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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 16, in clause 26, page 9, leave out line 11.
No. 17, in clause 27, page 9, line 25, leave out paragraph (b).
No. 18, in clause 27, page 9, line 26, leave out ‘and the Commission’.
No. 19, in clause 27, page 9, line 29, leave out from ‘England’ to end of line 30.
No. 20, in clause 29, page 10, line 7, leave out from ‘England’ to end of line 8.
No. 21, in clause 30, page 10, leave out line 12.
No. 23, in schedule 7, page 62, leave out line 35.
No. 24, in schedule 11, page 68, leave out lines 37 and 38.
No. 25, in schedule 11, page 73, line 16, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.
No. 26, in schedule 11, page 73, leave out line 17.
No. 27, in schedule 11, page 73, line 35, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.
No. 28, in schedule 11, page 73, leave out line 36.
No. 29, in schedule 11, page 77, line 29, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.
No. 30, in schedule 11, page 77, leave out line 30.
No. 31, in schedule 11, page 78, line 17, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.
No. 32, in schedule 11, page 78, leave out line 18.
No. 33, in schedule 11, page 78, line 25, leave out sub-paragraph (2).
No. 34, in schedule 11, page 78, line 28, leave out ‘that Part’ and insert ‘Part 2’.
No. 35, in schedule 11, page 85, leave out line 21.
No. 36, in schedule 11, page 91, line 24, leave out ‘places’ and insert ‘place’.
No. 37, in schedule 11, page 91, leave out line 25.
No. 22, in clause 97, page 39, line 14, leave out
‘and the Commission for Rural Communities’.
Thank you, and good morning, Mr. Forth.
The clause establishes the Commission for Rural Communities as an independent non-departmental body. Its general purpose and functions are set out in subsequent clauses. Statutory status will enable it to perform its role independently and impartially, and I suspect that during the debate on this clause we will return to the importance of independence and impartiality.
The clause also introduces schedule 2, which sets out the constitution of the commission, including provisions about its status, membership, chief executive and other employees, pay and pensions, procedure, accounts and annual reports. The arrangements are almost identical to those for Natural England as set out in schedule 1.
The commission will be a strong independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog to help to ensure that the Government’s policies make a real difference to people in rural areas. It will pay special attention to tackling social disadvantage and the problems of areas economic underperformance. Rural-proofing will be at the heart of the commission’s role and it will help the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government in general to ensure that policies at all levels of government—I think that we will return to this as well—are rural-proofed.
The commission was established on 9 March 2005 as a separate division within the Countryside Agency. Assuming that it will come into force, the Bill will turn it into an independent, free-standing non-departmental public body. We have said that it will not be based in London, and I can announce today that Natural England will locate its modest headquarters in Sheffield. A decision will be made at the end of the year about where the commission will be based, but it will be in a lagging rural area outside south-east England.
The combined effect of amendments Nos. 6 to 15 would be to remove from the Bill all the clauses that establish and empower the Commission for Rural Communities and the schedule setting out its constitution, which would prevent the commission from being established as a statutory body. Hon. Members will not be surprised to know that I resist strongly those amendments, and I will ask the Committee to reject them. Amendments Nos. 16 to 21, 23 to 37 and 22 are a consequence of amendments Nos. 6 to 15 and would remove all references to the commission from the Bill. Given the catastrophic effect that the amendments would have, it is important that I give a more detailed justification of the need for the commission.
There is a real need for the commission. It will be the one national body to focus its attention on the economic and social issues in rural England, and it will act as an advocate, adviser and watchdog to keep the Government and other key delivery bodies, such as local councils and regional development agencies, on their toes. The commission needs to be independent of central, regional and local government, and it needs to be seen to be independent, so that it can act impartially, challenge all those bodies—public, private or voluntary—that deliver services in rural areas, and influence that delivery. That is best achieved by establishing the commission as a non-departmental public body under the Bill.
The commission will have a remit to raise awareness of the needs of rural England among public authorities and other bodies and to promote ways of meeting those needs that contribute to sustainable development. That is important, because, although the commission’s main focus will be on social and economic issues, it will recognise the crucial link between environmental and economic sustainability. A good environment is good for the rural economy, and vice versa.
The goal of putting sustainable development into practice by integrating environmental, social and economic objectives drives everything that DEFRA does, and that principle was restated in last year’s rural strategy. The Bill will give statutory underpinning to that agenda by requiring Natural England, the Commission for Rural Communities and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee all to seek to contribute to sustainable development through their functions. The regional development agencies have a similar duty under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998.
In the commission’s advocacy role, it will provide an independent voice for rural people, communities and businesses and, by virtue of clause 18(4), it will have particular regard for
“persons suffering from social disadvantage” and
“areas suffering from economic under-performance.”
I find it surprising that the party that represents the most deprived county in England, Cornwall, should oppose giving those disadvantaged communities that it represents a powerful voice in Whitehall, in Bristol—where the South West of England Regional Development Agency is based—and in Cornwall itself.
Those remarks should address the points raised on the need to ensure the proper retention of viable local communities. The commission’s task will be to look thoroughly at the way all bodies connected with rural needs—public, private or voluntary—are developing and implementing policies to meet those needs. The commission will have a duty, under clause 19(c), to report on those.
I predict that hon. Members opposing the establishment of the commission will, in future—while still in opposition, their perennial place—not hesitate to quote back to Ministers in the House criticisms that will be voiced by the commission in its reports on the actions of government.
