Clause 17 - Commission for Rural Communities

Part of Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 23rd June 2005.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw 10:15 am, 23rd June 2005

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.