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Rural Communities

Volume 981: debated on Friday 21 March 1980

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9.35 am

I beg to move,

That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to study the need for planning procedures to protect non-agricultural residents of rural communities and to regulate the operation and location of intensive livestock units, and to identify those areas of the countryside where legislation is required for the further conservation of wildlife; to ensure that Great Britain continues to have an environment where persons, beasts, birds, butterflies and fish can thrive, and to examine the economic redeployment of parson, postmistress, publican, petrol attendant and primary schoolteacher to ensure the provision of an adequate level of services for rural communities.
I make no apology for the length of the motion, because I hope that by putting as much as possible in the motion it will enable me to make a short speech, and therefore—to use an agricultural expression—not to find myself in the manure business with you, Mr. Speaker, on this subject.

The interest in the debate stems from the fact that everyone in the countryside knows that after seven years of utter gloom we now have a Government who are sympathetic to the countryside, and who have already shown that they are determined to take steps to put right the iniquities of the previous Government, who distorted the countryside economy by taking away from the rural areas their share of the rate support grant.

I wish to refer to three areas. First, we must protect residential rural communities from some agricultural developments. Secondly, we must sustain the eight Ps, as I call them, in the community—the parson, policeman, publican, postman, physician, pharmacist, primary schoolteacher and petrol pump attendant. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) for his original designation. However, he started with five Ps. My hon Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) has invented another. Thirdly, we must take steps to protect the rural environment in which our people live.

The first problem is a paradox, because it arises from the prosperity of the countryside and of its main industry, agriculture. The Government have already taken substantial steps to sustain the prosperity of agriculture, particularly by their devaluation of the green pound three times in eight months. We thought that that might take the lifetime of a Parliament.

Agriculture needs a non-agricultural population to sustain the villages and to make the rural services viable. More and more people want to move out of towns and enjoy the benefits of living in the countryside. People living in towns often say that people in their areas help each other and that it is like living in a village. If one of these redundant Select Committees were to look at the problem, it would probably reach the conclusion that the village is the ideal social unit.

Most people would like to live in a village. On that basis, the House must face the fact that it is no longer acceptable for the residential environment to be changed by intensive livestock units being clumped in the middle of villages. The problems of smell and slurry must be dispersed. The agriculture industry, through the National Farmers Union and the veterinary profession, is now looking at the need to protect one intensive livestock unit from the problems of another. There is a demand from the agriculture industry for some code or cordon sanitaire because of the problems of disease between one livestock unit and another.

The county councils must be allowed to withdraw the exemption from planning permission for farmers to erect 4,999 sq. ft. once every two years, and all changes in use of agricultural buildings within the curtilage of a village must be subject to planning permission.

That is the first safeguard that I want the Government to give to county councils—the planning permission and the change of use within a village.

Secondly, I wish to look at the maintenance of services provided by the eight Ps. The trouble stems from the fact that rural areas are administered by authorities which have within their territory both urban and rural areas. They treat all areas in the same way. Economic factors are judged on a national basis, not a local basis. Those of us who represent rural constituencies know that the closure of one bus service is the forerunner of the closure of the next. Equally, none of us believes that the closure of a village school will make any substantial difference to our rates.

The same national economic criteria apply in the commercial world of the village. If the village shop does not do sufficient business to get the major discounts, it cannot compete with the "cash and carry" shop in the next market town. Rural garages are closing, not because they are not profitable, but because they cannot get petrol at the standard price because they do not have the necessary volume of sales.

For a large number of the Ps, it is possible for the local authorities to give substantial help in country areas. I had a successful negotiation myself when the rating officer, who happens to be a friend of mine, told me to appeal on the ground of the distance factor, and the fact that the communications had not improved from the administrative centre of the county to my village. The Government should draw the attention of all county councils to this fact. There is no question about it. The isolated pub that is being closed down by the breweries because they are rationalising their public houses, the isolated shop or the isolated garage which is forced to buy small quantities of petrol and charge more than the proper price for it should be given a substantial rating differential. This is the way to help the commercial premises.

I am very impressed with the way in which the Government are determined to maintain rural post offices. I welcome the announcement the other day that we will be able to license our motor cars at 1.000 more outlets. Getting a car licensed is a frightful business and it will be a great convenience if that can be done in the rural post offices. I do not have any fears about the Rayner report. I am certain that it will show ways in which more business can be diverted into rural post offices. I accept the Government's assurance that paying pensioners by the Post Office Giro and allowing them not to draw their whole pension in one lump will bring more business to the rural post offices.

I turn to the question of pharmacies. It is very important that rural pharmacies should have prescriptions available for old people in villages. The Government have announced that in the next Session of Parliament they will draw up a new code of conduct for National Health dispensing in rural areas. That in itself will be a help, and equally the pharmacies and the post offices will be given rating differentials if they are far away from the administrative centres.

There are two Ps which cannot be helped by rating differentials—in fact, there are three, but the third has been dealt with already by the Government. The third is the police and, unfortunately, although our rural police forces are now fully recruited, it is the decision of most chief constables not to return to having a policeman in every village. Instead they group them—a sergeant and two others —in some of the market towns. Already, thanks to the Government's policy, there is an encouraging number of new policemen in the rural areas.

The rating differential cannot help the other two categories—the primary schoolteacher and the parson. In Lincolnshire we have 11 villages with a primary school population of fewer than 20. Those village schools are what the county council would describe as "threatened with closure." I know of one instance where the life of the village school was saved when its population dropped to 19 by an employer employing his second choice for a particular job because the man had six children. That illustrates how fragile it is to judge these schools on numbers. I am quite sure that in some villages which fear the threat of closure the people will get cracking and take the school out of the danger area. If they want to save the school, it is perfectly possible to do so.

The county councils can economise a bit on village schools if they turn a blind eye to the tiresome national agreements about the number of lady cleaners who must be employed per square foot. I am sure that judicious local adjustment can effect quite a considerable saving.

Finally, I turn to the question of the parson. The Church of England neglects the rural areas of England at its peril. This is where the Church's strength lies. It is no good wasting manpower in Leicester and Bradford and places like that. The people there are god-searing, but they have different gods. In the rural areas we need good, young, well-trained professional men coming into the Church of England.

One of the reasons for this debate was the excellent conference on the rural community which the Bishop of Lincoln sponsored last September to deal with the problems. We are concerned with rural problems in Lincolnshire. I should like to see the Church of England in the rural areas facing up to the fact that we have had a ghastly reorganisation of local government. I believe that the arch-deaconries should be changed to coincide with the second tier authorities and with our constituencies so that each of us has an archdeacon with whom we can deal. That is tidy, and it is something that the Church of England should bring about.

Everything that I have said about a rating differential means that we must look for more resources. I have not come here today to ask for any more taxpayers' money to be made available to anybody. I hope that I shall come here next week to hear that less of the taxpayers' money will be taken away. We must look at ways in which more resources can be made available to rural areas so that they can give rating differentials.

I am forced to the conclusion—and I am reinforced in this view by a resolution of the Lincolnshire county council last week—that we must look again at the possibility of rating agricultural buildings. Most of these buildings stand empty for two-thirds of the year. The carrot of taxation advantage, Government grants and agricultural advice have encouraged the erection of many of these buildings where they are not always necessary. Had I taken the advice of local agricultural experts over the last 20 years I would have had a hog wintering shed which would now be useless, and a marvellous new clipping shed which would he used for only 11 days of the year. I was stupid enough to waste money on a super maternity unit for the cows only to find that they all now calve in the woods. If the agricultural community was rated on its agricultural buildings, it would think again before it succumbed to excellent salesmen like my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) in his land agent's business.

There is one other way in which rural needs could be met. We could get more money from the Europeans. The Europeans have done enough harm to the rural community anyway, and I should like us to do a little sensible adjustment. This is done in Scotland where people are very good at claiming every kind of grant. I would like to see the county councils of England getting round the Development Commission to give special investment area status to all the rural areas. That would allow us to draw from the EEC substantial grants for village industries. That would give us the resources to enable local authorities to give the rating differential.

My final point concerns the rural environment. I was extremely unhappy about earlier proposals fox some sections of the rural environment, and I am glad to see that my objections to the proposed Countryside Bill in its original form are sustained by the Nature Conservancy Council in its annual report this year. If we want a countryside that is full of all the creatures of the countryside, we do absolutely nothing for them by protecting them. All we can do is to protect their habitat and food supply. No British mammal is in danger of extinction, and it will not be provided that we ensure that the habitat and food supply are maintained.

I know that there was an outcry last summer about the disappearance of the large blue butterfly. But we must face the fact that we shall have a tremendous outcry this summer because there will be no large tortoiseshell butterflies. The reason is that there are no elm trees. When elm trees return, the large tortoiseshell butterfly will return.

I am unhappy about the idea that one preserves the rural landscape by having a whole lot of nature reserves. It is too easy for people to say "All right. That fen or that corner is a nature reserve and, therefore, we can fill in the farm ponds, grass over the green lanes and grub up the hedgerows everywhere else." That is not the way to maintain the countryside. We have to isolate and identify the important habitats of the wildlife. We have to take away from the farmers the right to destroy those habitats, but the rest of the community who want these reserves have to make a payment if we restrict farmers' rights in that way.

We are obligated under European legislation to do something about the birds of the countryside. If we look at it, the European commitment on amending the Protection of Birds Act in Great Britain is comparatively minor. It is just a rescheduling from one category to another of some of our common birds. I hope that during the rest of the life of this Parliament I shall be able to publish a Bill bringing our bird protection legislation in line with that of Europe—that is, if the House gives me permission—so that if the Government or any enthusiastic organisations come forward with legislation that goes beyond what we are committed to do for Europe the House will be able to identify it for what it is. We are in danger of moving in legislation to too great protection of birds. This was endorsed by an article in The Times last week.

I should like my right hon. Friend to investigate the possibility of giving one other power to county councils so as to sustain the rural environment. I think that we must look at the amount of forestry that is acceptable in any one watershed. I do not think that one can plant more than one-third of a watershed. I should like county councils to give rural authorities the power to restrict forestry within their watershed.

I am strengthened in this view by a paper given by Dr. Mills of the environmental department of Edinburgh University to the Prince of Wales's study conference on migratory fish in Edinburgh in 1978. Dr. Mills pointed out that the damage that forestry can do—by ploughing, planting and sterilising the uplands of this country—is far greater than any rogue of a Dane can do by killing immature salmon off Greenland, or any illegal operations by our fishermen netting off our coast. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider this problem.

I conclude by asking my right hon. Friend for three things: to give powers to the county councils to control all farm buildings and change of use within the curtilage of the village; to make more resources available to county councils so that they can give rating differentials to industries and professions in the villages; and to grant to water authorities power to restrict the canopy of trees that cuts off the rain from the English countryside.

I am confident that if my right hon. Friend tries to implement those measures we shall proceed, during the lifetime of this Government, to improve the quality of life within the countryside for both man and mammal.

9.53 am

I thank you for calling me so early in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I must congratulate the hon. Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) on introducing this motion and bringing the problems of rural areas to the attention of the House. Those of us who represent rural areas all have similar problems. But perhaps I represent a constituency that is unique in more ways than one. My constituency has the highest number of self-employed of any constituency; 31 per cent. of the population is self-employed—the highest percentage in the whole of Britain. Only 8 per cent. of my constituents work in manufacturing industry; the remainder work in the service industries and in agriculture.

I agree with nearly all the sentiments of the hon. Member for Gainsborough, but, having been born and bred on the hills of Cardigan, I have seen a decline for decades in the number of people in the rural areas because people are leaving the land and moving away. I hope that during the 1980s the message will be at last brought home, so that the interests of those families who do not want to move away will be safeguarded.

The economic recession that Britain is now suffering is having a serious effect on rural communities. Although the signs are less dramatic, there is as great a decline in those communities as in industrial areas. With the greater mechanisation of agriculture and the drift away from the land, there has been a scarcity of work over the past few years and very few attempts have been made to bring alternative employment to rural areas. Let us consider the position of local schools. Many of these primary schools, a number of them with excellent scholastic records, have been closed, forcing children to travel several miles to school. We have been told that many more schools will be closed during the next year or so.

I had the privilege of serving on the Cardiganshire education committee for many years. I am sure that many other hon. Members have fought hard to retain these local schools in rural areas. I am also sure that the hon. Member for Gains-borough will agree that when local schools are closed the community seems to die a natural death. It is a great pity, therefore, that these schools are being closed due to economic pressure. I hope that the Minister will give sympathetic consideration to the pleas of many hon. Members and do everything in his power to persuade his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to do what he can to safeguard the interests of the local communities in relation to local primary schools.

Present Government policies mean that sub-post offices—we may have assurances from the Minister later—and, with them, the village shops are threatened. There are many such establishments in rural Wales; I am sure there are many in rural England as well. The sub-post office and the shop are combined in one establishment within the local community, and if the post office is closed the shop is no longer viable, and therefore the whole business has to close down.

There is a further threat to the rural community. The oil companies are being allowed to carry out a rationalisation of their business without any thought being given to the social consequences. This will mean that many rural petrol stations will have to close because of a failure to obtain regular supplies.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough, when he was speaking about sub-post offices, referred to the licensing of cars. I have been told by many of my constituents and others that the local licensing offices are to be closed. It is a great pity that many of these offices in the rural areas are to be closed.

Village life is dwindling rapidly as the institutions that were once its mainstay are undermined. Young people are drifting away to the towns and cities, and villages up and down the land are in danger of becoming merely centres for weekend and holiday visitors with the occasional old-age pensioner still living out his meagre existence with only a few services to sustain him.

It is a bleak and depressing picture and it is one that will become reality unless firm Government action is taken to halt the decline.

But how things have changed in rural Wales during the past few years. We are fortunate that we have the Development Board for Rural Wales. About five or six years ago, the Labour Government decided to introduce a rural development board in Mid-Wales with compulsory powers. I was one of those who fought hard to abolish the then Labour Government's proposals. I was grateful when the subsequent Conservative Government did away with the Labour Government's board. We now have another board in rural Wales without compulsory powers.

It is remarkable how people cooperate if they have a problem. During the past two years a great deal has been done in Mid-Wales to try to conquer problems that we have had for many years. I must congratulate the Development Board for Rural Wales, which this week announced plans to offer special initiatives to 25 villages in rural Wales. The villages concerned have until now been facing the inevitable spiral of deprivation, but they will now be offered expert guidance on how to establish small businesses and shops, promote social projects and run community buses.

It is an enlightened project and I hope that it will be carefully studied by the rest of Britain.

It is to be hoped that the economic decline that has threatened Mid-Wales for the past 30 years will be halted to some extent and that the quality of life in the area will be vastly improved. I take this opportunity to invite the hon. Member for Gainsborough and others to come to Mid-Wales to see the set-up for themselves. The head office is at Newtown. There are 10 or 12 board members and an executive staff. They have done wonderful work in a short period. The local people are determined to cooperate with the members of the board to ensure that life will return to the rural areas of Mid-Wales. Many other parts of Britain should follow the lead given by the Development Board for Rural Wales.

The incentives that are now being offered by the board are sorely needed throughout the country. I contend that money invested in this way is well spent and that the return on the investment is greater than that which can be measured in terms of mere pounds and pence. In saving rural communities, we are saving a valuable part of our heritage and preserving something worth while for our children and the generations to come.

In rural areas, there are many small businesses employing only one or two persons, or perhaps up to 10 persons. Many of them are worried about the present high interest rates. I plead with the Government—I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will support me—to give some special assistance to small businessmen, who have been the backbone of rural communities for generations. The least that we can do in the 1980s is to preserve the life of the community, and to do everything in our power to help the small businesses that are now in dire need of help.

If the Minister can persuade his right hon. and learned Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer to bring forward concessions next Wednesday, by lowering bank interest rates in a modest way to help small business men, I believe that that will be beneficial for all those concerned with rural life. We all share the same sentiments, and I hope that after today's debate something more positive will be done by the Government. We have the will, but we need the determination of the Government. I ask the Government to show their willingness to help.