In its advisory role, the commission will provide independent information and advice to the Government and to other bodies with responsibility for policy development and service delivery on issues affecting people, communities and businesses in rural England. As part of that role, the commission will be able to undertake, commission or report research and evaluation. That will enable it to inform policy with robust evidence and objective advice and to promote innovative solutions to problems facing rural communities, including those in Cornwall.
The difference with the former Countryside Agency’s role is that the commission will not be distracted by being a service deliverer itself. It will not have to criticise itself. Haskins set out that priority in his original report. The commission will concentrate on advice, information and evaluation and on ensuring that those that provide rural services do so efficiently. The Government believe that making the distinction between policy and delivery will be fruitful for all concerned. Again, the evidence and advice produced will make the job of representing rural constituencies in the House easier. The commission will offer the evidence that we so often lack to demonstrate wider need in rural areas.
In its monitoring role, the commission will have a duty to monitor and report on the way that rural policy at all levels is implemented, and on the way in which policy is meeting the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas. The point about the linkages between a high-quality environment and a strong rural economy bears repeating. The commission will play a key role, through its particular powers and duties, in contributing to sustainable development. The fact that the commission will be an advisory and not a delivery body will enable it to take an impartial and broad view of service delivery and to obtain evidence of what does and does not work at national, regional and local level. The commission can use its powers to publish information on policy implementation and to share lessons learned, challenging government and other organisations responsible for service delivery at all levels to improve performance and to entrench best practice.
Rural-proofing will be at the heart of the commission’s role; its role will be at the heart of the overall effort on rural-proofing. The commission will help DEFRA and Government generally to ensure that all Government policies are rural-proofed. It will be able to advise on the issues that really matter in rural areas. That will be especially important given the commission’s particular role in addressing rural disadvantage across the board.
Before concluding, let me clarify what the commission is not. Some have suggested that if Natural England is the environmental lead and the regional development agencies the economic lead, then the Commission for Rural Communities must be the social lead. That is not so. The commission is not a delivery body and is not being resourced or empowered to perform that function. The function of a social lead is often best carried out by local authorities, as discussed on Tuesday.
To conclude, the commission will fulfil a role that no other single organisation can, as an influential advocate and watchdog for all rural people, businesses and communities, putting a particular focus on those suffering disadvantage and on rural areas that are underperforming economically. That includes a good part of my region and of regions represented by several hon. Members in this Committee. Are they really saying that that is not needed? Are they really saying that the urban majority in the House and many local authorities should be trusted consistently to make decisions that work for rural areas? Do they agree with me that rural England needs a champion, independent and resourced, to win battles for the countryside?
One of the great complaints that rural local authorities have is that they are underfunded in comparison with urban ones. A group of 40 of them have been campaigning for years for better funding so that they are able to deliver the type of service that people expect in urban areas. What power will the commission have to change that situation?
The commission will have the power to produce robust evidence to demonstrate whether it is a direct function of rurality that leads to underfunding, whether such underfunding is genuine and whether the element that allows for rural sparsity in the formula that dictates local government funding is sufficient. With that evidence, Members such as the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) will be able to come to the House to argue that a watchdog set up by this Government points out the strength of his argument—if the commission produces evidence to support it.
I have argued for the clause on a slightly more impassioned basis than previously and I trust that when the commission is set up it will be even more passionate as a champion of rural England than I was as a champion of its establishment today. I trust that, on this basis, hon. Members will not press their amendments.
I thank the Minister for his impassioned plea. During the first part of our discussions of the Bill in relation to setting up Natural England, we broadly welcomed the bringing together of different bodies and look forward to that new body working well for the interests of people in rural areas, although we would have preferred some changes.
I hope, however, that the Minister will forgive me for thinking that, in many respects, there is a certain amount of déjà vu in what he has just said for those of us who sat through the setting up of the Countryside Agency. I was just wondering whether some of his speech was a dusting down of one of the speeches made by Ministers during that process—the impassioned plea about rural-proofing and such. Of course, we have experienced the Countryside Agency, and Lord Haskins has said that it ought to be abolished. In concert with many other voices, I hope to explain why we believe that the setting up of yet another unelected quango is the last thing that rural communities need.
I would like to indulge the Committee’s time by going back in history a little—not too far—to when we had really strong local authorities, the Rural Development Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They were not perfect in many ways, and this is not a nostalgic look back to buses trundling through country lanes, cottage hospitals and chocolate-box views of village life. However, for all its faults and despite a significant amount of underfunding, that arrangement worked tolerably well.
Since then, the Countryside Agency has been set up, and it has not lasted too many years. It was set up in an effort to address some of the rural issues that were coming to the fore and where the strain was beginning to show. It was set up with all the right aims—they were laudable—and was headed by someone who understood rural issues and who was given the specific task of being the rural advocate. It would be true to say that when he finally stepped down, those of us who were there when we gave his farewell speech detected a certain amount of disappointment in his ability really to be the advocate that he had hoped to be. The Government’s intentions were laudable, but there was a difference between their words and the actions that they took to ensure that rural-proofing and rural advocacy took place.
So, under pressure following problems relating to MAFF and particularly foot and mouth disease, the Government decided after the 2001 election not to introduce a department for rural affairs, which was advocated by my party and me, as a discrete operation. Much to the surprise of many people in the civil service, they decided to create the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is a large Department and it took quite some time to settle down to all the aspects—the environment, food and rural affairs—of its role. However, when it started to get into its stride, it became clear that it was stepping on the toes of the Countryside Agency. The Minister will recall the Select Committee’s report on the roles and responsibilities of the Countryside Agency and DEFRA. It became increasingly clear that there was duplication. Rural advocacy seems to have been sidelined and the real issues, relating to what was happening in rural life, were not being adequately addressed. It became clear that, in some respects, there was even a competitive situation.
