§ Order for Second Reading read.3.36 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
When we published our rural White Paper last year, we made clear our continuing commitment to a living, working and thriving countryside. We said that we were not interested in a museum countryside, but in a workaday countryside, in which people could live, work and make their money from the countryside. We said that it was as important for the countryside to thrive between Monday and Friday as it was over the weekend. We therefore said that we should avoid prescriptive, inflexible policies imposed from outside, and that we needed complementary action by all levels of government in order to achieve our overriding objective of securing a sustainable future for our countryside.
The Local Government and Rating Bill represents the first fruit of the Government's endeavour on the rural White Paper, and is manifest proof of the Government's commitment to rural life, rural businesses and rural government. It extends subsidiarity and will mean a welcome boost for rural businesses through a rate-relief scheme. It will mean new powers for parish councils on crime prevention and transport, and better consultation between principal authorities and local councils.
When discussions were held about local government reorganisation, many county and district councils promised that, in future, they would take much more notice of parish councils. They promised all types of participation, partnership, devolution and subsidiarity. Some of the councils have delivered on the promises they made, in their desire to maintain their position, but other councils have been less assiduous in doing so. In the Bill, we seek to ensure that the participation and subsidiarity that are so much a part of a sensible local government system shall be continued.
To deal with the problems of rural England, however, we start with the village shops. If villages are to flourish in a living, working countryside, they require shops in which people can buy a range of daily necessities. That requirement is particularly true for older people, for the young and for those who cannot afford a vehicle or who do not have contact with someone who has one.
The problem in England and Wales is that, for some time, the nature of communities has meant that more people have chosen to shop elsewhere, so fewer people use the village shop. That has increased pressure on the village shop. The Bill will provide much-needed financial help to those businesses by reducing their non-domestic rates bills.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
The Minister put his opening remarks about rural post offices in the specific context of rural England. Will he clarify exactly where the Bill stands, not only in regard to post offices but generally? There seem to be contradictions running through it. The preparatory notes state: 1245Part II applies to local authorities in England.However, clause 35 states:Sections … 9 to 31 extend to England and Wales.Those two statements are contradictory. The title of clause 25 isApplication of Part II to England only",yet some clauses in part III are dependent on part II, which should apply to Wales. The Bill appears confused, to say the least.
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman is right about the confusion. We are trying to meet concerns that should interest him in particular, as they involve the difference between the Principality and England. I am particularly keen to ensure that those differences remain, so parts of the Bill refer to England and Wales. Other parts of the Bill clearly refer to Wales.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will raise any particular concerns, but the explanatory notes to the Bill make it perfectly clear which part refers to which. He will find that some parts of my speech—particularly when I am referring to the English White Paper on rural matters as that was my responsibility—will differ from others when I am referring to the Welsh White Paper, which was the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. I shall try to make sure that it is clear, at least in my speech. If the hon. Gentleman requires further explanation that goes beyond what is already in the Bill, I shall be happy to assist him.
In both England and Wales, the village shop has a particular role to play that is not restricted simply to providing the necessities of life, although that is important. It also provides a centre where it is noticed if someone has not collected their pension or if someone has not been seen for a couple of days. The village shop is the centre of a web of information that should not be lost.
The rating causes real problems, because the village shopkeeper is unable to diminish the cost. He may be able to deal with other overheads, perhaps with careful husbandry, but he cannot affect the rates. That is why we sought to do something about what is often the most onerous part of the overheads.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is dealing with village shops, about which we have corresponded for many years. May I press him a little further on schedule 1? Schedule I refers to the hereditament which benefits the local community. Few amenities are of more benefit to the local community than a really good local garage. I have one in my constituency, and this morning I received a letter from a constituent saying:Lambs of Hornby is more to this valley than just a garage. It is a community centre and an information bureau.I know that because, if I want to know the time of a funeral or if someone is ill or any other information, I have only to ring Lambs of Hornby. I very much hope that it will be eligible for the discretionary rate reduction under the Bill.
§ Mr. Gummer
I can assure my hon. Friend that the village garage to which she rightly refers can be helped by the discretionary rates scheme that we are proposing today. Those village garages that double as the village 1246 shop, selling a significant quantity of groceries and the like, may well qualify for mandatory rate relief. [Laughter.]
Those Opposition Members who find the subject amusing clearly do not understand how central it is to rural life. I understand that some Opposition Members do not have rural communities in their constituencies. One or two of them do, and I have noticed how they have given cross-party support to our proposals. I hope that they will ensure that those of their hon. Friends who are not so interested might at least let us talk about those issues on which we are agreed. There are many other issues about which we can argue.
Happily, we have been able to ensure that the mandatory rate relief of which we have been talking extends not only to England and Wales, but also to Scotland.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
Why is Northern Ireland to be excluded from the benefits that will arise from the Bill?
§ Mr. Gummer
The Bill relates in large part to England and Wales, with some provisions covering Scotland. We pay particular attention to hon. Members from Northern Ireland on issues relating to local government in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that, if they wanted the measures extended to Northern Ireland, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would be happy to consider it.
I believe the proposals to be beneficial. The hon. Gentleman may want to talk to my right hon. and learned Friend, who I know is apprised of his concern. I have talked to my right hon. and learned Friend about the measures, and he may want to extend them to the rest of the United Kingdom, as the hon. Gentleman proposes.
§ Sir Jim Lester (Broxtowe)
While my right hon. Friend is on that point, may I ask a related question? I live in a village with neither a post office nor a village shop. However, it has a village pub, around which everything circulates. The pub has struggled to stay in existence, mainly because of the changes in people's drinking habits, but it is a vital part of the community. Is there some way to facilitate the continued existence of village pubs as well as the vital post offices and village shops?
§ Mr. Gummer
I remind my hon. Friend that one of the best ways of ensuring that the village pub stays in business is to take into account the well-known phrase, "Use it or lose it." I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that the pub has continued support from his own patronage and that of his friends.
I assure him that village pubs will have the chance to be involved in the discretionary scheme. That is helpful, and will enable local authorities, with considerable help from the Exchequer, to give support to village pubs, which are often important community centres.
My hon. Friend made the important point that the great advantage of our rural scene is variety. Different villages operate in different ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) mentioned a village garage. In that valley, the garage is the centre of village life, and it will be up to the local authority to consider the opportunity of supporting it. In some villages in my 1247 constituency, the village pub performs that role, but in others—the majority—it is the post office and the village store. I hope that the Bill is flexible enough to cope with that variety.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
The real problem for small village shops in the north-east of England is the oppressively high level of rates levied on them by local Labour councils. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Bill contains no proposal for a further oppressively expensive local authority in the form of any kind of regional government run from Newcastle?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right to say that many areas suffered considerably when their local authority controlled the business rate. For example, before the Government changed the rules, a shop in Newcastle could pay three times as much in rates as a similar store in Oxford street. Labour councils drove shops out of the centre of Newcastle by charging them three times the rate charged in Conservative-controlled Westminster. Happily, as a result of the change in the business rates, that is no longer a problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) is right to suggest that the problem would return if a regional system of government were introduced. Such a regional government would then impose an extra tax—one of the so-called "advantages" of an extra tier of government—to do what it is difficult to imagine needs to be done. My hon. Friend is perfectly right—[Interruption.]
The laughter from Opposition Members shows their uneasiness about their devolution proposals. They know perfectly well that regional government is a cover-up, and that what they want is to give a degree of independence to Scotland and Wales, without losing the votes of Scottish and Welsh Members in this House. We know what the Opposition are about. They are as uneasy in general as the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford)—who sits with a permanent smile on his face—is uneasy in particular. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall certainly stand against regional government.
General stores have particular problems, and that is why we provided a mandatory reduction in rates. The non-domestic rates are a disproportionate burden of the costs on a small business, and the Bill will automatically halve the rates bills of the only general store and the only post office in a village. That will reduce the rates bills of some 6,000 shops by an average of £500 a year, and, as a result, will transfer from the rates bill to the profits of a small business a significant sum of money. Very often, that money will provide the difference between a company continuing and going out of business, and that is of great importance.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
Can the measures be extended to include village pubs, many of which are extremely vulnerable—particularly in the rural areas that I represent—and can be isolated and under severe financial pressure?
§ Mr. Gummer
As I explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester), there are two ways 1248 to help village pubs. One is to adopt the "use it or lose it" attitude, while the other is to accept that discretionary rate relief will be provided for village pubs in particular circumstance. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow will be pleased to know that a pub that is the only available community facility in a village will be eligible in some circumstances to receive the discretionary rate relief of up to 50 per cent.
The discretionary power will help local authorities to give assistance where it is necessary. At the moment, the only way in which a local authority can reduce the rates bills of such businesses is if the ratepayer is able to prove hardship, which inevitably means that help goes only to those in particularly serious financial difficulties. One of the things we discovered during our discussions on the rural White Paper—both in advance of its publication and afterwards—was that many businesses could not be saved if they reached the point of having to seek hardship relief. We need to give businesses help before they reach that point, and the change in the discretionary arrangements makes that possible.
In recognition of the importance to the community of such businesses, we are seeking to allow local authorities to provide help in time. Instead of being a safety net, the measure will be a means of helping businesses to flourish. In all, we anticipate that the measure will help up to 30,000 businesses in England and Wales by reducing their rates bills by some £20 million. The full cost of the mandatory scheme will be met by the Exchequer, with some £3 million going to the 6,000 or so general stores and post offices, and 75 per cent. of the cost of discretionary relief will be met by the Exchequer, giving more than £12 million for other rural shops and businesses.
Therefore, for both the mandatory scheme and the discretionary scheme, the Treasury will pick up most of the bill, so that people in the locality will be able to make decisions on the discretionary scheme without concerns about the weight that might be placed on other local businesses. But the local authorities will have to make sufficient contribution to ensure that they are sensible and choose appropriate businesses for the necessary support.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
Will the discretionary relief be available in cases in which the hardship has been caused by the councils themselves? For instance, both Lancashire borough council and Wyre borough council are imposing car parking charges and voucher schemes that are driving people out of towns such as Garstaing and Poulton-le-Fylde, which is causing hardship to local small business men and putting them out of business. People are driven to shop in out-of-town shopping centres and to support national chains rather than local shops.
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right to point out that, although our proposals will be important to shops of all kinds in villages, other factors contribute to their ability to survive. One is the provision of proper car parking to enable people to use village shops in the way in which they use out-of-town shopping centres.
I know that the Labour party has made it clear to the newspapers that it would, were it ever elected, reverse the policy on out-of-town shopping centres, so I hope that Opposition Members will listen to my next point, which is important. One reason why it is important to get local 1249 authorities to support our plans is that, without proper parking, people—especially women with children, who constitute a high proportion of shoppers—find it impossible to bring their cars close to the shops.
§ Mr. Gummer
In one second.
The discretionary relief will not depend on hardship, and the shopkeeper will not have to prove hardship. That is an important change, which I am sure will be welcomed on both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Gummer
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), because I promised to do so earlier.
§ Mr. Rendel
Will the Secretary of State clarify a point about which businesses will come within the scope of the legislation? He has talked of businesses that are, in some senses, the centre of the local community. I fully understand that, and everyone appreciates their importance, but the Bill states that those businesses must be of benefit to the local community.
That provision could have a much wider scope, in that many local businesses may provide, for example, employment for the local community, and that could bring in many more businesses than the Secretary of State has so far identified. Will businesses be included if their benefit to the local community lies in providing employment?
§ Mr. Gummer
The proposition is to deal with those businesses that provide the kind of services that are of benefit to the community, especially those members of it who are older, younger or less well-off, and for whom the motor car is not available. The scheme is designed to help the village shop that acts as a post office or general store. The discretionary part of the scheme will enable it to be extended to such businesses as garages or pubs.
Of course, the businesses must be in communities of fewer than 3,000 people, and must also be the only such business. It would be unfair to provide mandatory rate relief for a shop that was competing with another shop but was not doing as well because it was not as good as the other one.
§ Mr. Gummer
I am sorry, but I had better give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day).
§ Mr. Day
Although I welcome the provisions of the Bill, I am disappointed that they do not apply to 1250 metropolitan districts. My right hon. Friend will appreciate that there are villages within those, and within the former metropolitan counties. That applies to my area. He has been to Cheadle and knows that, in Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall, village centres are struggling because of out-of-town shopping developments. I hope that he will not forget that traders in such areas need help, too.
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right to point that out. My problem is that, when we propose measures such as those in the Bill, the immediate reaction of people who would stop one doing anything—I am afraid that there are still some of them around—is, "If you propose this, people will ask," as my hon. Friend has done, "why it does not extend to their area." The fact is that we must try to target the help as well as we can.
I hope that, if I am not interrupted too much more, I shall soon reach another part of the Bill that will please my hon. Friend. We hope both to be able to extend the powers to parish councils and to enable parish councils to be formed more easily than hitherto. There are many urban parish councils, and I should like to see more.
I enjoyed my visit to Cheadle, with its attractive village atmosphere. The traders seemed to be doing extremely well in building up their reputation and gaining adherents who had previously used out-of-town shopping centres beyond the area. I am sure that my hon. Friend's battles on their behalf are part of the reason for that success.
§ Mr. Gummer
If I am to get anywhere near the end of my speech, I must make some progress. Then I shall certainly give way both to my hon. Friends and to some Opposition Members.
§ Mr. Gummer
I shall not forget the hon. Gentleman. He is unforgettable, so I shall not miss him, and shall be happy to give way to him later.
The new discretionary powers mean that local authorities will be able to reduce or waive the rate bills of businesses before they get into financial difficulty. In case anyone is worried about the prospect, I stress that there will remain the right to do that on hardship grounds, as well as the ability to extend it. That is an important difference.
The Bill contains several other measures important for rural life. For example, it will end the anomaly whereby sporting rights—fowling, shooting, taking or killing game or rabbits, and fishing—are rated in England and Wales but not in Scotland. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Gummer
I am interested in the fact that the hon. Member for Camden—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wants, I shall refer to him as the hon. Member 1251 for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), so that the whole world will know who I mean when I say that he giggles as soon as one mentions sporting rights.
For many of our constituents, those rights are the difference between having a business and not having a business. The fact that the hon. Gentleman laughs shows how little interest the Labour party has in rural England. He really should contain himself when we talk about that subject. He is now falling about with laughter, because he does not understand what it means in rural England when people manage—[interruption.]
Of course the hon. Gentleman would like me not to make this point, because it is so embarrassing for Labour candidates throughout the country to realise how little interest the Labour party has in rural England. I hope that his Back Benchers understand that, from the perspective of Holborn and St. Pancras, it is difficult to know about the very limited means on which people operate in the country. For those people, the measure will make a significant difference.
As a result of the measures to be introduced in the Bill, sporting rights in England and Wales will become exempt from rates, and their value will be disregarded in assessing the rateable value of the land over which they are exercised. In our rural White Paper, we made clear our support for country sports. We believe that they contribute significantly to the landscape and the economy of the countryside.
We also believe that decisions on country sports should be made by country people, not imposed from outside. Conservatives remain committed to that principle.
§ Mr. Foulkes
As the Secretary of State knows, I represent a large rural constituency, so I take a particular interest in the subject. The Bill says:Such an exemption already exists in Scotland.As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that exemption came about under the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. In April 1994, while serving on the Standing Committee on that Bill, I raised the issue because it was of concern to my constituents.
The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who I see is with us today, said that the step was being taken to bring Scottish practice into line with that in England and Wales. That just does not make sense. Was I being misled by the right hon. Member for Dumfries? Should he apologise? What has gone wrong? This is very strange. Could the Minister explain?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that both England and Wales and Scotland will now be in the same position. The manner in which we have achieved this miraculous circumstance may lie in the mists of history—I think that we can manage to get by without being too precise about it. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who no doubt extended to the hon. Gentleman the full information that was available to him at the time, would now extend to him rather different information, that information being fuller.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
The matter is not entirely humorous. If the Secretary of State 1252 is now telling the truth, it could not possibly have been told on 19 April 1994 in the First Scottish Standing Committee considering the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill, when virtually the sole justification for the change in law in Scotland was to bring it into line with the law in England. That turns out not be true, and, bizarrely, the Government are now saying that we have to bring the law in England into line with the law in Scotland. Either way, it is bunging money at their rich friends.
§ Mr. Gummer
All those who live in the country will now know what the hon. Gentleman thinks about helping the countryside. He knows so little about it that he can make that comment. Any of us who represent country constituencies know perfectly well that the rights are owned not only by rich people but by all sorts of different people.
The last time that the hon. Gentleman went into the countryside must have been on a Sunday school outing, and he must have had his eyes closed at the time. He has a Milly Molly Mandy view of the countryside; he got it from children's books. It is about time he visited the countryside. I would be happy to take him. If he would like to come for the weekend, I shall spend a weekend with him. Greater love hath no man in offering to give up one of my weekends for the hon. Gentleman in order that he may understand—
§ Mr. Gummer
Of course Opposition Members want me to get on with it, because they do not like what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has said. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), who is a great countryman and knows a great deal about the matter, wants me to get on with the Bill because he does not want the House to know that the official Labour party spokesman does not think that the measure is necessary.
§ Mr. Gummer
He does not; that is very good. I shall ensure that that is made very clear in my constituency, and that my Labour party opponent will have to say whether he takes the same view.
§ Madam Speaker
That is a point of frustration rather than a point of order. I was rather enjoying the exchange.
§ Mr. Gummer
Thank you very much, Madam Speaker.
I ought to address the serious point made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, for the following reason. If, in the course of previous discussions in this House, anyone has inadvertently said something that was other than exactly right, of course I and my right hon. Friend will look at the record and ensure that the House is made fully aware.
1253 I am not introducing this measure merely because it brings England and Wales into line with Scotland: I am introducing it because I think that it is necessary for the health of the countryside. It is something that we have insisted would be valuable. It will not cost the taxpayer a great deal, but it will remove an enormous amount of frustration and some pretty difficult arrangements that have to be made in order to follow up matters. It will recognise—it seems—an important matter for the countryside.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
I should like to clear up this minimal issue that the Opposition have raised. If they knew anything about sporting rating, they would know the difference between rating in Scotland, which was extremely high before we made the change, and the infinitesimal level in England. Naturally, we brought the Scottish level down to what it ought to be—which was nil. I am so glad that my right hon. Friend has made such a positive statement about country sports in the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank my right hon. Friend, but I will ensure that any scintilla of difference is ironed out. I hope that the House has noticed that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was more interested in trying to trip up my right hon. Friend for something that he may or may not have said some time ago than in welcoming an advantageous measure for the country community. We are faced with an Opposition who neither know about nor are interested in the environment, and we now know that they have the same attitude to the countryside.
§ Mr. Gummer
I think that I ought to give way first to the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham), but I shall not forget the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley).
§ Mr. Graham
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State.
I represent an area with many rural communities, but I also travel the length and breadth of Scotland—I even have a holiday home in Scotland—and see many rural communities suffering because petrol stations are closed most of the time in the winter and businesses cannot compete.
I welcome a measure that will help those communities, but it has taken far too long for the Government to respond to the needs of rural villages. I am delighted that something is being done for Scotland, but how much will it cost local authorities? Will they need to employ people to discuss the discretionary rates; will there be more bureaucracy to deal with; will the Government simply allow everything to rumble on and cost us all a fortune; or will there be genuine help for local communities?
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. However, he criticises the timing of a measure that his party has never even suggested; I have been under no pressure whatever from that quarter. One can see why, when the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras does 1254 not even know about the countryside. I sense anger from the Opposition Benches, perhaps because I am striking home.
On local authorities, even in the case of the discretionary grant, 75 per cent. will be paid for centrally from the Treasury, and the mandatory grant will be wholly centrally paid for. At this rate, I may never get to the part of my speech dealing with parish councils, but I hope that they will play a part in England and Wales in deciding on which occasions it would be sensible to have a discretionary grant; they will put their point of view to the district councils, which can then decide.
I shall now give way to the hon. Member for York, after which I must make some progress.
§ Mr. Bayley
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State.
I want to raise an issue concerning shooting rights in Hagg wood in Dunnington, a village just outside my constituency, which is a wood that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) knows extremely well, because he was born and grew up in the village and lived there much of his life; it is quite wrong for the Secretary of State to suggest that he does not understand rural life.
Hagg wood is owned by the Church Commissioners, but the Forestry Commission has a 999-year lease on it. For many years past, my constituents and residents in Dunnington have been able to walk and ride in the wood and to use it for recreation. Now, because the Forestry Commission is selling the land, the Church Commissioners feel that they can no longer extend open access, as they want to exploit the shooting rights. Instead of being able to ride in safety in a wood, children will have to ride on the roads, and people will no longer have access.
Has the Secretary of State considered the effect that this provision in the Bill will have in closing access to countryside and woodland to the general public, and will he ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to ask the Forestry Commission to delay the sale, so that the matter of shooting rights and access can be sorted out, and access can continue should the wood be sold?
§ Mr. Gummer
Of course I shall be happy to talk to my right hon. Friend, but the provisions in the Bill make no difference to the circumstance to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because the shooting rights are there in any case; the question is whether rates are paid on them, and that is a matter that must be marginal to a decision of the Church Commissioners. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I shall investigate the matter and ensure that my right hon. Friend does so, too.
The Bill has an important provision on Crown exemption, which will bring Crown property, such as the buildings of Government Departments, within the rating system. That is a very important change. I do not think that the Government should be protected against the normal effects of the cost of running a business. Such buildings are technically exempt from rates, although, since the late 19th century, the occupiers of Crown property have paid a contribution in lieu of rates. That is a different sort of contribution. It does not mean that they have the same reaction to the rating system as normal businesses. It is necessary that they should. The Bill ends that exemption.
1255 The House recognises that parish councils come in all shapes and sizes. There are very small ones, such as Snape in my constituency, but the parish council of Felixstowe, which is called the town council, covers an area containing more than 20,000 people. It is a much different business from the village of Snape. Between them are towns of other sizes, such as Aldeburgh or Woodbridge, all of which have what are technically parish councils.
Many urban areas have parish councils. The question is how to provide for them to play a better part in the community. Many would like to do something more. I do not expect that to happen in Stone parish in the borough of Swale in Kent, because it has no population. That is one end of the scale. Parish councils with more than 20,000 people may want to do much more than they do now.
At present, such parish councils are significantly restricted. I am not seeking to give them duties that they must carry out but to offer them opportunities to choose to carry out things that they feel that they could do. For that reason, and because we found in the response to the rural White Paper that many parish councils want new powers, the idea is that the powers will be permissive. The powers will not be forced upon the parish councils; they will choose.
The powers will give additional opportunities in respect of five matters: first, to establish and support a car-sharing scheme; secondly, to pay revenue grants for a community or voluntary group running a bus for the benefit of elderly or disabled people; thirdly, to grant taxi fare concessions for people in the categories covered by local authority concessionary fare schemes; fourthly, to investigate transport needs and publicise public transport services; and fifthly, to fund traffic calming works to be carried out by the highways authorities.
Those five powers are necessary for many local parish councils to be able to things from which they are currently prohibited by law. I believe that the House will generally welcome that.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
Can the Secretary of State explain why the Bill would allow parish councils, no matter how small, to raise a precept for extra public expenditure while his colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland is utterly opposed to a Scottish Parliament raising extra funds for its expenditure? Do not Cabinet members talk to each other?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Lady has totally different views. We are talking about local councils close to people, and about people who know the people who are running the council. They know perfectly well whether they are prepared to pay. The hon. Lady is putting forward a fictitious and fake proposition: that there should be a Parliament for Scotland that would raise money but would not contribute to the wealth or economic advancement of Scotland. It would drive people out of Scotland, because they would be much more likely to site their businesses where they did not have to pay the tartan tax.
The Opposition are attempting a sleight-of-hand by making sure that Scottish Members of Parliament are different from English Members of Parliament. Scottish Members, under the hon. Lady's proposals, would have 1256 votes on English matters in the House of Commons, whereas English Members would have no votes on Scottish matters. That is unacceptable to my constituents and to all English constituents.
What is more, the hon. Lady's ideas would take away from this country its enormous advantage in the world of being a United Kingdom, able to fight for its position collectively, not just in the European Union but in the councils of the world. The hon. Lady would not just damage Scotland; she would charge the Scots for the damage she does. Her policies are unpopular in the United Kingdom in any event.[Interruption.]
It is interesting to see how many Opposition Members feel uncomfortable about the devolution proposals, and to note how many Scottish Labour Members are beginning to worry about the extra taxation that would be involved. They know that taxes will be higher under a Labour Government anyway. The hon. Lady's constituents do not want her to be a half Member of Parliament, which is what she would be if her party came to power.
Some parish and community councils already do many of these things. However, parish spending on transport and crime prevention—matters of tremendous importance to many villages—is currently limited to £3.50 per elector—the sum that parishes can raise for general purpose spending. The new powers will give parishes the freedom to increase their precept beyond that limit to cover the costs of new community transport initiatives.
The same is true of crime prevention. Crime and the fear of crime are highly relevant to rural areas, just as they are to the inner cities. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) might like to listen to this, even though he does not represent a rural area. It would be nice to find him caring about rural issues, since the principal Opposition spokesman on these matters has clearly forgotten whatever youthful touch he may have had.
We have taken the opportunity here to give parish and community councils in England and Wales a new power to help the police and support local crime prevention efforts. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) has not been listening to what I am saying. We are increasing the £3.50 expenditure limit, so other parts of general spending are not excluded. The hon. Lady should listen and not talk so much. She continually tries to help out the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, because she, unlike him, has some rural interests.