10.5 am

I congratulate wholeheartedly my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) on not only moving the motion but on expressing almost every prejudice that I have on this subject. By the time that my hon. Friend concluded, I felt that it was unnecessary for me to seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I shall in some respects go slightly further than my hon. Friend.

I attribute most of the ills of the countryside to the way in which we have sought to support agriculture by our present policies. Far be it from me to do anything but argue for the prosperity of agriculture. Prosperous agriculture will ensure the beauty of the countryside. That has been the theory behind so many of the arguments for giving a range of grants, subsidies and tax allowances to farmers. However, the way in whch that policy has been carried out has had a most destructive effect upon our countryside and upon the rural scene. I believe that the period until the 1980s are over will not prove to be to the advantage of farmers.

As the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) has reminded us, the countryside has changed out of all recognition in some areas in the past 30 years. Changes have taken place, especially in the areas that are farmed and farmed extensively. The more that the land has been farmed intensively, the more apparent are the changes that have taken place. Even those sturdy souls who stride across Dartmoor, Northumberland, Cardigan or even Snowdonia, see sights and hear sounds that would not have reached their eyes and ears 30 years ago.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to the Forestry Commission. It is State-controlled and heavily subsidised by the long-suffering taxpayer. It has acquired many thousands of acres and planted upon them a dark green vastness of conifers. Sheep have multiplied since import duties have been imposed on lamb from New Zealand. Substantial grants are now paid for drainage, fencing and the reclamation of marginal land. That all has the effect of reducing the moorland of our country. However, the visitor returning after 30 years would still recognise Dartmoor.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), but is it not most unusual and contrary to the convention of the House for no shadow Minister to be on the Opposition Front Bench apart from the absence of Opposition Members generally?

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter for me.

I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) has chosen to occupy the Opposition Front Bench. I am sure that we recognise the talent of the person who has now reached that position. We shall now have some constructive thoughts expressed from that quarter which we would not otherwise have had. We look forward to the time when the present representative on the Opposition Front Bench succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and is able to speak from the Opposition Dispatch Box.

I was referring to the scene in the remoter parts of our countryside. The visitor who returns to the village of his birth anywhere south of the Trent will see that the more that agriculture has prospered the more far-reaching are the apparent changes after an absence of 30 years.

The hon. Gentleman and I usually agree. However, does he not agree that if it were not for compensatory allowances and 50 per cent. grants towards improving outbuildings, many thousands of hill farmers would have left the area? They would not have been able to survive. Those who left 30 years ago might return. If subsidies had not been provided, they would discover to their sadness that their friends had left.

Perhaps an alternative and more satisfactory policy is available. I would not like to see small farmers leaving the land. However, they do so as a result of our present policies. There must be a way of providing them with a better livelihood and of keeping them on the land.

If a visitor returns to his village after an absence of 30 years, he will notice, as he approaches, that there are fewer hedgerows. Indeed, many have been completely uprooted. Many hedges have been replaced by yards of hideous barbed wire fences. Millions of pounds of public money have been spent in effecting that change. Hedges have been uprooted. Grants of 25 per cent. were given towards a proportion of such fences. I am sorry that neither the Parliamentary Secretary nor any other representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is here. I do not understand why a farmer must have a fence of four strands of barbed wire standing about four feet high in order to get a grant. Those of us who keep cattle are satisfied with three strands of barbed wire. Indeed, a lower fence has advantages for those who enjoy the countryside.

Our observant friend will also find fewer trees. Few trees remain in our fields. However, in bygone days many trees stood in them. So many farming activities have become mechanised and subsidised by the taxpayer, that a tree in a field is considered a serious obstacle. The visitor will probably find that at least half of the fields that he knew have become arable land. Years ago, when the system was tilted in favour of the livestock farmer, at least three-quarters of the land would have been permanent pasture. It is a matter of taste whether arable land is more pleasing to the eye than pasture.

The visitor may then drive past the farmhouse. He will see that the old barns have gone. Some of those barns were built of local stone, others of elm and thatch. Only a few have survived. Such barns were large enough for the old farmer. However, Government grants have subsidised the amalgamation of farms. As a result, new buildings are erected that are two or three times the size of the old ones. Such buildings always look alike and are built of concrete. Of course, they are efficient and sensible, but scarcely of breathtaking beauty. Two or three firms specialise in that type of building. Everywhere one sees uniform buildings built with the same standardised materials. Generous grants and substantial tax allowances have hastened the process by which older and more attractive buildings have been replaced by newer and uglier ones.

The eye of our observant friend will catch sight of a pond where he once used to stalk newts with a jar. He will wonder why it has changed shape. The answer is that until 1972 the owner was probably given a grant to fill it in. As a result, the "Save the Ponds Campaign" arose and money was made available to replace the ponds that the taxpayer had paid to remove.

The visitor may be surprised to see what looks like a factory standing alongside the farm building. Was planning permission granted for that factory? He will find that it was not. It may be explained to him that planning laws are different for farmers, who are, in the strict sense of the word, privileged. Al-through the building may be identical to a factory in an industrial estate, it may prove to be a "cowtel". Inside there may be 200 cows both upstairs and downstairs. Food is also kept there. They live their lives under the same roof beneath which milk is treated and pasteurised. Our visitor may be puzzled at the huge size. He may not admire its beauty. As a taxpayer, he may wonder why he was called upon to pay such a high part of the cost of erecting that building.

A transformation has also occurred outside the village. In traditionally rural counties such as Lincolnshire and Norfolk virtually everyone used to be engaged in agriculture 30 years ago. That cannot be said of any village in Lincolnshire and Norfolk now. I regret that intensely. However, I stand to be corrected by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler). Farm workers have left the land in droves. That has always happened. It occurred to a greater extent during the industrial revolution. There is a difference. In former days farm workers left the village and went to live in the towns. They were totally uprooted. Today, the former farm worker tends to continue to live in the village, but goes into the town to work. That has caused a radical change in the countryside. It has created a void which has been filled by business men who may seek to put up a new factory outside the city or conurbation. They have been attracted to the market towns and larger villages in the knowledge that they will find relatively "cheap labour". That has been a major inducement to many companies. They have moved into the old market towns and created major changes in their structure and philosophy. Anyone who travels through counties such as Lincolnshire or Norfolk, whose fortunes were once totally wrapped up in agriculture, will see many factories in the former market towns.

In Lincolnshire towns such as Sleaford, Boston and Gainsborough and in Norfolk towns such as Swaffham, Downham Market and King's Lynn the visitor will find numerous factories on the perimeter. Some of them will be large though most of them will be small and all will have been built in the last 30 years.

The nature of the market towns has changed as a result. There was a time when one could go into any shop in these towns and the customers would be predominantly farmers or farm workers and their wives. Those who kept those shops and businesses would be talking farming. They would be talking about whether it was raining or whether the sun was shining and the conversation would be about how the weather would affect the crops.

All that has changed rapidly in the last 10 years. One would formerly find accountants and bank managers immersed in the problems of agriculture and they were well equipped to discuss those problems. One would pick up the local newspaper and find market news and features on farming. Those articles were given prominence by the local editor because he knew his readers' interests.

A very different impression would be gained by the visitor to those market towns today. I doubt whether one in 20 customers in a shop in an average Lincolnshire or Norfolk town now is either a farmer or a farm worker. Each of those towns has attracted one or more industries with no association with agriculture and, although I speak particularly of Lincolnshire, I think that that has applied equally to all the counties in England and Wales during the last 30 years.

One might say that these market towns have not changed a great deal physically and outwardly. But they have changed a great deal. The market squares have been taken over by supermarkets and the smaller shops have all gone. The corn exchange is now a bingo hall, and scarcely a cattle market survives. These towns have become industrialised and can no longer be spoken of as centres of agricultural activity.

Inevitably they have sprawled out, gobbling up much green pasture, for housing development and new factories. I repeat that there is no mystery about why these changes have come about. Businesses wanting to expand or begin new ventures sought out the places where labour costs were comparatively low. Where an industry sheds as many of its employees as agriculture has in the past 30 years, there is a vacuum to be filled.

The full employment that we have enjoyed until now has given the business man little choice but to move out of the major industrial areas into our country towns and villages. New industries have demanded new roads that are straighter and wider. Again and again the demand has gone out—rightly so—for bypasses for our towns and villages. They have been built largely to accommodate the traffic generated by the new industries that have come into the countryside.

Many a country lane is now unrecognisable because it must accommodate the new traffic. It is beyond dispute that the demand for speedy communication by heavy goods vehicles has brought about changes in the countryside in the last 30 years. Conservationists have had to accept those changes with real regret. The villages on the heavy traffic routes have suffered in obvious ways though I do not think that it is so obvious that the fabric and the structure of many ancient cottager and manor houses have been damaged by the vibration caused by heavy lorries.

It is perhaps true that these changes in the countryside convey to the visitor an appearance of cleanliness and orderliness that might not have existed in days gone by. If we look more carefully we will recognise that much of the credit for that must—I regret to say—go to the chemical industry. It is the result of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides and the other chemicals that we as farmers have had to pour on to the land these last 30 years.

It is true that weeds, thistles and nettles are things of the past on many farms. The landscape may have improved in one sense, but I think we are paying quite a price for that improvement.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cardigan that farmers are the custodians of the countryside and that we cannot expect them to discharge that role when it conflicts with their economic interests. Aesthetics and economics do not generally go together and, if farmers are to protect the beauty of the countryside, I believe that the general public must be willing to compensate them in cash where there is a conflict between the two.

That principle has been firmly established in the Field Monuments Act 1972. If a farmer wishes to plough an ancient barrow but may not do so, he receives compensation. His pecuniary loss can be made good. I do not see why we cannot extend that principle. I come to those proposals with which I hope the Miniser will agree.

If it is necessary for a farmer to uproot a hedgerow, demolish an ancient barn, fill in a pond or make any change in the landscape that others would regret, I see no reason why the public should not compensate him. We should say that a pond or a barn should remain even if it proved uneconomic to the farmer but that we would make good his financial loss. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) will, I know, agree that professional valuers are more than experienced in assessing the financial loss that any farmer may incur in granting a wayleave or as a result of a road works scheme whenever the Land Compensation Act 1973 can be invoked. I do not believe that it would be in any way intractable to devise a system of grants for farmers to compensate them in those circumstances.

In the catalogue of siutations described by my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) he did not include moorland conservation. It is well-established practice now, for example on Exmoor, that by voluntary agreement farmers are compensated for not developing the land in a way which, in the interests of conservation, is thought by the Countryside Commission to be desirable.

I was coming to that point. That is really a step forward because in those areas of Wales mentioned by the hon. Member for Cardigan where—if I may be beastly to him for a moment—it is not economic to farm, many of the hon. Gentlemen's constituents would not make much of a livelihood from farming it if it were not for the grotesque system of aid to which taxpayers and consumers have to contribute. It would be more equitable if aid were given on the basis that if the public are interested in the beauty of the countryside they should be willing to pay for it. Let them pay for that rather than for questionable farming practices.

I wonder whether the countryside would be beautiful if the farmers did not farm and protect it.

I believe strongly that the way in which we have given grants, subsidies and tax allowances has not had the effect of maintaining the beauty of the countryside. It has had the opposite effect. It would be more satisfactory to provide grants to farmers as custodians of the countryside. Such a scheme could be managed by the Countryside Commission or another agency without difficulty. There would be no difficulty in deciding the amount of grants to be paid. The lands tribunals are experienced in such work and they would handle appeals.

I am sure that the public would support such a scheme. The present system of grants and the way in which they are distributed, predominantly to the large farm rather than to the small farm, and the subsidies and tax allowances that go with those grants, have contributed to a change in the countryside in the last 30 years. I cannot believe that all those changes add to the beauty of our countryside.

10.31 a.m.

I welcome the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) on initiating it. The interest of my hon. Friends is obvious, but I am disturbed at the disgraceful situation on the Opposition Benches. Not one Labour Member is here to support and discuss the rural issues. It is nonsense to say that the Opposition are concerned only with the urban and city areas. Many of them represent large, agricultural areas. It is deplorable that not even a Shadow Minister is here to take note and express an interest. The country will note the discourtesy and lack of interest displayed by Labour Members. It is not good enough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) must be careful that he does not seek to make the countryside a museum. That would be disastrous. People have to live. In one of my more rude moments, at a meeting where I was being attacked by urban ladies, I said that we cannot all live on fresh air and a view. In the rural areas one must work and there must be industry and modern methods. I can understand my hon. Friend's views, but I warn him to be careful lest the countryside becomes a museum. That would be sad.

I am not allowed to criticise the Chair, but I am disappointed that my amendment has not been selected. Only rarely does an hon. Member seek to amend a Private Member's motion.

I declare an interest. One has only to look at me to see that I am rural in outlook, speech and ways. I am proud of that. I represent a large constituency composed of 100 or more small villages. It is 60 miles long and 20 miles wide. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to represent a rural area and seek to deal with the rural problems.

At another meeting some time ago I said that I was born in Devon, brought up in Devon, farmed in Devon and my children were brought up in Devon. A voice from the back of the audience said "Have you no ambition?" I have no ambition other than to be in the rural areas. One can see that my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) is a rural man in every way. That does not mean that we are dull and senseless but means that we enjoy and observe some of the better things of life. It is, of course, not possible for us all to live in the country areas, but it is a great privilege to be a rural Member of Parliament.

For years the inner cities have experienced problems. The devastation and decay in some of our great cities are appalling. The problem has been high lighted for many years and hon. Members have often referred to it. The present Government are starting to do something about it.

We must also highlight the serious problems in the rural areas. I do not want to exaggerate, but real difficulties are emerging. I am sure that the Minister will agree. He is nearly a rural man since he represents a West Country constituency. The Socialist Government were totally unfair to the rural areas with the rate support grant. There is no question about that. The rural county councils which are good housekeepers were clobbered by the Socialist Government. Now the Government have begun to take action. Devon county council is extremely pleased with the help given by the Government. The attitude of the Labour Government towards the county councils is reflected in the absence of Labour Members today.

I agree.

I have seen the rural problems grow. Village life has become more difficult. One of the reasons is the cost of transport. Travel costs are enormous. It is expensive to get into town to shop and to enjoy some of the modern ways of life. The bicycle has gone and the car is an expensive machine. That has added to the difficulties and the remoteness of many villages. Depopulation has taken place. It is sad.

In many villages there is a high proportion of elderly people. Many of the younger and particularly brighter people have gone. Perhaps that is why I still live in a village, and that may also be true of the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells). A certain amount of depopulation has taken place, but active life continues in many villages. Village life goes on. People are determined to maintain that rural existence, but problems remain. The Government do not necessarily have to give money or direct aid, but they should endeavour to create the climate for village and rural life to flourish.

What is the problem? It is difficult to generalise but amenities have been lost. Post offices have been closing for a long time. One of my most difficult jobs is to persuade someone to take over a post office when the present proprietor has left or it has closed. I greatly blame the Post Office. It wants to retain these agencies but at a cut-rate price of only about £600 or £700 a year. It would be more honest if the Post Office came clean and said that it did not want these agencies to continue. The alternative is to pay a fair price.

I do not see why it is necessary to spend money on special metal frames and glass protection for counters. In many instances the front room of a council house would serve the purpose, perhaps opening two or three times a week. I am not an expert, but the Post Office should start to put its house in order. The Government must watch that point to ensure that there is no further reduction in the number of post offices.

Over the years petrol stations, primary schools, the police and pharmacists have played a large part in rural life. I invented the expression the five, six or seven Ps. Once they are taken away everything starts to deteriorate. We do not want to see rural areas decay further.

Going into detail, let me deal first with the parson. The church has an important part to play in village life. I have been a lay reader for years and have tramped rural areas on Sundays throughout Devon. Sometimes only three or four people are in church and sometimes many more. It is marvellous to see 50 or 60 people in a village church at harvest festival.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston is absolutely right. The Church of England has a responsibility to maintain the parson. I do not know whether I like the word "priest". I prefer "parson" —"Us likes our own parson." I greatly regret that my hon. Friend did not mention his amendment. I wondered why he preferred "priest" to "parson". "Us don't like it too high church in the West of England. Us likes it a little hit middle of the road, a little bit hereafter."