It was clear to the Select Committee that the duplication and competition between the Countryside Agency and DEFRA could not continue, so Lord Haskins was invited to undertake his report, which makes it clear that the Countryside Agency should be abolished. He did not say that it should be partially abolished; he said that it should be completely abolished. He said that it was not necessary. DEFRA could undertake its responsibilities.
In rural areas, other unelected quangos may be given certain responsibilities, as the Minister has indicated. In fact, he has just outlined many of those responsibilities, which are apparently now going to the CRC: research, advice, help and information. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government offices, which were set up a considerable time ago, should now be abolished as well. They are also a duplicate, unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy and they add nothing to the progress that we could make in rural areas. They compete against regional development agencies, which were set up as unelected quangos to advise, support and give all this wonderful information to local authorities and to the Government.
We are proposing a combination of local government offices, regional development agencies and the CRC, all of which have a competing interest in pursuing the causes of rural life that affect those who live in rural communities, all of which have their own bureaucracies and agendas, and all of which compete to a certain extent for the ear of the Government and Government money to produce their pet projects. We now have a sufficient number of unelected quangos. DEFRA sits on the top of all that and local authorities have been relegated to the third or fourth division.
Despite all that the Minister has just said, even now it is not clear exactly how this body will succeed where the others, in particular the Countryside Agency, have lamentably failed. This body’s powers will be extremely limited and, as he pointed out, its resources will not be great. Its sanctions over Government policy are almost non-existent, yet he describes it as a strong, independent voice. I suspect that it will be a voice crying in the wilderness, as was the case with its predecessors.
I hope that we can look back on the statements from the CRC, and that this body will be strong and independent of the Government. What is quite clear is that our local authorities are strong and independent of the Government. I said earlier that Lord Haskins has made his position quite clear: when Natural England was established, there would remain no need for the Countryside Agency. We see no need for this rump of the Countryside Agency to be renamed the CRC, and thus it should be abolished and its funding and responsibilities directed to the already elected local authorities. As elected bodies, they will provide a far better, stronger and more independent voice, working closely with the rural communities that they already serve.
Could the hon. Gentleman answer my question about who would be the watchdog and the advocate overseeing the work of those local authorities, particularly those local authorities with an urban majority that might drown out the voice of the rural minority?
The voice of the people, through their elected representatives, would drown out that of the Government. The people’s is the strong voice, and the voice that we are supposedly representing. The setting up of the rural advocate is rather strange, because we have a department of rural affairs. One might imagine that Ministers in the department of rural affairs might be advocates for rural communities and advocates in Government, recognising that they have the distinctive role of including that voice in Government policy. Apparently, they do not. They do not feel able to do that work, and they feel that it should be shunted to somebody else who is far more able to do the job for which the whole department was set up.
I was dwelling on the hon. Gentleman’s concept of the voice of the people, because the voice of the people in my rural constituency was hostile to my Government’s ridiculous ideas for regional government and more politicians. It was equally hostile to the concept that the people should have three councils governing them—a parish council, district council and county council. In his valiant call for the voice of the people to be heard, does he think that rural communities would benefit from getting rid of one of those tiers? Perhaps we should get rid of the district council and have some unitary authorities.
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be tempted into a digression about the structure of local government. Those matters can be touched on in the debate, but I hope that they will not become the substance or the thrust of it.
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Forth. All I would say is that I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s views. The independent voice of rural communities is found in strength when they do or do not support their local councils, be they parish, district or county councils.
In my constituency, which is part of Sheffield city council, we have three parish councils. I repeatedly hear the voices of local people expressing the feeling that they are ignored by their urban authority and that they are missing out on the investment that they see going into the city centre.
That is certainly a similar subject, but perhaps my experience in Cornwall is somewhat different, as it now marks the closest thing to a one-party state that we have, since all five Members of Parliament are Liberal Democrats and we control the county council. The voices of the people there have made it clear what they are looking for and what they require, which perhaps are not the Government’s current policies.
At the beginning of the Countryside Agency’s operations, it really understood the idea of rural-proofing. Very early on, it made some very good cases about health services and the retention of our community hospitals. If we had lost those community hospitals, which was certainly a danger at one stage, our current services in rural areas would have been much poorer. So, at the initial stage, the Countryside Agency did some valuable work.
Do not get me wrong—there is a job for rural-proofing. I believe, however, that it is the responsibility of the Department. The Department is there, in Government, to try to put the case for rural communities. If it is unable to do that, it does not matter how many other people advise it on what is happening. If, at the end of the day, Ministers in DEFRA are unable effectively to ensure that Government policy reflects the needs of rural communities, all the advice and all the rural-proofing advocates in the world will not change the situation.
As the Minister responsible for rural affairs, I regard it as my job within government to be the rural champion and seek to influence policy in respect of its effect on rural areas. At the same time, however, the country wants to see that someone independent of Government is able to say to the Department of Health that community hospitals are, or are not, working in rural areas. I do not think, with all due respect, that local authorities coming together, perhaps through the Local Government Association’s rural committee, are going to be a powerful enough voice—listened to and respected by everyone who is sufficiently resourced—to do that.
