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Clause 17 - Commission for Rural Communities

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 23rd June 2005.

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Question proposed [this day],That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question again proposed.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking 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’.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

Good afternoon, Mrs. Anderson. It is a pleasure to wind up a thorough debate on the role of the   Commission for Rural Communities. Before the Committee adjourned this morning, we were enjoying the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Unfortunately, it had to be ended abruptly, but he put his points over well. I shall try to pull all the strands of the debate together. You seem to be blessed, Mrs. Anderson, with chairing the afternoon sitting and listening to me sum up a debate that you did not have the privilege of hearing in the morning. I shall do my best to reflect it for you.

As a starting point, it will be helpful—particularly in response to the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who perhaps is still enjoying his lunch—to sketch out the basic framework that we are discussing. It is helpful also to think about the organisations that we are setting up to be responsible for delivery, those responsible for policy and those responsible for being an adviser and advocate. That clearly relates to what the Government are doing in setting up the CRC.

In many ways, there is confusion about that. The call for local authorities to be the adviser and advocate runs counter to what we are trying to do in setting up an independent advocate. We all value the role of local government as a major delivery body and as advocate for its own local area, but not for the nation as a whole. The Government are trying to split those functions in respect of England, so that we have clarity about who is delivering and who is the advocate. The regional development agency is the delivery body with particular emphasis on economic regeneration and economic development. The body that we discussed at great length on Tuesday, Natural England, will be the lead body on delivering for the environment. With the commission, we are setting up a body that has separated off its delivery functions and is left with its advocacy and rural-proofing function.

Having mapped that out, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) wanted me to, it is important to say that in many ways the CRC will act as the judge of whether we have got things right, because it will have the power and the resources to examine whether the delivery framework is effective for rural England. I look forward to it taking on that role.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall in particular when the record of this debate is published in Hansard, I stress that we are not abolishing the Countryside Agency. That was the wish of Haskins. We are significantly trimming and simplifying its function and making it the body of the rural advocate—the independent adviser and advocate for rural communities. As we discussed on Tuesday, its landscape and recreation functions will go to Natural England. Its socio-economic functions will go to the regional development agencies. However, those functions that the Countryside Agency—led so ably by the current rural advocate, the Rev. Dr. Stuart Burgess—performs so well at the moment will remain and it will continue to be an effective advocate for rural areas.

I pay tribute to the staff of the Countryside Agency for the work that they have done in that regard. They have achieved significant successes. Departments now rural-proof their policies; indeed, rural-proofing is part of regulatory impact assessments throughout Government. The rural-proofing process is a crucial way of providing equitable access to services for people in rural areas, which is a great achievement of the current functions of the Countryside Agency. However, we must not be complacent, which is why we want to distil its functions into a single body.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, who asked me some direct questions this morning about the role of the rural advocate in individual areas. The rural advocate will be the chair of the CRC; he will continue to be appointed by the Prime Minister and will have direct access to him in that role. He will advise Parliament, not just Government, providing advice to MPs on rural services and the needs of rural communities. He will advise all bodies that have an influence and an impact in rural areas.

It is important for the Committee to recognise the crucial role played by local authorities. I do not want to downgrade that for one second; it has been argued for passionately by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, particularly by the hon. Members for South-East Cornwall and for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). Local authorities are community leaders; they join up and deliver high-quality services to meet local needs and priorities and support the development of sustainable communities, working with regional and local partners.

It is important for the Government to let go, and to devolve decision-making and delivery to local bodies, recognising and strengthening the relationship between delivery bodies and policy makers. However, the Government need to ensure accountability for devolved delivery and the CRC will have a crucial role in that respect, advising Government on what is working and on the improvements that can be made.

We need also to look across, between and within local authorities at any disparities in those areas that are particularly disadvantaged to discover what is working well in some areas so that lessons can be learned and applied in new areas. That is why it is not appropriate to give the entire responsibility for advocacy and for being a watchdog only to local authorities. In the current context of Government, regional government and local government all having an important role as delivery bodies in rural areas, there should be an organisation that is properly resourced apart from those bodies to monitor their effectiveness.

I shall comment specifically on some of the earlier contributions. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Herbert) plugged his book, “Direct Democracy”, which I shall seek in the Library to try to find something appropriate on which to comment next time he speaks. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Bill added regulation, counter to the Labour party manifesto. The CRC is not a regulator; the Bill simplifies and streamlines much legislation.

I trust that the hon. Gentleman has read thoroughly the regulatory impact assessment, which was published alongside the Bill. It reduces the number of bodies with which people have to deal. We have not chosen to put a duty on all public bodies to rural-proof their policies precisely because we do not want to increase regulation on public bodies. We are setting up this adviser, advocate and informer to ensure that policies are rural-proofed, but in a deregulatory way.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the CRC would fight against anti-rural polices. Certainly it will; it is the very core of its function to point out when government, at whatever level—not necessarily public bodies, but perhaps other bodies, too—acts against the interests of rural communities, which we all represent in the House of Commons. It would be the commission’s responsibility to point that out to whichever body is acting contrary to the interests of rural communities. It will then be a question whether or not government, or whoever is being criticised, listens, but armed with the evidence that the CRC will give the hon. Gentleman, if something affects his constituency, his arguments will be all the more powerful because they will have the authority of the Government’s watchdog giving him the evidence.