The new provision will give parishes a new and separate statutory power to raise money so as to be able to help police authorities in their fight against crime. In so doing, parishes will be able to set conditions governing what their money is spent on, subject to the agreement of the chief police officer in the area concerned.
We have not been prescriptive. We want parishes to choose, but consultation will be important. I said at the beginning that one of the problems attending recent discussions of local government reorganisation was the number of promises made by larger councils to consult smaller ones. Some of those promises appear not to have been fulfilled. It is hard to see, for instance, how Lancashire county council has carried the promise through. But we have a list of the promises that have been made. I intend to insist that consultations continue. 1257 That is why, in the Bill, we are taking powers to enforce consultation between tiers of government when people refuse it.
In this context, planning is significant. Parish councils have an important part to play in planning. They can make recommendations to the district council, but it is, of course, for the district council to decide. The problem is that the latter usually does not tell the parish council why it has chosen to disregard its advice. If the district council has to explain its reasons, it is more likely that a consensus on planning matters will emerge. I know that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) would agree with me here, and I also see the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) nodding in agreement.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
All the measures that my right hon. Friend has spoken about so far give the lie to all those who rather sniffily said that there would be no flesh on or money devoted to the White Paper on rural areas.
On the specific powers of parish councils, could he be more positive about the ability of those parishes that raise extra money for a special parish constable to employ that person in their area, such as Exmoor in my constituency, instead of him being hived off to Bristol? Secondly, on planning powers, and going back to our discussion about garages and village shops, will parishes have the power to stop garages opening up as a shop as well, which would then compete with and possibly have a destructive effect on the village shop, as recently happened at Wheddon Cross in my constituency?
§ Mr. Gummer
The second part of my hon. Friend's question does not relate so much to the village garage, but to chains of garages which are increasingly seeking to offer retail provisions as well as to sell petrol. I am watching that pattern carefully. I do not think, however, that it is a matter for parish councils.
§ Mr. Gummer
It is about time the hon. Gentleman came clean with the House. He appears to be going round the country giving comfort to various large retailers by saying that, if there were a Labour Government, there would be no problems about restrictions on out-of-town shopping centres. That is widely reported, and it does not appear to be as widely denied. That is interesting.
§ Mr. Gummer
I do not have to wait, because those circumstances will not arise. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall not change my views after the election, when I shall continue to be in a position to make sure that such developments do not happen.
As for the other question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), the contract for the parish constable will be a local one. A parish constable is different from a special constable, who is at the beck and call of the chief constable. In my area, that special constable often finds himself policing the Ipswich Town football match at Portman road rather than patrolling the small village that he had hoped to look after.
1258 That local contract will enable someone to opt for the real village policing that we are particularly keen to support. The envisaged arrangements make it possible for that to happen.
§ Mr. Gummer
I rather think that you, Madam Speaker, would wish me to draw my remarks to a conclusion soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett Bowman) and I are as one on the issues. I want to make progress, because the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has spent a lot of time asking me to get on because I have said some rather uncomfortable things about him, which I notice he has not so far denied.
There are some real problems about parish councils, because at the moment they cannot easily be formed.
§ Mr. Gummer
Many people would like to have a parish, but the system is arcane and out of date. Although there are already 10,000 parishes in England, of which 8,000 have parish councils, there are areas without parishes where local feelings strongly favour the creation of a parish council to reflect the clear local identity and sense of community. That is natural where a community is well established and settled. The hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) might listen to what I intend to do to help to make that possible.
Demographic changes over the decades mean that some existing parishes no longer properly reflect the shape of the local community or local identities. Such areas want not a new parish but a different, specific area to be included in that parish. We therefore want a flexible system to deal with parish reviews.
Under the current system, even the smallest amendment to a parish area requires the full weight of the Local Government Commission's consideration. Here I might find common cause with the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, because that commission is perhaps not always the organisation to which so small a matter should be referred. We have included provisions in the Bill to make it much easier to react to local demand for new parishes and alterations to existing ones.
The Bill enables district councils to review parish arrangements and to recommend new parishes or parish boundary changes directly to the Secretary of State. In addition, electors will be able to start a process leading to a new parish for an unparished area by means of a public petition. We must, of course, be sure that such a petition represents broad measure of support for a new parish. Under the terms of the Bill, as long as a petition is signed by 250 people, or 10 per cent. of the electors for the proposed parish, whichever is the greater, that will set the ball rolling.
1259 There is also provision in the Bill to enable me to direct the Local Government Commission to conduct a review of parishing arrangements only. At present, I cannot do that, and such a review has to be part of a much bigger exercise. We shall shortly issue draft guidance for consultation to explain what the basis for a new parish should be.
The measures in the Bill will mean that it will be far easier to respond to local opinion where there is demand for a new parish or changes to existing arrangements. The Bill enables us to direct help to the very parts of the rural world where help is most needed.
In the preparation of the rural White Paper, which has been widely welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, we consulted widely. Since its publication, an enormous number of meetings have taken place all over the United Kingdom to discuss those issues, with the result that we now know even more about people's concerns. I recently published the first anniversary report to set out what we had done to fulfil our promises in the rural White Paper. Part of that report refers to the Bill.
The Bill makes sure that we can help the rural post office, village shop, garage or local pub. It enables us to give parish councils greater powers, and makes sure that those who are dependent on the life and the livelihood of country sports will not find themselves rated. It ensures that parish councils can be set up because people want them, and not after an enormously complicated and arcane process. Above all, it is designed to ensure that the parish council plays a much more important role in British society than it has until now.
I believe in subsidiarity—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—but I notice that most people think that subsidiarity is all right when it means taking power from people on a superior rung of the system, but they are not terribly good at pushing the power down to people on lower rungs. I notice that district councils are keen to take county council or Government powers, but less eager to hand them on to school governors, hospital trusts or, indeed, parish councils. The Bill is designed to ensure that parish councils play a more important role in our lives. That is right, and I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
The Bill covers mainly local government and rating in rural areas, as the Secretary of State has been at infinite pains to point out. It was introduced to put right things that are wrong in rural areas, and there are certainly many things that need to be put right. Over the past 17 years, little attention has been paid to the problems faced by people living in rural areas. Many of those problems have got much worse, some are getting worse and some are a direct result of Government policies.
Just look at the record. Crime has more than doubled in rural areas. Unemployment has risen more sharply in rural areas than elsewhere. Homelessness has doubled in rural England and rural Wales; in rural Scotland, it has trebled—yet still the Government stop councils building houses. Deregulation has deprived hundreds of villages of any bus service at all. Village schools have disappeared because the Government forced local education 1260 authorities to get rid of surplus places. Small local hospitals and cottage hospitals have been swept away and village shops have closed.
The Local Government and Rating Bill is a belated recognition that those things have gone wrong. It has been described by some as a confession of failure, because it highlights the Government's failures. If the Bill is a confession, it is a signed confession. It carries the names of the guilty on the back page: the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales have all had to sign the confession. For some curious reason, however, this Bill dealing with rural areas does not carry the name of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It has been suggested by one of my less pleasant hon. Friends that another confession of failure on his part would probably be the final straw.
If the Secretary of State does not like my calling his Bill a confession of failure, it might be more pleasing to his ecclesiastical habit of mind if I were to call it a deathbed conversion. The Government have been in power for 910 weeks and now, with a maximum of 26 weeks to go before the election, they have seen the light, recognised the harm that they are doing to our green and pleasant land and, belatedly, started to put things right.
The Bill is both a confession of failure and a deathbed conversion, but I believe that it is intended to be something different—an attempted plea bargain by the Government. They hope that, if they plead guilty and promise to start making restitution, voters in rural areas will not punish them at the general election. Apparently, the Conservatives intend to fight the next election on the slogan "Better late than never".
This belated Bill will not save the Tory party from the consequences of action and inaction, which have left rural communities in their present state. The Bill provides much too little, far too late. It does not relate to many of the problems that afflict local communities. Its proposals will not be enough to solve the problems to which it relates, and it will force local people to pay for most of the improvements that it intends to make.
In the Bill, the Government are not making restitution for what has gone wrong. The Bill proposes to change the law so that the victims of the Government's rural policies will be permitted to spend their own money, to put right the things that the Government have got wrong. The Government are telling local communities, "If you have a problem, put it on the parish rate."
For 17 years, the Conservatives have said that market forces can solve everything and have claimed to be the low-taxation party, but in the Bill they acknowledge that market forces cannot meet all the needs of rural communities, and propose instead a new local tax that local people must pay for putting things right in their area. It is the Government's 23rd new tax since the previous general election.
The Bill provides that, through parish councils, local people can, at their own expense, promote crime prevention and local transport services. We favour the idea of local communities being able to take such initiatives, but we need to consider the scale of what is proposed against the scale of the problems.
1261 A tidal wave of crime has engulfed many rural areas in the past few years. Places where local people were proud to be able to leave doors unlocked, or even open, are increasingly besieged by thieves. Villages are robbed and burgled. Organised gangs knock off huge truckloads of livestock, chicken's eggs, or—as will happen in a month or two—Christmas trees.
In rural areas, the increases in crime are enormous. In Gloucestershire, crime has more than trebled, with violent crime up by 260 per cent.
§ Mr. Dobson
It is a fair stride for a knock-off merchant in Kentish Town to get to Gloucestershire to do a robbery, but it may happen. I am saying—the hon. Gentleman makes my point entirely—that what the Government propose today will not stop the long-distance professional criminal. We need a national crackdown on such people. The problem cannot be solved locally.
In Shropshire and in Hereford and Worcester, crime has more than doubled. In Lincolnshire, it has increased by 170 per cent. In Leicestershire, crime has trebled and violent crime has quadrupled. In Cambridgeshire, represented by the Prime Minister and the chairman of the Tory party, violent crimes have doubled, but I do not blame them for all of them.
Those are the official figures. They do not give the full picture.
§ Mr. Gummer
Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the Labour party has voted consistently against every crime measure presented by the Government? Why has the Labour party always been soft on the criminal and hard on the victim? Why will it not change its views?
§ Mr. Dobson
I shall treat the Secretary of State's intervention with the contempt that it deserves. What he said is simply not true, and it is no good him burbling on about it.
The reality is: drug squads in every police force in rural areas, lager louts in many a country town and old people's lives dominated by crime and the fear of crime. Hon. Members who represent rural seats know that what I say is true.
Although rural communities should be given the power to protect themselves, that alone will not solve the problem. We need a nationwide drive against crime, a nationwide—indeed, international—drive against drugs and a commitment to tackle the causes of crime. Labour is committed to those policies.
The Bill will empower parish councils to promote local transport. That is to be welcomed. It follows the example set all over the country by Labour councils that have used their powers to improve bus and train services—for example, the initiative taken by Lancashire county council and district councils in the county, in conjunction with parish councils, to improve local railway services and stations, so encouraging more people to use the local railway service. That initiative was ritually denounced by the Secretary of State a few minutes ago.
§ Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)
Is it not possible that a problem could arise if parish councils were 1262 allowed to raise more in their precepts? If district and county councils that already provided services such as those that my hon. Friend describes were capped and strapped for cash, they could say to the parish councils, "You can raise the brass; get on and do it," and the service might deteriorate, rather than improve.
§ Mr. Dobson
Nothing in this world is all gain: there are advantages and disadvantages. Unless great care is taken, the situation described by my hon. Friend might arise.
The Government now recognise that a local effort is necessary, but it is a struggle in the face of the Government's overall transport policies, and above all their policy of bus deregulation. Clauses 26 to 30 have had to be introduced to give the parishes powers to offset the harmful impact of bus deregulation. The Government are giving with one hand the power to deal with the lack of the service that they have taken away with the other.
As a result of bus deregulation, the number of passengers going by bus in shire counties has fallen by 20 per cent. Less than one third of rural parishes have any bus service at all, and many others have no bus service after dark. Yet people in villages have to travel much further for vital services than people who live in towns. Fewer than one in five villages have a permanent GP, half do not have a school, fewer than half have a shop and one third do not even have a pub.
The measures proposed by the Government will help, but much more is needed, starting with the reregulation of the buses, as Labour proposes. In exchange for the right to run services on the most popular routes at the most popular times of day, bus companies will be required to run buses on less popular routes at less popular times of day. That is how the system worked before, when there were many more bus services than there are now.
Housing is one rural problem that is not addressed at all in the Bill. The sale of council houses and the failure to build more to replace them has contributed to the record levels of homelessness in rural areas. Many young people have had to leave the village where they grew up, in order to find somewhere decent to live. It is often forgotten that, when the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), now the Deputy Prime Minister, introduced the sale of council houses, it was intended that the takings should be used to build more. Except for one short lucid spell, that has not happened. Recently Ministers have taken to denouncing the whole idea; I do not know whether they have cleared that with the Deputy Prime Minister.
Labour will encourage councils to invest the takings from the sale of council houses to build new houses and rehabilitate old ones. That will be phased to give councils and the building industry the benefit of steady expansion. Such a programme offers real hope to many people, especially young people in rural areas, that they will be able to afford somewhere decent to live in the village where they grew up. That is vital to local communities so that they do not become devoid of young people, and to ensure that there are people to provide vital services such as the post and the milk round.
§ Mr. Gummer
Will the hon. Gentleman give a guarantee that the same amount of money for spending on capital matters would be provided at the same time, or would the spending of capital receipts replace that?
1263 Furthermore, will he give a guarantee that only the capital receipts held by the authority concerned would be spent, and that no capital receipts would be transferred to other, less careful authorities?
§ Mr. Dobson
We intend that the capital receipts from the sale of council houses should be released in phases to enable councils to get on with building houses. We have no intention of compulsorily transferring any such assets from one council to another, which we must have said a dozen tunes. I think that the Secretary of State is losing his marbles.
§ Mr. Gummer
Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to answer the other question? Would the same amount be given to local authorities for spending on capital matters, and what is the difference between the phased release that the hon. Gentleman talks about and the fact that local authorities are already, in most cases, able to spend much of their capital receipts on enabling housing associations to build houses?
§ Mr. Dobson
Again, the Secretary of State is in danger of misleading the House. There are severe restrictions on what councils can do with the takings from the right to buy, whether in relation to housing associations or not. What I am saying—I have said it before and I shall say it again—is that we shall release the takings from the right to buy. That proposal is welcomed by every housing association and by everybody committed to providing housing. The only person who apparently cannot understand it is the Secretary of State. As he cannot understand it after I have explained it to him twice, I do not propose to give him a third opportunity.
§ Mr. Gummer
I asked the hon. Gentleman a direct question. Will he guarantee that, alongside his proposal, the money provided for councils by the Government for capital expenditure will not be reduced?
§ Mr. Dobson
The object is to increase the amount of housing being built. These questions are from a man who sits in a Cabinet that will not even guarantee money next year for any hospital in the country, yet he is asking me to dish out guarantees. What I am saying—I shall repeat it yet again, in case the Secretary of State still fails to understand—is that, as a result of our policies, there will be more money for the house-building programme. We have made that clear, and that is why even Tory building companies welcome the proposition.
§ Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)
Following the hon. Gentleman's earlier remark, will there be more money for buses? He told us that there would be a new system of bus regulation, which would require bus operators to operate services other than those they operate at present. Presumably that means more financial support and a return to the old transport commissioners. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us more about that?
§ Mr. Dobson
That does not follow at all. With bus deregulation and, in some cases, privatisation, we have seen a massive increase of semi-private monopolies all over the country. They are rolling in money, and, under 1264 the regulatory system, they will be expected to provide services on the less popular routes at less popular times of day in exchange for the right to operate at popular times of day on the popular routes. They will not get subsidies to help them.
I give one example of a dire housing situation. In the Forest of Dean, the number of applications for housing by homeless families has almost doubled in three years, from 185 in the whole of 1993–94 to 164 in the first six months of this year. The council expects a further escalation in youth homelessness as a result of the lack of new house building and the changes in social security rules. The young single homeless project run by Gloucestershire county council and Shelter is also threatened by the change in housing benefit regulations. Last year, the project dealt with more than 200 young people in the Forest of Dean. Having nowhere to live leaves those young people especially vulnerable to drug pushers and other criminals, whose presence in the Forest of Dean has been growing.
Most disturbing of all are recent reports that some of the drug barons have been buying up houses which they then let to young homeless people, a move calculated to entrap the young people, to increase the evil profits of the drug pushers and to terrify local families and the local police. All that is happening in Gloucestershire, which has already seen the biggest rise in crime in any part of England—a rise that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who has now left the Chamber, attributed to outsiders. The provisions in the Bill that will allow parish councils to put some of their own money into crime prevention are welcome, but they will not counter developments such as those that I have described in the Forest of Dean.
The proposal in the Bill that has attracted the most attention is rate relief for village shops and other village businesses. It is certainly true that local shops have taken a pounding under the Government, who, until recently, actively promoted out-of-town shopping developments, which undermined village shops as well as high street shopping centres. When they changed their policy, vve welcomed their belated recognition of the damage that the planning policy was inflicting on existing retailers, both rural and urban.
We welcome the Government's adoption of a policy based on a presumption against such developments. We continue to believe that town centres should be the preferred location for major retail developments, although we recognise that some out-of-town developments may be justified in particular local circumstances. If the Secretary of State wants to rely on rumours and lies in the papers instead of on what I have just said, that is entirely up to him.
Although help for rural shops is welcome, it should not be overestimated. By the Government's calculation, the saving from the mandatory rate reduction will average f500 a shop. When the shop is rented, it is not clear front the Bill whether that saving will go to the shopkeeper: it may go to the landlord, who is not required to pass it on. As drafted, the Bill leaves many questions about definitions unanswered. The concession is for rural settlements, but what is a rural settlement? Will the concession apply to rural settlements in a city, metropolitan or unitary district? There are many sensible definitions of a rural settlement.
1265 Why have local pharmacies not been singled out to receive the concession, as recommended by the Select Committee on the Environment? I raise that point because of the new threat to local pharmacies: the proposed abolition of resale price maintenance on non-prescription medicines. That has raised fears all over the country that local chemists will be forced to close, reducing the service available to people living in small towns and villages. For example, in Colne valley hundreds of people signed petitions about the threat to pharmacies in Linthwaite, Slaithwaite, Milnesbridge and Golcar. The Bill does not address the new threat to local services.
The proposal to help local shops raises a matter of principle. Why does the concession apply only to villages? Why does it not apply to other areas where there are one or two shops that can hardly make ends meet? There are plenty of large estates, both council and private, on the edge of towns whose residents will feel that they equally deserve such financial support. Some such shops may be even more badly placed than village shops because of high insurance and security costs, on top of the fact that many of their customers are out of work or on low incomes.
Shops on the Matson estate on the edge of Gloucester have closed. The situation is so bad that a small shop selling basic groceries has had to be provided in the voluntary neighbourhood centre. That centre pays no rates except on the shop premises. People living on that and similar estates will want to know why the concession does not apply to their local shops.
Another example is the Lumbertubs estate on the edge of Northampton, where the general store is threatened with closure. If it closes, residents without their own transport will be isolated. On top of the usual problems, that shop has been repeatedly broken into. Local people want closed circuit television in such areas, because they have seen its benefits in the town centre. CCTV was pioneered by Northampton borough council without Government help, and still nothing is forthcoming.
The Bill proposes a number of sensible changes to help and expedite the setting up of parish councils: indeed, it returns the law to what it was before the Government made a mess of it by changing it. It increases the entitlement of parish councils to be involved in the decision-making processes of their district and county councils. The Secretary of State again referred scathingly to Lancashire county. When I last met representatives of parish councils in Lancashire, they had no word of criticism of the county council about consultation.
All those developments are a welcome acceptance by the Government of the merits of the policies that we have advocated for a long time. Unfortunately, the sensible aspects are marred by what appears at first sight to be the highly prescriptive nature of the Government's proposals, which look as if they will require the Secretary of State literally to lay down the law to individual parish councils. It seems that the Government cannot break the habits of a lifetime. Fortunately, however, that lifetime is rapidly drawing to a close.
Planning is a major responsibility of local government, and it should have been included in the Bill. Opencast mining is a major planning aspect, and it should have been dealt with in the Bill—but that has not happened. It is the rural blight that the Tories always forget. It has not been dealt with in the Bill; it was not mentioned in last month's 1266 White Paper on rural England; and it was not mentioned last year in the Government's rural White Paper. Opencast mining is the biggest, ugliest and most environmentally damaging activity in rural England, but the Tories dare not even speak its name.
Opencast mining is ugly, noisy, unhealthy, dangerous and dirty. It threatens rural communities in Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire. The Government do nothing and say nothing about it, because they have encouraged it and sold off the rights to private companies that are willing to destroy thousands of acres of countryside for short-term gain.
I shall give one or two examples of the problems faced by people in rural areas. In west Yorkshire, RJB Mining is the owner of most of the 660-acre Windsor site, which straddles the boundaries of Dewsbury, Batley and Spen, Normanton and Morley. It includes woods and watercourses, and it is criss-crossed by rights of way. It is a green lung for the surrounding communities, but it is now under threat.
In Derbyshire, RJB has just emerged as the buyer of an even larger site—the Shilo North site—which extends around Amber valley, Ashfield, Broxtowe and Erewash. In a joint effort with local people, the Labour-controlled Amber Valley and Broxtowe councils—supported by Tory Members of Parliament for the area, who are both Treasury Ministers—tried to buy the site, but they were outbid by RJB. It is another example of Tory profiteering getting the better of local people's interests.
Labour intends to change the rules so that opencast mining will be permitted only where it benefits the local community and environment. We also believe that the law should be changed to protect communities from repeated applications for the same or similar opencast developments. The Bill could have done that, but it does not.
I shall give an example of what is so upsetting for local people. In north-west Leicestershire, in 1993, an application to opencast a 500-acre site was rejected. At that time, the site was called Coalfield West. Now, the villages of Heather, Normanton-le-Heath and Ravenstone are beset by another application to opencast the same site—only this time, it is called Thorntree. As far as the local people are concerned, enough is enough. They want no to mean no. They want the law to be changed, and so do we.
What about the problems that people face when they are ill in rural areas? Their problems are mainly connected with transport, which parishes may wish to try to deal with under the new powers set out in the Bill. The national health service, whose anniversary was yesterday, was founded on the principle that the best health services should be available to all, wherever people live or whatever their circumstances. But that is not so in many rural areas. There, the groups most in need of health care—children, women of childbearing age and people who are poor, disabled or old—have the least access to the NHS. Instead, rural health care is most readily available to the best-off and healthiest people. That cannot be the right priority.
People living in rural areas need treatment even if they do not have enough sick relatives and neighbours nearby to attract a doctor to set up in their village. Similarly, 1267 they may need a hospital or an ambulance even if they, their family and their neighbours will not use either as intensively as the residents of a more densely populated suburb or town. They will still need a hospital and an ambulance service.
Unfortunately, most of the changes in the NHS have made matters worse. Countless local hospitals have been closed or have seen the number of beds reduced in the NHS's mad dash for centralisation. Leicestershire presents a good example, because it has experienced the closure or partial closure of Markfield hospital, Zachary Merton home, Ellen Towle home and Groby Road hospital, while services have been concentrated in the city of Leicester.
What about the problem of schools in rural areas? That, too, is very much a question of distance and transport. Hundreds of village primary schools have gone, as local education authorities have been forced to respond to Government and Audit Commission pressure to reduce the number of places. Village schools make a vital contribution to village life. The Government could have included some help in the Bill, but they have not. Instead, they are proposing to make matters worse.
As the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said, where there is only one school, there is no choice. That is true in many rural areas. In many sparsely populated areas, not only is there only one primary school, but only one or, at most, two secondary schools are within reach, usually in or near the local market town. They are usually genuinely comprehensive, taking in pupils of a full range of abilities. They are successful comprehensives, but what would happen if the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment got their way and tried to set up a grammar school in every town? That would foul up the whole system—and I am not the only one to say that.
To his credit, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), who is in his place and knows that I am about to mention what he said, told the House about the two comprehensive schools in Kendal—one the old grammar school and the other the former secondary modern school, whose A-level examination results last year showed them to be the 14th best state school in the country and the best comprehensive school in the country.He then advised the Secretary of State toremember the old adage: 'if it works, don't start trying to fix it' ."—[Official Report, 25 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 162.]Sadly, many other schools will soon be at risk from the "Gill'll fix it" brigade.
It is not just a matter of Government policies having made country living more difficult in the past. They are still at it, and their most recent policies are likely to prove just as harmful.
Parish councils have powers to protect rights of way and to promote their use by signposting and other means. Unfortunately, neither they nor highway authorities have the power to do anything to counter what is happening to footpaths through woodlands, as a result of the Government forcing the Forestry Commission to sell off individual stretches of woodland.
Figures produced in response to parliamentary questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), the vice-president of the 1268 Ramblers Association, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) show that, until April this year, 92 per cent. of those woodlands had been sold without any agreement to retain public access. Of 81 woodlands up for sale in June, only 14 had agreements to safeguard public access.
The Government do not understand the depth of feeling on the subject. Privatisation is restricting ancient rights and customs, producing large gains for the privileged few and a loss of amenity for everyone else. New landlords are telling people that they can no longer go where they have wandered unhindered for generations. I know exactly how they feel.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Bayley) said, the Forestry Commission is to sell off Hagg wood in Dunningham, the village where I was born and grew up, and which I still frequently visit. I have walked over every part of that 100-acre wood since I first went there on my father's shoulders with my grandfather. Later, I went there with my brother and my friends, and in due course I took my own children there, so four generations of my family—and others in the village—have roamed all over the wood. Now, as a result of Government policy, access is to be restricted, partly as a result of the actions of the Forestry Commission and partly by the Church Commissioners, who own the shooting rights. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "church militant".
