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6.39 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) mentioned the radio programme "Just a Minute". I fear that my remarks

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may take a little longer than that, but her comment triggered in my mind questions as to what the cast of "The Archers" would think of this Bill. With the thought that all sorts of rural developments could be encouraged by rating relief, I imagine that Linda Snell would be organising a protest group against them. Whether Brian, on his big farm, would have enough money to diversify given the loss of Borchester Mills is a burning question in the minds of "The Archers" scriptwriters. Would the Bill induce Pat and Tony to open a second organic food shop on Bridge farm? Undoubtedly, the Government's spin doctors will be considering those questions very carefully in trying to influence the scriptwriters of "The Archers" in promulgating the new-found message of hope that the Government want to come from what is palpably a very modest measure indeed.

This debate, not unnaturally, has included matters connected with foot and mouth disease, but other hon. Members have rightly reminded the House that the Bill is built on proposals made by the previous Conservative Government in recognising the need to pay attention to the viability of businesses in rural Britain and to reduce their rates. To that extent, I am glad that the Government have followed the lead set by the previous Conservative Government, as they have done in so many other ways. The fact that we are debating the Bill is useful, and I certainly would not disagree with it, but let us have a little look at some of the measures because there are some specific points to tease out as well as some more general points to be made.

I wonder how much new diversification is available in the farming community, because especially in those areas affected by foot and mouth disease, and whatever moneys might be available, the problem is one not of diversification but of survival and it involves restocking the farms and dealing with the consequential losses of having no farm income for the next six, nine or even 12 months.

I listened carefully to the remarks on the potential for further diversification. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) mentioned that possibly a third of farmers were considering diversification, but when I look around in my constituency--Fylde in Lancashire--hardly an original barn is left to be diversified; they have already been turned into houses or some form of rural enterprise. I wonder about the physical opportunities to develop diversified businesses.

An aspect that has not been mentioned is the fact that diversification is a great deal easier for those who own the freehold of their farms than it is for tenants. In considering businesses and new ventures, those tenants who do not have a farm business tenancy would, in the first instance, have to seek the agreement of their landlords--the principal landowners--and that may involve some very great difficulties. As we consider farming generally and those areas affected by foot and mouth specifically, I suspect that the tenants will suffer the most, and that, sadly, they will benefit the least from these proposals.

From where will the money for diversification come? Sadly, the Bill does not give much hope that the Government are trying to encourage new sources of capital to enter agriculture to take up the opportunity of diversification. In my speech on Second Reading of the Finance Bill, I suggested, for example, some changes to

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the qualifying terms of the enterprise investment scheme and the venture capital trust scheme that would enable new money, with the limited tax advantage already conferred on urban investment, to be visited on rural investment. Sadly, the Government have not yet responded, but I pay tribute to the Paymaster General, who very kindly said that she would consider those proposals. If the Government are truly interested in diversification, they will have to consider such issues.

We must focus on an important detail in the notes on clauses that accompany the Bill, and I make no apology for returning to an issue that my hon. Friends have mentioned. Paragraph 7 states:

Those very words raise the question of who is the beneficiary of the proposal. The assumption in the Government's own words is that farmers will benefit, yet the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) talked about the use of new technology in the rural environment. She was right to do so because those businesses that, for example, can deal with information technology--data processing, or whatever--may find farm environments very attractive given the lack of rates under the Bill, but will they necessarily be able to take up the advantage, as clause 1 does not make it clear who will be the beneficiary?

As other hon. Members have said, the Minister suggested that third parties may be able to help, but I hope that, in winding up the debate, the Under-Secretary will make it absolutely clear who will be the beneficiaries of the proposals. Certainly, new forms of agricultural business partnership may well represent the way forward, and farm business tenancies, which I had the pleasure to bring into law, may well find a further boost. They have been popular, they have been taken up, and they provide certain opportunities for tenanted farms to diversify. The people who have adopted such leases will be anxious to ensure that new forms of partnership in the rural areas can be developed.

The term "rural settlement" has been used in relation to clause 1, and I want to consider the important issue of what is rural. Coincidentally, in my mail today was a letter from my local authority, Fylde borough council. The letter, which was written in the context of the foot and mouth disease outbreak, is headed "Designation of 'Rural' Areas". Fylde borough council has written to the head of the rural development division, Mr. Henry Cleary--who may be known to the Under-Secretary--to debate what is rural. The letter was written by the acting chief executive. In fact, he is now the deputy chief executive; I had forgotten that Fylde has appointed a new chief executive.

Mr. Bramhall wrote to Mr. Cleary stating:

He points out that 10 per cent. of the population effectively live in what are defined as the urban areas. The land use of the borough of Fylde effectively shows that it is a rural area, but we do not qualify under the designation used for the foot and mouth rate reliefs because we have been judged not to be rural. Colleagues

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have talked about rural settlements of 3,000--plus or minus one person--on cliff edges being included in the measure, but I am not certain whether parts of Fylde that would consider themselves to be entirely rural would benefit from the proposals. I shall send the Under- Secretary a copy of the Fylde borough letter, and perhaps he will be kind enough to acknowledge that he will consider those concerns, which are important to Fylde borough council.

Paragraph 10 of the notes on clauses refer to

The Under-Secretary will, no doubt, tell us that that phrase comes from some well-defined source, but I am not clear about what will happen during the proposal's five years. Will there be any creep? Will people consider the figure of 3,000 as of now, or will such an area not qualify if another baby is born there? I am sure that that is not the case, but there is a lack of clarity about how the proposal will work and it is time that that was sorted out.

As has been said in referring to the definitions of the rate relief, the mandatory relief will be limited to £6,000, whereas the discretionary relief will reach a rateable value limit of £12,000. Again, I am intrigued about how such numbers and limits are set, but, like other contributors to the debate, I am worried that councils such as the hard-pressed borough of Fylde--if it was to be included--would not necessarily have enough money in their budgets to enable them to take advantage of the discretionary relief. What work has the Under-Secretary done to assess whether rural local authorities are actually able to take up the opportunities proposed in the Bill? The proposals will be hollow indeed if local authorities find it difficult to take advantage of the flexibility of the measure.

I was also intrigued by clause 3. It gave rise to an interesting debate in which the Government say, in effect, that in order to ensure that all the key retail outlets in a rural village are able to benefit from the proposals, a business will qualify if it is "wholly or mainly" for

Questions about the nature of petrol retailing go through my mind. Nowadays, many petrol stations contain a shop, a bakery or a newsagent--one can buy numerous other things there. Such businesses already attract some rate relief because of their importance to the rural community, but there seems to be substantial doubt as to whether a diversified food business will qualify.

If the spirit and purpose of the Bill is to safeguard, develop and sustain the villages of rural Britain--or certainly of England and Wales--why are we nit-picking in that way? Why do we not recognise premises that are central and important to the well-being of a village community? If necessary, we should turn to local authorities and ask them which businesses are important. Why do we not ask parish councils? They know their area; they know which businesses are important. It would have been nice if there had been a little local consultation to deal with these nit-picking points in the Bill.

The clause contains the phrase

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions suggested that if the premises had a few seats for people to have a cup of coffee and a bun, that business would be

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included. However, I have visited places in the Lake district where three old cottages were knocked together--one bit is the post office, one bit is the cafe and one bit is mainly for food sales--

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