The Bill states that the commission must
“(a) represent...rural needs”— that is fairly reasonable—
“(b) provide...information and advice about issues connected with rural needs or ways of meeting them, and
(c) monitor...the way...policies...are implemented and the extent to which” they
I do not think that any of those three things could not be undertaken by local authorities. They have been doing most of that for the past I do not know how many years. Whether the Government take any notice is another matter. This is pure duplication. We do not need the CRC to have those as its three primary objectives, as that is what can and has been done by local authorities for some time.
Citizens Advice—no doubt the Minister has also received its briefing—says that it is concerned by the absence of any clear responsibilities for the CRC, other than for advice, information and monitoring. Having looked through the Bill, I cannot see that there are clear responsibilities other than those three aspects either. As I have said, those tasks can quite easily be done by existing local authorities. If the Government really want a watchdog with an independent approach, that independent watchdog must have some teeth. It must have statutory powers to act. The CRC does not. It is totally toothless, and will be nothing more than an advisory, information or monitoring body, without any real powers to ensure that its view is acceded to.
If the CRC is truly to match the ambitions for rural communities as set out in the Government’s rural strategy, it requires independence as well as capacity, expertise and resources to champion and engage effectively in rural policy proofing, development and delivery at both national and regional levels. I cannot understand why a properly funded and resourced local authority, which already has significant experience, expertise and knowledge, cannot do the work that the Minister intends the CRC to undertake.
That is not what is on offer, however. What will happen will in many respects be a bit like what has happened over the last few years, with people having the intention to address rural issues. What is proposed will be just another disappointment, another missed opportunity and a further example of the fact that the Government seem unable to understand rural issues and to tackle them seriously.
The confusion has already started; for example, I received a letter from Dr. Stuart Burgess, whose name appears on the letterhead as chairman of the Countryside Agency—whether or not he is chairman, or is likely to be—and one from the acting chief executive, on Commission for Rural Communities paper, both letters dated 21 June.
Just to clarify the matter, as I said in my opening speech, the Commission for Rural Communities was established in March this year within the Countryside Agency, of which Stuart Burgess is chair. It has an acting chief executive, so it is up and running internally, but if the hon. Gentleman’s amendments took effect it would fall away.
I am delighted to know that. I hope that the setting-up costs, such as the stationery and so on, will not be too great because it would be a shame, having forged ahead, to find that the body will not come into being.
I do not want to trivialise this serious point. There is a genuine feeling in rural areas that the Government have tried to tackle some of their concerns, but setting up unelected quangos, which is their continual answer to the strong voices in rural communities, is not the way forward. The way forward is to recognise that local authorities have a central role in the provision of services to rural areas. They have to be engaged in these matters anyway, principally through planning; they have economic development units and access to a significant amount of advice and information; they are already involved in public transport through subsidy and planning routes; and they are involved, working with primary care trusts, in the provision of health services.
Local authorities have one real additional benefit: they are elected. There is a democratic deficit in the regional development agencies, the Government office for the south-west, the Countryside Agency and the CRC, which is why local people do not feel that the Government are responding properly to their wishes. They want their elected representatives to work with the Government to deliver what they need and want, which will vary between areas—it will not be “one size fits all”. Cornwall’s requirements will be different from those of East Anglia or Derbyshire. Local authorities, with their local knowledge and expertise, should be the real rural advocates. Only if they work with the Department will local communities get cost-effective and efficient services. The CRC will go the same way as the Countryside Agency, which Lord Haskins has already said should be abolished.
Central Government should operate in concert with local government: two democratically elected bodies working for the benefit of the people who elected them. That is what we should return to.
I rise to support virtually everything that the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) said, possibly with the exception of his comments about Cornwall and the one-party state, which I am sure is purely a temporary arrangement.
We made our position clear on Second Reading, as did the Liberal Democrats. We share the view that the CRC is a wholly unnecessary body that will almost certainly be ineffective in achieving the Government’s objectives.
When my party was in office, we were accused, sometimes with merit, of continually setting up unelected quangos. However, the present Government have done so with a vigour that was unknown even in our day. What worries me is the criticism that is always levelled at quangos: they do not actually represent anybody. Sometimes quangos are the most effective way forward. However, as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall made clear, rural people already have perfectly able, reasonable and sensible elected representatives at different levels. In theory, every CRC appointee could be from Westminster or Islington. There is no reason to believe that such people would have a specialist knowledge or understanding of rural areas.
That example was probably extreme and I trust that the Government would appoint people with rural knowledge. However, because, as the Minister explained, the body will be relatively small—we will talk later about the numbers on the board—there is a risk that it will seek to impose on the whole rural community of England its vision of what rural England should be in terms of economic activity. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall pointed out, those economic factors will be extremely different in Cornwall, East Anglia, Northumberland, Yorkshire, the south downs and wherever else—even in South Dorset. It could be argued that it would be better to have a big structure with lots of regional offices all doing what appears to be right, but that would make the situation worse in many ways because it would lead to even more conflict.
As we said on Second Reading, the Government have gone the wrong way not only about this clause but about this element of their whole rural restructuring. It is wrong to give RDAs a considerably enhanced role—arguably it was wrong to invent them—in delivering the economic aspect of the Government’s rural policies. They are wholly unelected. Those functions could perfectly well have been delegated to county or, I would argue, district level where, as the hon. Gentleman said, economic promotional activities are already in place. Most county and district councils have economic development offices and an infrastructure in place. More importantly, they have the down-to-earth knowledge of their particular area and are accountable. If the Government had fulfilled some of their rhetoric of driving power down to the people, they would not need to set up a national rural superstructure.
