§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]10.24 pm
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
I am delighted to have obtained this Adjournment debate, not only because of my deep interest in the welfare of people in rural Britain, but particularly because of my passionate commitment to my constituents in rural South Holland and The Deepings.
I make no apology for adding that I feel I have a disproportionate responsibility to represent those in most need in my constituency: the elderly, the disabled, the poor and those in remote communities, who are most isolated from public services. Nor is there any contradiction in my making a fierce defence of the gentle, or passionately advocating the case for quiet, unassuming, unchanging rural Britain. It is in that crusading spirit that we should approach the delivery of public services in rural communities.
Rural Britain has felt besieged since Labour came to power. It may be true that new Labour, with its assumptions about modernity, its fascination with everything new and its metropolitan culture, is particularly hostile to rural traditions. It is certainly true that the Government have treated rural Britain relatively badly. Evidence of that can be found in the on-going crisis in agriculture, but I particularly want to concentrate on public services and the Government's settlements for local authorities. [Interruption.] Perhaps I should wait a moment while the Minister takes her seat. Rural communities have fared badly in those settlements.
I have figures from the House of Commons Library that reveal that in the two years in which the Government have made local government settlements, most of Britain has received an increase of 8.2 per cent., while shire districts and counties lag behind on 7.7 per cent. Rural services have, therefore, suffered as a result of inadequate financing from the Government. That may be partly because the Labour party has so little rural representation. Despite its extravagant claims, only 19 of the 100 most rural seats in Britain are held by the Labour party. In England alone, the party fares even worse, holding only 17 of the 100 most rural constituencies.
I do not want to be unnecessarily ungenerous to the governing party. There are times when it is necessary to be ungenerous, but, on this occasion, I do not want to give in to temptation. However, the services that are so essential to sustaining rural communities have certainly been neglected. The Government will undoubtedly talk about the extra support that they have provided for rural transport, but I have to tell them that it is not enough for the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who, when serving on the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, said that as the Government grant additional money to rural bus services, they are disappearing. She stated thateven though the Government has put up a lot extra money, that may not be anywhere near enough to even begin to reverse the existing decline.Frankly, even if one totalled the money that the Government have allocated to rural transport, it would not be enough to solve the problem in even one part of Great 1233 Britain. Many rural communities have almost no public transport services, and the car is the only way that people can get around.
§ Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)
Will my hon. Friend note that in rural areas such as Shropshire, 67 per cent. of the work force go to work in a private car, and the swingeing increase in diesel and petrol duties is the equivalent of 1p on income tax in the course of this Parliament?
§ Mr. Hayes
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to the attention of the House. He is the personification of Housman's "A Shropshire Lad", and a staunch defender of all things rural and, in particular, the interests of his constituents.
My hon. Friend mentioned the increase in diesel duty, which was a particular blow to the haulage industry. People such as Jim Welch of Fowler Welch in my constituency viewed that as a slap in the face, given that the information that the Government had received from the industry had made it clear that any further increase would endanger the future growth of that industry and even its maintenance. Haulage is an important rural employer, as I am sure the Minister is aware.
We should not be too ungrateful because we have, at long last, the beginnings of a White Paper on rural affairs. That is not the White Paper itself, which is very late, but a precursor in the form of a discussion document, which says that the Government are committed to providing rural services that are accessible for the whole community. It questions what mechanisms are necessary to ensure that rural issues are considered in policy making. I can tell the Minister that such mechanisms are not regional development agencies or regional assemblies. There is a fear that a regional authority dominated by Derby, Leicester and Nottingham would forget the needs of rural Lincolnshire. The equivalent must be true for many parts of Great Britain.
The answer to question 10 in the discussion document—how we connect consumers and what farmers produce—is certainly not supermarkets. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) said in an Adjournment debate last Thursday, it is local suppliers who most often forge productive links with local producers. They purchase their products from the local area, whereas large supermarkets tend to buy nationally. The expansion of supermarkets will do nothing in rural communities to maintain the link between farmers, consumers and retailers.
So we have the precursor to the White Paper. It is rather late and slightly thin, but at least it is a step in the right direction.
I shall refer particularly to the latest attack on the countryside and public services, by which I mean the Budget. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) has mentioned haulage, but we should not ignore the effect of increased petrol costs on individuals, which once again will be felt disproportionately by rural motorists. The Government's national traffic survey, combined with road traffic statistics, suggests that rural dwellers typically travel about 2,500 more miles a year than their metropolitan equivalents. This is about not just the availability of local services, but access to them.