That is happening all over the country. The rights of access to woodlands should be extended, not restricted, and the Bill could have made the necessary changes, but it does not. We shall be tabling amendments to that effect.
§ Mr. Bayley
Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to the Register of Members' Interests, the Secretary of State for the Environment used to be an adviser on legal and parliamentary affairs to the Country Landowners Association? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State might have made a mistake about the role to take when the Bill was drafted, by proposing a significant tax exemption for landowners on their country estates?
§ Mr. Dobson
I have made it a general principle that, although the Secretary of State usually devotes about 10 minutes of every speech to personal attacks on me, I do not indulge in personal attacks on him.
Many people remain concerned about other treasured aspects of the rural landscape, including hedgerows. After 17 years of promising protection for hedgerows, the Government are at long last consulting on draft regulations. They spent 17 years drifting before they could start drafting. In the meantime, more than 200,000 km of hedgerows have been rooted out. At the present rate of loss, every existing hedgerow will be gone within 20 years.
Existing measures to protect other landscape features are all too frequently overridden. The privatisation and break-up of the power industry has resulted in an increase in power lines that otherwise would not have occurred. The much contested proposal to build a duplicate line of pylons down the vale of York is just one example.
Although they have done nothing about those matters, the Government have found time and space to include one extraordinary measure in the Bill: the proposal to do away with the business rate on shooting and fishing rights, 1269 which have been subject to rates for more than 100 years because they are a valuable asset. That rating is now to be abolished, at a cost of about £5 million. The Government have introduced 22 new taxes on everyone else, but they have now decided to bung £5 million to their friends at the top end of the shooting and fishing market.
I challenge the Government to say whether the concession will benefit ordinary anglers or shooters. Are they really claiming that a fishing licence will cost less? It is a racket. The £5 million concession will bring most benefit to the wealthiest and least benefit to the poorest, so it is a good example of Tory priorities.
The Government have tried to explain that away by saying that the Bill brings England and Wales into line with Scotland, but when they proposed abolishing the tax in Scotland, they said that it was to bring Scotland into line with England and Wales. It is a tax concession for the landed gentry, a backhander for the best-off.
The Government claim that the field sports industry is worth £2,700 million a year. A £2,700 million industry does not need £5 million a year. The measure is intended to help not the industry but a limited number of toffs.
The concession is designed to please the House of Lords. It could be a pay-off to the hereditary peers who turned up to support the Government changing the law to make it more likely that homeless people would have to live in cardboard boxes. They are the stately hypocrites of England.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the business of sporting rights works both ways? For example, if the owner of Hagg wood let that wood to the Forestry Commission, but did not wish to exercise his shooting rights, he would still have to pay the rates on it. Those who have land that they let and who, for various reasons, do not wish to exercise their sporting rights—of whom there are many—will also be better off under the proposal.
§ Mr. Dobson
The hon. Gentleman raises two issues. First, it is not clear whether the Church Commissioners pay business rates, although the right hon. Member representing the Church Commissioners, who also represents Hagg wood, might be able to enlighten us.
§ Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)
I do not know whether to catch the hon. Gentleman's eye to respond to some of the points that he raised, or yours, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that, in due course, I shall successfully catch someone's eye and nail many of the misrepresentations and false points that the hon. Gentleman has made.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. If the right hon. Gentleman seeks to intervene, that must be a matter for the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor. If he seeks to catch my eye during the debate, I shall of course bear it in mind.
§ Mr. Dobson
I am perfectly willing to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but perhaps it would be better if I dealt with the points raised by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson).
The fact that somebody pays a tax does not make it a terrible burden. When the tax was abolished in Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home 1270 Robertson) spoke against its abolition, pointing out that he was probably the only person in the Chamber who actually paid it, because as a big landowner he had shooting rights on which he paid £100 in tax. As he pointed out, someone with so much property will usually be sufficiently well off not to have to go cringing to the Secretary of State and ask to be let off at the expense of others.
§ Mr. Dobson
The Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for York that it would be entirely marginal, but apparently it is so marginal that we can ignore it if we are making that argument, yet the Secretary of State is also trying to tell us that it is crucial to the future of the field sports industry. The Government will have to make up their mind.
I have a great deal of respect for the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), but I must tell him that, to the best of my knowledge, I have said nothing about Hagg wood but the truth. I take great care with what I say. Until now, people have been able to use the wood without let or hindrance, going where they like. Even a combination of the Church Commissioners and the Forestry Commission cannot do away with certain rights of way through the wood. However, we have been told that, if the wood is sold, as part of the transaction the Church Commissioners will refuse to allow people the access that they have had before. They will be confined to the rights of way. That greatly diminishes the amenity.
All the hereditary owners of grouse moors and fishing rights will get a tax cut, but there are other sports in this country. Sports clubs that serve hundreds of thousands of less well-connected communities will still have to pay their rates. If the Government are interested in sport, why not pass a measure for all sporting industries rather than just one? It is a measure for the privileged few, with no money for anybody else.
At the very least, the concession should have been made available only to owners who intended to permit genuine public access to the land. If the Government do not support amendments that we shall table to secure such access, they will confirm that they remain the party of the privileged. The Prime Minister may want to go back to the old grouse moor image, although I think that he will have his work cut out.
While the Government have been in power, there has been a big increase in unemployment in rural areas. Many of those working there are badly paid. But for the opposition of the agricultural workers section of the Transport and General Workers Union, ably assisted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), even more people in rural areas might have been receiving low wages, because the Government wanted to get rid of the agricultural wages board. They eventually gave up when they finally had to concede that the farmers did not want rid of the board.
No current debate on rural areas can avoid a mention of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which has been extremely damaging. It is probably the biggest catastrophe to hit rural Britain this century—there are only three years left in the century. The Government's handling of the issue has been inept from start to finish. They have 1271 lurched from complacency to panic, gone back to complacency and then panicked again. They are still nowhere near resolving the issue. Their crass ineptitude has made life well nigh impossible for farmers and others working in rural-based industries. The Government's handling of the beef crisis has made them the toast of the vegetarian movement.
Despite that, the Secretary of State attempts to portray the Tory party as the party of rural England. He gets upset when Labour Members refer to rural affairs. He is out of date and out of touch. These days, the Labour party represents communities in every part of England, from the centres of the largest cities to the smallest hamlets, through suburbs, market towns and villages. Rural England is not a no-go area for Labour. Throughout England, many predominantly rural areas have elected Labour representatives to parish, district and county councils, to the Westminster Parliament and to the European Parliament. That is one good reason why our policies include practical answers to the day-to-day problems faced by communities throughout rural Britain.
The leader of the Labour party represents Sedgefield— a mainly rural constituency in the north of England. His predecessor, John Smith, grew up in rural Scotland. His predecessor, Neil Kinnock, grew up in and represented a fairly rural part of Wales. There is nothing recent or strange about Labour's commitment to rural areas.
Labour covers the whole country, and our policies, including those on local government and rating, address the problems of the whole country. That must be right, because on planning policy, housing policy, environment policy or rating policy, we cannot separate what happens in towns from what happens in the country. They affect one another and they always will.
Consider the way in which the decline of market towns harms their residents and those from miles around. Leek, in Staffordshire—known as the Queen of the Moorlands—ought to be a prosperous market town, but it is a shadow of its former self. It had its own county court 20 years ago, but it has lost that, along with its Crown post office and its jobcentre. Its tax and benefits office is under threat for the second time. Magistrates courts in Biddulph and Kidsgrove have closed recently, and it is feared that Leek magistrates court will follow suit. Banks are withdrawing from the town, and more and more local people are forced to travel elsewhere for work. The cattle market has been badly hit by the BSE crisis. That is just one of the market towns in trouble under the Tories.
Town and country depend on one another. Their relationship is symbiotic—they live off one another to their mutual advantage. However, the countryside exists not just to serve the needs of towns and townspeople. It is also the place where local people live, die, work, play and have their being.
§ Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about Leek, because I know the area well, representing a neighbouring constituency. Would he care to contrast the situation in Leek, which is under the Labour-controlled Staffordshire 1272 Moorlands council, with that of the neighbouring borough of Macclesfield—a booming market town with a Conservative council?
§ Mr. Dobson
There are some substantial differences between the two places, including a considerable difference in population. One of those towns has the advantage of being on the west coast main line. That would be a greater advantage if the Government had not allowed the line to run down.
In the first speech that I made as shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, I spelled out the importance to us all of having a sense of place, personal loyalty and concern. People have that sense of place in the Yorkshire village where I was born and lived for the first 19 years of my life. They have it equally in Holborn, Camden Town and Kentish Town—the areas that I represent in Parliament. In government, we want to draw on that sense of place and local loyalty, that personal commitment of individuals and communities, so that we can work in partnership to make the whole country, urban and rural, more prosperous, safe, clean and healthy and make each part of our country more desirable.
To the extent that most of the Bill is a limited move in the right direction, we give it a critical welcome. We shall seek to improve it in Committee. The most necessary changes must await Labour's victory in the coming general election.
§ Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)
The Bill offers real, positive help to rural communities. It was a pity that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) spent so little time talking about its main purpose, which is to help village shops, and so much time airing his prejudices against those whom he described as "toffs"—a term which shows his lack of understanding of those who live in the countryside—and his prejudices against country sports. However, it is probably better to gloss over the barrage of inaccuracies from the hon. Gentleman and return to the Bill, which is a practical and helpful measure. It may well be possible to improve it in Committee, but it is a good Bill and I warmly welcome it.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the parish of Stone, near Faversham, in my constituency. Alas, the boundary commission is removing that parish, for the extraordinary reason that nobody lives there. There is a fine Romano-British Christian church surrounded by a burial ground, but alas, we cannot consult those people. Nevertheless, some of us do not want the parish to be removed.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson
With regard to parishes without populations, my hon. Friend may be aware that Dallinghoo in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State contained a parish called Dallinghoo Weald, which I represented as a county councillor many years ago, but I am sad to say that my right hon. Friend encouraged its amalgamation and so we lost another such parish.
§ Mr. Gummer
For the record, I fought hard against the abolition of Dallinghoo Weald and of Havergate island, 1273 but I am afraid that the sensible policies that I intend to implement did not apply at that time. I will ensure that the necessary change in policy is carried through.
§ Sir Roger Moate
We should have liked to keep the parish of Stone, but it is hard to argue the case when there are no residents there.
Under the consultation requirements, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will seek to ensure that planning authorities advise parishes of the reasons why planning applications are rejected or accepted contrary to the wishes of the parish council. That is a matter of some significance, and the news will be warmly welcomed by parish councils which find the way in which the system operates at present to be irksome.
I wish to refer to the main thrust of the Bill—the help for village shops. Like other hon. Members, I have offered my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer my advice on what the Budget should contain, and my main suggestion was that we should try to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the unified business rate. I argued for that because I believe that the removal of that burden would do more than anything else to stimulate the small businesses of this country and to encourage enterprise. Alas, it is a £12 billion tax—a little beyond the probable scope of one Budget, and certainly beyond the scope of the Bill.
Nevertheless, I see the Bill as a £22 million start, as that is the estimated cost of the rural rate relief scheme proposed in it. One of the reasons why I welcome the Bill is that it is the first crack in the structure of the business property tax, which is still based on the totally artificial device of notional rental values. That flawed concept eventually destroyed the old domestic rating system, and I welcome this move as a small step in the right direction.
I also welcome the fact that the Bill is specifically aimed at helping those small shops which are an essential part of the fabric of rural life and of small communities. If we are going to start anywhere, this is probably the right place. A 50 per cent. mandatory reduction in rates will be immensely important to shops in my constituency, the county of Kent and the rest of the United Kingdom. A 100 per cent. discretionary reduction could also be crucial, as it could help shops to survive and also encourage new shops to open. We are all aware of enterprising individuals who are seeking to establish new businesses in rural areas. It is a difficult challenge, and this type of help is important.
The proposals beg more questions than they answer. That is why the Committee stage will be so important. We should not always complain about what we have been given and say that we should have been given more. Inevitably, however, the Bill's provisions lead to crucial questions. I am not clear from the Bill, or from the answers given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today, why we are applying the concessions only to village general stores and village post offices, as other retail activities in our villages are also important—equally so, in some cases.
The village butcher, for example, is a much treasured retail establishment in many villages and should be supported. Also, small souvenir shops in rural communities, picture framing shops, book shops, pubs—as have been mentioned—and garages should also receive support. One can understand the argument that the general 1274 store offers a crucial lifeline for many people, but all those other establishments play a crucial role in the rural economy, and we should try to help them. I hope that we can explore the possibility of a more flexible definition in Committee.
§ Mr. Rendel
That is an interesting point, which comes back to an intervention that I made on the Secretary of State, who unfortunately did not attempt to answer it. The hon. Member is perhaps mistaken in thinking that the definition needs greater flexibility, as the Bill simply refers to businesses which may "benefit the local community". It is possible to interpret that widely to include businesses which benefit the local community by employing a large part of the local work force. What is needed is a change of mind from the Government on how the Bill could be interpreted, rather than a change in the Bill itself.
§ Sir Roger Moate
The Bill refers specifically to general stores and post offices. The hon. Gentleman will find that the definition is drawn fairly narrowly.
That leads me on to the discretionary 100 per cent. grant. Again, I am not clear how this will operate. Will it operate at the discretion of local authorities for one shop as opposed to another, or will it apply to a broad category of premises or businesses across an area? If it is the latter, the measure may be much more expensive than the Government expect. It will be difficult to exercise a judgment in favour of one business against another, particularly if it is not being done on the basis of need or following means testing. It is a good principle to give local authorities the power to help small businesses, but we must get it right. This is a marvellous opportunity: we must build on it and explore how the system will work.
My next question has been touched upon already and concerns the rural area itself. What is a rural settlement? The definition, we are told, is a rural settlement with a population of 3,000. But is that a parish boundary? Is it a large village, or a small town? It is hard to define the terms. I fully understand the Government's saying that this is a difficult matter and that it is preferable to do something than to do nothing, but there are large villages in every area with populations of more than 3,000 whose village stores are just as much in need of support as those with populations under 3,000. It will be hard to give grants to a small village while another village further away gets no grant at all.
§ Mr. Wigley
During the consultation in Wales, the Secretary of State for Wales at one stage referred to the density of the population in relation to the definition. I do not know whether that was referred to during the consultation in England or whether it is irrelevant. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts on that? Could such an approach deal with the question of where those 3,000 people can live?
§ Sir Roger Moate
I am not aware of any such consultation; nor do I want it to be thought that I am suggesting that this is a simple matter when it is not.
§ The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry)
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. The definitions of rurality are different in the Principality from those applied in England. In Wales, a concept of population density is used which draws on an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and 1275 Development definition. In England, we use the concept of a settlement, a well known Rural Development Commission definition of rurality.
When we introduced the housing legislation, questions were raised about the right to buy in rural settlements. Those settlements were drawn up on the RDC definition, and we published detailed maps and explanations of the areas concerned. We did not want to be stuck with the concept of a parish or a village as that was often a less generous definition of a settlement than the one that we had.
I shall be happy to try to expand on the matter when I wind up the debate. If my hon. Friend wishes to explore it further, I have no doubt that conversations will take place in Committee about definition problems.
§ Sir Roger Moate
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because he has confirmed that the Government will seek to interpret the definition generously and flexibly, whether or not it meets people's requirements. That is the right spirit and I hope that the legislation will eventually reflect that sensible and helpful objective.
The definitions are important if we are to make the legislation work well for villages and create good will rather than animosity and jealousy. We desperately want to get them right because this is a splendid Bill which will be helpful and provide genuine assistance to the rural community.
That point leads me to the bigger issue which prompted me to write to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and urge that the burden of the business rate eventually be lifted altogether. The problems facing market towns and high streets have already been mentioned. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is an amiable chap, but some of his comments were nonsense. We all know that enormous changes have taken place in the retail world and that tremendous social pressures have created great problems in many of our communities. Supermarkets, whether in the heart of town or out of town—we all have many examples in our constituencies—have had a tremendous impact on our market towns and high streets. We have to face that fact rather than make the kind of nonsensical accusations in which the hon. Member indulged.
In my area—I am sure that others have the same problems—the small high streets are fighting the battle for survival, not because of politics and the performance of the economy, but because of the changing pattern of shopping. Many of those shops will struggle to survive and the greatest help that we could give them is relief from the unified business rate.
§ Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)
Is my hon. Friend suggesting that we should give business rate relief to the high street shop but not to the out-of-town superstore? If we do away with business rates for every shop, that will not advantage the high street stores.
§ Sir Roger Moate
I believe that we must, and will, eventually get rid of the system of business rating completely. It is an anomalous and outdated system. I welcome the Bill, because it creates exemptions from business rates, and we have not had many exemptions in the past. Once we pull out one brick, the whole edifice will start to crumble.
1276 We must build on the propositions in the Bill. The business rate is not an efficient or sensible system of taxation although, alas, it raises a lot of revenue now and will not be easy to abolish. It is not a local tax, which was its original concept, and the fact that it is based on property values and notional rental values means that it is fundamentally nonsense. All the evidence shows that it is an unfair tax, and I have figures to show that it hurts smaller businesses much more than bigger ones. My figures suggest that less than 6 per cent. of total rateable value is accounted for by properties with a rateable value of less than £1,000, which suggests that we could lighten the burden on those business without losing too much revenue. I have other figures which show that, in terms of profit and turnover, a small business pays 10 times as much, on average, in business rate as the largest of firms.
If we consider the impact of rates as a percentage of overheads, we see that the unified business rate bill for small businesses is 13.7 per cent. of overheads, but for large businesses the figure is 3 per cent. of overheads. By reducing or eliminating the business rate, we would give disproportionate help to smaller companies. Clearly, it would help larger companies if we eliminated business rates, but in practice the price war between the big stores would probably mean that much of any saving that they made would be passed on in concessions to their customers. However, high street businesses would receive major help.
That is why I hope that the Government will consider any suggestions for reducing the burden of business rates on the retail sector and replacing it, ultimately, with much fairer systems of corporate tax, which are more acceptable to the general public and to business. The Bill is only the beginning, but I welcome it for that reason. If it is well handled, the proposal for rate relief will help my constituents and those of most other hon. Members.
Other proposals in the Bill will strengthen the role of parish councils. In some respects, the proposals amend the Local Government Act 1972. I served on the Committee stage of that legislation, which went on for many months. I have no nostalgia for that, but I look back with some pride on the battle that I and other hon. Members fought then to strengthen the roles of successor parishes and community councils. It was not generally accepted by the Government at the time, but I believe that parish councils are a crucial part of local government because they represent the local community in a way that other councils cannot.
Some of the proposals in the Bill, albeit relatively small, will be important to those who control our parish councils, especially the right to levy greater rates and more powers on transport, roads and crime prevention. Of course, it is one thing to give people powers and another to find the resources. That is a problem at any level of government. Nevertheless, the Bill will be a catalyst and will provide extra power for parish councils, so that, in co-operation with local authorities and other institutions, they will be able to tackle challenges that they cannot tackle now.
Because I believe in parish councils, I especially welcome the proposals in the Bill to facilitate the creation of new parishes, which is currently a cumbersome procedure. Most of us know areas in our constituencies which do not have parish councils, but the current procedures to create them are difficult. The Bill will make it easier to create parish councils, and I welcome that. 1277 Those small measures are all important and, in years to come, all will be seen to have contributed significantly to the strength of rural communities and the rural economy.
I conclude with a more general point. The Bill, the White Paper and the speeches that we have heard have emphasised time and again our belief in the countryside and the rural economy, but those of us who live in or represent rural areas—my constituency is both heavily industrial and heavily rural, so I have a bit of everything—worry when we see the inexorable demands placed on the countryside by the housing growth figures endorsed by central Government.
Unless we get the planning guidance right, there is little point in defending the countryside. Despite all the fine words about building on brown land and reclaimed land, we see the inexorable threat of more developments around our villages, orchards and farmlands. The planners tell us that, in the next 20 years, some 4.4 million new households will be required; I forget the exact figure, but somehow those planners have become family planners and have gained powers of infallibility in the process. I do not understand why we accept those assertions as though they were written on tablets of stone.
We are also told by the planning guidelines, which have already been mentioned, that 45 to 50 per cent. of the new housing has to be built on reclaimed land, but there is no reclaimable land in many rural areas. If those high target figures for housing are accepted as gospel truth and the houses have to be built on reclaimed land when in fact we have no reclaimable land, in the end they will be built on agricultural land. The Ministry of Agriculture sometimes enters objections, but those objections seem to melt away like the snow and disappear. The result is continuous and unacceptable growth.
I want the Secretary of State and his Department to provide in the planning process more entrenched protections against encroachment into the countryside. If that is not done and encroachment is too easy, there will be no pressure to use derelict and reclaimable land and no initiatives for new planning policy in urban areas.
I welcome the whole package in the Bill as a real effort to improve our countryside. I want to strengthen the defences of the countryside, because we all want to see the rural economy prosper. We hope during the progress of the Bill to make it even better, but it is already a good start.
§ Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
I hope that the Bill will be the last piece of local government legislation that the Government bring before the House. The Library tells me that there have been more than 200 pieces of legislation affecting local government since the Tories took office in 1979. Those have left a once proud system of local democracy in a shambles, so let us all hope that this will be the last of them.
The Bill is narrowly focused, closely directed at parliamentary seats in which Tories are defecting in droves and putting Tory majorities at risk. It is a fairly blatant last-ditch attempt to win votes in marginal seats. That is a shame, because much in the Bill is worthy of support. The drawback stems from the motive that has driven it on to the Government's last legislative agenda.
There are two principal problems. First, the Bill's effect will be marginalised, because it is out of line with the drift of mainstream Government policies. The thrust of 1278 those policies, whether on jobs, transport, housing, industry or even agriculture—the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis has significantly added to poverty among small farmers—has damaged rural and urban economies and communities alike.
The second principal problem is that, without any new resources, other than an apparently unlimited parish precept—all new tax—and with a lack of clarity about the cost-effectiveness and the arrangements for establishing an additional layer of bureaucracy, it is doubtful whether the Bill's worthy ambitions of greater community participation and public good will be realised.
We live on a crowded island, and urban decay and rural communities are close neighbours. I am not sure that the measures in the Bill will not serve to exacerbate existing tensions and help to set urban areas against rural areas in a negative way, rather than producing a positive result. For example, the decision to put crime prevention policies in place could be driven by the feeling, "Let's keep the townies out of our little area," rather than being a valuable attempt to build more satisfactory social cohesion. Could that measure be seen, as I read in the Local Government Chronicle this week, as little more than asubsidy for the middle classes"?When the Environment Select Committee read the White Paper, we were delighted that the Government had acknowledged—
§ Sir Roger Moate
I am genuinely puzzled by what the hon. Lady says. In a typical village, the people who use the store are not middle class; everybody uses it. Why does the hon. Lady think that helping a village shop to survive is help for the middle classes?
§ Mrs. Jackson
The hon. Gentleman should wait for me to continue my speech. I was citing the concerns expressed by a wide range of local authorities in the Local Government Chronicle. I believe that they could be right about one of the effects of the Bill, and I shall explain how and why.
Unemployment in rural communities has wide effects throughout the country. If more Conservative Members represented urban areas, they would realise that the problems of rural unemployment are mirrored and multiplied by unemployment in the urban areas that Labour Members tend to represent. Indeed, as a result of Government policies, the effects of unemployment and poverty are spreading like a disease to every part of the country.
For example, the town of Stocksbridge in my constituency is nearly 10 miles from Sheffield, yet, as part of the Government's programme of cuts and part of the so-called benefit change programme, it is proposed to close both the jobcentre and the Benefits Agency office from 1 January. That will affect people living in all the rural communities around Stocksbridge. They will have to pay £1.40 there and £1.40 back on the bus even to go and look for a job, and the same to go for an interview about their benefit. That will not promote the health and welfare of rural areas, yet there is nothing about it in the Bill.
There is nothing to help with housing, either. When the Select Committee considered housing need, we made strong, well-supported, cross-party recommendations 1279 about the need for more affordable housing in rural areas. It is a pity that there is nothing in the Bill to address that continuing problem.
The same applies to education, which my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) mentioned. My constituency was faced with a proposal to put three rural schools on the closure list because of Government pressure to close schools with surplus places. Only after an enormous effort and a campaign by people in the rural communities dependent on the schools were the Government persuaded to allow the local authority to keep two of the three schools open.
Those are the Government policies that people in the rural areas of my constituency will remember; although they will welcome what is in the Bill, they will be aware of the wider issues, and the fact that wider Government policy is doing them no good.
I shall now be a bit more positive, in that I welcome the proposal to help shops, post offices and other businesses in rural areas with their business rates to enable them to survive. I should like an assurance today from the Minister that such measures will be allowed where villages and rural communities are part of a metropolitan area. I was concerned to hear an exchange between the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) which implied that that might not happen.
The residents of Bolsterstone, Dungworth, Bradfield and Wharncliffe Side—all villages with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants and one general store—will be extremely angry if the proposal does not extend to them and to their shops and communities, simply because they are on the rural fringe of a large urban area. That would be extremely unsatisfactory. Many of the seats that the Government intend the proposals in the Bill to protect are part of rural areas on the edges of major urban areas. Unless the Government understand the essential link between urban and rural, which is now so close, the drive behind the Bill will not be fulfilled.
