon. Friend made a notable maiden speech, speaking without notes but with passion and knowledge about his constituency. He referred to issues such as drugs, planning, housing and transport, all of which will resonate around the House, and told us of his concerns for his elderly constituents, particularly in the context of their pensions and council tax—again issues that were raised with us during the election. I welcome him to the House and congratulate him on his maiden speech.
I hope that, before I turn to the Bill under discussion, I may refer to my hon. Friend Mrs. Villiers. I enjoyed her maiden contribution. I say that because, for some years, I lived in Chipping Barnet. May I add one other date to her list of enviable anniversaries—
I shall never forget, some months before Edmund was born, arriving at the hospital with my wife. We were worried whether she was pregnant or not. I said to the nurse there, "I know you deal with the end result, but we are worried about where we get started." We were directed to the family planning clinic down the road.
I was Sydney Chapman's Conservative political centre chairman. I worked very hard for him. He taught me one wonderful political bit of diplomacy. It was manifested when Edmund received a letter from Sydney congratulating him on arriving in the world and on his excellent choice of parents. I have followed the example in that letter with as many young entrants to my constituency as possible. I pass that on to my hon. Friend for her benefit. I could go through many of the other excellent maiden speeches that we have heard, but I will get on with my remarks about the Bill.
Paddy Tipping did an excellent job in chairing the sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that examined the Bill. I had the privilege as Chairman of the parent Committee to sit on it and to work with him through the Bill. The pre-legislative scrutiny has been much praised by Ministers. I thank them for their observations, but that scrutiny came at a rather late stage within the Committee's more comprehensive inquiry into the delivery of rural services.
It was interesting why we decided that that was a proper area to look at. We wanted to know what the real barriers were in the United Kingdom to the delivery of all those vital services, whether they be transport, health, broadband, new industry or whatever. Co-incidentally, the Government then decided to publish their draft Bill in the context of their rural strategy and invited the Committee at a fairly late stage to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny.
Inevitably, our ability to go into all the aspects of the Bill in real depth was curtailed by the time scale afforded to us and the oncoming rush of the general election. However, before Easter the Committee that was chaired by the hon. Gentleman produced its report.
I gained the impression that in its draft stage the Bill was still a work in progress. There were a lot of rough edges. There were no definitive answers to the question of the information technology systems that will be required to deliver the Bill. I note that in the Government's reply to the Committee's report, there are many references to non-executive directors on the management board for DEFRA having some knowledge about change management and IT, but no significant milestones have been published on that central element, which will be vital if the new agency is to deliver the many services more efficiently, as it claims it will.
I hope that the Minister, either in his winding-up speech or perhaps in a written statement to the House, may be able to put on record how all the problems of developing a brand new IT system for the new agency will be solved in the extremely tight time scale for the IT change programme under which we are working. In the Government's reply, they talk about the new agency being up and running by 2007. Effectively, we have a year and a half roughly to make certain that all the systems that need to be in place will be up and running.One Member who spoke earlier in the debate commented on the Rural Payments Agency. We know already of the problems that DEFRA is having in delivering that service. The same people who are to deliver on the new IT system are involved with the electronic IT innovations system in DEFRA at present, so there are some practical issues to look at.
Looking back at the evidence that the Committee took on the draft Bill, I was much taken by the contribution of David Taylor, who was briefly in the Chamber earlier. It illustrates an interesting point about independence. The evidence that I am about to quote comes from Dr. Andy Brown, chief executive of English Nature. The hon. Gentleman put questions in his own unique way. He said:
"With New Labour, every strategy has to be joined up, in the same way as every opportunity has to be exciting. Do you seriously believe that Defra does have a joined-up strategy for managing our land and our natural resources, as far as you can see?"
Dr. Brown, in a moment of absolute candour, which illustrates an element of independence, said:
"I think there is some way to go."
That evidence was given at the end of 2004. What he went on to say was, I think, quite profound:
"what I have not seen yet is something that pulls it all together in terms of land use and what we actually mean by sustainable land use and management, and that is an area where I think there is more work to be done."
When the hon. Gentleman talked about his belief that the new agency was
"a delivery body in search of a purpose",
Dr. Moser from English Nature responded:
"I think you are hitting the nail on the head in relation to the purpose and vision and mission of the agency."
If that is the view of the practitioners, one has to ask some questions. For example, was what happened as a result of Lord Haskins's work a consideration of how to save money by integrating various functions and then worrying about exactly what one would do after the infrastructure of the new agency was in place? That is why I say there is an element of work to do.
There were some interesting things in the rural strategy document of 2004, including a heavy concentration on the development of the rural economy and the provision of services, and there were lots of photographs of initiatives in different parts of the country that were specific to the needs of rural communities, together with wider issues—for example the availability of broadband.
One is struck by the special nature of rural Britain. It is unique at any point. The needs of individual communities are what those people who live there want. All of that has suddenly been welded on to an agency that will have as one of its central functions the job of English Nature—that of preserving the natural environment. However, the evidence from the university of Newcastle, to which I referred the Secretary of State, showed that there had not been a properly developed strategy with any kind of decent objective analysis as to precisely what the new agency was going to be about.
As we had no final White Paper between the pre-legislative scrutiny and the appearance of the Bill, we have seen nothing to pull together the many and various views that have been put forward—for example, the conflict between the integrated agency's economic functions and its responsibility for dealing with rural deprivation and its environmental objectives in dealing with and protecting the natural environment, the major province of English Nature.
In that context, one thing that worries me is that we have not seen many case studies on how the new agency would operate in a real-world environment. As part of my preparation for the Select Committee, I had the pleasure of visiting English Nature's site of special scientific interest on the other side of the River Ribble near my constituency in Southport, where I discussed some of the real and practical problems of how we look after our SSSIs. Nothing in the Bill addresses the central issue of the lack of resources. The new agency may be able to enter into management agreements, but if the resources are not there, our SSSIs will not be brought up to the kind of standards that are required if areas of outstanding natural beauty and importance are truly to be preserved. That task lies at the heart of what the new agency is going to do.
I welcome the Under-Secretary to the Dispatch Box and I know that he has a genuine interest in these matters. For brevity's sake, I invite him to look at the evidence given by the university of Newcastle on the gaps in the current rural strategy. Newcastle had the opportunity to be objective and could see some of the failings of the new agency.
The Government produced a reply to the Select Committee report. It was somewhat late in the day, but better late than never. I have touched on the issue of the IT systems in terms of the Government reply, but I wish to mention to one or two other points that came out of it.
I asked the Secretary of State if there was any timetable for how the trick was going to be pulled off of reducing 100 rural funding schemes down to, effectively, three. There was a sort of shuffling of feet and a gracious acknowledgement that that was a challenge and a problem. One knows that the permanent secretary at DEFRA is on dodgy ground when giving evidence because he always turns to the Committee and says, "This is a challenging target." This one is indeed challenging.
The Secretary of State neatly glossed over the work of the new agency in relation not just to the regional development agencies, but to the other local structures. In rejecting Lord Haskins's original proposals, the Secretary of State effectively said that local authorities would be plugged into the delivery of rural services, rural improvements and protecting the environment via a relationship with spatial strategies to be organised by Government offices. But there was no map or linkage for how that mechanism would plug into the new agency and equally there is no mechanism or map for how that plugs into the work of the Environment Agency.