1234 Figures from the Library suggest that the total extra annual cost of the Budget in terms of fuel costs to rural dwellers is £350 million, and Lincolnshire's share of that is about £10 million. It is inequitable to introduce additional taxation that affects rural motorists in this way, especially when we consider that the luxury of a car in London is the necessity of a car in rural Lincolnshire. That is why car ownership as a universal measure of deprivation, or of the lack of deprivation, is such a misleading criterion.
When Mr. John Edwards of the Rural Development Commission gave evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture, he said:We certainly have concerns that a number of formulae and systems"—for examplethe SSA for local government finance … are picking up urban disadvantage much better than they are rural … For example, if you want to measure poor access to services, what you need to do is find out those areas which do not have a shop and … do not have a regular bus service and then count the number of people therewho cannot find easy access to local community facilities.
The knock-on effect from private motorists' problems reaches the public services. We know already, for example, that the national health service will be £1.5 million poorer because of extra fuel tax. Once again, the burden will fall unequally because of the higher level of transport costs in rural communities.
Figures from the Library show that police spending on transport is greater in rural communities. For example, 2.4 per cent. of the budget for non-staff transport costs is allocated in rural areas, compared with 2.2 per cent. in metropolitan areas and 1.5 per cent in the Metropolitan police force area. In Lincolnshire, that means that £60,000 will have to be devoted from a scarce police budget solely to fund the increase in petrol tax that has arisen as a result of the Budget.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the categories of people who will suffer as a result of the swingeing increase in the price of petrol is those who work voluntarily for charities, including Mrs. Zettl, an 81-year-old lady living in the high street in Buckingham? She is of modest means and working for two local charities. She cannot contemplate with equanimity the savage increase in the cost of petrol that she will have to face.
§ Mr. Hayes
I am looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend's constituent and discussing these matters in greater detail, no doubt over a cup of tea.
The fire service is even worse affected. Fire services in rural areas spend an even greater proportion of their budgets on transport. Social services, refuse collection and a panoply of other local authority services display a similar difference between metropolitan and rural spending patterns.
The Minister will claim that standard spending assessments are adjusted to take account of sparsity, but with regard to the police, for example, she will know that there has always been criticism of the formula that was introduced in 1995–96, which led to the allocation formula working group. Questions about the particular difficulties of policing rural areas have not been satisfactorily 1235 resolved. Although a research project was set up by the Government, we need assurances that it will report speedily.
Surprisingly, there is no adjustment in the SSA to take account of the additional costs of the provision of rural services by fire brigades. For only three other local authority services are there adjustments in the SSA to take account of sparsity, although I admit that one of those is social services. That adjustment was introduced by the Government this year. I welcome that warmly—well, fairly warmly.
When the Minister responds, there are some particular assurances that I hope she will give us. First, what progress can we expect on the research on the additional costs of rural policing? Secondly, the fire brigade must be included in the estimates of additional costs for rural provision. Thirdly, the sparsity variable in the cost adjustment of the general allocation for health and ambulance services must be revised upwards.
Fourthly, other local authority services must be studied to ascertain the effect of sparsity and rurality in their delivery. Fifthly, the differential cost of transport, petrol and diesel in particular must be an identified separate factor in the funding of local authority and Government services.
The sixth point is that there must be additional support for areas with scattered populations, and those with sparse populations, which are not the same thing—for example, there may be a rural area in which there are many villages and not much in between, or there may be a fenland area in which the population is thinly spread.
Given that the Minister is so highly regarded in all parts of the House, expectations will be high tonight that, having thought on her feet, she will agree to all that I have suggested. If she does not, she should be aware in her comfortable and privileged Hampstead and Highgate constituency that there are those of us who will fight and campaign unstintingly for the interests of the countryside and rural areas.
§ Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
Problems similar to those that the hon. Gentleman describes have existed in my part of rural England for the past 20 years. Why do the Conservatives suddenly feel the need to campaign, when they could have done something about the problems during all those years?
§ Mr. Hayes
We must concede and move on. There is no doubt that all Governments make mistakes. It is fair to say that previous Conservative Governments could have done more in some of those areas. The Labour Government were elected with a great fanfare. However, the rural citizens of this country are bitterly disappointed with what they have seen over the past two years.
We will fight unstintingly. We will crusade and campaign for the interests of rural Britain. We will be inspired in that campaign by our reverence for the England of Chesterton and of Betjeman, and for the British Isles of Buchan and of Yeats, wheremidnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,And evening full of the linnet's wings.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)
I begin by apologising to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) for not being present in the Chamber at the start of the debate. I was attempting to fight my way through the mass exodus from the Chamber.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing the debate, but on ensuring so much support when he presented his case. Given the direction from which he is coming, the amount of protection that he brought with him is warranted.
