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Mr. Bennett: There is a simple explanation, which relates to the quality of the questions. Will the hon.

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Gentleman note that more than one Member of the House has been pleased to boast that he has asked more parliamentary questions in a year than any other Member? Suddenly, people began to ask about the cost of asking those questions. Before praying in aid the number of questions asked, he should have made sure that they were relevant and useful.

Mr. Green: That is not a completely terrible point, in that I agree that those who measure their virtue by the number of questions that they ask are probably fooling themselves. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is fair-minded enough to accept that if all those Labour MPs have asked only half as many questions on rural matters as Conservative MPs, that tells us something pretty significant about how much they think and care about the countryside.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it sometimes takes five or six questions to get the basic answer, even though everyone knew what information was required when the first was asked? If we received proper answers to the first question, we would not need to ask another five.

Mr. Green: That, too, is a good point. Furthermore, many questions are handed out by the Government to enable a soft answer to be given when they want to make an announcement; so, if anything, we are probably being too kind by including every question asked by their Back Benchers.

We have a stark contrast here: on one side, the Government's warm rhetoric and, on the other, the cold reality of life in our inner cities and rural areas. One reason for being angry about the Government's failures in their various policies is that the most poor and disadvantaged, in urban or rural areas, suffer most. The poor most need the police on the streets in the inner cities and most need the local school to be improved. In rural areas, the relatively poor need a car to get to work. They therefore suffer from the Government's many petrol price rises.

The overall failure of the two White Papers will not only create economic and environmental problems, but aggravate social problems. Conservative Members at least have practical solutions to offer, and we look forward to implementing them in the near future.

10.33 am

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): I listened attentively to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) and was surprised that he made no apology for what the Conservative party did when it had the opportunity not just to talk about what it would do in rural areas, but to take action; I intend to emphasise rural issues because I represent a rural constituency.

For 18 years, the Conservatives had the chance not just to preach, but to practise, so it is appropriate briefly to remind the House of what they did then as opposed to what they say they want to do now. I had the privilege to represent a county council constituency in the county of Norfolk for more than 20 years, mostly under a Tory-led county council and a Tory Government. We all agree that there are problems to be addressed in the countryside, but let us look at the major issues and at what happened over those years.

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Many complaints are made about what has happened to village life. In my view, nothing is more important to a village than the village schoo,l and I led opposition in Norfolk to the proposed closure of the vast majority of the 100 village schools. The Tory Government rubber- stamped the approvals and the county council fed them through, largely because--although it denied this--it could not or would not find the money to provide the education to which everyone, whether they live in a rural or urban environment, should aspire. Only when this Government took office did we have a Secretary of State who within months would make the bold assertion that whenever a local education authority brought him a proposal to close a village school there would be a presumption against closure.

I acknowledge that, on occasions, we must accept that demographic change requires us to close as well as open schools, but I know of schools in my constituency that were threatened with closure for decades. Every five or six years, closure was on the agenda and there was always a battle against it. Now, rather than arguing with politicians about their future, head teachers, governors and staff can turn their full attention to using the new resources that the Government are providing to address the educational needs of the children.

I am afraid that the Conservative Government's record on supporting rural education, which is the foundation of the rural economy, was deplorable, particularly since during that time there was a major decline in the number of people in Norfolk working on the land. I used to go to the village pub and speak to people whose job was in, or associated with, agriculture, but that is no longer the case. These days, a tiny fraction of people in the villages that I visit work on the land.

Over the past decade or two, there has been a need for new skills and new aspirations among country people. In the days when it was obvious that village children would have jobs on the land, there was an understanding, at least to my mind, of parents who took the attitude that education was not for their children because it was unnecessary. Those parents had not needed education themselves, and there were good jobs waiting for their children, but over the past decade or more there has been a need in Norfolk to raise aspirations and to ensure that village schools have the highest educational standards. The situation was turned around only when the present Government took office. Of course there is a long way to go, and the figures for my constituency still reveal an underlying lack of skills and training, which the Government must continue to address, but I repeat that our inheritance from the previous Administration was deplorable.

