Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 80-102)

WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000

RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MP AND MR HENRY CLEARY

  80. Do you have any idea of how much time will be involved in seeing this change before shops have actually gone out of business?
  (Mr Meacher) How much more time?

  81. How much more time will it take for the impact of the changes that you have described to take place?
  (Mr Meacher) That is very difficult to answer. How long is a piece of string? This is a gradual process which is not completing at one point, it is a momentum and it is an even process. I would certainly hope that in the next two or three years one is going to see a change of tempo in these areas, I think that is reasonable.
  (Mr Cleary) I think it is worth adding that there are schemes at the moment which we are actually expanding in the White Paper. For example, the Countryside Agency run an existing village shop scheme which has already made a big difference to a number of village stores. The White Paper proposes that is extended into a new community service fund which will cover projects to re-establish its services. The money is there from next April. There is some money there already in the current year, the money is being increased from next April, so benefits should start to flow through over the next two years, as the Minister has said.

Chairman

  82. How many rural shops were saved by that Countryside Agency scheme?
  (Mr Cleary) There are many hundreds of grants. We will have to write to you with the precise details but it has already worked for many hundreds.

  83. Speeding traffic: you were quite hopeful that you were going to do something about it in the White Paper when you came before the Committee originally. Why have you come up with such a damp squib on speeding traffic?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think that is a fair description. We do recognise this is a problem, quite a severe problem, over-speeding in country lanes as well as village roads or high streets. We are encouraging local authorities to take action, including new local speed limits on rural roads where problems exist. What the Road Safety Survey and the research which it has commissioned has shown is that it is not just lowering the speed limit nationally but an overall provision. It is finding ways to control a vehicle's speed at hazardous points like bends or junctions where it is likely to be far more effective in reducing casualties on rural main roads than reducing the national speed limit. I would not rule out lower speed limits, that may well be appropriate. Certainly we are looking to 30 miles per hour as a limit in villages, but at the same time the more effective way of reducing the causes of accidents is trying to find ways of slowing cars down at difficult points. Maybe that is road calming measures as one is coming up to those points.

  84. We know that speed cameras actually work, why not let local authorities keep the speeding fines so that they can put up more cameras, or more boxes actually to have cameras in them?
  (Mr Meacher) Again, DETR genuinely has sympathy for that policy of, in effect, hypothecation—to use another ugly word. The rules, of course, have always traditionally been that it is the Treasury which collects the revenues and then decides—

  85. I think the Deputy Prime Minister usually says that is another one we have lost.
  (Mr Meacher) The fact is the Deputy Prime Minister has won so many with the Treasury on this issue and on a much bigger scale, that I think he has got a rather good record. There is a genuine point here.

Mrs Dunwoody

  86. It is all right, you are safe, we know you are good.
  (Mr Meacher) I think that point is known. We would like to see greater flexibility over local authorities in terms of, for example, fining people for speeding or for other offences, being able to retain that money and then put it into improved services to reduce those effects in the first place. Certainly that is something we would favour.

  87. This question of the £10,000 that parishes can apply for to buy a car for the village, presumably to go speeding in, is it going to work?
  (Mr Meacher) I think it will. I think this proposal of £5 million is a small sum of money but, considering just how small these settlements are, I think it is—

  88. Five or 15?
  (Mr Meacher) I beg your pardon, it is 15. Let me not under-sell. It is £15 million which is designed to help parishes in conjunction with the principal authorities, the counties and the districts, to enable them to take initiatives, as I say improving their high street, providing a car park, providing new facilities for old people or young people, CAB facilities, whatever may be appropriate. I think it cuts through the bureaucracy and it cuts through the— I am sorry, I thought you were talking about the Parish Community Fund.

  89. Yes.
  (Mr Cleary) I am sorry.
  (Mr Meacher) I think this is exciting and useful. It gives more opportunity directly to parishes and town councils to plan their own future. I think often they feel that they have very limited opportunities, they are dependent on the speed of operation of their principal authority, and I think it will be of very much value.

  90. What, £10,000 for a car?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. This is the Parish Transport Fund.

  91. Yes.
  (Mr Meacher) Again, I was struck in the course of the consultation that we did have extensively in the production of this White Paper that when I said—as I often did as a good, loyal Minister—that we had produced £170 million for improving rural bus services and there were 1,800 new or enhanced services, I had it all as a mantra regularly repeated, it was remarkably ineffective in the sense that people felt it still did not apply to them, it still was not sufficiently appropriate, it was not locally determined enough and that there was specialist provision of transport which people needed which was not met by improved bus services. I do think improved bus services are very important and I think they under-estimate all this. We are putting another £239 million into improved and better bus services over the current three years, but what we are trying to do is to say to these people in very small settlements "you can have up to £10,000 to decide yourselves how you want to see better provision of transport, whether that is in car pooling, taxi services, whether it is buying something like a minibus for community transport, whatever it is provided you show that there is a need for it on the basis of some kind of transport survey, provided there is matched funding, for example through levying a precept, and provided it fits in with existing transport provision".