The hon. Gentleman was clearly much concerned about the most recent standard spending assessment. That was the best local authority settlement for seven years. There has been an increase of £2.6 billion in the sum that has gone to local authorities. I was somewhat surprised at his tone, considering that Lincolnshire has an SSA of 5.7 per cent., whereas the average is 4.2 per cent. The SSA for his constituency is 3.9 per cent., although the average is 3.2 per cent.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) referred to increases in fuel duty. I point out to Conservative Members that the fuel duty escalator was introduced by the previous Administration at 5 per cent. In effect, we have put it up by 1 per cent. However, the debate this evening is about the delivery of public services in rural areas.
The Government's election manifesto included specific pledges to recognise the special needs of rural areas, not to allow rural transport and other public services to deteriorate, to give greater protection for wildlife and to give greater freedom for people to explore the open countryside.
Our vision for the countryside has five strands: a living countryside, with thriving rural communities where public services are properly supported; a working countryside, with a balanced mix of homes and jobs; a countryside in which the environment is properly protected and conserved; a countryside for all, where there is genuine access so that the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside can be enjoyed widely; and a countryside in which the Government recognise the interdependence of town and country and wish to strengthen the relationships between the two.
The Government have already achieved much for rural areas, such as extra funding for rural public transport, rate relief for village shops, extra support to the farming community and the creation of a new Countryside Agency.
As the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, the Government are to produce a White Paper for rural England later this year. It will consider how the prosperity and competitiveness of the rural economy can be strengthened, how development and regeneration policies can help those areas that are in need and how we can make sure that all people in rural communities have opportunities to participate fully in society.
We issued a discussion document on 17 February, setting out key themes and inviting comments by 30 April. We will also continue to talk to many interested people and organisations. We will be looking closely at 1237 how the urban and rural White Papers can complement each other, to build a clear and comprehensive strategy for the future.
The rural White Paper will be produced by my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We will work together closely, and many other Departments and agencies, whose responsibilities have a bearing on rural England, will be involved. We have an important opportunity to look at a range of policy and delivery issues afresh and we are confident that the White Paper will set out a clear and comprehensive strategy for the future.
Transport, or rather the lack of it, and the accessibility needs of rural areas were a major considerations in our review of transport policy. Local transport plans and legislation to provide for bus quality partnerships provide a much sounder base for local authorities to develop more effective strategies in rural areas.
The Rural Development Commission's 1997 survey of rural services showed that only 25 per cent. of parishes had a daily bus service. In contrast, car ownership is comparatively high—only 22 per cent. of rural households do not have access to a car, compared with 34 per cent. of households in urban areas. The poor level of public transport means that car ownership is often a necessity in rural areas, but a significant minority has no access to a car. Regrettably, if people do not have a car and there is no public transport, it is extremely difficult for them to get to services such as shops and hospitals, or even to visit friends. We need to provide our rural communities with more choice in transport.
The Government have already taken action. In March last year, we announced an additional £50 million a year for rural public transport. That injection of funds is one of the positive steps that we are taking to assist rural communities and it reflects our wider commitment to improve public transport services for the benefit of all sectors of society.
§ Mr. Hayes
As I have said, the problem is that public transport that satisfies the needs of scattered communities can never be provided. A bus would have to stop in hundreds of places all over my constituency to pick people up from isolated areas—not even hamlets, but places where there is just a house. The car will always be a necessity for such people. Are not increases in fuel duty indiscriminate because they affect the poor just as they affect the rich? It is most cruel to say that, although fuel duty is being increased, people have the choice of using public transport. That fiction will never become reality.
§ Ms Jackson
I am somewhat surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the rural bus challenge competition, which was put in place specifically to introduce innovative services that will begin to meet the needs of the sparsely populated and scattered communities to which he referred. Lincolnshire has done extremely well from the rural bus challenge—it received £1,219,990 for a package entitled, "Making the connection", in addition to the £1,194,385 that it received from the new money found specifically to provide bus services in rural areas.
Bus services have a crucial role to play in providing precisely the sort of transport choices to which the hon. Gentleman referred. They can offer flexible, adaptable 1238 ways of meeting rural needs. That is why the majority of the additional funding—£32.5 million in a full year for each of the next three years—is being used to support such services in England. In many cases, that has doubled the existing subsidy from local authorities. The details and allocations to local authorities were announced in June. I have told the hon. Gentleman how well his county has done from that. We selected an excellent range of schemes for the rural bus challenge—large and small; simple and technically more advanced—from all over the country. Lincolnshire put in an exciting and interesting plan and received more than £1 million.