To be positive, I should like to believe that the proposals on transport are a long-overdue recognition that bus deregulation has been an unmitigated disaster in rural areas. Three quarters of all rural parishes now have no bus service. Where services run on a commercial basis, they can be restricted, changed or cut altogether at short notice. That happened recently in Colne valley, for example, where the Blue Bus company suddenly and without consultation withdrew its services from Slaithewaite Hill Top through Wellhouse and Milnesbridge to Huddersfield, affecting 1,000 people and their bus journeys.
Only because of a concerted campaign by the local community, backed by Labour, was another bus company persuaded to fill the gap—but for how long? When will the next company withdraw the service without consultation? Similar things have happened in my constituency in connection with the Bradfield school and its bus services. There is absolute chaos, because of the lack of certainty that bus deregulation has meant for rural areas.
I welcome the possibility that the drive, advice and guidelines aimed at extending community transport schemes and local bus-sharing initiatives, which may well 1280 be promoted by parish councils, will be beneficial to people in rural areas. I am sure that the Opposition would support that.
I turn to the other main drawback. I agree with the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) that there is a lack of clarity about the role and nature of the devolution of such services to parish councils and its effect. I agree with the thrust of the proposals that parish councils should provide a chance for local action. They provide an opportunity for voluntary work and a strengthening of the sort of community activity that is effective in preventing crime and promoting the rich variety of cultural life enjoyed by many villages.
I should like to place on record the excellent efforts of Bradfield, one of my parish councils, which looks after all 200 miles of footpaths in my constituency and has been partly responsible for South Yorkshire coming top of the footpath league in the recent Countryside Commission report on the state of rights of way. It is at such a local level that women in the community can play a very active role in developing community initiatives.
My worries about lack of clarity, however, are founded on the fact that other community and voluntary-based groups also undertake excellent work—possibly on a wider basis than the parishes—such as the Sheffield community transport scheme. The group operates services in rural areas and throughout the city. It has an excellent partnership arrangement, funded by the city council, to which parishes contribute, but it is an independent, voluntary group. I could mention other groups, and I am sure that other hon. Members could cite similar examples.
What concerns me is that, in Sheffield's experience, it has been easier to build sound partnerships between the local authority and such independent development trusts or groups, with some support from parish councils, than it has been to build them between authorities—higher tier with lower tier. It concerns me that putting too much emphasis on the parish council undertaking this work will mean that the drive towards partnership that allows two authorities to work together will he lost.
There is no question—we in the House know—but that much of the time of an elected authority at any level can be spent in moaning, groaning and criticising the higher tier rather than getting on with implementing the positive policies. Authorities may have their own political agendas, and may even find it more appropriate to that agenda to carry on their lobbying roles rather than getting on with implementing the very useful proposals in the Bill. That is relevant not just to developing a two-tier system within a relatively urban rural area; such activity in parish councils in more rural district local authority or county areas could be a recipe for conflict rather than positive progress.
It is important, therefore, that, where a parish council decides to take on new work and responsibility, it is prepared to carry the can for failure as well as for success. I assume that the district audit service will have to assume an additional role in monitoring the spending of parish councils where they take on extra work. There is still not enough clarity about where the functions will begin and end, how those functions will be financed and what limitations will be placed on them.
For example, if a parish decides to raise its precept—even double it—to take on road safety and traffic-calming measures, how will that affect the district allocation for 1281 road safety? Do the Government expect that allocation to remain more or less the same, or will it be reduced as the parish precept is increased? If the latter happens, there would be a serious danger of skewing the overall authority's priorities. If one area on the fringe of the authority wants to implement traffic-calming measures, therefore, will it take away the possibility of the wider authority introducing the same measures in a wider area?
An enormous number of complications will need to be addressed and sorted out in Committee to ensure that extra money is provided for these proposals. In his winding-up speech, will the Minister address the point made in an intervention by one of my hon. Friends about whether increased spending as a result of an increased precept by a parish council or a number of them in a larger area will affect the overall spending allocation that is taken on board where capping criteria are set? We need an absolute guarantee that, pound for pound, the proposals will not affect what the umbrella authority will be able to spend.
Such issues are extremely important, since a wider authority may end up failing the majority of its citizens because of the activity of one or two fringe areas. The Bill's lack of clarity on such financial issues will produce endless wrangles rather than productive projects, many of which are already under way.
I wish the Bill well in principle. I am sorry that it has been presented at a time and in a way that looks as if it is window dressing for targeted areas of the country. I do not believe that voters will be fooled, because the wider issues that affect the economy and people's standard of living are not restricted to either rural or urban areas. Such problems face both types of area and we badly need a Government who begin to legislate for the whole nation.
§ Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)
I give a general welcome to the Bill, which is timely. It is right that the House should have the opportunity to consider some of the problems that face rural communities. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) when she says that there is much work to be done on the detail of the Bill, and some of my remarks will concern details that are as yet a little unclear. The rural White Paper set out the direction in which the Government intended to go, and the Bill contains the first set of measures that were adumbrated in that White Paper.
I represent two thirds of the borough of Thamesdown in Wiltshire, which is a mixture of urban and rural communities. It was formed in 1973 by bringing together the town of Swindon with several smaller towns and villages in what was then the Highworth rural district council. There was some unease at that time, some of which still remains.
However, whereas in those days the name Swindon was not acceptable to everyone in the new borough—which is why the name Thamesdown was concocted, from the River Thames to the north and the Marlborough downs to the south—as the authority moves towards unitary status next year, it appears to be satisfactory to the majority of the population for the name Swindon to be brought back into use. For those hon. Members who have had some difficulty with the concept of Thamesdown, and assumed that it was somewhere down the river from here, the confusion will be removed.
1282 The combination of urban and rural creates a sense of uncertainty and fear in the villages, some of which are near enough to the urban mass of Swindon to feel threatened by creeping expansion, but distant enough to be extremely independent-minded.
The rate relief scheme, which is in my view the principal proposal in the Bill, is welcome in principle, but there are some questions that the Government must address. For example, the upper limit has been set at about 3,000 people, but should there be a lower limit? Could a settlement be so small that it would not be possible to justify expenditure as set out in the Bill to ensure the continuation of a small shop or post office? I hope that the answer is no, but I would appreciate a reassurance from the Government that such a consideration would not enter their mind.
I think, for example, of the village of Hinton Parva in Thamesdown, the mere name of which will tell Latin scholars in the House that it is a small settlement—it has about 200 inhabitants. The post office operates part time and is run from their garage by John and Margaret Cook of Hollytree house, which, ironically, is next door to a house called The Old Post Office. Hon. Members will be able to guess what happened to the old post office. It is an example of people trying to maintain postal services in a village.
Will a part-time post office in a garage qualify for the relief that is designed to help rural post offices? I seek reassurance from my right hon. Friend the Minister on that point, because that is what the village of Hinton Parva has been reduced to, and I am sure that all the inhabitants are anxious to ensure that their access to postal services is reduced no further.
What about villages that have already lost their local shop or post office? Will the relief be available immediately to any individual seeking to provide those services afresh? Can we look to the Government, or to the local authority as it will be, to offer that relief?
What about settlements that are too large to qualify? I am thinking of the smallish town of Wroughton, near Swindon, which is extremely anxious to find a bank willing to provide a branch in the town; none of the high street banks has been interested in offering banking services there. It is unreasonable to expect bank branches to be established in settlements with a population as low as 3,000, but would the Government consider setting a different size for different activities, so that a town such as Wroughton could get some help with its rates for payments to bank branches?
Such possibilities are raised by contemplation of what is in the Bill. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) ranged widely over many issues that are not in the Bill, so I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will forgive me for ranging on a much narrower scale and for enticing him to embrace the possibility that help could be given in other ways than the rather limited ones set out in the Bill.
What about village halls and schools? Could any help be given to promote the idea that village schools should be more widely used for community purposes, to extract the maximum value from buildings that might in future combine the two functions?
What about relief for a limited number of new dwellings in villages? More and more villages are finding it difficult to provide enough accommodation to enable 1283 young people to stay and keep the villages alive, while the growth of dormitory living—people living in villages and working in neighbouring towns—becomes ever more apparent. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras raised the matter in a rather gruff way, but it is reasonable that we should discuss it, perhaps at a later stage m the progress of the Bill.
Local rural transport is dealt with in part III of the Bill. We should pay tribute to the way in which post buses, provided by the Post Office, have over the years filled part of the gap in the needs of rural transport, but they do not operate in the evenings. Those who live in rural communities and do not have access to a car have a right to go into towns, and it would be good if the Bill encouraged parishes to promote rural transport more than they do at present.
The rate relief proposed is of two kinds: mandatory and discretionary. Experience teaches that discretionary relief is not always effective as a means of implementing Government policy. I am thinking of the discretion given to local authorities to reduce the level of community charge on second homes. The Government clearly thought that there was a case for doing that, and the local authorities clearly did not.
§ Mr. Coombs
The hon. Gentleman's interjection does not entirely surprise me, but I am not talking about the rightness or wrongness of what the Government did; the point is that, if the Government want to do something, it is probably best for them to do it themselves and not leave it to others who might well decide not to do it. That could be the case with discretionary relief, because it is estimated that the cost to local authorities even of their 25 per cent. share will be £4 million. I am not altogether inclined to blame authorities that say that they would rather not part with any of the money to which they are entitled. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that.
Until recently, Thamesdown borough council did not allow the disregard on war pensions. The amount in question was only about £20,000, but for years several of my elderly constituents, with some help from me, fought a campaign to persuade the local authority to give a complete disregard on housing benefit for war pensions. I am glad to say that in the end the authority agreed, and that that is now being done. This is a good opportunity for me to congratulate Mr. Patrick Bourke, who led that campaign to its successful conclusion.
The campaign took a long time and cost many people a great deal of money. The Government were happy with the concept of discretion but were not inclined to do anything to promote it. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to think carefully about the concept of discretionary grants. If the Government want to achieve something in this direction, as they do, we need to consider whether local authorities are willing to support the policy.
I welcome the proposed new parish council powers on transport and crime prevention. I have already mentioned evening bus services to rural communities, which will clearly require co-operation with bus companies and with district and county councils if they are to be an effective additional measure. I also welcome the involvement of 1284 parishes in traffic calming, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Hillsborough. She is not now in her place, but I wanted to say again that I agree with her. I am sorry that she had to leave so precipitately.
Traffic calming gives local people much assurance. I was recently approached by residents of Kite hill and Rotten row in the village of Wanborough just outside the main urban area of Swindon with a request for traffic calming. Unfortunately, many cars had found a rat run and were making their way down a steep hill. Some negotiated the right-hand bend; others went straight into the field, once knocking down the gate. All of them cause the risk of death or injury to the many children who live there.
Mr. Lawrence Trout of Rotten row raised the matter with me. I automatically wrote to the local authority, Thamesdown borough council. Like the hon. Member for Hillsborough, I want to be clear about what the position will be. Should hon. Members write to the parish council or to the district council? What will be the balance of responsibility in a matter as important—and sometimes emotional—as traffic calming?
I do not want to delay the House. Much of what I was going to say has been covered by other hon. Members. I welcome this first tranche of measures to revitalise the countryside. They are designed to help country dwellers to help themselves. No matter what we may seek to do in the House to assist them, it is important that they understand their responsibilities.
One of those was eloquently expressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he said that people who wanted to keep the village pub should be encouraged to drink there, although not to excess and not if they propose to drive. Happily, the rural areas of Thamesdown have so many pubs, so closely packed together, that the inhabitants will have no difficulty m walking a short distance to and from them to keep them alive. I look forward to supporting the further measures that were mentioned in the rural White Paper, which I am sure will be introduced by the Conservative Government elected some time next year.
§ Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)
Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill in principle. It has many good things in it. There are some things that we do not like so much and, unfortunately, many things have been left out that should be in it. I shall not take up too much time, because much of the detail will be better dealt with in Committee.
The flavour of the Bill demonstrates the Government's rather colonial attitude to local authorities and their visible anxiety about the extent to which they are prepared to let go and devolve power downwards. The Secretary of State several times said that he believes in subsidiarity and wishes that district and county councils would demonstrate a greater fervour for it in devolving their power down to parish, town and community councils. I, too, want that to happen but I also wish that our national authority would devolve more power to lower levels.
I shall take the Bill part by part and start, logically, with part I, which concerns non-domestic rates and the changes to relief, which are, on the whole, welcome. Rural and village shops provide an essential service and are not simply businesses. It is welcome that more rate 1285 relief is being provided. The speech by the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) could easily have been made from our Bench. Perhaps that is a sign of things to come, given what has happened over the past few months. I welcomed the emphasis that he gave to the need to get rid of the uniform business rate altogether in the longer term. It has penalised small shops and businesses and favoured larger ones.
No doubt the Government have seen great benefits in favouring the larger businesses that provide a large part of their party's money. That is not a good reason for supporting that method of taxing businesses. I hope that we will ultimately abolish the UBR. I wish that the hon. Member for Faversham was here so that I could tell him that the fact that the Government are making small changes around the edges suggests that they have no real intention of abolishing the UBR in the near future, if at all.
§ Mr. Tim Smith
If the hon. Gentleman's party is committed to abolishing the UBR at a cost of £12 billion a year, what proposals has it to raise the revenue?
§ Mr. Rendel
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has paid so little attention to the alternatives that he does not know that we propose to introduce site value rating.
§ Mr. Rendel
No, I have dealt with the point.
One of the ways in which the Government are failing to treat subsidiarity with the respect that it deserves—
§ Mr. Gummer
I am sorry to trouble the hon. Gentleman, but is he really proposing that a small business performing an essential service on a site that happens to be expensive will be driven out of business, whereas a large one on a small site will be privileged? Surely he realises that site value rating would be a disaster for the countryside. He ought to know that.
It is the oldest trick in the book. The hon. Gentleman talks about site value rating, thinks that no one understands and hopes that he can get away with it. The only party in the known world that thinks that site value rating is a good idea, particularly in the countryside, is the Liberal party. I thought that it had given that up when it changed its name.
§ Mr. Rendel
It is clear from his comments that the Secretary of State himself does not understand site value rating. If he examined it in more detail, he would understand its benefits.
§ Mr. Rendel
We are here to discuss the Bill, not site value rating. If hon. Members do not know about it, they should examine it. Perhaps that is why they have not accepted it as their policy.
We should consider whether the scheme should be mandatory or discretionary, because there is some illogicality there. The Government propose that part of the scheme should be mandatory and part discretionary. If they really wanted subsidiarity and to devolve power, 1286 they could afford to say that the whole scheme should be discretionary, which would be better. For example, under a mandatory scheme, it would be difficult to decide which businesses should get the mandatory benefit.
What about a village with two shops where one is part general store, part post office, and the other only a general store? As I understand it, in such a village, the shop that was part post office would get the mandatory benefit because it was the only post office in the area, while the other shop would not. That creates unfairness. Of course, if it has any sense, the local authority may use its discretionary powers to help the second shop, but there does not seem to be any logic behind making one part mandatory and the other discretionary.
Perhaps it is simply that the Government are looking for a way of bribing some small business men in some of their more marginal rural constituencies, but it may also be that they are worried about whether local authorities would use the discretionary power as they think appropriate. As the Liberal Democrats are now the leading party in the local authorities of rural areas—across the south of England and elsewhere—I can assure the Government that we do see the value of using rating relief, and would certainly use it in the sort of cases that they are examining. We understand the value of helping village centres to thrive.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, does he accept that, in the nine years that I have been in the House, the Liberal Democrats have always controlled local government on the Isle of Wight, yet despite my many urgings to use the existing relief, they have never done so once?
§ Mr. Rendel
I cannot speak for the Isle of Wight, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that many Liberal Democrat authorities use the relief. My authority in Newbury was one of the first to do so successfully.
There is also some difficulty in determining which communities will qualify for the rate relief. The difficulty is in deciding on the boundaries. Given the phrasing in the Bill, there will be a temptation for some local authorities to exclude certain surrounding areas so as to bring the population below the 3,000 threshold and ensure that the mandatory part of the relief is given. In that way they would hope to get more money out of the Government for their areas.
One can imagine considerable difficulties in calculating whether the threshold is met. While I am all in favour of the Government's plan to create a list of communities that meet the requirements—chopping and changing from year to year poses all sorts of difficulties for businesses trying to plan ahead—the Bill will still create certain definitional problems in this respect.
It is also important to specify in the Bill whether we are talking about communities that have only one shop and have only ever had one or communities that may have two shops, of which only one is currently functioning. The difficulties may arise if a second shop comes into being during a given year.
Another difficulty concerns how widely discretion is given to local authorities. I hope that the Minister will make the Government's real intentions somewhat clearer on that. The Bill allows a great deal of discretion to local authorities to give relief to local businesses of all sorts 1287 which are of benefit to the local community. If the Government intend to restrict the discretionary relief to shops, pubs, garages and post offices, the Bill will have to make that clear—because as it stands, it goes a lot wider. I want it to go wider, but I do not think that the Government really have that in mind.
I want to make two important points about the financing of the new relief. The discretionary power envisaged by the Government will be useless unless the additional financial burden on local authorities is taken into account in determining standard spending assessments and capping limits. If the Government do not give way on this point, they will in practice be asking local authorities to cut other vital services—schoolteachers, home helps or other social services—in order to pay for the discretionary rate relief being offered.
On 30 November last year, the Secretary of State made it clear that it was his intention to remove discretionary relief given on hardship grounds from the scope of capping. That was encouraging, but we need a clear commitment from the Secretary of State that this new relief will be exempted from capping in exactly the same way.
§ Mr. Gummer
Seventy-five per cent. of the discretionary relief will be paid by the central Exchequer—that is quite clear.
I have taken some trouble to check that I was right about site value rating. It means that the village shop would be taxed on the basis of what its site might be worth if it were not a village shop. So if it had a high value as something else, the village shop would be crushed by the rating burden. That is why the last known person to be enthusiastic about the system was the founder of the Social Credit Union.
§ Mr. Rendel
I do not know where the Secretary of State gets his information. The whole point about our system is that the site would be valued for the purpose for which it was intended, so a village shop would be valued as such. The right hon. Gentleman's point is therefore irrelevant.
§ Mr. Dobson
If it is of any help to the hon. Gentleman, I might point out in fairness that, at the time Henry George was advocating the system, Winston Churchill supported it.
§ Mr. Rendel
In practice I believe that we have now finished the point about site valuation; we are not debating it today, and it is a pity to waste the House's time any further on it. We need to discuss the Bill.
I should welcome an intervention from the Minister of State or the Secretary of State to answer my last important point—that, last year, the Secretary of State said that the amount of discretionary relief that local authorities would have to pay would not be included in the current capping limits. Is that true of this new relief as well?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman will be happy to know that it is true. I might add that the Liberal Democrat policy on site valuation rating is whatever a particular Liberal Democrat's constituent wants to hear. That is how all Liberal Democrat policies are put across to the public.
§ Mr. Rendel
That was not worth responding to.
1288 I am glad to have the Secretary of State's commitment on my point about capping; he did not give it in his initial remarks, and it has been worrying some local authorities.
How will the changes be paid for? The Government estimate that the changes under the Bill will cost about £22 million across the three countries. Where will that money come from? It presumably means that the amount collected in the form of the UBR will fall; hence the amount passed to local authorities from the UBR will fall to the same extent. Will the Government therefore increase the revenue support grant by £22 million to make up the difference? That will be critical to local authorities. I should like a ministerial assurance on that point, because it is important to know where the money is to come from.
The Government have said that they want to offer relief to rural communities without penalising local authorities in general, but until we have an assurance that the money will not come from local authorities' own resources, we cannot make a serious judgment whether the Government's commitment not to penalise them holds true.
As for parish reviews, dealt with in part II, I want to make a quick point about clause 20, which deals with unitary counties and which I assume was introduced chiefly for the sake of the Isle of Wight.
§ Mr. Rendel
I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman in his place; I expect he will have more to say later.
§ Mr. Rendel
Perhaps, if the hon. Gentleman stops intervening, he will get a chance to speak.
Although the provision seems to answer the problem with differing timings of parish and other elections in the English counties, it does not meet the point about unitary districts, which face a similar problem. I hope that the Secretary of State will use the powers given him in the Local Government Finance Act 1992 to end the problem of parish and unitary district elections that are not synchronised, thereby saving possible expense.
The trouble with the way parishing is carried out is that it takes far too long, and that the system itself includes a presumption against parishing.
The Government now seem to recognise the important role of community councils, which is good news, but the Bill does not go far enough. There should be a presumption in the Bill in favour of parishing. District councils should be under a duty to review parish council arrangements cyclically, perhaps every four years. There has been a resistance to parishing by some councillors and officers.
Perhaps they are concerned to retain their own power. The Secretary of State referred to subsidiarity, so I hope that he agrees that it is important to try to ensure that parishing takes place wherever possible, and that we should devolve power downwards to the parishes that are then created. The Liberal Democrats have frequently made proposals to that effect, only to find ourselves firmly opposed, often by Labour and Conservative councillors.
There is a question about whether the Secretary of State should be the final authority, and he will know that the Lords have recently recommended that there should be 1289 some type of Standing Committee of the House to deal with such issues of local affairs. The Secretary of State should certainly review that recommendation as a serious possibility.
Perhaps the most important criticism of this part of the Bill is what it leaves out—all those living in metropolitan areas and London boroughs, who do not currently benefit from the decentralisation of power. Those living in the cities have just as much need of community leadership as those living in rural areas. It seems that the Government have left them out and are unconcerned about local democracy in urban Britain. Although I welcome the increase in consultation between the layers of local government that the Secretary of State has promised us, it would also be welcome to see some increase in consultation between central Government and local authorities.
In part III, the Government refer to what powers local authorities should exercise—always a difficult subject. To allow parishes simply to set the time on the public clocks is obviously not sufficient, and does not amount to democratic responsiveness. The Bill is a classic example of legislation from a party that has a centralising tendency and is desperately struggling with the need to find out how it can devolve some powers under the principles of subsidiarity. I welcome, however, the signs of positive thinking. The proposed role of parish councils in relation to transport, traffic calming and particularly crime prevention is welcome.
The real question about part III is why the Government need to give parishes such powers now. It is, of course, because of the legal position of local authorities. Councils have to seek out the right to carry out duties of that sort each time that they come up with a good idea as to what they should be able to handle. My party believes that local councils should be accountable simply to their local population, not to the Secretary of State and not at all, except in the most exceptional circumstances, to Parliament.
In order to overcome the problem about what powers should be devolved downwards we need a proper Bill that gives back to local government the power of general competence, which it badly needs and deserves. If we were to replace this half-hearted effort at subsidiarity with a Bill that went full-heartedly for subsidiarity and gave local authorities the power of general competence, it would be a great improvement. I am happy to note that the Government are now thinking about a possible power of general competence and are willing to consult about it. They should, however, be moving much faster, and it is a great pity that they have missed their opportunity today.
§ Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)
It is one of the unexpected charms of our debates that occasionally they offer an opportunity to stray from the often rather boring highways of principle and generality, and suddenly focus on a good old solid object, something readily identifiable, something even photogenic. Such is the case in our debate for there has swum into our ken a magical piece of woodland in my constituency known as Hagg Wood, near the village of Dunnington, which is close to York.
Hagg Wood has acquired even greater significance, even notoriety, from the revelation by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) that not only 1290 was he born and bred in the village of Dunnington, which is close to Hagg Wood, but that, since an early age, he has often wandered freely up and down its charming highways and byways, its footpaths and bridleways.
It is greatly to the credit of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that he was born and bred in that delightful village of Dunnington. In the spirit of bipartisan good will, it is very much to the credit of the village of Dunnington, which is very small, that it should have borne and bred a well-known national public figure. I hope that honours are even, in that context at any rate.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) are deeply concerned that the rights of access enjoyed by them, myself and many others in the locality are about to be disallowed or overridden. Let me try to reassure them and my hon. Friends about that.
I should make it clear that the Church Commission should never be thought of as an object of suspicion or derision in the House, because it is a creature of Parliament. It is the repository of the charitable funds of the Church of England. It was set up by Parliament, and Madam Speaker is a prominent Church Commissioner. The Church Commission, with its distinguished basis and pedigree, is the owner of the freehold of the woodland, which is let on a 999-year lease to the Forestry Commission.
I hasten to reassure the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for York, although that reassurance may be only temporary, that the woodland is not on the market, although the Forestry Commission had earlier considered the sale of its lease, and may do so again in the future. Even if the lease was sold—the Church Commissioners would derive no profit or advantage from that, because it would merely mean a transfer of the leaseholder—the public footpaths and bridleways that go through Hagg Wood would be fully protected. I can identify at least three of them on the map of it that I have before me. The hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for York would be able, whatever the sale and to whomever it was made, to exercise their right to walk on that land.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras asked a specific question about the benefit that the Church Commissioners might derive from the remission of rent and rate liabilities, which is a feature of the Bill. The Church Commissioners invariably require the licensee or leaseholder to meet the usual outgoings, including rates, rents and so on, as part of the licence or lease they offer. We therefore do not stand to be in prospect of any particular advantage. It would accrue to a licence holder, who would have to pay those rents and rates normally.
