Clause 17 - Commission for Rural Communities

Part of Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 23rd June 2005.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Labour, Sheffield, Hillsborough 10:00 am, 23rd June 2005

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.