There are questions about the water framework directive and catchment areas, which, in the area of the Ribble, will become increasingly important in terms of developing a strategy for the natural environment of that remarkable ecosystem. One asks how that new arrangement fits in; the answer is, "Not very easily", and a lot of work will need to be done if the genuinely integrated agency now called natural England is to work properly. One of the tasks in Committee should be to tease out how some of those relationships will work in practice. Otherwise, I see a serious disconnect in the way that the new body is designed to operate.
That is particularly relevant to local authorities, as it is clear from the DEFRA rural strategy of 2004 that local authorities have played a crucial role, as identified by hon. Members in the debate, in the identification of local need. They have also responded, as my hon. Friend Mr. Scott said, to what local people are saying. Without the resources to help local authorities replicate some of the excellent work of the Countryside Agency in developing innovative ways of providing rural services and developing rural economies, some of the aspirations of the new agency simply will not happen. At the moment, I am prepared to give the new agency the benefit of the doubt, but notwithstanding comments about its independence, the Government have much work to do to provide focus and purpose for its operation.
Finally, I want to comment on two further issues. I am wary of the reorganisation strategy that the Bill gives the Government powers to undertake, particularly in respect of the Horticultural Development Council. Such bodies are special and, in the case of the HDC, it is the only way that small growers can get certain types of research undertaken for them. The idea of simply welding things together on the ground of some loose thematic is not necessarily the best servant of improving the operation of those development councils. I am glad that widespread consultation, which is so important, will take place.
The Bill has had much welded into it, but one item is missing. I am surprised that the Minister has not taken the opportunity to use the Bill as a legislative vehicle to solve, once and for all, the legal framework for the future of the new Covent Garden Market Authority. The Select Committee undertook at least three reports. Whatever will be at the heart of the new solution for London's wholesale markets, it requires a legislative framework to be put in place that will once and for all enable DEFRA to stop operating a London wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market, together with other activities, on that site. Even at this late stage, if there is some framework legislation that would at least give DEFRA whatever powers it needs to move, once it has solved the future of the new Covent Garden market site, I would urge the Department to take the opportunity of bolting it into the Bill.
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make my maiden speech in today's debate. First, I offer my congratulations to other Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I have certainly learned more today about this great country of ours than I ever did in my A-level geography, and I hope to add to that common knowledge now by convincing people that there is more to Milton Keynes than concrete cows and roundabouts.
While the majority of my electorate in North-East Milton Keynes live in the city, I also represent a large rural community in north Buckinghamshire, and I am glad to have this opportunity to draw the House's attention to its concerns. As is the custom with maiden speeches—though, frankly, I would do so even if it were not—I consider it absolutely right to pay tribute to my predecessor, the Labour Member, Brian White. Although Brian and I often disagreed on issues of policy, I genuinely acknowledge that Brian was a first-rate constituency Member of Parliament, who served his constituents well. On his own admission, Brian was as surprised as anyone to have been returned in the 1997 general election by just 240 votes. Thanks to his dedication to the people of Milton Keynes, he managed to increase his majority to nearly 2,000 in the 2001 general election. I must confess that, seeing Paddy Tipping tonight without my glasses on, I wondered whether Brian White had been returned again in this Parliament. I am grateful that, in fact, he has not been.
Brian White was one of only three Labour Members to have served the constituency of North-East Milton Keynes in modern times. When one considers that the first was Aidan Crawley, who was elected shortly after the war, but subsequently crossed the Floor of the House, and the second was the notorious late Robert Maxwell, it would be fair to say that Brian was by far the least controversial. I have little doubt that the election result this time had little to do with Brian White and was a reflection not on him as a Member of Parliament but on the Government. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I say only that I hope to emulate his dedication to the people of North-East Milton Keynes.
I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the first Conservative Member of Parliament for North-East Milton Keynes, Peter Butler, who served the constituency from 1992 to 1997. Peter has not enjoyed the most robust of health over the past year, but I am sure that the many right hon. and hon. Members who served with him in that Parliament will be delighted to hear that he is making a good recovery. I am honoured to have been elected as the Member of Parliament for North-East Milton Keynes and I look forward to serving the diverse community that it includes.
Many Members will have travelled through the constituency as they have driven up and down the M1. To the south and west of the motorway, we have some of the newest new town communities, together with the villages of Wavendon and Woburn Sands. Walton Park is the home of the Open university—an establishment in which all Members can rightly take some pride. The Open university has brought educational opportunity to millions of people across the United Kingdom. From the 20,000 students who enrolled in 1971, the number whom it educates has risen to more than 200,000 every year, and its innovative approach to distance learning leads the world. It brings the highest quality university education to learners in every constituency in the land and in that sense it is both the local and national university to every Member of this House. Now is not the time to raise the Open university's unique status as the only university to have been overlooked in the Government's recent higher education review, but I am sure that that subject will fill my postbag and, indeed, my correspondence with Ministers.
Central Milton Keynes, with its excellent shopping centre, snow dome, theatre district and cinemas, lies just within the constituency boundary, and I look forward later this month to attending a ceremony on the summer solstice to mark the rising of the sun as its rays shine down the aptly named Midsummer boulevard to strike the city's foundation stone. Coming so soon after my own election, my friends have drawn a slightly humorous parallel between that and the Prime Minister's famous words in 1997 that a new day was dawning. A new political day has dawned in North-East Milton Keynes, but I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I sense that my primary duty is to serve rather than amuse my constituents.
Milton Keynes is of course a modern city, but it is also a constituency of great history. To the north of the motorway, we have rural north Buckinghamshire, including the town of Newport Pagnell, which is the home of Aston Martin cars. It is also the home of my new constituency office. I hope that Members will share my amusement on discovering on my first visit to the office that it was named after its 18th century owner. There, above my nice Conservative blue door, was a name plaque, declaring to all that the building was called Blair house. What to do? It was a dilemma that perhaps many Members on both sides of the House share: should Mr. Blair stay or should he go? I am sure that Members will be impressed by the fact that I made a quick decision, and with the aid of a screwdriver and just two minutes of my time, Mr. Blair disappeared.
Also in the north of the constituency is the town of Olney. It is the town in which I live and it has been home to the famous pancake race since 1445. Olney also boasts of having been the home not only of the poet William Cowper but of the slave trader turned parish priest, John Newton, who is perhaps most famous now as the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace".
Given that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the gunpowder plot, I ought to single out a village in my constituency for special mention. The plotters stayed the night in Gayhurst before making their final, fateful trip to this place in November 1605. To continue the explosive theme, I believe that I am the first ever firework manufacturer to be elected to Parliament. I confess that many of my friends have questioned my sanity in becoming a Member of Parliament, but—as my mother was always quick to point out—when one has a firework-making vicar as a father, one is bound to have some strange ideas.
I hope to earn a reputation as someone who brings solutions as well as problems to the Chamber. To start as I mean to go on, I should offer some reassurance to Members who may be nervous about having a pyrotechnician in the House. They may be relieved to hear that I continue to serve as a bomb disposal officer in the Territorial Army.
