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Dr. George Turner: My hon. Friend well knows, because he led the work, that the rural group of Labour MPs published an audit of rural problems and a manifesto before publication of the White Paper. The manifesto was broadly endorsed by the Countryside Alliance and a range of other bodies that represent rural interests. Is he aware of any such work being undertaken by the Conservatives, who boasted earlier about how much they have done in this Parliament?
Mr. Bradley: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I read The Daily Telegraph and am aware that the Conservatives have been slaving away for many months on their White paper--their rallying call to rural communities--but that it has not yet seen the light of day. On 15 January--
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to test your patience, but could hon. Members impose a self-denying ordinance rather than rambling around the subject, so that Members who have participated in the drafting of the reports are able to contribute to the debate?
Mr. Bradley: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can reassure the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that I have now finished my preamble. I am sure that she will have an opportunity to address the House before too long.
I want to focus on strategic planning. The problem for people in rural communities--especially the younger generation--is that if they cannot find affordable housing, they migrate to the towns. By the same token, even if they can find affordable housing in such communities, they also need to find employment. Otherwise, they have to migrate to the towns. That outward migration is what causes a decline in services, which is reflected in the fact that too few children attend the village school and too few customers use the village shop. It also leads to an unhealthy dependence on private and public transport.
The provision of housing and jobs together will create the virtuous circle that will restore the sustainability of rural communities and produce the environmental dividend of reducing dependence on travel. When people have homes and jobs in the same community, they send their children to the village school, do their shopping in the village store, do their business in the village post office and relax in the village pub. Those cornerstones of rural communities have been under threat and in decline for many years.
We need to break out of the development control mentality of planning policy that has been a feature of the system for so long and to which Conservative Members still cling. According to their NIMBY's charter, local people should have the sole discretion to approve or disapprove development. We need a creative planning system. After all, planning should not be a way of simply saying no to development; it is a creative force for social change. We need a planning system that is creative, flexible and enlightened and is led by need rather than the demand of private developers. It should be based on a local appraisal of need and on consensus.
I am little worried about the White Paper's dependence on planning gain with regard to the provision of affordable housing in rural settings. I want affordable housing to be provided because it is needed. It should not be provided on the coat tails of executive commuter housing that is not needed.
We need increased funding. I welcome the provision in the White Paper, although it is still not quite enough. I want innovative partnerships between the Housing Corporation, local authorities, contractors and housing associations. I want the Government to consider the use of compulsory purchase orders to acquire the land that is necessary to meet local needs, which brings me to local governance, another key theme in the rural White Paper.
It is essential that we revitalise parish councils. Many are well capable of exercising the powers that they should be granted and the discretion that they deserve. They should be given extra powers, extra budgets and a greater role in local government. It is important that there should be a top-down approach, with a strategic policy framework and funding coming down from Government, but to make that work it is crucial that there should also be a bottom-up approach, drawing on the local intelligence in village communities--a partnership between the village hall and Whitehall.
The parish councils have the key responsibility to lead communities in developing a vision, assessing what is needed and building the consensus that is required if we are to have a more flexible planning system.
The planning system and the Government should accept that if homes are to be provided where people need them, rather than where it is convenient for them to be located, that means building homes and providing jobs in rural settings on greenfield sites and sometimes, where the case can be made, even in the green belt. We should not be frightened of that. Let the community lead the way in assessing its need and developing a consensus about how to meet it. We should not embargo that. In my constituency, the regional district council is considering its local plan review and the allocation of some 2,700 houses to the town of Shifnal, and the village of Albrighton in the green belt.
I share the view of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall that it is ludicrous that empty homes that could provide housing but are in need of repair remain neglected and derelict, while we consider the building of new housing on precious green fields. I agree that when all things are equal, it is preferable to build housing where there are local services, motorways and rail stations close at hand, but if we do that exclusively, we will merely drive people out of the villages where they need housing and into the local market town, at a cost to the quality and character of those market towns.
I do not want a continuation of old policies of speculative housebuilding. I want needs-driven housing in rural, as in urban, settings. I fought for that right as a city councillor in Westminster--the right of people to remain in their own community in the inner city in London--as much as I do now as a Member of Parliament with a semi-rural seat.
We need the investment that is being made, and we need to understand the centrality of IT not just in restoring services to communities that have lost them long since, but in bringing services to them that they have never had before. I am disappointed, therefore, that there is not greater emphasis on accelerating the process of broadband delivery in rural areas. In my view, they need it first, if there is to be competition between town and country.
I shall touch briefly on the issue of public services. I welcome the service standards initiative in the White Paper, but we should recognise the force of the argument that it is more expensive to deliver public services to rural than to urban communities. That has been recognised in the case of policing, and the allocation of an extra £30 million a year is welcome. The same must surely apply to other aspects of public service. As a matter of principle, people in the countryside should have access to the same quality and quantum of public service, social services and child care provision as people elsewhere.
I am conscious that I have taken up a great deal of the time of the House, though not quite as much as the hon. Member for Ashford. I shall not go into great detail about the importance of market towns, which are the prime example of the collocation of services--a significant feature of the White Paper. That is important not just for people who live in market towns, but for those who live in villages around them. The White Paper is right to focus on their needs and on the necessity of ensuring that the £100 million is dispensed expeditiously. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will have more to say, but I understand that the implementation paper, which will take the White Paper one step further, will be with us shortly.
The last issue on which I shall focus is quality of life. Working with local communities, I am having to fight a battle with Severn Trent Water to ensure that the villages of Preston upon the Weald Moors and Kynnersley in my constituency get mains sewerage this year. It is extraordinary that we should be fighting for that basic right in the 21st century. Hundreds of communities throughout the country do not have mains sewerage and water; indeed, some communities do not even have mains gas or electricity. In the White Paper, I should have liked the Government to have committed themselves to work
Those bread-and-butter issues matter to people in rural communities. I should have liked the White Paper to go a little further on the issue of speed limits in country lanes and villages. It is ludicrous that, in my constituency and elsewhere, one can drive at 60 mph through village centres, even past village schools, because there is no restriction on C roads and village roads. I acknowledge that the Government are making moves in the right direction, but I should like them to work with local authorities on a scheduled programme of speed reduction, where that can be justified and where it is wanted.
As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, the White Paper is a big step in the right direction. It has not been plucked off the shelf, but is the result of widespread consultation. It shows clear understanding of issues and problems. Now we have to deliver. We have started the process, and we must now accelerate it. However, we need a greater quality of debate than has been demonstrated by Opposition Members today. The Tories are interested not in addressing poverty but in retaining power and privilege. They do not want a right to roam; they want a right to rule. They do not understand the countryside as they say they do: they understand it from the perspective of the manor house and not of the villages. They resent the fact that what they characterise as an urban metropolitan Government has the right prescription for the countryside.
When the Countryside Alliance marches on London on 18 March, it will march for its own special interests, as it is entitled to do. However, it is marching for foxhunting, not rural communities. When its members say, "Listen to us," they mean, "Do what we say." That is the problem: for a long time, people have suffered from the Opposition's partial view of their needs and priorities. However, times have changed. The Opposition have not listened, but the Government have. Rural communities do not want to be stuck on the end of a heritage trail. They want change and, if it is the right change, they will embrace it. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues on producing a rural White Paper that promises the precise change for which those communities have waited for so long.