Having sketched in the background, and attempted to reassure the hon. Members for York and for Holborn and St. Pancras, I must point out that Hagg Wood is not and never has been subject to a so-called open access agreement under the terms of the leasehold held by the Forestry Commission. In principle, such an agreement means the complete and unregulated freedom to roam and ramble over field and forest, anywhere and everywhere, whenever and wherever any individual might choose so to ramble or roam.
Open access is not an appropriate form of freedom where productive enterprises—whether agriculture and farming or cultivating and growing timber—are carried on. Many of the Church Commissioners' woodlands are 1291 located in the middle of agricultural holdings, and access to those woods has to be gained across tenanted productive farm land. The reasonable interests, both agricultural and sporting, of our tenants must be protected and we have some weighty allies in our approach to that issue.
For example, the Council for the Protection of Rural England writes:We do not support the principle of unqualified right to roam … We recognise the value of securing provision for access and recreation through voluntary agreements where appropriate.The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors goes even further, saying:Many areas of the countryside are too sensitive to allow 'right to roam' to operate unconstrained. Reasons why public access is inappropriate include: crop damage, livestock disturbance, sporting activities, health and safety, protection of wildlife and landscape features.I believe that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, thinking back on his experiences in Hagg wood, would understand the reasonableness of the provisos and caveats that people familiar with the countryside would want to make so as to protect many countryside features.
§ Mr. Dobson
Generally speaking, I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about the need to protect crops, livestock, areas of particular interest and sporting interests, and that there have to be constraints. However, in more than 50 years of going to the wood, I have never heard of any constraint on anyone going anywhere. I remember someone posing as a gamekeeper once, but I think that that was just to cover up poaching activities.
No restriction has ever been placed on anyone going anywhere in Hagg wood, except when planting has taken place. In that case, the area would have fencing around it, and, anyway, no one in their right mind would try to walk between trees that were planted only two or three years previously, because the area is all grown over. However, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, apart from such areas, there has always been free, untrammelled access throughout the wood.
§ Mr. Alison
I am well aware of that, and I do not want to dodge the implications of the hon. Gentleman's experience of this charming wood, but I feel bound not to surrender the fact that Hagg wood is not strictly subject to an open access agreement. The hon. Gentleman has described a practice that has grown up by custom. That is a grey area—what the legal rights might be of those who have established a customary use has yet to be tested.
I have a further point—one that the hon. Gentleman might understand and appreciate. I shall quote a member of the Country Landowners Association:Wildlife in woods is not disturbed by regular and consistent use of a particular route as animals get used to people and even machinery. Disturbance results from occasional straying off regularly used routes, thus the need for management.The sort of wandering and rambling in Hagg wood that the hon. Gentleman describes probably does not harm wildlife—its very regularity is part of the protection required by animals. However, if we are talking about throwing open places like Hagg wood and the surrounding 1292 countryside to a much more specifically authorised freedom to roam, real harm is in prospect.
The customary use of the highways and byways of Hagg wood is not damaging the wildlife there, and it certainly does not interrupt the enjoyment of proper sporting rights. I see no likelihood that anything that now obtains will change, but I do not know who the purchaser—if any—might be. If it is someone who proposes to seed and plant a lot of new woodland, the hon. Gentleman's point will come into force—the area would have be fenced and protected. Similarly, if the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds decided to buy a piece of Hagg wood in order to breed rare species of birds, access would have to be limited.
I cannot absolutely guarantee that there will be no changes in future, but I can assure the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for York that the Church Commissioners have no intention, and, indeed, no power, to vary the existing rights of access via established footpaths and bridleways, so the customary use is likely to persist, even though it might not be strictly within the terms of the lease.
§ Mr. Bayley
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman's close interest in this issue, both in his role as the constituency Member of Parliament and as the spokesman in the House for the Church Commissioners.
He mentioned that, when the Church Commissioners own some land surrounded by farmland that is also held under their freehold, the commissioners are often unable to provide formal open access or allow public use through a voluntary agreement, because of the damage that access might cause to the farmland. However, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, access to Hagg wood is obtained via a road to the wood, so that impediment is not relevant in that case.
I was extremely pleased to hear that the Forestry Commission has, for the time being, suspended its negotiations for the sale of the land. In his role as the spokesman for the Church Commissioners, can the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that, during this period, the commissioners will discuss with the local authority and the Forestry Commission the circumstances in which it might be possible to agree a voluntary access agreement with a specified new owner, were the sale to go ahead?
§ Mr. Alison
I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's request, but I have a feeling—I suspect that I might be able to carry the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras with me on this—that something that is well known and familiarly used is, in some ways, best left alone, without too much probing to establish precise legal, statutory or other agreed rights. It might be better to leave customary and statutory rights operating and not to consider how those might be changed, until a specific purchaser emerges and the nature and trade of the purchaser is established. Meanwhile, I do not reject the hon. Gentleman's proposal, and I shall think constructively about it.
I hope that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras does not feel that we have ridden roughshod over his heritage and the experiences and pleasures of his youth, which others will continue to enjoy long after both he and I are treading happier and brighter shores.
§ Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
I agree with the hon. Members who have cautiously welcomed the proposals in the Bill. In that context, it was a pity that the Secretary of State, introducing those proposals, continually implied that, if an hon. Member did not represent a rural area, he or she had no interest, or, by some formula, was debarred from saying anything.
That implication was patronising, and reflected dual standards. I wonder how far we would get if we were to apply the Secretary of State's continual implication in that regard to the present Secretary of State for Wales, who I understand represents a seat in Yorkshire. What would happen if we took that logic to its conclusion? I well remember the day when Conservative Members went into the Lobby to vote to close the last pit in my constituency; many of them had not been near a pit in their lives. By that patronising and duplicitous implication, the Secretary of State demeaned the arguments that he advanced on very serious issues.
I have cautiously welcomed the proposals. I shall place them in context, and raise one or two important issues that emanate from them.
I would describe the proposals, albeit welcome, as a reaction, not a strategy. I believe that they are a reaction to the very serious situation affecting rural areas, but I do not detect an embryonic strategy behind those proposals, let alone a comprehensive one, which is what is needed. The cynics may say that we are following a well-worn Government track. One creates the problems, presides over them, makes proposals such as those we are considering, and claims that one is tackling the issues, when in fact the proposals, albeit welcome, are a limited response to fundamental problems.
I shall put the proposals in context by describing the scale of the problems as they affect a county that I know extremely well—my home county of Staffordshire. The proposals are designed to improve the position in rural areas, and I repeat that, to that extent, they are welcome. The cost is about £20 million, according to the Bill. About £15 million of that is attributed to mandatory and discretionary business rate relief; that is welcome.
However, as I understand it, that £15 million will come from the national non-domestic rate pool. As that is the very pool of money that is redistributed back to local authorities, is there not a danger that the £15 million that comes out of that pool will reduce the pool and so reduce the amount to be distributed, so that local authorities will indirectly find themselves funding that welcome business rate relief—not the Exchequer, as we have been led to believe? That must be qualified.
I wish to illustrate the seriousness of the problems in two rural areas in Staffordshire. One is north-east Staffordshire, Staffordshire Moorlands, an area of wonderful beauty. My family, including myself and my grandchildren, visit it often. It has the Peak park within its boundaries, and we are extremely lucky in Stoke-on-Trent to have such a wonderful facility nearby.
That area is suffering badly. Extremely important facilities in that rural area have been closed. British Gas closed its facility. The former Midlands Electricity Board, now Midlands Electricity plc, closed its facility after privatisation. There have been closures of the driving test centre, the Benefits Agency office, the ambulance station, 1294 rural post offices in Calton and Rushton and the Biddulph and Cheadle court—as my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said.
There are further closures in the pipeline—the tax office at Leek, the Staffordshire Moorlands office of Crossroads Care and Cheadle health centre, all very near where I live.
If the Government were serious about stopping the haemorrhage taking place in our rural communities, they would not only take the action proposed in the Bill but multiply the beneficial effects of those measures by intervening to prevent such proposed closures. I suspect that the closures that I have mentioned are being multiplied the length and breadth of the rural areas of England and Wales. Further facilities, such as the fire station, are under threat.
The Secretary of State rightly spoke about the seriousness of crime and the failure of the Government's law and order policies. Cheadle police station is under threat. He might want to do something to remove that threat. If the Government are serious about rural crime, and about helping parish and rural councils and councils in rural areas to tackle it, it beggars belief that they would sit back and allow an extremely important police presence in a rural area to be threatened with closure. That threat is mirrored throughout the country.
The BSE crisis was mentioned. In north-east Staffordshire, a large area heavily dependent on agriculture, in which there are 75,000 animals, there are serious problems because of the Government's inability to come to grips effectively with the BSE problem. Not only primary producers but many in ancillary industries are hit. There is justified fear about the future of those businesses and people who work in them.
I have seen at first hand the reduction in general stores and post offices in those rural areas. I need not travel too far to be in those areas. I am very fortunate in where I live. I am a few hundred yards from the boundary of Staffordshire, Moorlands, and my family, my friends and I are grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the countryside. We have a deep interest in these rural areas.
I have noticed that, in some villages that I visit, post offices and village shops have disappeared—a very important factor in the general decline of rural areas, as of urban areas. I shall have an interesting time explaining to proprietors of small businesses in my urban constituency why they cannot obtain any mandatory relief, whereas it will be made available to businesses elsewhere.
I am not saying that such relief is bad or should be stopped, but it will be interesting to discuss the issue with proprietors of small businesses that are clinging on to their lifeline by their fingertips and cannot obtain relief because they happen to be based in a specific area.
I welcome the Government's business rate proposals, but I have serious doubts whether they will have more than a marginal effect on the viability of rural areas and villages.
I said that I would refer to two areas of Staffordshire that I know especially well, and discuss the proposals in that context. Rural east Staffordshire is heavily dependent on various industries, one of which is gypsum mining. Gypsum is used particularly in the production of plaster and cement. Need I tell hon. Members what has happened 1295 to the construction industry over the past 10 years or so? It has been decimated, and industries situated in rural areas have suffered from the continuing slump in the industry. If the Government are serious about revitalising rural areas, I suggest that they address those issues, too.
Between 1991 and 1995, the number of VAT-registered businesses in rural east Staffordshire fell by almost 500. Before any hon. Member rises to intervene, I accept that some of those would be accounted for by the increase in the threshold, but my researchers suggest that the vast majority of those businesses went under before the threshold was increased. The area experienced an employment loss of 6 per cent. between 1991 and 1993, largely in villages such as Tutbury, Hanbury, Branston and Churnet. I know those villages well, and have seen the effects.
It is true that the registered claimant unemployment count has improved slightly since, but any improvement is relative. The employment guts were ripped out of those village areas over those years. Such figures put into context the serious problems that rural areas are facing and the effect that the Government's proposals are likely to have. Welcome though they are, they will have a marginal effect at best.
The transport proposals are also welcome. If parish councils can raise more money to stimulate transport provision, all well and good. The danger, however, is that, although parish councils may have the power to do that in whatever way they consider appropriate, the grant to county councils such as Staffordshire is being cut year on year, and its ability to maintain vital passenger services in rural areas is being reduced significantly year on year.
Unless the Government are prepared to grasp the nettle, we face the prospect that, when parish councils have the power, they may decide to spend more money on providing transport facilities for their area, but, because of Government cuts, county councils may be forced to remove their support for public transport. Although there may be a transfer of responsibility, the net effect could be no improvement whatever. We shall have spent another £15 million on trying to achieve that. That is not just carping criticism. Local authorities and parish councils will face difficulties, which the Government must address with greater clarity.
People in rural areas will no doubt greet the proposals with one and a bit cheers. If the Government are expecting three cheers, they have a long way to go yet. There will be a cautious welcome, but people in rural areas who have suffered over the past 15 years from Government complacency and ruinous policies will see the proposals, as I do, not as a strategy but as a reaction—a welcome reaction, but one that is likely to be short-lived.
§ 7.5 pm
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on bringing the Bill before the House. The Government outlined their commitment to rural communities in the White Paper, and the Bill is the first tangible measure resulting from it.
I shall deal first with the rural ride on which we were taken by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). He presented a view of rural England that I do not recognise. Many people in the village of 1296 Dunnington, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, would be rather puzzled by it as well. He took us on a tour of England, stopping off at several Labour target seats—the Forest of Dean and other places—and spoke of rural England as being drug-ridden and suffering from despair, homelessness, joblessness and all the evils of society. That is not a picture of rural England that I know or that most of my hon. Friends who represent rural seats would know.
The problem of rural England—I accept that it is not all rosy—is largely a question of prosperity, not poverty. One of the reasons why rural shops and businesses suffer is the changing nature of rural communities. People are not put off from going to rural communities. They want to live there—the quality of life is high, not as the hon. Gentleman suggests—they want to retire there and they want to work from home there.
The problems of rural communities stem from increased demand as a result of rising house prices and the fact that car ownership has increased enormously in villages. As a consequence, people often prefer to do their shopping in supermarkets, which are cheaper, and not in the rural shops. That is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seeks to address.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras spoke about the closure of rural schools. The only body in my constituency in Northumberland that wanted to close down rural schools was the Labour county council. It targeted 15 schools on the ground that there were too many surplus places. The surplus places were not in rural schools, but in schools in urban areas. Instead of dealing with that, the county council forced rural children to move into towns for their education.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned closed surgeries. Most of us who represent rural constituencies see new surgeries and medical facilities being developed all the time. I have some splendid facilities in my constituency. We do not have problems with ambulances: we have a new air ambulance, and four-wheel-drive ambulances are being introduced by the Northumbria ambulance service.
We do not have a closed countryside, with closed footpaths and no access. We have increasing access to the countryside through various Government schemes, such as the countryside stewardship scheme.
The hon. Gentleman painted an entirely false picture of rural life. In many respects, rural life is prospering. Energy prices are falling and the availability of the Internet and cheaper telephones makes it possible for people to set up businesses and run them in the country.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health intends to introduce measures to boost rural medicine and to reintroduce a service similar to that provided by the old cottage hospitals. I believe that the false picture of rural England and Wales painted by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was totally misleading. Of course there are problems in former coal mining villages, but the Government are seeking to address those problems.
The real importance of the Bill lies behind its clauses and schedules; it is the return of power to small towns and villages by strengthening the role of parishes and by giving district councils a bigger say in shaping the economy of their areas through the rate relief scheme.
In my Northumbrian constituency, which is one of the largest in England, rural shops are vital. In Northumberland, one cannot simply jump into a car and 1297 drive to a local supermarket to shop. For many of my constituents, that would mean a journey of more than 50 miles, and many more than that in some cases. Such journeys would require not only time, but two or three gallons of petrol. We need our local shops; fortunately, in most of the larger rural villages covered by the scheme, our shops remain. However, some of them are in a parlous state, and the Bill will be of great benefit to them.
Bellingham, for example, in the north Tyne valley, with a population of more than 800 people, still has two banks and a number of shops, including two butchers. It is a valuable local facility for shopping. Allendale Town in Allendale also supports a good shopping centre, which includes the Allendale Co-operative Society. It is the only one-branch co-operative society in the country. It is very well regarded by the local people. Allendale has a population of 740.
However, an air of uncertainty hangs over the shops because of the problems to which I referred. Rural newsagents, who often double up as the general store and post office, have particular problems. They have seen diminishing sales of newspapers, and they face increased charges from wholesalers while trying to keep in touch with the prices charged in supermarkets. They have a struggle.
If some of the sterling people who work in rural shops worked out what they earned per hour for all the hours they worked, they would find that it was very little. The people who run the shops deserve our congratulations because they do, thank goodness, provide a valued service. Reducing the burden of business rates will be a small but useful contribution to cutting the shopkeepers' overheads, and I believe that the community as a whole will appreciate that.
We have heard about pubs. It is important that local authorities like the two in my constituency, Tynedale and Castle Morpeth, use the discretionary scheme to the maximum. Naturally, they will have to draw up criteria about who should benefit, but they should not concentrate purely on the rural post office and the rural general store. They should look further afield. The village in which I live, with a population of 64, still boasts a pub and a post office. I am glad to say that the pub is extremely well used. It would be a tragic loss to the village and the community if that pub had to close.
§ Mr. Rendel
Can the hon. Gentleman confirm my assumption that, if the standard spending assessment is not increased in line with the amount of discretionary relief granted by the local authorities, his proposal that the local authorities should all use their discretionary relief to the greatest extent is guaranteed to lead to considerable increases in council tax next year?
§ Mr. Atkinson
I cannot confirm that point, because it is a detail of which I am not aware at this stage. Clearly, those are issues that we shall examine in Committee. As I understand the Bill, the larger portion of the discretionary relief will still be met out of Exchequer funds. The value that district councils put on local facilities, such as pubs and post offices, will help them to decide whether they enter the scheme. I am encouraging my local authority to do so, and I am also encouraging it to include pubs. No doubt someone will accuse me of supporting boozing on the rates.
1298 Local garages are also important. In many respects, they serve petrol almost as a favour for their customers these days. The price that they have to charge is the price at which they have to buy their petrol, which makes them extremely uncompetitive. However, in the rural areas of Northumberland, it is impossible for many people to go to a supermarket to fill up their car. They have to have petrol on the doorstep, and the garages provide an extremely valuable service. Most of them also make money by running a garage with car mechanics, or with a general store attached to it. They should also be very much considered by the local authorities when they are deciding whom they should use their discretionary powers to help.
Part II, which proposes the revival of the parish council, is extremely welcome. The parish council has been a vital part of rural life for many years. It is sad that since the war, its powers have been slowly transferred upwards, leaving it with little to look after bar the odd war memorial and one or two other things. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's proposals are extremely good and will help to reinvigorate parish councils. That will then solve the other problem of persuading people to serve on parish councils. If we give parish councils a better and more important role, people will wish to serve on them.
At the moment, parish councils sit at the bottom of a heap. In my constituency, where we have a national park, the parish council sits below a national park authority, which has many planning powers, the district council and the county council. If the Opposition get their way, those councils will no doubt sit under a Labour assembly for the north of England, which would be yet another administrative burden. I hope that that will not come about.
Parish councils, as we have heard, are regularly consulted by district councils. They make their views known, but too often they feel that those views are totally ignored. It is important that district councils are sensitive about parish councils' views on matters, especially planning matters. Local people are, for example, more likely to be sympathetic to somebody who wants to build a property for somebody in the locality to live in than they are to be to a developer who comes in to build a number of houses. That difference should be reflected by district councils when they decide whether to grant planning permission.
The extra powers will be welcome, and I have no doubt that parish councils will make use of them, especially for transport. The post bus service, which was mentioned by one of my hon. Friends, has been extremely successful. However, the problem of buses in rural areas is the one that I mentioned earlier. There is a problem because more and more rural people have motor cars, so fewer and fewer people use buses. We cannot turn the clock back; that is the situation with which we have to live.
I am glad that parish councils are to have powers over traffic and traffic-calming measures. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest concerns of people living in villages is the speed of the traffic going through their village. If, as I believe, they have an opportunity of making a contribution towards slowing that traffic down, that is another good reason why somebody would want to serve on a parish council for the benefit of his or her community.
1299 Northumberland is well served by its parishes, but, as I said earlier, it is increasingly difficult to find people to serve on the parish councils. Now that the district council has so many powers, one of the dangers that some parishes face is that they might be amalgamated. One parish in my constituency, Hartleyburn, does not have a single parish councillor because no one has volunteered to serve on the council in recent times. I fear that under the Government's proposals, unless the parishioners of Hartleyburn take a greater interest in their parish council, they will be at risk of a shotgun marriage to their neighbours.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to abolish sporting rates. In my constituency, field sports and shooting are enormously important. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said that abolishing sporting rates would mean giving money to the rich. I point out to him that grouse shooting and pheasant shooting provide an enormous amount of work in my constituency and I suspect that that is true for the constituents of the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong). I am sure that many of her constituents earn money on the grouse moors from the shooting parties and that the additional help for that important rural activity will be much welcomed.
§ Ms Armstrong
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the point that we sought to make. That rural activity provides work for those involved in beating, raising the pheasants and related activities. However, it is the landowner and not those people who will benefit from the rate relief. We want to encourage the creation of more jobs in those areas, and ensure that everyone who is able to makes a contribution to that.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I appreciate the hon. Lady's knowledge of grouse shooting, because many of her hon. Friends are utterly ignorant of that activity. But sadly her knowledge does not extend to the basic laws of economics. If money is put into a community—whether it is given to a landowner or anyone else—that money trickles down. [Interruption.] Of course it does. If the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, who laughs into his beard, were to listen to the shadow spokesman on agriculture, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), he would realise that I was right.
His hon. Friend and I agree that, if farmers had higher incomes, they would spend more money in their local economy—they would buy things and employ more people. The same applies to the shooting business. If it is more profitable, it spends more money improving the shoot, upgrading its facilities and employing more people. That is one of the basic laws of economics.
§ Mr. Dobson
The hon. Gentleman gives the impression that field sports are on their beam ends. According to the Government, they are worth £2,700 million a year. If my maths is correct, the £5 million contribution is 0.2 per cent. of that. The hon. Gentleman said earlier that that figure was extremely marginal. If it is so marginal, why do the Government choose to give that tax reduction to a small group of, generally speaking, wealthy people, whereas they bunged 22 tax increases on everyone else?
§ Mr. Atkinson
I do not think that I said that it was marginal. For many people, it will be a significant 1300 amount. I reiterate the point that I made earlier. The anomaly of that form of rating—it always was an anomaly—works both ways. An institution—or an individual—may own land and let it to a tenant farmer, but reserve the shooting rights to itself because it does not want them to be used. It may not want its tenant farmers to shoot over the land for particular purposes. It is nevertheless vulnerable and liable to pay rates on the sporting rights that it does not use. The proposal helps people involved in one form of land management. and it helps those involved in running a shooting business.
I welcome the Bill. It has been criticised by hon. Members on both sides of the House for possibly not going far enough, but it has to be limited, and it is right that the Bill is targeted at those providing rural services—rural shops, pubs and post offices—and other important parts of the rural infrastructure. I look forward to the Bill being enacted in time for rebates to be given as from next April.
§ Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich)
I thank the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) for his typical Welsh generosity in allowing me to speak ahead of him.
I do not come from a rural constituency. There is one farmer in my constituency, and for that I endure—that is not the right word; for that I am given—a National Farmers Union briefing once every six months. I know all about his farm, that is for sure. I am a small town boy: I lived in Ipswich for 30 years, but I come from a small town. I love the villages and small towns of Suffolk, as does my neighbour, the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) was a county councillor in Suffolk before he got his present job.
I know the importance to villagers of their shop, their post office, their church, their school and their put). However, I represent an urban constituency. I welcome the proposals in part I, clause 1 and schedule 1 to reduce the rates of general stores and post offices in rural communities. I have nothing but praise for the proposals. I do not propose to go into any other part of the Bill.
There are two reasons for the reductions in the rates of general stores and post offices in rural areas. First, superstores have opened across the country, usually centred on trunk routes and junctions of trunk routes. In Ipswich, we have been particularly unlucky. We have four on the western periphery of the town, and two on the east. Permission for almost all those superstores was granted on appeal by the late Lord Ridley against the wishes of the local authorities. They have had a pernicious effect on the town centre of Ipswich, especially on the food trade, and on the small towns and villages that the Secretary of State represents.
Secondly, in 1992 many small shops were uprated for the new business rate. That increased their costs. At the time, the Government rightly introduced transitional arrangements to delay the blow to small businesses, but those arrangements have now worked their way through and out of the system. The pernicious effect of the superstores and of the increase in business rates on historically low-costed properties has resulted in problems for small business men in rural areas, and in areas such as the one that I represent. Butchers, newsagents, bakers and grocers are increasingly going out of business as more and more trade is concentrated in larger and larger shop 1301 units. They may not necessarily be superstore size: Mace shops are putting newsagents out of business. And so it goes on.
We should concentrate on not only helping rural shopkeepers to compete against superstores, but helping small post offices and small shopkeepers in general. It is not the location of the small business that is the problem; it is its size compared with the Sainsburys and Tescos of this world. It is proving increasingly difficult for small shops to cope.
If it is right—I think it is—mandatorily to reduce the rates of small shops in Woodbridge, Framlingham and in other small towns and villages across the county of Suffolk and across the country, it should be right to do the same for small businesses and small shops in my constituency. They are suffering from the same pressures.
In Committee, I should like the categories referred to in clause 1 to be altered to enable all shops of a given size to be viable. Incidentally, I have been unable to find in the Bill a description of a given size of small shop.
I have a few queries. If those shops are charged less in rates, there will be less income. The Bill refers to a figure of approximately £20 million. That does not sound too much, but I should like to know where it will come from. If it will come from a reduction in the pooled national business rates, my people in Ipswich will be paying more so that rural shops of an equivalent size can pay less. That cannot possibly be right. I invite hon. Members to think about that effect on businesses in their own constituencies.
If rates are not the same for shops inside my constituency as they are for businesses just outside it, people will be incensed. I shall use the example of my road. I live within a hundred yards of the Ipswich boundary. Just outside the boundary is a village called Kesgrave, which clearly would come within the limitations set out by the Bill. The Government are seriously mistaken if they think that they would receive popular approval by halving the rates of a little general store that is a hundred yards outside my constituency while leaving unaltered the rates paid by the little general store that is a hundred yards within my constituency. That would be utterly unfair.
Small shops compete against superstores, but they also compete against each other. What is sauce for one should be sauce for the other, but the Bill does not recognise that.