Leaving explosives aside, I have a genuine passion to serve Milton Keynes in this wonderful Parliament of ours. Milton Keynes is a success story. It is a vibrant, can-do place. It is a fantastic place to live, but its citizens have grave concerns about the expansion plans proposed in the Deputy Prime Minister's so-called sustainable communities plan. Our rural communities and green fields are threatened, and that was by far the biggest single local issue in the election campaign. Most people in Milton Keynes accept that the city will grow over time and they do not have a nimby attitude. However, much concern is felt about the type of expansion planned and the manner in which it has been imposed. Local people resent the fact that the expansion plans have been set by central and regional government, and that there is little, if any, meaningful local consultation and ownership of the expansion agenda. That applies to the overall size, location and type of housing developments, as well as the specific local decisions.
People are deeply concerned about the lack of infrastructure to support the additional housing. The small print of the documents from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister contains only the vaguest of promises of additional transport links, health care and educational capacity, as well as the panoply of other services that communities need to thrive. Milton Keynes has an acute shortage of dentists and the general hospital struggles to cope with the present population, let alone thousands more. While our grid road system works—even if the Deputy Prime Minister, in a local radio interview, admitted that he did not understand it—there are no plans to extend it.
Those are just some of the basic services that directly impact on people's quality of life. My approach is simple—i before e, or infrastructure before expansion. In the election campaign, a succession of Ministers visited Milton Keynes to assure us that the infrastructure will be delivered. I hope that they will come back soon to make good those promises. Our city motto is "By knowledge, design and understanding". By following those principles, Milton Keynes has grown into the successful and vibrant city that it is today. Its success can continue, if it is allowed to grow organically, with popular local support and properly thought-through planning. If the expansion is too great or not properly planned, we will permanently lose the basic ingredients of success. I look forward to championing the needs of my constituents in those and many other areas and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today.
I congratulate Mr. Lancaster on his maiden speech and concur with his comments about the Open university. That was an achievement of a previous Labour Government and Prime Minister, and it is an institution that we all admire and support.
I have heard many comments in this debate about the beauty of our natural environment. In particular, I noted the comments by my hon. Friend Tom Levitt, who said that his constituency is the most beautiful in the country. I have strong sympathy with those remarks, as I have a tiny bit of the High Peak in my constituency. I would even go as far as saying that the Peak district national park is definitely the most beautiful in England.
Other hon. Members have pointed out that natural England is supported by many voluntary sector organisations, including the Woodland Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust. I agree that natural England has the potential to be a powerful driver in ensuring that we secure the future of a living, breathing countryside that evolves successfully and sustainably.
I say that because the history of land management in our country is one of compromise, of reconciling the interests of those who live and work in the countryside with the need to conserve and protect it. That principle has been even further developed and applied by the voluntary sector, by bodies such as the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the National Trust, all of whom have pursued policies designed to ensure that our rural areas continue to thrive and prosper in a sustainable manner. Those of us who are members of those organisations know that they support and develop farming enterprises as well as conservation programmes to ensure the future of our countryside.
The role of the voluntary sector must be acknowledged as critical in ensuring a pragmatic approach to reconciling access and conservation interests. Voluntary organisations are well practised in doing that and the powers and remit of natural England should not only recognise its independent status but also ensure that there is a clear role for the voluntary sector in advancing the interests of those who live in, work in and enjoy our rural areas.
I strongly support the commission for rural communities. It has already been said that the protection of rural post offices is critical for people who live in those areas. In a constituency such as Sheffield, Hillsborough, the commission would be very much involved in planning issues. The area is mixed; it is rural in parts, but also has many former industrial sites. It is vital that the commission defends the planning interests of those areas for the people who live in them to ensure that the redevelopment of industrial sites is sympathetic to the sustainable principles entrenched in the Bill.
Access to schools is not merely about keeping schools open, but ensuring that the new generation of secondary schools can exploit the growing capabilities of IT and develop virtual learning environments. The development of specialist status and raising standards in our classrooms are also important. Building schools for the future and the development of the secondary sector in particular are important in rural areas and the commission should be pursuing those issues.
Child care and services for children are critical in rural areas. Often, there are not enough children in villages to trigger the development of new facilities. The challenge is to ensure that not only local authorities but the commission represent the interests of parents and children living in such communities. We must develop the innovatory outreach services that have already been set up in areas such as Sheffield so that parents who need support in bringing up their children or who need child care can access services that are more often found in urban areas.
Public transport has been mentioned, especially bus services. In my constituency, there is an old railway line, part of the Woodhead line, which is closed to passengers and available only for the Corus steelworks at Stocksbridge. The challenge is to get that line reopened for passengers and a small charitable body has already been formed for that purpose. I look forward to a commission that will support such bodies so that the line can be reopened. I hope that it will work with the regional development agency to ensure that the funding is in place.
Part 6 refers to four-wheel drives, of which we have heard much today. It would be enormously helpful if we could develop a consensus in the House on tackling the serious threat such vehicles pose to the sustainability of many of our ancient bridleways. I refer especially to the old Roman road between Glossop and Hope, which is actually in the High Peak constituency, and which suffers badly due to the use of four-wheel drives. Not long ago, I was going from the road to the woodland, and was confronted by a convoy of five four-wheel drives coming up from the main road to the hills.
A beautiful area, such as the Peak district, is being despoiled by Land Rovers and scrambling bikes. The state of that road is now almost beyond repair. It is almost unusable by walkers, and in winter when the deep ruts caused by those bikes and four-wheel-drives are filled with rainwater, it is unusable. Walkers are forced off the path and therefore cause further environmental damage by creating new paths alongside the old Roman road. The use of bridleways by four-wheel drives is incompatible with concepts of conservation and sustainability, and the issue is therefore an important focus for the Bill.
I welcome the Bill and its general direction in strengthening the delivery of services for rural areas and in making the many voices of the countryside heard more strongly in future.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I pay tribute to hon. Members for their witty, erudite and polished maiden speeches. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Lancaster, as my family originate from Newport Pagnell. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for being slightly unkind: it occurred to me while waiting many hours to speak that, in particular, John Mann certainly had a magnificent opportunity to avail himself of the right to gas—he certainly did.
It is with gratitude that I thank the people of Peterborough for electing me to the House. It is with a mixture of pride and humility that I speak as the newly elected Member for Peterborough—a city that has elected Members to the House since 1529. Indeed, hon. Members will know that the city holds a record for being one of the most marginal parliamentary constituencies in the country. One of my esteemed predecessors, the late Lord Harmar-Nichols, previously Sir Harmar Nicholls, recorded majorities variously of 144, 137, 22 and just three votes in general elections between 1950 and 1974. Electorally, he was always living dangerously, and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jim Knight, will know how he feels, given his constituency.
Those who have followed the fortunes of Peterborough United football club over the past few months can be reassured that there was one blue team in Peterborough that was not relegated this season, and I am pleased about that.
We have always had rumbustious general elections in Peterborough. In 1895, baton-wielding police were called to the hustings to break up the kerfuffle. In 1906, the victorious Liberal candidate, George Greenwood, had his battlebus, or carriage, stolen and set alight as it was dragged across the city.