I hope that I do not need to convince the Minister, the Committee or the House of Commons of my fervent support for rural communities—it has been my guiding principle throughout my political career and will remain so. That is what I am here for. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) is here to represent her constituents, including the three parishes. We are elected to represent our communities, and councillors are elected at district and county level. We all know that we are accountable for how well we do our job, but the proposed organisation will not be.
I shall now highlight one or two examples of how the idea has already failed. The Countryside Agency started fairly well with, for example, the highly successful vital villages programme, through which many village halls were developed and stimulated. However, when the Government decided to change the national lottery rules and we lost all the money for vital villages, did the Countryside Agency say much? Not a lot. What did it achieve? Nothing. The Government rode roughshod over it. Government policy was to change the whole structure for allocating lottery money, so many village hall projects in the pipeline, including some in my constituency, were suddenly cut off. In theory, a rural advocate is fine, but the reality is that if the Government of the day or, indeed, RDAs, which are equally unaccountable, decide to do something different, it does not matter how loud the rural advocate’s voice is.
There is a strong case for saying that this aspect of rural development and of the Government’s restructuring of their rural delivery process need to be thought through again. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, Lord Haskins made his view clear. The Government could have done things differently. They could have driven responsibility for sustainable economic development back down to local authorities, where people are elected from small rural communities—people who have an understanding of the matter and who are accountable. If they get things wrong and seek to impose their perhaps somewhat twee or outside vision of a rural community, and the rural people do not like it, they can be removed at the next election, as applies to us.
This body, however, will exist in perpetuity. If it tries to impose its vision of rural communities, there is nothing that anyone can do about it, other than the Government disregarding it. That brings me back to my first point, which is whether the body is necessary in the first place. The Minister is clearly wedded to it; he believes passionately that it will be a strong rural advocate. I do not in any way denigrate his commitment to it, but I say with utter seriousness that this is not the right way to go about dealing with the problems of rural communities. We should be driving power back down to local people and giving them the resources and the responsibility to resolve their own problems, because then they know that the buck stops there and that things cannot be blamed on some body located we do not know where.
I suspect that I am whistling in the wind, but I support what the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, and I hope that the Minister is prepared to go away and think again on this aspect of the Bill.
I do not dispute for a minute the fact that there are problems in rural areas and rural communities. I represent a constituency with a large rural element. However, there is a danger of talking rural areas down. It is fascinating that when we talk to residents throughout the country, they say that they want to move from urban to rural areas—that is the direction of travel. The growth of the population is in rural areas: people believe that there is a better future there. The rate of unemployment is lower and the rate of economic growth is higher in rural areas, so the notion that they are a wasteland is just not true.
Before I do, let me just say that I am happy to admit that there are problems—that was my opening line—but they are small-scale isolated problems compared with the massive disadvantage that exists in urban areas.
The hon. Gentleman is right about unemployment. Certainly unemployment in my rural areas has gone down, which is to be welcomed. Of course, that is partly because there are no jobs and the young people have moved away to find jobs and careers, often after they have been to university, and they have been replaced by an increasing number of retired people, who are not on the unemployment register. So, although the figures are right, we would like far more jobs to be made available in rural areas, so that when young people leave school or university, they can stay there to live and work. Unemployment rates have come down, but that has not addressed the employment problem.
I am not going to get into a long dispute about unemployment, Mr. Forth, because you will not let me. I merely say to the hon. Gentleman, simply and bluntly, that, yes, that is one factor, but there are others. He is right to say that we need to bring more employment opportunities, in particular, to small parts of rural areas. The Commission for Rural Communities might want to consider the issue.
The Countryside Agency has been important; for example, as an advocate of growth in rural transport. The rate of closure of small village schools has fallen significantly as a result of action by the Countryside Agency and the Government.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but who has been doing that? It is the local authorities that have been receiving the subsidies, sorting out the bus routes and deciding where there should they go. Who has been looking at the schools? It is the local education authorities.
But there has been a policy behind that, which has been decided by the Government. They took the view that they were not going to close small schools. That has nothing to do with local authorities; they were the delivery mechanism, but the policy was made centrally.
Let me give another example. Many Members in this Room were concerned about broadband, and the disadvantages that rural areas might face. However, the development of broadband has been absolutely tremendous. We have made more progress than I ever thought was possible. Yes, there are problems with rural post offices, but the Government are making available money for them to stay open; I know that the problem is tough, and we must find imaginative solutions to it, but they are being found.
The hon. Gentleman is making my point for me. All that happened without the CRC. Broadband has improved, and we did not need the CRC or the Countryside Agency for that to happen. The Government recognised that.
The Government recognised that they needed to consider the infrastructure. The hon. Gentleman talked in his opening comments about the strong campaign for a department for rural affairs. The Government wisely decided against that, and moved towards the establishment of DEFRA. As he said, that led to conflict between DEFRA as a deliverer of policy and the Countryside Agency, which still had a policy function.
I shall make two points about that. First, the needs of rural areas must be acknowledged, and the establishment of DEFRA showed that. Secondly, I feel strongly that there is a need for an independent voice for rural areas. The Minister spoke about independence, and that is important. However, the point that he made about strength is more important. The commission must be a strong body that is not afraid to take the Government on. There must be a dynamic tension—that is the kind of phrase that they use in No. 10 sometimes—between the new CRC and Government.
I am pleased that the chairman of the CRC will be the rural advocate, appointed by the Prime Minister and having direct access to him; perhaps the Minister will confirm that. Hon. Members who have already spoken have made important points, but it is important that the new body sensitises the Government and Departments to the needs of rural areas. Having said that, I accept that there will be some conflict between the policies being devised in DEFRA and the new CRC. That area needs further work and examination.
