Clause 17 - Commission for Rural Communities

Part of Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 23rd June 2005.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:30 am, 23rd June 2005

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.