One of the voters at the next general election may be my immediate predecessor, Mrs. Helen Clark. As hon. Members will know, shortly after losing her seat at last month's general election, she announced her defection from the Labour party, after more than 20 years, to my party. It is customary to pay tribute to one's predecessor in a maiden speech, and I compliment her on her good sense.
I am proud of my constituency. At its heart is an ancient cathedral, one of the finest mediaeval cathedrals in Europe, surrounded by cutting-edge industries, such as the engineering companies Peter Brotherhood and Perkins Engines. Their names are synonymous with craftsmanship and British quality. The railways, too, provided employment for hundreds of local families over the past 150 years, particularly in the New England area of my constituency, which has been represented on the city council since 1954 by my friend, Councillor Charles Swift, OBE, who represents everything that is best about local government service and civic duty. In addition, major blue-chip companies, such as Thomas Cook and Freemans Catalogues, have also been attracted to the city owing to its good transport links.
Peterborough is a very diverse constituency. I believe that I represent a larger number of Muslim constituents than any Member on the Opposition side of the House. The Government's asylum policy notwithstanding, we in Peterborough have an admirable record of racial tolerance, as people from many different faiths and ethnic groups peaceably live and work alongside each other.
It is appropriate that I join the debate on this Bill because, although I represent a wholly urban constituency, I have an interest in that English Nature is based in my constituency. My two concerns are that the jobs of the excellent work force at English Nature are protected and, more important, that the independence of that body is carried forward to the new organisation. In that regard, I agree in some respects with Norman Baker, who talks at least some good sense on the basis that, like me, he is a graduate of Royal Holloway college. I am concerned about the organisation's independence and it is worth quoting Friends of the Earth. Conservative Members occasionally quote Friends of the Earth, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has been a thorn in the Government's side. Its concern is that the new integrated agency will not be able to be critical of the Government and will lack English Nature's traditional independence. Friends of the Earth say that
"it is feared that the clear and focused remit of EN to conserve biodiversity (the diversity of England's wildlife species and habitats) will be lost as the new integrated body will embrace a far wider set of issues from payments to farmers, diversifying the rural economy and access to the countryside."
Peterborough is going forward. Over the next few months and years, through an urban regeneration company, the city council intends to rejuvenate and regenerate the city centre and boost our local secondary school centre with a major building programme. A city the size and stature of Peterborough should have a university; at the moment, it does not. While I am here, I intend to do what I can to rectify the position.
Of course, it is the people of Peterborough who make the city such a good place in which to live and work. There is a warm community spirit and the generous nature of local residents is demonstrated by the success of three nationally renowned charities based in the city: ASBAH—the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus; Deafblind UK; and the National Kidney Research Fund. It is fitting that I should pay tribute to the truly inspirational individuals who work tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of people less fortunate than most of us and whom it has been my privilege to meet over the past five years: John and Rosie Sandall, who have spent the past 16 years raising money for their kitchen-table charity for funds for the children of Chernobyl; Carol Bailey and her team at the Peterborough citadel of the Salvation Army, who do so much for the less fortunate people in the North ward; Paula Thacker of PHAB—Physically Handicapped, Able Bodied; Linda Dalton and the volunteer team at the Sue Ryder hospice at Thorpe Hall; and Graham Hicks, who raises money for Deafblind UK and who, in June 2003, became the first man to jet ski from Britain to Holland and back, despite being deaf and blind. I salute those charity champions of my community.
I won the trust of the people of Peterborough by tackling various local issues and promising them that I would do all that I can to improve the quality of their lives. I beg the House's indulgence to discuss an issue that came up on the doorsteps in Werrington, Eastgate and Millfield and across the city at the recent general election. Crime is that major problem in my city. On any one Saturday evening, there can be as few as 14 police officers on the streets of Peterborough—a city of 169,000 people.
As the son and brother of policemen, I am only too aware of the problems faced by our police officers and the heartache suffered by the victims of crime. Over the past four years, the northern division of Cambridgeshire police has recorded a rise of 120 per cent. in violent crime and 44 per cent. in robbery. In addition, binge drinking, vandalism and yobbish behaviour are affecting the quality of life of residents in all parts of the city—black or white, rich or poor and young or old.
Cambridgeshire is still in the bottom 10 of the worst-funded police authorities in England and Wales, and Peterborough lacks sufficient police officers on the street to make a significant and meaningful impact on crime and disorder.
There are any number of gimmicks and talking shops, such as a local strategic partnership, crime and disorder reduction partnerships and community safety plans. In short, we have top-down diktats from the Home Office, which will fail to ameliorate the corrosive nature of public cynicism and frustration that undermine the criminal justice system.
Senior police officers and local police authorities, including my own in Cambridgeshire, are accountable more to the Home Office than to local residents and local taxpayers. This cannot be right. I shall use my influence in the House to argue for greater localism and greater accountability. I believe that elected police chiefs are a step towards restoring the link between those who keep the Queen's peace and those who pay for it. The move will go some way towards restoring my constituents' faith in the criminal justice system and the rule of law.
I am mindful of the fact that all political power is merely a leasehold held on trust and that it can be revoked at any time. The people of Peterborough put their trust in me on
It is a great honour to have been elected the Member for Arundel and South Downs. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will understand me when I say that it came as something of a surprise to me to be selected. Two months ago I had hardly thought that I would be in the position that I am now. I had then been enjoying the luxury of running a think tank and conducting radical thinking. That luxury is no longer available to me. I had to spend much of the election campaign looking carefully under tables at village hall meetings to check that bugs had not been placed by the agents of the previous Government and worrying that I might commit some dreadful infelicity in arguing, for instance, for lower taxes.
I have been greatly helped since arriving in this place by the kindness of the Opposition Whips, who looked after new Members with a great deal of attention. We were given the opportunity of a two-day induction course. We were assisted by the fact that each of us was required to wear a badge bearing our name, with our constituency written underneath. We were shaking hands, introducing ourselves and congratulating one another on our success. Someone came up to me and congratulated me. His name, I think, was James Baring. He had Douglas and Gordon written on his badge. I said, "Congratulations to you, too. I had not realised that we had won an additional seat in Scotland". It turned out that it was Douglas and Gordon, the estate agents. I had already made the first of many mistakes, I am sure, as a new Member.
It is right for me to pay tribute to my predecessor, Howard Flight. He was the inaugural Member for Arundel and South Downs, a seat that was newly created in 1997 when he first fought it. I am sad about the circumstances in which Howard had to resign from the seat, but I pay great tribute to the work that he did as a well-regarded constituency Member. He was assiduous in the attention he gave to his constituency and in his work for my party—work that was shared by his wife Christabel. I hope that my party will find a continuing role for Howard in the future.
I can well understand Howard's dismay at being unable to continue to represent such a beautiful constituency. I say with some care, given that I know that some of my hon. Friends present also represent beautiful constituencies, that Arundel and South Downs must be one of the most beautiful constituencies in England. Thirty miles broad—twice the size of the Isle of Wight—it can take almost an hour to drive from one side to the other. It famously contains the town of Arundel and Arundel castle, where indisputably the most beautiful cricket ground in England is found. Each year, a visiting touring side plays the Duke of Norfolk's XI or another side constructed to give the tourists their first game. This Thursday, we look forward to the visit by Australia, which is to play its first game of the tour at Arundel. I hope that a member of the Professional Cricketers' Association Masters XI will replicate the success of my great-grandfather, who, when playing for the Duke of Norfolk's XI against Sussex at Arundel, took five wickets for seven runs. For those who might not know much about cricket, let me emphasise that five wickets for seven runs is quite an achievement. If we can begin with that sort of performance against Australia, it will stand us in good stead for a great Ashes victory.
As is clear from its name, my constituency contains a great part of the south downs, described by the naturalist Hudson as
"a land of wild nature and wild prospects."
Half of the constituency is covered by an area of outstanding natural beauty. The Bill's aims of protecting the environment and rural communities are therefore highly relevant, but I suspect that my constituents will greet many of its provisions with hollow laughter. During the election campaign, the local issue most prevalent on the doorstep was that of countryside development. People are enormously concerned about the proposals for house building in West Sussex, which is an outstandingly beautiful part of England, and the impact that that development will have in the area near the south downs.
It is significant that the proposals for 46,500 houses in West Sussex alone—more than 100,000 in the south-east—are, in essence, central Government diktat. Local people feel disfranchised—they feel that they have no say in whether the development should go ahead. The local authorities oppose it, as do the overwhelming number of local people, yet the decisions have been handed down from the Secretary of State and through the unelected South East England regional assembly. When I tell my constituents that I spoke on Second Reading of a Bill to protect the natural environment that the Government introduced early in the new Parliament, they will wonder why that Bill does nothing to arrest the house-building proposals about which they are concerned and over which they have no say.
The second reason why I believe that the Bill will be met with hollow laughter in my constituency is that it talks about protecting rural communities at a time when the natural communities that have shaped my part of West Sussex for centuries are threatened and some have been lost. As my hon. Friend Mr. Goodwill said, farming is enduring a period of great change and difficulty, and that difficulty is exacerbated by the increasing regulation confronting the industry. It is difficult to stand in the way of the changes that farming is experiencing, but we could make it easier on farmers by introducing less of the kind of legislation that the Bill contains.
I cannot avoid introducing a note of controversy about a more malevolent attack on natural communities, which may not affect the constituencies of some Labour Members or even of some of my hon. Friends, but does affect mine. I refer to the ban on hunting, which was introduced in the last Session. I have a number of packs of hounds in my constituency. The impact of that legislation, irrespective of its other merits—I happen to think that it had no merits—is devastating on the natural rural communities that have existed for hundreds of years in that part of the world and which bind rural people together. It behoves us to reflect whether it is possible to legislate, as the Bill sets out to do, to build or support communities. I believe that it is not possible to legislate in that way. What we can do is legislate in a way that undermines such communities or even destroys them.
Another example that I could give was well made by Norman Baker, whose constituency abuts mine. He spoke about the impact of licensing regulation on shops, village halls and so on, where people wish to conduct events. Those absurd licensing regulations result in small bodies having to spend hundreds of pounds and go through the great bureaucratic difficulty of applying for licences simply in order to sell a small amount of alcohol at a quiet rural event or daily to quiet rural customers. Excessive legislation can create great difficulties for local communities. One of the best things that we can do for such communities is to lift the regulatory burden and to a large extent leave them alone.
I apply the same test to the part of the Bill relating to national parks. In my constituency there is a controversial proposal to create a national park in the south downs. The proposal has attractions and one can understand why people are drawn towards it, not least by the desire to protect the special rural environment there, yet if the Government are part of the answer to protecting the beautiful south downs, I wonder whether the designation of the park is a good thing.
I suspect that that will result in more regulation in the countryside and the substitution of an only partly elected body in the form of the national park authority, which will take planning decisions, whereas at present elected local authorities take such decisions, allowing people to feel that they have some kind of say over them. It will inevitably result in an increase in tourism in the area, with all the impact that that may have on the local environment. It may introduce conflict between local people and the park authority, such as I saw when I lived in a national park in Northumberland for three years.
The Bill has antecedents. The rural White Paper in November 2000 promised to deliver high-quality services in rural areas. Today, four and a half years later, the Secretary of State said that the Bill would radically transform rural services. I wonder what happened in between. Rural services in my constituency are under great pressure. Part of the difficulty is the funding settlement given to West Sussex. Although it is one of the most efficient councils, it has one of the worse settlements of any council of its kind. Resources have been taken away from it, the more efficiently it has performed.
The Bill would result in a considerable centralisation of the provision of services, which I no longer believe is viable in the modern world. It does not yield the results and the improvement in services that the public have a right to expect. That centralisation can manifest itself in extraordinary forms. During the election campaign I visited a doctor's surgery in the constituency, where a patient had offered to change a light bulb in the surgery. His manager told him that he could not change the light bulb and that someone had to be sent up from the relevant authority in Brighton to change it in accordance with NHS rules.
Throughout the election campaign, my concern was that in seeking to talk to people about how services might improve, there seemed to be a great disconnect between what the Conservative party and, indeed, the Government were offering and what people were willing to believe might happen as a result of the election of either one of us.
Another issue was antisocial behaviour in villages in my constituency. Such behaviour started in a minor way, but it greatly irritates local people and it is becoming a problem. All parties made promises about dealing with antisocial behaviour, but my constituents and others do not believe that we can produce what they want to see—the reintroduction of local policemen in the villages. We have had some success with community support officers, but there was a great disconnect between what we were promising and local people's expectations. That disconnect exists because local people sense that their ability to influence such decisions has been taken so far away from them that it is very unlikely that the changes that we were promising will be secured.
Today, the Leader of the House said that one reason why he thinks it so important to re-engage with voters is that the public understand that services are improving, but they do not realise that that is all to the Government's credit. That is not a reason to seek to re-engage with our voters. Even if it were true that services are improving—I do not believe that they are—there is the much more profound problem of the gap between what political parties say that they can do and what can be delivered for local people and, in my case, rural communities on the ground.
We have taken away power from local authorities and decision making from local people. Having centralised those powers, however, we cannot deliver the improvements to services that people seek. The Bill falls into that trap and is, in a sense, the old politics—it has 99 clauses, 99 pages and 12 schedules, but it offers familiar solutions that will not effect the radical transformation promised by the Secretary of State. It introduces a new quango, which is—surprise, surprise—mostly unaccountable. In the spirit of the modern age, the quango is branded as "natural", as though it were a yoghurt, and its very creation will take more powers away from local authorities.
We have not learned the lessons from the public's rejection of the North East Assembly. In my part of the world, the regional assembly continues to make decisions on behalf of local people, although it is wholly unelected. We are not rapidly learning the lessons from the rejection of the European constitution by the peoples of Europe, which shows the disconnect between the public and politicians.
It is time for a new politics that brings decisions closer to people, makes institutions such as the one created by the Bill more accountable, regains power for local authorities and puts choice and control in the hands of individuals. That is the only way in which we can generate a better countryside, better communities and better services, especially for the disadvantaged. Instead of that, we have heard bold claims about a radical transformation that will simply not be met.
I compliment Mr. Herbert on his maiden speech. The pride that he takes in his constituency and his determination to safeguard its beauty will stand him in good stead both there and in this House, and we look forward to hearing more from him.
I want to make a number of points in the short time available. First, I remind the Minister and the House that the Bill covers England and Wales but also mentions Scotland and Northern Ireland. Although most of the debate has centred on natural England, the Bill will affect Wales. Those of us who believe that our role in this House is at least partly to nurture the devolution settlement and ensure that the Welsh Assembly grows in confidence and in its ability to work for the Welsh people look at such legislation to see whether it is moulded in a way that will contribute to that. The Government do not get 10 out of 10 as far as this Bill is concerned, because we would look for more enabling powers for the Welsh Assembly. Although I cannot go into detail now, several clauses say that the Welsh Assembly "must" do something. We certainly have confidence that the Welsh Assembly will do the best for the Welsh people, but it would be better if the Government had similar confidence and used the word "may".
Part 2 covers the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, where Wales is represented by the chairman of the Countryside Council for Wales and one other member. Five other members are to be appointed. I know that the Minister will say, "Yes, of course we would consult the Welsh Assembly on that", but it would give us more confidence if that was stipulated in the Bill.
As for the inland waterways advisory council, the Secretary of State will appoint its chairman in consultation with Scottish Ministers, but what about consultation with the Welsh Assembly as well? Two Scottish members are to be appointed. A little more openness and commitment to devolution would not go astray. The Welsh Assembly is of course a child of the Labour Government and the more they nurture and encourage it, the better.
It would be helpful if all the Members who made maiden speeches and prayed in aid bits of the national parks in their constituencies could join the all-party group on national parks. Several of us have been campaigning for direct elections in respect of national parks. That may be a radical and revolutionary concept in terms of this country's democracy, but I am sure that it would do a lot of good. When I was chairman of Brecon Beacons national park, I introduced a traffic regulation order that safeguarded a very ancient right of way from destruction by various types of vehicles. It would be a real advance if national parks could introduce traffic regulation orders themselves instead of having to go through the county councils. Perhaps the Minister would consider putting that in the Bill.
I welcome clause 58, which removes the duty on national parks to promote social and economic development but without spending any money, which has always seemed impossible to me.
That brings me to rights of way. In my constituency, the use of motor vehicles in recreation is an important part of the local economy. Some very responsible people are engaged in that. The retired bank manager who wants to travel from Rhayader to Tregaron and back again for his Saturday afternoon leaves no mark of the fact that he has made that journey—it is the irresponsible people whom we should be concerned about. I will support the provisions in the Bill, but we must make an accommodation to ensure that those people who are engaged in responsible use of motor vehicles in the countryside can continue to enjoy that. That will benefit the local economy, as well as nature conservation.
I hope that the Minister will take on board those few remarks. I am sure that he will come back with an entirely different Bill when it goes to another place.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. Hearing so many great maiden speeches makes one pleased to be back in the Chamber: they were excellent speeches, brimming with enthusiasm.
I am particularly pleased to speak about the natural environment and rural communities on the day that the British Airports Authority, as it was—now BAA plc—issued its master plan to destroy at least 700 homes in the London borough of Hillingdon in connection with Heathrow. We have talked about communities; I am talking about villages that the BAA plans simply to wipe out. Although they are in the next-door constituency, Hayes and Harlington, West Drayton, near my constituency, is also affected. When we talk of communities, let us not forget that semi-rural communities exist in the London borough of Hillingdon just as they do elsewhere.
The Bill is a curate's egg, but I welcome some parts of it. Clauses 44 and 45 deal with the use of pesticides and poisons, which is a real problem. However, I feel that the Secretary of State's power to proscribe the possession of a pesticide should perhaps be broadened to reflect the danger posed by such chemicals to human health and companion animals, in line with schedule 2 of the Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986.
There is a risk that the list of prohibited pesticides will always be behind the poisons favoured by those who wish to kill birds illegally. Those who abuse such chemicals will simply move to a new pesticide as their chemicals of choice are added to the list. The delay between investigations showing that another chemical is in widespread use and its inclusion in the list will allow those involved in the unlawful use of such chemicals to continue to possess them.
It is also worth considering whether the offence should apply to
"having in one's possession or control any pesticide without lawful authority or reasonable excuse".
Similar provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 prohibit the possession of articles with a blade or point in a public place, but provide a defence of
"good reason or lawful authority" under which, for example, farmers and gamekeepers may lawfully operate.
Nothing, I believe, has been said today about clause 46 and the destruction of nests outside the breeding season. I know that that is a matter of great importance to the House. The clause includes a rather limited selection of birds. White-tailed eagles do not breed in England and Wales, and there is only one golden eagle nest in England. We should examine the threat of deliberate damage to nest sites, possibly considering the barn owl, chough, hen harrier, merlin and peregrine. Perhaps we should consider the swift as well, because it has suffered a great deal.
I do not think I shall be lucky enough to be chosen to sit on the Committee, but I am sure that I shall be able to express my views to its members.
I congratulate all who have delivered their maiden speeches this evening. They were excellent and those Members bring great qualities to the House.
Before referring specifically to the Bill, I must declare an interest. It is included in the old Register of Members' Interests, but we have no register yet for the new Session. I own land in a national park and am a commoner in the Dartmoor national park, where I have grazing rights and rights of turbary. The Minister may not know what those are, but no doubt he will find out before his winding-up speech. I have never exercised them.
My specific concern about the Bill relates to part 6. Last year, I introduced a private Member's Bill under the ten-minute rule, the Restricted Byways Bill, although I knew that eventually the Government would produce legislation on the use of trail bikes and four-wheel drives on our bridleways and other byways in the countryside. There is a particular problem in Dorset, where trail bikers cause enormous problems.
The real problem envisaged by me and my county council—which I share with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jim Knight—was that certain organisations would try to get in under the wire to get these bridleways and other byways approved before the legislation took effect. The commencement date set out in the Bill is not specific enough. Even I got that wrong—in my Bill, I gave too much leeway by proposing a commencement date of
This is an important Bill for the English and Welsh countryside, as has been made clear by the quality of today's debate and by the fact that eight of my hon. Friends elected to make their maiden speeches. That is a clear demonstration of the genuine Conservative empathy with the countryside, rather than the caricature that we are only interested in hunting. Indeed, until 9.15 this evening, the only person to have mentioned hunting in this debate was Norman Baker.
This debate gives me the opportunity to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jim Knight, and I look forward to debating the Bill with him during its further stages. We have heard a number of maiden speeches today, including that of Mr. Horwood. I am afraid that he lost my support when he suggested that people should go to Cheltenham race course rather than to Newmarket in my constituency. We also heard eight exceptional maiden speeches from Conservative Members, all of whom bring credit to these Benches. My hon. Friend Mr. Goodwill clarified the distinction between trial bikes and trail bikes—there is a great difference between the two—and referred to the new land army of bureaucrats with clipboards. I understand from today's paper that he is a member of the new model army, and we look forward to his further contributions.
My hon. Friend Mr. Scott spoke with great fervour of the joy of representing the constituency in which he grew up. He spoke of the importance of local accountability and democracy and of the protection of green fields—an issue that arose again and again during the debate. My hon. Friend Jeremy Wright also mentioned it, when he referred to the damage done by bad planning decisions taken in Kenilworth. He also spoke of the need to decide what we want the countryside to be and of the interdependence of agriculture and the environment.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Villiers rightly paid tribute to Sydney Chapman—all of us across the House miss his company—and reminded us of his environmental credentials. She, too, raised the issue of the impact of development and told us that a third of her constituency consisted of green belt and open space.
My hon. Friend John Penrose made a lucid and fluent maiden speech about the unchanging nature of parts of his constituency. He also mentioned the problems of planning and overdevelopment in other parts of the area. His views on that were shared by my hon. Friend Mr. Lancaster, who illustrated that his constituency consists of more than concrete cows—it contains real countryside and real rural communities.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jackson rightly paid tribute to English Nature, which is based in his constituency, and showed himself to be the robust Member that we in Cambridgeshire have long known that he had the potential to be. My hon. Friend Mr. Herbert used the words "kindness" and "Whips" in the same sentence, which he will probably not do for much longer. He also spoke of the problems of new housing and its impact on the countryside.
In moving our amendment, my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin rightly said that we support many of the measures in the Bill. The issue of green lanes, in relation to trail riding and four-wheel-drive vehicles, has been widely rehearsed across the Chamber tonight, and it is clear that there is unanimity among everyone who has spoken, not only on the nature of the problem, but on the need to get on with sorting it out quickly, as Paddy Tipping said. I also endorse everything that my hon. Friend Mr. Walter has just said.
My hon. Friend Robert Key made the point that many of the people concerned want mud to make their journeys more exciting. In relation to the Human Rights Act 1998 getting in the way of this legislation, I find it difficult to accept that walkers or riders are denied their human rights because they cannot walk or ride where that mud is.
Of course, we support the measures to improve protection of sites of special scientific interest, wildlife, biodiversity and many other areas. All the concerns that we might have on the detail can be addressed in Committee. I hope and, from earlier conversations, believe that the Minister will seek to engage constructively on those issues. But if I may say so, all those parts have been added to what is clearly a suitable legislative vehicle—part 1 of the Bill. Because part 1 is seriously wanting in achieving the objectives that the Government lay down, we must oppose the Bill, and have therefore tabled the amendment. I say to the hon. Member for Lewes, who scorned our position, that it is because we believe the flaws of part 1 are too major to be addressed by amendment in Committee that we have decided to table an amendment on Second Reading.
A great deal has been made of simplification, removal of red tape and fewer visits—all those words were used by the Secretary of State—but I want to give one example of the sort of problem that exists today, and that will not be helped one iota by the proposals in this Bill. Unfortunately, the source of the story must be anonymous, as the farmer involved is understandably concerned about what might happen as regards the officials involved.
The issue is one of a long-redundant ferry operating across an estuary in England, where the hard standing had been neglected for a century. A meeting was held to discuss restoring it. The meeting took all morning and was attended by two farmers who owned the land, one part-time volunteer ferry operator, one member of the local voluntary amenity association, somebody from the Environment Agency, two people from the planning department, one from English Nature, and two from the joint area of outstanding natural beauty partnership. Of the 10 people there, six were being paid by the taxpayer, but the Bill would not have made any difference—it would not have reduced attendance at that meeting by a single person. We cannot expect real change unless the problem of bureaucracy is properly addressed.
We largely agree with the critique of Lord Haskins in relation to the current delivery system, but the Bill does not provide an answer. It creates a potentially massive organisation with conflicting priorities and powers to do anything that it likes. It does nothing to prevent over-zealous use of powers, and that problem already exists. It sets up three funding blocks, but does nothing directly to reduce the number of individual schemes or the form-filling. We are far from persuaded by the Government's position on the issue of the Forestry Commission.
There is no recognition in the Bill of the importance of economic activity, particularly farming, in care for the countryside. Nowhere in the Bill is there any recognition that the landscape itself is a result of economic activity—not always for the better if judged by today's standards, but nevertheless paid for by local economic activity. The countryside and nature of England is not some twee chocolate box scene to be frozen in time: it is home to 23 per cent. of the population and the workplace of most of them. The Government have delegated some of the delivery to regional development agencies, whereas county councils and local councils could have done a better job with greater accountability. That raises the issue of the voice of those 23 per cent. and the proposed commission for rural communities. That body has no powers, is appointed by the Secretary of State and therefore has no credibility with rural communities.
No Conservative Member doubts that rural people need a voice. We have watched for eight years while the Government have ignored their plight, even with the Countryside Agency and the rural advocate, so why would an even weaker body make any difference? The real voice of rural people is their elected representatives: local councillors and Members of the House. Indeed, it was that voice that spoke on
Yet again, we have seen the tendency of the Government to believe that the public are best served by a large organisation lacking direct accountability. The objective of rationalisation and simplification is, of course, worthy but the chosen method is wrong. Instead, the Government should have examined how to simplify the system itself—the complexities of the single farm payment, of the entry level and higher level scheme. Those are all examples where simplification of the schemes could come ahead of changing the structures. The Government should have sought to work with existing local structures and local accountability. The flaws in their proposals are too great to be corrected by amendment. They should think again. I commend the amendment to the House.
This has been an excellent and welcome early debate on rural affairs, putting the Bill into a wider context. I apologise at the start that I will not have time to respond in detail to the many points that have been made.
As the Secretary of State said earlier, the Bill is the cornerstone of our plans to achieve the agenda set out in the rural strategy. It will provide the legislative framework to help us to realise our vision of thriving rural communities, of fair access to services for all in the countryside and of rich, diverse landscapes managed and enhanced for current and future generations.
Our rural reforms will benefit rural businesses, with fewer forms and quicker and better advice fully attuned to rural circumstances. They will benefit rural people, with decisions taken closer to the customer and with a strong advocate for their needs. They will help people to enjoy the countryside and the coast through a single co-ordinated approach to access and to nature. They will help the environment through better sustainable management of the environment, from individual species to the landscape as a whole. Last but not least, they will benefit the taxpayer, with more efficient and effective administration that, over the medium and long term, will save over £20 million a year.
As we have heard, there have been eight excellent maiden speeches during this debate. I congratulate all those hon. Members and welcome them to the House. I join them in paying tribute to the work of their predecessors: Lawrie Quinn, Linda Perham, Andy King, Sir Sydney Chapman, Brian Cotter, Brian White, Helen Clark and Howard Flight.
Mr. Goodwill made an excellent speech, claiming the mantle of the hon. Member for oven chips. Given the confessed rivalry between Scarborough and Whitby, I thought him brave to describe Whitby as the jewel in the crown. Mr. Scott did well in linking his London seat to rural affairs and in proving that the divide often constructed between town and country is often false. We heard a fluent and polished speech by Jeremy Wright. I look forward to visiting his constituency shortly when I visit the royal show.
Mrs. Villiers paid a particularly warm tribute to Sir Sydney Chapman, saying that the House will be a poorer place for his absence. Judging by her maiden speech, the House and her party will be a richer place for her presence. John Penrose talked of some of the problems of seaside towns, many of which I recognise from my own constituency. He talked of donkeys; it is clear he will not prove to be one in the House.