I listened with great enjoyment to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith). We had some discussion of Sheffield this morning. and of what a fine city it is, because it has been decided that Natural England will have its headquarters there. That is not strictly relevant to the CRC, but one thing seemed to lead to another.

I have great affection for Sheffield. My father contracted cancer on a few occasions during his life. On one occasion we were living in Derbyshire and he went to Weston Park to be treated. Then, 10 years later, when we were living in our other Chairman’s constituency, Bromley and Chislehurst, such was the paucity of care that we experienced locally that we took him back up to Sheffield, to Weston Park, where he was successfully treated again, and he enjoyed many more years of life following that. That is why I have a great affection for Sheffield.

I understand the rural aspects of the city. There were the points that my hon. Friend made about the drugs problems that affect some of the villages in her constituency. I recalled listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw raising similar questions about his own constituency in the previous Parliament. I am sure that issues around drugs and social disadvantage will be those on which the commission will focus.

The CRC will not have a direct role in the planning process because it will not be one of the statutory consultees. That would not stop it commenting on an ad hoc basis, as and when it chose to, in order to fulfil its function as an advocate.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The point that I was attempting to make, and which the Minister could perhaps clarify, is whether or not the remit might include commenting not on the specifics, but on the whole process of planning, and whether or not that is sufficiently rural-proofed.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

I can see no reason why it could not do that if it wanted to do so. I cannot foresee that we would necessarily direct it in that way, and we would certainly not put that in the Bill, but I can see no reason why it should not.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

That is a helpful and welcome answer. Could I get the Minister’s comments on, for example, the creation of village of design statements? That process is slowly shifting powers over planning on the micro level to villages. That process and its effectiveness is exactly the kind of area that this body ought to be considering and commenting on.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which I do not want to go too far down the road with because I am mindful of the need for us to focus on whether or not it is appropriate for us to have a CRC. However, within the planning process, village design statements and, equally, rural exception sites—there are a number of issues—have a profound effect on villages and rural areas. I am sure that the rural advocate and the CRC will be watching carefully and, if appropriate, would want to comment.

I would round off by, obviously, encouraging the Committee to support the clause standing part of the Bill and to reject the amendments tabled by the absent hon. Member for South-East Cornwall. The commission will be a strong, independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog, helping to ensure that the Government’s policies make a real difference to people in rural areas. It must pay particular attention to social disadvantage and the problems of economic underperformance, with rural-proofing right at its heart.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall, who has had to attend an important constituency engagement this afternoon.

This morning, he made a strong case for the role of local government in representing the needs of people who live in rural areas and, indeed, in all areas. This is a time in public life where we want to see clarity, and a certain amount of definition, in terms of who does what. Certainly the public want to know. The public do not want to have a plethora of organisations to which to make their representations. They want to be able to say, “This organisation will reflect my concerns and consider my points of view.” My hon. Friend’s argument that that should be local authorities is effective because they are made up of people who are directly elected by the people whom they represent and are democratically accountable.

Several Labour Members made telling points, such as that of the hon. Member for Sherwood, who is no longer in his place, that Lord Haskins’ point—that delivery, advice and advocacy can be separated—is not as straightforward as it may appear. [Interruption.] As I mention the hon. Gentleman, he enters the Room.

The Bill provides that the role of the Commission for Rural Communities will be to provide advocacy and advice to government and other bodies. It will have no role in delivery. My experience, having worked for the Development Board for Rural Wales, is that people engage with organisations that deliver, because they feel some response from them and thus feel the need to engage with them.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend 1:15 pm, 23rd June 2005

The sort of work that the commission could undertake was exemplified in a meeting that my hon. Friend and I attended last night with BT Wales, when we discussed how BT could, through the improved use of services such as broadband, help more people to continue working in rural communities through homeworking. That would bring opportunities for people to retain their expertise and remain in their home communities, rather than having to be part of the exodus that has gone on for generations in Wales of people leaving the countryside, feeling that they had to go to work in towns. We have a tremendous opportunity to encourage a flow of people back into rural communities, thus giving vibrancy to those communities. Surely, it will be the commission’s role to act as an advocate for government, business and deprived communities, and to ensure that rural communities have such facilities, rather than organisations such as BT having to work on their own with government. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution. She makes a strong argument, with which I agree to an extent, but the Liberal Democrats do not question whether the Commission for Rural Communities could fulfil those functions—I am sure that it would attempt to do so—but whether it is the best organisation to do so. I do not want to stray across Offa’s dyke, but the hon. Lady and I both come from that area, and I think that local authorities in Wales have fulfilled those roles well since the Development Board for Rural Wales was amalgamated with the Welsh Development Agency.

Is the commission the best body that could be put forward to carry out these functions? The Minister has argued cogently, but he has not addressed our concerns. This is a matter of great principle, because once the body is set up, it will be difficult to undo. I have a letter from the chairman of the Countryside Agency in which he expresses himself both in his present situation and in a future incarnation. I presume that he is talking about the commission when he says,

“We intend to be independent and will speak out as necessary— but we accept that we will have to prove ourselves.”

It will have to prove itself to the people who it represents rather than to itself. Although the Minister has made a strong case, stronger cases have been made from the Opposition Benches and some pertinent messages have come from his hon. Friends. Given that, we will ask to divide the Committee.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 4.

Division number 1 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 17 - Commission for Rural Communities

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 3 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

NOES

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.