My town has a population of 145,000, whereas there are 120.000 people within the boundary of the billing authority, as described in the Bill. On the east side of the authority, for example, there are 2,500 people who live in Ipswich. They are not in the Ipswich billing authority, however, but in the Suffolk Coastal billing authority—in the area represented by the Secretary of State for the Environment. Do those 2,500 people—who form a group that is below the 3,000-person limit set by the Secretary of State—who live on the edge of town form a rural community or settlement? I argue that they do.
I appreciate what the Secretary of State has proposed, but I urge him to ensure that he is aware of all the anomalies that will arise from that provision. That is a classic example of what will happen. People will come to him and to me to ask, "Why am I not in a rural settlement? I live on the edge of town. There are fewer than 3,000 of us in the billing authority, but we aren't included." Many unresolved issues must be dealt with in the Bill. I hope 1302 that it can be amended in Committee, so that it is acceptable to hon. Members who represent constituencies such as mine.
Yesterday, I asked the main spokesman for post office owners in my area about that issue, because post offices are—quite rightly—specifically mentioned in the Bill. He made the point, with which I agree, that the important factor is not so much a post office's location—whether it is in Framlingham, Yoxford or Ipswich—as its size. I am not sure that the Bill states what hon. Members know to be right: that we seek to protect small businesses, not their location.
The Bill is flawed in its drafting, but it could be amended in Committee. If the Bill is to pass through the House without causing antipathy between town and country—I hope that it will not—it is essential not only that my arguments are accepted but that the financial impact is fully considered. If townspeople discover that rural shops are being subsidised at the expense of town shops, there will—quite rightly—be all sorts of trouble.
The hon. Member for Hexham will remember the Ipswich Evening Star. It carried a front-page story about 28 headmastersfrom Ipswich to Felixstowe … Stowmarket to Woodbridgewho were complaining about expected education cuts. They will be extremely upset if £20 million leaves local government and is not replaced by the Government.
§ Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)
It is extraordinary that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) should be happy enough to tell us that his party wants to abolish the uniform business rate at a cost of £12,000 million, and also, in response to my intervention, that he wants to introduce site value taxation, but then to decide that he did not wish to discuss the matter. I am not surprised that he did not want to discuss it, as I have obtained a copy of a document published by the Liberal party in 1990 entitled the "Small Business Charter".
It may amuse the House to hear that the third paragraph of the document states:We plan to become Members of the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System.I do not suppose that that is still their policy, but introducing land value taxation apparently is. The document continues:We propose Land Value Taxation with exemptions for agriculture and domestic properties. With these exemptions Land Value Taxation will be a fairer, more equitable tax, simpler to administrate and decentralist. It will specifically help small businesses because it removes the fear that improving land and property will increase rates.That means that tax will be based initially on the land's full potential value, which is why no account will be taken of any improvements.
§ Mr. Rendel
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I have your ruling on the relevance to the Bill of the views of the Liberal Democrats on site valuation?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)
So far, the speech of the Hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) is quite in order.
§ Mr. Smith
I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
1303 I was about to say that the Liberal party's proposals will hit hardest the very properties mentioned in the Bill, which the Government are seeking to help. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said in an intervention on the speech of the hon. Member for Newbury, the Liberal Democrat proposals would have precisely that effect. I find it incredible that the hon. Gentleman mentioned those proposals but was then not prepared to defend them.
I believe that the uniform business rate has worked rather well in practice. Of course we would prefer not to have a £12,000 million tax on property, but if we must have a business property tax, it is far better to have one which allows businesses to be sure precisely what they will have to pay in the next year, as any increase; are linked to increases in the retail price index. That situation is far better for businesses than the previous situation, in which there were arbitrary increases. I recall that about 10 or 11 years ago the business rate in Buckinghamshire increased by 31 per cent. in one year. Such a situation cannot happen again.
I was very surprised to learn that the Labour party proposes to abolish the uniform business rate and to return to the previous practice, whereby local councils set business rates.
§ Ms Armstrong
The hon. Gentleman is getting rather excited. Perhaps he needs to examine some of the work done by the Minister, and some of the work done by the deregulation group which was headed by a former Minister, Francis Maude, who recommended that the uniform business rate had had its day and that it should go. Our policy is that the uniform business rate has had its day and that it should go, although we shall not return to exactly the same earlier methodology. We shall have a new methodology, but we believe that the uniform business rate should go.
§ Mr. Smith
That is not good enough. Businesses should be told. It is not good enough simply to say, "We shall abolish the uniform business rate." Businesses need certainty. The advantage of the present system is that they can budget with certainty for the following year.
A Labour party document entitled "Renewing Democracy, Rebuilding Communities" says that the party iscommitted to returning the business rate to local control".Local control means a return to the position whereby it was possible for high-spending Labour councils to drive businesses that employ many people away from the most deprived areas. That is precisely what happened before, and I cannot believe that the hon. Lady wishes to return to that state of affairs. I hope that she will spell out Labour's proposals with rather more certainty, as I believe that the current system has worked quite well in practice. Of course there is no perfect system of business rates, but the current system has the advantage of certainty for businesses.
1304 I found the speech by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) rather reassuring. It was old Labour with an element of déjà vu, based on the politics of envy, with attacks on wealthy people who happen to own sporting rights in the countryside.
The hon. Gentleman proposed an entire new set of spending commitments. On housing, for example, he complained about the present position and said that more money should be spent on housing. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested that, if we were to allow more of the surpluses from the sale of council houses to be spent, there might be a quid pro quo in terms of reducing the capital allocation, the hon. Gentleman disagreed, and insisted that more money should be spent on housing.
One can hardly think of a less attractive way of going about the matter. The surpluses are not necessarily located in areas with the highest housing need, yet the hon. Gentleman would not redirect those resources. It is self-evident that the surpluses are in precisely the wrong areas. They are probably in places, such as my constituency, which have the most attractive council property and the largest number of council house sales, but the need is elsewhere. What a crazy proposal it was. If we want to allocate more money to housing, we should do so through the Housing Corporation, which can determine the areas of greatest need.
The hon. Gentleman's attack on deregulation was as surprising as his proposals on housing. Bus services have been in decline for the past 50 years under both systems of support for bus services. The only advantage of bus deregulation is that at least we now have a clear idea where the subsidies are going. The subsidies are focused, and the taxpayer is getting better value for money. The hon. Gentleman's scheme certainly would not succeed. He would not be able to persuade bus operators to take on loss-making routes without provided bigger subsidies. The only way to increase rural bus services is by providing larger subsidies to operators. We need to find a more flexible solution. The post buses have been mentioned. I also welcome the provisions in the Bill to allow parish councils to get involved in rural transport, as they are best equipped and qualified to judge immediate local needs.
I particularly welcome two other elements in the Bill. The first relates to the power of parish councils. When I first became familiar with parish councils, I was a little doubtful of their value: I thought that they were just talking shops and did not perform any useful function. As I have got to know them better, however—because my entire constituency is parished—I have reached the conclusion that they are well placed to identify genuinely local concerns.
Parish councils are the local authorities nearest to the people they serve. They serve a useful purpose as a sounding board, and I welcome the fact that they will be allowed to carry out more functions if they choose to do so and wish to provide the finance. That will be most welcome in respect of transport and crime prevention. For example, they may want to provide closed-circuit television in a small shopping centre.
I was pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend said about planning, which is one of the biggest issues in my constituency. There is widespread misunderstanding of how the planning process works. Many people think that 1305 parish councils make planning decisions, as they often have planning committees which decide whether to support any particular proposal and pass on that view to the district council which makes the final decision. District councils should pay more attention to the views of parish councils on planning matters. Local views on planning decisions are extremely important. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House that district councils would be required not only to give their reasons for a planning decision, but to respond specifically to the arguments advanced by the parish council for or against a particular proposal. That is extremely important, as it means that they will engage in constructive debate and there will be more communication between the two tiers of local government. That is an extremely welcome provision.
I also welcome the help to be given to shops in villages. That highly targeted assistance represents £15 million out of a total unified business rate bill of £12,000 million, but it is focused on particular circumstances with which we are all familiar whereby village shops are close to non-viability and many have been lost.
There is a tendency to exaggerate both the extent to which the Government of the day are responsible for the problems that have been caused and the extent to which they can provide a solution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) said, by and large the problems have been created by success and increased prosperity in rural areas. I can identify two factors: the pattern of employment, which has changed hugely over the years, and the huge increase in car ownership. The fact that so many families now have a car is a welcome development. Cars bring people enormous individual freedom, but the car has changed the patterns of retailing and employment.
For example, until recently the school in Little Marlow, a village that will become part of my constituency after the next election, was threatened with closure. That school is now flourishing, not because it is attended by children from Little Marlow but because parents from High Wycombe drive to the village so that their children can take advantage of village education. That is marvellous. The fact that they have that choice has made the school viable. We are discussing the problems of success, not failure, brought about by the increase in car ownership.
§ Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)
Hon. Members welcome the assistance given to rural shops, and the hon. Gentleman has made a splendid case, but does he accept that urban shopping centres also have considerable problems? The closure of one shop often leads to other closures due to the continual failure of urban renewal policies. Although we welcome the assistance provided to rural shops, does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is also a strong case for reducing the liabilities of small shops and shopping parades in urban areas, as so many of those shops are under great pressure?
§ Mr. Smith
Of course I accept that there are problems in urban areas. That is undeniable. However, they are the problems of success. We have had huge success in retailing. British retailing is among the best in the world. In food retailing, for example, the consumer has benefited hugely from the quality now available from our superstores. Many retailers, such as Marks and Spencer, 1306 which published its results yesterday, are developing outstanding retailing all over the world. The difficulty is that people drive to those shops because they get good value for money. Small shops in urban and rural areas suffer the consequences of that huge change in the pattern of retailing and we must consider the extent to which it is right to ask the taxpayer to support such shops.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) said that, according to the Local Government Chronicle, trying to keep the village shop open would somehow be supporting the middle classes. That is clearly not the case. The people who cannot get to other shops are those who do not have cars—the old, the young and the unemployed. They will clearly benefit from the measure. I welcome that, because it is sensible to intervene to help those who have not been able to benefit from the changes that I have described. However, we must limit such help or we shall start to interfere with the operation of the market. We are limiting that help to £15 million of highly targeted relief, which will help people who are greatly in need. That is why I welcome the Bill.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
I, too, welcome the Bill as far as it goes and to the extent that it is comprehensible. It is supposed to be the fruit of the rural White Papers for England, for Scotland and for Wales. The Bill was trailed in that context in the Queen's Speech. There has been no debate in Parliament on the White Paper for Wales, and we are moving forward to some parts of the legislation without identifying the priorities. Many important provisions in the rural White Papers are not covered by the Bill and need to be addressed.
The White Paper "A Working Countryside for Wales" referred to rural housing, rural schools, rural youth services, the health service in rural areas, employment problems in rural areas, tourism in rural areas and the range of environmental action that is needed. Considerable attention has rightly been paid in response to the White Paper to the need to help small farmers by providing considerable assistance for agriculture in these difficult times. Agriculture is the backbone of rural life. Most of our farmers work on small farms in Wales and are often on the breadline. If they collapse under the strains they currently face, the whole rural fabric will go down with them.
We need a new all-Wales agri-environmental scheme, but there is no provision for that in the Bill. I hope that other Bills will be introduced to deal with the other aspects of the White Papers that are not covered by this Bill.
The Bill's scope is restricted. It deals with village shops and post offices, which are certainly important. There are 93 villages in my constituency and, goodness only knows, I understand the importance of sustaining the village shop and post office.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can settle a point which is worrying me. I have read the Bill carefully, particularly schedule 1, which refers to "settlements". What is a settlement? Is it a village? Is it a street of houses? Is it a groupage?
§ Mr. Wigley
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been
1307 probing for an answer. Clearly a settlement does not refer just to a community council or parish area. In my community of Llanwnda, there are the discrete villages of Rhosgadfan, Rhostryfan, Dinas and Llanwnda. There are shops in those different areas. One would not expect villagers from Rhosgadfan, up the hillside, to have to come down to Llanwnda every time that they want a stamp or their pension. One imagines that the community will have to be split into discrete areas; otherwise, the rule that only one post office or general store will be sustained in any community will cause immense difficulties. We shall undoubtedly return to that problem in Committee.
The Bill also deals with the strengthening of community councils, which we definitely support. It provides for car-sharing schemes, bus services for elderly and disabled people, concessionary transport schemes and traffic-calming schemes—an issue on which my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) has been pressing hard for a long time.
All those provisions are worth while, as are the much-needed provisions on crime prevention, but they are only a small part of the rural agenda. I regret that the long title of the Bill is restrictive. We shall not be able to move amendments in Committee to address the many matters that have been left out.
I welcome the Bill as a small step in the right direction and I am grateful to the Secretary of State for responding positively to my representations on the application of the Bill to my constituency, but I am a little disturbed that there are no Welsh Office Ministers present today. We have not seen one, apart from for a brief period during the opening speech. When I raise technical questions about Wales, I hope that the Ministers present can respond in detail, because the House has a right to such answers.
The problem with the Bill is that the devil is in the detail. Numerous difficulties arise in implementation. The first problem, which I raised with the Secretary of State earlier, concerns the applicability of the Bill, particularly part II—clauses 9 to 25. Clause 35(2) says: "Sections I to 4. 9 to 31 and Schedule 1 extend to England and Wales."
That must be a misprint. I should be glad of some clarification. Clause 25 says that part II applies to England only. Presumably something has gone wrong.
I imagine that some of part II must be already applicable in Wales through the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994. Clause 21 seems to reflect a considerable amount of section 14 of the 1994 Act, but the words are different, so it is questionable whether some of the provisions in part II will apply to Wales.
I suspect that the provisions in clauses 9 to 25 not covered by the 1994 Act will not apply to Wales. What is the Government's rationale in establishing those measures for England but not necessarily for Wales? We have a right to an answer. I do not know whether the Minister wants to intervene now. I suspect that he would rather a colleague came back to it in the closing speech—I understand that, in the circumstances. I hope thax they can dig out a Welsh Office Minister in the meantime to give them a lead. The issues of applicability are vital. We need to know which provisions in the Bill apply to Wales. We should be glad of an answer.
1308 I welcome the measures on the relief of business rates for rural shops and post offices in Wales. There is immense pressure on rural shops in Wales, as in other parts of these islands. We have seen closure after closure over the past few years as patterns change and the viability of businesses is hit by falling demand. Obviously, that has a bad effect on those members of the community who cannot drive to supermarkets. The elderly, those who do not drive and disabled people will be harmed, as will the tourism industry. The base population of a village may not be able to sustain a shop in winter, although it may be necessary in summer to provide for tourists.
The burden of the uniform business rate falls not just on general stores and post offices, but on other rural businesses, such as village butcher's shops, hairdressing salons, cafes, chip shops, pharmacies and garages. It is not good enough to give discretionary powers to local government when we know full well that the squeeze on the financial resources of local government in the coming year means that local authorities will not have a brass farthing to spend in this way. As a result, many businesses that should receive assistance will not get it.
Secondly, in recent years, shops and small businesses have gone under not only in rural areas but in small towns and, as has been said, in urban areas. In the three towns in my constituency—Caernarfon, Pwllheli and Porthmadog—there are numerous empty shops and, to a significant extent, that is a direct result of the impact of the uniform business rate.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion arid Pembroke, North and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) have pointed out in the Chamber that our policy as a party is that we want to do away with the UBR. Conservative Members have challenged the Liberal Democrats on this matter, but we have gone into it in some detail and we want to see a local income tax. That was the evidence that we gave to the Layfield commission in 1976 and, incidentally, was recommended by the commission. Even then, it was thought possible and practical to have a local income tax system.
I believe that, if businesses had to pay a local income tax—or, if they were incorporated, an added element to their corporation tax—as the means of funding local government, it would not become a burden or an overhead that might pull them down when their turnover was falling. It is variable—if a business is doing well, it pays more; but if it is doing poorly, it pays less. That makes it easier for businesses to survive when there are factors undermining their viability.
The existing provisions in law for relief for businesses going through difficult periods are applied so unevenly that it is difficult to see the basis on which they are applied. A couple of years ago, some £2 million of relief was given in England but only £900 in Wales. I have no doubt that there are many deserving businesses in Wales, and I know that some Welsh councils, such as Taff Ely—which no longer exists—applied the relief, while others will not contemplate it, and that causes a problem. There must be a rethink on local government finance, particularly on the uniform business rate.
There are real problems of definition which must be addressed in Committee, and I wish to flag up some so that we start to think about them. First, what is a rural area? We are told that it is a settlement with fewer than
1309 3,000 people, but that is an inadequate definition, as it does not relate to density. The Minister of State told us that he recognised that a different formula applied in Wales, but nothing in the Bill refers to that formula. Apparently there are two ways of defining a rural area, neither of which is mentioned in detail in the Bill. We will have to deal with that in Committee, or the Bill will be open to challenges in the courts and elsewhere. There is also the question of one community covering more than one settlement, which I have raised.
Secondly, what is a business? The Bill allows the Secretary of State to include any shop or business by order, but how will the order be used? We must discuss whether there should be a limiting factor with regard to the size of a business. During the consultation in Wales, such a limiting figure was given—£5,000 of rateable value—but that seems to have dropped out of the Bill. Or has it? Perhaps we do not know it yet, and it will be covered by orders which have not yet been clarified.
What is the definition of a general store? For example, does a cafe that sells soap qualify as a general store, as it sells food as well as household items? I do not believe that the definition we have is watertight, and it will be inoperable. What is the qualification for a post office? Would a post office counter in an out-of-town supermarket—more and more supermarkets are trying to get such counters—qualify automatically for relief from the rates for the entire business? These matters have not been thought through, and more thought is needed.
I wish to refer to the powers of community councils, which are vital. I have 28 community councils in my constituency, and I try to visit them all on a rota basis. I have never been to a single community council meeting where I have not learnt something. These councils are valuable, but they have precious few powers and it is right to give them more. I am not satisfied that the powers to strengthen community councils in the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 are adequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy tabled amendments to that legislation in Committee, but we did not get the result we wanted. Commitments were given that guidelines would be issued by the Welsh Office, but they have not been adequate. The Government may be relying on the effectiveness of the words in the 1994 Act as a basis for the application of the scheme in England, but that has not happened in Wales as yet. I want more powers to go down to community councils than do currently.
Several aspects of the Bill need to be clarified. For example, does any legal liability fall on community councils for car-sharing schemes or traffic-calming works? Frankly, community councils do not have the expertise to be handling questions if there is legal liability. Are community councils to be allowed to build bus shelters, given that the Bill restricts them from doing anything of a capital nature with regard to bus services?
The Bill states that community councilsmay, for the detection or prevention of crime in their area—(a) install…any equipment.What does that mean? Will community councils be allowed to put the stocks on the village greens? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hear "Hear, hear" from Conservative Members. That may well be what the Government have in mind, and I would be interested to hear that spelled out. My local authority has considered 1310 installing closed circuit television. Although it can face the capital costs, there will be immense revenue implications if it is to monitor everything on the CCTV systems.
On taxi fares, clause 28 allows community councils to enter arrangements for fare concessions forsome or all of the personsin the council's area. That sounds discriminatory—councils can choose who to help, and may not do so on an objective basis. There are specific provisions in legislation on water rates to prevent discrimination, but it appears that we are deliberately providing for it in the Bill. That needs clarification.
I should like to touch on omissions relating to the working of town and country planning law, particularly in rural areas. I have plenty of examples of nonsense in town and county planning law and how they impact on communities. My area has an old planning permission that dates back to 1965. It has been kept alive by way of a few yards of tarmac that were put down for betterment levy purposes in the late 1960s, but that has meant that the planning permission is alive in perpetuity for 800 holiday homes in the village of Morfa Bychan. It is a site of special scientific interest and needs protection. Planning law should be changed to deal with such nonsense. We have heard of opencast schemes that would desecrate rural areas, but existing provisions to cope with such problems are inadequate.
I should be glad if the Government would clarify whether a new rural business class use will be added to the planning process, as was mentioned on page 35 of the English White Paper. Consultation is proceeding on this matter and we need to know whether it will move forward, because it is important for the operation of our community councils and for planning to protect our rural areas. Small developments can proliferate, because the size threshold enables them to avoid the development control procedures.
As other hon. Members have said, we give two cheers for the Bill. We need to strengthen and clarify it in Committee and we need other Bills to cover the rural matters that have not been covered. More than anything, we need a coherent strategy towards rural Wales and that has not, as yet, been developed. The White Paper tried to move in that direction, but it was not adequate. Financing and the way in which grant formulae for local government deal with the sparsity of population and the additional costs that it causes have not yet been addressed. I hope that the Government are aware that rural areas have many needs and that they will be willing to accept amendments tabled in Committee. I also hope that we will hear more in the winding-up speeches. It is vital to get such legislation right and to make it applicable to, and effective for, our rural areas.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) who made a characteristically constructive speech. Some of the matters that he raised are already addressed satisfactorily in the Bill. For example, schedule 1 will provide billing authorities with much flexibility to interpret what is meant by "a rural settlement". I understood what the hon. Member was talking about, because I spent my summer holiday this year in his constituency and that of his hon. Friend the 1311 Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I thought that he talked down Porthmadog a little, because it is a vibrant shopping centre and my wife and daughter greatly enjoyed our shopping trips there, although I could see the damage that has been done to areas of his constituency by the attractions of Safeway in Caernarfon and the new Tesco store further along the coast at Bangor. They have had an impact on village shops.
The two cheers from the Welsh nationalists must be encouraging for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister who will reply to the debate tonight. The Opposition parties seem to agree that the Bill is at least a small step forward, so we are entitled to believe that it is a big one indeed.
As we have heard in the debate, the Bill is about rural communities, and it is good to have an opportunity to debate that subject. I think back to the fuss that arose when the Church of England published its report, 'Faith in the City", and the huge row that erupted. Someone even used the word "Marxist" to describe the report. A few years later, the Church of England produced a parallel report called "Faith in the Countryside" which. I am sad to say, sank without trace. It was a fine report and an example of the Church making a useful contribution to the debate about rural communities.
We are debating today the very institutions that bind together those rural communities. Many of them are important—the church, the shop, the pub. the parish council, the school and so on. Those are the "little platoons" of village life. That phrase was used by Edmund Burke in 1790, when he said:To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of our country and to mankind.So our debate tonight has a long and honourable tradition.
Those institutions, those little platoons, empower people—they help people make a difference to the community in which they live—and they do not just include the formal institutions, because the family is a little platoon, as are sports clubs, hunts and voluntary groups. All those little platoons bind together the fabric of rural life. Some, such as the Church, do so by providing spiritual help; the shop provides practical help, as a centre of information for the village; the pub provides a social opportunity; the parish council provides a democratic one; and the school provides an educational one. They are the foundations on which our rural communities are built, and I congratulate the Government on the Bill, which will deal with many aspects of rural institutional life—those little platoons.
There is little for schools in the Bill, but it is not an education Bill and is not the place for that. There is little for the Church, but it has something to tell us about the importance of little platoons and subsidiarity. I mean, in this case, the Church of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is a member, rather than my Church. Subsidiarity lies at the heart of what we are debating tonight because giving power to parish councils, as the Bill will, is what subsidiarity is all about. It was defined by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical "Quadrigesimo Anno" in the following terms: 1312Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater or higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do.He continued:those in powerhe must have been thinking of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of subsidiary function, the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be, the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State".That definition was quoted in the document "The Common Good", which was produced by the Catholic bishops recently and widely, and I think wrongly, interpreted as an incentive to vote Labour. That interpretation was sadly misguided on the part of mischievous media.
In the document, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church stated:It will be seen that the principle of subsidiarity is no ally of those who favour the maximisation of State power, or centralisation of the State at the expense of more local institutions. It supports a dispersal of authority as close to the grass roots as good government allows, and it prefers local over central decision-making.That is what the Bill sets out to do and that is why we should give it three not two cheers.
The principle of empowering parish councils must be right and we will give them powers that they may choose to exercise or not, depending on local circumstances. Conservatives are frequently criticised for seeking to centralise power, but I cannot understand that criticism. Our proposals for grant-maintained schools involve a decentralisation of power. They give power back to local communities and I am delighted that, in Flyford Flavell first school, I have the first grant-maintained primary school in a rural area in my constituency. That is empowering for the local community. We see decentralisation in health authorities, because we are giving power to general practitioners to take decisions.
We oppose Labour plans to create regional assemblies which would undermine the role of all local authorities, especially parish councils. We want to take power out to the people and that is what the Bill sets out to do.
Parish councils are, as everybody in the House agrees, crucial local institutions. I seek invitations to go to them as regularly as I can and a summons to one is a three-line whip to me. On the Bill's proposals for parish councils,. I have two questions, two welcomes and two caveats to enter. I am delighted that the Bill will make it easier to establish parish councils, and that it will give local communities the power to petition for their creation. I am also delighted by the new powers the Bill will provide on community transport and crime prevention, but I wish to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary a question about clause 16. As I read it, the clause seems to create a presumption in favour of parishing. It seems to oblige district councils to parish where appropriate.
I think that I know the answer to the question, but does the clause also apply to parishes in urban areas, for example in Worcester city? I ask because my city council fought the creation of parish councils. The Labour party, which controls Worcester city, did not welcome rival centres of power in the city. They were wrong to fight 1313 them and it was undemocratic and unduly centralising of them. I am glad to say that the parish councils now exist and are making a valid contribution to the life of my city. In other cities, where Labour administrations might take a similarly unenlightened attitude, will they find it more difficult to resist the creation of parish councils?