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are a few Nonconformists in the Chamber?

Indeed, there are, and I come from a Nonconformist area of West Devon. However, we hold our own in the Anglican Church.

I believe strongly that rural life depends on the church and all that it stands for. If we neglect that, serious consequences follow. The Scripture says:
"How shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation".
All that we hold dear, our moral laws and the laws of our land, stem from our Christian heritage and are founded on God's laws. If we wish to maintain that heritage and our rural life, we should start at the right place—the village church or chapel and the parson. If we neglect them life will start rapidly to deteriorate

This year I shall have had the great privilege of being a lay reader for 25 years. If I were to put my experiences into a book, it would be a very funny book indeed.

The parson is essential. I am sorry that I have not drawn my hon. Friend on his reason for wanting "priest".

I consulted on the motion with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is more than happy to see the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) on the Notice Paper. He thought it quite proper. We may lose some of the bipartisan support for the motion if my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) attacks that amendment.

I turn from the parson to the next most important factor in village life—the pub. I have always been known as a hard-drinking Christian. The dear old ex-Bishop of Crediton, who was on "Any Questions" many times and who was a very lovable person, was with me at a small conference where we were given drinks. I have nothing against Methodists or Non-Conformists, but they were drinking orange juice. The Bishop and I were drinking our gin and tonic, and he nudged me in the ribs and said "Isn't it nice to be a hard-drinking Christian, Peter?" I agreed.

It is great fun to go from morning service in church to the pub for a glass of beer.

In my first constituency I remember attending a meeting after which I was entertained. The dear Methodist asked me what I should like to drink. I was about to say what I should like when he said "Tea or coffee?"

That is always disappointing.

The pub plays an important part in village life. I believe that in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis) many pubs are closing through economic pressures. They can be the hub of village life where people get together to argue about crops, hunting and all that one is interested in in rural areas. Many problems are solved in the warmth and interest to be found in the pub. It will be a difficult situation to retrieve if we let our pubs decline. Long may they continue.

Brewers should be able to give some help with that social problem through their vast profits. I should like pubs to continue.

My hon. Friend referred to the interest in this subject. Has he noticed that the only two hon. Members on the other side of the House are a Liberal Member and a Conservative Member and that no one from the Labour Party seems to be showing any interest in this debate?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but we have only just been over that subject.

To be fair to the Labour Party, may I ask whether any of its Members has apologised to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) or to the Minister or anybody else for not being here?

I am not too sure whether that intervention is from "my hon. Friend" or 'the hon. Member" for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell), since he is sitting on the Opposition Benches. But I take his point. I do not think that there has been any apology, which is even more disgraceful.

I must criticise the petrol companies. I am all for private enterprise, but these companies have a virtual monopoly in small villages. The petrol station or the garage is another hub of village life. Shell and Esso are the two worst offenders. After supplying a small garage for years, they tell it what quantity it can take and add another 1 p or 2p a gallon because of its distance from the depot.

I could give countless illustrations of how these companies have been putting on the pressure. To crown it all, I learn that Shell has told my local garage not only that it would sell no more petrol but that it would pay half the cost of concrete to fill up his tank. What a dreadful way to behave. I have asked the Minister concerned to inquire into this matter. These companies should have some social heart when they have a near-monopoly. It is crazy that someone in a remote village should have to use a gallon of petrol to drive elsewhere to buy petrol.

I welcome what the Government have done about pharmacists. As for the police, I welcome the signs that chief constables are beginning to get policemen back into the villages—but they should get out of their cars and get to know people. We had such fun and games with the village policeman when I was a boy. A police house was situated at the end of the drive of the farm where I lived and when I left it was made redundant. The chief constable must have thought Mills was a dangerous chap. It is important to get the police back on their feet in many small villages. An answering service on the telephone is not enough.

Out-of-town shopping centres are one of the biggest threats to rural life. One is being built by Tesco just outside Ivy-bridge, in my constituency. I am no prophet, but I can guarantee that for at least 20 miles around the village stores, the garages and all the other little shops will start to decline. I would say the same about other food stores, even if my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) were here. That store will sell petrol at 119p a gallon, which will bring the people in, and then they will be able to do all their shopping.

I can understand housewives wanting to get cheaper food, but the effect on village life is disastrous. Those who suffer are the elderly and the retired who have no car and cannot go to the out-of-town store. I do not know what can be done, but this is a real problem.

Finally, I regret the loss of our mobile shops, which were the greatest fun of all. I still remember those large vans, each of which seemed to be driven by a fat man in a brown dustcoat. He would read off a long list of what he had to sell and "missus" would select what she wanted. They were great men. They have been driven out of business by the cost of petrol, by taxation, and so on. In the remoter areas they not only saved the housewife and farmer's wife a trip to the shops; they were also a great source of knowledge and encouragement. I know that the only person who talked to my wife throughout the day was the postman or the chap with the mobile shop. They helped to keep village life together. They also did many other things which I would not like to mention—

No, we did not have milkmen in such rural areas. But perhaps I had better not continue with that subject.

I hope that I have said enough to help the House to understand the serious problems of rural areas. The Government must watch the situation closely. Having been brought up and lived all my life in a village, I hope to die in a village. I can think of no better future.

10.58 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) on the motion, but I must cross swords with him on one point. Twice in the last few weeks he has taken my profession to task. I think that on the first occasion he talked to auctioneers and surveyors selling off land, buying it back and selling it again at great profit. The country auctioneer and chartered surveyor who has been based in the countryside for generations has been the countryman's and farmer's friend.

I have run a cattle market. I have from the age of 9 driven cattle through the streets of King's Lynn holding a red lamp in front of the cattle coming from the trains in order to lair them overnight and bring them up in the morning. There were one or two back ways in which ancient bicycles were strategically placed, so that if one bullock broke loose he would go up the lane and smash the bicycle, and there would be a claim the next morning. That is an example of some of the fun we had in those days.

There were farm sales in the autumn. They were always held by 11 October—change day in Norfolk. In 50 per cent. of the sales we had to act as bankers for the community, until the lamb sales were held in the spring, because in the late 1920s and 1930s people found great difficulty in paying. Much of that sort of activity has gone, and now we have to sell houses. I have never endeavoured to do it because I would probably not make a good job of it. I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree with me when I say that there is some difference between the local man who has lived in the countryside all his life and people in the very large London firms. Many of the partners in them are personal friends of mine, but I do not believe that they have done all that much good to our area.

I was brought up in the horse age and I am not ashamed of that. It was a wonderful time in many ways. In those days four men were employed per 100 acres. Now there is employment of one man per 400 acres, or something like that.

Anyone who is interested to read about those times—perhaps the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells), who is present, representing the Liberal Party—may like to know that there is a great man, Ewart Evans, in Suffolk, who has written many interesting books, such as "The Horse in the Furrow", "The Oral Tradition", and others which recapture in a practical and down-to-earth way the good and bad things of those times. His most recent book talks of considerable hope coming back into the rural areas.

In the old days, practically every large village and small market town had hurdle makers, small ironworks making farm machinery—Norfolk "gallow" ploughs, as they were called—harness makers and farriers. Everyone knows how many rural industries there used to be.

Generally, we also had a company or platoon of Territorials in the district. I was very glad when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave great encouragement for the Territorials to come back. The countryside in those days was the backbone of the Territorial Army. I had a company in the district and most of them came from the Fen villages. After walking behind horses all day long, the men would cycle six or seven miles to the local drill hall, in order to do two hours' drill. They were very fine men. There was no one better than the farm worker of those days. People called them nitwits, and so on, but they were not. They were highly skilled men who loved the land and who always spoke of their horses, their cattle and their sheep. Indeed, in those days the shepherd, not the farmer was the real dictator of what happened on the farm, because he always had to have the best land to lamb on, and so on.

But, naturally, things have changed. There were some terrible times in the 1930s. People who lived in the towns remember that it was even worse there. I knew a farm of 2,000 acres, employing 40 to 50 men and their families. At the end of the sale day, when 3,000 sheep, six teams of horses, two teams of mules, 150 cattle, and so on, were sold, there were three shepherds, two dogs and one boy left. The rest were unemployed.

After the war we saw the various developments in modern science, with new farming methods—new methods with sprays, seeds and machines. Instead of the countryside of Norfolk looking red or yellow—yellow for charlock and red for poppy—we look clean and tidy. There have been many advantages brought about by modern methods, and we are now prosperous. But running through the debate is a feeling, however, that things have gone wrong with the countryside, and that we have lost much of the great friendliness, the feeling for the countryside, and the village life, which to me was marvellous. Some of the problems can be put right. We have the dumping of what I would call undesirable industries into the countryside because the towns will not have them—things which make smells and all sorts of undesirable fumes.

There are country houses which have been turned into homes for delinquents from London. I know of one village which has had two houses used for that purpose. I know that they have to go somewhere, but the planning people in our country ought to be a little more careful, because this has created a great deal of trouble.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s in Norfolk, our land was relatively cheap for development, and our planning officer arranged—I believe quite rightly—for there to be envelopes round villages. People were able to build within the village envelope, provided that they were not seeking to put in bungalows with pink roofs and purple spots.

But then the big builders bought up practically all the land which was meant to be developed over 25 years in the rural areas. Retired people with small incomes came from the towns to live in small bungalows. There are six or seven villages in my constituency in which the new population is four or five times greater than the old population. Many of the newcomers have brought great drive and energy and life to the villages. Nevertheless, there has obviously been tension between the old and the new. Many of the people who came from the towns did not realise that there would not be a bus passing their door every 20 minutes, and that it would not be easy for them to get into the towns. Many of them had been used mainly to the buses and underground in London. They did not drive cars. They also thought that they could walk anywhere they liked in the countryside with their dogs, but they found that Norfolk was all arable and that they were unable to do so.

There are several other undesirable things happening at present. Perhaps the members of the farming community have become too rich, but they do not now take on the responsibility of serving as county councillors to the extent that they did formerly. The people on the county council nowadays—most of them Conservatives—seem to think that all the smallholdings ought to be sold off in order to help the council during the years in which it is hard up. But the county council smallholdings in my area are most important. Acre for acre, many of them have produced more food than the larger holdings. But they also produce the right type of man—the sturdy, independent type of man who is so important to the whole country. We are losing them because the county council has a policy of selling off our land which has been held since the end of the First World War.

I am extremely distressed that big businesses are taking over the medium and even larger farms, and that pension funds are buying up the land. We have had "town" money coming into the countryside for hundreds of years, and that is all to the good, but now the land is not being let. It is being farmed through another company. The manager for East Anglia might be living in Norwich, or even London, because that is where East Anglian companies now seem to think their headquarters should be located. There might be one manager for seven or eight fanris scattered over Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. It means that the local farmer no longer lives in the village. With farming estates covering 15,000 to 20,000 acres and no farmer, there is, especially if the parson has gone, no man to give a lead in the village. There is little support for the local life of the community because a big company ignores the village.

I have taken this matter up repeatedly with these companies, and I still hope that they will heed the feeling that is mounting against them. The Government should take steps to ensure that taxation is fair as between the average family business and these large companies. That applies particularly to capital taxation, because with the large company there is no single proprietor and so capital taxation on death is, in many cases, not paid.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that far too much money has been put into specialist buildings. I have never sold a specialist building and I have never erected one if I could avoid it on the estates that I have looked after. For one thing, those estates have been too hard up to erect specialist buildings. However, they have been built elsewhere, and because they are designed to meet specialist requirements they now stand empty and useless. They are an eyesore in the country. The NFU should agree to some planning control over them. With proper architectural design and suitable materials, they could be merged with existing buildings.

If only the planning officers and planning committees would take note of representations, the older barns which are no longer of use for farming could house smaller rural industries such as furniture making. Here I cross swords with my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), although I agreed with a great deal of what he said. The countryside, the larger villages and the market towns cannot live without these smaller industries. I agree that we do not want factories that are too huge. However, using the old farm buildings in this way, bringing them back to life, means that many men can work within five or six miles of their homes and avoid travelling 15 miles out and back at immense cost as they do in my constituency.

I think that my hon. Friend has misunderstood me. I am trying to negotiate for some barns to be converted for use by a small industry in our village.

I am glad to hear that. I had gathered that my hon. Friend was against the idea.

I come next to the question of small and family farms. Far too few people are working on the land—unlike on the Continent. I understand that the figure here is only 2·5 per cent. of the total population. I would have preferred to have had the German Minister of Agriculture, Herr Ertl, rather than the last Labour Minister. Herr Ertl said that he wanted to keep a good rural population in the countryside, and I support that sentiment, although I think that the Germans—not us and not the Community—should pay for it. It is a point worth considering because if people are taken away from the rural communities and are pushed into towns they become unemployed, disaffected and a movement for the extreme Left. They could easily change the stability of our country.

What can be done to help? I have considered the second amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) and I am sorry that my amendment to it has not been selected. It would have added the word "physician". I regard the country doctor as one of the most important people in a rural area. He brings to the countryside a lot of plain common sense and friendliness. He has been a wonderful boon to rural areas, but now with so many elderly people coming into the countryside he is being swamped to the extent that he cannot get out of his surgery and fulfil the traditional role of a friend of the family. If we can, we must bring help to the family doctor, particularly in rural areas where the population has risen to include a high proportion of elderly people.

I come next to the question of post offices. I believe that our approach on the subject now is right. Clearly we gave the wrong impression when it was first mentioned. Instead of saying that we wanted to introduce fresh business into the post offices, we let it be thought for a time—partly due to the foolish speech by the chairman of the Post Office —that we wanted to close country post offices. We do not.

Pubs are a great centre for the village. The darts, snooker and bowls teams are all centred on the pub. In my area one firm—Grand Metropolitan—has a monopoly. It has told me quite openly that it would rather close all the country pubs and put the money thus raised into town pubs. It has adopted that attitude for quite some time, and has allowed amenities in country pubs to get worse. It has refused to install bathrooms and other facilities in them. I do not believe the Monopolies Commission when it says that there is no monopoly among the brewers. The commission has not looked at the matter on a regional basis. It should look at the way in which the pubs in one wide area have all come under the control of one firm.

We are losing the opportunity for a lot of young men to take up farming—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I congratulate the Labour Opposition on now turning up in the person of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson), followed quickly, I notice, by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). We do not see them often on these occasions.

I want there to be encouragement of craft industries in the larger villages. I want Government action to encourage landlords to let farms to young men, and this must entail some alteration in our taxation system.

I want to see more work created in the Forestry Commission woodlands. Many people in the countryside are now using wood-burning stoves, yet in the Forestry Commission woodlands one sees an immense amount of what I might call burnable wood left rotting away.

Moreover, amenities in the Forestry Commission woodlands could be improved, with special attention to greater facilities for horse riding. It may not be generally known that the Forestry Commission charter enables it to prevent riding in woodlands. We have a large number of Forestry Commission woodlands in Norfolk, and I believe that the commission runs its woodlands well. People are allowed to walk there, but, except by permission, riding is not allowed.

I should not object to a payment being required from people who wish to ride in those woodlands—I think that it is probably right that they should pay—but one can ride virtually nowhere else in Norfolk, and one sees many notices now being put up throughout the woodlands saying that no riding is permitted save on certain public routes through the woodlands. In my view, riders ought to be encouraged, not discouraged.

I hope that under this Government we shall encourage in every way possible the family farm against the combine—the combine run by a remote City-controlled firm. The advent of this type of farm has created immense problems for my area, taking away the leadership from the villages and in some cases creating what amounts almost to a desert without leadership.

11.22 am

I am glad to be called so early in the day, and I at once join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) on presenting this extremely useful motion. I am distressed, knowing how many tears have been shed at the Opposition Dispatch Box in the past, that there is no representative of the Opposition Front Bench here today. I can only conclude that they were crocodile tears, and the absence of a Front Bench representative today confirms that conclusion.

The motion refers to the rural community, and that means people—people within the rural community. All that we have heard so far has underlined that the rural community is a delicate plant, easily damaged. It is damaged by what I call macro-pressures and micro-pressures. There are the large damaging influences and there are also the small pinpricks which can be equally destructive of the structure of our rural community.