Mr. Lancaster looks set to make an explosive impact as a firework manufacturer, and Mr. Jackson made an excellent start as a champion for his constituents, including staff working at English Nature in Peterborough. I am not surprised at the great start made by Mr. Herbert, who I know is a polished performer. I look forward to his support for the reduction in public spending in the Bill, in the tradition of Members for that seat.
The amendment fails to understand that the purpose of the new body is to preserve and enhance the beauty about which the hon. Member for South Dorset is so poetic. [Interruption.] West Dorset; I am, of course, the Member for South Dorset. I am equally poetic about the environment. Beauty is important. Mr. Letwin and I both represent the beautiful Dorset countryside and understand the importance of protecting the environment for the future while developing sustainable access to it for social and economic gain. That is at the very heart of the new purpose for natural England, but we must do so in such a way that we can all enjoy it and so that the right hon. Gentleman's constituents and mine can make a living from it while shaping the landscape for current and future generations.
Natural England will be an environmental body. Its purpose is to conserve, enhance and manage the natural environment; that will be its priority. It will build on the excellent work of English Nature and the Countryside Agency, and I join my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney in paying warm tribute to that work. I also applaud the work of the rural development service on agri-environment schemes in particular.
I believe that we have struck the right balance in forming the purpose of natural England, which will be required to contribute to sustainable development. It will actively seek integrated solutions that achieve the full range of sustainable development. However, natural England remains an environmental body and there will be situations where an integrated solution is not possible. Here we expect natural England to be a trenchant champion of the natural environment, as its statutory purpose makes clear.
The amendment suggests that we are failing to create a simplified scheme of support for rural communities. By bringing three new bodies together in one new body, we are simplifying arrangements for our customers and providing a streamlined framework for the delivery of support that will help us to cut red tape and confusion. That is at the core of the deregulation and simplification process that we would have expected the Opposition to support.
The Opposition also seek to deny rural areas the strong independent voice that they will have in the commission for rural communities. The commission has a unique and distinctive role to act as a voice for rural people, undistracted now by delivery functions of its own and with the purpose, set out in clause 18, of promoting awareness to all public and other bodies of rural needs. That is why it is relevant for the commission to be established; it can be a voice in respect of the actions of local authorities and regional development agencies, of which we heard much today, as well as central Government.
The commission will help to ensure that the Government's policies make a real difference, especially in tackling social disadvantage and economic exclusion. I have to say to the right hon. Member for West Dorset that I am advised that clauses 16 and 25, which he finds so objectionable in terms of undermining the independence of natural England and the commission for rural communities, which the Government want, are nothing new. They are a standard requirement for non-departmental public bodies to ensure accountability for taxpayers' money. English Nature and the Countryside Agency are currently vulnerable to similar powers of direction and I do not hear the right hon. Gentleman saying that they are not sufficiently independent.
Many Members raised the issue of rights of way and great concern has been raised, most passionately by my hon. Friend John Mann, but by many others. I share the concern that irresponsible drivers of four-by-fours and trail bikes are damaging our byways and some of the most beautiful parts of our countryside. We have consulted at length on the provisions in the Bill and believe that they strike a careful balance. Our overriding aim must be to secure the future sustainability of the rights of way network.
The Bill will give landowners and others greater certainty about mechanically propelled vehicles' rights on public rights of way. That should result in a reduction in conflict and it is a great step forward from the current situation in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 of leaving it until 2026 to put in claims for those matters. Under the Bill, claims based on historic evidence would only allow for rights of way to be established for non-motorised vehicles. This will ensure that future use of rights of way will be consistent with their historic use.
My hon. Friend Paddy Tipping asked about the date of commencement, as did Norman Baker. We must take care over commencement because we are extinguishing public rights, but if claims are focused on those routes that are most sustainable, the imperative will not be so strong for swift commencement. However, I put this warning on the record: if claims are submitted indiscriminately, I assure hon. Members that we shall have to commence the legislation at the very earliest opportunity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw asked about the volume of current applications for byways to be open to all traffic and about the use of traffic regulation orders. Such applications are currently lodged with local authorities and will remain there up to commencement. We will have to deal with them under the current legislation. That is the legal advice that I have been given. I would be interested to hear from my hon. Friend what evidence he has of thousands of applications, as we are in close contact with local authorities about the level of such applications and what he said does not reflect our findings. I shall be publishing guidance on the use of traffic regulation orders and rights of way in the summer. I share my predecessor's view that traffic regulation orders are an essential management tool in respect of that issue, to which I am sure we will return in greater detail in Committee.
Mr. Jack and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood raised the matters of rural funding streams and the timetable for detailed design. My hon. Friend referred to our response to his Select Committee's report. He will have noted in our response more detail about the three funds that we provided before. If it is any reassurance to him, we intend to have a mature design in place by the end of this year.
Concern was raised that the costs of setting up natural England will outweigh the savings. I can clarify that the savings envisaged by 2007–08 are £13 million—not the £11 million mentioned by the right hon. Member for West Dorset. We are not complacent and will keep a close eye on the figures and on the benefits both to rural people and the environment that we believe the changes will bring. The changes will pay for themselves within five years and provide £21 million of savings every year thereafter, which I am sure that the whole House would welcome.
I shall have to correspond with the right hon. Member for Fylde on the issue of information technology.
In conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Bill will underpin the commitments that we made in the rural strategy and the rural manifesto, creating simpler and stronger organisational structures and transforming the way in which we deliver rural and environmental services to customers. It will reduce bureaucracy, devolve decision making, improve services and save money.
People living in the countryside will benefit from the devolution of decision making closer to the ground. The commission for rural communities will champion their needs, particularly those of people suffering from disadvantage. All will benefit from natural England, too, as it mutually reinforces the objectives of conserving and enhancing all aspects of our natural environment, helping people to enjoy and gain benefit from it. The environment will benefit from greater protection and a more coherent area-based approach to addressing its health, including biodiversity.
I fear that I may run out of time, but I will give way if I can. Benefit will come, for example, as the environment adapts to climate change. I will give way to my Dorset neighbour.
I am immensely grateful to the Minister. Briefly, will he place a note in the Library to correct paragraph 11 on page 5 of the Government's response to the Select Committee report, which states that the efficiencies will be £11.3 million by 2007–08?
I will certainly look further into that and publish any correction, if necessary, in the Library.
Rural business will benefit from simplified structures and less bureaucracy, as it has to spend less time filling in forms. The rural development agencies, with their new responsibilities for business advice, will also be a better and faster source of such advice. I will work closely with the chairs to improve consistency of performance across all the RDAs and achieve devolution to local authorities through local area agreements and pathfinders, as appropriate. For the taxpayer, there will be fewer bodies and less duplication, together with more efficient administration and devolved decision making, which will save money while improving services.
The Bill will provide a flexible delivery framework that is both fit for purpose today and able to evolve to meet further future challenges—
Yes, including challenges relating to wild flowers, about which Bob Russell is so concerned.
The Bill will provide a strong voice for rural communities, a fresh and integrated approach to managing the natural environment and, last but not least, best value for money for the taxpayer. On that basis, I ask the House to reject the Opposition amendment and to support the Bill tonight.