I have a second question, about clause 21 and consultation with parish councils, which may already have been answered when I was temporarily out of the Chamber. I understand that it is primarily intended to deal with planning matters, about which several hon. Members have already spoken in detail.
Many parish councils in Worcestershire feel that they are not taken sufficiently seriously on planning matters. Only yesterday a parish council chairman told me that they feel that they are regularly presented with a series of faits accomplis. For exactly the reasons that many hon. Members have explained, I would like parish councils to be fundamentally involved in the planning process. They are in touch with grass-roots local opinion, and they know, often better than district or county councils, what is good for their communities.
Parish councils could also be given a role in the enforcement process. Often, when planning permissions have been granted, they are not properly followed, and sometimes the parish is better placed to judge whether a planning permission has been properly adhered to.
Frequently parish councils are not adequately informed during the local plan process. That has been an issue in the village of Tibberton, Worcestershire, which is currently suffering the imposition of an unwelcome housing development because the parish council was not properly informed about it. No one broke the rules, but there are no rules obliging anyone to inform the parish about a change in the application of the plan to its village. As a result, Tibberton is finding it difficult to resist the imposition of that unwelcome housing.
In the early stages of the local plan, the parish council thought that it had made its representations effectively, but then found that it was not required to be informed of a change. I do not think that at this stage the village can avoid the building of the unwelcome houses.
Parish councils have a crucial role to play in the planning process, and we should seek to reinforce that role wherever we can. The 1972 legislation simply required all planning applications to be notified to parish councils. I believe that that those councils' views should carry much more weight, and I hope that that is what the relevant clause seeks to achieve.
I extend two specific welcomes, one of which is for the wide range of powers on community transport and on traffic measures such as traffic calming. I especially welcome the emphasis on imaginative, innovative, creative use of existing facilities, such as sharing cars and taxi arrangements. Sadly, the days of the village bus cannot come back for most rural communities. Too many people own cars, which traps the poorest and most underprivileged members of our society in the villages, unable to leave them to work, to shop or for recreational purposes. The new proposals are welcome, as they seek to correct a trend that cannot otherwise be addressed.
I welcome the powers on crime prevention. Several parishes in my area are already adopting certain measures, such as giving remuneration to neighbourhood watch co-ordinators, which may or may not be legal at present. 1314 I am sure that they will welcome the provisions in the Bill. The installation of closed circuit television cameras may be a bit much to ask in small village communities, considering not only the capital costs but the running costs. But larger town councils will welcome the powers that the Bill will enable them to take.
I have two caveats. First, not all parish councils will take up the new powers. It is not the Government's intention that they should. The powers are discretionary, and councils can decide whether to use them. However, if a significant number of parishes decided to use the powers, parish council expenditure would increase sharply.
Wychavon district council area, which covers the rural parts of my constituency, is fully parished. We have three significant town councils, and the total budget of the parish councils there is about £750,000. I therefore repeat what some Opposition Members have said about not bringing parish precepts within district and county capping arrangements. That would be a harmful development, and I hope that the Minister will assure me that the Government do not intend it to happen.
My second caveat concerns the new responsibilities of parish councils. They will require a great deal more skill and expertise than some councils now have. Many parishes may be reluctant to take up the powers because they feel that they lack the necessary expertise.
Let us consider some of the issues that my local parish councils are confronting now. Whittington is fighting a battle with the Highways Agency about noise, and a great deal of expertise has been built up there. People in Bishampton and Throckmorton have fought an entirely inappropriate planning permission for a chicken farm, and have had to deal with complex laws on environmental impact assessments, as well as European Union involvement in such matters.
I have already talked about Tibberton, and the detailed work that has been done there on the planning process covering housing. Inkberrow fought the Boundary Commission in an attempt to prevent its transfer to the new Redditch parliamentary constituency. In Wyre Piddle, people need to know the details of transport policy, as they fight for their bypass.
Those matters are all time-consuming for parish councils, and if they are to take advantage of the new powers in the Bill the clerks, especially, would benefit from further training. Perhaps the Rural Development Commission could consider the idea; indeed, I believe that it is already doing so. Overall, I welcome what the Bill will do for parish councils. It recognises subsidiarity, decentralisation and the strength of the little platoons.
That thought leads me to that other little platoon dealt with by the Bill—the village shop. Many such shops in and near my constituency are struggling against all the odds. In my eyes, the proprietors of village shops are the real heroes of rural life, providing a crucial service and a social facility that we cannot afford to lose.
Several Opposition Members have said that the relief that we propose for village shops should go to urban shops too. I understand that wish, because there are struggling urban shops in my constituency, too. However, the point is that the rate relief will be a subsidy not to the village shop proprietor but to the community, to keep that crucial community facility alive. That is the distinction.
1315 Ultimately, the Government have to draw the line somewhere. There are all kinds of things that we would like to do if resources were unlimited, but as they are not, I believe that the Government are striking the right balance. The rate relief proposal will often make a real difference to village shops.
Some people have underplayed the significance of rate relief to those shops. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities, for example, seems to think that it does not matter. I disagree. Some shops in my constituency are still awaiting the phasing out of transitional UBR relief, and at present the prospect for them is one of increasing business rates. The Bill will wipe out that prospect, which will be greatly welcomed by the shops.
Figures are missing from the Bill, but I understand that the Government intend to set the rateable value limit below £5,000 and to provide for mandatory 50 per cent. relief for such businesses. The discretionary scheme for a 50 per cent. top-up for local authorities must be welcome. I also notice that, whichever way we put it, only 25 per cent. of the 50 per cent.—that is, 12.5 per cent. of the total—will fall to local authorities, the rest being borne by the rate fund or by the Exchequer, depending on which interpretation one prefers.
I welcome all that, and I sincerely hope that the village shops in my constituency will benefit from both halves of the equation, the mandatory and the discretionary. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on such matters, praised the record of councils run by his party in that regard. The Lib-Lab pact that runs Wychavon council does not have an especially good record on hardship relief. Only a tiny handful of shops get help.
Wychavon is a cash-rich district, because of the wise policies of the Government, especially the policy for the transfer of council housing to local housing associations, which were pursued by the previous Conservative Administration. The council has enough money to give the relief, so I sincerely hope that, when the Bill becomes an Act, it will make a rapid commitment to use its resources to provide the tiny additional sum to increase the limit to 100 per cent.
Despite my welcome for the Bill, I accept what many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Caernarfon, have.said: it is not a panacea, and does not solve all the problems of village shops.
I am a great admirer of Tesco, Sainsbury and Safeway. As one of my hon. Friends said, those companies have transformed British retailing; they are among the finest retailers in the world. But at the end of the day they are the enemies of the village shop. We cannot duck that fact.
For example, I wrote to Tesco when the company started running a bus service from a village in my constituency to its new store at Evesham. That stuck a dagger in the heart of the village shop in Peopleton. Tesco found it incomprehensible that I could be worried about the village shop, but I was, because the bus service was limited and inadequate, yet it would take away that extra bit of turnover from the village shop, thus endangering its future.
I opposed Sunday opening for similar reasons. I am sure that that, too, has damaged village shops and small urban shops. I am also concerned about the policy of some 1316 of the big supermarkets on "known value items". For a village shop it is difficult to buy many branded goods even as cheaply as the price at which they are sold off the supermarket shelves. The supermarkets stop the manufacturers and wholesalers selling goods at a price that would enable the village shop to compete with them.
That is a scandal, and I hope that the Minister can have a word with the Office of Fair Trading to see whether that body could have a little look at the problem.
Another matter that hon. Members could have mentioned is the new business improvement grant scheme for village shops. Taken together with the relief on business rates, it is a very important development. In fact, the chairman of the Rural Development Commission said in a press release last week:The village shop provides an essential service, particularly for those without ready access to transport, but is under threat…This new scheme will complement both our existing advisory service for village shops and the proposed rate relief scheme for which the Government has just introduced a Bill. We believe that the combined effect of these measures will provide the best chance of halting the decline in the number of village shops which we have had for many years.Combined with the measures in the Bill, the new business improvement grant scheme, which was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 28 October, offers more than a ray of hope for many struggling village shops.
Of course, village shops face other threats, too. If, Heaven forfend, there were to be a Labour Administration sometime in the future which proposed the introduction of a minimum wage, what effect it would have on many marginal shops that can at present afford to employ one assistant at a relatively low rate of pay I shudder to think. The implications of a minimum wage for village shops could be very serious.
The National Farmers Union wants clarification on some issues. It has asked how my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State proposes to designate areas as rural for the purposes of the scheme. I am sure that we shall explore that in Committee, although I think that schedule 1 provides the flexibility that those rural communities need. It also asked what might be the position of some farm shops, which act as general stores but are not necessarily located within the boundaries of a designated rural settlement. That is an interesting point.
There is another point on which I would be interested in hearing my hon. Friend the Minister comment. Some of the shops have to pay not only business rates but large sums to have rubbish taken away by district councils. The cost of collecting cardboard cartons has an additional charge over and above the business rate. Perhaps that is another matter to be considered.
Finally, and briefly, I turn to pubs. It is right that we should emphasise them as a crucial component of village life. I attended a reception yesterday that was organised by CAMRA at which that point was made to me very forcibly. It is looking for a mandatory 100 per cent. relief scheme for village pubs, which is a trifle ambitious, to say the least. Pubs play a crucial social and economic role in villages. They provide a cheap and self-financing meeting place for many local groups where, for example, a village hall does not exist, and they are vital to social cohesion. I am told that, at present, business rates account for 6p per pint sold in the average village pub, and that the 1317 total tax per pint is around 54p when one takes account of excise duty, VAT and business rates. Perhaps that is another little platoon that demands a little more support in the Bill.
Nevertheless, the Bill is a good one, it has been introduced by a good Secretary of State and it deserves to make good progress. I certainly have no hesitation in recommending it to the House.
§ Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)
I shall address clauses 5 to 8 and schedule 2, which deal with the rate relief scheme for village shops, and are the only parts that affect Scotland. Like most hon. Members, I give the scheme a cautious welcome. It is, of course, but a drop in the ocean in terms of the community, economic and development needs of rural Scotland, but it is very welcome. I know that it will be welcomed by many of the small shops and post offices that will benefit from it.
The local authority in my constituency estimates that about 75 shops and post offices and another 50 sub-post offices in the Western Isles will be eligible for rate relief under this scheme. That gives the House some impression of the nature of the constituency and the importance of the scheme to helping those shops. They are essential to maintaining community life in what are very remote villages and districts by any standard—even European standards. Any moves that help to prop up the existence of such shops is to be welcomed.
I hope that the scheme will also be of assistance to mobile shops. They are not referred to in the Bill, and I am not quite sure how the scheme would apply to them, since by their very nature they travel from village to village and district to district, but they are just as essential to the lifeblood of remote and rural communities as resident shops. They not only supply produce of various kinds to the different villages they visit, but act as bearers of news, gossip and information from village to village, and help to tie many villages and districts together.
I know that, to people who find it difficult to move out of their villages, because they are elderly, on particularly low incomes or disabled, or face some other difficulty, mobile shops are a welcome sight when they come over the hill. If the Bill can help mobile shops as well, it would be very worth while. I hope that that is a point that we can explore in Committee.
I should like to make a couple of suggestions about how the rate relief scheme might be further improved. Like many others, I believe that the scheme ought to be extended beyond simply ordinary shops or general stores. Pubs have been mentioned. Petrol retail outlets in rural areas also need to be assisted by the scheme.
There is no doubt whatever that local petrol outlets are hugely important in rural areas because, by their nature, such areas do not have a developed public transport network. People rely more heavily on their cars to get around for essential day-to-day living than they do in urban areas, where there is access to tubes, buses, trains and other kinds of public transport. In rural areas, the car is essential to get about, which is why it is important that there is access to petrol—and nearby, so that they do not have to drive large distances to fill their tanks with petrol.
Rural petrol retail outlets are under increasing pressure. The Minister will know that the Trade and Industry Committee studied petrol retailing in its sixth report in the 1318 previous Session. One of the issues on which it focused was that great pressure, which is due to rural outlets having to bear increasing costs as a result of new environmental standards and the need to introduce new equipment. That is particularly onerous for people who have a very low turnover.
There is also the problem that the outlets usually have to pay a higher price for wholesale petrol. Those two things together mean that the consumer has to pay a much greater price than that paid in urban areas. I know that that is true throughout the country and not only in Scotland, but it is perhaps particularly true in the highlands and islands.
The gap between rural and urban prices in the highlands and islands is staggering. Last year, for example, the average gap between the price of petrol in the Western Isles and the price on the mainland of Scotland was about 8p per litre—about 36p per gallon. People in rural areas have to pay a great deal more for their petrol. In the Western isles, for example, people have to pay £1 million more a year than they would have to pay for the equivalent amount of petrol in urban areas.
Great pressures and problems bear down on retail petrol outlets in rural areas, especially in the highlands and islands, but to a greater or lesser degree throughout the country. We need to offer those outlets some support, and I hope that that can be done through the Bill.
Recommendation No. 9 in the Trade and Industry Select Committee report suggests that the Government should consider ways in which the taxation levied on petrol could be adjusted to ensure that petrol retailers in rural areas were not disadvantaged. That could be done in different ways: a rebate on the value added tax or duty that the retailers pay would be one method, and giving them access to the rate relief scheme would be another. I hope that we can consider that carefully in Committee, and extend the scope of the scheme in what I believe would be a sensible way.
The balance of the way in which local authorities and central Government pay for the scheme could be adjusted. If the scheme is taken up and both the mandatory and the discretionary elements are employed to the full, the balance would be about 75 per cent. from central Government and 25 per cent. from local authorities. For charities, the balance is slightly better—80 per cent. and 20 per cent. It would make sense to have a similar split in the scheme for rural businesses.
Clause 2 is not a Scottish clause, but I must make some comment on it. It concerns the abolition of sporting rates in England and Wales, and I was baffled by the Government's explanation that it was needed to bring England into line with Scotland. I well remember the Government arguing that the equivalent measure in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, which abolished sporting rates in Scotland, was needed to bring the Scottish position in line with the English, so their justification for the current measure seems bizarre.
It is a gross waste of money to provide a blanket exemption for sporting estates, and I warn English and Welsh hon. Members against going down that route. The exemption would account for a quarter of the total cost of the scheme—£5 million out of £20 million—and there is no justification for it on economic, social or community grounds.
1319 Since sporting rates were abolished in Scotland, there has been no evidence whatever of any benefit to rural communities, or that it has helped, as was argued during the passage of the 1994 Act, in the management of the estates. All that has happened is that money has disappeared into the pockets of those who own and control sporting estates—by definition, extremely wealthy people. I hope that the Committee will consider that carefully, and reject the provision.
Clauses 6 to 8, which contain provisions dealing with Crown property, affect Scotland and appear to be sensible in principle, but we shall have to look at the detail and to consider how they bear upon the operations of the Crown Estates Commissioners. I look forward to hearing more about that in Committee.
The Bill represents a small drop in the ocean in terms of the support that rural communities need, but it is a welcome drop.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), the first lady member of the Government Whips Office, asked me whether I would speak in tonight's debate. No lady is ever to be denied in my life, but one who has such an interesting array of Whips at her disposal certainly commands my riveted attention.
I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to colleagues on both Front Benches, for the fact that I was not here for the opening speeches. I was attending upon one of Her Majesty's Treasury Ministers with the leader and two officers of the Isle of Wight council to discuss the minting of the Isle of Wight ecu, for the illegal sale of which the council is facing prosecution.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, the Bill is all about subsidiarity. The Isle of Wight council recently spent nearly £15,000 on a MORI poll asking people on the island whether they would like a referendum on independence and how they would vote in such a referendum. On the first question, 71 per cent. said yes; on the second, 44 per cent. said that they would be against the independence of the Isle of Wight, 33 per cent. said that they would be in favour, 17 per cent. said that they did not know enough about it and 1 per cent. said that they would not vote.
It seems not untypical of the Liberal Democrats that the council now wishes to have an Act of Parliament allowing a referendum on independence, which would cost about £120,000, in order to pose a question to which it already has the answer, because a large majority have already said that they do not want independence. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats' prospective parliamentary candidate accused the leader and deputy leader of the council of forming a breakaway party that had not been authorised by Cowley street. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will therefore realise that subsidiarity is high on the agenda on the Isle of Wight at the moment.
Rating is at the heart of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) gave an excellent exposition of the merits of the business rate as it stands. He left out only one important point, a point that, if I may say so, is often missed by the Government. The fashion 1320 of the day when I came into the House—it was parroted throughout the country and not only in political circles—was to ask what the Government were doing for our manufacturing industry, yet so many people forget that the legislation setting up the business rate favoured, and still favours, manufacturing premises. I have not found a single manufacturer on the Isle of Wight who wants to do away with the business rate.
I can explain that to the House and give ample illustrations: the rates on the Isle of Wight were uncompetitive, we could not get people to invest in the island and set up factories there, and many of the large multiples and international companies were considering moving away to their spare capacity in other parts of the country.
Today, the Isle of Wight's business rates are pari passu—four square—with those of the rest of the nation, which is very helpful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield also said, that gives businesses the opportunity to plan their budgets in advance. That is to say nothing of the extraordinary increases in the old business rate when the Liberal Democrat council had the matter all to itself.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel)—or is it Papworth, I can never remember which it is, but I know that it is something to do with bypasses—mentioned that Liberal Democrat councils were used to giving rate relief. When he generously gave way, I pointed out that I had never known the Isle of Wight council to use that facility.
When I was elected to the House, the Liberal Democrats suddenly started asking about the village shops that were shutting, and asked why I was not doing something about it. I pointed out to my local councillors that they already had the power to do something if they wished. There is nothing Liberal Democrats hate more than being given a solution that bursts the balloon of their protest and takes away the oxygen they need to shout about such matters. They have never used that facility to assist village shops. I have been able on rare occasions to negotiate with the council on behalf of businesses for time for them to pay in exceptional circumstances.
As of tonight, I have a new policy for winning the next general election. It is to be nice to Department of the Environment Ministers. There is no Department I have spent more time kicking, screaming and shouting at since I came into the House. If there is one outstanding reform that the nation needs, it is an end to the annual junket that runs from local authorities to Marsham street and back. Year in, year out it costs the nation millions of pounds and is ineffective.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) put through the House the order that created the Isle of Wight unitary council, he ran from the Chamber with my protestations about the problems of the electoral cycle of the unitary council and the parish councils ringing in his ears. Such was my angst, I even offered him a free demonstration of one of my company's products. I should at this point declare my interest in both beer and burials.
Parish councils bring Government nearer to the people. They have never been capped, because they act responsibly. In many parts of the country, they are unpolitical. In my constituency, there is a strong tradition of not standing for parish and town councils on a political ticket, even when candidates are already elected party 1321 political representatives of local councils. It gives a much better standard of decision-making at the grass roots when people hang their political hats up outside the door on parish councils. My constituency much appreciates that.
Clause 20 more or less restores the position that existed before we passed the legislation that created the Local Government Commission and the unitary authorities. I welcome that. It is rare for a Member to have a Government Bill that is almost entirely and exclusively dedicated to his constituency, but that is the case with the alignment of the electoral cycle in the Bill.
Clause 11 allows a petition by the community to set up a parish council. It is unclear whether a time scale is involved, though some of the wording suggests that, where a community has already made a petition, it will suffice. Is a time scale involved? My hon. Friend the Minister knows, because of my representations, that East Cowes has made a petition. We all support its having a parish or town council. Will it have to go through the exercise afresh?
My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) talked about planning and parish councils. When I was elected for the Isle of Wight, I met our chief planning officer and pointed out that, if he required people seeking planning permission to bring an extra set of plans when they made their applications, it could be distributed to parish councils, which would involve them much more in the process. He said that he did not believe that it could be done, because it was ultra vires and outside the law. I pointed out that, when I had been a district councillor, we had required it.
Most people who wanted planning permission would not baulk at the legality of what was involved and would provide the extra set. Since we adopted that on the Isle of Wight at my suggestion, I have not heard of any developer or architect who has baulked at supplying additional plans for the parish council, so that it can be fully consulted in the planning process.
Clause 20, as the hon. Member for Newbury said, exclusively affects the Isle of Wight. It might be thought that there would be other cases, but we are the only unitary authority where the electoral cycles do not match. I welcome the fact that the Bill deals with that. On the Isle of Wight, we have many tiny parish councils whose precept comes to less than would their election costs if they had to have stand-alone elections. That is nonsense.
I should have been on the island tonight with the deputy chief constable for a first meeting about some neighbourhood watch arrangements. I know how much the Bill's anti-crime measures, such as closed circuit television and the appointment of parish constables, will be welcomed. Hon. Members with mixed rural and urban constituencies such as mine will have had representations from the community, generally speaking, about anti-social behaviour and vandalism rather than serious crime. The parish council can play a useful role in that respect.
We must guard against the district councils walking away from their responsibilities, and leaving it by default to the parish councils to get on with some of these duties. That would be wrong.
Rating relief for shops is welcome. Several hon. Members have asked about the pubs. In some cases, the pub has a dual role as village shop. I hope that that will not preclude them from this welcome rate relief.
1322 Finally, clause 3 activates the Government's long-standing policy of abolishing Crown immunity and Crown exemption. I welcome that, for a number of reasons. On the Isle of Wight, the Home Office owns the Albany, Camp Hill and Parkhurst residential estates, including roads and street lighting. Now the Home Office is trying to hand over the ownership to local residents.
I welcome the abolition of Crown exemption because of the major problem that arose when I entered the House in 1987, when I was landed with the difficulty that rating valuation officers had misjudged the rates on what were in the main residential properties for prison officers. The mistake amounted to several pounds per head of the population of the Isle of Wight.
I went to see Nick Ridley, who told me that the problem had nothing to do with him: I should go and see the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I went to see Nigel Lawson, who told me that it was nothing to do with him: I should go and see Nick Ridley. I am sometimes asked why I still languish on the Back Benches. It is because I shuttled endlessly between those two gentlemen and made myself extremely unpopular with them, which killed my prospects of advancement.
Eventually I was told that there was no legislative mechanism to put this major problem right. What was more, it had never occurred before. In desperation, I got in touch with the Cabinet Secretary. I felt that my constituents were getting a raw deal, and that no one wanted to help me out with it. In the end a solution was found; I was never allowed to be privy to what it was, but the debt was written off. That explains why I welcome the abolition of Crown exemption.
No speech of mine mentioning parish councils would be complete without paying tribute to Lord Mottistone, who has been an ardent champion of the cause of parish councils. He was chairman of the Parish and Town Council Association of the Isle of Wight, and his family enjoyed a long association with the councils as well. He tried to promote a private Member's Bill in the other place with the intention of marrying up these election dates. In no small measure, clause 20 is a tribute to his efforts.
This Bill is about a way of life and a form of government which are for ever England. It will ensure the continuation of that way of life on the Isle of Wight and in the other English shire counties.
§ 9.1 pm
§ Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)
I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you were in the Chamber earlier this afternoon when I raised a point of order about the closure of the Gulf refinery in my constituency, which was announced this morning. It is planned to close it by the summer of 1997, with the loss of 350 direct jobs and a similar number of indirect jobs.
My constituency, a peripheral part of the United Kingdom, has over the past five years suffered defence cuts that have meant 1,050 job losses in defence establishments both in the constituency and in neighbouring ones. There have also been job losses in the energy sector, another pillar of the local economy, totalling 400 over the past five years. In the food production and processing sector, the third pillar of our local economy, we suffered the closure of the Whitland creamery, in 1994, and we are now suffering the effects of the BSE crisis.
1323 The fourth pillar is tourism, which this year was hit by the Sea Empress spillage. Cardiff business school calculates that that resulted in a loss to the local economy of between £21 million and £30 million this year, with the consequential loss of between 1,100 and 1,400 jobs in the holiday season.
The cumulative effects of all that have been catastrophic, particularly for unemployment. In September this year, male unemployment in Milford Haven on a narrow base rate was 26 per cent., in Fishguard it was 20 per cent., in Pembroke Dock it was 20 per cent., and in Tenby, 22 per cent. The report produced by Cardiff business school and the Institute of Rural Studies in Aberystwyth also shows that, before the Sea Empress disaster, average income per head in rural west Wales was 72 per cent. of the European average, making it as poor as many parts of Portugal—which, along with Greece, is the poorest country in the European Union.
I represent a rural seat, because all the jobcentres that I have quoted in my constituency cover rural areas as well as the urban areas of particular towns, so I welcome anything that could alleviate some of the problems that my constituents face.
I am disappointed with the Bill, not precisely because of what it does, but because of what it does not do. It does not take on any of the major issues identified by the Government in their rural White Paper, nor in the responses from various rural organisations in England and those received in response to the Welsh Office rural White Paper. The scope of the Bill is extremely limited, and it does not get to grips with some of the fundamental problems that Wales in particular faces.
I was somewhat amused by the comments of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who said that the problems faced by those in the rural areas of his constituency were caused by success. He said that, because people could afford a car, they could travel to the supermarket 10 miles away, thus depriving the local community shop of income. That is certainly not the case in my constituency.