We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) how pressures in agriculture have led to a massive change for the worse, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) has underlined that in his extremely interesting speech. The part of the world of which my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk South-West speaks specialises in larger agricultural holdings, which used to employ a large number of workers. My part of the world specialises in or has developed smaller agricultural holdings—very much family-run businesses, although the same slightly worrying underlying trends of merger and seconding-out to agri-businesses are beginning to show themselves as well.

The pressures of agricultural change have led to a massive fall in employment. In my county about 2,000 jobs have been lost to direct employment on the land over the past 30 years. We are now down to about 3,000 people directly employed in agriculture out of a population of 140,000. That is slightly less than the national average of 2½ per cent., but it is worth making the point that those left on the land now are owner-occupiers or tenants. There are very few people directly employed as farm workers—shepherds, stockmen and the like. Most of the work is done in the family now. This is the result of pressure upon agriculture by the consumer, and the price has to be paid somewhere.

The other macro-pressure brought to bear over the past five years has been the steady attrition in terms of rate support grant. In four out of the past five years, my county council has suffered a real drop in resources available to it in favour of the inner city areas, and it is particularly galling to watch those inner city areas not utilising the funds to do what they are supposed to do, namely remedy the decay, but using them instead merely to hold down the level of rates.

In the context of the average level of rates, let me add that it is more expensive now in terms of rates to live in the city of Hereford or in the area of the South Herefordshire district council in the same type of house though with fewer facilities and services than it does in Birmingham or in Cardiff.

In that same vein, I take this opportunity to remind my right hon. Friend the Minister that the anomaly as between Wales and England still exists. He may recall that in 1974 the domestic element of rate support grant for the shire counties in England was slashed enormously while in the Welsh counties it was put up to about 33p in the pound—a difference of 17p. That differential still exists, and it is time it went.

It was said at the time that the increase in the Welsh domestic element was intended to recognise the heavy cost of the provision of water. My constituency of Hereford lies within the area of the Welsh water authority, and we have to pay the same price for water as the Welsh do. So either the Welsh must think again about the level of domestic element in their rate support grant or the level in Herefordshire should be jacked up to the same level as applies in Wales.

I am not the greatest egalitarian, because I believe that we are all different in our own particular ways, but it is galling to my constituents to see the differential which still exists, and it is galling also to me personally, because I live within half a mile of the Welsh border, to realise that the water just down the way is substantially cheaper than mine. That, I suppose, is a vested interest which I should declare.

I turn now to the micro-pressures. We have already discussed the question of post offices. I believe that the explosion—that is the right word—over the leakage of the Rayner report and the comments of the chairman of the Post Office has been valuable to the extent that it has underlined the important part which the village post office and sub-post office has to play in small communities.

I shall not give names, because I am not sure that it would fall within the rule, but I know of some sub-postmasters who not only run the sub-post office but run a village store. They take the pensioners' groceries—certainly the immobile pensioners' groceries—out with them, hand over the pension at the same time and then give the change. That is a valuable service. If the village post office were in any way to be undermined, I am sure that we should have cause for great regret, specially in our rural communities. I say again that the rural community is delicate.

The school in a rural community is of immense importance. I commend to all hon. Members who have not read it the sensitive and understanding debate in the other place on Wednesday on the question of the importance of the village school and Government policy towards it. The subject was very nicely aired. The school remains the core of any community which still has a village school to boast of and to sustain. We must be extremely careful not to remove with undue haste any village school which is left.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) made some well justified strong comments about the petrol station which also supports or is part of the village garage. I suppose that the village pump would have been the equivalent place in earlier days. It is a chatting point, a meeting place. It also has the side function of repairing cars, apart from the sale of petrol.

In common with what has happened in areas represented by other hon. Members, petrol stations in my part of the world have come under pressure from suppliers. It is easy to see the suppliers' point of view. The quantities that can be taken are not economic to deliver. Further, the volumes sold by the proprietor of the garage are not sufficient to make the steady delivery worth while. I wonder to what extent petrol taxation policy gives rise to that. Paying tax up front when taking delivery of petrol ties up an enormous amount of money for a very small return. If we take out the tax element, the profitability is reasonable.

The burden of tax that has to be paid for, in terms of capital tied up and high interest rates, makes it difficult for the proprietor to be able to fund it. Perhaps an inquiry could be initiated into developing means of changing the tax structure for petrol delivery so that garages with limited quantities could pay their tax on a different basis—on the basis of money generated rather than capital resources or working capital.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West referred to the near-monopoly of pubs in his area by the Grand Metropolitan chain. I have the same problem in my area. Most of the pubs are Whitbread pubs. Here, I should like to pay tribute to the work of my predecessor.

In one small village, Whitbread declared that it was no longer economic to supply the village inn, the Garway inn. That meant that there would not be a pub within a radius of eight miles of the village. The inn served a distinct need within the village of Garway. There was a riot—a riot as we Herefordians riot. We protested vigorously, and my predecessor stepped in and acted as a broker in the negotiations. The licence was saved, and the inn was sold by Whitbread as a free house. The first person to call on the new landlord was the Whitbread representative, offering deliveries three times a week. I am pleased to say that the Garway inn thrives today as a free house.

That sort of action can be taken, but it requires pressure from the grass roots. In the same vein of micro-pressures, such action as that taken by Whitbread can represent a destructive element on the structure of village life.

I am concerned about population loss in my part of the country. Between 1951 and 1971 the population of a very large area of almost 300 square miles suffered a drop in population from 8,760 to 7,155 —a drop of 18 per cent. On the surface, that might not seem too serious, but there was a large drop in the working-age population. In the age group 20 to 29 there is a 13 per cent. under-representation. In the age group 30 to 34, there is a 16 per cent. under-representation. The 75-plus age group is over-represented by 16 per cent. That is an extreme case of what has been described as Herefordshire becoming the geriatric ward of the West Midlands.

It has happened mainly because of the loss of job opportunities, due to the structure of agriculture in the west of the county. There has been a migration of the working population which, to a large extent, has been over-compensated by houses becoming available at lower prices to those who would like to retire to the countryside. That has to be coupled with the ageing population that remains.

That is the concern of many agencies in my part of the world. I pay tribute to the sensitive report written by the chief planning officer of the South Herefordshire district council. He pinned down a number of the points. It is significant that he wrote his assessment three years ago in response to the wish of the county council to upgrade the structure plan.

In his assessment, he develops three types of rural communities. First, there is the small settlement with a decreasing element of true country families, and an increasing number of second/holiday homes and commuters and retired people. Secondly, there is the predominantly commuter village within five to 10 miles of the market town or city. Thirdly, there are the large villages which are still capable of functioning as balanced communities and which have some local job opportunities and a sufficient age range of population to support a school and other communal services.

Bearing in mind the drift of population from the West due to the inhospitability of agricultural land, the change in agricultural practice and the pressure on the villages in a five to 10 mile range of the city of Hereford, there is a contraflow of people moving to those commuter villages.

I am not too worried about the predominantly commuter village. It has strength to support the basic facilities, although it does not do so by virtue of its structure as a rural community in the old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage sense. It is a new breed of community.

I am worried that the small settlements with a decreasing element of the true country family may go further towards desertion and decay. As that section of the community lives on the fringes, well away from the market towns, it constitutes an enormous threat to the structure of our country life. I should like them to become—or move towards—selfsufficiency as large villages or smaller versions of the large villages that are still capable of functioning. I want there to be a balanced age structure and a new range of job opportunities to replace those that have been lost on the land and thereby to regenerate the life and size of the communities in those areas. It can only be for their good. I am thinking not of massive re-urbanisation or over-development but of the regeneration of a proper, natural community in those parts of the country.

Two main aspects will have to be covered——employment and housing. With regard to employment, jobs have been lost to agriculture, and, therefore, jobs need to be found again. I commend the work of the Development Commission. In December 1979 the subject of the commission was raised at Question Time. I failed to catch Mr. Speaker's eye at that time.

I particularly welcome this opportunity, with the Minister as a captive audience, to grab him on the question of the Development Commission. I know that in this climate of quango-bashing it is very easy to say "Let us scrub around such quangos", but I dispute that the Development Commission is a quango. I am more inclined towards the definition of the chairman of the commission who describes it in this year's report as being a "primer of pumps". Remarking on the fact that the commission is 70 years old —a venerable age—the chairman says:
"the Commission is in many ways a unique body. It is not an all-providing quango, but a primer of pumps, a catalyst for self-help and enterprise in the countryside. In some ways this is our greatest strength; we have stayed small and retained the trust of those we seek to assist."
Those are very commendable words. Although I do not agree politically with the chairman of the Development Commission, I have nothing but praise for the work of the commission in the countryside.

The Development Commission, working through CoSIRA, has a very good track record in Herefordshire of encouraging and promoting small industry. In my constituency we have developments in Ross-on-Wye, in Ewyas, Harold and Peterchurch. There are further developments for four other villages stretching from the very rural west to the much more urban Whitchurch to the south.

It is sometimes said that this is all a waste of time and money and that no one will actually want industrial plants here. But Hereford's track record disproves that. Since the programme began in 1975, six factories have been completed in Kin-ton and Weobley, in the Leominster district. All six have been let. Whenever foundations have been put down the factory has been let sooner rather than later. This development is most encouraging.

From a financial point of view, the amount of money expended by the Development Commission totalled just on £11 million last year, and for an administrative cost of £365,000 that constitutes pretty good value for money. It is sometimes thought that the policy of attracting factory units to village areas will lead to "dark satanic mills" being established. Certainly the development units that I have seen have been extremely sympathetic to the environment and have been all that one would wish. Certainly they should allay the fears of those who feel threatened by the proximity of these units.

My hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston indicated that industrialists were being forced out of urban areas into rural areas because of low wage costs. He claimed that this was the only way that they could go. I would not agree with him. As an employer in a comparatively rural area, I believe that the wage levels I pay are very respectable. We must compete with the big towns because of the commuter-bility which the car gives people today.

The ability to have a low overheads structure is important. In village areas one cannot have any of the fancy buildings and facilities which cost so much. When it comes to creating job opportunities in village areas it is important to give a venture a roof over its head. Most of the employees will put up with substantially less than they might like to have if there is a job in the first place, and if the prospects of that job growing and of employment expanding are good. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West said, it is important to move towards utilisation, not just of buildings put up by the Development Commission and CoSIRA, but of redundant barns and other agricultural buildings which might otherwise lie empty. They provide first class challenges and opportunities for those who would like to create an enterprise or bring an enterprise to these areas.

Employment in villages is important. It develops the structure if management moves in to manage enterprises. If those enterprises grow, there will be more management and this will bring back a larger number of the younger people of childbearing age and capability. As a result, the base for village schools will broaden again. Over the years it has been very worrying that artificial expansion of some villages resulting from large council estates being established in the 1930s has led to an ageing population in those estates with fewer children of school age. I see this in my part of the country, where the village school is under threat because the age group in the village militates against child-bearing. One feels that if only that school could be kept going for another half generation there would be more children as a result of the replacement factor in the existing housing stock.

Schools can be shut down hastily and by mistake without having regard to the future child population in a village. The way to overcome this is to redress the balance of the working age group which is so under-represented in rural communities at present.

In my area, which is not too untypical of many attractive rural areas, we are well placed in relation to Bristol, Birmingham and London. Small village houses become attractive acquisitions for those who seek a weekend retreat or a retirement home. Coming from these big conurbations, people have substantially more money to put down for a house than local people. I should not like to say to Mrs. Jones, who is about to move, that she may not sell her house to someone in Birmingham who has made a very attractive offer but must sell locally. That is totally wrong. But it is important that that fact should be recognised and that the district council should then recognise the effect of it. Country villages in this predicament require district councils to recognise that there is a requirement for starter homes and smaller houses and for upgrading of existing properties in order to make it possible for younger couples to start at the foot of the housing ladder.

I like the prospect of people being able to buy their own homes. I do not like to see them imprisoned by the council structure in the rural areas without the ability to move if their employment or family size changes. Therefore, if district councils acted as developers themselves, or promoted the development of one-bedroom or two-bedroom houses, which carried a covenant requiring that such houses should be sold only to those with local needs or local roots, this would develop the kind of two-tier price structure that would enable young couples within an area to stay in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West will appreciate what I am saying. It does nobody any good to be forced out of the village in which he wishes to live because there is nowhere else there to live and he cannot compete against outside influences. It requires a whole new approach to housing by district councils. It is not sufficient to build blocks of council houses with three or four bedrooms on the outskirts of the village or as part of a village and say "That is a start. Now we will find people to fill them because the number on the waiting list has dropped." The straight application of money in that respect will not help.

I welcome the provisions of the Housing Bill, currently being considered. The Bill will bring on to the market a large number of houses in villages which are currently under-utilised. I could take hon. Members to a number of villages in my part of the world where there is an alarming number of houses which no one has dared to let. They are deteriorating because landlords, when they could let them, could not afford to repair them because of the rent controls. Short-term tenancies, such as those that are being considered at present, could be highly beneficial.

I have tried to isolate the employment, housing and schooling that are required to regenerate rural communities that are at risk. However, I believe that there is a tremendous responsibility upon those who live in those communities to recognise what they have. I speak with a vested interest because I live in a small village.

The parson has a tremendous responsibility. I was slightly at a loss when I heard the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough about the Church of England not doing its job. Possibly I am jaundiced, because my own parson happens to be rather good at his job. The average number of people represented in my part of the country is 1,800 compared with about 6,000 in urban areas, and I think that that is a fairly good balance.

I did not say that the Church of England was not doing its job. I said how well it was doing its job, especially in Lincolnshire. However, I called for reorganisation so that the Church organisation coincided with constituency and secondary authority organisation.

I misheard. I am happy that my hon. Friend has put the record straight, because otherwise I would have been very perturbed.

The parish and district councils are two other important organisations. I sometimes feel that parish councillors think that they have no power or use. I disagree. A parish council which sets out to do something useful in its parish and for its parish can achieve a valuable result. It is made up of representatives—12 or so people—from the parish, and it should be looking at the needs and requirements of its parish and drawing them to the attention of the district council. The parish council should be an active force, not in local politics but in the local structure of the community. If it is not, it is not doing its work and it might just as well pack up and go away. I am sorry for those who are ill served by such a parish council.

I watch with great interest the activities of my parish council. It has its finger on the pulse. I know that from the correspondence that I have with many other parish councils within my constituency. My parish council is doing a useful job.

The district councils have responsibility for assessing the needs of the rural areas. It is an enormous responsibility, but the district councillors must be sensitive to the need to conserve and develop the strength of the rural area—the alternate way of life. That is an awful responsibility to have as a district councillor, and it is well that it should be recognised that it is a responsibility.

There are others who are in a position to assess the trends in a community and to see whether it is at risk—for example, the publican and the physician, to quote two of the Ps that have already been mentioned, and correctly so. All these people are in key positions to draw the attention of both district and county councillors to the need to recognise the early warnings that have been sent out by a community—the population is getting too old, the people are going away, and there is a stress on housing.

I shall take this opportunity to take a quick stab, one might say, at structure plans. Whereas in theory they may sound good, I sometimes feel that they are a straitjacket and once they have been set in motion they are difficult to change and are open to insensitive interpretation. The Hereford and Worcester structure plan has on occasion been insensitively operated as regards rural areas. Questions of local need are far too rigorously applied. There are many people—not personal acquaintances but constituents—who have desperately tried to sort out their own local needs as best they can with a total lack of sympathy from the county council. I think of the local hotel proprietor who wishes to stay in the village and cannot build on his own land next door to the public house, and the farmer who has two children and a patch of land next door which is no use for anything, yet he is constantly denied planning permission.

On the industrial side, a young man who left the Army trained under a Government training scheme to be a panel beater. He now wishes to use a barn to establish a business as a panel beater but cannot do it. The barn cannot be seen from anywhere. It has been used as a munitions shed since 1910, but permission has not been granted because it is 200 yards outside the zone allowed for industrial development. I know from the remarks that he has made that my right hon. Friend the Minister is sensitive to this issue. The case to which I am referring will go to appeal in due course, and I shall be supporting it. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will receive information about it through another channel.