Similarly, many crocodile tears are shed over rural post office closures. I heard no cries of anguish when hundreds of post offices closed during my time on the county council. Again, only this Government have been willing to provide real money rather than just words. I greatly welcome the commitment given in the White Paper to achieving a national standard for postal services and post office access. We can debate that, and ensure both that it is implemented and that the money is there to back up the words.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: I might have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but I thought that the greatest threat to

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the future of rural post offices was the Government's decision to stop making social security, pension and benefits payments across the counter.

Dr. Turner: My grandparents ran a rural post office. My mother--who, regrettably, is long deceased--and the other nine children of that family all knew how to run a post office. Until a few years ago, if any of them had walked into a post office, they would have been able to take over and run it. The tragedy of the years of the Conservative Government was their long failure to invest in and modernise the Post Office to ensure that it was able to adapt. It was that Government who put the Post Office at the greatest risk.

Only the current Government have recognised two facts: not only do we need to modernise the Post Office--which has to exist in the 21st century, not the middle of the 20th, for which it was equipped--but we have to provide funding. The Government are to be congratulated on identifying the problem and grasping the nettle. They have made people face up to the facts, which has been challenging for people with a decades-long tradition of doing things in pretty much the same way.

The Government have also recognised the fundamental importance of the Post Office's social role and of preserving that role. They are giving the Post Office a new way of performing that role that is appropriate to the decade--indeed, the century--in which we live.

I could continue speaking on that subject. I could also describe the pain and anguish that I have felt on seeing social services becoming unable to deliver in rural parts of Norfolk, having been underfunded, understaffed and under-equipped for years.

As for transport, rural bus services in Norfolk were decimated, with only one in four or five parishes having a bus pass through them on the way to a market town. All those services were in decline and decay, suffering from a lack of investment by the previous Government

The list of problems was enormous. Rural people became unable to afford to live in their own villages because of low incomes. Those who complain that there are now too many initiatives have simply shut their eyes to the number of problems that there were.

There are, however, much more important matters for us to discuss in this debate than the sins of Conservative Members--many, important and damaging to my constituents though they were.

I should like to address some of the specific issues raised in the White Paper that are of particular concern to me. I should also like to tell Ministers that they have generally succeeded in identifying the issues. However, I want to ensure that we encourage them to ensure that solutions are found.

I have been sufficiently lucky in my time in Parliament--in collaboration with the university of East Anglia, particularly its politics department--to have had various students work with me who have brought their academic skills to bear in analysing some of the problems in my constituency. One of those students, Vanessa Strange, is working with me now. She is a third-year student who, with her supervisor, Dr. John Greenaway, has for some time been studying and working on questionnaires and surveys on the problems of second home ownership. Along the north Norfolk coast, various villages have very high levels

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of second home ownership--a situation which, as I have said in the House before, has its pluses and minuses. In representing my constituency, I want to ensure that we get the balance right.

Part of the way through the investigation--specifically examining Burnham Overy, which is one of the small villages along the north Norfolk coast--we identified various problems with second home ownership that need to be tackled. The fact is that 90 per cent. of those whom Vanessa questioned felt that house prices were very high; no one felt that they were low; and only 10 per cent. thought that they were reasonable. Everyone who had moved into a property in the past 10 years had had difficulty in finding a property in the area. Of those who had moved in 10 years ago, only 50 per cent. had had difficulty in finding a property.

One concern that was repeatedly expressed to the researcher was that available housing had increased beyond the price range of most of the area's young people. Their hopes had been dashed also when there were new developments in the area, which they hoped would provide them with housing. Once the developments were under way, they discovered that the houses were to be used as executive homes or sheltered accommodation for the elderly.

There seems to be a reasonable relationship between "incomers" and the village's more traditional residents. However, at least four of five of those questioned felt that second homes were having a negative effect on their parish. I suspect that that is why 93 per cent. of those questioned supported the consultation proposals to remove the 50 per cent. council tax reduction on second homes.

Those questioned particularly feared--it is an obvious fear if one thinks about it--that their local school would be at risk because incomers generally did not have children. If local people can no longer afford to remain in their village, local school numbers will continue to decline, increasing the risk of school closures and the decline in village morale.

