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Mrs. Dunwoody: Are we being told that, no matter what the size of a building, no matter what its facilities and no matter where it was sited, planning permission would be given for conversion to a riding school?

Mr. Gray: No, that is not what I said. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point, because I am happy to clarify my remarks. Of course, consideration would have to be given to the size of the riding school, where it was sited and in what circumstances restrictions would be relaxed. Planning restrictions represent an enormous hurdle to overcome and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford has proposed that they should be very much relaxed.

I would happily have given time to discussing many other measures, but hon. Members have referred to the question of village shops and rate relief for businesses in areas such as Lacock in my constituency. I welcome those provisions, which will make it a great deal easier for such businesses to survive the crisis through which they are going, but my particular interest is the horse industry. I hope that the House will forgive me for having concentrated my efforts largely on that.

The Government have consistently ignored the industry, although there has been talk of having a Minister for the horse. We think that there should be one. It is

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unclear which Department is responsible for the horse and there are a significant number of anomalies in the way in which horse businesses are rated.

Mr. David Heath: The hon. Gentleman has touched on an important point, because it is not clear which Ministry is responsible for recreational horse riding. There is a clear need for the Government to develop a strategy encompassing not only the points that he has made about the status of businesses, but the provision of an adequate bridleway network to enable people to ride horses safely in the countryside. That would achieve a bonus not only in recreational terms, but in tourism terms.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. When we come to power, I hope to persuade my right hon. Friends to establish within a Department a clear responsibility for the horse. I suspect that that Department will be the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, if it still exists, although I hear on the grapevine that it is about to be broken into pieces. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or a department of rural affairs might take charge and a Minister would have clear responsibility for the horse.

The hon. Gentleman's point about bridleways is extremely good. The recent Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 did not address bridleways at all satisfactorily and it is important that we have a go at producing a sensible network across the nation.

The horse industry has been ignored by the Government and, to a degree, by previous Governments, but the Conservative party has committed itself to addressing it sensibly and effectively when it comes to power. A central part of our consideration must be the way in which it pays business rates. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friends on the Front Bench on committing the party to giving 100 per cent. rate relief to new and existing equestrian businesses. I call on the Government to match that.

6.25 pm

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I am grateful for the chance to take part in the debate. Last week, I hoped to participate in the rural economy debate, which should have been the parliamentary equivalent of the Radio 4 programme "Just a Minute", with no repetition, deviation or hesitation. Many Members wanted to take part, so that is how I thought the debate would go. Sadly, far too many Members did not follow the rules of the game and spoke for far too long, so I was unable to take part. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I know.

I am pleased to take part in tonight's debate and speak in favour of the Bill, which is relevant to the broader discussion and to my constituency in Cornwall, which represents part of the rural economy. I am one of the Labour Members with a constituency that encompasses coastal towns, former industrial areas and rural areas. There is an interesting symbiosis between them, and I am honoured and privileged to represent such a diverse range of communities.

We all accept that the unforeseen outbreak of foot and mouth has put great strain on rural areas, farmers and tourism in my area in particular. Worryingly, there are

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specialist businesses whose plight has been worsened, given their lack of a voice or group to represent them. Throughout the crisis, I have been in contact with a local shop selling equestrian equipment--this might interest the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)--whose owner has built up the business over some 20 years only to see it hit with the body blow of foot and mouth. All the local horse shows were cancelled just after she had purchased the prizes and the equipment for this season.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister recognises that identifying businesses that need assistance is not easy, but a case must be made for such businesses, which, by their very nature, are hit so hard--they do not have the might of the National Farmers Union to put their case for them. Of course, that is the job of their local MP, so I ask my hon. Friend please to bear in mind the fact that isolated shops and businesses have been affected by the disease. Their concerns and the real threat to their existence have hardly been heard in the Chamber.

I am also concerned for recently diversified farms, which are suffering the most in my area. In particular, those farmers who have taken the plunge, converted their barns and considered different land usage such as camping--often, they are the younger ones--are having difficulties. I hope that the Bill will assist some of them.

Perhaps the Government will go further and look to those farmers who have not sat on their hands and said, "We won't do anything to help ourselves. We'll just keep getting the subsidies." Some have established tourism businesses, particularly in my part of the world, but they find themselves unable to open them because they have been hit by foot and mouth. They cannot allow tourists on to their farms, let alone invite them to come.

The county of Cornwall is, thank God, only mildly affected by foot and mouth--mostly in the east, adjacent to Devon. We all hope that it will stay that way. Of course, as any Cornish man or woman would say, Cornwall's biggest problem has always been that it is next to Devon. Given the plight of our dearest neighbour, many in Cornwall are justifiably worried about the knock-on effect on the south-west economy at large, particularly our all-important tourism industry.

It was a relief, particularly for me, to read in last Monday's Western Morning News--the newspaper has regularly featured in debates in the Chamber in recent weeks--that the Falmouth Beach hotel has announced record winter bookings. The hotel was a magnificent 77 per cent. full between November and March. Although foot and mouth had an initial effect on bookings, the situation still looks good and that bodes well. That was a great boost for the town and the county. Over the Easter period, our tourist attractions were well attended and the queues in my patch stretched for miles. There are several reasons for that. One is that it is a sign that the efforts of many--from Ministers to film stars--in spreading the word have borne fruit. They are to be thanked for that.