The new body needs to an independent outsider prepared to criticise the Government openly. It needs to produce an annual report and a stock-take of what the Government do. In the early days, that stock-take might be pretty poor, but it might be an encouragement to Government to do more. However, there is some tension between DEFRA and its officials and the new body, which needs to be carefully managed.
I am also clear that the body is designed to be a policy instrument rather than a service deliverer. That is right, but issues arise from that. One is that it is sometimes hard for a policy wonk to stay in touch with the real world. I am not convinced that the Haskins split between policy and delivery is as clear cut as many people argue. I am not entirely sure from where the CRC will get its knowledge of the situation on the ground, which is an important and difficult issue that needs to be carefully examined. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, the needs of rural communities across the country will be different and require different solutions.
We all admire the work that the hon. Gentleman does and the thought that he gives to the issues. However, I live in a devolved nation, and there are 68 town and parish councils in my constituency. What will the people in the countryside think of the CRC? It will not deliver for them, and if they have points to make about community hospitals and local schools, surely they will go straight to local authorities or DEFRA or the Department for Education and Skills. It seems to me that the CRC will sit in some ivory tower without any contact with the people whom it is seeking to represent.
If that proves to be the case, the CRC will be a failure, but I think that the people surrounding the commission—an embryo body exists—are aware of those difficulties. I want the CRC to be, first, independent and, secondly, a powerful voice for change. The CRC will not be able to make that change, but it will be an advocate, tool and lever for change. It will be judged on what it delivers: I am with the hon. Gentleman on that.
Both the hon. Members for South-East Cornwall and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) have spoken about the role of local authorities. It has become fashionable to do local authorities down, but I want to see them strong and powerful. After two decades of denigrating them and reducing their powers, the tide is turning, and I hope that across all parties there is discussion about the need for a new localism. We want local authorities that are in touch with, advocate for and deliver for local people. Indeed, one interesting aspect of the Haskins review was the weight given to local authorities. Lord Haskins is a strong advocate for local authorities.
My final point is that we will have myriad players working in rural communities. Part 8 of the Bill, which we will come to later, talks about “Flexible administrative arrangements” in clauses 70 to 74, but I have some anxiety about how we will pull everything together. There will be Government offices, RDAs, the new CRC and local authorities, which we will be asking to do some of the delivery. I am not confident that we have mapped out clearly enough the infrastructure to bring about the change that we want in rural areas.
I am aware that new committees are being set up and regional plans developed in various Government offices, but I say again to the Minister that the CRC will be judged in time. Rural administration is fragmented and will need to be examined and worked on, but I am confident that the CRC will play an important role in enhancing rural areas. I want it to be strong and independent, and to take the Government on. I want it to get under the Minister’s skin and, more particularly, under the skin of some of his ministerial colleagues, who are fairly thick-skinned when it comes to rural areas. One way to judge the CRC will be on the amount of trouble that it creates for the Government. I look forward to a lot of trouble being created to try to ensure that the balance between rural and urban communities is better addressed.
I support what was said by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I do not carry a copy of the Labour party manifesto around with me, but I am sure that the Minister will be able to remember whether it contains a provision calling for deregulation. I bet that it does. Certainly in the Budget before the general election the Government were clear that deregulation should be a priority. Yet, two weeks after the election, this Bill is published. Surely it falls at the first fence when judged against that agenda of deregulation because it confirms the re-establishment of a quango. We must question, as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall did very effectively, whether that quango is needed.
The body’s very name—the Commission for Rural Communities—should tell us something about it. I liked the fact that the Minister was able to announce this morning that it will be located in Sheffield.
As I also made clear, the CRC will be located in a lagging rural area.
As someone who was brought up in Sheffield, I remind the hon. Gentleman—and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough will back me up on this—that within the Sheffield city boundary there are areas of outstanding beauty and parts of the Peak park. Do not put Sheffield down.
I feel humbled and corrected by the hon. Gentleman about the beauty of rural Sheffield, which I am sure matches that of the south downs; no doubt both areas have deprivation on a similar scale.
The most serious points made were about the extent to which the establishment of a body such as the CRC usurps powers and roles that should properly belong to local authorities. It is a great pity that, while the thrust of public debate is moving, as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) suggested, towards re-establishing power in local government, we are moving in the wrong direction by establishing this quango. There are issues about the extent to which rural authorities, even in an area such as mine, are sufficiently resourced to be able to deliver services to their areas. However, as an author of a new publication, “Direct Democracy”— I am sure that the Minister will have read it—that argues for a return of power to individuals, to local communities and, if possible, to local government from central Government, I think that it is a shame that that will not happen with this body.
We should also consider the extent to which voluntary organisations have the advocacy role that is being conferred on this body. Establishing public bodies such as this crowds out the ability of voluntary organisations to represent rural areas. There is quite a serious issue about the extent to which the Government are establishing publicly funded bodies that use those public funds to argue for greater public spending in certain areas. Arguing for greater Government intervention is properly the role of civil society and voluntary organisations. Setting up self-perpetuating bodies arguing for more Government intervention and more Government spending seems to me to be wrong in principle.
All of us who are fortunate enough to be members of the Committee will have received representations from a plethora of voluntary bodies—some of which I am sure have representatives here watching the Committee today—that take a great interest in rural England and rural communities and that do a great deal of valuable work. The Government should be listening to their collective voices. I question whether it is necessary for the Government to set up their own public voice to which they are supposed to pay attention.
