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Message From The Queen

Volume 357: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2000

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Double Taxation Relief

The VICE-CHAMBERLAIN OF THE HOUSEHOLD reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received your Addresses praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Shipping Transport) (Hong Kong) Order 2000 and the Double Taxation Relief (Taxation on Income) (Norway) Order 2000 be made in the form of the drafts laid before your House.

I will comply with your request.

Private Business

Kent County Council Bill Lords

Motion made,

That the promoters of the Kent County Council Bill [Lords] shall have leave to suspend proceedings thereon in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next session of Parliament, provided that notice of their intention to do so is lodged in the Private Bill Office not later than the day before the close of the present session and that all fees due up to that date have been paid;
That, if the bill is brought from the Lords in the next session, a declaration signed by the agent shall he deposited in the Private Bill Office, stating that the bill is the same in every respect as the bill brought from the Lords in the present session;
That the Clerk in the Private Bill Office shall lay upon the Table of the House a certificate, that such a declaration has been deposited;
That in the next session the bill shall be deemed to have passed through every stage through which it has passed in the present session, and shall be recorded in the Journal of the House as having passed those stages;
That no further fees shall be charged to such stages.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means)

Medway Council Bill Lords

Motion made,

That the promoters of the Medway Council Bill [Lords] shall have leave to suspend proceedings thereon in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next session of Parliament, provided that notice of their intention to do so is lodged in the Private Bill Office not later than the day before the close of the present session and that all fees due up to that date have been paid;
That, if the bill is brought from the Lords in the next session, a declaration signed by the agent shall be deposited in the Private Bill Office, stating that the bill is the same in every respect as the bill brought from the Lords in the present session;
That the Clerk in the Private Bill Office shall lay upon the Table of the House a certificate, that such a declaration has been deposited;
That in the next session the bill shall be deemed to have passed through every stage through which it has passed in the present session, and shall be recorded in the Journal of the House as having passed those stages;
That no further fees shall be charged to such stages.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Oral Answers To Questions

Environment, Transport And The Regions

The Secretary of State was asked

Abandoned Cars

1.

What action his Department is taking to assist local authorities to dispose of abandoned cars. [138935]

We are very much aware that, because of falling scrap prices, abandoned vehicles are a growing problem. My officials are currently in discussion with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Local Government Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers to identify solutions and ways of dealing with the issue.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. My local authority, Medway council, has seen its costs for dealing with abandoned cars rise by more than £20,000 this year. That affects urban areas in Chatham and rural areas such as Burham in my constituency. As my right hon. Friend rightly says, with the falling price of scrap and with car prices coming down, the problem will get worse and worse. Will he examine the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978, which deals with the matter? Instead of cars being dealt with in the same way as leaves, perhaps we should amend the law so that fines are higher and responsibility is put on car owners, rather than on council tax payers.

I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks. We have flagged up the possible need for primary legislation in any waste or environment Bill, and we shall certainly re-examine the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978. I note the steps that have been taken in my hon. Friend's constituency to pilot a new multi-agency approach to abandoned vehicles. Untaxed vehicles will be wheel-clamped by a DVLA contractor and, if the vehicle is not taxed within 24 hours, it will be removed to a car pound and disposed of within 35 days. We are seriously considering that as a model.

Urban Regeneration

2.

If he will make a statement on the impact of transport investment on urban regeneration. [138936]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Ms Beverley Hughes)

The urban White Paper published on 16 November sets out a long-term vision for revitalising our urban areas. New transport investment, through the £180 billion programme in our 10-year plan for transport, obviously has a key role to play. This substantial increase in funding will, over the next 10 years, deliver significantly better transport, boost regeneration, provide better access to jobs and services, and make a real difference to the quality of life in our towns and cities.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. One of the great features of transport investment is that it can often unlock much more generalised regeneration. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the Northfield regeneration plan, under which a modest amount of transport investment would revitalise a local shopping centre in a deprived industrial area, improve leisure facilities and lead to greatly enhanced environmental improvements in the area. I ask her to examine those aspects in the weeks and months ahead.

I agree that the scheme that my hon. Friend outlines is a good example of the essential link between transport improvements and urban regeneration. In addition to the benefits to which he has drawn attention, access to Longbridge would be improved. The scheme would regenerate the south-western sector of Birmingham. My hon. Friend knows that the scheme is being evaluated as part of the local transport plan system. I cannot pre-empt an announcement, but I can tell him that under the 10-year plan we are doubling the money that is available to fund local transport plans next year to more than £1.5 billion.

Does the Minister agree that central to the success of urban regeneration, which we all want to see, is not only a joint Cabinet committee but a Minister with specific responsibility? Will she ascertain whether that can be obtained? As I said to the Secretary of State last week, there are bound to be differences between Departments. We need a Minister with the power to make decisions.

Fundamentally, effective regeneration involves co-ordinating all Whitehall Departments. That emerged from the Conservative party's proposals. However, there is a fundamental problem: the Conservative party cannot match our investment in transport and in regeneration because it has to contend with a £16 billion tax cut guarantee.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the representations that have been made by Luton chamber of commerce on behalf of Luton airport, Vauxhall and Whitbread, among other major businesses, on the importance of the east Luton road scheme between junction 10 and Luton airport? That scheme has the potential to regenerate the area, to open a business park and to create more than 5,000 new jobs? Will my hon. Friend seriously consider allocating some of the additional funding to which she has referred to the scheme, which would have a major regeneration impact in my constituency?

My hon. Friend outlines another good example of the essential links between transport and regeneration. However, she knows that the scheme to which she refers is in the local transport plan. We shall make announcements on that shortly.

London Underground

3.

If he will make a statement on progress in establishing the public-private partnership for London Underground. [138937]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. John Prescott)

Best and final offers for the two deep tube contracts were received by London Transport on 20 November, and three bids for the subsurface contract are being evaluated. The public-private partnership is well on course to deliver the high and stable funding that London Underground has been deprived of for so long under the old public sector financing rules under different Administrations.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Will he explain why Mr. Kiley has not been given full financial information about the PPP bids? What objection does the right hon. Gentleman have to making the information fully available, given that Mr. Kiley has signed a confidentiality agreement? Will he oppose any High Court action initiated by the Mayor? Does he agree with the Mayor that the lack of financial information has meant that he has been unable to put together a programme of action to reduce breakdowns on the tube, which is putting passenger safety at risk?

It is just not true that Mr. Kiley has not been given all the information. He has been given all the information that is available. More than 15 different papers—(Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman must accept what I say to him. I would not lie to the House. Mr. Kiley has not received information about the final details that are now being assessed in the context of the commercial aspects of the best and final offers. He has not been given information on a revised consolidated public sector comparator. He was given the baseline for March 2000. Further development on the comparator will not be completed until the negotiations have come to an end. As I understand it, the Mayor is taking no legal action, and there is no threat to safety.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is massive public disquiet about the public-private partnership for London Underground? Does he accept also that the public are opposed to the break-up of the underground system in any shape or form, and that they want to see it as a unitary organisation that is funded and run by the public? Does he accept that there is a public mandate in the mayoral election to ensure that we retain a wholly publicly owned, publicly financed and publicly run tube system in London, which will guarantee the best safety that it is possible to achieve?

We are making changes to London Underground because the public are fed up with insufficient investment in the underground system over the best part of the last 20 to 30 years. Governments have not faced up to the responsibility of finding that investment, largely because the Treasury and Government change every three to five years. We are seeking to give London Underground an investment programme for 25 to 30 years. That is what is needed on the underground and that is what we intend to produce.

Is it not the case that the progress of the PPP is slower than one of the express trains that the Deputy Prime Minister and I have shared from London to Doncaster? Two years ago—[Interruption.]

Order. The Deputy Prime Minister was given a hearing and the hon. Gentleman will be given a hearing, too.

Does the Secretary of State remember saying two years ago that if the PPP was delayed, he would hand over responsibility for the tube? Just how long must Londoners suffer before he hands that botched proposal over to a man like Bob Kiley, who knows how to run transport systems?

I did not say that I would do that if the PPP was delayed for two years. In fact, it is proceeding according to the timetable that I set in the House and, if the hon. Gentleman wants, I can give him details. I am not sure what the Opposition would do. Are they still committed to privatisation, given that they appear to be rejecting it left, right and centre? Would they privatise the underground and guarantee that resources would be invested in it? We are making that investment and are taking a long-term approach to the problem of improving the underground.

While this whole affair drags on, Londoners must suffer a continuing deterioration in the performance of the tube. That has gone on for three and a half years, but the one thing that the Secretary of State does not want to talk about is his record. After three and a half years of failure, will he say whether there is any area in the DETR portfolio where delivery is better than that which he inherited? Is the tube a great success? Are the roads better maintained? Has the Secretary of State cut congestion? Are the railways running more smoothly? Is homelessness falling? Has the exodus from our cities been reversed? Does the Secretary of State remember saying that things could only get better?

The hon. Gentleman constantly forgets that his party was in power for two decades in which there was massive disinvestment in the transport industry. Surely, he must have been aware of that when he was at Railtrack, which made many of the mistakes. When he was a Railtrack director, many of those disinvestment mistakes were already being made. On the question of whether we have improved the situation, a £180 billion investment in transport is way beyond what the Tory Administration gave or even planned for.

Highway Maintenance

4.

What response he has received from local government to his proposals on highway maintenance. [138938]

8.

What plans he has to deal with the repair backlog on roads. [138942]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Keith Hill)

Local government has welcomed the significant increases in resources nationally for capital expenditure on local road maintenance. As set out in "Transport 2010: The 10 Year Plan", we are committed to providing sufficient funds to tackle the backlog of expenditure—estimated at £9 billion—on carriageway, footway, bridge and street lighting maintenance in the next 10 years.

That statement will be welcomed by my constituents in Eccles. Does it mean that local government in Salford and Greater Manchester will not have to continue the daft practice of building much-needed road calming measures on roads that are full of potholes and craters? My hon. Friend mentioned street lighting. Will he assure me that the improvement in street lighting will benefit the people of my constituency, particularly the elderly, as it will improve security and safety?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the warm welcome that he gave to our announcement on roads maintenance. He will be aware that the previous Conservative Government left our local roads in their worst state of maintenance since records began. To restore the backlog in roads maintenance, we are providing over the next 10 years an extra £9 billion, which is 41 per cent. above current funding. In the same period, we shall also clear the appalling backlog in street lighting. Next year alone in Eccles and Salford, road maintenance funding will increase by no less than 87 per cent. The end of potholes is in sight for the people of Eccles and Salford, and, in due course, they will be able to see their well maintained roads.

May I tell my hon. Friend the Minister how welcome the massive increase in road funding is to Essex? By 2003, it will treble to £15 million the amount given to Essex. I hope that my constituents in the villages of Parkeston and Jaywick will benefit from the increases, which should help them with the poor roads and street lighting left by the Conservative party. Has my hon. Friend received any feedback from Essex county council on that good news for Essex?

My hon. Friend is right; the increase is excellent news for Essex. I am bound, however, to refer to a news release published on the day of the announcement. It appears on Conservative central office notepaper and was written by the leader of Essex council, a certain Lord Hanningfield. It is headed "Too little, too late". The noble Lord went on to say:

This isn't new money at all. That contrasts with the same day's news release from his cabinet member for transportation, Councillor Ron Williams. That document is headed "Major boost for road maintenance". Councillor Williams went on to say:
This is really good news for Essex. We must now look carefully at how we can invest this large settlement in the most cost-effective way to ensure greatest benefits are achieved.
I know what I trust—not the knee-jerk propaganda from Tory central office, but the honest view of the local man who really knows: Councillor Ron Williams, God bless him.

That was great knockabout stuff from the Minister. I am most grateful to him for repeating a press release written by one of his Labour stooges. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is a Tory."] He may call himself a Tory; nevertheless my point remains.

Will the Minister explain whether we are talking about new money from central Government, or supplementary credit approval, which will mean that local government, rather than central Government, has to incur debt?

Borrowing approvals are the standard means by which the Government fund local authority capital spending. The costs of repayment and interest on the borrowing are funded through the revenue support grant settlement. Using borrowing approvals gives authorities more flexibility in using their resources. Indeed, they have been seeking such flexibility. I suppose that that is why the approvals were introduced by the previous Government.

Will the Minister comment on the ruling in another place that local authorities will not be required to grit their roads this winter? That could have a major effect on my constituents. My area contains the Winsford rock salt mine, the country's sole supplier of rock salt for gritting roads, so jobs could be at stake there. In addition, the ruling raises many serious issues about cutting corners and putting lives at risk.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. We are aware of the judgment to which he referred, and we are studying its implications carefully. We hope to make an announcement in due course.

Does my hon. Friend have any plans to return to local authorities powers to co-ordinate the disruption caused by utilities? In Cambridge there has been complete gridlock during the past few weeks, as every major road into the city has been dug up by a different utility.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely serious point that is universally understood. Street works are a problem in all our cities throughout the country. First, my hon. Friend will be aware that the New Roads and Streetworks Act 1991 allows local authorities to charge utilities for overstaying in street works. We hope to introduce regulations to implement that shortly.