People were also concerned that shopping and other facilities in nearby Burnham Market--which is sometimes called the Chelsea of Norfolk--are aimed more at tourists and incomers than at meeting the needs of local people. I noticed that, this week in The Times, a London journalist recommended Burnham Market's main hostelry as a good stopping off point on the way to Fakenham races. Visitors may be very good for the local economy, but there is a real need to meet the needs of local people so that they can remain in their village.

I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government recognise that, in dealing with the problems generated by second homes, the solution lies not in a ban that would prevent people from enjoying their spare and leisure time in the countryside and near the coast, but in meeting the needs of local people. I hope that he will also reassure us that such a policy will be implemented and not only talked about.

The White Paper identifies the need to overhaul the planning process, and it is critical that that happens. I agree with the National Farmers Union, which wrote to me on the subject, that the ultimate test of the White Paper's philosophical principles will be the contents of

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the planning and policy guidelines that are yet to be issued, and the way in which those guidelines are reflected in structure and local plans. It is very important indeed that parish and town councils--which undertake the planning work and face the difficulties of implementing the guidelines, to create a masterplan for their area--see action on the guidelines and plans. They should have a formal role in the process so that their work cannot be brushed aside by a borough or county council.

Last week, I had the privilege of giving an outline of the White Paper's contents to representatives of the 60-odd parishes in my constituency. The meeting was well attended by people who wanted to know what the White Paper contained and its implications for them. They expressed concern about planning issues. Representatives of Brancaster parish council told me that, when they had previously done non-statutory, pre-White Paper planning work, they had been very chummy with the borough council until the work was finished. The parish council's complaint--which I have not yet investigated--is that, within three days of its planning work being given to the borough council, it was thrown away. The borough council ignored the parish council's work and went its own way. I hope that the Minister can assure me that I can tell the many parishes in my constituency that if they suffer the pain, they will get the gain.

I have had a lifelong interest in the educational problems of rural areas. A year or so ago, a student at the university of East Anglia, Sandra Ison, looked into the barriers to learning. As I am keen to see progress on the skills problem, I wanted to know what I had to do to get the Government to improve matters. Sandra Ison's academic approach--called, I believe, the key respondent approach--involves in-depth interviews rather than vast surveys. The interviewees included a secondary head teacher; a youth and community service representative; the training and enterprise council; the careers service; the Workers Educational Association, combined--in the same person--with adult education; and the Employment Service. It was a thorough piece of work. Not surprisingly, it found that there were various reasons why people were not taking up skills in their teen and adult years. The academic work found three main areas. The first was aspirational: some children from rural areas had been indoctrinated with a "learning's not for me" attitude. The second concerned entrance hurdles; people did not have proper guidance, transport, child care or enough money. Finally, there were problems of completion, leading to drop-out, lack of support and the re-emergence of problems that had been overcome on entrance.

The clear message from the research was that the Government needed an holistic approach, and that a failure to address all the difficulties at once was damaging. Despite what the hon. Member for Ashford said, that is essential. If we solve the attitudinal problem and the young person then finds an entrance hurdle, we will probably have done more harm than good. Interestingly, it was concluded that the greatest barrier to participation faced by people in rural areas lay not in the physical or attitudinal problems associated with living in isolated communities but, rather, in policy makers' perceptions of the idyll of rural England. That was a problem of the previous Government; the Tories thought that everyone in rural England had an idyllic existence, so that was thought to be the norm. It is not.

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In one of Sandra Ison's interviews, a local head teacher mentioned that his Ofsted report had said that his school had inner-city problems in a leafy environment. He said that policy makers see the rural idyll and not the reality of drugs, crime and deprivation. I welcome the fact that by making sure that we look down to ward level for statistics, the Government are helping rural areas that are as deprived as the inner cities.

Having correctly identified in the White Paper a plan for action and having promised the resources, I hope that the Government will make sure that bureaucracy does not get in the way, as that can happen. In terms of transport initiatives, the message I get is that there is not enough delivery, particularly in partnerships. That might be because we have not been used to partnerships, but we do not want bureaucracy to prevent delivery. It will be important to have targets and figures against which those who will be given the money are measured.

The rural White Paper lays down an agenda for several years to come and I am confident that the Government will be given an opportunity to deliver it. It will be for Ministers and the House to ensure that we deliver what is promised. If we do, rural Britain in particular will be grateful.

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