I am intrigued by the idea of rural-proofing—the idea that the commission should encourage the Government in all cases to think rural and act as a rural advocate. I ask again why voluntary bodies cannot perform that role. In relation to my constituency, the Deputy Prime Minister overruled the wishes of local people as expressed through their local authorities and imposed 46,500 houses on West Sussex. Was that the kind of policy that the new commission for rural communities would have been able to rural-proof? Would it have advised the Deputy Prime Minister that that policy was not in the interests of rural communities in my area? If so, would he have reversed the decision? I suspect not. Large parts of West Sussex have a water shortage and we have a hosepipe ban already. There are serious questions about whether that part of the world has sufficient infrastructure to accommodate housing on that scale, but central Government are simply ignoring those concerns.
I invite the Minister to tell me whether we will be able to rely on the new body, with its powers to rural-proof, to prevent such anti-rural policies from being introduced in future. It is wrong of him to caricature the genuine concern about the establishment of the body that hon. Members have expressed as somehow not properly representing the interests of rural people. I think he suggested that he was surprised that we were not more concerned about them. In fact, we are very concerned, indeed, about the interests of rural people. It is a perfectly simple question to ask whether the establishment of a Government body in itself supports their interests. I do not see that the Bill answers that question positively at all.
I would like to start by stating how delighted I am that Natural England is to be located in Sheffield. It will be a great boost for the city. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood for his defence of Sheffield—never cross a Sheffielder when it comes to their home city; it is always a mistake—and I issue an invitation to the city to the hon. Members for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Herbert) and for South-East Cambridgeshire, who stated that there was nothing natural about Sheffield. They will be able to see just how rural it is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood stated, a third of the city’s boundaries are within the national park, making it a fairly rural city by national standards.
In South Yorkshire overall, and taking the authorities of Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster, it may surprise hon. Members to learn that each one of those authorities is more than 70 per cent. rural. Even in the county that is probably best known for pit villages and steel, there are clearly outstandingly rural areas. I do not want to get into a competition to see who represents the most rural constituency, but the point that I am trying to make was made by the Minister earlier: rural areas can vary markedly and can sit extremely close to urban areas and centres of heavy industry and manufacturing, such as Sheffield.
In my constituency, there is moorland that goes right into the dark peak, right to the edge of the Howden dam, which is best known for the Dambusters. It is home to grouse, curlew, golden plover, skylark and merlin. The dark peak is also one of the only habitats in England for mountain hares. I hope that I have settled the point: Sheffield and many areas in the north can be considered as rural in part, even though they are directly adjacent to heavy manufacturing areas. The issues faced by the rural parts of Sheffield in my constituency are in many ways common to most rural areas in the country.
We have discussed access to small village schools and public transport, but we must also consider affordable housing. Two villages in my constituency, Worrall and Loxley, have, in effect, no local authority housing left, because it has all been bought under the right-to-buy legislation. That means that the average house price in Worrall is now in the region of £150,000 upwards. Even for the north, that is a staggering figure. So there are real issues that I am sure many constituencies in the south-east and across the country share.
There are issues concerning local authority housing. One of the villages that I represent, Stannington, is located on a ridge between the Loxley and Rivelin valleys. It is an outstandingly beautiful location. On one edge of the village, there are tower blocks and two of the most deprived council estates in Sheffield—the Liberty Hill estate and the Deer Park estate. Two miles down the road, at the other end of the village, there are isolated farms in the Peak District national park. That illustrates perfectly why we need a Commission for Rural Communities. Although the local authority, of which I was once part, has recognised the Liberty Hill and Deer Park estates as areas of deprivation to be prioritised for investment, the Commission for Rural Communities would ensure that the local authority would pursue that policy effectively.
In terms of the national policy framework that was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, the CRC will help to ensure that the local authority does exactly what it says it is going to do and takes the rural areas within its boundaries as seriously as it does its city centres. With the best will in the world, an authority such as Sheffield, which is a Labour-controlled authority, needs to have advocates that are ready to ensure that those parts of the city that are not as directly involved in the political process are effectively represented. I take the point about elected representation, but the point is that some elected representatives tend to get more involved in parish-pump and local matters and to isolate themselves from the political process within the local authorities.
The hon. Lady indicated that she was a member of her local authority. Does she believe that the CRC would be a better advocate for those issues than her former council?
I have already said that the role of an elected representative is fundamental to economic development in rural areas, but when I was on the city council, the voice of a commission relating to any subject relevant to a local authority was always taken seriously. Local authorities ignored the policy advice of a commission at its peril. Those commissions, because they are independent and seem to have no direct interest in the issue at hand, are taken seriously, particularly in a politicised city such as Sheffield, which is so politically driven. Statements made by commissions are taken seriously by local community and lobbying groups and are ignored at one’s peril.
Schools, local authority housing and access to further education and employment have already been mentioned, but drugs are also a big issue in rural areas. The issue is not special to urban areas. There are drugs issues across every single rural area in my constituency. The problem needs to be addressed seriously. The problem is often ignored. I am convinced that the Commission for Rural Communities will play a part in raising the profile of such issues, which can threaten to destroy the very communities I am talking about. In a former pit village in my area, High Green, we have a specific drugs problem, which is one of the reasons why it is recognised as one of the city’s most deprived areas.