I sum up by asking my right hon. Friend to take five small points into account, bearing in mind that the Government have responsibility for setting the climate within which the rural communities can thrive. Will he look urgently into the sterilising effects of structure plans when they are too rigorously applied and make certain that there is more flexibility for county councils once the structure plans have been agreed? I am not being quite fair to my right hon. Friend on that point, because the structure plan was agreed and the shape of it was formed by the previous Government. There were those of us who did not agree with it then.

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend give encouragement to district councils to think constructively about the housing needs of rural communities and open new panoramas to them so that they have fresh ideas about how to tackle these problems? Thirdly, will he encourage local government at all levels to take steps to develop early warning mechanisms which will catch problems sooner rather than later? I am thinking here of the structural population problems which put a community at risk. Fourthly—and I underline this—I ask the Government to keep right behind CoSIRA and the Development Commission. They are doing good work. Lastly, I ask the Government to make it far easier for surplus buildings to be utilised for employment purposes, albeit with adequate environmental safeguards.

Those are the measures that I think are necessary to sustain, develop and regenerate the rural community.

11.58 am

I join my hon. Friends in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball) on initiating a debate on this important subject. As he knows, I was brought up in Lincolnshire. But my family, having come from Shetland, regarded Lincolnshire less as a rural community and more as a seething mass of humanity.

We have talked about the problems of publicans, policemen and postmistresses —the eight Ps or whatever they are—but what we are really talking about is an all-embracing P, namely, "people". I think that it is an absolute indictment of the Labour Party that there is no one on the Opposition Front Bench and that we have not had a single contribution from the Labour Opposition. I congratulate the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) and for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), who, I gather, will try to catch your eye later in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Order. To be fair to the Opposition side of the House, it should be made plain that it is because I have not called an Opposition Member that the House has not heard such a contribution yet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), with whom I have the honour of serving on the Select Committee on agriculture, said that he was a member of a denomination in which all were priests. I think that the ode "Intimations of Immortality", by Wordsworth, perhaps has a relevant message. He wrote:

"Trailing clouds of glory do we come."
No one trails more clouds of glory than my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston.
"The youth, who daily farther from the East
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid,
Is on his way attended;
At length the man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day."
That is what we are talking about today—dying away; the countryside dying away and fading into the light of common day.

The English countryside is one of our most priceless national assets.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) said, our national character over the centuries has been deeply influenced and, indeed, formed by the way of life that is represented in the countryside. It is the envy of many other countries, whose citizens come in the summer to visit it, as indeed do our own citizens, in ever-increasing numbers.

Our countryside is not what it is today by accident. It is what it is because of the devotion and work and care of Governments and people over the centuries. As we have heard today, it is now under threat, and its character will be irremediably destroyed in our own generation if government, both national and local, does not wake up to what is happening and exercise the greatest vigilance.

We have discussed the symptoms of the decline of village life—the closure of sub-post offices, village shops, and village schools, and the lack of employment opportunities, leading to young people leaving for the towns. We have talked about the increase in the price of oil, which has hit those who live in the country very hard indeed, especially those who have to drive to work. The long series of erosions in railway services which has accompanied our relative national economic decline has made the country ever more dependent on the internal combustion engine.

We have talked about the problems of health—physicians reliant on cars, and people who have to travel to get health services. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services that I am an unashamed protagonist of small hospitals. In Cheshire we have Leighton hospital, which is outside my constituency. It is a marvellous hospital, but it is very difficult to get to. It takes all day for some people, given the inadequacy of the bus services, to get there. I very much hope that we shall be true to our word as a Government in keeping open the smaller hospitals such as the Tarporley war memorial hospital, the Northwich Victoria infirmary, and the Grange hospital at Weaverham, in my constituency, which provide a vital service for those living in the rural communities.

Successive Ministers of Transport have heard endlessly from me, and will continue to do so, about the effects of the upsurge in traffic volume, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston, on villages and small towns, such as Northwich, and indeed, villages desperately in need of bypasses, such as Tarporley, Kelsall, Davenham and Tarvin. They all have an urgent need of planned bypasses, and in many places the matter is becoming desperate.

I am delighted that the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) said, are at long last taking a very hard look at the share of the national cake which is allocated to the countryside. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services on his herculean efforts in the recent shift in the rate support grant allocation. It has been an important step, long overdue, in the right direction. It takes a long time to turn a large vessel round in its tracks, and the process has not gone nearly far enough. He can be assured of our support as he continues with the process in the years to come.

The fact of the matter is that the old antithesis between the interests of the countryside and of the town is in fact, in general, a false one. The two are interdependent. If rural incomes fall and the countryside becomes deprived, the problems of the city will become worse. Housing problems, unemployment problems and traffic congestion, and so on, will become worse. The two are closely interconnected, and the rural interest must be protected in the interests of not only the rural areas but also the towns.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in her recent article in The Countryman magazine, referred to what she described as "rural deprivation".

Despite the fact that, as the hon. Gentleman said, my right hon. Friend is the Member for Finchley, she is, unlike far too many urban Members, deeply conscious of the problems of the countryside.

All the bodies for which the Government are responsible—by that I refer to local government as well as national Government—must be alerted, as, indeed, must the nationalised industries. The Gas Corporation, for example, has for years fallen lamentably behind on its investment programme in infrastructure. It must make urgent efforts to enable villages such as Tarporley and Tarvin, which are very near to but not on the mains, to be connected to the mains without the most astronomical charges to the consumers. We have all seen the effects of not making available at sensible prices alternative forms of energy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough spoke of planning procedures. The danger of the countryside becoming a museum has been mentioned. It is, indeed, in danger not only of becoming a museum but of becoming an empty museum.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford said, the planning authorities must bear in mind the necessity for keeping small industries in being, otherwise our industries will continue to deteriorate. I join with him in paying tribute to the work of CoSIRA and the Development Commission. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston was on the mark when he talked about the dumping of industry in the countryside. Provided that the industry does not destroy the visual character of the countryside, I think that the more industry of an appropriate nature that is encouraged to grow there, the better for the countryside.

I quite agree that the Government must take account of the Rayner report in seeking to help the rural post offices. This is a great opportunity, and I have every confidence that it will be grasped. The more services that can be administered from the post offices, the better for everyone.

If we do not seize the opportunities provided by a Conservative Government with a large majority, I am in no doubt that we shall be reviled by future generations for having let an opportunity pass. Although the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hatters-ley), who made a fleeting appearance at the beginning of the debate, does not represent a rural constituency, he is not insensitive to these matters. The right hon. Gentleman has written a marvellous book on Yorkshire. I very much hope that we can rely on his support in the years to come when my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—I am delighted to see that my right hon. Friend the Minister is attending the debate—take the initiatives that are required to ensure that the interests of the rural community are preserved.

12.11 pm

I rise with no trepidation to speak on this subject. I take that attitude in spite of the fact that I represent Holborn and St. Pancras, South. There is probably no more long-standing urban constituency.

I was born and brought up in the country. I am well aware of the circumstances which prevailed when I was a child and the circumstances which prevail in the country now. When talking about Holborn and St. Pancras, South in my maiden speech I said that there was probably no area in Britain in which ordinary people were more dependent upon public expenditure for their standard of living than those whom I represented. However, second to them, and not very far behind them, are those who are badly off and who live in rural areas. They, too, are extremely dependent upon the level of public expenditure. It may be argued that some of the pockets of poverty in rural areas are worse in their impact upon individuals, families and groups of families than they are even in urban areas.

I have been rather surprised at the absence of any reference to the effects of Government policy in virtually all the speeches of Conservative Members. The Government are committed to massive reductions in public expenditure, and it is extremely likely that the less well off who live in rural areas will be worse off as a direct result of the policies of the Government whom Conservative Members support.

Two Conservative Members have referred to the function and role of the Church of England. It has been said many a time that the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer. The Church of England, if its job is to be the Tory Party at prayer, will have its work cut out in praying to preserve the rural areas from the policies of the Government.

I shall deal with a number of items of Government policy that will have a direct and adverse effect on rural areas. They spring mainly, but not entirely, from proposed reductions in public expenditure. There are other deliberate items of policy separate from reductions in public expenditure.

One of the problems faced by poor people in rural areas has been that many of the shire counties—Tory-dominated or independent Tory-dominated—have not sought to provide particularly good services in their areas for education and social services. Now that the Government are making them cut back, they are cutting back on services which were not over-bright in the first place.

The poorer people in rural areas are suffering substantially, and are likely to continue to do so. It is worth recalling that the Government are constantly saying that a number of the proposals in the Education (No. 2) Bill and in other measures that the Government are introducing stem from representations made to them by the Conservative-dominated Association of County Councils.

The other place made the welcome decision to chuck out lock, stock and barrel the Government's proposal to impose charges on school transport. That proposal would have had a particularly severe effect on rural areas. It stemmed from the Tory-dominated Association of County Councils. I was disappointed to note during the debates on the Education (No. 2) Bill that, although innumerable Conservative Members made mutterings about the effect of the imposition of charges for school transport on their constituents, they never followed them up by voting against the Government when Divisions were called. They left it to the curious collection that formed the curious temporary majority in another place to get rid of that damaging proposal. I am glad that the Government have accepted that decision.

There are other features of the Government's policy that will hit rural areas as badly as urban areas. The sale of council houses is normally regarded by those who take an interest in Labour Party policy as a big-city issue. The Labour Party objects on social grounds to the sale of council houses. However, even some of the Conservative-dominated rural councils have objected to the proposed enforced sale of council houses, especially in areas which are pleasant in appearance and within commuting range, or in rural areas in the National Parks that are attractive as retirement homes. Even the Conservative-dominated authorities which represent those areas have been making constant representations to the Department of the Environment to stress that the only way in which they can ensure that there are homes for farm workers and others on low rates of pay in rural areas is by council housing. They stress that that is the only way in which accommodation may be provided. They cannot compete on the open market with those who are seeking retirement homes or those who are well-off commuters.

If the present stock of council housing and any future stock is put compulsorily on the open market as a result of the Government's Housing Bill, that will inflict severe damage not only on those who will be unable to obtain houses at reasonable rents but on the rural community as a whole.

It is no good the hon. Member shaking his head. If he disagrees with my remarks, he is denying the evidence adduced by a considerable number of district councils.

No, I shall not give way. I spent a long time listening to what the hon. Gentleman said.

I turn to the question of public transport, another difficult aspect of rural life. The Government's proposals in the Transport Bill, which will be before the House on Monday and Tuesday next week, will inflict damage on the provision of transport in rural areas. There is no doubt about that. It would be foolish for anyone to pretend that the present standard of rural public transport is good. In most areas it is appalling. I accept the Government's proposition that something needs to be done to improve rural bus services.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will enlighten us by telling us what the previous Labour Government did to improve rural transport when they were in office.

I am happy to attempt to enlighten the hon. Gentleman. However, there have to be two parties to the exercise if there is to be enlightenment, one giving information and the other having the capacity to take it on board. The previous Government—I do not pretend that they were especially successful in some respects—introduced various measures to promote experiments in rural transport—for example, community bus services and the minibus legislation. Those measures were intended to improve rural transport. The previous Labour Government also provided substantial public sector support for bus services generally.

Bus operators in urban areas, suburban areas and rural areas receive considerable support. That support has been cut by the Government. The greatest threat of all is to rural bus services. Those who operate networks of bus services make money on certain routes. By and large those are routes not from village to village but between substantial communities. The profits from those routes are used to subsidise non-paying rural services. The Government's Transport Bill represents a direct threat to that form of cross-subsidisation.

The Government intend to allow cowboy operators to cream off the profits to be made on certain services. No profit will remain for subsidising non-profitable rural services. The rural areas will suffer the most. Some bus services may improve as a result of the Government's transport proposals, but rural services are bound to suffer.

There is a further absurdity in the proposals. Trial areas are to be established. In those areas there will be no control over who provides the bus services. They will be run by public or private operators without any form of licensing or control. Logical arguments can be made for that type of experiment. but I am reluctant to accept them.

There are two major objections to the proposal. First, the experiment will run for three years. If total chaos were to ensue in half of North Yorkshire, nothing could be done for three years. That is a barmy proposition. I hope that the Government will withdraw it. A county council should he allowed to stop such trials if it so wishes. The proposal represents a severe threat to rural services. County councils are unlikely to accept it.

District councils cannot veto the introduction of a trial area. A Conservative-con trolled district council might not want a trial area. However, it can be imposed by the county council even if it is opposed at grass roots level by the district council. A severe threat may be posed to rural bus services.

Reference has been made to the Rayner report on the Post Office. Massive protests were made by hon. Members from all parties when news was first leaked of the proposal to extend weekly payments of all types of pensions and social security benefits to fortnightly payments or payments at longer intervals. That type of action is portrayed as an example of cutting public expenditure. However, such cuts damage rural areas. As the hon. Member for Northwich (Mr. Good-lad) pointed out, there is a certain community of interest between rural and inner urban areas. Perhaps the oddities are suburban areas. Such areas do well out of any Government, because they are full of marginal seats. Every Government will try to attract their votes.

Many of the services provided by both public and private sectors are at their most marginal in inner city and distant rural areas. If substantial cuts in public expenditure are made, rural services will suffer. It is therefore foolish and misleading of Conservative Members not to recognise that certain of the Government's policies will damage the interests of those whom they represent. I hope that that point will be replied to. Scarcely a reference has been made to the fact that the Government's policies may damage the interests of rural areas. However, anyone who considers this issue carefully will know that they will.

12.24 p.m.

I pry tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) for raising this debate. The motion is important. A party and a quarter recognise that a decline in rural services has occurred throughout the country. That decline results from a decline in the rural economy. I accept that public ex- penditure is important. However, it is typical of a Labour Member to think that public expenditure is the fundamental basis of our rural economy. That economy has declined. If we cannot afford the eight or ten "Ps" mentioned in the motion, it is because resources were drained from rural areas into urban areas by the previous Labour Government.

I wish to distinguish between different rural areas. Having listened to the speeches of several of my hon. Friends, I recognise that a distinction can be drawn between the decline of services in Dorset —an area of particular concern to me—and the decline of services in areas such as Wales. Indeed, the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) spoke eloquently on that subject. There is a conflict between those who are part of the rural economy —whether they are involved in agriculture or in new small businesses and industries —and those non-agriculture-based residents mentioned in the motion. We should face the reality of that conflict. Interests are different.

A social problem arises because people retire to the countryside. When they visit somewhere as beautiful as Dorset during their holidays, they may decide to retire there. They will probably leave an inner city area that they have known all their lives. They will move to an area in which they know no one, and in which they are surrounded by people of their own age. They also push up the price of houses. Young families in rural areas find it harder and harder to remain in the area in which they were born. Those who have recently retired to rural areas are cut off from their families. Many people have consulted me in my surgery. They have found that the countryside is not all sweetness and roses. By leaving the inner cities they contribute to the problems of inner urban areas. I recognise that those in rural areas have an interest in making the inner city areas work. People should be attracted to living, working and retiring in such areas.

One must consider the effect of mass tourism on rural and inner city areas. Anyone looking at the centre of London can see that mass tourism has had the same effect on London as it has had on Badbury Rings, in my constituency. Bad-bury Rings is being worn away because so many people tramp over it. The environmental price that we pay for mass tourism has not been fully calculated. I hope that the Government will show interest in that issue. As part of the general desire for increased travel and traffic—no matter what the cost—hypermarkets have developed. I cannot think of anything more lunatic, or of anything more likely to destroy village life.

The post office and the shop have played a central role in village life and we must encourage them to survive. I share the criticism—I have made it to him directly myself—of the chairman of the Post Office, who has raised an unfounded scare by saying that the Government wish to do away with village post offices and sub-post offices. It is right to point out that the deal that sub-post office masters and mistresses get from the Post Office is a bad one. I believe that the chairman of the Post Office sought to divert attention from that fact by trying to blame the Government for something they have not done. There will be many opportunities for more transactions to go through the sub-post offices. We have not seriously investigated the sale of Government stock over post office counters. In a thriving rural community there would be ample opportunity for further transactions through the sub-post offices. That possibility should not prevent us looking at ways of making the Department of Health and Social Security more efficient.