We have also set aside £4.2 million of the additional funding to support the new rural transport partnership scheme, administered by the Rural Development Commission. The overarching aim of the RTP is to improve the accessibility of jobs, services and social activity for rural communities.
The resources for those new initiatives are additional to, and separate from, the assistance that the Government provide for transport in rural areas. Last week's Budget provided a further £10 million a year for the next two years to assist rural public transport. One of the key proposals in our integrated transport White Paper is for new five-year local transport plans. There will be more resources—an extra £700 million over three years—and significantly greater local discretion over their allocation. We want to ensure that local transport plans recognise the needs and particular issues that rural communities and businesses face.
The package approach has been very successful in urban areas, and we are encouraging local authorities to use their local transport plans to develop a more strategic approach for rural areas as well.
Many Opposition Members have expressed concern—usually from a sedentary position—about the Government's fuel duty strategy. I have already pointed out that the fuel duty escalator was introduced by the previous Administration at 5 per cent; this year it is 6 per cent. It is crucial that CO2 emissions from road transport are reduced if we are to achieve our Kyoto climate change commitments. The fuel duty escalator is the most important existing measure to reduce those emissions and to encourage the efficient use of road transport. The inefficient use of road transport costs this country £20 billion a year. The impact of that is felt as much in rural as in urban areas. Pollution, which causes deaths, illness and disease, is a burden which the whole country has to bear. It affects rural as much as urban areas.
§ Mr. Hayes
I know how deeply compassionate the Minister is in her approach to these matters. Does she not understand that to talk in that ethereal way about world pollution is of no great comfort to the elderly lady or disabled person in a remote part of my constituency when she cannot get to a hospital, to any social activity or to the shops? I had a meeting only last week with a local bus company in my constituency, because bus services are diminishing, not growing. I hope that the Minister will look particularly at how bus services in my constituency can be improved and extended.
§ Ms Jackson
I am happy to look at the hon. Gentleman's constituency in the light of the information that he has given me. I have told him of the large amount 1239 of money that is going into Lincolnshire. There is no reason why the services to which he has referred, and which are vital, cannot be delivered.
Of course, many of the difficulties that are being experienced by people in rural communities have to do with the decisions of the previous Administration. I admire the fact that the hon. Gentleman has taken his leader's advice and chosen to acknowledge that mistakes were made.
Reducing the need to travel is important. The hon. Gentleman touched on the difficulty because of the fact that so many supermarkets have been built. Again, that followed a decision by the previous Administration. They denuded small market towns by giving permission for large supermarkets and shopping centres to be built far out on the edge of urban areas.
There was also a drastic decline in the number of village shops. It was one of the most noticeable and regrettable trends in rural areas, but the work of the Village Retail Service Association and the village shop scheme that is administered by the Rural Development Commission have been invaluable in halting and reversing that decline. Again, the Government are playing their part in ensuring that those successes continue. The introduction of rate relief at 50 per cent. for single village shops or post offices in villages of under 3,000 people, should help towards that objective.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. The hon. Gentleman must listen to the Minister's reply to the debate and not shout from a sedentary position.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
Will the hon. Lady concede that the policy to reduce the rates on village shops came out of the rural White Paper that was introduced by the last Conservative Government? It is something that her Government have inherited.
§ Ms Jackson
It may be something that the Government have inherited, but they have given a clear commitment 1240 to continue that policy. I ask the hon. Lady and other Conservative Members why they cannot continue to support the other policy that was introduced by her Administration—the fuel duty escalator.
The village school continues to play an important part in many rural communities. They were often the centre of villages. Great concern was expressed at what seemed to be the inevitable demise of village schools under the previous Administration. However, the present Government have made it clear that, under both present and future arrangements for decision-making on rural schools, the presumption will be against closure.
The Government are taking action on health care. We are continuing to support the essential small pharmacies scheme, giving support to the dispensing services of pharmacies that are more than 1 km from another such outlet. We have introduced health action zones to tackle a range of health problems in some of the most deprived areas. Eleven zones were selected initially and a further 15 have been added in a second wave.
Three of those health action zones are in predominantly rural areas: north Cumbria, Northumberland and Cornwall. A total of £5 million is available in 1998–9 to promote better working on health issues. A further £30 million will follow for the first 11 zones in 1999–2000, with £15 million for the second wave.
§ Mr. Hayes
That is the third time that the hon. Lady has given way. She is satisfying my desire to prove that she is compassionate and generous, as I described earlier.
In my constituency, local hospitals are threatened with closure. The policy among health authorities throughout the country seems to be to invest in large urban centres of excellence that are very distant from remote rural communities. In many parts of my constituency, to get to one of those centres of excellence, people have to travel 40 or 50 miles—to Lincoln, Peterborough—
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.