The whole point of having a commission, which I am pleased to see, is that the focus is going to be on social and economic disadvantage. Drugs and drug taking is one of the key indicators of serious social and economic problems. Outside my constituency, and outside Sheffield, is the village of Grimethorpe, which was made famous by the film “Brassed Off”. Grimethorpe is known as a village with one of the biggest drugs problems in South Yorkshire. It was one of the most prosperous villages in South Yorkshire, but the closure of the pit led to entrenched social problems. It is going to take more than the good will and focus of the local authority to deal with that problem. We need the national policy framework. We need a powerful advocate for communities such as Grimethorpe, High Green and Stockbridge—at the northern end of my constituency—to deal with such deep-rooted problems.
I welcome the commission and I hope the Committee and its members will support the Minister in rejecting the amendments.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, I, like a lot of my colleagues in the House, have been to Sheffield on many occasions and do not need to be reminded of its good side, as well as some of the disadvantaged places. I like it.
I am puzzled at the Liberal Democrat and Conservative approach, and I am particularly puzzled as to why Conservative Members are opposed to the body. However, I understand the rather flawed, tortuous logic in the arguments about democracy made by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall.
During the election, my Conservative opponent honed in on major issues such as housing and wind farms. I disagreed with his solutions to the problems, but they are major, contentious issues, in my constituency and many others, and they relate to the perception of quality of life. To me, it is in the interests of those who want an informed debate and who want to influence Government policy that there be such an independent body that is able to look and comment.
I am not dissing the argument about whether people in West Sussex want more housing and whether the local authority agrees, but there is likely to be a tendency in any rural community not to want significant expansion in housing, and for there to be resistance—we all get it in our communities—to big add-ons of new housing stock in our villages. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said, there is increasing demand to live in those villages. That is a major policy dilemma.
I am as strong in my advocacy of “not in my back yard” in relation to new housing developments as many other Members are, and that case is argued cross-party. For example, in the Shireoaks village, I fought tooth and nail alongside local residents to prevent Bovis Homes from building some ridiculous houses on a flood plain that will, strangely enough, flood one day; the houses would be uninsurable. It would be ludicrous to build them there. Long-standing community members who remember from their life experience what a flood plain is like point out what will happen, where the water will run, and so on. We all can—and need to—put such cases, which are valid. However, in terms of the overall approach, we have to match such arguments with the increasing demand for housing. There are those of us who do not wish every flood plain in Britain to be built on. Successive Governments’ policies have been too lenient in that regard, and that is a very big rural housing issue. However, a body such as that proposed in the Bill might have more weight than I, the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall or any of us putting the case solely for our own constituency when it comes to blocking what we see, quite rationally, as bad developments.
It is similarly the case for wind farms. No one seems to want a wind farm in my constituency, but they want them on every blade of grass outside it; they want hundreds of them. I have counted about 200 proposed wind farm developments. It seems that half of Sheffield, which is up the M1, and most of Lincolnshire and south Yorkshire, north of my constituency, is to be made up of wind farms. I do not know whether the movement is southbound yet; I am sure that it will be. Perhaps we are a dip in the country, and will be surrounded by wind farms. That is a concern, and yet I am a strong advocate of the development of alternative forms of energy supply. No councillor who wants to get re-elected will go around their ward, district or county saying, “Bring all the wind farms here; we’ll have them all.” I do not think that many would survive for long if they chose to do that.
We want an informed debate, in which Government policy is perhaps impacted by the rural community. It seems to me that this body will have quite a potential influence. What it chooses to do is paramount, but we have the ability to pressure and argue about what its priorities should be.
I give another example, which is more controversial and relates to an issue that people in this country do not wish to discuss: immigration and rural immigration. At present, there are about 3,000 migrant workers from places such as Estonia residing in the rural community of my constituency. They are living in caravans, some of which are overcrowded and leaking. Who is their advocate? They cannot vote for me, or for or against the local councillor. Who considers issues such as planning and employment policy and the future of agriculture in that respect? These are major issues in many rural communities and they do not get a proper airing.
If the people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are from Estonia, presumably, as European Union citizens, they are eligible to vote in local and European elections. If they take the trouble to go on the electoral register, they can participate in local decision making.
The hon. Gentleman corrects me and makes a very valid point. Who, therefore, within the local authority chooses to see that group of people as relevant to put on the electoral register? I do not know whether people who are here for a six-month period are entitled to be on the register, but if they are, there is a debate to be had. Let us suppose that 3,000 people in one or two of the wards suddenly appeared on the electoral register—my brain is now thinking ahead and I may rush from the Room. It is a shame they cannot vote for me, too. These are important issues. A commission that can take a non-party political and non-partisan view and crucially that is not subjected to the whims—perhaps I should say the accountability and pressures—of the electorate on some of these issues could come up with coherent, significant advice.
Mineral plans are another example where there is the potential for a clash with the local authorities’ approach. We know how local authorities develop mineral plans; they have to reach certain decisions and they will upset some local communities in the way they do so because they have to achieve their objectives. The impact that might have on a rural community is something that the body might want to take a look at.
GP funding is another absolutely classic example. The future of GP funding in terms of outreach provision—be it single GP practices or the spread of large practices—especially in a constituency like mine, should be considered. Rural GP practices are cross-county and there are all sorts of complications in linking them into the health structures. How national policy determines GP funding is of fundamental importance, and probably much more critical than any decisions of primary care trusts and strategic health authorities in this context. My constituency cannot be the only rural community where that would be the case. There is a very good argument for the proposed body to consider, as part of the work plan, whether rural communities are developing well or if there is a problem. That is exactly the kind of work which, in a non-partisan way, would have an impact on the policy making of political parties and directly on decisions that Parliament might take.
There are many other examples, such as the future of privatised telephone boxes. For many people in rural communities, the existence of a telephone box in the village—