Secondly, my hon. Friend will know also that the Transport Bill contains provisions for lane rental, which is widely supported. We have said that we will hold those provisions as reserve powers for the time being, but if co-ordination of street works by utilities does not improve, those powers may be invoked in due course.

Rail Service Disruption

5.

If he will make a statement on recent disruption to rail services. [138939]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. John Prescott)

Following meetings with the Strategic Rail Authority, myself and the Prime Minister, the industry promised a steady improvement in rail services as part of the national track recovery plan. At the most recent meeting, yesterday afternoon, Railtrack told us that it had checked two thirds of the entire track length—about 14,000 miles—including all known sites suffering from gauge corner cracking.

Railtrack has rerailed more than a third of the track identified for rerailing—that is about 110 miles. It has managed to remove 260 speed restrictions and raised the speed limit from 20 mph to 40 mph on another 139 miles. My right hon. Friend and I restated the need to return the network to normal as soon as possible, get a robust Christmas timetable in place, improve information for passengers and provide greater clarity on compensation for daily and weekly passengers. I am sure that the House will agree that all that must be carried out at the proper level of safety.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that helpful and full answer. He will no doubt have heard of the incident last night in which a journey from London to Nottingham, which should have taken two hours, took nine. A trainload of passengers stayed in the train overnight, in darkness and without any heating. That event, of course, is not unique. Has he made any calculations about the number of people who previously travelled by rail, but who now travel by road? Does he agree with his Department's own statistics, which show that the number of fatalities on the roads is 12 times as high as the number on the railways? What is his assessment of the number of additional fatalities on the roads that will result from the disruption?

The whole House is concerned about the time that journeys can take, including the incident that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The House wants the railways to return to normal operations on safe railway lines. Hon. Members will be aware from our statements that it is necessary properly to check faults on our railway system. We are doing that as fast as we can, and we are talking to the industry about whether it can be done any faster while maintaining a safe and proper operation.

Clearly, a lot more people are travelling by car, and congestion will obviously increase—we can already see that happening. I have made no estimate of the increase in death rates, but I shall examine our figures and send an estimate to the hon. Gentleman. In terms of casualties and deaths, we know that railways are safer than roads, but we must keep our eye on the ball and try to improve the railway system.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, the days leading up to Christmas are among the busiest on the railways. What discussions is he having with the rail authorities about establishing contingency plans to meet those needs at this very busy time?

We have been making it clear to the industry for a couple of weeks that we want a sustainable Christmas timetable. Longer journeys are clearly involved because speed restrictions are placed on lines and because it takes some time for the necessary repair work to be completed. Most passengers do not mind longer journeys, although they would prefer shorter ones, but they want to know reliable times for setting off and arriving. That is what we are trying to provide. We are also talking to the industry about a timetable for the Christmas services, which will be announced shortly.

Further to the answer given to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the nine-hour train journey from London to Nottingham provides yet more evidence of the Government's failure to get to grips with the chaos that was caused by the Tory privatisation of our railways? Does not that set alarm bells ringing for the right hon. Gentleman over his continued dogmatic plans to privatise other parts of our transport services, especially National Air Traffic Services? Will he agree to withdraw those plans to show his commitment to a safe transport service?

In the context of the present chaos on the railways, which is due mainly to the Conservatives' privatisation, may I point out that it now takes seven hours to travel from my constituency to London? It used to take my father the same time to drive a steam train on that line. Will my right hon. Friend consider proposals to bring Railtrack into public ownership?

As I have said, I am of course concerned about the length of journeys, but I have explained why I consider it necessary to carry out a thorough investigation of the track, and to invest in safe railway lines. We hope to have completed the investigation by the end of this year, or at least by the beginning of next year.

As my hon. Friend is well aware, the Government agreed at the outset not to renationalise rail. Our argument, which I have deployed in the House, was that providing £6 billion of compensation was not the right way of using public resources at that time. If we consider the possibility now, we must envisage two years of negotiations in the House. Moreover, I do not think that a renationalisation Bill is the people's first priority. They want a safe, operational railway with proper accountability. That is embodied in the Transport Bill—which we shall debate this afternoon—with the Strategic Rail Authority and other measures allowing us to exercise the necessary controls. It is a pity that the Tories and the Liberals have opposed those measures.

Does not the present crisis on the railway demonstrate that railway disruption is a daily crisis for hundreds of thousands of passengers, and, indeed, for the tens of thousands of staff who bear the brunt of passengers' daily complaints?

Let me point out to the Deputy Prime Minister that the railway was not handed over to him in a state of crisis. But does it not behove all politicians to apologise for the decades of under-investment, and to apologise for the way in which the railway has been handled in recent years? Is it not—[Interruption.]

Order. I ask hon. Members not to shout at the hon. Gentleman while he is speaking.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Is it not the responsibility of Ministers now to work with the rail industry, and to help to pull it together in an atmosphere of co-operation? No industry can survive the political assault that the Secretary of State has mounted on this industry year in, year out since coming to office.

May I also ask whether, having got rid of one chief executive of Railtrack, the right hon. Gentleman will now stop briefing against the new one?

I think the whole House is aware, from constituents' reports and from their own experience, that travelling by rail is terrible at present. We can only hope to improve that. We apologise to the staff who are working hard to return the system to normal—we admire their efforts—and we apologise to the passengers who are suffering.

I cannot accept, however, that the rail industry was passed to us in a good state. By whatever means we measure the crisis, if we are talking about resources and investment we must conclude that the real problem with Railtrack—this is why we are spending so much time investigating the track—is the lack of investment during two decades of Tory Government.

As for the question of whether enough accountability and control existed under the last Administration, I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that it did not. I understood him to say that the fragmentation of the industry was wrong, and that the privatisation had proved to be wrong. Now he is trying to tell us that his party passed to us a railway in a good state.

We have said that we do not want to renationalise the railway. We are introducing a Strategic Rail Authority in legislation that was opposed by the Opposition when it first came to the House of Commons, and also in the House of Lords. The extra powers that we are providing to ensure that we have a proper organisation and can prevent fragmentation, and the £60 billion investment in the railway, are beyond anything that was thought up during two decades of Tory Government.

Rail Freight

6.

What plans he has to increase freight by rail in the UK. [138940]

13.

What strategy he has to improve freight capacity in the United Kingdom. [138948]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Chris Mullin)

The Government have set out their long-term strategy for improving freight capacity in their 10-year plan for transport. We are also establishing the Strategic Rail Authority, which will have a duty to promote rail freight. We are aiming for an 80 per cent. increase over the next 10 years. Only today, my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Transport announced the biggest ever grant to the Bristol Port Company to refurbish a section of the disused Portishead branch line and a link into the Royal Portsbury dock, and to establish general cargo and port terminals. It is a good example of the progress that we are making.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and congratulate the Government on their commitment to rail freight. However, the strategy will succeed in the north-west only if we have direct rail routes to Europe and good terminals. Can he assure me that the Government will support Central Railway's proposal to establish a direct line to Europe and the development of terminals in the north-west, especially at Parkside in my constituency?

To take Parkside first, I understand that Railtrack's plans are in the early stages. It will, of course, need planning permission, and that is a matter for the local authority. As I have said, generous grants are available to potential customers to encourage them to switch from road to rail when it can be justified by environmental benefits.

As for the fast link to the channel tunnel and the Central Railway proposal, we have not received an application under the Transport and Works Act 1992, but when we do, it will be carefully considered.

My constituency is midway between the ports of Liverpool and Hull and the M1 and M6. The M60 goes straight through the middle of it, and it is surrounded by distribution parks. I have asked the local authority to carry out a feasibility study on the development of a rail freight terminal in that vicinity with direct access to and from the motorway to alleviate congestion. Is that in line with the Government's strategy for freight, and, if so, what are the possibilities of achieving it?

It is certainly in line with the Government's strategy. As far as I am aware, there are no firm proposals for a freight terminal at Rochdale, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts), freight facilities grants are available for viable—and I stress viable—propositions.

Not one piece of freight is moved by rail in mid-Wales or rural Wales, despite the fact that that used to happen before privatisation. What plans does the Minister have to increase the movement of freight by rail through and to rural areas?

As I said, it is certainly our aim to increase the movement of freight by rail. I am not complacent, but we have a reasonably good story to tell. After decades of decline, there has been a 22 per cent. increase since 1997 in the amount of goods moved by rail. In the same period, the volume of road freight has remained virtually unchanged. We are heading in the right direction, but I readily acknowledge there is a great deal more to do.

Will the Minister extend freight facilities grants to smaller operators, so that they are available not just to the big boys such as English, Welsh and Scottish Railways? As for extending freight facilities to rural areas, will he ensure that rail freight heads are built only on industrial sites, not on green belt land?

I understand that such grants are available to small and large companies, but the hon. Lady should bear in mind the fact that they are available to customers—

I am always nice to the hon. Lady. Indeed, I try to be pleasant to all hon. Members. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."'

The hon. Lady should bear in mind the fact that the grants are available to customers to encourage them to switch from road to rail.

Does my hon. Friend recall that the Coatbridge freightliner terminal in my constituency serves a number of industries and aspects of commerce throughout the United Kingdom that export their products, especially to Europe? Given the lack of development in the adjacent Gartcosh industrial park, does he accept that there is a need to invest in freightliner transport and in industrial development, which would be in the interests of jobs for the whole of the UK as well as in my constituency?

I cannot comment on any particular project, but I repeat that we are keen to see investment in rail freight facilities where they are thought to be viable and sustainable. Those are the key objectives.

Local Government Structures

7.

What recent representations he has received from councils concerning the abolition of the committee system in local government. [138941]

Following the passage of the Local Government Act 2000, we have received a number of representations from local authorities about the implementation of part II of the Act, which makes provision for councils to adopt new constitutions involving either executive or alternative arrangements, depending on their circumstances.

Why do the Government refuse to allow Wychavon district council to include its leader's panel and streamlined committee system in the enforced consultation on new local government structures? Why, as the leader of the council, Malcolm Meikle, says, are the Government refusing to give the citizens a real choice as to how their council is managed?

I know that Wychavon is working hard to improve its performance, especially in planning matters, where it has a difficult history. In planning, it does not have to change the way in which it does things, although it is seeking to do that to achieve greater efficiency. Like every other council, it needs to demonstrate to its public that it has a system of operating that is efficient, but open and accountable. We are looking forward to working with Wychavon to ensure that it can get a system that delivers that.

The Minister will be aware that the Government have transferred to the Welsh Assembly powers over the structure of local government, and that the Welsh Assembly has gone out to consultation on the matter. Did the Government provide any system of appeal for local authorities that disagreed with the conclusions and recommendations of the Assembly?

That is a matter for the Welsh Assembly, so it is not one on which I will comment.

Is it not true that, throughout the country, councillors of all parties resent being forced to abandon the committee system, as well as the extra cost of so-called modernisation—a cost estimated by the Local Government Association at £175 million? Can the Minister please explain precisely why a council with 85,000 or fewer residents is uniquely placed to deliver open and accountable local government without the new structures? What is the logic of her position, or is not the honest truth that there is none?

The House had a full debate on that matter. I thought that the hon. Gentleman took part in it, but obviously he did not fully listen or take note. I do not like to upset him, but I have to tell him that councils throughout the land, Conservative as well as Labour and Liberal Democrat, are working with the new agenda because they want to open new ways of working with their public. They know that the public, if they are to appreciate and get the best out of public services, need a new relationship with their councils. Councils are therefore working to achieve that. Perhaps he would like to read Hansard to learn the answers to the rest of his questions.

Disadvantaged Areas

9.

What resources are being put into funding renewal of disadvantaged areas in the present financial year; and if he will make a statement. [138943]

14.

What funding his Department is providing to combat disadvantage in the most deprived communities.

In addition to spending on key services such as health and education. £1.542 billion is being spent on regeneration programmes in this financial year. By 2003-04, key services will receive an extra £33 billion a year, backed by new targets to improve outcomes in deprived areas. In addition, the neighbourhood renewal fund will provide an extra £800 million over the next three years for the most deprived areas and communities.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Community groups and various organisations in my constituency are pleased with the way in which the Government have responded to the needs of areas such as Great Yarmouth, which is one of the most deprived in the country. It was one of the most deprived areas in the country when the Conservatives were in government, but they did not respond to the needs of such areas. The neighbourhood renewal fund, which provides a total of £4 million to my constituency, is also welcome, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that the way in which that money is spent will not be in the hands of politicians, but that the various community groups will participate fully in determining the future of the funds?

I can confirm that although the money is to be given directly to local government bodies to address their most deprived areas, we recognise that local authorities and Government alone cannot effectively turn around areas and bridge the gap between the most deprived and the rest. We are asking local authorities to establish local strategic partnerships with their partners, including those from the community sector, so that everyone, including those who are most affected, has a part to play in ensuring that all people, wherever they live, get the same opportunities as others to prosper, to obtain educational qualifications, and so on. That is an important priority for the Government and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and his colleagues in Great Yarmouth to make real changes there.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that east Brighton has a new deal for communities partnership—indeed, she visited it early in its development. I am happy to say that the partnership is up and running and that there is already a feeling of development and change. That feeling is very—[Interruption.] I am sorry that Conservative Members think that dealing with social exclusion is funny.

I defer to you, Mr. Speaker. I could not resist responding to the idiots on the other side of the Chamber.

It is too soon to be able to put numbers to the success of the new deal for communities, but it is clear from the spirit of the community that it is going to succeed. What I want to ask—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hooray!"]

Order. The hon. Gentleman should resume his seat while I am standing. His question should have been brief, and 1 am sure that the Minister has picked up the point that he was trying to make. I call the right hon. Lady to reply.

Brighton has indeed benefited from the new deal for communities; it will also receive money from the neighbourhood renewal fund. We are determined that all people, wherever they live—we have heard Members representing seaside towns put their case today—get real opportunities to share in the prosperity of this country. I pay tribute to the contribution that my hon. Friend has made to the east Brighton communities partnership. It is working well and I look forward to its turning areas of east Brighton around very quickly.

Are not the Minister's words so much humbug? Why is she intent on creating a new area of disadvantage in east Dorset by imposing from the centre the burden of a concessionary fares scheme on the district council without giving it any grant at all, thereby going against commitments given to East Dorset and other councils by other Ministers in her team?

There are people in east Dorset who are elderly and disabled and want to benefit from concessionary fares, and they will benefit. The Government have put aside £53 million within the grant to meet those commitments. I hope that the East Dorset council will fulfil its commitments to the elderly and vulnerable in its neighbourhoods.

Will the Minister ask her officers to be a little more flexible, understanding and realistic about the boundaries of deprivation, particularly in densely populated areas such as Portsmouth, where single regeneration funds are so tightly ring-fenced that facilities which are necessary to offer real benefits are left outside the area? Time and again, the Minister's officers have resisted the city's request to stretch the boundaries to include those facilities.

Will the Minister also seriously consider ways in which we can clean up many of the contaminated sites located in the hearts of inner cities such as Portsmouth? Without Government help, those areas will never be redeveloped. and we will never be able to offer hope, jobs or housing to those who live in them.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very difficult point. If we spread the jam too thinly, those who are really deprived will not benefit from it. We are determined to ensure that we concentrate effort among the most deprived in our nation, who have been neglected for far too long. The previous Administration gave them very little support.

We are putting not only effort but money into contaminated sites. Only this morning, I launched a land use database for contaminated sites, so that we know what they contain and thereby make development easier. In the pre-Budget statement, the Chancellor also created specific capital allowances enabling developers to make returns earlier when tackling contaminated sites.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. She will know that in Plymouth we were very concerned about the potential impact of updating the area cost adjustment on our efforts to deal with disadvantage, just as we are beginning to get to grips with it after a 20-year legacy of Tory under-investment. Will she confirm that when the type of specific grant that she has just mentioned is taken into account, the total gross settlement for local government funding in Plymouth will very specifically recognise the challenges that we still face? Additionally, has she made any estimate of the impact that £55 million worth of cuts—the Tory spending plans—would have on local government spending in Plymouth?

I have not made such an estimate, but I have noted the considerable extra investment that the Government have made in Plymouth. Plymouth will benefit from the neighbourhood renewal fund. Additionally, it is receiving about £42 million from European structural funds, in the objective 2 programme, and, for the next two years, it will receive a share of the £120 million for the objective 2 programme for the south-west. Plymouth also receives special funding because of health and education action zones and the new deal for communities funding.

Moreover, because we have introduced the floor system in the local government settlement, Plymouth will receive a 3.2 per cent. increase, rather than the 2.1 per cent. that it might have expected if we had not provided that funding. The Government are putting substantial extra money into local government to ensure the provision of effective services, so that every citizen can recognise and know the extra value that public services add to his or her quality of life.

Will the Minister confirm that spending on urban regeneration in deprived areas of £5.7 billion in the first four years of this Government falls short of the £6.1 billion provided in the last four years of the Conservative Government? Furthermore, will she confirm that, on close analysis of the pre-Budget report measures that form the centrepiece of the over-hyped urban White Paper, the number of flats over shops that will be created is estimated at only 1,000 per year over five years, out of the 3.8 million new homes that we supposedly need; that the number of homes derelict for 10 years attracting tax relief is so minimal that she is not able to calculate it; and that the biggest beneficiaries of stamp duty exemptions in the undefined disadvantaged areas are likely to be the £750,000 Georgian terraces owned by Labour luvvies in Islington?

I never know whether to take the hon. Gentleman seriously; I certainly do not think that anyone else in the House does. He has once again got it wrong. Spending on regeneration programmes will be £1.542 billion in the current year, compared with £1.38 billion in 1996-97. The Government are demonstrating an absolute commitment to regeneration.

The hon. Gentleman should include in the figures programmes from other Departments that are clearly directed to urban regeneration. Education and investment in skills are part of that. If only the previous Government had understood the importance of education and skills development to some of our poorer areas, the would not be in the state that they are in now. That Government had a shameful record and many of us are still paying for it in our communities. We are determined to reverse that.

Recycling Targets

10.

What targets he has set local authorities for recycling. [138944]

We are setting challenging statutory targets for each English local authority, which together will increase recycling and composting of household waste to at least 17 per cent. by 2003-04 and 25 per cent. by 2005-06. We have also set more demanding targets for the longer term: to recycle or compost at least 30 per cent. by 2010 and at least 33 per cent. by 2015. We will keep those under review and raise them if greater benefits can be achieved cost-effectively.

Does my right hon. Friend realise the vital role that recycling plays in conserving our scarce resources for future generations, and that recycling companies are under strong commercial pressures? What tangible support are the Government giving such companies to ensure that they can continue and expand their activities?

We are certainly keen to help business to develop markets for recycled, materials. Indeed, there is very little point in collecting and recycling materials if they cannot be sold on for some useful purpose. That is exactly why we have set up WRAP—the waste resources action programme—with backing of £30 million. The programme will focus on new uses and applications for recyclate and tackle the market barriers to increased recycling. All of that should provide considerable new business opportunities for recycling.

Does the Minister understand that one can move very quickly to much higher targets for recycling than the Government have set? In the borough of Reigate and Banstead, for example, we have gone from 0 to 25 per cent. in four years. I urge him to keep the targets under review and to raise them in the light of international and United Kingdom experience as it becomes clear that higher levels can be sustained.

We are extremely keen to do that and I am very glad to hear of the excellent example of Reigate. We inherited a household recycling rate of 6 per cent. We have already raised that by about 50 per cent. The targets are doubling within three years and trebling within five. I believe that it is possible for many local authorities to achieve 35 per cent. or more within a decade. We are certainly keen to learn best practice from areas such as Reigate.

I applaud my right hon. Friend's efforts to increase the volume of domestic recycling, but is he aware that many small and medium-sized businesses want to play their part but find that the facilities are not readily available for simple items such as office paper? Will he explore ways in which local authorities can co-operate with local business communities to increase the volume of recycling of non-domestic waste?

We are certainly keen for local authorities to assist and collaborate with business. Indeed, they will have to do so if they are to achieve the very tough recycling targets. Non-domestic waste materials account for most of the waste stream—probably five or six times the level of household waste—and, again through WRAP, we are extremely keen to have an increase in recyclate from businesses as well as from households, and we shall explore the best means of achieving that.

Mobile Phone Masts

11.

If he will make a statement on the operation of planning controls on mobile phone masts. [138945]

Planning controls on telecommunications development are aimed at facilitating the rollout of a modern telecommunications network and at the same time protecting the environment. A consultation exercise seeking views on possible changes to these controls ended on 31 October. We are currently analysing responses and we shall announce any changes as soon as is practicable.

I hope that the Minister will lift his objection to giving local authorities power to consider such applications properly and repeal their permitted powers in relation to masts. Local residents want these issues to be debated and discussed in full, so that their concerns about health, safety and planning design can be considered properly.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have made one change already to allow greater opportunity for consultation in the general permitted development order procedures. In the consultation that ended on 31 October, we canvassed other possibilities that would allow the recommendations of the Stewart report to be given effect and thus offer greater opportunity for local communities to express their concerns. However, we want to ensure at the same time that there is a continuing rollout of the telecommunications network. That is what all of us, as individual users of mobile telephones, want. There is a tension between people's wish to have access to a service without a poor signal, the need to protect the environment and amenity, and the need to respond to the public's concerns. We are seeking a balanced response.

Rural White Paper

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the White Paper on the future of rural England, published today and produced jointly by my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am also publishing the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on the rural White Paper. Copies have been placed in the Library.

A common message runs through this White Paper and the urban White Paper. Both are about tackling the real issues that matter to people—jobs, housing, services, transport and having a real say in what happens locally. We want communities in which economic prosperity, social justice and a healthy environment go hand in hand.

Much of rural Britain is thriving, but there are real problems and many of them have got worse over the past 20 years. For example, farm incomes have fallen by 60 per cent. in five years, many families cannot afford to live in the place where they grew up, and seven out of 10 of our poorest counties are rural.

Our major consultation with rural communities showed that person after person in rural areas complained that their basic services had disappeared over the past two decades. In that period, thousands of rural bus services were shut down, leaving only one in four parishes with a daily service, and 450 village schools were closed—more than one every two weeks. More than 100 rural post offices closed each year and, while the previous Administration permitted an explosion of out-of-town superstores, more than 4,000 village shops went out of business.

The countryside is no stranger to change, and our task is to give people the tools to respond to that challenge. This White Paper represents a new and genuine commitment to the rural communities and gives them the powers and resources to manage change. It represents a more comprehensive approach to the needs of the countryside. Increasingly, rural areas will benefit from our main programmes on health, education, housing and employment.

In addition, we have doubled specific rural spending, from £600 million in 1997-98 to —1.2 billion this year, and we are committing an extra —1 billion to farming and rural programmes over the next three years.

There are five main elements to our White Paper. It is about improving services, tackling poverty, aiding the rural economy, protecting the countryside and wildlife, and giving more choice to local people. Access to basic services is what people in rural areas really want, and that is the most important element of the White Paper.

People in rural areas should know what services they are entitled to. So, for the first time, we are to publish a rural service standard. It will set out minimum service standards and targets for the full range of public services from education to health, and child care to emergency services. To improve health care in rural areas, we are providing £100 million for one-stop primary health care centres or mobile units in 100 rural communities.

To reverse the decline of rural post offices, we are investing —270 million to turn post offices into one-stop shops, with access to banking, prescriptions and local authority and other services. Today I can announce that the pilot scheme to test the system will be in Leicestershire, involving 280 post offices and starting next spring.

Thousands of villages have lost their local shops. We propose to offer mandatory rate relief to more village shops, pubs and garages. We are launching a new £15 million rural community service fund to support local enterprise and help local groups re-establish their lost services. To improve education in rural areas, we have introduced stronger safeguards to protect rural schools from closure. We are providing rural police forces with an extra £45 million over the next two years. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced, we are helping local communities which use their local church to provide community services, by reducing the rate of VAT on repairs and maintenance from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent.

The House will be aware of the importance of transport to rural areas. In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor froze fuel duty and reduced vehicle excise duty on smaller cars. But public transport is absolutely vital. We have already increased funding for rural buses by £170 million, providing 1,800 new services. We are now going to invest another £192 million over the next three years in rural transport.

People in rural areas have told us that, in some places, they need much more flexible transport solutions, so we are setting up a new £15 million special transport fund. The fund will give those parishes that want it up to £10,000 each to provide their own small-scale solutions to local transport problems, such as support for car clubs, taxi services and community transport. As announced in our 10-year plan, we will extend the existing fuel duty rebate for buses to community transport schemes. For a typical community minibus that could be worth up to £3,000 a year.

There is growing concern about controlling speeding traffic in villages and on country roads. We will allow local communities to make villages and rural roads safer by reducing speed limits and investing more in traffic calming. We will also invest more than £1 billion over 10 years in rural bypasses.

Like urban areas, rural areas require affordable housing. We are doubling the Housing Corporation programme by 2003-04. This, together with local authority investment and planning reforms, will provide a total of 3,000 affordable homes a year in small rural settlements, and a total of around 9,000 homes a year across all rural districts. In some areas, better use of planning rules could provide one affordable home for every new home built. Our new starter home initiative will also help key workers on modest incomes to buy their homes in areas of high prices and high demand.

There are strong feelings of resentment in some areas that second home owners benefit from a 50 per cent. council tax discount while local people cannot find enough affordable housing. We propose to give local authorities in England the same discretion as those in Wales to end the 50 per cent. discount. As a new departure, we propose to use the proceeds for extra affordable housing. This will of course be discretionary, but it could be worth up to £150 million a year. We are required to consult on that proposal and will do so as soon as possible.

A strong rural economy benefits both rural and urban areas. Market towns are the heart of economic growth in rural areas. We are investing an extra £37 million over the next three years to help create new opportunities, new work spaces, restored high streets, better amenities and good transport links to surrounding areas. With partnership funds, that will create a £100 million package for 100 market towns.

We are giving the regional development agencies greater flexibility and a more specific rural remit within the additional £500 million in their budgets. There will also be special business support and training tailored for small businesses in rural areas.

The House has often expressed the view that agriculture plays a crucial role in the countryside and rural economy. The action plan for farming sets out our policies for the future of farming. Farming will continue to produce the bulk of the nation's food and contribute to exports. It also contributes to a good quality environment and the wider local economy, but many farmers want, and indeed need, to diversify to stay in business.

The House will recall that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, recently announced a £1.6 billion seven-year package for agriculture in the new England rural development programme. This will increase environmental support for farmers and help them to start new business enterprises. The Government are also making available an extra £500 million to help the farming industry modernise and restructure in addition to the £2.5 billion a year from the European Union.

Recognising the real difficulties faced by agriculture, we will also reform our planning rules to help farmers diversify. We are today launching a consultation document to give rate relief for rural diversification projects.

Our consultation has shown a great deal of concern for a small but important part of the rural economy—the maintenance of small rural abattoirs, which have faced increased inspection fees. We will introduce additional targeted help to support local abattoirs, without any detriment to food standards.

Our beautiful countryside is valued both by people who live in it and by people who visit it. We all recognise the work that rural people have done over generations to protect the countryside and keep it in its present state. We must relieve the pressure of development on the countryside, so we will be building on urban brown fields first and on green fields last. We will build higher quality housing and make better use of land by building at more sustainable densities. Therefore, we now require local authorities to notify me of all major housing developments planned for greenfield sites.

The House will be aware that we were reviewing our controls over roadside advertising in the countryside. I can announce that we will not change our rules but will maintain our controls over advertisements in the countryside.

Following this statement, the House will move on to the final stages of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. This major Bill will give additional protection to our countryside, conserve its wildlife and make it accessible to all—something for which we have waited a long time.

Our consultation showed that for too long local people have felt they have not been able to take decisions for themselves, especially in rural areas. We want local communities to play a bigger part in shaping their own future because every community has its own priorities, strengths and distinctiveness.

The performance of our parish councils varies. We will promote new "quality" town or parish councils which will be able to take on a bigger role in providing and managing local services in partnership with principal authorities.

We will provide £7 million to help parish and town councils to meet the quality standard and shape their future and, for the first time, to help 1,000 communities develop town and village plans which can then feed into the statutory planning process. In addition, the Countryside Agency will equip every town and parish council with access to the internet.

Town and village plans will allow local people to set design standards and preserve the character of their villages.

As our consultation revealed, all too often in the past and at all levels of government, rural needs and priorities have been overlooked. We will ensure that the commitments in this White Paper are followed through. To achieve that, an audit will be developed. The Countryside Agency will produce an annual report on how major policies have been assessed for their rural impact. We will establish new rural advisory boards at national and regional level, and will appoint a new rural advocate—Mr. Ewen Cameron, the chairman of the Countryside Agency—who will argue the case on countryside issues at the highest levels in government and outside.

We are clear that it is impossible to tackle the problems of the countryside in isolation. We need to look at them as a whole across government. The White Paper promotes a living countryside, with thriving rural communities and access to high quality services; a working countryside with a strong economy giving high and stable levels of employment; a protected countryside that we can all enjoy; and a vibrant countryside that can shape its own future and have its voice heard by government at all levels.

Some people want to divide town and country. We are governing for the whole country. Our aim is a living, working countryside, with better access, for all people to enjoy.

I commend the White Paper to the House.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. The White Paper has been long awaited and much delayed. The right hon. Gentleman said that he did not want to divide town and country. It is a pity, therefore, that he was unable to deliver on his promise to issue the urban and rural White Papers simultaneously, so that we could see how they related to each other.

None the less, we are glad that the rural White Paper is finally here. There is no doubt that, when Conservative Members have studied it, we will welcome some of its proposals—not least tranquillity measures and access to emergency services, about which we have read in the newspapers, and, as we have heard today, help for small abattoirs. All those measures will be welcome.

However, may I remind the House of the state of rural life under this Government, to which the Deputy Prime Minister referred? We face an unprecedented crisis in farming. It is probable that, during the life of this Government, some 50,000 farmers will lose their livelihoods for good. The suicide rate among farmers is

the highest on record, and there is a rapid and increasing loss of green fields to development under this Government—[Interruption.] Yes. Crime is rising in the countryside faster than anywhere else, rural pubs are closing at a rate of six a week and post offices at a rate of two a week, and the stealth tax burden is falling most heavily on the shire counties. There has been a 34 per cent. increase in fuel duty and, as we heard yesterday, council tax in the shire counties is likely to rise by 30 per cent. during the life of this Government.

The test of the White Paper will be whether it addresses the guts of that a crisis. What, if anything, in the White Paper will result in a single farmer staying in business as a farmer? Will anything lead to a single housing estate not being built, or to a single crime being prevented?

The White Paper relaxes planning restrictions in a number of areas, but does it do anything to reverse the accelerating loss of green fields to development—the vicious circle of the decline of the inner cities and the concreting of the countryside? Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that his commitment to force councils in the south-east to build 900,000 new houses—50 per cent. on green fields—and those in the south-west to build 460,000 new houses, of which more than 60 per cent. will probably be built on green fields, will only perpetuate the loss of the countryside? Proposing in a White Paper to build over it is no solution. We need less interference and more local control over local planning. All the tranquillity measures in the world will be as nothing unless the right hon. Gentleman's central planning diktats on housebuilding are revised.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister realise how hopelessly superficial some of the measures in the White Paper, such as those on e-inclusion, are? Post offices are closing at rate of two a week. It was the Government's decision to withdraw cash services from post offices, putting them into crisis. Putting a computer terminal into a post office is a perfectly nice idea, but it is completely superficial and will make no substantive difference. Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that the real issue for e-commerce in the countryside is the rolling out of broadband? Every forecast and everything that the Government have done suggests a permanently disadvantaged countryside—because of the Government's failure to deregulate telecoms in order to ensure that such rolling out takes place.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify the position on rate relief? He said in the statement that the plan is to ensure that rate relief for village shops and post offices is made mandatory. However, the White Paper states:

We are consulting in our Green Paper Modernising Local Government Finance on an expansion of the village shop rate relief scheme.
I do not want the House to be confused about that issue. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will clarify whether he is consulting, or whether the scheme will be rolled out on a mandatory basis, and if so, when.

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that most people living in the countryside depend not just on buses but on cars? We welcome investment in rural bus services, but does he not understand that less well-off farmers—whose incomes have, as he said, dropped by 65 per cent.—pensioners and parents taking their children to school in remote areas rely on the car? They have borne the brunt of stealth taxes. A 3p cut in fuel duty would go much further than any proposal in the White Paper to boost the rural economy.

Is there anything in the White Paper that will prevent a further rise in rural crime? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware—he did not mention it in his statement—that there was a 6 per cent. increase in burglaries in the countryside in the last year alone, which was a reverse of the trend experienced under the Conservative Government; that there was a 23 per cent. increase in car crime; and that the driving force behind the increase in crime is the reduction in the strength of rural policing by 1,750 under this Government? People in the countryside now have to go to town to see what a policeman looks like. Is there anything in the White Paper that will prevent a similar rise in crime next year?

Is not the £40 million that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned money that had already been announced, representing no real-terms increase in the expenditure on police in the countryside? Is any of the £1 billion-worth of investment in the countryside that he has claimed genuinely new money? If any of it is money that has not been previously announced, what is it and how much does it amount to?

Does not the White Paper make the Government's attitude to farming clear? Of the 176 pages of the document, only 11 relate even remotely to agriculture. To sum it all up, on page 86, in response to the worst crisis in agriculture since the 1930s, the Deputy Prime Minister unveils—wait for it—the "electronic rural portal". That was not quite what the farmers had in mind.

Is not the real truth that the urban White Paper was the right hon. Gentleman's top priority? That was seen as something of a flop, and the rural White Paper is the afterthought. It lacks any vision; is fragmented; and is degraded by emphasis on glossy gimmicks. The right hon. Gentleman made his view of country people clear at the Labour party conference. He gave the impression today that he was talking about a foreign country. The fact that he does not understand the countryside may be understandable, but the fact that he does not care about the countryside is unforgivable.

The more questions the hon. Gentleman asks, the less definitive becomes his approach. I shall respond to some of his questions—I think you would rule me out of order if I attempted to answer every one of them, Mr. Speaker.

May I deal first with the delay. We announced in 1998 that we would commit ourselves to a White Paper. We are within the timetable for that. I said that the document would possibly be published before the summer. A number of decisions, especially those announced in the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement, made it necessary to publish the White Paper after that statement, and we decided to do so today.

There has been some debate about whether the urban and rural White Papers should be published at the same time. Different views have been expressed, but I arrived at the view that we should separate them. People in rural areas and Labour Members representing rural constituencies said that if we put the two together it would look as if the urban view was overwhelming the rural view. I did not necessarily accept that view, but I could see the difficulty. I accepted that it was better to make two statements, and I hope that the House welcomes that and that we can concentrate on rural matters today.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a catalogue of decline. After my statement, 1 thought that he might have held back. I have referred to the decline in the number of village schools, shops and transport services, which we are addressing in the White Paper. All of it took place during the Conservative Administration. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that a rural White Paper is necessary to deal with these matters, I have to tell him that it took the Conservatives 16 years to produce a rural White Paper, and 12 months later they produced a progress report that said that not much progress had been made. There was plenty of talk but no action, and no policy was implemented. Within three years, the Labour Government have produced White Papers on urban and rural affairs and implemented a series of proposals for change to meet the requirements. That is a far better response than one White Paper in 16 years under the previous Administration.

On the question whether farming is in decline, that has been pretty evident not only for the past two decades, but for longer than that. The population employed in agriculture has continued to decline. Although Tory Members now represent only a minority of rural areas, they must know from their experience, as do my colleagues, who represent the majority of the rural areas, that there has been considerable decline in the industry and many difficulties resulting from the changes in agriculture policy.

That is undoubtedly true, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has produced a number of agriculture policies to deal with those difficulties. The most recent is the action programme to tackle the problems facing the industry in the past few months. Yes, the industry is in decline. At the request of the industry and rural communities for more favourable circumstances for diversification, we have produced our proposals and made extra resources available.

It is true that we have given greater priority to affordable housing. That is largely because many authorities were engaged in selling their housing stock as second houses—or executive homes, as the hon. Gentleman would call them. [Interruption.] Yes, whether we like it or not, the quaint country cottage has become the executive second home, and that has denied people who want to live in the area the chance to have a home.

Yes, we have increased the amount of money available for affordable housing. We have also increased the possibility of new resources by removing the 50 per cent. discount on council tax. That is a matter on which I must consult, but Wales has already introduced such a measure and shown that it can work. I want to make sure that the extra money taken by local authorities who withdraw that discount will be directed to providing affordable housing. That is a priority and it is one of the matters on which we differ from the Opposition.

On the question whether we are building on greenfield sites, we have carried out a review of PPG3 and PPG6, which deal with supermarkets—a subject on which the hon. Gentleman has much more experience than I do. Much of the greenfield area was developed for that purpose.

The same argument applies, whether the planning is for the south-east or the south-west. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot comment on planning arrangements still to be brought before the House. In general, however, as we have made it clear time and again, priority should be given to brownfield sites for housebuilding. We also believe in greater density and better quality design. That, in our view, would meet the demand for housing in the south-east with no greater land take. It is simple mathematics to divide the land by the number of houses and determine the density required. Our proposals will not lead to a greater demand for land.

We have increased the green belt by 30,000 hectares in three years, whereas the previous Administration added only 1,500 hectares to the green belt. Again, that shows the difference between us. Our record on the green belt, development and planning agreements is far better.

On rural crime, the hon. Gentleman cites the statistics rather selectively. We all accept the British crime survey report; I have heard it quoted by the Opposition. Let us first remind ourselves that throughout the period of the Tory Government, crime doubled in rural and urban areas. It doubled. The hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that it had subsequently got worse. The British crime survey report shows that between 1997 and 1999, burglaries went down 20 per cent, rural violence went down 22 per cent. and vehicle theft went down 20 per cent. That is not consistent with the suggestion that crime has got worse in rural areas.

The statistics deployed by the hon. Gentleman are typical. The greatest hypocrisy in his argument is not only that he asked what new money there is—clearly, there is new money, as I have told the House—but that he made no commitment to continue that extra public expenditure. We know that the Opposition would maintain the expenditure on health and possibly education, but they would not maintain other expenditure. Recently, the Opposition Treasury spokesman, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), said:
We have made it quite clear that we do not intend to match the Government on public spending.
The question for the Opposition is what they would cut from new expenditure in rural areas. That is the reality. We shall be posing that question in every rural area when we fight the next election.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response to the Select Committee's report and for the White Paper. Will he say specifically when he hopes rural post offices, shops and garages will be eligible for rate relief? How soon does he expect money to be available to small market towns to enable their shopping facilities to be enhanced? Does he agree that if these measures are to work, it is essential that those who live in rural areas use their local shops? To that end, will my right hon. Friend look a little harder at the way in which supermarkets still insist on receiving discounts that are not available to small rural shops?

I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive remarks. As regards rate relief, he will know that first we must complete the consultation process. Timing will be a matter for the Treasury. However, we have committed ourselves to the policy.

My hon. Friend referred to supermarkets and discount pricing disadvantaging shops selling higher-priced products in rural areas. I have been discussing with

supermarkets whether they should not consider having shops in rural areas that sell at the same prices, and allow a sort of social service to be provided. To be fair to supermarkets, they have begun to do so in some areas. I hope that we can encourage them to do more.

Liberal Democrats unequivocally welcome the broad thrust and many of the details of the White Paper. There has clearly been much parallel thinking between the parties. That is why we welcome plans to allow local authorities to charge full council tax on second homes and to abolish the outrageous privilege of a 50 per cent. discount. I urge the Deputy Prime Minister to speed up implementation of the policy. He need consult us no further on the matter. We entirely agree.

We welcome the plans for mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief for rural pubs, shops and garages, and the plans for renewing the Post Office network. We are delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has dropped plans to allow the mushrooming of advertising hoardings throughout the countryside. To ensure that there will not be the mushrooming of unnecessary mobile phone masts, is he now willing to accept in full the recommendations of the Stewart report to allow local councils to have full planning control?

Will the extension of the fuel duty rebate for all forms of community rural transport be introduced immediately? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that implementation of the plans will not be delayed for further unnecessary consultation?

Having welcomed the bulk of the White Paper, I shall express one deep concern. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many of his plans will be brought to fruition only with the support of active and willing local government that is given the necessary resources and the freedom to meet local needs? Will he explain why yesterday the Government further restricted that freedom by tying up yet more funds in specific grants, thus providing more central rather than local control?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. I would not want the House to think that there is any joint consultation on these matters—certainly not with me! I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments in support of the ending of the council tax discount and the granting of extra rate relief for shops. There was rate relief under the previous Administration, and we are building on that policy. That policy was right and other shops, areas and services are entitled to that relief. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes our decision on hoardings in the countryside. As he knows, we are consulting about mobile phone masts, although I think that much more could be done in the industry to unify signal stations rather than just duplicating them from place to place.

The time that it will take to implement the transport plans varies. I announced plans for £10,000 which, in some areas with only 1,000 people, is almost the size of a parish budget, so that is a substantial amount of money. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are more than 8,000 parishes and it is not assumed that they will all get that grant—indeed, from what they have told us, not all of them would want it. Certainly, we are prepared to give that grant, but parishes will have to make a case for why they should receive it. As public money is involved, we will want to check properly that their schemes are sound, which, perhaps, will cause some delay.

I understand the controversial matter raised by the hon. Gentleman because I have had discussions with local authorities, who often make a point about ring-fencing of what were—and still are—local authority resources. However, there were real difficulties when we tried to identify those resources, whether for education or services. When the Government commit themselves to delivery in partnership with a local authority, they have to get the best balance between their responsibility and that of the local authority providing the resources.

I welcome the statement. As a Member of Parliament who represents a semi-rural constituency, I have consulted 8,000 of my constituents on these issues in the past year. I assure my right hon. Friend that the vast majority of those people wish to see health, education and transport—which are all included in the White Paper—being tackled. Hon. Members who try to divide the countryside and rural areas from urban areas do a great disservice to the whole country.

Will my right hon. Friend give further details about the proposed pilot scheme for post offices in Leicestershire? Will he look at speed limits in smaller villages so that they can be reduced as much as possible? Finally, will he look in more detail at ways in which we can assist market towns such as Loughborough and others in my constituency and the rest of Leicestershire, including Shepshed and Sileby, that have suffered from the decline in textiles? [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."] Will my right hon. Friend look at extending help to those relatively large villages? [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had a good try, but I suggest that from now on we have one question per Member.

I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to the consultation, which was pretty extensive and cost 12 months of the time that we took to prepare the White Paper. We thought that it was important to find out what people in rural areas felt and, perhaps, to embody their recommendations, views and ideas about policy in the White Paper, which confirms what my hon. Friend said about consultation in his area. I shall write to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who represent constituencies in Leicestershire with details of the post office scheme.

Recommendations have been made on speed restrictions, and we shall seek to give local authorities an opportunity to discuss them with the police and the authorities involved to see if speed limit changes can be achieved without the need to go through my Department to confirm a change. That will speed up the process and will be welcome.

Market towns are an important economic consideration for the development of rural areas. We want to make sure that they get support, even though they may not all want to do what we propose in the White Paper. We have given them an opportunity: they have a choice. The urban and rural White Papers are complementary. The more we can help to improve life in our cities, the more we increase the possibility of people wanting to stay there instead of moving out of the area. The urban and rural White Papers both aim to achieve that end, on which the development of market towns and villages depends.

Does the Secretary of State accept that many of us in the countryside, especially those of us who are concerned with farming, would really like form filling, regulatory control and other bureaucracy to be reduced to the level now prevailing in France and other EU countries with which we have to compete?

The hon. Gentleman has a long history of dealing with countryside matters and brings an experienced viewpoint to the House. He will know that we have changed some regulations dealing with environmental requirements in the countryside. However, the common agricultural policy, whether in France or Britain, carries a burden of bureaucracy and red tape. We are required to observe those arrangements. Of course, they were introduced under the previous Administration.

Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that the White Paper will be welcomed the length and breadth of this country? That will happen not least because it addresses the agenda of ordinary men and women with ordinary concerns and priorities in rural communities. The White Paper is not limited only to farmers, as one might have imagined after listening to Opposition Members. It is a rural White Paper, not an agriculture White Paper.

Will my right hon. Friend also accept that people will be delighted that affordable housing and jobs are at the centre of the programme? They are the best, indeed the only way of sustaining rural communities. Will my right hon. Friend endeavour to ensure that local authorities understand that we need a more flexible planning regime? That is necessary to secure affordable housing, as well as the jobs and local services that go with it, and provide the promise of the White Paper.

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. The White Paper meets the needs of ordinary people in rural areas, men—and women—[Laughter.]—in York and outside it. My hon. Friend will know that many policies that affect rural areas are implemented by different Departments, so it is important to achieve proper co-ordination. That is why we sought to appoint a rural advocate to impose a check and to see how Departments are delivering what the Government promise in the White Paper, as well how they are delivering their policies. Ordinary people can express their views using that sounding board, and so ensure that Departments carry out their responsibilities.

On flexible planning, we are, as I said, making changes in the planning process to make it easier to deal with the problems of diversification. Members of rural communities, including farmers, are asking for action on that.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister remember the hidden countryside industry—residential and nursing care for elderly people? Does he realise that residential and care homes are the largest employer in many small towns and villages? Many farmers can hang on in business only because members of their families have found employment in such homes. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that industry is under pressure because of inadequate fee income from local authorities and changes in standards? When the right hon. Gentleman deals with local authority finance, which also causes problems, will he bear in mind the importance of those homes, not merely in terms of care for elderly people, but as part of the interdependence of the entire rural economy?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When I consider rural areas, I am sometimes reminded of the city of Hull, which was often said to be a fishing town when only 6 per cent. of its economic activity was associated with fishing. The same can be said of agriculture in rural economies. The care industry is an important part of the diversification that is currently well under way in the farming industry, whether people gain employment in that sector or make a living driving trucks around—as we have seen in the past few weeks.

Diversification is important in the farming community—and I suspect that it always has been. We are seeking to remove some of the obstacles, to ensure the provision of services that give people jobs. That includes the introduction of extra resources and changes in planning regulations to allow more effective use of buildings than is currently possible.

I especially welcome the Government's investment in rural transport, as a quarter of households in rural areas do not have regular access to a car. However, I am anxious about rural school transport, which would be threatened under Tory plans to abolish LEAs. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about charging post-16-year-olds for use of the free bus service? That acts as a tax on learning and staying on at school, and conflicts with the Government's view that we should reduce congestion in the areas around schools.

I agree a great deal with my hon. Friend's comments. It is true that transport is a critical requirement in those communities. As she said, about a quarter of the people in rural areas, and 30 per cent. in the United Kingdom generally, do not have access to cars. Public transport is critical for them. My hon. Friend also mentioned access to school transport. In rural areas, demands for transport are much more variable than in urban areas. That is why we increased the funding for the provision of rural bus transport, which was originally £170 million. Everybody thinks that that has been quite successful, in producing 1,800 new bus services, plus other services.

We are trying to provide extra resources: the £230 million plus. I do not know whether the Opposition are prepared to retain that—it is new money to provide more transport services in rural areas. The special transport fund is also relevant as it will allow parishes and smaller communities to adjust to the relevant requirements. I hope that the extra resources will not be the total amount available. Often, extra resources can be used to multiply other resources to get better transport and to meet the particular requirements of an area. They can also help to ensure that decisions are made by those most affected by them.

Although accessibility to vital services, a reduction in the cost of fuel, the increased availability of affordable housing and an increase in rural policing are essential to the success of rural communities, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that unless farming is making a profit, there will be no maintenance of our countryside, to which he referred in such glowing terms? Will he co-operate more fully with other Departments and ensure that they introduce policies that will enable our farmers to make a profit? Does not the fact that Heathcote's, a rural abattoir in my constituency, will face an additional bill of £80,000 in the immediate future demonstrate what the Government are doing? Is that the way to ensure the survival of rural abattoirs?

The hon. Gentleman's opening remarks have already made my case. He catalogued the areas that are important for maintaining strong and good community life£and there was a decline in every one of those categories during the 18 years when he was a member of the previous Government. He obviously accepts his responsibility for the reduction in quality of life.

The hon. Gentleman may have been a Back Bencher during that period—I know that he was quite independent on occasion—but he belonged to that Administration and fought under a Tory banner at elections.

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the importance of fanning. It may account for a small part of our GDP, but a great deal of the life in those communities is dependent on farming. The new plans and resources that have been announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are directed towards that. The hon. Gentleman must accept that the resources that go from the public purse to farming mean that one cannot argue that the industry is getting a hard deal. It may not be getting enough resources, but if one compares its situation with that of other industries, one sees that a fair share of public resources go towards maintaining agriculture in this country.

Will my right hon. Friend accept warm congratulations from Labour Members, and also the fact that the comments of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), the Opposition spokesperson, had nothing to do with what really matters in rural Britain? Will my right hon. Friend also put to rest the canard that we were going to get rid of parish and town councils? Instead, we have shown that we will enhance their powers and give local people a true voice. There will be a proper decision-making process for planning and housing, which is what local people want. [HON. MEMBERS: "Question?"] Will he accept our congratulations?

I agree with my hon. Friend. He is a supporter of rural communities and his comments explain why the Government have more Members of Parliament representing rural constituencies than do the two main opposition parties—

a fact that shows what people in rural areas thought about 18 years of a Tory Administration. We want to reverse that decline and give people a decent opportunity to enjoy good services.

The White Paper will give people a choice, and a chance to make their own decisions. One way to do that is through parish councils. My hon. Friend knows, as I do, that the quality of parish councils varies considerably. There are more than 8,000 of them, and I propose in the White Paper to provide more powers and resources for som—but they must come up to a quality standard. They cannot just hope to receive the money.

We want to see a professional management in control—a management that approaches the provision of services in a professional way. We also want councils to be accountable through elections; councils in many areas do not seek endorsement by that means. We want better councils, and as we say in the White Paper, accountability is at the heart of that.

Much of what the Deputy Prime Minister has said will be welcomed in Herefordshire, but may I raise the subject of real food, which is now a growing aspect of rural life? What is in the White Paper to support farmers markets, which are an increasing and important part of rural life? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider again the compensation that should be offered to organic farmers who lose soil accreditation status because their crops have been affected by genetically modified pollen?

I think that I have been advised that no one has been affected in that way.

It is important for us to try to improve rural economies by helping to strengthen agriculture. I have already mentioned some of the resources involved. I have referred to the need to help abattoirs—a point that may seem small in itself, but is really very important. People living in rural communities argue strongly that it is too costly to use abattoirs that are some distance away, and that it would be helpful if we could maintain local abattoirs and enable them to meet both the desired standards and the extra costs. Abattoirs are an essential ingredient in local economies.

The same is true of what the hon. Gentleman described as "real foods". I assume that he meant organic foods. More needs to be done, and we are doing some of it now. Organic food commands a higher price, which is of interest to local economies. We are doing all that we can to encourage it.

The inclusion in my right hon. Friend's statement of support for parish and town councils will be warmly welcomed. Can he assure me that that support will assist Woodley town council in my constituency, so that it can maintain the area, which is not urban but nestles against an urban area, as both an inclusive and a distinctive community?

I am not too sure how to reply to that question, as I only picked up half of it. I apologise to my hon. Friend for that, and I will write to her. I assume that she was talking about a town council in the Reading area—I picked that up through natural intelligence.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants local people to be able to make bigger decisions about their own future, why, in giving local authorities discretion to charge the full rate on second homes, does he not permit them to use the money as they think fit? Instead, he insists that he must get his hands on it. Is that not merely another stealth tax? The Government make the local authority take the lash, then take the money back so that they can pay for their own housing policy.

This is about housing policy. The proposal is in the interests of every local authority that I can think of.

At least I give the right hon. Gentleman credit for deciding that there should be a rural White Paper when he became Secretary of State for the Environment in, I believe, 1995. As he knows, however, his observation document showed that little had been done. Recommendations had been made, but had then been rejected. We have embodied some of his proposals in the White Paper.

I think that the money is an extra resource that should go towards affordable homes. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's essential point that local authorities should make their own decisions about resources, but as we are removing a discount, I feel that the money is required because of the desperate need for affordable homes—especially in view of the Conservative Government's record.

My right hon. Friend will know that, with 67 parishes, mine is a truly rural constituency. I can tell him from my surveys of parish councils that 70 per cent. of them will welcome the proposals in the White Paper, and the continuing attention paid to the many deprived rural areas that developed during the 18 years of Conservative government.

I especially welcome the proposal to evaluate progress on the rural agenda, which I am sure will be welcomed throughout the House. Has my right hon. Friend considered the establishment of an annual report on rural issues, which could be debated annually in the House?

I do not know whether I should congratulate my hon. Friend on having 67 parishes in his constituency or commiserate with him, but that statistic shows the diversity of the parish council structure. I hope that our proposals will help parish councils to provide a better service by giving them the resources and powers to meet the needs of people in their areas, as I am sure my hon. Friend will explain to them.

My hon. Friend raises the important issue of whether there should be an annual report. Governments—I do not have one particular Government in mind—often make statements advocating that something be done for rural or urban areas. All too often that commitment is not checked, except from time to time by Select Committees, as was said earlier. We intend to produce an annual report on the state of the countryside, which will be available to Departments, Select Committee and hon. Members, so we can have a proper debate in the House on the provision of the services that I have announced and make a proper assessment of their effectiveness.

I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on his statement. It contained many good ideas and I support a great many of the sentiments behind it—and when he said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) had given him those ideas, I understood why the White Paper was so good.

I have one question. Last July, the European Commission told the Government that grants could no longer be given to clear polluted brownfield sites. That drove a coach and horses through the Government's policy to build on brownfield sites first and greenfield sites second. Has the right hon. Gentleman solved that problem, because if he has not, the green fields of our countryside will be destroyed, whether he likes it or not, with the customary knock-on effects of light and noise pollution?

Order. Before the Deputy Prime Minister replies, I should remind hon. Members that the shorter the questions, the better for everyone concerned.

I do not want to leave the impression, nor, I think, would the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Central—[HON. MEMBERS: "Coastal."] Sorry, I meant the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I do not want to leave the impression that even 1 per cent. of the ideas that we are putting forward came from his White Paper. There were ideas in it, but he implemented only one of them. He did not manage to implement the rest, which I have here before me, even after his one-year observation report on his White Paper. Where the ideas make good sense, I have included them. For example, it is right to build on the rate discount for such places as shops and pubs—but perhaps it would be better not to recognise the actions of other politicians by congratulating them on their contributions, because it only leads to silly remarks such as that made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen).

The EC definition of state aid has concerned the House. It is a real problem. We have cleared much land of pollution by using such resources, especially through English Estates and English Partnerships, and we need to contest the EC's contention that those resources are state aid. We have allowed for that problem and made changes to deal with it while we continue to argue our case. We are not a lone voice in that argument.

I commend in particular the initiative that my right hon. Friend announced for supporting innovation in parish and town councils. A number of parish councils in my area—perhaps in Melbourne and Barrow upon Trent—would welcome the opportunity to develop local plans and new solutions for services. Can he suggest a timetable for that?

We would be happy to discuss that matter with town and parish councils as soon as possible. It is important to get on with it, and I am sure that many

of my hon. Friends will want to make that clear to parish councils. The ideas are innovative. I have always believed that parish councils have a role. They clearly do not have the major role of other local authorities, but they have a part to play and we have dismissed them for too long. An effective parish council could play an important part in democratic accountability, which the White Paper seeks to increase.

The Deputy Prime Minister and his boss are always saying that they listen to people, so why will he not listen to the local authorities and give district councils the right to decide the level of new housing in their districts, rather than its being dictated by the Ministries?

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman attended the debates when the previous Government forced their housing requirements on Kent and other housing authorities.

As Doncaster council claims that it will take it 10 years to introduce 20 mph zones, will my right hon. Friend consider delegating responsibility for such traffic management schemes to parish and town councils, which represent people who are crying out for those zones now, not in 10 years' time?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those are difficult matters. Certain rights are given under statutory powers to the various authorities involved. I have said that there is an opportunity now for us to decentralise some of those powers to the areas most affected by them. Speed limits may be suitable. It makes sense to give more responsibility to those who are directly affected in the immediate area.

I too welcome the interesting and worthwhile proposals in the White Paper, but does the Secretary of State recall that the main problem in my rural constituency is that the borough council is being required by a four-year-old structure plan to provide land for 14,400 new dwellings over the next 10 years, in a rural setting? Many thousands of commuters will move into new homes, yet the road developments have all been cancelled and the improvement schemes have been postponed. Why does the right hon. Gentleman still refuse to call in those old structure plans and reopen them in the light of the many new policies that he has announced over the past three or four years, which he says are designed to preserve the quality of life and the green fields in our rural environment?

I think that I can recall demands for that road being made for some time under the previous Administration, who found that they could not provide either the resources or the time to build it—so he is not bringing a new problem to my attention, although it may be made much more difficult by the 14,400 houses. I do not know enough of the details, but I understand that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had a meeting with some of my Ministers. Through PPG3—new planning guidance—we are trying to achieve a proper balance between such transport matters and housing development. I will look into the matter and write to him.

Will my right hon. Friend meet the excellent new Minister for rural affairs in Wales to ensure that the best principles of the White Paper will be applied in Wales, too? I represent a rural constituency, and does he agree with me that what people want is a quality environment and access to good quality public services, not the right to hunt animals with dogs for sport, which is the obsession of the Conservative party?

I think that I will swerve past that one—but I believe that I have made it clear that I shall vote against.

We are on dangerous ground if we say what people in Scotland or Wales should do under the decentralised Administrations, but I have referred to the fact that we learned something from Wales when it ended the 50 per cent. discount. Both areas have much to learn from each other, and we should take that into account for the sake of improving the lives of people in all our areas.

When determining the transport policies in the White Paper, did the Deputy Prime Minister declare his interest to his colleagues—a financial interest involving a transport union, which is worth perhaps £1,000 a month—as required by paragraph 110 of the ministerial code?

Many people in Scarborough and Whitby will be pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have listened to them, but I particularly welcome the new guidance on rural strategy that my right hon. Friend suggested would be issued to regional development agencies, including Yorkshire Forward. Can he say when that guidance will be available, so that I can ensure that I do my best for my rural constituents in dealing with Yorkshire Forward?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. To be honest, I do not know when the advice will be produced. If he will allow me, I shall write to him with more detailed information.

What new money has the right hon. Gentleman announced today?

We have announced the £1 billion—the hon. Gentleman can read the statement. We have announced extra money for transport and housing, and extra programmes for housing, education and health. All of those things are important to rural communities, so the hon. Gentleman will have great difficulty explaining to his rural constituents why he would cut back expenditure on those programmes.

My right hon. Friend's White Paper will be welcome in my semi-rural constituency, especially the Penistone area. Will he say a little about the mechanism whereby market towns might gain access to the extra £37 million that RDAs have been given for regeneration? Is it likely to be available for projects proposed by the market towns?

The RDAs have a remit to deal with and report on such matters, whether the areas involved are rural, partly rural or partly urban. In some cases the money will be made available by project; in others, other criteria will be used. The RDAs have been instructed to take account of rural areas in their programmes of expenditure.

It is wrong that this year, under the existing council tax loophole, £168 million of national taxpayers' money will again be spent subsidising wealthy people's ownership of second homes, when there are many thousands of rural families who do not have their first home. The right hon. Gentleman's announcement will therefore be warmly welcomed. However, my constituents in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, where there is a high incidence of second home ownership, will want to know how soon the policy can be implemented and whether the consultation process will consider other provisions to ensure that people on rural wages are not priced out by wealthy second home owners.

As I made clear, we shall consult on the matter as soon as we can. I have announced other resources in connection with key housing and affordable housing. The 50 per cent. discount is not the sole issue, but under the scheme that I have announced, money will be ring-fenced for the development of affordable homes. That extra money will be welcome wherever in England it is applied.

One of the biggest problems in the rural parts of my constituency is the degradation of the environment caused by illegal fly tipping and encampments. Will my right hon. Friend say how his White Paper will enable the Government to clamp down on illegal fly tipping and improve the environment in rural areas?

That is a particularly aggravating problem in many areas and it is difficult to deal with, as most hon. Members know. However, as my hon. Friend says, the practice is often illegal, so it is a question of catching offenders and enforcing the law; those are matters for the Home Office.

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the countryside would be more reassured by his statement if the Government were not actively working against the interests of British agriculture? [Laughter.]

Why are the Government supporting the inclusion of sugar in the EBA—everything but arms—initiative? Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that that policy will destroy British agriculture, undermine employment and damage the countryside itself?

I do not know about BEA—[Horn. MEMBERS: "EBA."]—but I wish the right hon. and learned Gentleman had shown as much concern about BSE, which affected more rural areas. He has more responsibility—

If he had shown greater knowledge and wisdom in respect of BSE, this country would be a lot better off, our agriculture industry would be a lot better off, and so would our people. It is a disgrace that he should make such an announcement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the past 18 years, one of the most dramatic changes in coalfield rural constituencies such as mine, which has 20 parishes and 20 villages, is that all the pits have been closed? My suggestion to him—I hope that he and the coalfields taskforce will take it on board—is that the accent must be on jobs, jobs and jobs again. And while he is at it, will he accept from me a couple of short sentences that he might want to use in the future? They are, "Ban French beef", and "Stuff the euro".

I can tell my hon. Friend that those phrases are not in the White Paper. However, the point that he makes about jobs, jobs and jobs has been at the heart of the Government's policy—which has created a million extra jobs when the previous Administration told us that that was not possible. If this Government achieve nothing else, getting a million more people back to work is a record to be proud of. We have done that by recognising the need for social justice.

Coalfield communities suffered greatly from the previous Administration's policy of closing down 100 pits, which wiped out whole communities. We responded to that by providing £350 million and other resources and powers to coalfield areas, enabling them to begin rebuilding their own communities. The difference between this Government and the previous one is that we are concerned with social justice. We give a lot of time and attention to that.

The Deputy Prime Minister will understand the difference between sparsely populated areas and areas with scattered populations. He will also understand the difficulty of providing public services to those different types of communities. What proposals does he envisage will be necessary to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of public services in areas of scattered population, and where in the document does he deal with those proposals?

A central plank of the White Paper is the need to ensure that local decisions are made by local people. In transport, for example, local people should be able to decide local priorities and how to use the extra resources provided for bus services. We shall also target other services such as health and education, and make it clear—as other Departments already do—that those services have to be provided. However, we do not rest there. We want to ensure that there is an audit of all those services, to be reported in an annual report to Departments, to the House and to Select Committees, so that we can check progress. That way of providing services is substantially different from the way in which the previous Administration did things.

Order. I have let the statement run for an hour and 10 minutes, and we must move on.

New Members Taking The Oath

The following Members took and subscribed the Oath:

John Robertson Esq., for Glasgow, Anniesland

Mark Phillip Hendrick Esq., for Preston

Adrian Edward Bailey Esq., for West Bromwich, West

Points Of Order

4.47 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not giving you advance notice of this point of order, but yesterday I received a telephone call from a journalist on a senior regional paper in my constituency, asking me, in some detail, whether the provisions in the White Paper on which we have just heard a statement would have any bearing on the extremely controversial proposal to build a huge container port at Dibden bay, a rural part of my constituency.

I wonder how that journalist knew in detail what the White Paper contained 24 hours before the statement was made, and whether this is one more case of the Government disregarding your injunction to Ministers not to leak to the press before statements are made in the House.

The hon. Gentleman will have to provide some clear evidence that the journalist was in fact in possession of the White Paper before it was presented to the House. I will need more than hearsay evidence. I do not doubt what he says, but it is only hearsay evidence.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I regret to have to return to a point that I raised with you about two weeks ago, when I sought your guidance on the correct way of referring in the House to the First Secretary and other Secretaries in the National Assembly for Wales. I asked whether we should use the titles in the legislation passed by this House or whether we could call them whatever we liked. You replied:

Normally, the Table Office would have corrected notices to use the First Secretary's correct title. I hope that the proper designation will appear on the Order Paper in future.—[Official Report, 15 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 939.]
I may have been mistaken, but I took that to mean that official publications of the House would refer to those people only by their correct titles and that Hansard reporters would, as is their normal practice, correct inaccurate terminology used by hon. Members when referring to officials of the Welsh Assembly.

The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) later asked a supplementary question about the First Secretary, but the Under-Secretary of State for Wales replied using the term "First Minister". Those who refer to the official record in later years may find that confusing. You wrote to the First Secretary, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), on 21 November. The letter is in the public domain. It says:
The ruling I gave last week about the designation First Secretary related to the Order Paper, where it is proper that the terminology approved by Parliament should be used. I would not regard the oral use of First Minister as out of order.
I would be obliged if you could give a definitive ruling on the use of those terms in the House, both in the Chamber and in our official publications.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I did not make myself clear when I answered his point of order on 15 November. In order to remove any doubt, let me emphasise that my ruling referred only to the Order Paper. Hon. Members are free to use the term "First Minister" orally if they wish to do so, and I see no requirement for Hansard to make any correction in these circumstances.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given the importance of the need for this House to communicate accurately with outside audiences, was it in order this afternoon for the Government to distribute to several journalists copies not of the rural White Paper, but of the urban White Paper?

Such matters are nothing to do with the Chair. The paper to which the hon. Gentleman refers was in the public domain.

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), Mr. Speaker. I shall be brief, and not take up the House's time, but this morning I received an e-mail from an august journalist who works for a highly regarded journal in my constituency. The e-mail contained a detailed list of questions about the rural White Paper. Would it be helpful to you, Mr. Speaker, if I let you see a copy of that e-mail?

Town And Country Planning (Amendment)

4.51 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 31 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 so as to allow local planning authorities to determine themselves in the structure plan the amount of new housing, including figures for housing provision in each district.

In his introduction to the urban White Paper, the Deputy Prime Minister stated:

Our guiding principle is that people must come first. Our policies, programmes and structures of governance are based on engaging local people in partnerships for change with strong local leadership. This inclusive approach is at the heart of our work
When he introduced the rural White Paper this afternoon, the right hon. Gentleman said that it was important for people to have a real say in what was happening locally. Clearly, it is a worthwhile principle, and one worthy of support, that local people and local leaders should make local decisions. The difficulty is that existing planning practice is the complete antithesis of any approach based on local people and local decisions.

Planning practice for new housing numbers is all top-down, with no local community say from the bottom up. Decisions are imposed from above, rather than taken locally. There is a confusing structure and a succession of regional planning conferences, county structure plans and local development plans. That confusion is compounded by the fact that those processes are often carried out simultaneously in relation to different survey periods, years, and time scales.

The result is that all too often, people suddenly wake up to discover a proposal to build huge amounts of new housing adjacent to where they live. When they object, the district council tells them, "We're terribly sorry. We know how you feel, but we have no choice. These housing numbers have been imposed on us by the structure plan. All we are doing is carrying out the structure plan's instructions."

It is hardly surprising that turnout in parliamentary elections and by-elections should be falling, and that participation in local elections is fading away, if local people feel disfranchised and alienated from some of the decisions that affect them most deeply. Not least among those decisions is how far and how fast their communities will grow.

My constituency contains two market towns, Banbury and Bicester, and a host of villages in surrounding Oxfordshire. Over the past 20 years or so, Banbury and Bicester have taken the lion's share of new housing development in Oxfordshire. In particular, Bicester has been for some time one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. Alas, local facilities do not always keep up with the increase in housing.

I suspect that the vast majority of people in Banbury and Bicester feel that the towns have grown to their natural geographical limits. Neighbouring villages feel that they are in danger of being caught up in ever increasing development that blurs town and village and destroys local distinctiveness. In Banbury High street and Bicester Sheep street I am not stopped by people saying that substantially more housing should be built in their

towns and villages. Rather, I am met with increasing numbers of people who feel disfranchised and powerless to prevent large developments that they do not want.

To planners and local government officials—those within the secret garden—the system of regional planning conferences, regional planning guidance, structure plans and local plans is entirely rational and understandable. But to those who matter—local people and local residents—it is not; it is an alienating system. Moreover, these matters are of increasing importance as the impact of development grows.

Increasingly, local authorities are expecting developers to meet infrastructure costs, such as the costs of new schools. In the new terminology of local government finance, Oxfordshire was "ceilinged" yesterday; there was a very tight local government settlement. Getting developers to build new schools is obviously attractive to local authorities, but to enable developers to do that, the new housing development must be substantial.

For example, it would appear that Cherwell district council is having to build 1,100 new houses on the outskirts of Banbury, most of which will be in the parish of Bodicote. It has taken Bodicote since the time of the Domesday book to grow to 1,000 or so homes; this development will double the size of that community almost overnight. How can that be called sustainable development? Other communities around Banbnry—Wroxton and Hanwell, for example—all made it clear that they did not want large volumes of extra new housing built on the edge of Banbury, adjoining their villages.

All this new housing, whether around Banbury or Bicester, will be built on greenfield sites. There is no question here of greenfield sites being last, as the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier. That statement is entirely meaningless. All the new building in Oxfordshire around Banbury and Bicester will be on greenfield sites.

What would my Bill do? I want to see more power devolved to local residents, with decisions moving closer to local people and further away from Whitehall and central Government offices. The decisions on how many houses should be built in a local area should be taken by local councils at the behest of local people and local electors. They should not be effectively imposed from above—top-down, a fait accompli. "More choice to local people" is what the Deputy Prime Minister said this afternoon. The real choice that local people want is the choice of the size of their own communities.

Regional planning bodies should be abolished. Many right hon. and hon. Members—particularly on this side of the House—believe that local councils are best placed to decide the appropriate level of new development in their areas. In his statement on the rural White Paper, the Deputy Prime Minister said that local communities should have a greater say in determining their futures. I listened carefully to his suggestion for how that would be carried out, and he said that there would be town and village plans. Great stuff, but what will those town and village plans do? Will they have an impact on housing numbers and the size of towns and villages? Absolutely not.

So far as the Government are concerned, all the plans will do is give local people the power to make comments on design standards. For the people in Banbury, Bicester and surrounding villages who are suddenly confronted by huge amounts of new housing developments to be told that they will be able to comment on design standards will hardly console them, or make them feel that they have a greater say.

Local people, must have a greater opportunity to contribute directly to the formulation of plans and planning discussions, and should receive information well in advance of planning applications. The time has come to restore a say to electors. The public should be allowed to contribute at committee meetings where planning applications are decided. Local objectors should be given time and space in the meetings to interact with applicants in properly organised sensible meetings in which local authorities and local people can reasonably express their concerns.

Town and parish councils should also be given a greater true role in planning decisions, not tokenism. It is true that local planning authorities have an obligation to take into account submissions from parish councils on planning applications, but parish councils are by no means always consulted during the formulation of development plans. So parish councils should be statutory consultees.

My overall proposals are very straightforward—a bottom-up approach to planning, the abolition of national and regional rigid planning diktats imposed for housebuilding, an end to regional planning guidance, scrutiny for planning gain agreements, greater participation in the decision-making process, proper warning for local residents about large-scale developments, a greater say for town and parish councils in planning decisions, a right of counter-appeal for local residents, greater scrutiny of local authorities giving themselves planning permission, and fairer compensation to local residents. That is what the Bill would seek to do.

I appreciate that introducing the Bill at the end of a parliamentary Session means that it has little prospect of making further progress. However, I hope that the House will give leave to introduce it as a signal that such matters will need to be addressed in the next Session of Parliament—and, indeed, in every Session, until local people are truly engaged and enfranchised in local planning and decisions about housing numbers.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tony Baldry, Mr. Nick St. Aubyn, Mr. John Butterfill, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. Patrick Nicholls and Mr. Ian Taylor.

Town And Country Planning (Amendment)

Mr. Tony Baldry accordingly presented a Bill to amend section 31 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 so as to allow local planning authorities to determine themselves in the structure plan the amount of new housing, including figures for housing provision in each district: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Wednesday 29 November, and to be printed [Bill 191].

Orders Of The Day

Countryside And Rights Of Ways Bill

Lords amendments considered.

I must draw the House's attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments Nos. 19, 33, 100, 124 and 268. If the House agrees to any of these amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

Clause 1

Principal Definitions For Part I

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 13, after ("includes") insert

(", subject to the following definition,")

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Chris Mullin)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 2 and amendment (a) thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 3, 34, 38, 153 to 157 and 171.

This group of amendments refines the concept of access land and exclusions from it. Before I go into them, let me say that almost all the amendments were tabled that we will be discussing today in response to proposals by one or other of the Opposition parties—whose attention I hope to attract in due course.

We have bent over backwards to meet the concerns of right hon. and hon. Members and their noble Friends to address the genuine concerns of landowners. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will celebrate the fact that they have helped to make what was already a good Bill even better. That was acknowledged by Opposition Members in the other place. Lord Glentoran, for example, said that the Bill
is developing into a first-class piece of legislation.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 November 2000; Vol. 619, c. 480.]
Baroness Byford, also on the Opposition Front Bench in the other place, said on Third Reading:

The Bill will now give access to millions of people—safe access, because that is what we have been after. It preserves our fauna, flora and wildlife. It improves rights of way. It has added … the areas of outstanding natural beauty. We welcome all that.
She concluded:

It has been my great privilege to have taken part in the shaping of a Bill that will give great pleasure to millions of people in the future.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 November 2000; Vol. 619, c. 1065-66.]
All the amendments made in the other place have improved the Bill—almost all in ways that Opposition Members have wanted. I hope that they will welcome them with open arms. I thought that I detected a trace of nit-picking yesterday in one or two Opposition arguments, but I am sure that we are past that stage now.

Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 will specifically provide that
"mountain, moor, heath or down" does not include land which appears to the appropriate countryside body to consist of improved or semi-improved grassland.
The amendments will achieve two aims: they will put it beyond doubt that agricultural land other than unimproved and semi-improved grassland will not be treated as mountain, moor, heath and down; and they will enable such land to be excluded from maps of open country at the draft and provisional stages, so that both landowners and walkers can benefit from reasonable clarity as to what is open country.

When my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment set out on this legislative procedure, he estimated that the Bill would open up access to about 4 million acres of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. Does the amendment make a significant difference to that estimate?

I do not expect that the amendment will make a significant difference to the estimate. However, it will, as I said, provide some clarity, which is what walkers and landowners wanted.

Part I provides for a right of access to all common land registered as such under the Commons Registration Act 1965. Lords amendments Nos. 3 and 38 will ensure that access to common land would be preserved if it was de-registered after the Bill had been enacted. They will ensure that any land removed from the registers by virtue of an application made after the date of Royal Assent will continue to be treated as registered common land for the purposes of the statutory right of access. That will not affect access to common land that is removed from the registers as a consequence of powers of exchange or compulsory purchase.

Lords amendment No. 34 will enable regulations to be made to avoid possible undesirable consequences arising from access land being treated as a public place under other legislation. We do not envisage many circumstances needing to be addressed in this way, but the power is likely to be useful in certain cases.

We have also recognised the concerns expressed about the impact of the right of access on occupiers' obligations under section 162 of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. The Act provides that certain mine shafts and quarries that are accessible to, and pose a danger to, the public are to be regarded as statutory nuisances for the purposes of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 unless they are fenced.

Issues of occupiers' liability will be addressed later, in the fourth group of amendments that we shall consider. However, Lords amendment No. 34 will enable regulations to be made that would provide that access under the new statutory right may be disregarded in determining whether a disused mine shaft or quarry is a statutory nuisance. Such regulations would, in effect, relieve the owner of any burden to fence it under the 1990 Act, when that might arise under the new statutory right.

I do not seek at this stage to cast aspersions on either the purpose or the likely effect of the regulations to which the Minister has just

referred, but it would be helpful if he explained whether they will be subject to the negative or the affirmative procedure.

I am being advised that I am wrong, and that the regulations will be subject to the negative procedure. There has been a lot of debate on these matters.

Lords amendments Nos. 153, 154 and 156 except from the right of access any land within 20 m of a dwelling or a building used for housing livestock—that is just over 65 ft, to any Euro-sceptics. I do not think there are many present. Oh, yes, I see that there are. The amendments reflect the Government's response to genuine concerns about the impact of access on the privacy and security of people living on or adjacent to access land, and on the security of farm buildings. However, the exclusion of access from around farm buildings will not apply where the position of such buildings would effectively frustrate access.

Lords amendments Nos. 155 and 157 recognise the special needs of the racehorse training industry. We accept that there are real concerns about how best to reconcile the new right of access with the training of racehorses on land that qualifies as access land. We have listened to the racing industry and tabled the amendments to target action where it is needed. I believe that there is common ground between the Government and the racing industry that the exclusion of access from training gallops should not be more than is required to ensure the safety of employees, their horses and the public. The amendments therefore provide for land used for training racehorses to be excepted from access between sunrise and midday and at other times when the land is in use for that purpose.

Schedule 13 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 imposes an obligation on the Countryside Agency to make an annual report to the Secretary of State on the exercise of its functions arising under the National Parks and Access to Countryside Act 1949, the Countryside Act 1968 and the 1981 Act. Lords amendment No. 171 extends those obligations to require a report on the exercise of those functions under the Bill.

I thank the Minister for the way in which he introduced the amendments and I place on record my appreciation of the courteous note that I received from the Minister for the Environment to explain his absence at the beginning of our proceedings.

I do not wish to repeat last night's debate, but the Opposition are concerned that the fractionally under five hours allowed for this large number of amendments is inadequate if we are to give them the attention that they deserve. The Minister rightly said that many of the amendments had been tabled in response to views expressed in Committee, but, as I shall show in a moment, the Government vigorously and robustly rejected many of those views, but did a U-turn when the Bill got to the other place.

We welcome the amendments. As hon. Members will have seen, we have tabled a few amendments to the Lords amendments and we will deal with them as we proceed. The purpose of our amendments is to clarify or refine the amendments made by their Lordships, which in general we welcome.

As the Minister rightly said, Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 exclude improved or semi-improved grassland from the definition of mountain, moor, heath and down. I think that the Minister used the phrase, "It will put beyond doubt" the fact that improved and semi-improved grassland is not included. In Committee, the Minister for the Environment said clearly:
the cultivated land exception is not intended to be the mechanism for excluding improved or semi-improved pastures and fields from a right of access. Such land will not qualify as open country and should not appear on the statutory maps … If cultivated land were given a broader definition, to include any improved grassland, for instance, that would result in a considerable uncertainty and confusion as to whether such an area was excepted land or open country.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 6 April 2000; c. 167-68.]
There seems to be a gulf between the remarks made by the Minister for the Environment in Committee and the warmth with which the Under-Secretary introduced the amendments today. Their purpose, he said, was to clarify and put beyond doubt.

The Opposition welcome the decision clearly to exclude improved and semi-improved grassland. The issue was debated at length in Committee with reference not only to England but to Wales, although the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) is not with us this evening.

5.15 pm

Our amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 2 is intended to press the Minister. The amendment would replace the words
appears to the appropriate countryside body to consist
with the word "consists". The purpose of the amendment is to allow us to investigate with the Minister what is meant by "appears to" consist of improved or semi-improved grassland, particularly in the case of legal challenge. Not being a lawyer, I can approach the matter only as a layman. If the law states that it is sufficient for land to "appear to" or, conversely, not to "appear to" the relevant countryside body to be improved or semi-improved grassland, it is difficult to see how that could be challenged, whereas if that body ruled that the land consisted or did not consist of such grassland, that could be challenged.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am sorry to interrupt him, but I hope that he will draw attention to the fact that the definition in the amendment flies in the face of the other definitions in part I. "Mountain" is described as including

any land situated more than 600 metres above sea level.

Nowhere in the Bill is it described as land which appears to the Countryside Agency to be above 600 m. The Minister must explain why the "appearing to the Countryside Agency" definition applies to open grassland, when no other definition in clause 1 is similarly phrased.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point, which demonstrates the validity of my argument. In fairness, there are parts of the Bill in which the phrase "appears to" occurs. In the debate in the other place, the noble Lord Whitty supported the choice of phrase by saying:

We are talking about "improved or semi-improved" grassland, but there will be some semi-natural grassland which is essentially unimproved. It is grassland which, theoretically, might be able to produce a crop of hay but would not be included in this definition.—[Official Report. House of Lords, 23 November 2000; Vol. 619, c. 955.]
That is the justification that Lord Whitty gave—

Let me finish the point, please. That was the justification given by Lord Whitty for the wording

appears to the appropriate countryside body.

As I said in my opening remarks, I shall not make a great deal of the matter. I am simply concerned about whether the definition will be contestable if the wording "appears to" is used.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that most people can tell whether grassland has been improved or not? That is what the Bill suggests. The danger with the old definition is that someone will say, "In the old records, the War Ag at some point insisted that a piece of inby land or ffrith were ploughed up." Sixty-odd years afterwards, it can be argued whether that still counts as improved pasture. The common-sense approach is that one can tell by looking where it has been improved or not.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I do not dissent from the general view. We hope that many people will use the rights given by the Bill—many who are not entirely familiar with the differences. Those of us who have lived and worked in the countryside will be able to appreciate the distinction that the hon. Gentleman has made. My concern is whether the decision that the Countryside Agency will make in the mapping process will be contestable. If the matter rests on how matters appear to the agency, I question whether there can be a contest. I hope that the Minister will respond.

I accept entirely what the Minister said about Lords amendment No. 3. Lords amendment No. 34 relates to the reference to "public places" in existing enactments. The Minister referred to redundant or former mine workings. I must draw his attention to the concern expressed to me by the Country Landowners Association this morning. It comes under the heading of occupiers' liability, but it is appropriate to raise the matter now, given that the Minister refers specifically to the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. The CLA states:
It is important to be clear that while Government amendment No. 19—
it is in the second group—

to clause 42 would provide for regulations to exclude liability for mines and quarries under the Mines and Quarries Act, it will not remove liability in respect of these features under the Occupiers Liability Act. If this latter liability is not removed, owners will still have to undertake risk assessments and to fence off mines and quarries on access land.
The CLA refers to the costs of compensation, for example, that would stem from that.

The Minister referred specifically to Lords amendment No. 34 as it relates to the Mines and Quarries Act. Perhaps he will explain more fully how he sees the relationship that I have outlined being established, and whether liability under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 will remain.

Lords amendments Nos. 153 to 157 relate to schedule 1, which we debated at great length in Committee. Again, Ministers were not prepared to take time to consider our amendments and rejected the arguments advanced by myself, my hon. Friends and hon. Members representing other Opposition parties.

The first issue relates to curtilage. We tried to define its meaning in Committee, and the Government resisted intensely our every attempt to do so. The Minister for the Environment said:
I, too, have the advice of learned lawyers. They say that a recent judicial decision on curtilage was given in the Court of Appeal in February in the case of Skerritts of Nottingham Ltd. v. the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
The right hon. Gentleman concluded:
Curtilage therefore has a meaning that can be flexibly applied to the facts of each case. There is no reason to suppose that a statutory definition of curtilage will be any more helpful than the court's interpretation.
However, the Government have introduced a statutory definition, by including 20 m, or, as the Minister kindly told the House, 66 ft in imperial language. What has happened between 4 April—

That I would happily accept if I genuinely believed it, but I do not. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] As the Government Whip is kindly saying from a sedentary position, I am a cynic in these matters. In Committee, Environment Ministers did not say, "That is a point worth thinking about", as they did in other cases. They did not say that they would think about it. Some of the amendments that we shall deal with later are definitely the result of further consideration by the Government. Instead, the Minister quoted legal justification for resisting our amendment. I am interested to know what has changed since then.

Other amendments to which the Minister referred relate to horse racing and training grounds. The House is familiar with my constituency interests. I represent a large proportion of the Newmarket training grounds as well as the racecourse. Again, my hon. Friends and I repeatedly advanced in Committee the risks associated with allowing the right of free access to training gallops. Ministers resented that and resisted as hard as they could. Unfortunately, the Minister for the Environment is not here to rebut his assertions, but perhaps that is why he has conveniently found something else to do at the beginning of our proceedings. However, in Committee he said:
Opposition Members seem to be unwilling to accept that access might be compatible with the training of horses. They should visit Epsom Downs, where the training gallops are situated on land to which a statutory right of access applies.
Despite the numerous examples that my hon. Friends and I adduced, the Minister went on to say:

Newmarket, however, has a vastly greater number.
That refers to the number of trainers in comparison with Epsom. The Minister continued:
That is why the same rules should not apply, irrespective of the size of the enterprise.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B. 4 April 2000;c. 143-521
Now, however, an amendment has been tabled that does precisely that and makes rules, irrespective of the size of the enterprise.

The Government are right and I do not understand why they did not accept our argument at the beginning. Why did they perform a volte face? Later groups of amendments will provide several examples of how the Government changed their mind, not because they went away and considered the issue but, perhaps, because it was expedient. I hope that the Under-Secretary and the Minister for the Environment will apologise to Committee members for all the time that was wasted while they resisted amendments only to roll over and accept them in the other place.

We support these sensible amendments and, with the exception of amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 2, to which I hope the Under-Secretary will respond, we shall not oppose them. At the risk of repetition, it beggars belief that so much time was wasted in Committee on amendments that were considered again in the other place before the Government were persuaded to accept them in the face of the power of their lordships' arguments. However, I welcome the amendments—with the exception that I mentioned—and look forward to the Minister's response.

Coming to debate Lords amendments to a Bill of this nature and size, which took so long to consider in Committee, is almost like revisiting an old friend. In this case, the old friend appears to have changed since we last saw him or her, having undergone major cosmetic surgery that has been all to the good. In the Bill's long Committee stage and later stages in the House, we gave admonitions that it should to go away, smarten up and put on new clothes. It is as if all those admonitions had been taken to heart and, I am pleased to say, the Bill is much better as a result.

There may be several reasons for that, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said. We made substantial arguments in Committee and during the Bill's later stages, but perhaps their effect was delayed and it took time for Ministers to see the good sense of our proposals. Perhaps we should accept the possibility that the greater skills of advocacy of Members of the other place were responsible. I should like to put on the record a tribute to Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer and my other noble Friends who did an admirable job on the Bill. I should also like to record my thanks to Ministers for listening to us. It would be otiose to list all our amendments that were accepted, but had they not been, the Bill would have remained deeply flawed. It is much less flawed now, and I wish it well. Some points of contention remain, but on the whole, it is a much better Bill.

5.30 pm

The group of amendments that we are currently considering includes a new definition of agricultural land, and exemptions from the definition of open country. We pressed for that in Committee. I am not persuaded by amendment (a), which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire tabled, because—contrary to the comments of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)—it would introduce a new anomaly.

It was suggested that there was no qualification of amendment No. 2, which includes the phrase,

appears to the appropriate countryside body.

However, the next definition of open country in the Bill uses exactly the same formulation. Removing those words from amendment No. 2 would differentiate between the two provisions. I am not sure whether that is helpful. Although I understand the spirit in which the amendment was tabled, I do not believe that amendment (a) would add to the clarity of the definition.

Amendments Nos. 153 to 157, which apply to the area immediately surrounding dwelling houses, and—following moves by my noble Friends and others in another place—extend the provisions to cover buildings in which animals are kept, are extremely welcome. They will do a great deal to allay the fears of those who are worried about night access. I stress that the original measure needed to provide for a right to challenge someone who acts suspiciously near a property or domestic animals. The amendments would allow that because the land that immediately surrounds the buildings will not constitute part of the land to which people have access. That is an important consideration, which is now incorporated in the Bill.

1 welcome amendments Nos. 155 and 157, which deal with racehorse gallops. Those sensible provisions should have been included in the original measure. The matter could have been tackled quickly in Committee; that would have been preferable to the protracted process that occurred. However, we got them in the end. Racehorse trainers in my constituency, as well as in that of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, will welcome the amendments because they improve safety and will allow them to carry on their business appropriately and safely.

We are considering a good group of amendments, which improves the Bill. The amendments were tabled largely at the suggestion of Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members. I hope that they will be incorporated in the Bill.

The amendments constitute an improvement, as far as they go. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), I have some anxieties about them. Of course, one welcomes an amendment that exempts "improved or semi-improved grassland". However, I am worried that such exemption will be at the discretion of the appropriate countryside body, which would be the Countryside Agency.

The Countryside Agency is skilled in many ways and has some expertise; it would have more expertise if the Government were less parsimonious with funding. It is currently suffering dire cuts. Perhaps proper funding would enable it to be the "appropriate countryside body" and to exercise perfect discretion in determining what constitutes "improved or semi-improved grassland". However, the Minister could be laying himself open to legal challenges in future.

The right hon. Gentleman may know that an extra —17 million has been announced for the Countryside Agency today. Some —10 million will be used for initiatives that were announced in the rural White Paper, which was published today. Additional resources include —2.2 million for rural transport and —3.5 million for areas of outstanding natural beauty and for preparations for the introduction of access to open country. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that, far from facing cuts, the Countryside Agency will benefit from a substantial increase in its budget.