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Rural Development

Volume 127: debated on Friday 19 February 1988

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9.41 am

I beg to move,

That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to pursue policies and procedures to ensure an ordered phasing of development in those rural areas which will need to accommodate a growth in population, to encourage agricultural diversification and promote enterprise in the rural economy, to facilitate the provision of the necessary rural services, infrastructure, employment and housing, and to co-ordinate the work of those various agencies and departments which have a direct interest in rural affairs and rural land use.
I should like to begin by declaring an interest in this subject since I have lived and worked in a rural area for some 25 years and I am mindful of the quality of life that I and many millions of other Britons enjoy. I want to see that quality of life maintained for future generations. I am also privileged to have been on one of the first enterprise agencies ever established in rural areas. I am referring to the Fens business enterprise trust, which has been established for five or six years. I know from first hand experience what great work can be done by such agencies in rural as well as urban areas.

What is rural development? When is a case rural as opposed to urban? For areas outside the metropolitan areas and the conurbations there is little difference between the two. In economic terms, one cannot divorce a market town from its rural hinterland or have meaningful rural policy for jobs and settlement and the rural economy as a whole without taking into consideration the influence and impact of the market towns. Therefore, I take as my canvas for the debate a definition of rural areas to include those parts of the country outside the borders of large cities and conurbations.

Within that definition there is a tremendous variety. There are the remote, sparsely populated highland areas of Wales, the Lake District and many parts of Scotland and the flat, lush, agricultural fen area of my constituency. Those great variations of topography, soil and climate yield distinct geographical sub-regions with a variety of land uses. Therefore, no one single solution is applicable in terms of rural affairs. The emphasis should lie with flexibility. In the last resort, decisions will depend very much on local information, local input and local decision-making.

Within the definition of rural areas there are two fundamental and distinct problems. First, there are the immediate problems, which tend to be on a wider or more macro scale, and, secondly, there are the future problems which tend to be on a smaller scale and more localised. The immediate issues are well known to all who represent rural constituencies. They pertain particularly to those more remote areas characterised by depopulation, inadequate housing, high unemployment rates, decline in rural services, poor transport and communications and a host of other problems.

Very often, those problems are with us in areas that are not so remote. Cambridgeshire has a highly prosperous south and a relatively — I emphasise the word "relatively"—deprived north in the fenland area. We have problems in certain villages in the affluent south in accommodating our young people in housing at low cost. We have problems with housing our elderly. Therefore, even within the prosperous areas there are problems that need a solution. The Government have identified and acknowledged the existence of those problems and, through the Development Commission, have identified and established the rural development areas throughout England. Wales and Scotland are treated slightly differently.

The future problems are not so far into the future that they are not already exerting a strong influence on events. I wish to refer to a recent publication which talks in terms of a population increase in England and Wales of 2 million people by the year 2001. I do not wish to be alarmist, but that figure is startling. Of that projected increase in population, 88 per cent. is deemed to be going to three regions. East Anglia will take 14 per cent., the south-west will take 22 per cent. and the south-east region will take a staggering 52 per cent. Therefore, within the next 13 years an extra 1 million people will have to be accommodated in the south-east.

The conclusions from that evidence are obvious. The pressure on the green belt, particularly the metropolitan green belt, will be enormous. The regions of East Anglia and the south-west will also have major problems in accommodating substantial population increases. There will be pressure on the infrastructure of roads, transport, rural sewerage and housing. There will be pressure on agricultural land such as we have never seen before, and there will be a need for thousands of new jobs in rural areas if we are to avoid commuting on a truly vast scale.

Of the balance of that increase, 45 per cent.—almost 1 million people—will be in the shire counties, outside the south-east region. Most of those shire counties already have well identified rural development areas. In other words, the Government have already established the fact that many of the shire counties have problem areas within them, and here we are seeking to relocate and accommodate within the next 12 or 13 years almost 800,000 new people within those same areas.

The largest increase of any county is that of Cambridgeshire. If the figures I have given are accurate, Cambridgeshire is likely to experience a population increase of 25 per cent.—156,000 people—by the year 2001. It is like trying to locate the population of a city the size of Peterborough within the county boundary. We face an enormous problem.

I see present hon. Members who represent other counties and I shall run down the list of the population increases with which they may have to cope. Second to Cambridgeshire is Cornwall, with a projected increase of 17·4 per cent. Seventy five per cent. or more of Cornwall is identified as a rural development area. Shropshire is close behind, with a 17·1 per cent. projected increase; and more than 40 per cent. of Shropshire is a rural development area. For Lincolnshire, 50 per cent. of which is a rural development area, the projected increase is 15·4 per cent. For Somerset, 20 per cent. of which has been identified as a rural development area, the figure is 16·4 per cent. If those population projections are accurate, we shall face tremendous problems in housing large numbers of people in those shire areas in which serious problems have already been identified.

Running parallel to those problems and across all rural areas — remote and less remote — are the current difficulties being experienced in farming and agriculture. Those difficulties — the CAP reform, the strong environmental lobby, the new process of stabilisers, the set-aside schemes that are being discussed, and quotas—are putting an increasingly downward pressure on farming incomes. That is leading to a loss of jobs in agriculture and allied industries and to changes in land use and practice. There are 8,000 job losses a year from agriculture and farming in England and Wales alone, and that trend will go up, not down.

The problem concerns not only the loss of jobs in farming today. In normal circumstances, farmers' children could look forward to taking over the farm in the future. If the farm goes bankrupt, we must compensate not only for the jobs lost today but for those of the children of farmers and farm workers in the future. We must plan to create more jobs for that reason alone.

This Government have done more than any other to flag the problems of the rural economy. They should be commended on having brought forward proposals to help to solve the difficulties. They have done so in a very responsible way, by seeking to achieve a healthy and acceptable balance between economic measures and development and a concern for the environment. These proposals are apparent in the new powers given to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in the content of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, in the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill, which will shortly be debated in Committee, in the strengthening of the Development Commission and in the Department of the Environment's publications on new planning guidelines for agricultural land. All those measures seek to offer alternatives to farmers to enable them to diversify into new businesses. At the same time, they protect and conserve all that is best in our natural environment.

All those factors need detailed and thorough consideration. The problems will not be solved by planners alone. Planners tend to react to circumstances; they are not strategists or pro-active decision-makers.

The scale of the issue is so large that even local government politicians will not be able to cope. The Government need to bite the bullet on this problem, and hon. Members need to address themselves fairly and squarely to the problems that I have outlined. It is up to hon. Members to make decisions for the future and for the benefit of our nation.

I shall take hon. Members through the key components affecting rural development. They are, in no particular order of importance, the problems of jobs, housing, rural infrastructure, rural services, land use and planning.

With regard to jobs, there are a number of important trends currently working in favour of rural areas. There is an increasing demand for businesses to be located in pleasant rural surroundings. The new high-tech industries can be small scale and can be located in rural areas without harming the environment. Expanding activities such as tourism and recreation can work alongside measures to conserve the natural environment.

Among those promoting the rural economy and rural enterprise in England is the Development Commission, which has a budget of about £30 million per year. Half that budget goes to small factory building through English Estates. The rest goes to advisory services such as COSIRA and into projects in rural areas submitted by the rural development programmes groups within RDAs.

In many rural areas, however, there is a shortage of suitably sized factories. In many areas, rents are so low that they rule out altogether any speculative building by the private sector. English Estates builds only within the rural development area boundaries. Those boundaries do not include towns with a population of over 10,000, and thus exclude the market towns, which feature strongly in the economy of rural areas. No building by English Estates takes place in market towns, which is a major oversight.

In some areas, the vetting of potential leaseholders and potential businesses to occupy English Estates factories is very stringent and extremely inflexible. When we challenge the Development Commission and English Estates about that, they tell us they are only following the rules set by the Treasury. What happens in many circumstances is that the entrepreneurs, whom we seek to encourage in market towns and rural areas, are not given freedom to set up established businesses. The Development Commission, together with its counterparts in Wales and Scotland, does a wonderful job, but its budget is limited and the scope of its activities is restricted. More is being done to broaden its base, which I welcome. The Development Commission is being expanded to give advice on marketing and is placing consultants in rural firms to help with marketing, finance and other key factors involved in running a business.

That is a significant step and it should be commended. However, there are glaring faults in the present policy. Factory building is way behind local needs and is a major constraint on the establishment and growth of rural businesses. I do not know why we had to lose the small workshop scheme. We must press the Minister for the reintroduction of a similar scheme for the future.

There has been positive advance in rural development areas, but they have failed to encompass the needs and contributions of our market towns. A survey by the DTI, entitled "Small Workshop Scheme", concluded that the private sector supply of factories was three times what it would have been without the scheme. It concluded that there was a shortage of units below 1,000 sq ft in the majority of locations.

Rural development programmes drawn up for the rural development areas by the local committees have shown what can be achieved by bringing together the various agencies—COSIRA, local authorities, rural community councils, English Estates, enterprise trusts and other relevant bodies. That has been a success story and we must build on it.

New housing has been curtailed in many rural areas because of the spending controls exerted by the Government. Although I subscribe to the view that we need to press forward with home ownership and the development of private housing, there are problems in the rural areas for those who cannot make the first step on the ladder of home ownership. Often, public and private housing has been restricted by county planning policies. I welcome the Minister's decision to do away with county structure plans.

There is a shortage of housing for young married couples and for the elderly. The poor employment prospects in some rural areas have encouraged a drift to the towns, leading to the well-known problems of homelessness, crime and other related matters. In many rural areas there has been an increase in retirement and second homes. In many instances, that strengthens the local economy and its social fabric, but it tends to Force up the price of land and houses beyond the reach of local people, particularly in rural areas characterised by low wages.

I am interested in my hon. Friend's point. Does he agree that it would be a good idea to say to people contemplating moving on retirement that, because of the social, planning and housing difficulties, which my hon. Friend has rightly mentioned, they should think carefully before moving from the areas where they have worked, and where their friends and relations live, into the new rural areas?

My hon. Friend makes a sound point with which I agree. Many elderly people move on retirement to coastal regions where they have problems in finding a social life which they can enjoy in retirement. Many towns come alive only in the summer months.

Housing associations make a negligible contribution to solving housing problems in rural areas, and this needs to be redressed. About 20 per cent. of our population live in rural areas, yet the areas receive only 2 per cent. of Housing Corporation money. I understand the priority of urban housing problems, but housing problems exist in rural areas, too. We need to improve much of our private housing stock in rural areas because there are serious problems with substandard private housing. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, in setting the minimum sizes for the home improvement areas, will carefully look at not setting too high a limit which would prevent small-scale rural improvements being made.

The Development Commission's support for agencies such as the National Agricultural Centre Rural Trust—something of a mouthful, and I hesitate to pronounce the abbreviation NACRT because of what it sounds like—is to be commended, but it needs building on. I draw attention to an excellent scheme, about which I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister is well aware, at Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, where a new 50 per cent. shared equity scheme was developed and run by a housing association. The key was the denial of "right to staircase" —the right to sell on the full freehold was not allowed in the agreement. This means that 50 per cent. shared equity house can be sold to another couple who will benefit from the same 50: 50 deal. All too often in the past, these first-step homes for young people have been taken out of the housing scenario because the "right to staircase" has been exercised and the full freehold has been passed on, so the first rung on the ladder of home ownership has been lost. We must encourage similar schemes.

The amount of agricultural land in use has changed little over the past 20 years. It remains at about 15 million hectares, of which 75 per cent. is used for farming and the rest for forestry and other activities. The amount of land transferred each year from agriculture to urban use has been falling and, contrary to the belief of most of our people, we are not losing massive amounts of agricultural land to concrete. The average has fallen from 10,000 hectares in the period 1975–80 to 5,000 hectares in the period 1980–85.

The loss of land to building has been partly offset by more land being brought into cultivation, but that has been to the detriment of many of our wild habitats. Far too much land has been brought into cultivation and the countryside and habitat have suffered. The loss of land has been offset also by derelict land being brought back into use. The Government's derelict land grant of up to 100 per cent. has helped to reclaim some 7,000 hectares in the past five years alone. There are other influences such as the land register, whereby a register is kept of publicly owned unused land. There are the urban development grant, the urban regeneration grant and the urban development corporations. Once again, the Government are to be commended for these imaginative and effective schemes.

Under the Government, the green belts have increased dramatically. In England they have increased from 1·8 million acres to 4·5 million acres—an increase of 150 per cent. — since 1979. The metropolitan green belt around Greater London has grown from 750,000 acres to 1·2 million acres—a 58 per cent. increase. The green belt around London is equivalent to the size of the Principality of Wales. Cambridge's green belt has increased by 500 per cent. in the same period—and constituents ask me why house prices are so high in Cambridgeshire. The answer is staring them in the face. The Government have pledged that green belts will not have houses built on them, and I suspect that the majority of Conservative Members concur.

There has been a steady decline of public services and local facilities in many rural areas because of depopulation and the economies of scale available in larger settlements, but, as facilities disappear, further depopulation is encouraged, thus contributing to a vicious circle of decline. We all know what is declining in rural areas. Village shops and sub-post offices—often one and the same thing—and village schools are closing. I came across the staggering information that the closure of a village school for about 25 children saves the LEA £12,500.

An interesting article in The Economist contrasted the costs of saving village schools with the amounts paid through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to hill farmers in hill farm subsidy. For the same money paid in hill farm subsidy for 6,000 farms we could keep 1,000 village schools open. I am not against the hill farm subsidy — I say that quickly before I am challenged. I fully support it, but the point of the article was that the costs of the two actions have not been compared because no one has taken an overview of the relative costs.

Medical services have declined as well. The facilities of a hospital in my constituency—Doddington hospital will be serverely curtailed. Constituents in parts of north Cambridgeshire, where there is a poor rural bus service and few railway lines, have to travel to see relatives in Peterborough hospital and have to make six or seven changes of bus, none of which connects at the right time. A journey to see a relative in hospital can take a whole day.

The rate bases of rural local authorities have tended to be weak and therefore placed greater reliance on rate support grant. Unfortunately, the old formula seemed to discriminate against rural areas. District councils in rural development areas had a 29 per cent. reduction in real terms in RSG between 1981–82 and 1986–87 compared with a 4 per cent. growth in real terms for English local authorities as a whole. At the same time, those rural district authorities had a 45 per cent. reduction in capital allocation.

Much is said of the role of planners in solving today's problems. We cannot blame planners for all our ills. In the main, they do the best job that they can, given the circumstances. Decisions about where things should go are made by politicians. I hope that local government politicians will take that fact on board. It is not up to officers of local councils to make decisions; it is up to the politicians who run councils. Planners have not yet embraced the new thinking, particularly about the use or change of use of agricultural land.

We do not now need the same quantity of land. I have a copious postbag containing letters from constituents who are trying to develop agricultural land in north Cambridgeshire. Their applications have been totally rejected by planning authorities. Of all the assets that are now held by farmers, the only one that is worth anything is their land — land for development. A more relaxed view of what agricultural land could be redeveloped would help many farmers' liquidity—they could pay off some of their borrowings—and it would assist their incomes. That is a positive help when they are under severe pressure.

For the past 40 years, the principal objective of our planning system has been to control the amount of agricultural land that is taken for development. That policy has been supremely successful. We now need a planning system that will enable us to accommodate new and expanding development. Of course, we do not want uncontrolled suburbanisation. We do not want ribbon development. But, within the context of the new planning guidelines that have been put out by the Department of the Environment, there is a way forward.

What can we do to solve the problems and prepare for the inevitable growth of development? The most critical problem is how to accommodate the projected increase in population by the turn of the century. It must be accommodated by a relatively small part of our total land area. I remind hon. Members that the census of population predicts that, by the year 2001, over 1 million more people will want to settle in the south-east region. If the metropolitan green belt is to he sacrosanct—so far, that has been the Government's stated policy—that growth can take place only within the metropolitan area, that is, within Greater London, or it must be forced to the periphery of the south-east region. That means that it must go to the counties of Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and east and west Sussex. Those areas will have to take those 1 million people. No doubt the Minister is kept awake at night by the howls of protest of those counties already bombarding his ears.

Much has been said of the use of derelict and reclaimed land in inner cities. I have already said that substantial work has been done in that regard. More can be done. At the end of the day, within Greater London there is a limit to the amount of land that can be used for housing. In the past 10 years, London has lost 250,000 people. At the same time, the east has gained 500,000 people. That trend is well established. Neither controls, direct or indirect, nor the planning system will change that well-established trend.

At the risk of being accused of committing a sacrilege and bringing the wrath of many of my colleagues upon my head, I question the inviolate nature of the green belt. I fail to understand the logic of a policy that has evolved over the past eight or nine years, before the full import of population trends and patterns was established, which bans development of any kind from an area the size of Wales. In so doing, it guarantees more high density development and commensurate dramatic effects on the rural environment immediately outside the green belt outer periphery.

Such conflicts of interest are not confined to the southeast, They are beginning to manifest themselves in East Anglia and the south-west. The twin processes of population growth and declining agriculture will inexorably lead to massive changes in land use patterns. We need to be aware of such changes and co-ordinate our planning to ensure fair, balanced and sensible development.

It is no good Hertfordshire cutting by half the anticipated number of houses because it knows that it will have to trade up at a later date. Cambridgeshire says, "We are not having them if Hertfordshire says that they are not having them." So it goes on. Each county is protecting its own green belt—its own rural area—at the expense of others. Somebody must come up with a fair and balanced view of where development must go.

It is not just an agricultural problem. I hope that I have said enough to demonstrate that it is a major problem that the country will face over the next 12 or 13 years. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responding to farming problems, and is doing a good job in a positive way, but I question its expertise across the range of issues that we face. I question whether it should be the leading Ministry. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) led many developments when he was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. No doubt he will shoot clown in flames some of the things that I have said. MAFF should not be the leading Ministry in this regard.

We have a land use problem. More naturally, it falls within the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. It is not a small land use problem; it is a major land use problem. It will involve massive changes in England, particularly in a line drawn from the Severn to the Humber, which is about one third, if not more, of our total land area. Because the problem is so large, it almost merits a department within the Ministry all to itself—a department of rural affairs or countryside development. It is not a new idea, but it needs consideration. The job of such a department would be to co-ordinate MAFF's proposed measures for agriculture, planning regulations, housing needs, development, the green belt, other land use policies, the work of local authorities in rural areas, the provision of infrastructure in rural areas, and the work of the many agencies involved, primarily the Development Commission.

Because substantial population growth is predicted for those shire counties that already have rural development areas, it seems sensible and logical to promote the Development Commission as the leading agency to develop policies. It would continue its work in RDAs but expand to other rural areas and, I hope, expand to include the market towns that are vital to rural communities. Obviously that needs to be financed. But, now that we are at last embarking seriously on CAP reform, funds can be diverted from agricultural price support and other subsidies to the funding of a rural aid programme, which is just as important and necessary as the urban aid programme.

The key to progress is a radical change in how we perceive current land usage, particularly the usage of agricultural land. The Government have already accepted that we do not need as much land in agricultural production, but they still say that the best and most versatile land has a special importance and should not be built on unless there is no other site suitable for the particular purpose.

Whoever thought up that strategy did not consider the dilemma that now faces Cambridgeshire, which is largely made up of grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land. We do not have any grade 3 land. We have the best quality land in the country, and we face a 25 per cent. increase in population. We will have to house 156,000 people by the turn of the century. Where shall we put them if the Government's policy is that grade 1 and grade 2 land is sacrosanct? Will someone tell me? I should like to know. It should be possible to accommodate small-scale new housing in rural areas and to ensure better standards of layout for the landscape. It is no longer necessary to pack new houses at 20 to 30 an acre. The more land that is made available, the more acceptable will be the development and the cheaper will be the land and the houses that are built on it. People in rural areas object to the forcing of high-density housing into villages and market towns.

I am told that there is a great demand for large country houses with between five and 20 acres of land. Estate agents say that they cannot find enough houses to meet the demand. In the past such houses were built without planning permission. They are now an unobtrusive feature of our landscape. Indeed, much the best environmental husbandry has emanated from the large houses and estates.

I commend to the Minister for his consideration the release of farmland to allow the building of big houses with between five and 20 acres. I realise that we must do whatever we can to protect land from being further developed for housing in future. However, I see merit in allowing houses with large acreages of land to be built because there is a great demand for them and because the people who invest in those establishments will ensure that the landscape is protected.

We also need more land for public open space. If the projected growth in population occurs, we shall need more recreational areas, and they need to be planned. We need more footpaths and more bridleways. An interesting idea was put to me only yesterday by some farmers. If there is to be set-aside, why not have set-aside so that a group of farmers together can have land taken out and reconstructed into bridleways and footpaths and each have the responsibility of maintaining his own section, planting hedgerows and increasing environmental habitat and providing access to the countryside that is vital for the future?

As for employment, we desperately need more factories. The Development Commission needs to have a higher budget to build more in the RDAs because it is not keeping up with demand. We should allow the Development Commission to use its capital receipts obtained from selling some of its factories to build new factories. At the moment, if it sells factories to a new entrepreneur, it cannot spend that money. That needs to be examined. After all, we are reinvesting in the building infrastructure of our communities. We need to bring back the small workshop scheme or something similar. There is a case for allowing 100 per cent. first year allowance on factories up to 2,500 sq ft, and thereafter on a sliding scale to 60 per cent. for factories up to 10,000 sq ft. We need a hierarchy of factories of varying sizes so that as new companies grow and develop they can move as they expand.

We need housing associations to develop in rural areas in the way that they have developed in urban areas. We need to allow district councils to use housing revenue accounts, only when they are in surplus, to build for rent, which I realise is a contentious point—or to use capital within the housing revenue to invest in joint ventures with housing associations. I anticipate eagerly the Government's new Housing Bill and its effects on freeing the private rented sector, but there is a real and immediate problem of the lack of housing for young people on low incomes.

The Minister is aware of the excellent shared equity scheme at Chipping Camden. I commend that to him and hope that more such schemes will come forward. If we are to cope with the growth in rural areas, we need to address the real inadequacies of much of the rural infrastructure. We need more investment in roads, water supplies, flood protection and first time rural sewage. If we are to have settlement policies outside the new townships where many services are provided within the cost of the total development, we need to develop the infrastructure and services and face up to how we can cost them and provide the expenditure for them.

In my region, there is concern that after water privatisation and the setting up of the National Rivers Authority adequate funding should be made available for flood protection schemes—not only coastal protection, but the fenland area drainage system which is vital to our agriculture. I seek an assurance from the Minister that proper funding will be made available to the NRA.

We need an overall review of rural services and policies. Are we being realistic in expecting the conventional perception of village life to exist in the future? Has it not already died? There are already commuting villages. The trend has gone so far that we may not be able to redress the balance. There are those who believe that such trends can be reversed and that the future can be built on the stable, fruitful and productive character of the cohesive social groupings that we call villages. Free from the constraints of economic and market forces determining the location of businesses and industry, villages and market towns have a unique and challenging opportunity.

I believe that there is a future for the rural environment, through new housing schemes and employment. We need to move very carefully in the way that such development takes place, and more than ever before we need coordination of the various agencies. I commend the motion to the House.

10.26 am

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss). I congratulate him enormously on choosing such a vitally important subject and on the lucidity of his speech. Far be it from me to tear to pieces what he said. I cannot think of anything in his speech that I wish to criticise.

I wish to speak only briefly and to emphasise one of the points my hon. Friend touched upon. I do not want to discuss the economics of rural areas. We have heard a good deal about that over the years and it is still very relevant today. I wish to concentrate on a new danger to our rural infrastructure, which I am glad to say was a major and integral part of the motion tabled by my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend referred to the alteration in village life over the years. We have had many debates about that in the past.

I believe that the threat to rural structure and rural life is now moving away from the villages towards the market towns. I was particularly interested in my hon. Friend's reference to the importance of maintaining the social structure of market towns. I wish to stress that point. We have often had debates on the matter and I remember that Sir Peter Mills, who, sadly, is no longer a Member of the House, used to talk about the loss to villages of the various Ps — the demise of the primary schools, the petrol pumps, the parson, the post office, the passenger bus and the pub. I think that he had some more examples but I cannot remember them. Those are sad changes. Many of them happened because of the march of history and the march of time. My great concern is that we must not allow that trend to spread to the small market towns. In particular, I am thinking of what I believe is a new threat which has hit me in the face in the past few months— that is the new threat to secondary schools in some of the smaller market towns.

We all know that throughout the country there is a great surplus of school places. That is one of the great problems facing the Department of Education and Science. Our local education authorities have been told, in my view quite rightly, that they must do something to reduce a large number of those empty school places. However, there is a danger to the rural communities if certain local education authorities concentrate their solutions to the problems of empty school places on closing smaller rural secondary schools. That seems the easy option for them to take, but I believe passionately that it is the wrong one.

In my constituency in the county of Cumbria we have over 6,000 empty school places. The local education authority has taken the easy option by proposing to close several of the smaller rural schools. Many hon. Members who know the Lake District will know the size and nature of the towns I am talking about which face proposals to close their secondary schools. The schools in the four small towns of Sedbergh, Coniston, Kirby Stephen and Cartmel are threatened with closure. Each one is a much-loved, successful school with fine achievements both in their academic records—I monitor those each year—and in what I regard as the admirable behaviour of their children. I quote those schools as examples, but I am sure that all hon. Members could find comparable examples.

I visited all those schools recently to discuss the appalling prospect confronting the people who care for those schools and who work in them. I was greeted at all of them with strong expressions of view that the policy is wrong. Indeed, at one school at Cartmel I was greeted by over 250 of my constituents who had turned out with placards to demonstrate firmly that their school should not be closed. That view was typical of all the areas affected.

The supporters of those schools are especially concerned that, having seen so many village primary schools closed already, the next step now seems to be to close the secondary schools in their local towns. They see that step as a hammer blow for rural life in their areas, and I agree. The contribution that smaller schools make to rural life is enormous. Quite apart from the education provided, the facilities for sport, adult education and community amenities are irreplaceable in most cases. The contribution of those schools to local employment, and the intellectual and social contributions made to rural life by the individuals who work in the schools is, again, immense.

People very much resent the fact that in tackling what is, in fact, the county and countrywide problem of empty school places which, let us face it, exists in urban and rural areas, the solution seems to be to make the biggest chops of all in rural areas. That has to be wrong. At the same time, local education authorities often ignore the fact that, in closing a school in a small town and moving the children to another school, the second school is already nearly full. The education authority must then provide millions of pounds worth of new facilities to accommodate the children in the new school.

The problems of empty school places must be met by getting all schools to make sacrifices. I have told the House about four schools in my constituency. I have told those schools that they should all be prepared to dispose of surplus facilities and that they must find ways to help meet the problem. I believe that all the schools in my constituency that are threatened with closure are prepared to do that. I have also told them that if they are determined to seek to keep open a small rural school, they must be prepared to accept that there may well, in future, be a loss of the wide range of subjects that are offered in that school when compared with the bigger schools in the more urban areas. I told them that they may also have to accept in the future the possibility of a less generous staffing level than at present. All those things are unpalatable, but those schools accept that if they are to continue to exist they may well have to accept such conditions.

As I have said, I guess that Cumbria, which I have given as an example because I know it best, is only one part of the country where this new threat exists. I predict that it marks the beginning of a new trend which may well threaten the facilities in the smaller towns, where such threats have not previously existed. I believe that we have gone far enough in cutting the facilities of rural life, and that the time has now come to call a halt. I hope that the Government will respond to this debate in a way which covers my point about rural secondary schools. However, I perfectly understand that my hon. Friend who will reply to the debate may find it difficult to get deeply involved in education matters because that is not his departmental responsibility. However, I hope that we shall get a favourable response from the Government as soon as possible.

As I have said, people resent the fact that local education authorities may be tackling such problems in ways that hit at the heart of the rural infrastructure. We should not allow that to happen. I am glad to have had this opportunity of bringing the problem to the attention of the House.

10.37 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) on bringing this matter before the House today. It is an excellent subject and requires much discussion and thought. It is wide ranging and important, but I shall find it impossible to cover everything as well as the hon. Gentleman did.

I should like to make a few general remarks and then to concentrate on two or three issues that the hon. Gentleman raised which are of particular interest in terms of the problems of planning in rural areas. I am concerned, as I believe we all are, to reverse the decline that we have seen in some rural communities, with a loss of jobs and of housing, young people leaving, schools closing— as we have just heard—and a loss of shops, local services and public transport.

The Department of the Environment and the Minister have stated their wish to relax planning controls on development in the countryside. We must be careful about that. Clearly, the issue of the green belt is important and controversial. I believe that in the south of England the concept of the green belt must be maintained. I do not believe that people want an excessive relaxation of planning control in that area. It is important that we maintain the countryside as a place in which to live and work. That means adopting planning policies to keep alive small and remote rural areas which, if left to their fate, would become, at best, dormitory areas for commuters and weekenders and, at worst, isolated ghettos of the old and the jobless.

In England and Wales there is a wish to see county structure plans adhered to, so that there should not be a free-for-all. However, those plans could do with revision, although they do not need to be overturned. On the one hand, it is important for viable communities to live and work in the countryside, and too rigid a planning procedure will prevent that happening. On the other hand, we must not destroy our environment and our environmental heritage in the countryside.

Planning involves commitment to regeneration as well as to procedures. The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) spoke about housing. It is often ignored that in rural areas there are a great many sub-tolerable, sub-standard houses and poverty that is not easily seen. Many people still have the idea that those people in rural areas live in nice little cottages with roses round the door. However, the inside of many such houses is as bad as anything in the worst city-area high-rise flats.

Too often, plans are made for urban areas by people who live in urban areas who then try to apply them, most unsuccessfully, to country areas. As the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East said, there is urban aid, but no rural aid, for which there is a desperate need. Too often, urban planners see the countryside as a place to drive to and move through and not as a place in which the economy must be strong in order to sustain the people who live there. I shall give further examples.

Planning policies often work crazily against each other. One small example is the tenant's right to buy, with which I agree. When a teacher in a remote rural area with the right to buy his house does so and then retires and a new teacher is needed, there is no house for that teacher. That is an example of how plans can work against each other. I come from the lovely tourist area of Argyll and Bute where there are many second homes. That causes tremendous problems for local people and a great deal of resentment. Those people cannot afford to buy the homes when they come on the market. However, they can be bought by people from the south or from some other part of the country.

During election campaigns, I found it tragic to knock on door after door on islands such as Tiree and to have to ask, "Do you live here or are you on holiday?" If the person was on holiday, I wished him a good holiday. However if local people and youngsters have to move out, we lose not only the indigenous people but a whole culture and way of life, and traditions and worthwhile values disappear. Those people have been brought up in the area and have an empathy and understanding for it.

Secondly, school closures were mentioned. Recently in my constituency and in that vast region of Strathclyde, we fought a long campaign to keep our rural schools. On the whole, we were successful. In Argyll for example, the closure of a rural school tears the heart out of a community and many dreadful things follow. The sub-post office closes, the shop and the petrol station close, and young families do not move into the area. Then we see the death of another little village community.

Then there is the problem of land use and competing claims. At the heart of life in any area, and especially in Scotland, are the farmers and crofters. They are the foundation on which the economy exists. Of course, tourism plays a large part, but the tourist industry would not flourish without the people who form the infrastructure of the area. Farmers and crofters are the true conservationists.

I become worried when I hear Ministers from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food talk about reducing agricultural surpluses and reforming the common agricultural policy. I agree that we have to do that, but I become worried when I hear Ministers say that we must have set-aside schemes, take land out of agriculture and diversify. I am not sure that they realise that, especially in less-favoured areas, we do not contribute to the surpluses. I do not want to see a blanket policy for the whole United Kingdom to take land out of agriculture. Nothing is more ludicrous than ending up with not enough milk in the west of Scotland to make Scottish cheddar cheese for which there is a large market. It would be ludicrous if we started to import French cheese.

My argument, in turning back to planning and land use, is that the family farm is now more than ever the backbone of the industry in less-favoured areas. It follows that its health and vitality are essential for all the rural areas.

I am listening with care to the hon. Lady's speech. I am curious to know where she proposes that set-aside should be increased if not in the west of Scotland. If it is not to be on her doorstep, where does she suggest that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should concentrate his attention? I hope that she does not mean that it should be concentrated in Sussex.

The farmers in my area are not cereal farmers. They raise sheep and beef cattle. On the whole, they are not arable farmers and I accept that one of the great surpluses is cereals. The area in which the Minister chooses to cut these surpluses is a matter for him and for the people concerned. I am trying to point out that people in less-favoured areas have to live and work there. We cannot take everybody out of farming, and I do not suggest that.

There is talk of diversification, but trees cannot be grown on the isle of Tiree because they would blow down in no time. Golf courses cannot stretch from one end of Argyll to the other. If that happens, we will lose the people. The Minister should look at the crofting community because it is a prime example of a farm community that has been able to diversify. Crofters have taken other jobs and are now moving into fish farming and so on. That is a good example of how farming communities can diversify.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

The comments of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs Michie) precisely reflect Government policy — to provide the widest possible series of chances for farmers to choose for themselves whether they wish to diversify. If farmers in the hon. Lady's constituency find that that is a valuable thing to do, they will have the opportunity to diversify, We want a voluntary system, so that farmers can choose for themselves, and not a Government system which forces people to do what we think best.

Other Opposition Members have said that the Government should do more to encourage diversification, more set-aside and more trees in the very area about which the hon. Lady is speaking. It is difficult to get that right because hon. Members say, "Give everything that we want to our people, but also make sure that they have everything that they have now and that the disadvantages of overproduction go somewhere else." There is a great NIMBY policy—in other words, not in my back yard—although I prefer to call it the NODAM policy—in other words, no development after mine. I beg the hon. Lady not to make the issue too difficult for the Government who must make the decisions.

I understand the Minister's comments, although I am not sure whether he has understood mine. I am not saying, "Not in my back yard". Our less-favoured areas are not contributing to the surpluses in the common agricultural policy.

There are so many competing agencies operating in the countryside that their complexity is bewildering. Many of them do not appear to be subject to planning control and, apparently, are often unaccountable. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Forestry Commission, the Countryside Commission, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Crown Estate Commissioners, often generate conflict where there should be none. In Scotland, we badly need a land-water use strategy.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has in the past strongly defended the Crown Estate Commissioners. I am not attacking the people in that body. I have met a number of them. My constituents ask me, "Who are the Crown Estate Commissioners?" I have a dim recollection that their origins go back to Edward the Confessor, but I am not sure about their history.

No, I believe they are to do with the south. The Crown Estate Commissioners came along, for example, to a widow who has a private slipway down to the water. That slipway has been there for 22 years, has been well maintained and is not used for commercial purposes. Suddenly the commissioners started to charge rent for it. My constituents ask me, "Why are they doing this?" Only within the last week the commissioners have raised the charges for mooring boats in my constituency and part of the Clyde. My constituents ask me, "Who allows them to do this?" The members of one club, many of whom are pensioners, suddenly find that they have to pay rent to moor their boats. Perhaps the Minister can explain that.

The Crown Estate Commissioners are involved in fish farming which has been an excellent thing for the economy of the Highlands and Islands, but it now appears to be developing in a haphazard manner. Where is the control and accountability? My constituents tell me that the commissioners are to put a fish farm in the middle of the beautiful and world-renowned Tobermory bay on the island of Mull. Again, my constituents ask me, "How can they do this?"

There is conflict between the Nature Conservancy Council and agricultural development programmes, nowhere more so than on the island of Islay. There is conflict between farmers and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds because the geese are eating the grass. Four geese eat as much grass as one sheep and the number of geese is increasing while the number of sheep is declining.

We require plans for development and conservation. I was glad to hear from Lord Sanderson, Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, that the Highlands regional council is preparing a land-use strategy for Islay. I am sorry that no Scottish Office Minister is present today, but, no doubt, the Ministers who are here will pass on any points which relate particularly to Scotland.

We want flexibility, planning and consultation, but above all, we must involve the local people in land use. Community councils in Scotland and parish councils in England must be involved, and local authorities must be the final arbiters. We must consult all those bodies, but the local people have the understanding and knowledge of what is required.

10.56 am

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss), on his good luck in coming first in the ballot. I congratulate him particularly on his choice of subject, which is both important and interesting. It is strange that he should refer so much to the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill, which is about to go through this House and which deals so much with farm diversification.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his helpful remarks on the green belt system. He stressed the importance that his constituents attach to the preservation of that system. I did not intervene at the time because he was making such an impact on the House. It is all very well to have an extended green belt system and for the Government to appear to be actively promoting its extension, which I support, but the quality and the rigidity of the rules surrounding that system must not be relaxed. There are many extra hectares of green belt land in Britain, but what use do they serve when there are frequent examples of unwanted planning applications being granted for large sites in green belt areas? I am thinking particularly of the green belt around the city of Leicester, where the local council has recently given permission for a large development. Green belts are fine, providing they are strictly preserved and their character is maintained.

My hon. Friend also referred to the need to preserve sub-post offices, as did Sir Peter Mills when he was in the House. He used to emphasize how necessary the three Ps were to village life and to describe a sub-post office as one of the cornerstones of villages and small rural community life. Without it, and certainly without the village school, village life, which has much to be admired, starts to crumble and the country is the worse for it.

My hon. Friend referred to the problems facing sub-post offices in his constituency and we have exactly the same problems in Leicestershire. Many of my sub-post masters and mistresses are uneasy about the plans which the Government occasionally revive to introduce credit cards to enable pensioners to draw their pensions automatically from a machine, without having to use a post office. I hope that that plan of the DHSS will not come to fruition because the loss of regular visits from many pensioners could lead to the early closure of many post offices.

What my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) said about village schools is worth emphasising. A small community or large village depends on its school which holds together, if not the village, then family life. It is what living in Britain is all about. Everything that is good stems from village schools. I am sure that all hon. Members would do whatever they could for such schools.

I have been through this problem, and have lost village schools. I even took a delegation to see the Minister then responsible for village school policy. We were fortunate enough to visit her on her birthday and to know that it was her birthday so we took her a large box of chocolates, but we still lost our village school. One can only hope that, by continuing to stress how valuable village schools are to small communities, even if they are a little more costly to operate, we can succeed in retaining them for the general good of the community.

The motion refers to planning for the development of jobs. It is absolutely right to do that. It is right, too, that the House should know that, despite the Department of the Environment issuing several helpful circulars guiding local authorities on how to provide new jobs through farm diversification and projects in rural areas, there is growing evidence that local authorities continue to go their own way. I shall not weary the House with a debate which we had on this subject on 1 February, but what I stressed then has since come even more to my attention.

The Minister's letter of 21 January states:
"Since 1980 we have consistently urged planning authorities to treat applications for the re-use of redundant farm buildings sympathetically … Permission for the re-use of redundant farm buildings should therefore be granted, unless there are specific or convincing planning objections."
As I said on 1 February and as other hon. Members have said since, local authorities are objecting to these applications. The Minister gave the clearest indication of the Government's wishes in his letter and the excellent circulars which he has already sent to local authorities have been directly worded. Again I urge him to consider whether the time has now come at least to issue a forceful reminder to local authorities, which still seem to believe that redundant farm buildings permanently out of use are an attractive sight. They simply do not seem to be prepared to cope with the problems of the late 1980s and the 1990s.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East dwelt on housing in rural areas. It is essential to have good housing available, not for holiday homes, but for those who will work and live there, whether on the west coast of Scotland or elsewhere. We want people to have a good job and a decent house. On the other hand, land continues to be used for non-agricultural purposes at a great rate. As my hon. Friend said, that is not happening as quickly as in 1985, but of a total area of 24·4 million hectares of United Kingdom land, 80 per cent. is used for agriculture and 10 per cent. for forestry. Land is being lost at the rate of 5,000 hectares a year.

We are disturbed that it is often the choicest land of the highest quality that is used for housing estates around some of our big cities. A housing estate of 100 or 200 houses is what I would call a blister on many rural villages. Unfortunately, it is a feature of many parts of the east midlands, particularly Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. When those blisters of modern housing estates are attached to ancient villages, obviously, they provide an injection of children for the school and even help to keep the pub going and possibly the village policeman, as Peter Mills used to say. Nevertheless, it has a detrimental effect on village life.

Can my hon. Friend the Minister find time to persuade — if not to direct—the developers and major house building companies that are so active in the home counties and certainly in the east midlands, increasingly to concentrate their developments on derelict land in inner-city areas? That is easy to say. Indeed, there was a document called "This Pleasant Land", which I am sure my hon. Friend knows, produced last autumn by several Members of Parliament who are worried about these developments. It is no use ignoring the fact that some of the current types of development are intolerable. In my constituency in southern Leicestershire, over 1,000 acres are likely to go for housing before 1995. That will mean about 15,000 houses. The land chosen for such development is the choicest green field land, agricultural grassland with a high agricultural value.

While we may no longer need every acre of land for food, it is still essential to promote what I would call farm and village industry. The ceaseless appetite of developers in Leicestershire, encouraged to a certain extent by officials from the Department of the Environment, to submit more and more plans to gobble up green field sites with huge housing estates, is deplorable and to be resisted.

It is much easier for a developer to build on a green field site. He will not want to mess around in some derelict inner-city area, where there may be worked-out services, pipes, old drains and cables to be removed first. Moreover, his houses will sell better in a green field area. There is money in it for him. People prefer to be able to see the village church, even from some distance away, and there are at present no hedgerows in derelict inner-city areas.

"This Pleasant Land" contains 19 recommendations. I urge my hon. Friend, who may have seen the document, to tell the House that he has taken it on board. It highlights some key points. For example, it recommends exemption for five years from the national business rate for newly constructed commercial or industrial premises in inner-city areas. Another recommendation is tax allowances for the repair and conversion of inner-city dwellings and industrial premises. It also recommends the establishment of what are defined as protected green belts beyond the strategic development boundaries in which no significant development would be possible, and it suggests that agricultural land, open space or woodland separating adjacent rural communities should be given permanent green belt status. This excellent little leaflet also calls for the establishment of a national land use survey to determine what land is available for housing and other purposes, and the introduction of a public auction notice system to bring publicly owned land on to the market and to secure its development.

The document makes a number of other points with which I shall not weary the House. I can easily provide my hon. Friend with the leaflet and the report, if he has not already received them.

I know from conditions in the east midlands and Leicestershire that within a very short time many hundreds of additional houses will be built on green field land, which could just as well be built in the city of Leicester or one of the big neighbouring cities. They would then be far nearer to the station, and just as close to the motorway.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East hs done an excellent job. He has produced a cogent and lucid proposal which is full of common sense, and I know that we shall all look forward to his coming first in the ballot again, when we may enjoy a similarly stimulating debate initiated by him.

In his motion, my hon. Friend refers to the need to discuss
"farming diversification and infrastructure in rural areas".
Farming diversification and, to some extent, infrastructure are, of course, dealt with in detail in the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend will be on the Standing Committee, because I am lucky enough to be a member of it. I understand that consideration of the Bill is due to start shortly. No doubt we shall then have some useful discussions, and my hon. Friend will be able to give the Committee the help that he has given the House today. I suppose that his reference to infrastructure in rural areas relates to a series of sites of special scientific interest, environmentally sensitive areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty. No doubt we shall discuss those in Committee. Clause 2 covers in detail farm diversification, particularly woodland diversification. When that legislation is on the statute book—as soon as possible, I hope — the powers will be effective from October this year.

It would not be right to consider the future of the countryside — housing, farming diversification and infrastructure—without saying a word about what could loosely be described as country sports. It is not possible to plan the countryside. Our countryside of today was never planned; it happened, and it will continue to be a beautiful place for years to come. But many sports are possible in the countryside—on horseback or on foot, or, indeed, sedentary occupations such as fishing beside a river or canal. Such occupations are all part of a country structure, and they will not go away. Whether hon. Members like it or not, we must learn when we plan—as far as we are able—the the future of this beautiful countryside of ours that we must do so hand in hand with all who are lucky enough to take part in the many useful country sports.

11.17 am

First, it is my pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) on his success in the ballot, his choice of motion and his skilful and comprehensive presentation. Despite the distance between our constituencies, I believe that, some 20 years ago, he had the opportunity to teach my brother in law in Tiverton, 10 or so miles from where we now live, but this morning I have sat at his feet and learnt much.

My hon. Friend made some interesting points about possible departmental changes involving the Minister of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment. I do not think that my farmers would forgive me for biting the hand that feeds them, but my hon. Friend had a point to make. No other sector of industry has a whole Department to itself, and, as the debate has shown, the countryside involves factors relating to a number of Departments— not simply productive industry, agricultural or otherwise. I feel, that my hon. Friend's remarks should be considered seriously.

My hon. Friend pointed out that the countryside faces both problems and opportunities, and referred to the problems facing the children of today's farmers. I must start on a sombre note and make some constituency points.

I hope that the House, and my hon. Friend the Minister, will excuse me for having to leave shortly after midday to attend a meeting of local councillors in my constituency, along with the management of Dairy Crest. As some hon. Members will know, as a result of cuts in milk production, following the introduction of quotas, Dairy Crest is closing five creameries, two in Wales, one in Carlisle, one in Cornwall and one in Wellington, in my constituency. The other four areas all suffer from higher unemployment than my constituency. None the less, 99 redundancies, including those of people who have committed their working lives to the company, is a tragedy for the town, which is now recovering so well from closures at the start of this decade.

The meeting this afternoon is not to shout at the gods, or, more particularly, at the EEC, because dairy quotas are here to stay, and the farming community seems to welcome that. The meeting is to consider how the various agencies, including the company and the Taunton Deane borough council, can provide job opportunities or training for those to be made redundant. In this respect, it is relevant to this debate that the industrial estate at Chelston, close to the M5, seems to be proceeding towards obtaining planning permission without objection, and I welcome that.

While on the subject of employment and in particular of the interdependency of certain types of manufacturing industry and agriculture, I shall refer to a typical product of my constituency. Although my hon. Friend the Minister is not responsible for the Budget, he will at once appreciate the relevance of that event. In my maiden speech, on the Housing Bill, I spared him reference to cider, but today he will not be so fortunate. The cider industry does not contribute massively to the gross national product or the balance of payments, but on its prosperity depends the direct employment of some hundreds of my constituents and those of other hon. Members, and the success of aspects of farm diversification.

The motion refers to the encouragement of farm diversification and the promotion of enterprise. Those who have understanding of the cider industry, and I confess that my knowledge is in its infancy, know that the development of cider apple orchards requires years of planning and preparation.

Yes, and tasting. I will simply reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) said in an oral question to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 11 February. It is that a discriminatory rise in the tax on cider would, as happened in 1984–85, have serious consequences for employment and for the forward planning of diversification in that industry.

My hon. Friend mentioned a subject that did not come up in his maiden speech on the Second Reading of the Housing Bill. Something else which did not come up, owing to the incompetence of the Minister concerned, who happened to be myself, was a proper tribute to that maiden speech in the winding-up speech. I take this opportunity to say that that was an excellent speech, and we regret that my hon. Friend is not on the Standing Committee considering the Housing Bill, because we would greatly have profited by his advice.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, particularly as I may not be here to hear his speech. While I may have been deprived of the pleasure of sitting on the Committee considering the Housing Bill, I am happy to say that I shall be on the Committee considering the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill.

It is a sad but not wholly inaccurate reflection on our political system that those who are chiefly concerned with the prosperity of agriculture are sometimes least concerned with that of manufacturing industry, and vice versa. I hope that the two examples that I have given help to bridge this division, because recession in both costs jobs, and production cuts in the United Kingdom, when accompanied by foreign import penetration, weaken the balance of payments.

Another consequence of recession is far more severe in agriculture and the countryside. When an industry declines, it leaves behind it the debris of industrial sites and buildings, but those sites can be, and are, developed for new uses in the way that redundant mills in my native north-west have been. If agriculture were to face a depression like that of the 1930s, we would very swiftly see a dramatic deterioration in our countryside.

In the 1930s, there were relatively few inhabitants of suburbs or inner cities with the mobility to notice or care, but we should soon hear today from the 15 million people a week who visit the countryside if such a deterioration were to take place. That is why I hope that my hon. Friends will encourage Ministers at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to defend our farming interests robustly. That is why we welcome the, albeit modest, measure of the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill. This Parliament sees the Department of the Environment, and other Departments, leading the revival of our inner cities, but if we can at the same time revive our rural communities, we can start to check the inevitable spread of suburbia which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) pointed out in a timely Adjournment debate the other night, threatens to run together such towns as Reading, Wokingham and Bracknell into one suburban megalopolis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, North-East referred to the latest Office of Population Censuses and Surveys population projections, published in January 1988. These suggest an increase in population in the southwest of 486,000 between 1985 and 2001, the second largest rate of increase of any standard region in England—l0·8 per cent. compared with East Anglia's 14·9 per cent. The increase for the current decade, 1985–6, is also the second largest at 7·4 to 10·4 per cent. Within the southwest, Somerset has the third largest increase, after Cornwall and Wiltshire, of 16·4 per cent. up to 2001, and 11 per cent. up to 1996. That is an extra 73,000 people up to 2001.

Are these new souls to be housed in the larger towns or are they to help to expand and revitalise the smaller towns and villages? That is the key question for planning over the next decade. Until recently, in my area, and no doubt in those represented by many hon. Members, the tendency has been for large towns such as Taunton to grow further and further out, enveloping or linking up with one-time villages such as Bishop's Hull or Staplegrove. This constant tacking of bits on to the town is becoming politically unacceptable to many of my electors, irrespective of their party support. Many of my hon. Friends will have experienced the same factor.

The challenge before us is whether we can ensure that after the present round of planned suburban extensions, which are not without controversy and may not see the light of day, we can contain the spread of the larger towns and concentrate more development in the smaller towns and villages. In this context, like the Taunton Deane council, I was bitterly disappointed last year when the Department of the Environment inspector rejected an application to develop a housing estate in the village of Oake. In the view of the council, if ever there was a village that, in respect of its environment and facilities should take the pressure, it was Oake. The inspector admitted that Oake was not perpetually reprieved, and developments may have to come in future years.

If villages are to see development, it must often be on a more modest scale than some of the planners and the national building firms prefer. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) made the point about blisters of 100 houses being tacked on to villages. Are we giving small-scale builders enough encouragement to build on more modest plots?

I believe that my hon. Friend is right. Smaller scale builders need such encouragement.

The experience of the farming community with planning authorities which are slow to recognise the wind of change which is now blowing in the countryside should be mentioned. The Somerset and South Avon county branch of the NFU is worried at the number of barn conversions which are refused, and at the trouble with applications, often made for good social and economic reasons, to establish a mobile home on a farm. Often only a temporary provision is required. In one or two cases, refusal was clearly justified, such as a proposal for a barn conversion into a holiday let only 10 yds from another family's home. I understand that Taunton Deane and West Somerset have a better record with regard to granting such applications than certain other districts in Somerset and Avon.

The Somerset and South Avon NFU has given me some fine examples of potentially successful diversification. A young couple have turned their farm into an open education centre for children. A south Somerset farmer has started a motor cycle race track across his farm and a ride for horse riders. My two children, aged three and one and a half are now starting to learn to ride horses. I am sorry to say that the only occasion on which their father sat across such a four-legged beast was in Jordan some 15 years ago. I am convinced that the beast had been left over from the first Crusade. The same farmer grows willows for cricket bats.

Another farmer wanted to convert old veal buildings into an indoor bowling arena, but ran into difficulties with planners. Many successful businesses farming worms are springing up. They use slurry from dairy cows, which is fairly common in the west country. We are beginning to beat the French at snail farming. It is being pioneered by a French emigré—M. Jacques Aubree—at Rode near Bath. He ran into considerable difficulties with planners about a one acre plot and a 6 ft weavo fence to keep the dogs out. Planners originally refused to recognise snail farming as a proper agricultural pursuit. I am happy to say that the NFU persuaded them to change their minds. I hope that those examples are encouraging to my hon. Friends and the Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East dealt with housing in some depth. I shall not repeat what I said in my maiden speech about the plight of rural communities, particularly regarding young families and the elderly. My hon. Friend put the argument well. I am not sure whether calling on the retired to think again before moving to the countryside would work. I am not sure that we would want to pursue that line. It is more a case of supply than demand, and there might be a case for providing that council houses which are to be sold should be aimed at certain families and should not be bought for second homes.

We need more money for rural housing associations. We need mixed funding and enough grant to provide housing at attractive rent levels. The problem in the countryside is that, on the whole, people have lower incomes and cannot afford rents that the private sector might require without some form of help.

There is a policy, which I believe was started in the London boroughs of Brent and Bromley—so it must commend itself to both sides of the House—which has been practised in Taunton Deane and elsewhere. Discounts are offered to help council home occupiers to buy into the private sector, thus vacating their council homes, which are usually the larger ones such as are in short supply. I understand that there have been 30 or 40 such transfers in Taunton Deane during the past year.

Several of my hon. Friends, but especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) spoke about rural schools. There is a dilemma. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East might he less critical of the hill farm subsidy if he had the odd hill in his constituency. There may be hope on the way for rural schools which achieve a high standard through the Education Reform Bill and its proposals about admissions. I believe that it would be possible for rural schools such as Nynehead and Langford Budville in my constituency, which are fairly close to Wellington, and which are of a high standard but are well below capacity, to attract children from a wider area because of their excellence. Legislation may help rural schools in that respect.

I pay tribute to my namesake, my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) who has taken up cudgels about sub-post offices and so-called community post offices far more vigorously than I. She has an extensive rural constituency. I have corresponded with the Post Office, and I am not entirely happy with the present state of play. I proposed that it might make its offer of limited hours of work, and therefore limited income, voluntary so that if there was difficulty finding somebody, somebody could run a sub-post office full-time or part-time according to their needs.

I am afraid that I had the usual and understandable reply about the cost of keeping rural sub-post offices open. It was admitted that the limited hours option would operate as sub-post offices became vacant. The Post Office has, however, confirmed that its policy is to keep more sub-post offices open. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West told me last night that that policy has been successful and that some 40 offices which might have closed have been kept open. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will watch that matter closely. I hope that we shall resist strongly the closure of rural sub-post offices by the back door, as was attempted a few years ago.

I have tried to draw attention to several of the factors which affect the development of the countryside. None of us wants a dying countryside through the decline of agriculture or the departure of population, but nor do we want a summer holiday weekend cottage countryside, with a part-time population. With new technology, more people will find it possible to work at least part-time from many parts of the country. They do not have to be stuck from 9 am on Monday to 5 pm on Friday in an office a few milies to the east of here.

That offers great hope to the countryside and its schools, post offices, shops and all the enterprises that I hope will be developed there. Of course, it will create social changes and difficulties with people from far away coming into a settled traditional community. But those who complain about that in my constituency and elsewhere should consider the traumatic changes in the inner cities during the past 30 years. Our compatriots who live there have seen vast tracts of the cities demolished and often rebuilt in an unsatisfactory style and large areas of them settled by people from the Commonwealth, which has caused great tensions.

I commend my hon. Friend on his choice of subject. This has been an excellent debate so far, and I am sure that it will so continue.

11.40 am

I welcome the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss), who had the good fortune to win the ballot and the good sense to choose this subject. It is a special pleasure to take part in the debate because about a year ago I visited my hon. Friend's constituency to speak to the Conservative association and he was kind enough to come to Wisbech on an extremely cold winter day when the wind, as is usual up there, was coming straight from the Urals. A year later, we have a sunnier day, which is perhaps due to his benevolent influence on his new constituency.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is here to reply to the debate. He has shown his interest in and concern for rural housing, and I shall concentrate on its problems during my speech. My hon. Friend will appreciate the problem of rural housing even in — or perhaps because it is in — a constituency so close to London. He has said that the Housing Bill may not solve rural housing problems and that they should be tackled in their own right at some stage. I hope that this debate will push the matter further up the agenda.

We have heard today, and it is clear to people inside and outside the House, how much Britain's countryside has changed during the past few years. Only this week, we had the latest stage in negotiations on the common agricultural policy. The British farming industry so effectively fulfilled its post-war brief that the result is farm surpluses in Britain and in Europe as a whole. The need to cut the subsidies which create those surpluses means that change in the rural economy is bound to proceed faster in the future.

The economic prosperity of the countryside, which hon. Members who have spoken in the debate want and which those who live there wish to enjoy, depends on social wellbeing. New businesses and jobs cannot be sustained in the countryside without schools, shops, transport, libraries and, critically, affordable housing. The lack of such affordable housing is a great problem. More and more people, in addition to the young, the elderly and the less well-off, find it increasingly difficult to live and work in rural areas. I shall discuss the problem in more detail and give the House some hard information.

The rented sector, public and private, has all but disappeared and owner-occupation has been pushed beyond the reach of many people who live in rural areas. New housing that is built in villages is usually detached, more expensive, executive-style houses or retirement bungalows. To be profitable for the developer, small starter homes must be built on a large scale. But to fit in with village life and not to create blisters on the edge of villages we need small-scale development of houses that people can purchase from incomes derived from rural jobs, and those incomes will not be high.

Housing associations have not ventured far into our villages. They are largely urban-based and have not yet met all the needs of the towns and cities. But in about eight counties rural housing associations have been established to build for rent in small villages. They have harnessed the efforts of parish councils and some appear to be working well. I commend further similar developments to the Government. Those schemes have demonstrated the extent of the hidden need that is revealed when the people living in rural areas realise that there is a chance that their housing needs will be met. More of them are saying, "This is where I want to live, but until now I have seen no hope of doing so." Their need has not been fully perceived.

Shared ownership housing, where someone purchases 50 per cent. of the equity and pays a subsidised rent for the remainder, could be developed much more in villages. That form of tenure accepts the values which are dictated by the market. It enables people on lower incomes to become part-owners. But the Department of the Environment sets unrealistic values for those houses, and it has not yet been possible to design houses which the district valuer could place within the lower Department of the Environment limits. I hope that the Minister will answer that point. Another problem with shared ownership is that the subsidy required to keep rents low carries with it a Department requirement that the occupier must be given the right to staircase — the chance to progress to full ownership. If that happens, the house ultimately becomes part of the privately owned sector and can no longer be used as low-cost housing reserved for local people.

I want to consider important statistics that will back up my point. In October 1987, the Association of District Councils published a research paper from the Bristol School of Advanced Urban Studies, which showed that only one third of working people—and I mean people in work, the real sense of working people, not the pejorative sense used by others — in the south of England could not afford to buy their own homes. There was a great need for rented housing in the non-metropolitan areas.

In the three northern counties, very few households in work appeared to be unable to finance house purchase in 1986. The survey showed that the position had been much the same in 1982–83. The picture in the midlands, according to the survey, was less clear. Slightly more households were unable to purchase and the position had deteriorated between 1982 and 1986. In the south, and in particular in Essex and Hampshire, substantial proportions—up to one third—of households in work could not be expected to purchase at prevailing prices. That proportion had doubled between 1982 and 1986. That does not surprise anyone. We are all aware of the pressures and my figures back up what is happening.

In spite of the more favourable incomes and general prosperity in the south and because of the particular expression of the north-south divide in house prices, there is a substantial problem of access to the mainstream housing tenure of owner-occupation in southern rural areas.

I want to suggest several ways in which greater impetus can be given to solve some of the difficulties. Obviously far more must be done to help people on lower incomes who need housing in the areas to which I have referred. I have already referred to the need to discover the extent of the real need. District council lists do not always provide an accurate indicator of the housing needs in rural areas. The councils are not looking ahead at ways in which to deal with the problem. As local housing planning authorities, councils should undertake systematic surveys of local housing need to reveal the true picture. They should then produce clear strategies for meeting those needs within their own development plans or their housing investment programmes.

I also suggest that district councils should be allowed to expand their housing programmes in rural areas and in particular to provide small numbers of dwellings suitable for the elderly. It is enormously important to elderly people that they should be able to continue to live, so long as they are physically able, in their home village. It is very traumatic for them to be moved away. They are more likely to receive neighbourliness and family support if they can remain in their own village.

Local authorities should work more closely with private developers, self-build groups and others to increase the housing stock. It is crucial that discussions should take place within the villages between the local authority, the housing developer or the self-build group to address the reasons for wanting to develop a small group of houses and so produce a scheme to assist villagers on low incomes to obtain housing. The anti-argument to developments in so many villages — I hear this all the time from constituents in my rather comfortable area — is that when the houses are built they will be bought by well-off people from outside. The people who live in the villages have proper consciences about the local people they know and like and they want their children to continue to live in those villages in which their parents have been fortunate enough to live. If we could show that the building and financing arrangements would ensure that houses are available for local people, most of the anti-argument to development would disappear. If it does not disappear, we can give people a very bad conscience and that could be no end of a help to achieving a positive decision to allow development.

Although I am a strong supporter of the Government's aim to sell council houses to tenants—and that has been exceedingly successful in towns and cities—that aim has produced a real problem in some villages—a problem which, clearly, came out of the woodwork during the election. I called on satisfied parents who were delighted at the opportunities that had been provided for them but who were worried about their children being able to stay in the village as they had done.

We need a programme that takes us beyond the present stage of merely selling council houses. I suggest that local housing authorities should be permitted and encouraged by the Government to spend a proportion of the proceeds from the sale of council houses — certainly more than the present 20 per cent. — on meeting current housing needs in their area. The Treasury must be pressed to take a new view of the problem and to give the social priorities about which we are talking a higher profile in its considerations.

Those are the main points that I wished to make. I could have covered many more. At this stage the rigour of key settlement policies needs to be examined with a view to allowing more organic growth of settlements and, hence, the survival of some of the key services and of the social balance within communities. Planning policy needs to be flexible enough to ensure that local needs for housing or jobs can be met. Where substantial growth is contemplated, the scale of development must not be such as to swamp the services or the social structure of a settlement or to damage significantly the visual amenity of the countryside.

The development in rural France is interesting. There are so many more small builders who build individual houses on village plots that have had the infrastructure provided by the local authority. As a result, there often seems to be a better fit of small-scale development with the existing environment. In this country, all too often the big boys are interested only in large-scale developments.

We have all heard—I am sure that it will continue—the way in which hon. Members attach importance to the maintenance of rural services. There has been some success in halting the decline of shops, post offices, surgeries cottage hospitals and bus services. To a large extent, rural post offices are now protected. Proposals to charge for school transport have been withdrawn. There has been an encouraging growth in community-based services such as community shops, parish minibuses, community newsletters, village halls being used for a multitude of purposes and there is more parental involvement in the running of primary schools.

However, there is still a continuing decline in many rural services that are run by public agencies and commercial firms. We all agree that the retention and strengthening of services in villages remains a fundamental objective. That includes the encouragement of self-help and co-operation. Rural communities must not expect to sit back and let things be done for them. They are entitled to the same level of statutory provision as everyone else in the country, but they will have to be ready to put forward their own views and to supplement the publicly provided services such as those that volunteers and community enterprises can provide. There is no lack of willingness to do that among people in villages. It is one of the attractive sides of village living.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) — how nice it is that he retains the old name of Westmorland in the description of his constituency—spoke about the problem of secondary schools possibly being closed. I give him my full support in the points he made because I know his area of the country intimately. Because of my link with Cumbria, may I give an unrepentant puff to a project in my right hon. Friend's constituency which is known and supported by him. It is run by Brathay Hall Trust at Ambleside. It is a development training centre with which I have been involved for many years and of which I am a trustee. It is accredited to the Manpower Services Commission. Part of the wide-ranging work that it has done over the past 18 months has been to provide for 40 people—next year it is planned that it will provide for 80 people—a training programme to enable them to get back into work and, in many cases, to be self-employed. Its approach is to emphasise the ability of the individual, to encourage his or her self-confidence and ability to seek out the skills and skilled training necessary to obtain work in their area.

It has often found that unemployed people in rural areas do not necessarily know where to start. The Government have provided many of the opportunities and agencies at which they can obtain the necessary skilled training, but those people do not always receive personal support to give them the encouragement and self-confidence to seek that training. In its first year of operation the course has found work for 90 per cent. of the people attending or has encouraged them to make work of a profitable nature for themselves.

I hope that hon. Members will not feel it inappropriate for me to conclude my remarks by talking about how support is needed for individuals living in rural areas and how the Government are providing, through the Manpower Services Commission, specific tutorial support training for people to enable them to develop an effective and fulfilling life at work in their areas.

12.2 pm

I am pleased to be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at this point of the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson). I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman said. It is always a source of surprise to me —given the hon. Gentleman's remarks—that we do not see him in the Opposition lobby more often than we do.

This is an important debate about rural areas and the lack of services in them. It is a debate to which the central thrust of Government policy cannot be applied because rural areas will always be at a disadvantage. Rural areas will always need extra help because the market cannot be left to look after them.

I shall go through some of the services that need to be considered. With regard to housing, the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) said that the provision of council housing should be aimed at particular families. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks mentioned how difficult it is to keep local people and families in rural areas because of the difficulties that they face obtaining a house. The logic of these problems leads one to say that every local authority should have a minimum amount of council housing that it can rent to local people.

So that the hon. Gentleman is not under any misunderstanding, I should tell him that I represent a 2,000 sq mile rural constituency. The sale of council housing has not changed anything because the people who bought their houses would not have moved out of them anyway. The argument is how we provide houses for those who wish to stay. The fact that council houses were let by the council or bought by the people living in them has changed nothing.

The hon. Gentleman is fortunate, but in many other places, especially small villages and rural areas, council houses have been sold, only to be put on the market as soon as possible. The statistics show this, although I do not have them with me. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) represents an area that is very far from London, but those of us who live nearer to the rich parts of the United Kingdom know of the constant complaint of local councils, whether Labour or Conservative, that they wish they had some council houses to allocate to local families who cannot afford to buy. Those families have no chance of staying in the area and have to move out into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Young married couples have to live in the front television rooms of their parents' houses.

This is a serious problem, and there should not be any dogma about it. I do not object to people owning their own house. I would encourage it every time. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks said that there should be incentives to encourage people in rural areas to buy their own houses, and he went through the matter in detail. I am not against that, but there should be a stock of council housing at the disposal of local authorities so that they can properly look after their areas.

It is a pity that the Conservative party considers this as a matter of dogma. Conservative Members say that they are concerned about housing, yet they troop through the Division Lobby—I do not know whether they are just in awe of their mistress or whether they do not realise the illogicality of their case—to exacerbate the problem. I have seen this repeatedly since I was elected to the House in 1983.

The previous Secretary of State for Wales, who has now gone to the other place, issued a circular on executive housing in the Principality—not for the people who cannot afford to buy their own houses. He thought that there was a demand for executives and executive housing in the Principality. Of course executives want their houses on green field sites. The matter was referred for consultation. Every local authority and almost every body in Wales, with the exception of the Land Authority for Wales and perhaps two other groups, said that there was no extra demand for, or perceived shortage of, executive housing in Wales, whether in the rural areas or elsewhere. That circular is still in existence.

It may well be that the Welsh Office is seeking to modify that circular. Does my hon. Friend agree that, apart from being a major intrusion into normal planning law, the concept appeared to be half-baked, as though it arose from, say, a weekend conversation at a golf club or in a chamber of commerce? There was no evidence seriously to suggest that executives had difficulty in finding appropriate homes. It is especially puzzling that the Welsh Office was going ahead with the executive homes idea while selling off council houses and reducing the flexibility in the countryside that a supply of council houses provided.

My hon. Friend makes the point well, and I agree with him. There need to be second thoughts about that circular.

An adequate stock of housing should be available to local authorities—

—and to housing associations—to look after their people in the rural areas. Planning authorities are usually conscious of this need. I know a number of members of various local authority planning committees who are constantly concerned about being able to look after their communities. They are worried. They know that if they can get money to build council houses in rural areas for families who need them, after about four years huge capital gains will be made. Such houses will probably be sold as second homes and be used for purposes other than the one for which they were originally built.

The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) is shaking his head.

I represent north Tayside, Pitlochry, Aberfeldy, Dunkeld, and all the beautiful highland glens. If anyone is looking for a beautiful highland home, one would have thought that there would have been substantial evidence of it. There is no evidence.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. He must visit my constituency and other parts of rural Wales. He will find a different story.

It is close to Birmingham, but it is much closer to London. My hon. Friend and I speak from experience within our own areas.

I am not trying to pull the wool over hon. Member's eyes. It is a serious problem throughout almost all of Wales.

To put it bluntly, the Government's policy is to give local education authorities as little money as possible. If local education authorities were to paint schools and provide decent pupil-teacher ratios, there would be such a great grant holdback that they would probably cease to have any grant at all, or at least they would be severely penalised for trying to provide a proper service. It is probably accepted throughout the country, if not by hon. Members, that local education authorities have a great deal of difficulty in doing their work properly, with the result that there is a move to try to close small rural schools. That is sad. In many cases, small rural schools are the lifeblood of communities. I accept that it is difficult to justify keeping open a school that has perhaps seven, eight or nine children. As a society, we should be able to say that a primary school with 15 or 16 pupils deserves to be kept open. Such a school would have a good pupil-teacher ratio.

In urban parts of my constituency, pupil-teacher ratios are high. Certainly, the county of Clwyd has one of the worst pupil-teacher ratios in the country. It is probably the worst in Wales. I do not blame it for that; it has many difficulties. Small schools should be taken into account. A low pupil-teacher ratio in one town should not result in an adverse pupil-teacher ratio in a neighbouring town. It is a problem, and the Government have not faced up to it. I hope that the Minister will say something about it.

The closure of some secondary schools causes problems with regard to children travelling to school. It is a good idea to have sixth form colleges or centres of tertiary education. However, it involves travel. Tertiary education centres should be sited so that travel is not excessive. Of course, it depends on how one defines efficiency. Some Ministers will say that they want as few as possible, because it will save costs and teachers, never mind that pupils have to travel 20 or 30 miles each day. That is wrong. We must examine the matter carefully, with a view to providing a service to all parts of the rural community, so that children travel the minimum necessary distance.

I have heard Conservative Members talk about post offices. It is a good social service. There is a post office in almost every village. No matter where one lives, letters are delivered to one's house. What is more, a first class letter costs only 18p. It will be interesting to see what the Government will do when they reconsider the Post Office's monopoly. If they lift the monopoly from the Post Office, will they tie one hand behind its back and allow cowboys to cream off the easy meat and the rich pickings in the City yet starve the Post Office of funds to provide a proper, comprehensive system for the rest of the United Kingdom?

The comprehensive service is not the only concern. There is also concern about a difference in postal rates between inner cities and remote rural areas, which necessarily will reduce the quality and attractiveness of life in rural areas.

My hon. Friend anticipates exactly what I am about to say. If the Government do not tie one hand behind the Post Office's back and allow it to compete, it is absolutely certain that the letter rate to rural areas such as Pitlochry will increase to £1 a letter. I shall be very surprised if the rate will not be £1 a letter in my constituency of Wrexham. The hon. Member for Tayside, North shakes his head. I hope that I am not being rude when I suggest that he thinks carefully and makes appropriate representations to the Prime Minister before anything is done to break the Post Office monopoly.

There would be no payments by the Post Office to sub-post offices to keep them open. The Post Office will say that anyone who wishes to provide a service will have to pay the Post Office for a franchise. If that happens, how many local village post offices in rural areas will be lost?

Many Conservative Members are concerned about postal services and about the ability of local post offices to carry letters to and from any address in the United Kingdom. They should think it through carefully before they troop through the Lobby and vote for yet another privatisation measure that will be put before the House in the next Session or the one after.

I should like to say a few words about transport, which is a difficult and serious problem in many rural areas. It is a problem that has to be faced by ordinary working people who do not have a lot of money, and by the unemployed, who suffer most. It does not affect people who have houses in rural areas as second homes or who live in rural areas because their salaries are large enough to pay for two cars or a chauffeur, and can work in a city but live in convenient rural areas. The problem affects people who are not rich and do not have big salaries, and, after housing, it is one of the most serious problems in rural areas.

More money needs to be spent on rural roads. Not much has been said about the roads, but many of them are neglected. There is an inadequate programme for the upkeep of roads. I do not blame the county councils and the transport authorities because they have limited money and have to make political decisions about where it is spent.

It is easy for them to decide not to upgrade or resurface a particular country road this year, and to say that it will have to last for another year, hoping that the winter is not too bad. It is a great pity when that happens, and that we do not have more improvements in some of the black spots on the A roads in the United Kingdom.

I speak with first-hand knowledge of the road system throughout Wales and of quite a few of the roads in rural areas in other parts of the United Kingdom. A great deal of money easily could be spent on improving sections of the roads which must have caused many thousands of deaths during the preceding years.

As for the railways, there are not many railways in rural areas after Beeching. We need many more rural railway stations. We need to get away from the insane idea that money spent on carriages and engines is capital and therefore must be used. Capital spent on engines and rolling stock is used if it is waiting in any particular place just to take account of any mishap that might occur. An engine could, for example, break down or something might go wrong with another train. British Rail should be able to say, "We have a spare engine 15 minutes' away. We can get there and get passengers on their way to their destinations." If something goes wrong on the line from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth the chances are, especially if it is a local train, that the nearest spare engine is in Bescot which, as we all know, is near Birmingham. It will probably take anything from one and a half to four hours for another engine to reach Aberystwyth. British Rail is aware of such problems, but the facts show that when such things happen, passengers are inconvenienced, not just in a minor way and not even in a moderately major way. They may have to wait two or three hours or the whole train may be cancelled in which case they have to wait four or five hours for the next train. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) will confirm that on the central Wales line there are only four services a day each way between Llanelli and Shrewsbury—

Yes, it is something like that. That service is not of great use to the local population and there should be much more frequent services. I know that that would cost money and that it would not be considered efficient by the Government, but it is important in rural areas.

As I have already said, we cannot let the market dominate the rural areas because those areas would die if that happened. We must provide for those areas and, as a society, recognise that we have a duty to ensure that a minimum level of proper services is available to all our citizens, wherever they live.

I know that time is getting on so I shall pass quickly to my next subject. The price of petrol is another problem. When will the Government insist to the petrol companies that the price of petrol should, if anything, be cheaper in rural areas than in urban areas? For far too long those who have to travel to work by car, or who share cars, have had to pay a premium for travelling longer distances to work. [Interruption.] I know that the problem is not as bad as all that and that different figures have been produced by different organisations, but there is no argument whatsoever for having higher-priced petrol in rural areas.

The hon. Gentleman has just said that there is no argument whatsoever for having higher-priced petrol in rural areas. The argument is that it costs more to get that petrol to those areas. I have now listened to a whole catalogue of various things that the hon. Gentleman wants done—all of them costing money—but the House has not yet been given a single example of where the hon. Gentleman will get the money. Those things will only mean higher taxation for my rural constituents who do not want higher taxation.

There we have the naked voice of Thatcherism. Of course we want more money for rural areas; there is no question about it. As the Minister knows, farming could not survive if money was not provided for the farmers and the rural areas to enable them to undertake their very necessary functions.

I know that my hon. Friend is about to give this response: It comes ill from those who are constantly saying that all is now well economically and that the Chancellor has £x billion to give away, to say that necessarily there must be increased taxation if the quality of rural life is to be improved by additional public expenditure as my hon. Friend has outlined.

My hon. Friend is quite right. In a few days' time, on the Ides of March, we shall have the Budget. Figures have shown that the Chancellor will give away anything up to £11 billion — [Interruption.] Yes, he could have about £11 billion. That is the top estimate that I have seen. However, he will probably be cautious and give way perhaps £4 billion or £5 billion. Although this is off the subject of the motion, I hope that he will give £2 billion to the National Health Service. By all means let him lower the rate of taxation from 27p to 25p, provided that he does those other things. The Chancellor has the money this year to give extra money to the rural areas to provide decent housing, education and transport. I am surprised that the Minister laid himself open to such an obvious reply to his initial criticism, and 1 hope that he thinks about it. The rural areas cannot survive on their own. They need our help and it is our duty in this House to make sure that they get that help.

In terms of the common agricultural policy, I hope that the Government will not sell out British farmers. I hope that, if stabilisers are placed on sheepmeat, it will be done on a Community-wide basis. It is vital for our rural areas that sheep farmers are able to compete throughout the Community. For that reason stabilisers must not be placed on the United Kingdom alone. I hope that I have Conservative support on that point even if I do not have such support for some of my other points.

Local planning authorities look after the general interests of the rural community. I suspect that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) was annoyed about my local authority turning down a plan for a motorcycle race track. I can understand why that race track was not allowed. The factors to be considered are where it was to be located and whether it would annoy people. I am quite confident that planning matters should be left to representatives elected by local people. There is far too much interference by central Government who tell local authorities what they should and should not do.

This is an important debate. Far too often rural areas are left out of deliberations in the House and I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate. Even if Conservative Members do not agree with some of the points that I have made, I hope that they will think about what I have said. Perhaps they will admit that there is at least a case to be argued even if at the end of the day we agree to disagree.

Speeches have been rather long and may prejudice some hon. Members who have been here from the beginning of the debate and wish to take part.

12.26 pm

I listened attentively to the speech of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and could not help thinking that it would be a bad thing for Britain if he were ever to run a business and took into it his ideas of confusing capital and current accounts. I was left with the impression that the hon. Gentleman could not have been in the Chamber when the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his autumn statement, because in some of the sectors that the hon. Gentleman talked about there have been increases in funding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) on raising this subject for debate, having come first in the ballot. He made many interesting observations. In particular, I recall his warning that if the green belt is leapfrogged up to 1 million people in inner London might have to look for new accommodation in the home counties. That is a grave statistic to conjure with.

There was only one occasion on which I was tempted to intervene and it was when my hon. Friend said that many coastal resort towns came alive only when the tourists arrived in the tourist season. That is not the case in many southern coastal towns in which there are active communities caring for the elderly in the most lively fashion.

First and foremost, the debate is about change. For the last eight or nine years the main task of the Government has been to persuade the nation to face inevitable changes in technology, markets, working practices, education and in many other aspects of our daily lives. The debate is entirely consistent with that theme because it is the changing structure of British agriculture, which in turn is related to changes in agricultural production worldwide, that has focused attention on the increasingly urgent need to make other uses of the rural environment. At the same time, changes in technology that in many cases enable commerce and manufacturing to revert to a cottage industry basis have had an impact.

We have come full circle from the 19th century concentrations of raw material and labour in the great conurbations to the possibility of isolated workplaces which are nowadays linked by on-line computer facilities and which, in some cases, specialise in small-batch production. Moreover, the change in our transportation network of improved trunk roads and modernised railways has enabled city dwellers to spread into rural areas. They have taken up the houses vacated by people who have left farm work and have built more houses around them, so that the distinction between town and country has progressively become blurred.

The relationship between where people live and the sort of work that they do no longer conforms to the old geographical patterns that remained relatively stable for generations. The fabric of rural society is altering, as is the face of the landscape, and it will continue to do so on an accelerating basis.

In the face of that change, the Government have given a clear sense of direction. They have encouraged a healthy rural economy and a protected rural environment for those who live in it and for those who visit it. They have also encouraged a sense of realism. The Development Commission for Rural England has said that rural unemployment will, in the main, be solved off the farm, not on it. The consultation document about the farm woodland scheme, produced a year ago, referred to incentives for alternative uses of agricultural land and more diversity in the rural economy. That has resulted in the Bill now going through Parliament. The concept of set-aside is at last being taken seriously and, similarly, the Department of the Environment guidelines about rural enterprise point to the shifting demographic patterns and the changing character of the rural economy.

In spite of the measures being taken, it is far from clear whether people have grasped the extent of the changes that are beginning to take place in rural parts of Britain or whether they understand the pace at which the changes are likely to be brought about over the next few years. Above all, it seems that few people understand or sympathise with the pressure on British farmers today, yet there will be far-reaching consequences of that pressure which could create lasting damage to the rural environment unless careful controls and support are maintained.

This week, agreement has been reached in the European Community for more stringent controls over CAP spending in each of the 10 major farm sectors so that, by 1992, the CAP should reflect only 56 per cent. of the Community budget, rather than the figure of almost two thirds for which it accounts at present. That agreement will rightly be applauded because the notion of huge sums of money being squandered on surplus food mountains continues to be offensive. In the past few days, the media have shown relatively little awareness of the direct effect those farm spending controls are likely to have on the countryside as set-aside grows and some farmers already living on a marginal profit and loss account decide to give up and go out of business.

The lack of understanding between town and country about those impending changes in the rural economy is common everywhere, but it is well illustrated in my constituency. Many residents in Bexhill express the belief that farmers are sheltered from the harsh reality of competition and live a perpetually subsidised existence, yet those same people would be appalled at the thought that the rapid demise of unprofitable wealden farms might lead to the disappearance of any of the beautiful Sussex countryside nearby which they like to visit regularly.

For years, change has been taking place in the Sussex weald and elsewhere in the country. Most of the farms are still there today, but the three dozen or so farming villages around Battle have gradually seen many of the farm workers leave and their places in the community taken by commuters, retired couples and weekend visitors. So far, the changes have not had a major visual impact, apart from a gradual infilling of housing development within some of the villages. What is likely to happen over the next decade, in spite of sensible county structure plans, will depend largely on what happens to agriculture. If the occasional loss of a farm becomes a stampede and there is an exit from agriculture, in an almighty hurry major property developers in London will cast increasingly covetous eyes at the home counties and most definitely at nearby east Sussex.

That point concerns me. Developers' interests will have been further fortified by the excellent improvements to local communications and a succession of much-needed bypasses on the A21, for example, and by the electrification of the Hastings or Tonbridge railway line. Those developers will no doubt hope to fill in the gaps between the roadside villages. If they succeed, my own gloomy prediction, which I call the Orpington factor, is likely to come to pass. Orpington is a wonderful place. I have known it for most of my life, but neither I nor the vast majority of people in Kent and Sussex want to see Orpington creep yard by yard down to the Kent and Sussex coastline.

What, then, can be done to ensure that rural development proceeds as the carefully calculated adjustment which the Government rightly intend it to be? There are four principal initiatives which must be maintained, all of which have been touched on already in this debate and which the Government have repeatedly acknowledged previously. Nevertheless, they deserve to be headlined again: the concern about farmers; the potential that exists for tourism; the scope to be found in computerised outwork in private homes; and the role of local authorities.

It is important for the House to recognise that farmers are not crying "Wolf". They understand the need to curb production and to reorganise output throughout the EC. They can recognise the good sense in the Government's emphasis on set-aside and the need for stabilisers in each regime. But the position of many farmers remains precarious, particularly those who are highly geared with bank borrowings. The storm damage in Kent and Sussex last October was devastating. Uninsurable outbuildings, glasshouses and growing frames were damaged and much woodland was so damaged that the clearance costs alone are prohibitive so that replanting remains an academic proposition.

Milk production has stabilised successfully since the last quota reduction, but further painful changes must inevitably be on the way. Pigmeat prices are at their lowest for five years. The system of MCAs works against British pig producers, as does the import from outside the European Community of cheap manioc as feedstuff. Therefore, while fully supporting the Government's commitment to the restructuring of the CAP and the policies outlined in last Monday's debate on agriculture, I hope that the Government will have every sympathy for farmers when they consider a devaluation of the green pound. Pitched right, it will enable rural development to proceed at a manageable pace, but, pitched wrong, it could mean that some farms — for example, in the Sussex weald—will no longer be viable, with all that that would imply.

Tourism is a huge industry with the great merit of being spread throughout the country. It has a larger GDP than the automotive industry. It offers scope for initiative and enterprise, and can absorb many young people who can learn the necessary skills as they work. One great advantage of the Channel tunnel and the development of the Dover to Honiton south coast trunk road is that they should bring a further influx of tourists into southern England. That is an opportunity not to be missed in rural areas.

I hope that in the not too distant future all manner of employers in London and the other major centres will carry out feasibility studies of their administration departments to establish whether they can run their offices more cheaply and just as efficiently by putting personal computers, word processors and fax machines into employees' homes, thereby creating more jobs in the suburbs and rural areas and reducing the pressure on commuting.

In east Sussex the Rother and Wealden district councils are doing an excellent job with housing. As well as looking after their housing stock, they are mindful of the need for more private rented accommodation and for housing that is suitable for first-time buyers. They are aware of the importance of community services in villages and they have welcomed the Government's initiative of the past few years on bus transportation. In east Sussex, that has led to an improvement in rural bus services.

One area of anxiety is planning. It is a question not of the decisions taken by the local authority, but of the increasing number of appeals against refusals for planning consent which are finding their way through the planning inspectorate to the Secretary of State's office. As that number increases, one is bound to look back at the idea of property developers from London and at the Orpington factor. I am not talking simply about district council planning decisions; the same tendency applies to county council decisions. Recently in a neighbouring constituency there was clearly a disagreement between the county council's planning office and county engineer's office, and the Department over the choice of a preferred route for a bypass. There may have been good reasons for that, but it is a sign that we must be prepared to heed what local people have to say about planning decisions.

Those are the four headlines that will keep the all-important rural initiative on the right track. The House will, I think, accept that change in the rural environment is inevitable, but the pace and nature of that change is ours to influence. If we get it right, we shall earn the gratitude of future generations; but if we get it wrong and disfigure the landscape, we shall rightly be condemned.

12.40 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and for the opportunity to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle). He spoke a good deal of sense, like most hon. Members on both sides of the House —which, in this debate, means on our side. I hope that the "composite hon. Gentleman" who, for most of the debate, has been wholly sustaining the Labour party, the hon. Member for "Jarrow, Holborn and St. Pancras"—sometimes he has a beard and sometimes he does not— will have a role to play in the debate. Perhaps he will say something about how inner cities can help inner problems.

It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friends if I stick to the subject of the planning system. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) introduced the motion, and I congratulate him on the way in which he did so. He did an important service in portraying the trend—especially the population trend, of which too little notice has been taken recently. If his conclusions are rather different from mine, it is because he was extrapolating from the present trend, whereas I, like some of my hon. Friends — in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) —believe that we can influence and change that trend if we can develop the political will to do so.

I start by referring to the problem of overdevelopment in rural areas, which is a major issue in the south and other parts of rural England. An invading tide of concrete is reaching parts of our precious environment which no one has hitherto thought that it could penetrate. Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Dorset now contain very little of the remote countryside that they contained only 20 years ago.

At the same time, there is a flow of people, economic activity and infrastructure away from the old manufacturing areas—primarily, but not exclusively, in the north and the inner cities—into the green fields of what are seen, for the moment at any rate, as the more desirable pastures of England. Those two trends are working together to change the face of Britain's environment, fuelled by the accelerating success of the British economy. Perhaps, indeed, we are fortunate to have the problem. It is nevertheless a serious problem, because our country is, by international standards, crowded and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East pointed out, may become even more so. But our countryside is a major, if diminishing, national asset: as Mark Twain observed some time ago, they have stopped making land.

I have two propositions, with which I shall begin and end my speech. First, one of the essential answers is the recreation of our inner cities—perhaps this is the subject on which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) will make his contribution—so that they become, as they once were, places where people in every income bracket want to live and work. In that sense, our inner cities and our countryside are directly connected, and the Government's raft of inner city policies are a major step in the right direction.

My second proposition is that at the heart of organising and maintaining our environment is our planning system, which has become strained in recent years as overdevelopment has continued. No longer is it a capable instrument for the task in hand. It is out of date, developer-driven and in urgent need of radical reform. It should enable us to protect the countryside, limit, if not halt, large-scale moves of population for no economic reason and, at the same time, encourage developments — some of which hon. Members have referred to— in rural as well as urban areas, where they are wanted. However, unless people, through their local representatives, feel that they have a say in deciding the shape of their environment, they will abandon their belief in their community and their support for it, ultimately with serious social as well as environmental results.

We must maintain the action that we have started for the re-creation of our inner cities. If Liverpool fails to be a place in which people wish to live and work, other parts of the country will pick up the social pieces. There is no more mournful fact about the increasingly less pleasant area of Bournemouth, Poole and surrounding areas than the number of displaced, unhappy Liverpudlians who now live there, far from where, in many cases, they would prefer to be. There is also the problem of people retiring to such areas, which has already been discussed adequately.

Regrettably, local planning decisions are being overturned in far too many cases, and this strikes at the heart of local government. It is no longer an issue that the Department of the Environment can avoid. We want responsible local government, but in planning, too often, local government is losing heart and losing the will to make its own planning decisions. We should devise a greater say for parish and town councils.

I can give one example, which is a national if a small example, of the way in which decisions are being overturned, to the detriment of local communities. When amusement arcades are created in a small town, they have a great effect on the behaviour and make-up of community life. I know of a number of cases where local authorities have refused permission for amusement arcades, and those decisions have been overturned on appeal by the Department. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at that matter.

I hope that my hon. Friend will continue, on a much more fundamental basis, the review of circulars that his colleagues have diffidently started. In many respects, circulars are unclear and out of date, and they are particularly out of date in their definition of demand. The demand for housing should not be that set out by the National Housebuilders Federation or consortium developers. That is just one of the ways in which our planning circulars, which are an important bible for local planners, are leading them astray and diminishing the control that local authorities have over the shape that their community should take.

Some excellent points have been made on what can be summed up by the slogan, "Village homes for village people". Local councils are no longer the best authorities, and council housing is no longer the best way, to provide for those who need housing, and will continue to need housing in rural areas. I should like to see the speeding up of the improvement of the private rented sector, for which many of us have pressed for so long, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) put the point well.

The way forward lies through the greater encouragement of housing associations and shared ownership schemes. If it is necessary, because of the land prices, for the taxpayers' contribution to housing association schemes to be raised, we shall have to face it. That is the best way forward, because such bodies retain the ability to select the tenants to whom the housing will be made available.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I believe that we will have to have a much tighter planning framework, whatever form it might take. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough kindly referred to the pamphlet entitled, "This Pleasant Land" which I wrote. I do not intend to dilate on it now. Indeed, I hope to have an opportunity soon to discuss the detailed proposals in it with the other authorities and my hon. Friend the Minister. We cannot get away from the need for a much greater and more effective overview of the need for development and for a land use strategy which was outlined in that document.

There is a major job to be done in reforming the planning system to protect our countryside and to encourage development of our inner cities and other areas where land development is required and wanted. If we do nothing, much more of our countryside will continue to be lost while the life-blood drains from our cities until the countryside has gone and the tide turns back. If we want our children to enjoy a pleasant land, rural and urban, we must take action now.

12.51 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) on his success in the ballot and on choosing this important topic for debate.

Last year, my hon. Friend had a spectacular electoral success. He has shown this morning that it was no fluke, but due entirely to his ability, which he has demonstrated today. I found his speech extremely interesting. It covered all of the issues about which hon. Members have expressed anxiety.

My hon. Friend said that there has been a population explosion in some areas. The same is true of part of my constituency. In the south of Ryedale, in the north York suburbs, what were a collection of sleepy villages 25 or 30 years ago now have a population approaching 50.000. There are enormous pressures on the infrastructure, especially leisure.

Housing has been mentioned. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the problems which loom is the proliferation of property which is bought for holiday lets. In some villages in my constituency, there is anxiety, especially at parish council level, that too many houses are left unoccupied through the winter because they are bought for letting during the summer. I wonder whether the planning system should consider that problem.

If there is to be a reduction in the agricultural work force, we must remember that many of those concerned live in tied accommodation. I should be interested if my hon. Friend the Minister could tell us what measures in the Housing Bill tackle that issue.

Many hon. Members have spoken about land use. I add my support to the suggestion of set-aside so that land might be used for leisure. Green belt land might be used for leisure activities. A landowner in my constituency has written to me in this regard. Perhaps some committee or review will consider that matter under the aegis of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

But we should not kid ourselves that the set-aside scheme will solve all the problems of land use. In the debate of agriculture on Monday, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) quoted the Country Landowners Association, drawing attention to the fact that some of the suggested leisure uses for land tackle only a tiny part of the great set-aside difficulty. It said:
"Even if 300 new golf courses are built and 10,000 tennis courts and 1,000 camping and caravan sites, they will account for no more than 30,000 hectares, leaving 5,970 hectares facing a fate which the French call desertification."—[Official Report, 15 February 1988; Vol. 127, c. 782.]
I shall concentrate on six words on the Order Paper—
"promote enterprise in the rural economy."
If I have one criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East, it is that he chose the title "Rural Development" for the debate instead of "Rural Enterprise'. The Government are committed to a major initiative on urban renewal in the inner cities, and it is right that they should be. All hon. Members from rural constituencies wish their initiative every success. But the rural economy also causes concern, and the debate gives us an opportunity to remind the House that people face hard times in rural areas as well as in the inner cities.

For many years, the prosperity of the countryside depended largely on agriculture, but it was recognised some time ago that agriculture could not provide all the employment needed to sustain rural communities. Initiatives in tourism and leisure activities generally have already brought considerable benefits. A recent English Tourist Board survey showed that tourism in Ryedale supports about 8,000 jobs and involves about 40 per cent. of the district's work force. Much of the success of tourism in Ryedale is due not only to its natural heritage of countryside and history but to the initiative of Ryedale district council and its tourism and leisure department, which last year distributed more than 250,000 brochures. It is impossible to say whether all the tourism potential of Ryedale and the country at large has been fully explored. But it is clear that there are dangers in becoming too dependent on tourism, just as there are in becoming too dependent on agriculture.

Bearing in mind what the hon. Gentleman said about tourism and the number of caravanners who visit his constituency, does he believe that it is a good idea for the Government to levy the poll tax on those for whom caravanning is their only leisure enjoyment during the year?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I have already written to the Minister responsible because the matter causes great concern. But it is not the subject of this debate.

Not all rural areas lend themselves to tourism as naturally as Ryedale does, and even in my constituency in some communities the tourism potential is limited. Not all communities are natural tourist attractions, and not everyone wants to be involved in the industry. To those who have been involved in working the land we must offer an alternative beyond bed-and-breakfast accommodation, caravan sites and gift shops, important though those things are. We need a rural enterprise initiative to build on the work that is already being done by several agencies, some of which have been mentioned in the debate, to help to establish new businesses and to provide employment and prosperity in rural communities.

One reason why I question my hon. Friend's use of the words "rural development" is, that, unfortunately, the word "development" is associated in many people's minds with the concept of substantial construction projects. When the Government launched their farming and rural enterprise initiative last year, in which the need for exclusive use of land for agriculture was questioned, alarm bells rang throughout the countryside because it was thought that it might be the prelude to unwanted and unwarranted major building projects. I am sure that the Government did not have that in mind, as the document "Rural Enterprise and Development" clearly states.

Establishing workshops, craft industries, small manufacturing units and homes for small businesses does not mean that we have to change the face of the countryside with swathes of concrete and brick. It means making use of derelict farm buildings and other accommodation which can be renovated and restored to preserve, not destroy, the character of our rural communities. It may mean some new build, but that can be designed to blend in with the setting or with existing structures. Either way, it will bring employment, activity, people and prosperity to declining rural areas. It will also bring training and job opportunities for the young who might otherwise move away to find work.

During the debate several hon. Members have referred to the problem of retaining local services including shops, post offices and petrol stations in rural areas. Those services can be sustained only by people working in the community.

The term development also has connotations of large-scale handouts of public funds. Financial assistance must be selective, not automatic. The advice and help of consultants and experts are a much more appropriate use of resources as they help to ensure that projects will succeed and, in the longer term, ensure that that success is sustained and built upon.

Hon. Members may claim that COSIRA, the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, the small firms service and the regional tourist boards are doing that work already. Indeed, they are doing that very successfully in many ways. However, is not the fact that we are discussing the issue today proof that more work is needed?

I question the use of the word development. Laudable though the Government's previous initiatives have been, have they had the impact that was needed? The Development Commission which has responsibility for rural England prepared another excellent document called "Action for Rural Enterprise". However, I wonder whether the message has got through. My impression is that the real problem stems from confusion over who has departmental responsibility for rural enterprise.

The foreword to "Farming and Rural Enterprise", which was published last year, contains the signatures of no fewer than five Ministers. However, the signatures of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is responsible for enterprise, do not appear. We have heard reference to the interest of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this matter. I am sure his interest extends beyond the fact that he represents a large rural area. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) referred to the problem of schools. Therefore, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, nine Ministers should have an interest in this matter. All those Cabinet Minsters should be involved in any initiative to develop the rural economy. Clearly my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning bears a heavy load on his shoulders as he has to answer for so many distinguished colleagues.

I am not suggesting that the initiatives have lacked effort or imagination. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his colleagues deserve much praise for their work in introducing diversification schemes and obtaining finance for grants for farmers to look for other enterprises beyond agriculture.

I question whether all the good work has had the necessary impact. I believe that the message from the debate should be that the Government should consider appointing a Minister with direct responsibility for developing the rural economy. That would beg the question which Department should have the responsibility for such an initiative. Those primarily concerned with conservation might suggest that the Department of the Environment should take that responsibility. I question that because any enterprise initiative will create conflicts over planning matters —and that has been referred to during the debate—in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has a quasi-judicial role. As already suggested, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made great efforts to stimulate diversification. However, it is concerned primarily with farming interests.

I will not give way, because I am coming to the end of my speech.

The Department of Employment has responsibility for the tourism that has been developed to such great effect in my constituency and elsewhere. However, what is needed goes beyond tourism, state benefits, employment and training schemes. Having taken on the huge task of reviving our inner cities, I suggest that my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should next turn his attention to the development of the rural economy. His recent White Paper redefined the Department's primary objective, which I believe goes to the heart of the debate. It says that the needs and demands of society can be met only by increasing prosperity.

That objective is just as relevant and important to the rural economy as it is to industry and commerce. We now need one Minister to bring together, harness and coordinate the work being done by all the agencies and organisations. The Minister should champion the cause of a broad-based rural economy in which workshops and small manufacturing units can flourish alongside agriculture, tourism, recreation and conservation interests. Only in that way will we truly establish a rural enterprise culture.

1.6 pm

I shall not do battle with the hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle), for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) because they have all made constructive speeches and I agree with much of what they said. However, the hon. Member for Ryedale appeared to suggest, along the lines stressed by those who say that the Conservative party is really the English Nationalist party, that the Department of the Environment should be the sole Department responsible for agriculture, excluding, as it were, Wales and Scotland.

All the hon. Members made important points about the EEC. Some of us are sceptical about whether the agricultural portion of the Community's budget will really fall, as anticipated, from two thirds to about 50 per cent. of the total budget. However, if the agricultural portion of the budget were to fall significantly, it would be bound to have important implications for the countryside, whether in terms of set-aside or rural incomes. Given the timescale of four years and the financial forecasts that are available, the Government might consider producing a White Paper, perhaps a think piece, on the implications for rural development of the package that was agreed recently at Brussels. It will certainly have implications. I would be interested to know whether that idea commends itself to the Minister.

The hon. Member for Ryedale mentioned planning and rural enterprise. In addition to the bodies that he mentioned, one that I would suggest is worthy of study is the Mid Wales Development Board. It is a non-controversial organisation in party terms and it has had substantial success in bringing together the various components of the economy within mid Wales. That precedent is well worth studying.

The hon. Member for Ryedale said that we should encourage rural enterprise. One of my hobby horses is the encouragement of craft industries in the countryside. Local authorities should try to bring together in one building opportunities for a number of individuals who might be involved in craft in the countryside. I have seen one such example in Cirencester. I believe that it is extremely helpful to individuals who otherwise would not be able to market their products within the countryside. Such marketing is carried out extremely well in the French countryside. Tourist centres are located in one area so that local crafts people can market their wares. Often one-person enterprises assist rural enterprise and development.

Another theme that has emerged from the debate is the decline in the rural economy. Clearly this happened, not in 1979 but, for a series of objective reasons, over decades. We tend to forget the changes in the electoral configuration as a result of that decline. One has only to consider what has happened in East Anglia and parts of rural Scotland and Wales to see that that is so. In that regard, I think particularly of the Forest of Dean where much of the underpinning of the area—the railways, local shops and schools has gone and the traditional rural communities have been replaced by commuter groups, who bring their different ideals and purposes to rural areas.

We tend to idealise rural communities and forget the substantial social problems in them. Post Offices with general stores attached to them simply cannot compete with large supermarkets in nearby towns. Therefore, a rural facility disappears from what in the past has been a vibrant village community.

Those problems cannot be solved by market mechanisms. I recall attending, when I represented the rural constituency of Monmouth, a meeting in a village and discussing the local bus service. Some articulate individuals were saying, "We have our cars—perhaps two or three cars—so we do not need a bus service." A number of individuals whom I knew were retired or poor and had no cars. After the meeting, I said, "You did not speak. Why did you not raise your problems?" They were afraid to voice their problems.

There is a danger—we have seen this among some Conservative Members—to think of a countryside that is fit only for executives. One hon. Member talked rather idealistically of on-line computers and the ability of people who live in rural areas to have easy communication with their head office in London or wherever. There are some people who, because of their formation and education, are not able to handle on-line computers. There are some who in the past would have done the simple jobs of the countryside. We should ensure, so far as possible, if there is to be a balanced and mixed community in the countryside, that we do not forget the ordinary folk.

That point is particularly true with regard to two matters. The first concerns housing. There has already been an exchange with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) about the effect of the right-to-buy provisions on housing. I concede that there may be different regional repercussions of the right-to-buy legislation. It may not be a factor in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I can assure him that it is in parts of rural and west Wales, where all the planning authorities are concerned about the availability of reasonably priced housing for local people. They are concerned that once council houses become marketable at the end of the requisite period they will be snapped up by people from outside the area. They are also concerned about the collapse of council house building in many parts of the rural countryside as a direct result of Government policy. I shall not be ideological about that.

I trust that the hon. Gentleman will consider carefully what he is saying. I understand those fears, but the fact is that people do not easily give up council houses in country areas. Their jobs are normally in those areas and they want to remain there. They do not want to sell their houses and make themselves homeless. Many tenants live in their houses for a long time so that they rarely become available for letting.

I accept that the majority of people will continue to live in the same houses whether they are owned by the local authority or not, but a proportion of those houses that formerly would have been available to local councils will no longer be available. Coupled with other objective demographic factors, such as the aging population and smaller households, and non-objective factors, such as the collapse of council house building as a direct result of Government policy, this scheme will put a squeeze on individuals in rural communities who, in the past, had a reasonable prospect of acquiring a house from a local authority.

I ask only for some flexibility. It may well be that the appropriate provision will come from housing associations and that the local authority will have its normal right to nominate members. The right-to-buy policy may not be a problem in Tayside, but it is in a number of areas. I suggest that the Government consider whether it is a problem—just as most people on the spot do—and, if they think that it is, take steps to remedy it.

I fear that, because of the twin pressures on our railway and bus services, some people in rural communities are more isolated now than people have been for a century. I am talking not about the commuter families, who are mobile and may have several cars, but about the "wee folk"—If I may use that phrase—the ordinary folk in the countryside. The statistics show that income levels in the countryside are normally lower than in towns, yet a number of goods are more expensive in the countryside —for example, groceries are more expensive and a car may be needed, with all the associated costs of petrol, and so on.

There are twin pressures on people living in the countryside. There are considerable problems of isolation for those who do not have ready access to a car—not only for the elderly and the disabled but for the wife whose husband uses the car for work some distance away. Such problems have been exacerbated by Government policy towards the railways. There has been a substantial reduction in subsidies and the board of British Rail has shown alacrity in going further than the Government wanted. There are exciting experiments with Sprinter trains, but the general pattern in rural railway services has been one of decline in recent years.

The same picture is painted for bus services. I ask the Government to monitor the effects of deregulation in rural areas. I have no doubt that deregulation will benefit areas such as mine, an inner-city area, resulting in a large number of buses going through, at least at certain times of the day. It is lucrative for the various bus operators to undertake those services, but the Government need carefully to consider the availability of buses.

County councils are able to make grants in appropriate cases, but the Government must carefully monitor the effects of deregulation on available rural bus services, particularly at weekends and, say, after 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening. The Government must ask whether, by appropriate intervention in respect of rail or bus services, they can solve what for many people is a real problem — rural isolation. I am convinced that market mechanisms will not solve the problem. There is a need for appropriate and selective Government intervention.

1.20 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) on initiating the debate and on his splendid contribution to it. I endorse and, possibly, reinforce his call for housing association activities to be extended to rural areas. I take on board his points about the green belt. The green belt is fine enough, but it tends to put extra pressure on areas just outside it, including areas such as Stroud, which I represent. In calling attention to development problems in rural areas, I advise my hon. Friend that the problem is singular. There is rather too much development.

My constituency is justifiably regarded as rural —indeed, it is beautiful. It includes some level reaches along the river Severn, a steep escarpment covered in beech trees, and the Cotswolds. I ask hon. Members to imagine the pressure for development, bearing in mind that Bristol is just to the west of my constituency. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister is in the Chamber; I am about to describe Bristol as something of a problem. To the north of my constituency are Gloucester and Cheltenham, and just outside it is Swindon, another town vying for the title of fastest-growing town in Europe. Although the area that I represent comprises about 180 sq miles, it contains 85,000 constituents. It increased by 3,500 between the 1983 and 1987 elections. Therefore, scope for a further increase in population must be limited if the area is to retain its rural character. Demand for a rural environment is insatiable. The demand cannot be met, at least in certain parts of southern England.

Of course, in a debate such as this, it is difficult to generalise on many matters. Often, towns in the same area may have completely different problems. I acknowledge that Stroud, the main town in my constituency, could do with some more jobs. However, anybody with a particular skill or training is unlikely to be without a job for long. By comparison, Tetbury has more available jobs than people to fill them. A few months ago, there was an application to build a chemical factory that would have provided about 200 jobs. I was pleased when the application was turned down. Surely something such as a chemical factory would be better suited to an area that already has heavy industry. No doubt, had the application been granted, there would soon have been yet another application to build 200 houses. 1 doubt whether a factory and 200 more houses would have been for the overall benefit of the town.

Unfortunately, several ancient market towns, with their fine old centres, corn halls, market crosses, and lovely gabled merchants' houses tend to be lost in a sea of modern developments. I am not making a particular complaint. People have a right to live in a pleasant environment and problems arise only when the scale of development is such that the beauty of the area is threatened.

As has already been pointed out, we must recognise that the local planning authorities have overall responsibility, and we must not interfere with their activities except in general terms. The Department was entirely right to encourage the conversion of barns and farm buildings for residential use. In my area that has resulted in many splendid and individual homes that are much appreciated by the purchasing public, judging by the prices that they are prepared to pay for them. It must be right that development is preferable to dereliction.

We are less clear in our thinking about woodlands. In certain rural areas there is tremendous potential. Well-managed woodland needs about one person for every 100 acres of woods. Unfortunately, the extremely well-organised conservation pressure groups — which often have widely differing views about what constitutes conservation—have advised us that fir trees are bad and deciduous trees are good. Perhaps we should call fir trees pine trees. Perhaps pine forests would be generally acceptable. If we throw vast amounts of public money into hardwoods, in 30 or 40 years' time we shall end up with vast areas of hardwood scrub, when we need timber suitable for paper, as currently we produce only 9 per cent. of our requirements. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past where square miles of hillside were blanketed with conifers. We must use a certain amount of style and precision.

In future, it is likely that more people will work from home. That possibility is inescapable. I believe that in 20 years' time, it will be quite normal for people to work at home and transmit their copy by a fax or whatever, to a head office in London or elsewhere. We must take that important point into consideration when planning for the future. It must be recognised that people cannot always expect to have a house built on a green field site and then to work nearby in a factory that is also built on a green field site. Such an arrangement cannot be the norm.

The best way to protect the countryside must be to develop and improve the existing urban areas. There are many depressing areas in Gloucester — I have not mentioned Bristol this time—that may be developed. It may be more expensive to develop areas with complicated ownership patterns than simply to dig into a green field site, but the policy of developing and improving city areas quickly must be pursued or we shall all be losers.

1.28 pm

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important subject, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) on selecting it.

It is clear from the debate that there are different problems in different rural areas, yet there are areas which have a number of common problems. Those common problems present us with common challenges and opportunities. A problem is often a challenge and an opportunity for change. We are in the midst of such a challenge.

I remind the House that the part of Scotland that I represent—2,000 sq. miles of beautiful Highland areas—is where the Highland clearances began. I remind hon. Members who do not remember the Highland clearances, or have not read about them, that that was when the glens in my constituency were cleared of people, and sheep were put on the hills to replace them. Sheep became a fundamental factor in the local economy. However, today we have a threat to the sheep. If we cannot find an answer in the negoitations on the sheepmeat regime, or if the negotiations go badly, there will be a second Highland clearance, which would leave our glens without people, and without sheep.

When my hon. Friends are involved in negotiations about the green pound, it is important that it is acknowledged and accepted that Scotland's farmers are not asking for anything special. All they want is equal opportunities. The green pound anomalies must be removed. If the green pound is pitched wrongly, it will create massive problems for Scotland's farmers arid drive many of them out of business.

I remind the House that there are large areas of grouse moor in my constituency. We hear a lot about grouse moors from the Opposition Benches, but it is not often acknowledged that those moors provide many valuable jobs in my part of the world, and in other parts of Scotland. We wish to protect those valuable jobs, which can continue for ever if we husband the resources that provide them.

That is also true of the rod fishing that takes place in many parts of my constituency, and it applies not least to the salmon fishing on the river Tay. I welcome the changes that have been made recently to ensure that more salmon come up the river so that they can be caught. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lord Sanderson of Bowden, who is in charge of that issue at the Scottish Office. on the measures that he has taken recently. I hope that he will continue to take such bold measures to ensure that the fish actually get up the river so that the rod fishermen can catch them, because that will mean that those fishermen will return—and they provide more jobs in my constituency than people realise.

Indeed, tourism — in that I include all leisure and recreational activities — is the largest employer in my constituency. When one realises that tourism covers areas of activity such as skiing, canoeing, sailing, climbing, walking, riding, hang gliding, camping and caravanning, one realises that the list is almost endless, but all those activities have in common the fact that they provide job opportunities.

In our debates on rural areas, it is important that we recognise that not all rural areas have similar problems. I should welcome some of the problems that I have heard about. I should welcome people wanting to come to live in my constituency, especially if they wanted to live in some of the more remote parts. One problem that we have faced in the Scottish Highlands has been trying to ensure that people stay in our glens. It is important that we get a balance in the glens, and tourism has a role to play in that.

We have heard a lot recently about forestry. I advise the House that forestry has provided work and lifeblood for many of my constituents in terms of income and opportunities. Again, forestry must be seen for what it is. It provides an essential part of the economic balance. We should recognise that in Scotland, which constitutes about 40 per cent. of the land mass of the United Kingdom, there are opportunities for forestry planting. We should look after the nation's long-term need for forestry and wood pulp, and that provides opportunities.

However, we should also recognise that planting too many conifers could present problems for the rural balance, which will be distorted. One aspect that we have taken note of recently is the impact on the whisky industry of conifers that have been planted too close to water courses. The whisky industry is probably Scotland's most important single industry. It employs 16,000 people and exports £1 billion worth of whisky every year. In addition, it gives the Chancellor of the Exchequer a £1 billion contribution towards his coffers every year. Because of that, we must ensure that conifers are not planted too close to the water courses. They have an effect on the water which, of course. is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of whisky.

It is of concern to my constituents that the European Community fondly imagines that the Highlands of Scotland begin at the Drumochter pass. Nothing is more nonsensical. Every school child in Scotland and, I hope, throughout the United Kingdom knows that the Highlands begin at Perth, which has always been known as the gateway to the Highlands. That creates problems because if EC recognition does not embrace the whole of the Scottish Highlands, we should not be surprised if we find farmers in Rannoch, Glen Lyon, Drumochter, Glenshee and Strathardle farming in conditions that make it more difficult for them to make a living. That applies in many areas apart from what the European Community fondly imagines are the Highlands of Scotland. It is not surprising that farmers in those areas feel that they are not getting an even-handed deal.

Much has been said about housing problems. There has been much scaremongering. My constituency is the only area about which I can speak with authority. Every time the problem that would be created by the sale of council houses has been brought to my attention I have investigated it. As I told the House, I found that the people in the council houses felt the same, whether or not they had bought their house. They have no intention of moving because they have nowhere else to go. Anyone who suggests that people living in my remote glens will sell their houses and leave themselves homeless miles away from their jobs and from everything else is not living in the real world. People in the remote parts of Scotland generally do not want to move. That is why they want to retain the sheep and the balance that I have been talking about.

There are needs. Aberfeldy has no employment problems. It has full employment, but there is a need for housing. That does not necessarily mean council housing. There is a desperate need in the rural parts of Scotland for more private letting. Housing associations and the measures contained in the Housing (Scotland) Bill will encourage private letting. There is much empty property in rural Scotland and it would be helpful if we could get it on the market. That is what I meant when I said that problems can create challenges and opportunities.

We must continue to husband our resources, including rural amenities such as schools, hospitals and post offices. They are the lifeblood of a community. I would add to that the kirk, because although in some parts of the United Kingdom it may not be so, we still think that our kirk is important, and the Minister is still held in some respect. That may surprise some of my hon. Friends, but as a majority of my constituents voted for me and support me, the House will realise what sensible people they are. Some of them do not support me, but not many.

Hospitals, schools, post offices and kirks are essential to maintain our communities. Therefore, when we talk about opportunities we are talking not only about jobs and Government initiatives, but about creating the right economic environment in which people can take the risk of setting up businesses and creating opportunities. The Government have created that environment, and my constituency has benefited substantially. I should be happy to take any hon. Member to remote glens in which he could see people working with computers or to areas where craft industries are flourishing. I should be happy to show anyone all the benefits in my constituency.

1.38 pm

Thanks to the speech of the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), I have discovered that Aberfeldy is in his constituency and I now know what Burns meant in the poem entitled "The Birks of Aberfeldy."

I am happy to contribute to the debate, although there have been some doubts about my interests in the matter, as I represent Holborn and St. Pancras. However, I can at least lay claim to representing Chalk Farm, Oak Village and Lincoln's Inn Fields. I also represent a wildlife site. It is one of the curiosities of this country that there is a high proportion of wildlife sites in the inner cities, indeed, a larger proportion than in most rural areas.

I wish to address the problems, not of my constituency, but of rural areas in which about 25 per cent. of the population live. The population of those areas has grown substantially in recent years. In one 10-year period, 1 million more people moved into rural areas. The balance of the population between urban and rural areas is now what it was in 1901, so it is shifting back in the other direction. There is now a drift away from urban areas into rural areas, when we have been used to a shift in the opposite direction.

Many people in rural areas are prosperous, but there are also substantial numbers who are not. Most people living in rural areas, whether prosperous or not, remain dependent on the provision of public services, either by central Government, local authorities or the National Health Service. There are many problems in rural areas, as Conservative Members have been willing to point out. There are nodules of high unemployment in a number of rural areas. In some small towns and villages, the proportion of unemployed people compares unfavourably with virtually any part of the country.

Because of the long distances involved in travel, access to retraining and reskilling for unemployed people in rural areas is not as easy as it is for people living in urban or suburban areas. There are also quite a number of people living in poverty or on the edge of poverty in rural areas. Many people living in those areas pay considerably over the odds for the goods and services that they buy, compared with people living in the suburbs.

There are problems with the National Health Service, social services and transport. Recently, there was a considerable threat to free school transport, which was eventually fought off in the other place. It is worth remembering that that proposition was initiated not by the Government, but by some of the Tory education authorities, as a way of saving money. There are problems with maintaining an adequate comprehensive education service in rural areas, as the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) said. He is not present at the moment, as he has had a serious operation and did not want to stay throughout the debate. I am sure that all hon. Members wish him a speedy recovery.

Some services in rural areas, as in other parts of the country, are held back by lack of resources and low levels of spending. However, some basic problems about provisions of services for people in rural areas will remain, whatever the level of spending. The wide dispersal of the population means that the provision of services is not such a paying proposition as it is in the cities or the suburbs. The long distances to be covered in providing those services make them sporadic and more expensive. That applies to the private sector and to the public sector with the provision of schools and hospitals.

Many Conservative Members have said, although the hon. Member for Tayside, North did not seem to agree with them, that the lack of cheap housing in rural areas has always been a problem and is growing. They referred to a lack of housing for young people on low incomes, particularly those who have grown up in rural areas and want to stay there. They find it increasingly difficult to stay.

When I served on the Environment Select Committee in 1980–81 we took evidence from some local authorities about the likely effects of the sale of council houses and their non-replacement. The most telling evidence was not, as one might have expected, from some inner-city authorities, but from the Allerdale and South Lakeland councils, which foresaw problems if they were forced to sell houses in villages in the Lakeland national park. They feared that if a proportion of houses were sold, outsiders would come in and low-cost housing would no longer be available. They foresaw prices gradually rising higher and higher and that as the process continued it would be difficult to find anyone to deliver the milk or post, to teach in the local school, to nurse at the local hospital or to work for a local firm on lower than average industrial wages, as is usually the case in the countryside.

The Lake District special planning board, in an effort to counter this threat to locally born and bred people being able to stay in their area, tried to get local occupancy conditions written into the structure plan for Lakeland, but the Secretary of State for the Environment, presumably knowing better than the board about the problems of Lakeland, deleted that part from the plan. That has certainly been damaging to the provision of houses for ordinary people in the Lake District.

Last year the university of Lancaster produced a report entitled "Housing Dilemmas in the Lake District which points to the difficulties that have occurred as a result of the forced sale of council housing and its non-replacement by any other form of low-cost housing in the villages and small towns that needed it in the first place. I suspect that that process has gone on further and faster in the Lake District than in many other rural areas, but they may well be catching up. As practically every Conservative Member said, we need to consider seriously what we can do to ensure a renewed and continuing supply of cheap housing for people who cannot afford expensive housing.

Unless we replace the houses that have been sold the position will worsen. I am not sure how this applies to rural areas, but on average a local authority needs to sell 15 council houses to raise the money to build one new one, because of the curious ways in which the money is shifted about. We need more building by housing associations, although the right to buy also applies to housing associations other than charitable ones which provide housing for specific groups.

Many of the proposals in the Housing Bill are likely to worsen rather than to improve the position in rural areas. It is crystal clear that unless one is well off in a rural area, the free market will not deliver many goods or services. It certainly will not provide housing, particularly in areas which are becoming increasingly attractive to commuters.

The provision of health services illustrates many of the problems of providing a good quality service in rural areas. This week, my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) published a list of 300 hospitals that have been closed since 1979. It is clear that a substantial majority of the hospitals on the list are either in rural areas, or in small or medium-sized market towns which have traditionally provided health care for rural areas, as well as for the community in which they were located.

The problem is not entirely to do with the level of resources. We need to consider how we deliver a health service to those areas. Those people need treatment, even if they do not have enough sick relatives and friends living nearby to attract doctors to move into their areas. They need hospitals, even if they or their families will not use them as intensively as would people living in a densely populated town or suburb.

There are two ways in which sick people receive professional treatment. Either they go to the treatment, or the treatment comes to them. Neither process is easy for someone who is badly off, such as a rural pensioner, woman or child. We need to improve the position in two ways: by providing more resources, and by adopting a more flexible approach.

I shall not go on about the level of resources, because it is a general matter. However, the decline in the provision of hospital and clinic services has been dominated by the policy of concentrating resources in district general hospitals and health centres, which, while it is wholly appropriate for the inner cities and suburbs, is by no means always appropriate for rural areas. For a rural area to contain a population large enough to sustain a major health centre or a district hospital would require an enormous catchment area, and people would have to travel vast distances to get there.

In theory, that process of concentration has been slowed down. In practice, however, it has been speeded up, because many health authorities have had to economise on small hospitals to keep the big ones going—although, theoretically, their plans involve the existence of satellite hospitals for a long time to come.

We must ensure that we do not try to impose on rural areas solutions for health provision—or, indeed, for the provision of other services — which, while they are appropriate for suburbs and inner cities, are not appropriate for rural areas. Even in my area, for instance, where Underwoods the chemist has adopted the policy that no branch of Underwoods should open unless it is in sight of the next branch, it can prove quite difficult to go to the doctor, obtain a prescription, get it made up, go home and take the medicine, particularly if one is very ill. In rural areas, the same process can involve hours of travel and waiting around. Although there have been some improvements in rural dispensing—partly as a result of the rural dispensing committee that was started on its way by the last Labour Government—people in rural areas still suffer considerable inconvenience, and we should do more to help them. Few of the Government's responses to the points made to them about the development, or lack of development, of the Health Service make any reference to the particular health needs of rural areas.

The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to the problems of rural schools. It is the case in any community, but more particularly in rural communities, that the school is the centre of the community, and the community as a whole suffers substantially by the closure of the school, be it a small primary school or a bigger secondary school. Although some Conservative Members have welcomed the provisions of the Education Reform Bill, I ask them, not in a party political way, to have another look at some of the possible consequences of that Bill on rural areas.

Let us take the idea of open-entry schools. In theory, anybody who fancies going to a particular school will be able to go to it, and that school will be allowed to expand while others will, consequently, be run down. The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has already referred to the problems of maintaining a wide curriculum in small rural secondary schools, and that problem will be made worse under this system, as will the planning of a proper delivery of an education service over a widespread rural area. Conservative Members representing rural areas should look carefully at that.

I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman was not in the House during education questions on Tuesday, when this matter was addressed fully by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), my right hon. Friend said positively that there would be no problem and that children in catchment areas for rural schools would still be entitled to go to them.

They certainly are entitled to go to those schools, but some of those schools will be going into decline. If some of them decline very far, and some have scarcely viable rolls at the moment and need to decline only a little further, they will be closed by the education authorities because they will be too expensive. Therefore, even parents who opt to go to the smaller schools will find it impossible, because some of the smaller schools will automatically be blotted out as the result of the open-ended open-entry system. Opting out will also pose significant difficulties. Say there is a popular school in Ryedale, and the parents decide to opt it out. Supposing that it is a Roman Catholic school, of which there are not many in rural areas.

I know that, but the hon. Gentleman should remember that he has a large number of Roman Catholics in his constituency, who might wish to exercise their right, under the law, to send their children to Catholic schools. If one of those Catholic schools opts out, the distances that Catholic children will then have to travel if they cannot get into the opted-out school could reduce parental choice. I do not say that it is bound to happen, but it could, and Conservative Members representing rural areas should look at this carefully.

People living in rural areas face the problems that all of us face in our lives. They get sick, they grow old, they suffer from disabling accidents or illness. Generally speaking, they suffer from low pay because those working in rural areas are usually worse paid than people working in urban areas. Family poverty goes along with all these conditions.

Being poor is bad enough, but being poor when quite a number of other people are poor and services are provided to make things easier is far better than being poor in a relatively prosperous area where such services are not provided. In many rural areas, the services which are provided for the badly off are not very extensive. I shall take school meals as an example.

The law, although it will change in April, provides that education authorities can exercise a discretion to offer free school meals more widely than to children whose families are statutorily entitled to supplementary benefit or family income supplement. Dorset, for example, offers discretionary free meals to no one, as does Lincolnshire. Kent offers meals to a grand total of 45 children, Norfolk offers 16 and Suffolk offers 26. The contrast with some Labour-controlled counties is startling. In Gwent, for example, 3,500 children are offered free school meals. No fewer than 6,000 are offered such meals in Cleveland and the figure is 4,833 in Derbyshire. That is an indication of the extent to which living in certain rural areas is a considerable disadvantage if one is not well off.

The same applies with regard to other services such as home helps. By the Government's own calculations, we find that most Labour rural counties provide at least twice as many home helps per 1,000 people aged over 65 as do Tory counties. I am not comparing urban areas with rural areas but Labour rural areas with Tory rural areas.

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that people in Highland Scotland do not look to the local authority to provide what they have traditionally helped each other with and that, because they are still a caring society, they do not need people? They look after themselves.

The pattern of voluntary and non-voluntary care varies in different parts of the country. I accept that, but I have not referred to what prevails in Scotland.

We have heard this morning about the difficulty of people who are getting on and find it difficult to look after themselves. They are sometimes driven out of the village in which they have spent their life because of that. The provision of day care can be a relief to people in those circumstances. It can help them to remain in the area in which they were brought up.

We should consider the record of some Tory county councils on the provision of day care. Hereford and Worcester provides none. Shropshire provides none. Kent provides practically none. Surrey provides none. West Sussex provides none. Suffolk provides none. I cannot believe that there are no people in those counties who need day care and who can be assisted to remain in the villages in which they were brought up.

In Kent, day care is provided—and very effectively too—by voluntary associations and the NHS.

The NHS is also providing a service in all other areas—at least I hope it is. If not, people living in other areas are subsidising a service provided in Kent that is not provided elsewhere. I cannot believe that that is the case.

I do not claim that the patterns of need are indentical throughout the country, but the services that are provided for many not very well-off people—some of whom may have been comfortably off until they reached old age—are indefensibly poor. They are likely to beome worse as a result of further pressure from the Government to cut local government spending.

I used to have a greater interest in rural affairs than I do now, and I used to receive the minutes of parish council and Women's Institute meetings which discussed the provision of better services in rural areas. It was clear—this was not the view of a Socialist Member, but the view of people who were interested in the problems of their areas — that people did not want market-place competition answers to their problems. They wanted public services with, in some cases— perhaps this deals with the point made by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) in relation to Kent—the local authority or health authority providing a base from which more effective voluntary efforts could be made. But all that is in decline.

The substantial changes in the role and general physical fabric of rural areas will cause many changes in their social fabric. Besides talking about development, we should consider the poor services being provided in some areas. It is no good talking about the far blue yonder of development when many people living in rural areas, some of whom may be reasonably well-off, are being denied important public services.

I hope that the Minister will reply to some of the points that I have made as well as tackle the pressing problems which were brought to our attention by Conservative Members. Above all, he must ensure that people who grew up in rural areas can continue to live there in housing that they can afford.

2.7 pm

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) made a long speech and repeated several of the points that were made by my hon. Friends. I have a constitutional difficulty today, because the wide open green spaces opposite me make it difficult for me to address those who have participated in the debate. The hon. Gentleman made a thoughtful speech, but the truth is that in rural areas the Labour party hardly exists and is no longer even the principal opposition to the Conservative party, although that opposition is less than it was thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) and for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway).

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East introduced the debate with a thoughtful speech. Indeed, it is a thoughtful motion. He said some challenging things, and when people read Hansard they will find them rather more challenging than they may have thought at the time. He uttered the unthinkable thought: is every inch of green belt inviolate? The Government have made it clear that their policy will continue as it is, but it is welcome to have people willing even to think those dangerous thoughts. My hon. Friend also drew our attention to population figures. The Government are not responsible for that, except in so far as people are living much longer, which is a tribute to the success of the Health Service. My hon. Friend was right to say that inviolable green belts place additional pressures on other areas.

Although hon. Members are right to draw attention to the problems of rural areas, let us not start from the position that the English, Scottish and Welsh countryside is in a state of collapse and decay. That is rather like the way many Opposition Members say that the country is a complete disgrace and no one could possibly want to live here, yet they also press us to weaken immigration controls so that many tens of thousands more people can come and live here. As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras rightly said, the truth is that more people have been moving into the countryside. The 1981 census shows that the population of the countryside is rising again. Things cannot be all that bad.

We must start from the background that we have some of the most attractive living conditions in the world in the countryside of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) was right to refer to the smaller market towns. They are the particular and almost unique contribution of the British tradition to a style of living that is very attractive indeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) made a point that I welcome. He said that this is a debate about change. We must begin by saying that things are not too bad. The prediction of writers about 50 years ago that there would be megalopolises all over the country have not come true. Those predictions were made by H. G. Wells and by Richard Jefferies who wrote a novel of gloom and doom about the south of England at about this stage of the century. None of the predictions has come true. Those writers lived through a period of real and dramatic change. Cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow exploded out of virtually nothing. Indeed, "exploded" is the right word for it. Those writers did not imagine that things could not continue in that way.

We should pay tribute to the planning system, despite our criticisms about it. I cite my county of Avon as an example of the success of the British planning system. Avon contains the fine, large city of Bristol and a small suburb of Bristol, Bath, and many smaller towns. It has beautiful countryside. A similar number of people live in Avon as live in the city of Cleveland, Ohio in the United States. However, we think of Avon as having identifiable cities and a pleasant rural environment. It is a triumph that we should consider Avon in that way rather than as a concrete mass. We must consider the criticisms against a background of success and then decide on the improvements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle said that this was a debate about change. My hon. Friends the Members for Cambridgeshire, North-East and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) said that we should consider the changing shape of industries and the opportunities that modern technological communications systems provide for spreading industry. That will surely save many rural areas in which the old staple industry of farming is declining to some extent as the source of income. We must develop our institutions and planning system to meet that change.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton has shown that my Department is sensitive enough to modern developments to allow Britain to lead in the great snail race. Several other rather more high-tech industries are being welcomed into the countryside.

Many of my hon. Friends have said that they welcome the steps that we have tried to take, for example, to promote the conversion of redundant farm buildings to make space for industries and, in some cases, homes. Many local authorities have not got the message yet. I confirm what several of my hon. Friends said on that point. In those cases, my Department will often give permission on appeal. If my hon. Friends claim that too many cases are allowed on appeal, they should consider the statistics which reveal that a relatively large proportion of such cases are granted on appeal, whereas the number of housing appeals, at the smaller end, is much lower. We need to consider the statistics carefully before we say that in every case it is wrong for cases to be overturned on appeal.

I find myself in some difficulty in responding to Scottish Members. Although I know the constituency of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) very well, it would be brave of me to mention any policy matter to do with it except to state that she rather alarmed me by saying that a great deal of Cheddar cheese is produced there. It seems to me that Cheddar cheese should, if possible, be made near Cheddar, preferably by my brother. However, that is a different matter.

The main theme of the debate has been housing. I welcome the wording of the motion. It has raised the question how we make the planning system sensitive enough to accommodate the increase in households and population. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North feels strongly about that, and he is right to do so. However, the developers do not invent the demand. They can sell the houses only because people want to buy them. We must recognise that the more we clamp down on developments in the places where the market takes them, the more the prices will go up for the houses that already exist. There are increasing pressures for intervention and to place increasing constraints on people's freedom to move so that houses become cheaper. Down that interventionist line, which to some extent we have to follow, lies the diminution of the freedoms for which our party stands. Therefore, we have to be careful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) talked about the subject with feeling and knowledge. He agreed with one of the controversial but correct points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East — that it is the quality of the housing that often contributes to the level of opposition. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire North-East said, rightly, that perhaps we should consider the release of a little more land so that the quality of the housing is better and so that there is an opportunity to build housing that fits in with the traditional styles of building. Often it is the urban density of a village that gives such offence. I sympathise with that. However, as I have said it may sometimes mean that a little more land is released.

My hon. Friends mentioned an admirable pamphlet on this subject which I have studied. That makes it seem as if all problems can be solved by urban development. About half our housing is developed on re-used urban land and that is welcome. That is happening much more than it did in the 1960s or 1970s. However, it has its limits. Building on urban land often means creating higher density housing in the constituencies of hon. Members in outer London areas, who see gardens or green space disappearing, and of hon. Members in inner London constituencies. In such areas people may defend vigorously the last bit of what may to an outsider appear to be derelict land but which may seem an opportunity for green space to someone living close by. Let us not believe that that is a complete answer.

There is a scandal of unused and derelict land. At long last it is being dealt with as a result of the initiatives of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his predecessors. The urban development corporations are putting pressure on local authorities to sell land, and other things are afoot as a result of the Audit Commission's report on the mishandling of land by many local authorities. That is right, but it will not solve all the problems.

The extra hundreds of thousands of households in the south-east which have been predicted by the OPCS cannot all be housed in constituencies such as that of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras or of mine in the centre of Bristol. Land will have to be taken. The challenge is to do it sensitively and carefully.

Perhaps we should be looking again at the idea of planning new settlements a little more carefully. There comes a time when the expansion of existing villages must end if they are not to turn into towns and have their nature changed. There are villages in England that have not yet returned to their pre-black death population. We should provide the proper services and do things carefully with quality development such as that discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East. That may be a better way forward.

There is no easy answer to any of this. This year we have asked the Housing Corporation to consider the problems. We must provide more money for rural housing associations because that is the way to provide the often small amounts of additional accommodation needed in villages. It might be charitable housing association accommodation, an example of which I opened at Timberscombe, which is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It was for the benefit of elderly and young people of the village. Stock can be provided by local community housing associations to meet people's needs for rented accommodation, which is a good way forward. The Development Commission is giving money to assist the growth of rural housing associations, which is welcome.

Many proposals in the Housing Bill will help to provide more rented stock and will encourage the private and public sectors to put funds alongside Government funds to expand the role of housing associations. Recently, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), I opened a development that had received a 30 per cent. subsidy. It provided low rents relevant to the needs of the people of that market town. Measures such as these can be taken, and we must expand this line of proceeding.

So many other subjects were raised that it is difficult for me to deal with all of them. I believe that calls for a single Department are a red herring, which derives — if this metaphor is not too mixed—from the perception that we must co-ordinate policy properly.

If we tried to invent a Department to deal with rural affairs — as my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale said—the Treasury would have to be involved, as would the Department of Trade and Industry. One would end up with large bits of other Departments and a rather small, cosmetic Department, such as the old Department of Economic Affairs, which we had under the Labour Government. Power would rest with the Departments where the planning system policy, the industry policy or, the agricultural policy lay. One might find that the rural clout had diminished rather than increased, because it would be a rather small animal in the Whitehall jungle. I doubt whether a new Department is the answer.

The request for better co-ordination is legitimate and we are increasingly trying to meet it. I assure hon. Members that when the farm woodlands scheme, farm diversification grants or policies for the environmentally sensitive areas—all of which are policies deriving from and led by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture — are brought forward, there will be close and detailed consultation between my Department and the other relevant Departments about the effects of those policies and how to take them forward.

The range of problems—this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras—is no less because they are scattered. It may be easier to see the concentrated problems of individual areas. The full range of skills of all the Whitehall Departments must be directed to those who live in country areas, rather than say, "There is a separate animal called a rural person who has his own Department and he is not of interest to the Department of Health and Social Security or the Department of Trade and Industry." I believe that it would be a mistake to go down that route.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough and my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned schools. The Education Reform Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale said, will help with regard to opting out and particularly open enrolment.

In our armoury we have a full range of policies aimed at dealing with potential rural problems. The Development Commission is spending about £14 million per year on the factory programme — this was first raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East — which is a major increase over the £4 million that it was spending five or six years ago.

There must be advance building of small factories and workshops, and we are now increasing the output of those. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle rightly said, we need to encourage tourism. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale reminded my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle that holiday lets, which are necessary for tourism, can sometimes be a problem. However, tourism is one of the industries of the future.

One of the most traditional of all employers in the countryside, alongside agriculture and high-tech industry, which we need and are getting, is country sports. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and for Harborough that country sports can provide jobs in the most remote areas. When I was doing a conservation job, I found out what an important ally the grouse moor owners are to those who want to maintain the traditional ecology of the moorlands and to fight back the bracken. It was right to mention that and to remind the many urban experts on the countryside that it is wise, when lecturing country people on how to behave, to go carefully on some aspects which are a little different.

We have had a useful debate. I have given only the briefest of surveys on the many excellent points which were brought up. Hon. Members have recognised that the principal problem which is causing anxiety is housing, followed by planning. Planning is difficult because one man's enterprise is another's development. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale said, enterprise is good but development is bad. I welcome the notion because it recognises that careful use of the planning system is the way through that dilemma, although there will never be total agreement about it. I welcome even more the debate because the Government are considering bringing forward ideas on rural housing as a package. This debate has given a welcome stimulus to that process and reminds us how important it is.

2.26 pm

I am grateful to Conservative Members for their support of my motion and to Opposition Members for their contributions. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the splendid and robust way in which he answered most of the points. I was especially pleased to hear him talk in terms of initiatives and policies to arrive at some solutions to the housing problems in rural areas, about which so many Conservative Members spoke.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to pursue policies and procedures to ensure an ordered phasing of development in those rural areas which will need to accommodate a growth in population, to encourage agricultural diversification and promote enterprise in the rural economy, to facilitate the provision of the necessary rural services, infrastructure, employment and housing, and to co-ordinate the work of those various agencies and departments which have a direct interest in rural affairs and rural land use.