The village school is the focal point of interest in rural communities. On Monday, I visited two schools in my constituency. One was a comprehensive school with 900 pupils which manages, in a surprising way, to play its part as a centre of interest for a wide area of Code Hills. I went straight from there to the village school in Pamphill, which has only 32 pupils. That is an equally successful school where children receive closer attention and where educational standards are high.

I tell parents who are worried about village school closures—as I tell local authorities—that they may have to be prepared to put time and money at the disposal of the village school in order to keep it alive. I warn local education authorities that decisions taken hastily to close village schools may be regretted when the population forecasts on which those decisions were made turn out to be false.

Rural health and community services depend upon the economy. I was pleased to note that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food joined our debate, because our agriculture industry must be made profitable for the sake of those communities that depend upon it.

We must do more to encourage land owners to run their land sensibly, reasonably and profitably and also in the interests of the people who depend upon them. Whether Labour Members like it or not, I hope that proposals for a reduction of capital taxation will be forthcoming in the Budget next week. We have no alternative but to encourage new industries into rural areas to take the place of agriculture. That is a result of increased efficiency in the agriculture industry, where fewer workers are now required. There is a steel stockholding company in my constituency. There are a company that makes pianos and a company that makes food. There is a variety of commercial activity there that I had not imagined until I went to see local industry for myself.

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I can add two examples to the list of industries he has given. In my home town, we have a company that makes coffins and one that makes baby pants.

My point is underlined by the comments of my hon. Friend. I join in the praise that has been expressed for CoSIRA. It may be of interest to the House to know that the CoSIRA representative in my area is Mr. Henry Clarke, who at one time was the Member of Parliament for Antrim, North.

Planning can have a negative effect upon rural life and services. Getting the economy moving is the positive way of helping rural communities. Planning and bureaucracy have a negative effect upon those communities and their services. I see two strands of planning. The first seeks to provide services for present and forecast populations. That strand exercises a negative control on development. On the other hand planning can play a positive role in attempting to decide the future needs of a particular area. I am concerned that too many authorities are planning too rigidly for their areas and in that context, many of them will become unstuck.

Planning is also involved in the administration of areas of outstanding natural beauty. Planning regulations in this context are curious beasts. Local authorities are given the general power to designate and take such action as appears to them expedient in order to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of an area, but that power is not so sweeping as one might think. It seems that it is simply an extension of the constitution of a local authority. Planning regulations do not give a local authority any extra rights in derogating from the rights of the individual.

The principal effect of the power to designate an area of outstanding natural beauty opens up a new area of spending for those who administer it. There is a duty on local authorities to consult the Countryside Commission when they propose to submit an order designating an area.

I wonder whether this particular form of planning performs a useful function. Areas of outstanding natural beauty have multiplied dramatically over the years. If we looked at a map of the British Isles we could be pardoned for thinking that there was nowhere in the country that was beautiful, by tourism standards, that had not been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty or a National Park.

I notice that an application to establish a Pennine AONB was turned down and that an application for the Cranborne Chase area of my constituency is being considered. I ask the Government to review the future of these areas carefully. I know that a report is due to be published in May on this point. Given the system that exists, it was impossible for me to suggest in my representations on Cranborne Chase that it is not worthy of designation as an area of outstanding natural beauty, which of course it is. It is hard to explain to the people of Tarrant Gunville why their village is outstanding and much harder to explain to the people of Tarrant Keyneston why their village is not. Given the system, it would be bad for the people of a particular area not to be able to say to the Government "Yes, please designate this area."

The case for the areas has not been properly made. I am worried about some of the statements made by the Countryside Commission in its pamphlet. It refers to the encouragement of land management and to positive planning. It has in mind greater control over what happens and who does what in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

If we do not face the decision about whether to continue with such areas—and there is a strong case for not continuing with them—we shall simply compromise by maintaining areas which cost the community a lot of money.

I am pleased that the Government in their rate support grant allocation have taken a step towards moving resources back to the rural areas. I hope that that process will be continued. On that the life, health and standard of rural services depend.

12.41 pm

I am a fairly regular attender on Fridays and every other day. However, I should not have been here today if Edinburgh airport had not been closed, which means that l cannot get to Scotland. I thought that I had better take the opportunity to speak in the debate, not to fill in time but because there is a community of interest between the rural areas, which are represented mostly, but not exclusively, by Conservative Members, and urban areas, which are represented mostly by Labour Members. One of the great problems is how to make the two types of community understand each other better.

My constituency is a mixture. It is neither wholly a town nor an agricultural area. Regular annual meetings are held with the National Farmers Union. Whatever the economic circumstances, the farmers invariably ask for more cash. They are always at starvation's door. They are experts at pleading poverty. There is no more powerful pressure group than the NFU. I do not know where it gets its money from, since farmers say that they are so poverty-stricken, but my colleagues and I receive briefs almost daily from NFU branches in England and Scotland.

The prosperity of the farming industry and the agricultural communities is never greater than when Labour Governments are in power. The most important Agriculture Act was out on the statute book by an ex-miner, Tom Williams, just after the war. Any prosperity that the agricultural communities enjoy today springs from that legislation. It has enabled them to pay their subscriptions to the Tory party.

Despite the pleadings in the debate, I am afraid that the rural communities will suffer greatly under the present Government. I make that prophecy without fear of contradiction. The Government's basic policy is to cut public expenditure severely, and that will affect the services on which the rural communities depend —education, housing, health and transport. Even cuts in the Civil Service will, directly or indirectly and in great measure, affect rural communities. It is already happening.

We have seen the amazing spectacle in the last 10 days of the radical NFU and the more radical House of Lords coming together to flay the Government over their policy on the transport of children to rural schools. The Government were massively defeated in the Lords. As a consequence the Minister told local authorities that if they cannot save £20 million on school transport they will have to save it in the classroom. There is no doubt that that threat will expedite the closure of more and more village schools. The trend of closures is already at a dangerous level.

The White Paper on public expenditure will be published shortly. It will announce massive cuts in health expenditure. That will result in the closure of more small hospitals. Village people will be forced to travel further to hospital. Transport facilities will deteriorate. The Government have cut, and will make further cuts in, expenditure on roads. The rural communities will suffer. It is no good Conservative Members making speeches for the benefit of their local newspapers, so long as they support the cuts which inevitably will result in a deterioration in the standard of living in the rural areas.

The Secretary of State for Social Services has defended the proposals in regard to sub-post offices. Those proposals are a direct consequence of the fact that the Government are, in a non-selective way, seeking cuts in public expenditure. Cuts can be made only at cost to the rural communities.

Social security offices are closing because of rationalisation. Villagers will have to travel further to their local social security offices. The Government plan to slash housing subsidies. That will lead to a reduction in, if not a cessation of, house building in rural areas. Some authorities have already ceased building houses. That will lead to further depopulation in rural areas.

In that context the motion makes strange reading. The motion calls not for legislation for housing, education or hospitals, but for
"the further conservation of wildlife; to ensure that Great Britain continues to have an environment where persons, beasts, birds, butterflies and fish can thrive, and to examine the economic redeployment of parson, postmistress, publican, petrol attendant and primary schoolteacher."
The environment that the Government are creating might be all right for the butterflies, beasts and bees, but it will be a hell of a problem for parsons, postmistresses and even primary schoolteachers to survive in it.

The amendments are equally trivial. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) wishes to insert "priest" after "parson"—a very important amendment. The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) wishes to insert "policeman and pharmacist" after "schoolteacher". Another bright boy on the Conservative Benches proposes to add"and physician ". That demonstrates how seriously Conservative Members take the problems.

I have heard one or two of the speeches, which, almost without exception, clamour for more public expenditure, whether on schools, hospitals, housing, roads or whatever. I suppose that the Prime Minister would call those who made such speeches "wets", but they are serious about it. They understand that if the desirable standards of living and of environment which are asked for are to be achieved, public expenditure must increase. There is no alternative.

It has been said that rural communities are easily damaged. Indeed they are—by the Government's proposals for rural transport, threats to sub-post offices, compulsory sale of council houses, high and increasing prices for school meals and abolition of school milk, which will also adversely affect the farmer.

Frequent reference was made to the paucity of hon. Members on the Opposition Benches. That is a cheap and easy jibe to make on a Friday and does not get us far. The Conservative Benches are not exactly crowded, with only four hon. Gentlemen in the Chamber at present. Hon. Gentlemen appear to suggest that therefore we are not particularly concerned about the problem.

However, I tabled an early-day motion on these problems way back in November. It expressed concern over the threat to rural communities from the basic policies of the Government's public expenditure cuts, and read:
"That this House is deeply concerned about the effects of the proposed cuts in public expenditure on the standard of living in rural areas".
It was not concerned with butterflies, bees and fish. My motion continues that the House
"regrets that higher prices for school meals and the probable elimination of school transport facilities will cause great hardship both to children and to parents; regrets that the quality of the education is bound to deteriorate with the accelerated closure of village schools, teacher redundancies, and greater shortages of essential equipment like textbooks; asserts that cuts in road and rail subsidies will lead to greatly increased bus and rail fares, and the permanent closure of many public transport facilities; deplores the fact that cuts in local council expenditure will result in a rapid deterioration in the provision of such services as children's and old people's homes, facilities for the mentally and physically handicapped, home helps, house improvements, road maintenance and street lighting, in addition to increased rents and the loss of jobs in the building industry; is appalled by the increases in NHS prescription charges to 70p per item, which will hit hardest the old and the sick, a blow likely to be made even more severe by the closure of more rural chemist shops; is deeply anxious about the withdrawal of the winter heating allowance from all those under 75 years of age; is alarmed by the prospect of the closure of increasing numbers of small cottage hospitals and clinics in rural communities, coupled with a relentless reduction of telephone kiosks; and urges Her Majesty's Government to reconsider the effects of its policies on areas outside the main urban centres."
It was signed by 59 of my hon. Friends. Not a single Conservative Member sought to support it.

That is because the motion consists entirely of the hon. Gentleman's opinion of what might be the result of this Government's policies. If the hon. Gentleman is genuinely concerned about rural areas, why did he support the rate support grant proposal of the previous Government, which shifted the balance away from rural areas?

For the very reason that the Tory Government are shifting it back. Urban areas are represented by Labour Members and we seek to protect our own, which is what the Tory Government have done with rate support grant. They have shifted it back, but I still believe that it will be more than overtaken by the massive public expenditure cuts threatened by the Government. A few weeks ago on television the Prime Minister said that she would be happy if public expenditure were cut in the next round by £2,000 million this coming year. What effect will that have on the local village school, cottage hospital, roads, housebuilding programme, and police force? Everything that makes up a reasonable standard of living for rural communities will be gravely threatened if that programme is carried out, and the Prime Minister said that she would be happy if it was.

We are accused of shedding crocodile tears over rural communities, but many crocodile tears have been shed on the Conservative Benches today.

The Government have said that they will solve our economic problems by applying the law of the market, the laws of supply and demand, with minimum Government interference. It is my considered view that the more remote an area, the more it depends for survival upon public provision of houses, schools, hospitals, roads, police and transport. All the services on which rural communities depend are provided with no profit motive. They are given in large measure as social services.

The Government must understand that these areas will not survive under their dogmatic policies of laissez faire" Leave it alone, let them fend for themselves". They cannot and will not survive unless the Government make a U-turn and accept that there are vast areas of these islands that simply cannot survive without enormous injections of public money, without thought of profit. Unless the Government do that, I repeat that these areas will die. Hon. Members can make their speeches for the local papers until they are blue in the face, but I warn them that this is what will happen unless the Government change their course.

1 pm

This has been for me one of the most interesting and enjoyable debates to which I have listened since I came to this House just under 12 months ago. I am delighted to have the privilege of participating in it.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) will feel that I can make a constructive contribution to the debate, despite the fact that I represent a constituency which is semi-rural. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), I am a nearly-rural Member of Parliament, which is a very important thing to be—although not, perhaps, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills).

It is often thought that the constituency of Rossendale is wholly industrial. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Anyone who is familiar with East Lancashire will know that the area I represent lies at the foothills of the Pennines, and was once covered by a huge forest. The tradition in that area is so strong that the connection with the Rossendale Forest lives today. The coat of arms of the borough carries the emblem of the stag, which is also depicted on the badges and crests of many voluntary organisations in the valley.

Because of its unusual topography, it is at one and the same time an attractive but difficult area. It is attractive because, like most valleys, its formation means that there is a multitude of beautiful scenes. It is difficult because the various towns and villages have sprung up in, and are now situated only in, those parts which are relatively flat. Therefore, it has not been easy to establish lines of communication.

There is no doubt that, were it not for the sparsity of level ground in Rossendale, more of the constituency would have been industrialised. But that same sparsity has enabled the area to maintain semi-rural characteristics, which in my view has added to, rather than detracted from, the aesthetic appearance of the region. It has also ensured that community life in the area can easily be confined to the village, which is perhaps one of the region's greatest strengths.

These communities are not remote rural areas—at least, not in the sense in which my hon. Friends would interpret the meaning of that word—but their detachment from the four major towns in my constituency presents little problem in communication for the residents and a great sense of belonging to a village or tiny community, which is a characteristic much envied by those who have been born and brought up in towns and cities. Many areas, such as Holcolme, Edenfield, Lumb and Water, and many others besides, have residents whose ancestors were resident there, and who jealously guard their connection with those communities.

I spend so much of my time in this House bemoaning the problems of the textile industry and the footwear industry that I am apt to forget that my constituents would wish me to draw your attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the fact that there is much in Rossendale of which to be proud. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough for giving me the opportunity to mention it. If I need any reminding of the attractions of Rossendale, I get it when I travel home to Lancashire every weekend and drive from the station in Manchester down the M66, which cuts my constituency in half. I have perhaps the best views that the valley has to offer, and I feel genuinely proud to represent such a seat.

The motion seeks to call the attention of the Government to
"rural communities and their environment."
I wish to draw the attention of the House, and of the Minister in particular, to two problems in my constituency at which the Government should look and of which the Government should be aware. They concern marginal land in the semi-rural areas and derelict land in our towns and villages.

With regard to the characteristics of marginal land in Rossendale and in East Lancashire generally, as some hon. Members will know, there is the land which has been defined by the EEC as a "less favoured area", and there is also the better land in the lowlands. It shares the disadvantages of the grant-aided uplands to varying extents. The rainfall of marginal and in East Lancashire is much higher than average—usually in the range of between 40 and 70 in. Cloud cover is high, leading to below-average hours of sunshine. Temperatures are lower than average. Critical soil temperature for growth—about 40°F—is reached later in spring and earlier in autumn. Soil is very thin and wet, giving poor conditions for plant growth. The tendency towards acid conditions leads to a greater requirement for lime. There is another problem there because of the withdrawal of the lime subsidy some time ago.

The slopes in my constituency are very steep, making the use of more modern equipment more difficult in certain parts of the farm and impossible in others. The field sizes tend to be small, because of the shortage of level ground. On the whole, the disadvantages are permanent and outside the control of the farmer.

In addition, returns are lower than average, whatever the level of management. Costs are higher than average, except possibly the rents of certain tenant farmers. Arable cropping of any kind is impossible in my constituency. Choice of enterprise, therefore, is severely limited to some form of livestock production.

High capitalisation is required in buildings and plant because of longer winters. Because of the things that I have already mentioned, businesses are not as viable or as flexible as lowland enterprises. That means that the new starter or young farmer in Rossendale is disadvantaged to begin with, because the infrastructure of the area is of such a low standard.

In spite of all this, a large but declining farming community remains. It is probably true to say that well over half the needs of the Lancashire and Yorkshire conurbation for livestock production is still met by Pennine farmers with minimal transport and handling facilities. It is the difficult and worsening position of these men, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that has led me to draw your attention to them today.

Recently, those of us who represent seats in North-East Lancashire had an opportunity to meet representatives from the National Farmers Union, ably led by Mr. Trevor Rushton, who asked us to bring to the attention of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the plight of the farmers who are on marginal land. Although we have had an undertaking that a report will be made on marginal land towards the end of 1981, the present position is so serious that I hope that the Minister who is to reply to the debate will give some kind of undertaking that the report will be made available much more speedily than has so far seemed likely.

Marginal farmers are still suffering from the consequences of the winter of 1979. Money made up to maintain livestock over the winter has never been recouped, because of diminished market returns and losses. Therefore, the effects of inflation are being felt more harshly. Morale at present is extremely low, and investment and renewal are coming to a halt.

The second matter to which I wish to draw the Minister's attention is the problem of derelict land. Rossendale has more derelict land than any other area of Lancashire. The withdrawal of assisted area status—in the case of East Lancashire it is intermediate area status —by 1982 means that a decision will have to be made near that date about whether the derelict sites should be withdrawn.

As I told the Secretary of State for Industry the other day, I am a strong supporter of the Government's philosophy in all these matters, but I ask the Minister to bear in mind that that grant is vital to these areas of East Lancashire. Although the decision will not be made before 1982, things can change dramatically between now and then. I cannot emphasise enough its importance in not only clearing what derelict sites we have—either landscaping them or making them available for small industrial units, which we hope will be purpose built—but also in supplying a fund to local government to ensure that the general aesthetic appearance of the place can be improved by the planting of trees.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) will agree that there is no better way to improve the rural landscape than by the planting of trees.

Yes, but also conifers, simply because in certain areas of Lancashire, where the land is 900 ft. above sea level, such trees as sitka spruce are the only trees that will grow.

Or even the sycamore. It is not just the height of the land but the fact that the wind burns them up which makes such trees difficult to grow. We have more success with sycamore than with alder and birch.

I welcome the opportunity to speak of a corner of my home county, which I passionately believe to be the finest county in the land. Some people who live in the North-West believe that this great House has forgotten everything north of Watford. It is just as mistaken to take the view as it is as to believe that Lancashire is covered with row upon row of terraced houses separated by cotton mills. I hope that the Minister will realise that the Government can play a significant part in the environmental improvement of Rossendale, so that the present generation living there can truly say, within their lifetime, how green is their valley.

1.13 pm

The former hon. Member for Rossendale, Mike Noble, would have approved entirely of the subject of my speech today. He shared two of my interests—people and fish. I wish to concentrate on that part of the motion which refers to the need

"to ensure that Great Britain continues to have an environment where persons, beasts, birds, butterflies and fish can thrive".
Like me, he would have put the persons first. Like me, he would have put employment first, for Rossendale and elsewhere.

I apologise for having been absent for most of the debate. That is because I have been involved with work connected with the Select Committee on employment.

Rural unemployment is one of this country's severest problems. It is being totally neglected because the numbers involved are not as great as in the inner cities. But the hardship is as great for the individuals as it is for those who suffer unemployment in our towns. There are great contrasts in and near my constituency. The North Staffordshire conurba- tion has unemployment of between 31 and 4 per cent., with male unemployment of 5 per cent. At the southern extremity of the constituency, the rural area near to and around Market Drayton has unemployment in double figures—a situation in which CoSIRA had to intervene.

As Under-Secretary of State for Employment, I travelled widely throughout Great Britain. I discovered that the level of unemployment in Cumbria—and certainly generally in the Northern region, including the rural areas—was much too high. Unemployment in Cornwall is catastrophic. We commissioned a special study of that unemployment.

Rural unemployment is particularly serious among the young. The Institute of Careers Officers has made continual representations about the difficulties facing young people who live in villages and small isolated communities. Because of transport difficulties, it is hard for young people to get to work and to training centres and to take advantage of many of the services provided by the Department of Employment and the Manpower Services Commission.

Those disadvantages are faced also by older people. In the absence of public transport, those who have been unemployed for some time cannot afford to buy a motor cycle or a car to get to work. But they have another disadvantage in that, whereas the unemployed and those wanting to change their jobs in towns find it fairly easy to get to the jobcentres to study the "self-service" boards of vacancies, that opportunity is not available to those in rural communities.

Last week, I was faced with the proposal to withdraw the employment service from the historic village of Audley, in my constituency. That means that those who are unemployed will have to pay 90p each day that they visit Newcastle-under-Lyme to see what jobs are available.

As a Minister, I floated the suggestion that the Manpower Services Commission or the Employment Services Division should circulate isolated communities with a list of jobs available so that those who needed them would be on equal terms with people in the towns. We have to look carefully at the service that we are giving in terms of employment opportunities to those who live in rural areas.

As a Minister, I was struck by the fact that the areas of highest unemployment in rural areas were those that were not served by a very good road system. Where motorways have been built, the level of unemployment tended to be lower than where it had been decided not to provide a motorway service. I have always been struck by the difference between the level of unemployment in North Devon, for example, and that which one finds in Cornwall.

The question of unemployment in rural areas must be examined alongside the facilities for the development of industry. For rural communities, that provides a dilemma, because there are those in the rural communities who say that they do not want the countryside opened up in this way. However, if they persist in that attitude, I believe that they will be forced to accept levels of unemployment which I regard as intolerable.

The Government must pay more attention to the problem of rural unemployment. When we were in office, our awareness of the problem grew week by week, as we visited localities throughout Great Britain. The present Ministers must continue to work on the problem. I put in a plea for more work in the countryside.

I turn from work to play—from employment to fish. Last week I asked a question of the Secretary of State for the Environment
"what representations he has received from angling organisations concerning the implementation of part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974; what was his reply and whether he will make a statement."
The Under-Secretary replied:
"Angling organisations have been pressing for the speedy implementation of part II. We have explained to them that no timetable can be decided until we have better information about the expenditure implications. These are being examined, and an annoucement will be made as soon as possible."—[Official Report, 19 March 1980; Vol. 981, c. 209.]
I am sure that the mover of the motion would not be satisfied with that reply.

Angling in this country is the most popular participant sport. There are more members of Birmingham Anglers than there are electors in any of Birmingham's constituencies. I could also mention Sheffield. I could go town by town. The sport of angling is very popular indeed. It is popular because it takes not only working men but others away from the stress and strain and the ugliness of an industrial environment. It takes them into the countryside. It is a hobby from which they get a great deal of fulfilment.

Their hobby has been spoilt by the pollution of our rivers. They are determined that our rivers be cleaned. They look to the Government to take positive action to protect their sport and to foster it. They look at the support that has been given to other sports which have a minimal following as compared with angling. They ask why on earth the Government—any Government, Labour or Conservative—cannot give angling the same sort of consideration as they give to tiny minority pastimes.

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, because I support him in this matter. However, I think that in this respect he is talking about games, and not sports. It is the minority games to which so much money is given as against sports. After all, sports are just fishing and genuine sports, and the other activities are games.

In the old days, when I sometimes rose on a Friday to fill in a little time, I would have risen to that fly. As it is, I just let the hon. Member place it on record. Let us say "pastimes".

However, I make this plea to the Minister. I ask him not only to pass on my remarks about employment to the Department of Employment, but to pass on my plea on behalf of the anglers of this country to the Department of the Environment.

1.26 pm

I rise on a note of congratulation to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) on having initiated what I think all my hon. Friends would agree has been a most interesting debate on his most alliterative motion.

The contributions to the debate have been interesting, and the debate has been unusual in other respects. I do not recall a debate in this House which I have attended or in which I have had the privilege of speaking from the Front Bench when there has been no contribution whatsoever from the Opposition Front Bench. One is left to wonder whether there is no Labour Party policy on the rural areas at all, and whether this matter is best met by the empty chair policy and total absence.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) made a late dash into the Chamber and pleaded as his excuse some Select Committee business. I do not know whether a Select Committee is actually sitting today; it may have been other business. This confirms all the worst fears of his right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), who was not exactly the greatest enthusiast for Select Committees. He continually made the point that he regarded the position of the Chamber as paramount and saw that the danger of the proliferation of Select Committees would be the inability to support the Chamber in the way in which he felt it should be supported. Certainly, if that leads to hon. Members walking into a debate having heard neither the mover of the motion nor a single other contributor, and then seeking to be called to speak, the fears of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale have more justification perhaps than I had appreciated.

May I make it perfectly clear that, as the record will show, I did not state that I was in a meeting of a Select Committee. I said that I was attending to Select Committee business. That business related to the defence of the privileges of the House. Had the Minister had the courtesy to ask me privately before he made those remarks I could have told him what that business was. I think that when he reconsiders his remarks he may think that he ought not to have made them.

If the hon. Member will read Hansard, he will see that I did not state that he was taking part in the sitting of a Select Committee. However, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's comments will confirm the fears of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale in the matter.

I do not recall another debate in which the Opposition have failed to produce a Front-Bench speaker and have apparently had no policy on the matter under discussion. Today they have had to rely on some emergency and imaginative work by experienced Back Benchers to try to salvage something of their position.

We have had an interesting debate on the problems of the rural communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) said, the concept of the rural community has changed somewhat. It was Thomas Macaulay who said
"An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia."
I am not sure that those acres in Middlesex are quite the same as they were then, and perhaps the concept of the countryside has changed a little from that time.

The most interesting and striking aspect of the debate for me has been the wide range of matters raised and the views of my hon. Friends that in certain very important respects these are interlinked, that the prosperity and viability of the countryside and its villages depend on the interlinking of a number of the features noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough in his motion. These have been added to in the amendments. The departure, absence or loss of any one of these can start a chain reaction. That applies whether it be the loss of the village school, the garage, the village shop or the post office. That will have a knock-on effect for the other activities in the village. Perhaps the greatest single effect is in respect of transport with the loss of the bus.

A number of hon. Members have been kind enough to recognise the Government's great interest in the rural areas and in their continuing prosperity. My hon. Friend the Member for Northwich (Mr. Goodlad) referred to the article by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in The Countryman magazine and her statement shortly after assuming office in which she said:
"Our policy is to do everything possible to conserve the countryside and encourage its traditional industries, particularly agriculture, food processing and small businesses. We shall have regard to the need to keep village schools. The Government are also very much aware of the transport difficulties which face people, especially in remote areas."
I can confirm that throughout Whitehall rural matters have a much more significant place in the thinking of Departments and Ministers than perhaps ever before. That certainly applies to my Department and a number of others that are concerned with rural affairs—the Department of Industry with its sponsoring role for the Post Office and the Department of Energy with its interest in petrol supplies, for example. Previously, perhaps, these matters were taken for granted, but I think that in recent years consciousness of rural problems has been greatly heightened, and I can assure my hon. Friends and other hon. Members that they are uppermost in the Government's mind.

That is true not just of the Government, too. The Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils have recently produced reports on the problems of rural deprivation, as has the National Association of Local Councils. I think that the very phrase "rural deprivation", which was not common currency a few years ago, shows the growing awareness of present trends and needs. There is urban deprivation, of course, but there is another type of deprivation, with different features, which we now think of as rural deprivation and which, sadly, is all too present in certain areas. It is right that we take cognisance of it.

I agree that there is now a greater awareness of agricultural and rural needs running through various Departments, but what has worried me particularly over the Post Office affair—to call it that—was that there did not seem to be any co-ordination between the Post Office sponsoring Department and the Ministry of Transport which was to try to put work into the Post Office. In other words, the facts and plans did not come out as a package so that everyone could know of the efforts being made to keep our post offices in being and to make the service more efficient.

As for the county councils, I fear that my right hon. Friend is not entirely right. The county council in Norfolk is trying to do away with one of our major rural communities, the county council smallholdings, and I hope that he will look into that.

I am coming to the question of post offices later, and I shall comment then on what my hon. Friend has said. I shall speak generally also about the situation in agriculture, and, with my hon. Friend's permission, I shall defer comment about that, too.

I have reaffirmed the Government's interest in rural affairs, but I emphasise that it is not mere words. We have made clear our determination to recognise the problems of rural areas by our distribution of the rate support grant this year. There had been a progressive shift away from the shire counties. It could be said that we are open to criticism from my hon. Friends for not going far enough. We have not gone anything like as far as the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) implied in his phrase about "looking after their own", but the fact remains that we have ended the drift from the shire counties that had been taking place. I should add that the metropolitan districts also have little to complain about in our distribution of rate support grant this year. This was tangible evidence of our determination to help.

There are aspects of the present economic situation which are worrying for small businesses, as my hon. Friends have rightly said. For example, there are the present high interest rates—the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) referred to these—which affect urban and rural industry alike throughout the country. This is part of the legacy which we inherited, and we are all too well aware of the importance and urgency of achieving an improvement in that state of affairs for our rural communities as much as for every other part of our national economic life.

In considering the problems of rural areas, one naturally focuses upon agriculture. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) stressed the much smaller numbers now employed in agriculture—now about 2½ per cent. of the population —it is nevertheless still enormously important in the countryside, and it is the very changes in agriculture which have posed some of the problems which we now face.

The Government's commitment to agriculture is beyond doubt. We have made it clear many times. I am pleased to acknowledge the compliment from my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough when he very fairly said that three reductions in the value of the green pound in eight months were a valuable achievement. Many people had hoped that the disparity might be removed in the lifetime of this Parliament. That was in fact the pledge which we gave, and to have improved on that pledge to the extent that we have is, I believe, worthy of the compliment which my hon. Friend kindly gave.

Nevertheless, within the agricultural scene—not least because of the current high interest rates—there remain real problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Trippier) spoke in particular of the difficulties faced by those working marginal land. I am well conscious of that aspect of rural life. Although this is not, so to speak, my departmental brief, I am all too well aware of the problems of farming marginal land, having once tried to farm in just such a precarious and almost vertical place as my hon. Friend said is to be found in his constituency.

I know that that is a matter of concern to Ministers now, and I know also that my hon. Friend is showing continuing concern for his constituents. I understand that he is shortly to see my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with a deputation from the National Farmers Union in his constituency, together with some others of my hon. Friends. I commend him for his diligence in that respect.

I talked about times having changed in Middlesex Times have changed also in agriculture, and in its productivity. Its productivity record is renowned. There has been an increase in output from £1,600 million in 1960 to more than £7,000 million in 1978. Unlike some other industries, agriculture has increased its contribution to the nation's requirements from 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. over the last 10 years. In so doing, it has brought with it some less than welcome antecedents.

Some people share the concern of hon. Members about the increased use of fertilisers and pesticides. I am responsible for the environment and for anti-pollution measures. The hon. Member for Newcastle under-Lyme referred to the concern of anglers. He will know that there are related problems for more productive agriculture. In 1944 there were only 65 approved pesticides. There are now about 800 approved pesticides, some of which contain strong and extremely complex chemicals. The use of herbicides has grown enormously. In 1959 around 300,000 tonnes of nitrogen fertilisers were used and according to the latest figures available, more than 1 million tonnes are now used.

The problem of nitrates in water is one of considerable concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to the problems caused by intensive farming units. Planning in the countryside is a matter of real concern. He will be aware that there was a debate in the House recently on the report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution, "Agriculture and Pollution". The report made certain recommendations about the need for planning permission for such buildings. My hon. Friend was concerned about exemptions in agricultural areas. In my constituency experience, the two worst breaches of planning were spread over the countryside—one a grain store and the other a feed mill. Both, because of their agricultural content, were exempted, but to the passer-by they were major industrial enterprises. I accept that there are problems in that respect.

My hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Holland with Boston discussed the matter of change of use. It is ironic that a change of use is often more acceptable in a non-agricultural context than it is in an agricultural context. If there is a change of use for an intensive agricultural purpose, because of the effluent or other problems that may exist, it is often a lot less acceptable than a real change of use of a building—perhaps into a craft workshop.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) referred to the case of a panel beater. There was concern among other hon. Members that, while that may appear to be a harmless activity in respect of effluent, for instance, it is not noise-free. That sort of consideration will arise in planning—I must not anticipate the planning appeal that will be made—but it illustrates that there are different sorts of uses for which redundant farm buildings in country villages are suitable and which could provide employment. This is something to which the Government attach great importance.

