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1.54 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): It is a privilege to sum up for the Opposition from the Dispatch Box for the first time. This has been a thoughtful debate,

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with constructive speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I do not mention all of them and everything that they said, as we have had a long debate.

I am especially pleased to see the Minister for the Environment here. He is a part-time constituent of mine, so he will know the area well, and if I have particular pleas about where things are going wrong, he will have an incentive to put them right.

Miss McIntosh: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Minister also has a series of properties in London? Is that a cottage industry that he would like us to pursue in other parts of the country?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has made her point.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and I were on the Environment Sub- Committee even before he became Chairman, and for some time afterwards. We had disagreements, but they were always good-natured. His chairmanship has been impartial and constructive, so the Committee's comments are viewed even more seriously than they might otherwise be. Three members of the Committee and one former member have spoken today, adding to the weight of this debate.

I declare an interest--it is on the register--as one of only two chartered surveyors in the House and the owner of a farming business.

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that we should be able to manage decline better. He mentioned some of the industries that, sadly, have undergone huge decline in the past few decades. Shipbuilding and coal mining have suffered, and now we have the sad situation in the farming industry, with 40,000 jobs lost in the past two years. If that had happened in one hit in any other industry, it would have been seen as a national catastrophe, but because it has been dispersed throughout the country, it has sometimes not been given the prominence that it deserves.

The Government rightly took the decision to publish the two White Papers on separate days, to give the House and the public a chance to digest them. We welcome that, but we do not welcome the lack of co-ordination between them. The Select Committee report on the proposed urban White Paper said:

We are one nation and one economy, and we should not seek to divide the rural from the urban. Perhaps the most profound comment in the debate came from the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy): we want a united country and a united city, not a tale of two cities. We do not want to divide society.

Unfortunately, there is an increasing north-south divide, with 24,200 people migrating from the north to the south, and 23,800 to the south-east from 1996 to 1999. The figures are from the Office for National Statistics population trends survey and from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. One reason is that we are allowing more houses to be built in rural areas. As my hon. Friend the

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Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) so rightly said, in the previous century there was a huge migration from the cities to the countryside. That is contributing to the north-south divide, and we must avoid it if we are to maintain one nation.

The Deputy Prime Minister, in launching the urban White Paper, said:

And so say all of us--we would all echo that sentiment. We have a duty to ensure that we are one nation.

The excellent contribution of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) was marred in one particular. I know his area quite well, having fought the by-election campaign of which he was the victor. Leeds, in common with some of our other major cities such as Glasgow and Bristol, has seen huge city centre regeneration. That happened under the single regeneration budget initiative introduced by the previous Government. Such initiatives have transformed city centres, and the hon. Gentleman would have done well to acknowledge that.

I know that it is true of Leeds, as it is of many other major cities, that just a mile away from the city centre exists some of the worst deprivation anywhere. That is what we want to address. We want thriving city centres, but we want to do something about very deprived areas as well. The hon. Member for Tottenham mentioned social exclusion, and others have mentioned education. I concur wholeheartedly.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish will know, because he came on the same visit, that when I was on the Environment Sub-Committee, we saw tower blocks in Glasgow where, in winter, despite the fact that people on basic benefit were paying electricity bills of £20 a week, the temperature inside was lower than it was outside. That is terrible, and Conservative Members wish to see more initiatives to demolish such sink estates and tower blocks.

Mr. Bennett: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that when the Select Committee visited Leeds, not only did we see substantial deprivation fairly close to the town centre but in Ebor Gardens we saw an example of an estate built in the 1960s, with tower blocks and walk-up flats, which had been transformed by extremely good management, it appeared, from the city council?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I do not dispute for a moment what the chairman of the Select Committee says. Some extremely good work is being done by the local community and local authorities. That is why Conservatives Members want to support local authorities. I so agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I support town centre management schemes--called district improvement schemes in the United States. In New York, for example, they have been of huge benefit to the communities and the environment in inner-city areas. Indeed, we started work, much of it sponsored by private companies. Marks & Spencer, for example, has done some splendid work on town centre

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initiatives in Bristol. There is aid for that--the urban White Paper provides for a top-slicing of the business rate, which we welcome wholeheartedly.

As time is limited, perhaps the House will allow me to deal with some of the many points that were raised in the debate. Much was made of the real problems in rural areas. I had intended to say more about urban areas, but hon. Members have devoted their time in this debate more to the problems of rural areas, which, in many ways and in individual communities, are perhaps just as acute as those of the urban areas.

The hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) mentioned the closing of rural facilities. All of us who represent rural constituencies have seen a sad decline in their facilities. I do not want to make a political point, but I think that the trend has accelerated in the past four years. The Government cannot deny that.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk seemed to be fighting the last election all over again. However, he neglected to tell the House that, whereas 333 rural post offices have closed in the past six months, for the entire 18 years during which we were in office, only 200 a year closed. Some of the changes, particularly the way in which benefits and pensions are to be paid, will exacerbate the problem. My constituency has seen the closure of rural police stations, post offices and magistrates courts. Such closures cannot continue, because if all the facilities in a rural area are closed, what is left? Many right hon. and hon. Members mentioned that problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York made some interesting comments on planning in rural areas. We wholeheartedly approve of the increased development of brownfield sites. However, the problems of building in such areas lie in some of the reasons for their designation as brownfield--for example, problems of contamination or flooding. If we are to take a bipartisan approach to the greater development of such contaminated areas, we must find more resources--levering in, it is to be hoped, some from the private sector--to ensure that they are cleaned up. That must be in the interests of all of us. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and I served on the pre-legislative Committee that considered the Environment Act 1995, which resulted in a step change through the establishment of a contaminated land register, which we wholeheartedly applaud.

The Government have not devoted sufficient attention to the problem of building on flood plains--that is becoming a real problem in rural areas. When the Minister for the Environment sums up, I hope that he will comment on that. We want to lend cross-party support to ensuring that PPG 25 has real teeth and that, whenever we build on flood plains, we are fully cognisant of what we are doing.

In the past, developments have been built on flood plains, on a one-in-100-year flood estimate, but during the recent flooding, the groundwater drainage systems have not been able to cope with the run-off from those estates. I witnessed that on a small scale in Cirencester. A Tesco store was built on the flood plain with flood provision as I described; flooding did not occur at the store site, because its drainage system was adequate, but was diverted to an estate in the nearby village of South Cerney.

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Sewage flooding causes considerable problems throughout my constituency. It is one thing to have one's home flooded with water, but quite another when it is flooded with sewage. I hope that the Minister will lend his support to a joint meeting that I have set up between Thames Water, the Environment Agency and Cotswold district council to investigate why the South Cerney sewer is inadequate and what we can do about that. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in urging the district council to impose a moratorium on any new housebuilding until the problem is resolved? Other Members with rural constituencies have experienced similar problems--

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