The sad fact is that, two years ago, the Employment Service conducted a survey on behalf of the local leading pressure group, South Pembrokeshire Action for Rural Communities, in which it identified the fact that lack of transport was one of the main reasons why people remained unemployed or were unable to upgrade their skills on training schemes. It discovered that people could not get to a job even if one was available, and that they could not attend a training scheme even if one was offered to them, because of the Government's failure to ensure that we have reasonable transport services throughout our rural communities.
A survey carried out by Cardiff business school discovered that those on low incomes remained so poor because, even though they had a job, they had to pay car insurance, car tax and the high price of petrol for a car that they could not really afford, but which they kept because, without it, they could not get to work. Many of those people were going without to keep their car on the road. That is the reality for many in rural areas, particularly in Wales.
1324 I welcome the limited proposals in the Bill, although. I have certain concerns about some of the details. Bearing in mind the limited amount of cash that will be available under the mandatory scheme, it is surprising that it will not be more closely targeted. It is quite possible that a successful shop in a village, which makes a reasonable turnover, will receive rate relief under the mandatory scheme because it is the only shopping outlet in that village. Unless we start targeting that limited resource. I am afraid that other, perhaps more deserving, shops and garages might go without. In Committee, we shall have to examine closely whether it is right to offer relief according to a blanket definition which means that, if a shop is the sole outlet in a community with a population of less than 3,000, it is automatically entitled to that rate relief.
As many hon. Members said, there are serious problems in areas that people from a city would regard as rural, but which the relevant local authority might regard as urban. Today, I asked my staff to carry out a small survey in two towns in my constituency, Pembroke Dock and Milford Haven. I asked them to count how many shops were boarded up, how many had "To Let" signs up and how many were unoccupied.
In Pembroke Dock this afternoon, 39 shops were either to let, boarded up or unoccupied and a further 16 units in a small shopping mall were also vacant. In Milford Haven, 15 shops were unoccupied or boarded up. That shows that we are examining the problems not only of purely rural areas, but of those not especially large towns where people from rural areas shop. The Government should address the crisis in the retail sector in many of our small towns. It is rather unfair that successful shops outside so-called urban areas will receive rate relief, whereas those suffering real problems in small towns will get no help at all.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) has returned, because my next point relates to what he said about garages. If certain bypass schemes go ahead, some villages in my constituency in which the village garage is also the village shop will face problems, because their garage-cum-shop will be bypassed along with the rest of the village. Obviously, a significant part of such outlets' income derives from passing trade, and when that traffic has gone, because the trunk road will go round and not through the village, they will face real difficulties. The Committee should examine that issue because there is a deliberate policy on trunk roads that affects such village shops, especially those that also serve as garages.
As I explained, Whitland was a thriving town until November 1994. It had a large creamery that employed 156 people, and most of those people lived in the town. As a result of the deregulation of the milk market, that creamery was closed by Dairy Crest, and 156 people lost their jobs. Earlier this year, the town was bypassed and now, instead of going through the centre of the town, the A14 passes to the north. From an environmental point of view, that is undoubtedly a benefit; it is also an economic benefit, because it speeds up traffic between the far west of Pembrokeshire and the M4 corridor. However, the impact on the town centre—its shops, pubs, takeaways and garages—has been catastrophic.
The irony is that, under the present arrangements, the creamery, which is still owned by Dairy Crest and which the company refuses to sell, lease or otherwise put on the 1325 market, has received rate relief; whereas the poor shops, garages, takeaways and other outlets have received no help whatever. That is another matter which the Committee should seriously examine.
I recently asked the Post Office how many post offices had closed in rural west Wales, and I was told that six had closed this year alone—in Rhyd Lewis, Aberaeron, Freshwater East, Tufton, Bosherston and Fron Deg Terrace. I do not think that anything in the Bill will encourage anyone to take on those franchises, reopen those post offices and provide a vital service to people in those villages. Another opportunity has been missed to establish essential services. Elderly people and those on benefit need a local post office that is operational.
I shall now discuss community councils, as we call them in Wales. Wales is completely covered by community and town councils. I served on the Committee on the Local Government (Wales) Bill, which addressed many of the issues that are addressed in, I think, part III of the Bill, which relates purely to England. I am a great supporter of community councils, and I welcome some of the moves in the Bill towards increased responsibilities and powers for community councils, but we must be realistic.
Many of the new powers relate to improving transport facilities. Castlemartin community council in my constituency has 121 electors. It has serious transport problems; almost its only remaining public transport is a post bus. Those 121 electors would not be too happy with their community council if it suddenly started levying a rate to provide a vital service. They would appreciate that service, but those 121 people would not like the bill that they would have to pick up.
In that case, the issue is too great for a community council, and can be tackled only by the county council, but its hands are tied because it is in effect capped by the Welsh Office. It cannot expend the money necessary to provide that community with a reasonable transport service.
§ Mr. Rendel
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the worries about the extra powers that the Bill would give to parish councils is that, although parish councils are not capped, the money that they spend counts against the capping limit for the higher-level council, so any money that those poor 121 electors might be asked to spend will have to be deducted from the spending of the higher-level council?
§ Mr. Ainger
I was going to make that point, and I can illustrate it. In 1994, Pembroke Dock town council was levying a rate that was higher than the district council rate for various purposes. As the hon. Gentleman says, we run the risk that, although the Bill would give those extra powers and allow community councils to levy a rate, it would have a knock-on effect on the upper tier of the local authority.
In Committee on the Local Government (Wales) Bill, I was worried—I still am—about the cost of democracy in community councils and town councils. If a member resigns or dies and there is a contest, the election can cost about £1,000. In Castlemartin, with 121 electors, if people decide that they want to hold an election, because everyone is concerned about a local issue and there are two points of view, that election almost bankrupts the 1326 community council. People are therefore reluctant to engage in local democracy because they are advised, "Do you realise that, if you do contest this seat and we hold an election, it will cost £1,000?" That problem must be tackled if we are to have vital local government at all levels.
The Bill presented a great opportunity—which has been lost—to tackle many of the profound problems that directly affect rural areas, especially in relation to economic activity. Why is there no rate relief for small business units, which would be a way to create and sustain jobs in rural communities? Why is there no rate relief for conversion of redundant farm buildings? Why has the Welsh Office systematically cut grants to village halls, which are often the only place where young people, the elderly, toddler groups and so on can meet? Although there is a token gesture towards education in rural areas through our small rural schools, why are local authorities constantly told that they must cut surplus places? That is the biggest threat of all to the small rural schools.
There have been cuts in support for the Leader groups, which are doing excellent work throughout rural England and Wales and addressing issues at the grass roots. In many cases, they are creating excellent training opportunities and in some cases good jobs as well. In 1995–96, £4 million was cut from support for rural initiatives in Wales. As a direct result, European money could not come into rural Wales. That is a travesty.
Although I welcome some of the measures in the Bill, I feel that an enormous opportunity has been lost.
§ Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham)
We have had an interesting debate. I originally thought that the Committee stage would be short, but as almost all Members who have spoken, on both sides of the House, have said that there are serious problems of definition in the Bill and flaws that will have to be worked out in Committee, I am beginning to wonder whether the short time between now and the election will be sufficient to sort it all out. Some of us hope that the Government will see sense and call an early election. It is interesting that all hon. Members who have spoken referred to the shortcomings of the Bill. They recognised that, although it is acceptable to Members in all parts of the House, it is a narrow measure.
I do not have a pecuniary interest, but I always like to make it clear to the House where I am coming from, so to speak, so I should state that I am vice-president of the National Association of Local Councils and president of the Durham branch of the Association of Parish and Town Councils.
§ Ms Armstrong
We do not go in for that sort of thing in Durham, but I hope that I have made clear my commitment to local and parish councils.
The Secretary of State was mistaken when he said that some people did not understand rural areas and were not concerned. He almost implied that only Conservative Members were competent to speak about rural areas. The debate has shown that there is considerable knowledge, experience and commitment to a living, thriving rural environment. That is evident on both sides of the House. 1327 Members from Scotland and Wales as well as from England have stated their determination that rural life in their constituencies should thrive and develop, but they recognised that the measures in the Bill were minuscule relative to the needs of rural areas in the 21st century.
Interestingly, the debate has highlighted the differences in our experience of rural life. That inevitably means that we have different ideas of what needs to be done to enable the community to flourish in the next century. I was particularly struck by the comments by the hon. Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who described a type of rural life which certainly exists but which is not the only form of rural life and which in my experience is not the predominant form of rural life for many people living in villages. If it were, we would face a difficult future, because both hon. Members described many people who lived in rural areas but who were making their living outside those areas and commuted to work.
The very high use of cars is leading to problems in rural areas. In the Weardale are a of my constituency, there is one road. There is a railway line, but it is now unused; that is another story and another tragedy. There Is one road, and the increased use of that road is leading to enormous difficulties, both for the industries in the dale and for the people living there. If we have the idea that rural life in Britain can prosper only by people making their living and doing the main things that sustain their lives, such as shopping, outside the rural area, we shall make rural areas intolerable places in which to live. The people who live there now will move back to the towns because they do not want such a quality of life. My belief, and that of many hon. Members on both sides of the House, is that that is far too simplistic a view of what is going on in rural Britain today.
The Rural Development Commission carried out a survey in 1994 which cautioned all of us not to be glib about the nature of rural life. The survey shows that it is much more complex, that different patterns are emerging and that we as decision-makers need to think about the kind of communities that we shall encourage by the measures that we take. The Bill should have been approached in that way, but I am not sure that that has been the major motivation behind it.
The Rural Development Commission's survey makes it clear that many of the new incomers to rural areas are people on low incomes. That suggests that many of them are elderly people on fixed incomes who are moving back to their home areas or to the area where they have had a caravan. That is the common theme in Weardale. Sometimes they come to the area with an over-rosy picture of what life will be like there in their declining years. As they have low incomes, they desperately need resources and services in their locality. Many of them do not have cars or, if they do, the cars are on their last legs—or wheels. As those people get older, they are less capable of maintaining the car and they get to the stage when they cannot use it.
I was horrified to hear the hon. Member for Hexham say that the lack of a car did not matter in his constituency, because his constituents now had the air ambulance. The head of the Northumberland ambulance service tried to endear a public meeting in my constituency to the idea that his ambulance, service would 1328 do a much better job if it took over Durham's ambulance service. He talked about the air ambulance, and one person in the audience said that the only reason people would need an air ambulance would be if all the amenities were closed and they were not able to get to them.
The closure of the local accident and emergency unit at Shotley Bridge hospital has led to many problems and the people in the top end of the Tyne valley whom I represent have enormous difficulties because of it. If they are taken by ambulance to the accident and emergency service, they are then left to find their own way home. I have a letter from one constituent who was charged £14 to travel 15 miles in the middle of the night because he had ended up in hospital after an accident and there was no ambulance to take him home.
It is not true to say that people in my region do riot face problems because of the distances involved and do not feel isolated. Those problems exist. What is happening in the health service in my region is no different from what is happening in other regions. The closure of health care units adds to the difficulties of local people, but health is not the only issue to which those problems relate.
My experience of living in a rural area is different from the picture painted by Conservative Members, but it is not all bleak: many people enjoy living in rural areas and want to be able to continue to do so. We should address the issues dealt with by the Bill on that basis.
If we are to have a rural life that is sustainable, and if we are to manage the environment and the land effectively, we must have a working life. The number of small businesses and village shops that have had to close in recent years is staggering. The measures to save small village shops are welcome but, my goodness, we have had to wait until so many of them have closed. We must now consider not only how to save those village shops, but how to make them viable and able to meet the needs of rural communities in the next century. I am disappointed by the approach taken in the Bill. It does not look forward and consider how most effectively to support village shops and businesses to ensure that they can play their role not only for the present generation but for the next.
The Government should have thought more about a partnership approach, and should have developed their proposals in that context. In some areas of the country, local authorities together with local people are already working hard on imaginative and innovative schemes, especially schemes involving small businesses. Measures are being taken to encourage young people to get jobs. If we cannot create opportunities for young people, our rural areas will become the preserve of older people and those who are getting older. If young people are unable to find work and opportunities, they will leave. I know how many people have left my area in the relatively short time that I have been in the House. I know how many young people have been driven out of my constituency because of the decline of industrial development in the dales, in the rural areas around Consett and in Consett itself.
We have heard far too little from the Government about the work of local authorities in finding ways to encourage new industry and small businesses. Given the importance of small businesses, and given the critical importance of economic regeneration to small businesses, I am amazed that the Government have come forward with so little. Small businesses in rural areas will be encouraged not only by the presence of village shops but by the overall rural environment.
1329 However, as I have said, village shops can develop to meet the challenges of the future. In Hertfordshire, for example, centres have been established in village shops and in "telecottages" through the collaborative initiative of all local government tiers—district, county and parish—showing what can be accomplished by adapting a village shop or community facility to the changing needs and demands of a new century. Such initiatives prove that rural businesses can thrive. Perhaps there will be information centres and other facilities in village shops that will involve not only village shop owners but others in offering new opportunities in rural areas.
The Government have taken so many actions that have frustrated the efforts of so many people. Many of my constituents have been unable to pursue training or other schemes to get them back into work because of the Government's benefits rules, which have proved a major disincentive, especially for those who wish to undertake part-time training.
The Government have failed to tackle other issues in reducing unemployment. They have made it increasingly difficult for farmers' wives in my constituency, for example, who have come to see me anxious about whether their children of school-leaving age will have any work opportunities in the dale. Those women know that there must be support for initiatives to ensure that the dales and other rural areas can survive and grow.
I am also very disappointed about the Government's work on parish councils—which I support, as I have already made clear. I find it incredible that it is necessary for the Bill to state that Parliament will allow parish councils to organise car-sharing schemes or to take initiatives to tackle rural crime. Rural crime is a desperately important issue. In my area, we have worked with the police and with parish and district councils to establish a rural crime watch.
In Burnhope—I assume that this is one of the examples used by Ministers—we have a parish bobby who is paid by the parish council. Burnhope is an old, very isolated mining village, with incredibly high levels of poverty and deprivation. The situation is much worse there than in many other villages in my constituency, which itself has the lowest income per household of any constituency in England.
There is poverty and deprivation in rural areas, but people want to live and work in the areas in which they grew up. Our job is to provide the framework so that they can do that. Only when we deliver that framework will we be able to ensure that we look after the land—the green and pleasant land in which we live—so that it is maintained for future generations. The Government have missed many opportunities in the Bill, but the Opposition will table amendments in Committee to ensure that the Government consider those opportunities.
I hope that the Government will also examine other proposals affecting rural areas, such as the nursery voucher scheme, which is creating havoc in the rural areas of Norfolk and will create havoc across the country. There are enormous opportunities to make child care available, which will greatly assist rural women who want to end their children's isolation so that they can have a proper start in life.
The Government must examine their policies so that they encourage a thriving existence for everyone in rural areas, not just those with cars. Many rural areas have low 1330 car ownership and people living in those areas have as much right to our attention as anyone else. If we are to provide them with real opportunities, we need a Government who will take a more serious approach to those difficulties than that taken in the Bill. I suspect that the present Government will not do that, and I look forward to being a member of a Government who will find a solution.
§ The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry)
It may assist the House if I begin by trying to answer some of the questions of fact and interpretation that have been raised in the debate.
The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) asked why the measure did not embrace Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland does not have a system of parishes analogous to that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is currently undergoing a rating revaluation, so it would not be easy to graft such a Bill on to the existing structure of legislation in Northern Ireland. No doubt the hon. Gentleman may wish to discuss with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland his interest in measures that would have a similar effect to the Bill.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) asked which parts of England, Scotland and Wales were covered by the Bill. The complicated answer involves the way in which Bills are drafted in order to observe legal technicalities. I could give him a detailed explanation which would leave him better informed, but possibly none the wiser. Perhaps it would be easier for me simply to list the parts of the Bill and the areas to which they apply. I can do that with certainty.
The village shop rate relief applies to England, Wales and Scotland. The abolition of duty on sporting rights applies to England and Wales, as there is already a similar measure for Scotland. The abolition of Crown exemption applies to England, Wales and Scotland, as does the retention of the exemption for visiting forces. The creation and review of parish arrangements is confined to England, as is the consultation framework for parishes, but the transport and crime prevention powers for parishes apply to England and Wales.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with an exhaustive topographical explanation of the Bill. I counsel him not to seek a detailed explanation. He can have one if he wants, but he will find it truly helpful only if he is deeply insomniac.
It may also be helpful if I cover some of the basic elements of the Bill, as I can provide clarifications and explanations that may save us time elsewhere. The village shop relief applies to the only shop that is a general store, selling food, hardware and household goods, or a post office. It will get a 50 per cent. mandatory relief. If there is a post office that is a general store and there is another general store in the village, the relief will apply to the post office, although the local authority will have the discretion to apply it to the second store as well.
Discretionary relief can be used to increase the 50 per cent. mandatory relief to the designated store.
§ Mr. Rendel
I seek clarification on that point. If a joint village store and post office is the only post office in the village, is the rate relief given only on the post office element of the store or on the total value of the property?
§ Mr. Dobson
I am genuinely trying to be helpful. Will the Minister consider a problem that may arise when the proposals in the Bill are put through by local councils? At the moment, auditors interpret any advocacy by a councillor of action to be taken in the ward or district that they represent as disqualifiable interest. Councillors from particular villages may well wish to advocate some of the proposals that have been put forward today. Under current auditor's rulings, they would not be allowed to advocate them or be present at a meeting at which they were discussed, still less vote on them.
§ Mr. Curry
The hon. Gentleman has raised a serious point. As he knows, the Nolan committee is considering local government issues. The Government's submission to that committee will be published shortly. I shall undertake to consider what the hon. Gentleman has said—his point covers many issues—in the light of the discussions that are taking place.
Other stores can qualify for discretionary relief, not just the pub, the garage or the pharmacist. The power is deliberately widely drawn to give the local authority discretion. Any business can be included if it is important to the local community—the butcher, the baker or, for the sake of argument, the sawmill rather than the candlestick maker.
In our consultation, we suggested a ceiling of £5,000 in rateable value for the mandatory element and £10,000 for discretionary relief. The consultation showed a general agreement with those figures. In the light of the broad consensus that they achieved, I suspect that my right hon. Friend will probably settle on them.
The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) asked about mobile shops. They are almost certainly not rated at the moment, although a central storage element, if they have one, may be. I am happy to consider that more closely and write to the hon. Gentleman if I need to qualify what I have said.
We think that some 30,000 businesses will benefit from the two schemes.
§ Mr. Wigley
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I have been persistent on some points today. Will he confirm that it is possible to have several settlements—the term used in schedule 1—in one parish or community? If there are post offices in several villages in one community, will they all qualify?
§ Mr. Curry
I shall come to that. We have defined a rural area. It will be for the local authority to identify the settlements lying within that area. There may be more than one settlement in a defined rural area. The answer is therefore yes.
A local authority can already grant charitable relief, discretionary relief and hardship relief. None of those powers is affected by the new powers.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), who is not in her place, asked about settlements in metropolitan areas. Nothing in the Bill prevents a village in a metropolitan area from being deemed eligible. We will follow the definitions produced as a result of 1332 consultation under the Housing Act 1996, which lists 30 or so areas in South Yorkshire, for example, designated as rural areas.
Any settlement of no more than 3,000 people within one of those parishes is eligible, each one being eligible separately. I know that that will also interest many of my hon. Friends. I understand that the hon. Member for Hillsborough has explained that she cannot be present now because she is in a Select Committee. It is for the local authority to define the curtilage of a settlement.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) asked where the money comes from. I suppose that I had better answer.
The money comes from the pool, which is redistributed. Under the local government financial system—with which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South will be intimately familiar—any cut in the amount available for distribution under the business rates is compensated for under the revenue support grant. The money comes from the Exchequer, and is not a charge upon what is distributed in the pool.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) asked about a lower limit, a part-time post office in a garage, and a newly provided store. The answers are no, yes and yes. He will forgive my shorthand, but I think the answers are satisfactory.
A number of questions were raised on parishing. There are essentially three routes into parishing. First, a district council can undertake a review and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State, who then makes the necessary orders to create the parish. The district council then makes the orders to create the parish council. Secondly, a petition, by either a minimum of 250 electors or 10 per cent. of the electors in the area of the proposed parish, that defines where they want the boundaries to lie, goes to the district council, which can comment. These comments are then sent to the Secretary of State for a decision.
§ Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)
Will my right hon. Friend include metropolitan councils in what he is saying?
§ Mr. Curry
Not in all of what I am saying, but I shall refer to metropolitan councils in a moment, when my hon. Friend will be as satisfied with what I have to say as he was with what I have just said.
The third route is for the Secretary of State to direct the Local Government Commission to carry out a parish review from scratch, or where there is some dispute about the need for a parish. In that case, the Local Government Commission can investigate and make a recommendation.
§ Mr. Barry Field
My right hon. Friend has referred to petitions. If a community has already petitioned before the passing of this legislation, will that stand good, or will it have to do it all again?
§ Mr. Curry
We would expect a new petition if one had been rejected, and there must be a two-year interval between petitions. Parishes in metropolitan areas are exactly the same as those I have described in the countryside, because, in law, a metropolitan council is a district council. There will be no upper limit to population size, except where the creation of a parish would dominate an entire district.
1333 The parish council can currently precept £3.50 per elector for general purposes, such as recreation or the upkeep of the village hall. It will now be able to precept above that for the reasons specified by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today. There was a question about traffic calming and the relationship between parish councils and the Highways Authority. The parish council will be able to support traffic calming projects, provided it has the consent of the Highways Authority, which will carry out the work. Other than the parish council opting to lie in the middle of the road, as it were, it will be able to contribute to the work.
It is worth remembering that, in trying to enhance the roles of parish councils, the recent national parks legislation created a route by which people from the national parks and local parish councils could serve on the national park authority. In my local national park in the Yorkshire dales, the new authority that will come into being next spring contains people who have come through a sort of parish electoral college to enhance the views of local people in the national park.
In areas such as that—where planning issues are particularly sensitive—there is great resentment at the feeling that decisions are too often made by people who do not live in the park and who are not closely in touch with people who know the real problems, including the need to earn a livelihood in the park as well as to provide a refuge for visitors.
§ Mr. Simon Coombs
Is it the Government's intention that planning site visits should be open to parish councillors to put their points of view while district councillors are visiting particular areas within the parish?
§ Mr. Curry
Under the consultation proposals, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends that parishes should participate fully in planning procedures by means of a voluntary arrangement with the planning authorities. We will consider guidance that will help that process, and if the voluntary system were to fail and people did not apply it with good will, my right hon. Friend would necessarily have to consider using his powers to move towards a more mandatory system. Our intention is that people make a habit of working sensibly together on planning, which is likely to be the most sensitive issue.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State observed earlier—I was not able to intervene in his speech—the problem is that councils such as Lancashire county council totally ignore parish councils. They consult, but they write the parishes' opinions off. Councils in Garstang and Catterall, which have strong views, are totally disregarded by Lancashire county council.
§ Mr. Curry
If they choose to ignore the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have the remedies to ensure that it does not continue to be ignored. I am sure that he would not hesitate to use those powers.
1334 The electoral cycle for parishes—the unitary districts—will fall into place once the unitary councils have been established. The normal electoral cycles will come into sync, and I will give the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) details in due course.
§ Mr. Curry
I will send details to the hon. Gentleman. I have allowed many interventions, and I have four minutes left to get through three quarters of the Bill, so I hope he will excuse me.
I do not wish to return to site value rating. We mentioned it last week, and the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) cringed visibly. That system considers the development potential and values a site at that potential. It does mean that a village bank and Dorothy's olde tea shoppe next door would pay the same rates and that the latter would suffer as a consequence. The system that the hon. Member for Newbury described is the existing rating system, and he should consider what he means by the policy that his party is supposed to endorse.
There are real dilemmas in the countryside, which none of us can avoid. Planning is difficult, because the countryside is under pressure. People want to preserve it as it is, but the household growth figures will cause real, unavoidable dilemmas. Education will also produce dilemmas. We must not assume that a village school is excellent merely because it is a village school. Many are, but there is a trade-off between the intimacy and community of a village school and the facilities of a slightly larger school. That is self-evident. Access is also not an obvious issue.
§ Mr. Curry
If my hon. Friend will permit me to say so, she has had one bite at the cherry already.
In my constituency, in the three peaks area, access is wearing the footpaths away, and hardcore has to be helicoptered in to reinforce them. The situation with the use of green lanes by four-wheel drive vehicles is even worse. The green lanes spread and death traps are created, in winter conditions, for livestock.
It is true to say that there is not a single countryside—there are hundreds of countrysides in the United Kingdom; there are half a dozen in my constituency. The difference between the vale of York and Upper Wharfedale is enormous. The Pennine dales, the constituency of the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), the maritime constituencies of the south-west and the home county constituencies are different in their working patterns, the social mix, the relationship between rural areas and the towns, and transport characteristics.
It is important to observe that diversity. We must not fall into the trap of talking about diversity between urban and rural areas as if there were no diversity within each or, indeed, within shorter distances.
I sometimes felt that the countryside that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras described was a sort of Tolkienesque fairy story peopled with demons of his own creation. The real countryside is not uniformly rich 1335 and lush, either socially or economically. It does not mean a "Miss Marple" village, but nor does it mean the hon. Gentleman's demon landscape of oppressive landlords, cringing peasantry and exploited youngsters.
We must create a living countryside in which people want to live, where they can earn a decent livelihood and take part in decent recreation. The Bill is designed to deliver that. The need is there, the Government have addressed it, and we shall deliver the results. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills)