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Mr. Dobson: Generally speaking, I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about the need to protect crops, livestock, areas of particular interest and sporting interests, and that there have to be constraints. However, in more than 50 years of going to the wood, I have never heard of any constraint on anyone going anywhere. I remember someone posing as a gamekeeper once, but I think that that was just to cover up poaching activities.

No restriction has ever been placed on anyone going anywhere in Hagg wood, except when planting has taken place. In that case, the area would have fencing around it, and, anyway, no one in their right mind would try to walk between trees that were planted only two or three years previously, because the area is all grown over. However, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, apart from such areas, there has always been free, untrammelled access throughout the wood.

Mr. Alison: I am well aware of that, and I do not want to dodge the implications of the hon. Gentleman's experience of this charming wood, but I feel bound not to surrender the fact that Hagg wood is not strictly subject to an open access agreement. The hon. Gentleman has described a practice that has grown up by custom. That is a grey area--what the legal rights might be of those who have established a customary use has yet to be tested.

I have a further point--one that the hon. Gentleman might understand and appreciate. I shall quote a member of the Country Landowners Association:


The sort of wandering and rambling in Hagg wood that the hon. Gentleman describes probably does not harm wildlife--its very regularity is part of the protection required by animals. However, if we are talking about throwing open places like Hagg wood and the surrounding

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countryside to a much more specifically authorised freedom to roam, real harm is in prospect.

The customary use of the highways and byways of Hagg wood is not damaging the wildlife there, and it certainly does not interrupt the enjoyment of proper sporting rights. I see no likelihood that anything that now obtains will change, but I do not know who the purchaser--if any--might be. If it is someone who proposes to seed and plant a lot of new woodland, the hon. Gentleman's point will come into force--the area would have be fenced and protected. Similarly, if the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds decided to buy a piece of Hagg wood in order to breed rare species of birds, access would have to be limited.

I cannot absolutely guarantee that there will be no changes in future, but I can assure the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for York that the Church Commissioners have no intention, and, indeed, no power, to vary the existing rights of access via established footpaths and bridleways, so the customary use is likely to persist, even though it might not be strictly within the terms of the lease.

Mr. Bayley: I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman's close interest in this issue, both in his role as the constituency Member of Parliament and as the spokesman in the House for the Church Commissioners.

He mentioned that, when the Church Commissioners own some land surrounded by farmland that is also held under their freehold, the commissioners are often unable to provide formal open access or allow public use through a voluntary agreement, because of the damage that access might cause to the farmland. However, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, access to Hagg wood is obtained via a road to the wood, so that impediment is not relevant in that case.

I was extremely pleased to hear that the Forestry Commission has, for the time being, suspended its negotiations for the sale of the land. In his role as the spokesman for the Church Commissioners, can the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that, during this period, the commissioners will discuss with the local authority and the Forestry Commission the circumstances in which it might be possible to agree a voluntary access agreement with a specified new owner, were the sale to go ahead?

Mr. Alison: I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's request, but I have a feeling--I suspect that I might be able to carry the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras with me on this--that something that is well known and familiarly used is, in some ways, best left alone, without too much probing to establish precise legal, statutory or other agreed rights. It might be better to leave customary and statutory rights operating and not to consider how those might be changed, until a specific purchaser emerges and the nature and trade of the purchaser is established. Meanwhile, I do not reject the hon. Gentleman's proposal, and I shall think constructively about it.

I hope that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras does not feel that we have ridden roughshod over his heritage and the experiences and pleasures of his youth, which others will continue to enjoy long after both he and I are treading happier and brighter shores.

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6.48 pm

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): I agree with the hon. Members who have cautiously welcomed the proposals in the Bill. In that context, it was a pity that the Secretary of State, introducing those proposals, continually implied that, if an hon. Member did not represent a rural area, he or she had no interest, or, by some formula, was debarred from saying anything.

That implication was patronising, and reflected dual standards. I wonder how far we would get if we were to apply the Secretary of State's continual implication in that regard to the present Secretary of State for Wales, who I understand represents a seat in Yorkshire. What would happen if we took that logic to its conclusion? I well remember the day when Conservative Members went into the Lobby to vote to close the last pit in my constituency; many of them had not been near a pit in their lives. By that patronising and duplicitous implication, the Secretary of State demeaned the arguments that he advanced on very serious issues.

I have cautiously welcomed the proposals. I shall place them in context, and raise one or two important issues that emanate from them.

I would describe the proposals, albeit welcome, as a reaction, not a strategy. I believe that they are a reaction to the very serious situation affecting rural areas, but I do not detect an embryonic strategy behind those proposals, let alone a comprehensive one, which is what is needed. The cynics may say that we are following a well-worn Government track. One creates the problems, presides over them, makes proposals such as those we are considering, and claims that one is tackling the issues, when in fact the proposals, albeit welcome, are a limited response to fundamental problems.

I shall put the proposals in context by describing the scale of the problems as they affect a county that I know extremely well--my home county of Staffordshire. The proposals are designed to improve the position in rural areas, and I repeat that, to that extent, they are welcome. The cost is about £20 million, according to the Bill. About £15 million of that is attributed to mandatory and discretionary business rate relief; that is welcome.

However, as I understand it, that £15 million will come from the national non-domestic rate pool. As that is the very pool of money that is redistributed back to local authorities, is there not a danger that the £15 million that comes out of that pool will reduce the pool and so reduce the amount to be distributed, so that local authorities will indirectly find themselves funding that welcome business rate relief--not the Exchequer, as we have been led to believe? That must be qualified.

I wish to illustrate the seriousness of the problems in two rural areas in Staffordshire. One is north-east Staffordshire, Staffordshire Moorlands, an area of wonderful beauty. My family, including myself and my grandchildren, visit it often. It has the Peak park within its boundaries, and we are extremely lucky in Stoke-on-Trent to have such a wonderful facility nearby.

That area is suffering badly. Extremely important facilities in that rural area have been closed. British Gas closed its facility. The former Midlands Electricity Board, now Midlands Electricity plc, closed its facility after privatisation. There have been closures of the driving test centre, the Benefits Agency office, the ambulance station,

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rural post offices in Calton and Rushton and the Biddulph and Cheadle court--as my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said.

There are further closures in the pipeline--the tax office at Leek, the Staffordshire Moorlands office of Crossroads Care and Cheadle health centre, all very near where I live.

If the Government were serious about stopping the haemorrhage taking place in our rural communities, they would not only take the action proposed in the Bill but multiply the beneficial effects of those measures by intervening to prevent such proposed closures. I suspect that the closures that I have mentioned are being multiplied the length and breadth of the rural areas of England and Wales. Further facilities, such as the fire station, are under threat.

The Secretary of State rightly spoke about the seriousness of crime and the failure of the Government's law and order policies. Cheadle police station is under threat. He might want to do something to remove that threat. If the Government are serious about rural crime, and about helping parish and rural councils and councils in rural areas to tackle it, it beggars belief that they would sit back and allow an extremely important police presence in a rural area to be threatened with closure. That threat is mirrored throughout the country.

The BSE crisis was mentioned. In north-east Staffordshire, a large area heavily dependent on agriculture, in which there are 75,000 animals, there are serious problems because of the Government's inability to come to grips effectively with the BSE problem. Not only primary producers but many in ancillary industries are hit. There is justified fear about the future of those businesses and people who work in them.

I have seen at first hand the reduction in general stores and post offices in those rural areas. I need not travel too far to be in those areas. I am very fortunate in where I live. I am a few hundred yards from the boundary of Staffordshire, Moorlands, and my family, my friends and I are grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the countryside. We have a deep interest in these rural areas.

I have noticed that, in some villages that I visit, post offices and village shops have disappeared--a very important factor in the general decline of rural areas, as of urban areas. I shall have an interesting time explaining to proprietors of small businesses in my urban constituency why they cannot obtain any mandatory relief, whereas it will be made available to businesses elsewhere.

I am not saying that such relief is bad or should be stopped, but it will be interesting to discuss the issue with proprietors of small businesses that are clinging on to their lifeline by their fingertips and cannot obtain relief because they happen to be based in a specific area.

I welcome the Government's business rate proposals, but I have serious doubts whether they will have more than a marginal effect on the viability of rural areas and villages.

I said that I would refer to two areas of Staffordshire that I know especially well, and discuss the proposals in that context. Rural east Staffordshire is heavily dependent on various industries, one of which is gypsum mining. Gypsum is used particularly in the production of plaster and cement. Need I tell hon. Members what has happened

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to the construction industry over the past 10 years or so? It has been decimated, and industries situated in rural areas have suffered from the continuing slump in the industry. If the Government are serious about revitalising rural areas, I suggest that they address those issues, too.

Between 1991 and 1995, the number of VAT-registered businesses in rural east Staffordshire fell by almost 500. Before any hon. Member rises to intervene, I accept that some of those would be accounted for by the increase in the threshold, but my researchers suggest that the vast majority of those businesses went under before the threshold was increased. The area experienced an employment loss of 6 per cent. between 1991 and 1993, largely in villages such as Tutbury, Hanbury, Branston and Churnet. I know those villages well, and have seen the effects.

It is true that the registered claimant unemployment count has improved slightly since, but any improvement is relative. The employment guts were ripped out of those village areas over those years. Such figures put into context the serious problems that rural areas are facing and the effect that the Government's proposals are likely to have. Welcome though they are, they will have a marginal effect at best.

The transport proposals are also welcome. If parish councils can raise more money to stimulate transport provision, all well and good. The danger, however, is that, although parish councils may have the power to do that in whatever way they consider appropriate, the grant to county councils such as Staffordshire is being cut year on year, and its ability to maintain vital passenger services in rural areas is being reduced significantly year on year.

Unless the Government are prepared to grasp the nettle, we face the prospect that, when parish councils have the power, they may decide to spend more money on providing transport facilities for their area, but, because of Government cuts, county councils may be forced to remove their support for public transport. Although there may be a transfer of responsibility, the net effect could be no improvement whatever. We shall have spent another £15 million on trying to achieve that. That is not just carping criticism. Local authorities and parish councils will face difficulties, which the Government must address with greater clarity.

People in rural areas will no doubt greet the proposals with one and a bit cheers. If the Government are expecting three cheers, they have a long way to go yet. There will be a cautious welcome, but people in rural areas who have suffered over the past 15 years from Government complacency and ruinous policies will see the proposals, as I do, not as a strategy but as a reaction--a welcome reaction, but one that is likely to be short-lived.


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