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10.55 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): The House will know that the Liberal Democrats have broadly welcomed many of the proposals in the urban and rural White Papers. They are a step in the right direction, and they contain a number of important proposals for regeneration and recovery throughout urban and rural Britain. We welcome the opportunity for a debate.

Mr. Peter Bradley: The hon. Gentleman says that "we" welcome the debate. To whom is he referring, apart from himself, on the Liberal Democrat Benches?

Mr. Breed: I was just about to explain. We welcome the opportunity, but it is a great shame that two important White Papers, which address problems affecting every man, woman and child in this country, are being debated on a Friday morning when fewer of us are here. Furthermore, there is nobody in the Press Gallery and there is little opportunity for people to understand what we are debating. For many years, the relevance of Parliament to the general public has been questioned. It is a great shame that these two White Papers, which address many problems, are not debated by Parliament at its fullest and best. Perhaps people will never even hear what is said today.

The White Papers were introduced after good consultation. I do not think that anyone can be unaware of the problems that have built up in urban and rural areas over the past couple of decades. Unlike the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), I do not want to go into great depth about the policies of the previous Government, or indeed the past four years of the present Government. Most people want to know what is going to happen and what action will be taken to ensure that the problems are addressed in a way that will change people's lives.

Although we have two White Papers that recognise the fundamental differences between urban and rural problems, there is an inescapable interrelationship

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between the two. I warmly welcome the speech by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who emphasised the need for urban and country dwellers to recognise their interdependence and the relationship between them in terms of public policy. We expected the White Papers to set out an overarching rationale behind past and future Government action but, most importantly, we wanted to see where the definable action plans were.

I first entered politics as a district and parish councillor in the early 1980s, from a background of commerce and industry. I encountered real frustration at the process of decision making, which was elongated; perhaps that is part of the democratic process. Two other frustrations were getting hold of the money and getting the money to work quickly so that we could make policy decisions that changed people's lives.

Where, for example, in the urban White Paper was the commitment to providing outlets for local farm produce? I am pleased that we are talking about the regeneration of market towns, but where is the initiative to let those in the surrounding countryside sell their produce directly to those in the small towns? That would have a direct effect on the viability of agricultural businesses and would recycle the money in the area, improving the lives of both country and town dwellers.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that that would threaten the viability of many local tradesmen in town centres? I support farmers' markets, but if they are held regularly they take a lot of trade from local shops.

Mr. Breed: That is right in a narrow sense, but when I speak of local markets, I include local shops. When I first moved to Cornwall more than 20 years ago, the Tamar valley provided an enormous amount of fruit and vegetables to the local population. There were small agricultural and horticultural holdings whose main customers were small shops in local market towns.

With the growth of supermarkets, which favour larger suppliers, smallholdings declined. Supermarkets took business from small shops, so they in turn did not buy from local producers. If we want to reverse that trend and provide a real alternative to supermarket produce, local shops--sometimes including farmers' markets, but not in every case--must return to buying local produce. That would help the regeneration of both town and countryside.

I understand the gestation period of both White Papers, and the fact that they were late, but it was a huge disappointment that the Queen's Speech did not contain any real policy for urgent implementation. Members are often criticised for not understanding the urgency with which problems need to be tackled. Small farming businesses continue to go bankrupt and post offices to close, and deprivation continues to spread. We understand the ideas, but the action plans are not being implemented quickly enough to make a difference.

We need to link central and local government. Central Government often do not trust local government to implement action plans, despite the presence of an infrastructure that could provide a real service. If the Government continue to refuse the partnership that is necessary, action plans and the ability to strike at the heart of the problem will be pushed back even further.

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Local government has been knocking at central Government's door for some time, offering to help in partnership, but central Government are not prepared to delegate powers and money to tackle local problems at the root. There is a great deal of talk in both White Papers about local self-determination and delivering local solutions to local problems, but without the power and the money the initiatives can never be properly implemented.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Great play is made in the White Papers of driving down decisions to the lowest level, to parish councils, but great play is also made of managing and funding at a regional level. The Government are squeezing local authorities the whole time.

Mr. Breed: There is a great deal of sense in that. We have not worked out the relationship between the various tiers. We need to practise subsidiarity within our own country, so that not only the decision making but the money for implementation go down to the lowest level. As a former councillor, I believe that we get much better value for money when it is spent locally, by people who understand what is needed, than when it is spent by people from far away. The further away the funding allocation is made, the less value we get for every pound that is spent. If we can trust locally elected and appointed people a little more to get on with the job, it will make a real difference.

Dr. George Turner: If we give a parish council £10,000 for a transport initiative, is not that money much more likely to be used wisely if it is spent in consultation with the county council, which has so many more resources? Is not partnership essential?

Mr. Breed: I entirely agree. As a former parish councillor, I welcome that £10,000. Parish councils have little infrastructure, so sometimes they cannot comply with bidding conditions. They welcome the opportunity to get the £10,000, but it is not always easy for them to get hold of it or to spend it. Over a period--perhaps 20 years--local government has been weakened. We need to reverse that trend.

There are so many hoops to go through in the bidding process, and so much time and effort must be spent, that only councils with the most energetic people are successful, so the money is not necessarily going to the most needy. Often, the areas of most need are the ones with the least chance of complying with all the bidding conditions. That is highly unsatisfactory. We should try to help parish councils to get hold of some of the money, so that they can spend it wisely for the people whom they serve. There are not enough people with enough clout on the ground in the local areas to get the schemes in place that would make a real difference to people's lives.

Late last year, the Government were forced to admit that the Countryside Agency--the very agency appointed to look after rural interests and to help to deliver local solutions to local problems--had been unable to spend most of the funds allocated to it for rural transport. That is a great shame, when we know that there are many opportunities for new rural transport schemes. The money

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is sitting there, waiting to be spent. Part of the reason is that we unreasonably expect local partnerships to have the expertise and time to go through all the hoops.

I hope that we will be able to support the rural councils, perhaps with some expertise from the Countryside Agency, so that they can make their bids and some of the money that has been allocated can be spent where it needs to be spent.

Mr. Peter Bradley: There is nothing to stop Members of Parliament, including the hon. Gentleman, rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in rural and transport partnerships and, where they do not exist, creating them. I am involved in partnerships in my constituency, and we have benefited from Countryside Agency funding.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is not his party's policy that large amounts of public money should not be properly accounted for? I agree entirely about the need to do away with unnecessary bureaucracy, but we need bodies such as parish councils, elected by and accountable to their communities, that are capable of handling significant amounts of public money.

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