Shortly we shall issue a circular of guidance to local planning authorities telling them that they need no longer use the famous phrase "non-conforming use", which is the great defence that something in agricultural use should so remain. In future they may adopt a more sympathetic approach towards other suitable uses which might provide light industry, employment and activity within the village community, in which redundant farm buildings could be brought back into use. I hope that that circular will come out soon.

On the point about planning exemptions, I will consider what my hon Friend has said, but at this stage we are not proposing to tighten up the general development order procedure in that respect. In fact, we are considering ways in which it might be relaxed in order to avoid the more nit-picking of planning applications being caught within the complications of the planning system.

We are considering the point about intensive livestock units and the recommendations made by the Royal Commission. I make no apology for quoting the figures that were prepared for my speech on the Royal Commission report, and which show the way in which intensive farming has grown. In 1960 the number of pig herds in England and Wales with 1,000 or more animals was 130. By 1975 the number was increased to 1,278. In other words, it went up about 10 times. The number of flocks of broilers with more than 100,000 birds has doubled in the past 15 years.

Also, I have figures on the keeping of large numbers of animals on small areas of land. The number of dairy herds of 100 head or more on holdings of less than 120 acres went up from 12 in 1960 to 342 in 1974. The number of flocks of poultry of more than 5,000 head on holdings of less than four acres doubled between 1960 and 1974. In 1960 no pig herd of 1,000 head or more was on a holding of less than 15 acres, but by 1974 there were 284 such herds.

I apologise for giving the House all those statistics, but they bring out all too clearly the way in which intensive farming has grown. No hon. Member representing a rural constituency or part rural constituency—and mine has been described as the latter—will be unaware of the problems which go with slurry spreading with the odour and offence that that gives, and the difficulties of intensive units. I have no doubt that the recommendation in the Royal Commission report will need to be looked at very seriously.

I remember the Minister quoting those facts and figures in the earlier debate that we had on this subject. Does he agree that very few of the enterprises that he has listed could have been profitable or would ever have been proposed without the very generous system of grants, subsidies and tax allowances available to those embarking on this kind of intensive livestock production to the detriment of those who farm by other means?

I have great respect for my hon. Friend's expertise, but he draws me on to ground for which I have no ministerial responsibility. I have my doubts about what he has said. I doubt that the free market, to which my hon. Friend has already referred, would have been driving many of these activities in this direction. I am not sure about the grant provisions for broiler production and I would need notice of that question. I lack expertise in these matters. Nevertheless, the House will have heard my hon. Friend's comments.

I have referred to the problems that the changes in practice in agriculture have brought in our attitude to the rural communities and I have explained the Government's response to the changes in planning practice which we hope will help to reinvigorate employment in rural areas.

A point which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, which comes directly within my responsibility, referred to the rating of agricultural buildings and rural resources. One of the quirks of the rating system, or the way in which the resource element is paid, is that if agricultural buildings under the present system were rated, thereby giving greater resources, those areas would lose resource grant and would be more or less back where they started. It is a fundamental change which would have considerable implications for rural and agricultural incomes. We have no present proposals on this matter; it will be considered in the context of our attitude towards the rating system generally.

The next point that was raised by my hon. Friends, in the context of what I call the seamless robe of the rural community, was the difficult question of local transport and bus services. We were fortunate to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) which, if nothing else, indicated that he was well-advised to have chosen an urban constituency because he seemed to know remarkably little about the problem of rural transport. He appeared to have understood the Transport Bill in exactly the opposite context to every one of my hon. Friends and myself. We hope that the Bill will lead to experiments of the sort that will help to tackle rural transport problems.

I recall that within a month of becoming a Member of the House in 1970 I had the honour to chair a conference of the Rural District Councils Association, as it then was, on the problems of rural transport. That conference was held in Central Hall, Westminster. We dealt with the problems and concerns about the development of rural transport, the way we could see the difficulties developing and how the vicious circle to which my hon. Friends have referred—fewer passengers, higher fares, even fewer passengers, withdrawal of services, fewer facilities within the community, followed by rural depopulation leading to fewer services—has been running for far too long. I regard the response of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport in the Transport Bill as the most positive bit of radical thinking on rural transport that we have had for 50 years. If the good news has not yet penetrated to Holborn and St. Pancras I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also get the message.

In the seamless robe to which I have referred the problem of village schools has been mentioned by a number of my hon. Friends. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough mentioned the problem of ancillary staff. From investigations which I have made, I understand that certain counties, one in particular, will not operate a village school unless they have at least seven staff available—teachers and ancillary staff—because it is the view of the education committees that that is the necessary complement to enable a school to operate.

My hon. Friend will appreciate immediately the sort of restraint that that imposes and the likelihood of closure. My hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough referred to the number of small schools under threat in his own constituency. The small number of pupils who attend is a problem with which we are all familiar. The closure of schools is not, as some hon. Members have tried to suggest, the responsibility of the Government. The local education authority is responsible for determining what happens. When the hon. Member for Fife, Central criticises the provision of rural education he seems conveniently to forget that it is on the rate-borne expenditure of a county that the village schools are dependent for their resources. As he supported a Government who ensured that those resources would be less by virtue of the distribution of the rate support grant, he made sure that rural education would be that much more deprived and we have made some effort to restore that.

There is a real problem about petrol supplies. Many of my hon. Friends referred to the difficulties that ensue. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) referred to hypermarkets and the attendant problems. It is a difficult issue and one that comes within my responsibility of planning policy. I well understand the concern of local chambers of commerce, of trade and of small towns and market towns. There are serious implications for local communities and local garages.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) made a most entertaining and stimulating speech. My hon. Friend has apologised for being unable to be present throughout the debate. I know that he is pursuing the issue of petrol supplies most vigorously with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs. There is the possibility of an investigation.

The Government have been active with the oil companies to try to get certain assurances, which have now been obtained, to try to help rural garages. I do not propose to enlarge on that at length on this occasion, but if my hon. Friend wishes to pursue it the facts are available. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, who has been most active in this respect, will be able to clarify the assurances that have been given on the supply to rural areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West spoke of rural post offices. He said that when the issue first emerged it appeared that there was a lack of co-ordination between Government Departments. The theme was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Here ford. It was not the Government who made the announcement. It was a par ticularly unhelpful announcement which worried many people. The announcement was made prematurely. There was nothing to worry about. Many options are considered by the Government and many of them might worry many people. Those options are considered and discarded. There is a great responsibility on all of us to consider the appropriate time at which consideration should be advanced. As I have said, the premature announcement was singularly unhelpful and considerably worrying to many people, especially elderly pensioners. We all represent constituencies and we all know that many elderly people were genuinely worried about the possible closure of sub-post offices. The announcement gave rise to real difficulties.

Clear assurances have since been given. It has been made clear that in any con sideration of alternative schemes the importance of sub-postmasters and the ser vices that they provide will be recognised, and that retirement pensioners will remain free to draw weekly pensions from the post office. That is an absolute guaran tee. The Government have no intention of forcing any retirement pensioner to be paid fortnightly if he or she does not want that. No other decisions have been made on the report, which the Government are still considering. No one underestimates the value and significance of maintaining as comprehensive a range of rural post offices as is possible. Many were lost under the previous Labour Government and the previous Conservative Government. It has been a regrettable trend. We recognise the importance of keeping as substantial a range as possible.

In considering the Ps we moved on to the pharmacist and the physician. My hon. Friend the Member for North-wich referred to the problems that have to be met by those in rural areas who attend hospitals. He spoke of the travelling time and the policy of establishing massive district general hospitals, which involved longer and longer travelling distances which often had to be covered by elderly people when visiting a husband or wife in hospital. The importance of maintaining the local community hospital wherever possible is now recognised. That is an important development. The position of the physician and the pharmacist is allied to that.

The Clothier committee produced a report on pharmacists. It is included in the Health Services Bill and will provide for the creation of a rural dispensing com mittee. It is hoped that that will go some way towards solving the problem. Once again, it provides evidence—not just talk —that the Government have taken practical steps in tackling a problem that exists in rural areas.

I shall pass on my hon. Friend's subject of the parson and the priest. I do not have ministerial responsibility for that. However, I strongly endorse his comments. The role of the parson or priest in the community has been tremendously valuable. I hope that that role will continue. Inevitably, there is a need for greater flexibility. Perhaps I will be allowed to tell one story that I heard the Bishop of Bath and Wells tell a week ago. It concerns the degree of mobility that is sometimes needed in such arrangements. He visited one of his members, an elderly incumbent, who had remained in one living for a long time. When he suggested that it might be time for him to think of moving on, the incumbent drew himself up to his full height and said— "My Lord, I was appointed to this living by your predecessor but five, and on no occasion during that interview did he give me any indication that this was a temporary appointment." That is an interesting example concerning the need for greater mobility and flexibility. Perhaps the Church of England is not alone in facing that problem.

My hon. Friend then referred to the problem of forestry. My hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston referred to the need for employment in that industry. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West mentioned the need for riders to have access to Forestry Commission land. I have noted those comments and I shall convey them to my right hon. Friend the Minister.

As regards afforestation, its percentage and its effect on catchment areas, I have received considerable correspondence from certain scientific sources. I under stand that considerable research has been done on the Appalachians in the United States of America. Work has been done on the lowering of the water table and the impact on environment. However, I am advised that there is a lack of clear scientific evidence. The Institute of Hydrology has entered into discussions with Government Departments and with the Forestry Commission about the possibility of further research. That is a matter of growing concern and we shall give it consideration. I noted my hon. Friend's comments about employment and the Forestry Commission. I shall convey them to my right hon. Friend, as he is in touch with the Forestry Commission.

My right hon. Friend has misunderstood my point. I had hoped that there would not be too many forests on moorland, with the loss of amenities that often follows.

I understand that. I had thought that my hon. Friend was seeking employment in those areas. If I have misunderstood him, I apologise. I shall convey a different message to my right hon. Friend.

I am aware of the concern shown by anglers about the need to implement part II of the Control of Pollution Act. My hon. Friend referred to the lively state of angling and the number of anglers. We understand their importance, but I cannot add anything today to the answer of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. However, we are anxious to implement this as soon as we have established what resources will allow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough spoke of the countryside. As a result of the discussions he has had with officials in my Department I think that there is now a better understanding between us. My officials appreciate his interest in mammals and their habitat and I hope that we can now go forward on an agreed basis. While recognising the importance of sites of special scientific interest and nature reserves I take his point that there is much more to nature than special enclosures where nature is preserved as an exotic relic of a previous age and that there is a real contribution to be made, not least by the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, in conservation. Much can be done by farmers in the interests of conservation alongside efficient agricultural practices. We attach importance to that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North spoke of the role of land- owners. I accept his comments. At one stage it seemed that no one would talk about the Development Commission and COSIRA, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford referred to them and I appreciate his interest. As it happens, I shall be opening the new COSIRA offices when it moves from the fastnesses of Wimbledon to Salisbury on Thursday next. We are interested in the work of the Development Commission and COSIRA.

As my hon. Friend will know, we have been reviewing the role of the Development Commission and COSIRA, although I cannot make any statement about the review today. It is encouraging that there are now 690 factories approved in rural areas. That is relevant to what my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston said about the way in which so many market towns now have small factories for purposes unconnected with agriculture. Of that total, 160 factories have been completed and 202 are either under construction or at the planning stage. Another 327 will be constructed over the next five years.

Some of the factories under construction or at the planning stage have already been let in advance and virtually all of them will be let as soon as they become available. I remind my hon. Friends that those factories will provide substantial employment. They are not dark satanic mills not are they sprawling car factories or major industrial complexes. They are small units suitable to rural areas and I believe that they will make a useful contribution to improving employment prospects in those areas.

My hon. Friend referred to quango-bashing. He will know that there are quangos and quangos and that they cover a wide range of activities, some of which are less essential than others. I cannot anticipate the outcome of the review. I am well aware of the strong feelings of many of my hon. Friends about the valuable work done by COSIRA and the Development Commission.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale asked about derelict land clearance. It is possible that when there is a change in assisted areas status some areas will be designated as derelict land clearance areas to maintain their eligibility. We are having discussions with the Department of Industry about ways in which that might be done. I hope that that is helpful to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North asked about areas of outstanding natural beauty and Cranborne Chase. The Countryside Commission is responsible for making proposals. No such proposal has been submitted to the Department yet. The Commission is required by statute to hold consultations with local authorities when it is considering whether to make an order. I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said. A countryside review committee, which is an unusual grouping of officials from my Department and others with no ministerial responsibility or commitment, has published a report. It recommends a complete change in the national parks and AONB system. There is no ministerial endorsement of that. The Countryside Commission is also producing its thoughts on the future of AONBS.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West referred to pension funds, their activities in agricultural areas and the amount of land that they have purchased. My hon. Friend also referred to the absentee farmer or professional manager. The Northfield committee considered the institutional purchasing of agricultural land and drew conclusions which do not indicate quite the pattern of such purchasing which has occurred. I think that there is some evidence of diminishing enthusiasm for professional management. One or two institutions have withdrawn from that sphere of activity. Perhaps that will provide the climate which my hon. Friend would like to see.

The Northfield report says that a small percentage of agricultural land is bought by pension funds. I attended a meeting of valuers from Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk which covers most of the best arable land in the country. The opinion of everybody was that in the last three years over 80 per cent. of all sales in those regions was to pension funds. The areas contain mainly large farms. Large organisations often do not take an interest in the villages. That is my major worry.

I understand how my hon. Friend feels. However, I must not go too far into issues for which I have no responsibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and my hard-drinking Christian hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills), referred to the pub. I have no direct ministerial responsibility. The hon. Member for Fife, Central would say that the free market is at it again. However, there is evidence of a free market with a social conscience in relation to petrol companies and pubs.

I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford said. I know of free houses which have been given up by brewers and which have been taken on and run successfully by local people. That is a reasonable and happy outcome.

The other important matter not beginning with P is housing. I appreciate the concern about the possible implication for rural housing of the right to buy. The Minister for Housing and Construction has taken account of the representations made. Amendments have been introduced in Committee concerning national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty to widen the Secretary of State's power to designate rural areas and a 10-year pre-emption term and give a favoured position to people whose homes are genuinely within the area. Those protections recognise the concern over the possible impact in rural areas. The House will have an opportunity to comment further when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House.

I was pleased by the welcome for the shorthold concept given by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford. Many of my hon. Friends know of empty housing in rural areas resulting from the problems of tenure and recovering possession. Owners do not have malicious or uncharitable motives but are concerned about recovering the property if it is needed in future for their farms, families, or another purpose. I hope that the short-hold arrangements will help accommodation in rural areas.

I apologise for my somewhat incoherent reply, but we have covered a wide range of subjects. The prosperity of the rural community depends on a range of factors. My hon. Friends have covered every single aspect in the voluminous briefs that my kind officials thought could possibly be raised. I did not need to refer in detail to those briefs, because any hon. Member who has represented a rural constituency is conscious of the problems and the need for sensible responses to help sustain the important life of the rural community.

To sum up the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, much of the problem concerns Mr. Goldsmith and his "Deserted Village", and it seems appropriate to quote as follows:
"Ill fares the land, to hast'ning ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;… A time there was, ere England's griefs began, When every rood of ground maintain'd its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life requir'd, but gave no more; His best companions, innocence and health; And his best riches, ignorance of wealth."
The countryside has moved on. Times have changed. We must ensure that we conserve what is best and sustain those feaures of the countryside for the benefit of the country as a whole.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to study the need for planning procedures to protect non-agricultural residents of rural communities and to regulate the operation and location of intensive livestock units, and to identify those areas of the countryside where legislation is required for the further conservation of wildlife; to ensure that Great Britain continues to have an environment where persons, beasts, birds, butterflies and fish can thrive, and to examine the economic redeployment of parson, post-mistress, publican, petrol attendant and primary schoolteacher to ensure the provision of an adequate level of services for rural communities.

As the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) are not present, it might be for the convenience of the House if we were to move on to the Adjournment debate. The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) is here. Before he rises, I remind him that I shall have to interupt the proceedings at half-past Two o'clock in order to call over Private Members' Bills.