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I shall not keep the Committee long, because our intention is perfectly self-explanatory. We seek to amend the commission’s general purpose to ensure that it has a responsibility for the environment. Some Members might feel that we have just done all that with Natural England, but earlier in today’s debate, the Minister said that social issues were mainly the responsibility of local authorities; he used that argument to rebuff the case that we made earlier. Despite that, however, social issues are clearly and rightly going to be part of the commission’s responsibilities. We therefore need to ensure that it understands the gamut of rural needs. That is not to suggest that it will somehow supplant Natural England or seek to interfere, but it will reflect on rural needs in its activities.
For the purposes of this chapter, “rural needs” means
“the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas in England.”
I think that environmental needs should be added to that definition. In rural England, one cannot separate people from the environment. Arguably, of course, the environment is always around all of us, but there is a particular aspect to rural areas in which people are part of the natural environment. One cannot separate those aspects, which is why the commission should consider all three elements as being rural needs.
In some ways, the amendment would reduce potential conflict between the commission and Natural England because without it, the commission could advocate something for social and economic reasons, but then Natural England could say, “Hang on, look at the environmental impact,” to which the commission could say, “To hell with the environmental impact; it is not part of our remit.” I suggest that the commission should understand the environmental aspect of things when proposing some sort of development. The environment is part of sustainable development; indeed, it is central to it. That is the nub of my argument.
The Bill makes it clear that the commission’s primary focus will be on social and economic needs, but in championing people it needs to ensure that relationships between people, businesses, communities and their environment are enhanced, not weakened. Therefore, it must promote ways of meeting the needs of rural people and areas that contribute to sustainable development. Clause 18(1)(b) concerns
“meeting rural needs in ways that contribute to sustainable development.”
So that consideration is there.
In many ways, the argument about whether we should accept the amendment is about whether it should be implicit or explicit that the commission should be mindful of the environment in the context of sustainable development. One could cut it both ways. We chose to state it implicitly in subsection (1)(b), whereas the Opposition suggest that it should be explicit. I am relatively relaxed on this, but there are several bodies that are concerned with the environment and that take the environmental lead, such as the Sustainable Development Commission, and I am nervous about creating too much duplication of duties, so I prefer that the commission should focus particularly on the social and economic needs of people in rural areas.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is right to say that one cannot separate people from the environment. Where the environment affects people, the commission will certainly have a role. It will not be responsible for pursuing environmental goals directly, but will need to play a role in encouraging others to consider such issues in the round in developing sustainable solutions for rural communities. As hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have said, a high-quality rural environment and a vibrant rural economy go hand in hand. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister. He has covered most of the points and has had the grace to suggest that there is not much between his position and mine, except that I want to make the need to consider the environment more explicit. His comments are now clearly on the record as part and parcel of the purposes of the commission, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I want briefly to probe the Minister on the general purpose of the clause and the balance that the commission will strike in dealing with persons suffering from social disadvantage and areas suffering from economic underperformance.
The hon. Member for Sherwood touched earlier on the fact that there is a considerable drift from the town to the countryside. Some of the problems in the countryside are caused not simply by industrial decline, as in the mining villages, but, in a sense, by increasing prosperity. A lot of commuters and others move into rural communities, leaving a rump of country folk—for want of a better word—who often suffer disadvantages. They are the ones who rely on the diminishing bus service and the village shop that is closing down, while the new people probably do not patronise them so much. There are also all the other problems of the changing countryside, and hon. Members will be fully aware of them. However, the rural development agencies and others are concentrating on the mining communities, although they are clearly rural communities, and there are a considerable number of them in the north-east of England. Everyone is very much aware of the coalfield communities, and a considerable amount of work is being done in them.
I am therefore anxious for an assurance from the Minister that the commission will not pick on one type of area and ignore the problems in other, more prosperous areas. I was thinking of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, which is not normally known for deprivation, but it does contain traditional country people who suffer such problems.
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments, because it is important to clarify that when I talk about social disadvantage, I am talking about it wherever it is found. His analysis is correct: at one level, we could say that social disadvantage is a wide side of difficulties that prevent people from participating in society. They include poverty, but also limiting factors such as lack of skills, unequal levels of health and well-being, inability to participate fully in local government and so on. We may find concentrations of those factors in what I referred to earlier as lagging areas, although there was a suggestion that areas might not want to think of themselves as lagging. Such areas are typically remote—there is a core-periphery relationship in all this analysis—and may often have seen a decline in traditional industries, such as fishing, mining and agriculture.
A huge number of people want to retire to my constituency of South Dorset, with its beautiful environment and wonderful quality of life. Many people want to purchase second homes and holiday homes there. In many ways, the prosperity that they personally and individually bring masks pockets of deprivation. I would certainly see one of the commission’s functions as producing the evidence and marshalling the arguments on addressing pockets of rural deprivation so that it can assist government at all levels to do so.