In the past month, I have welcomed my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting to Cornwall. Like many others, they have joined me in putting out the message that Cornwall remains the country's No. 1 tourist attraction and destination. We have a lot to shout about. For example, those hon. Members who have not been to the fantastic Eden project have not lived. Get down there,

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enjoy it and keep going back. It will be an emerging and growing attraction. The maritime museum will also be great for attracting visitors.

In Cornwall, finding new ways to attract tourists is the way forward, and support from my hon. Friend the Minister's Department and from the regional development agencies is critical to that. We all know that this country has enjoyed a period of sustained growth in recent years, which benefits every region--whether urban or rural--and every sector of the economy. That is why unemployment has gone down dramatically in my constituency since 1997.

There are deep-rooted problems and reasons for other concerns. The future of post offices and other shops is an obvious example. Villages have had varying fortunes as people change their work patterns and shop in supermarkets. That puts more pressure on village shops. We all know the dangers of that. A visit to some areas of France highlights the risks of a rural economy caught in decline. They include depopulation, empty buildings and the predominance of second homes and British number plates in the Dordogne. I do not want that for Cornwall, and it can be avoided.

The Government's rural White Paper gave a valuable indication of the way forward for villages and towns alike. The Bill is another step in the implementation of that blueprint for the future. However, we must not stop there. Structural economic change can be both positive and negative, and we would all agree that there are rarely quick and easy solutions. We must look to innovation within the rural economy and to local branding, information technology and--in Cornwall's case--renewable energy. Just because Cornwall currently lags behind other parts of the country, we must ensure that it does not remain so as other areas move forward.

Difficulties in the rural economy are often most acute in the most rural areas. Equally, the effect of foot and mouth on businesses may follow that pattern. The smallest most vulnerable businesses may suffer the most. However, it is important to realise that they are also the businesses most vital to the preservation of village and rural life.

Soon after the outbreak began, I conducted a snap survey of local businesses. Some reported, as borne out by the Employment Service, that there had been little effect on employment so far. However, it was no surprise to learn that the effect had been most noticeable in the businesses that organise walking tours, supply bikes for hire or use the coastal footpaths and the open country. They will be helped by the news that the county council will open another 50 miles of the coastal footpath on Wednesday and that the Government have made extra funds available for signing, fencing and the extra staff needed to enable the county council to open the path. No other measure will help the rural economy in Cornwall to overcome the effects of foot and mouth more than the opening of footpaths. Every member of the tourism industry whom I have met in the past two weeks has said the same thing over and over again: "Please open our coast paths."

I have also argued to Ministers that there is a strong case for a job or wage subsidy in the tourism industry. If a hotel or pub recognises that it has problems in the short term and threatens to lay off staff and to close down, the money for unemployment benefit or the jobseeker's

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allowance could be used to keep people in employment--perhaps with an element of training--while keeping the business open. I believe that Ministers are warming to such a proposal, and I have stressed to them that it is one way of keeping the rural economy and the tourism industry going. It will also help to keep people in work while offering them proper training.

A number of meetings have been held in villages across my constituency to discuss the rural White Paper. Overall, it has been well received by people, no matter from which political party they come. At last, the Government have looked right across the board at the issues affecting rural areas. Villages are evolving and they are very different from the image that some who live in the M25 corridor might have of them. Many people now work from home, using new technologies, and others commute into local towns and cities. As people shop weekly in supermarkets rather than daily in the village store, that affects local shops. Fewer and fewer people work on the land, and the Government and communities need to wake up to that fact. This Bill reflects the evolving and changing countryside.

Last week, my mother used our local post office in St. Day in my constituency as a bank, paying in money and changing coins. She did not travel into a local town and that saved her money. More of us need to follow that example and support our village stores and post offices. I am often struck by the fact that calls to save post offices are often made by those who--as my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) said, in what I was sad to hear may be his last speech in the House--are least likely to have set foot in a post office for many years.

I have given a cursory outline of several issues relevant to the debate and of the broader issues that affect farmers in the Camborne area and Cornwall. However, those issues form part of a much wider debate and, like many, I believe that if there is one silver lining to the awful foot and mouth disease, it may be that we shall finally have a proper and comprehensive debate on the future of rural areas and of farming in particular. I strongly urge Ministers to ensure that, after the election, we have time on the Floor of the House for such a comprehensive debate.

Members of the farming community in my area have appreciated the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and of his Department and they have asked me to relay their thanks to everyone involved. They tell me that they want the Government to send a clear message about what they want from the farming community, and that is not too much to ask. If the Government do not want farmers to use subsidies, the farmers say, "Fine." However, they want to hear from the Government and do want to have to second guess their intentions. After BSE, foot and mouth and the other problems facing rural areas, people who live in the towns and who buy from the supermarkets and from farmers' markets are now saying, "Times have got to change. What are the Government going to do?" As other hon. Members have said, the Bill is a step in the right direction. Although we have a long way to go, I am pleased to support it because it makes a start.

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