Mr Brake

  92. On that point, wearing your climate change hat, Minister, are you happy that there are environmental safeguards in place, in other words that a parish is not going to buy up ten old bangers at £1,000 a go and clog up the streets and pollute the atmosphere?
  (Mr Meacher) As I have said, there are conditions on this and certainly one would be to look at what the parish was proposing. I doubt it would have the money to buy up ten, but even if it bought up a handful of old bangers which were old cars, fuel inefficient and discharged noxious vapours, I certainly think we would advise them that was not appropriate. This is not given, as I say, unconditionally. We want to increase the discretion and powers of parishes, but within limits.

  93. So each application will be reviewed and assessed?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

Mrs Ellman

  94. Do you think the Universal Bank project to save rural post offices will work?
  (Mr Meacher) I hope so. I think it stands a very good chance. What we are proposing, as you know, is we are offering basic bank accounts without overdraft or borrowing facilities which will enable customers to access benefits in cash without charge at post offices in a way that without the post office access and the large network availability, the use of banks' basic bank accounts, the so-called PAT14 accounts, would not work, they would not really address the issue of financial exclusion. We certainly are hoping that all the banks will participate if they are going to demonstrate their responsibility to the wider community. I think this is a very important part of improving the attractiveness of the Post Office network. We have already put £480 million into automating the entire Post Office network to develop universal banking and access to Government services. I think this is the best way forward, attracting new customers and new services.

  95. You said that you hope that it will happen. Whose responsibility is it to make it happen?
  (Mr Meacher) It does span several departments. I have attended a number of inter-departmental Cabinet sub-committees which deal with this issue. The DTI, of course, is in the lead. DTI has an interest because of rural post offices, but so, of course, does the Treasury have an interest in this, as does the Home Office. We are keeping a very close eye on this. It is being driven forward as a major part of the Rural White Paper, it is a central plank. It will certainly be reported on as part of the State of the Countryside reports which are going to be undertaken every year by the Countryside Agency. It will be looking at access to services, the availability of services. We will be monitored year by year and I am sure we will be criticised if we do not achieve our objective, which is the avoidance of all avoidable closures.

  96. Would you be made aware if the DTI were running into difficulties on this one? After all, the banks are not known for showing social responsibility.
  (Mr Meacher) That is why I do use words like "hope". We do require co-operation from partners and these things cannot, nor should be done entirely by Government. We are certainly—I am not sure if I am allowed to say pressurising the banks—putting a lot of influence, to use another more neutral word, on banks to participate. I believe that they will. I think it would act against their reputation if they were seen to stand out on this.

Mrs Dunwoody

  97. When has that ever upset banks?
  (Mr Meacher) My colleague, Chris Mullin, upset banks recently, I seem to recall, and in my view was probably quite right to do so, by talking about banks' responsibilities. This is another instance of the responsibility of banks. I do not think we can require them. It is always easy to say that governments should require this, that or another body or persons to do such and such, but I do not think that is the way to operate. I have no reason to believe that the banks will not co-operate on this.

Mr Brake

  98. On that point, Minister, I do not see why you have this confidence. There is a bank closure in my High Street that is just going ahead now. I do not see why they would be willing, in the way that you are outlining, to back this proposal, particularly if you have no powers to require them to do so.
  (Mr Meacher) We perhaps take a different view on this. We have had extensive discussions with the banks. The Government is already putting in substantial funds, I mentioned £480 million in capital costs, in terms of a further contribution. We have said that will be determined when the business case is approved but, of course, part of the Government's commitment to putting further funds in is that we get an equivalent commitment from the banks that they are going to play their part.

Chairman

  99. Rural proofing, do you believe in it?
  (Mr Meacher) Rural proofing is an essential part of this White Paper. We already have the Cabinet Committee on Rural Affairs.

  100. When did it meet?
  (Mr Meacher) When does it meet?

  101. I asked you when did it meet because I understand it has only met once.
  (Mr Meacher) No, that is not true. I have attended several meetings myself. I would say I have attended at least three or four meetings. It meets when there is a reason to meet. It is not a body which meets regularly just for the sake of it. That was already in place but, in addition, the Rural White Paper is proposing that we set up national and regional rural sounding boards. I was impressed by the sounding board which advised me in the preparation of this White Paper, which I think did a very good job, was very imaginative, and came up with a lot of good ideas which are incorporated in this White Paper, and we want that process to continue. We are also setting up a rural advocate who will be the Chair of the Countryside Agency, Ewen Cameron, who will have access into Government, including into the Cabinet Committee on Rural Affairs. The Countryside Agency is going to have a central role here because of the State of the Countryside Report which will set out the rural headline indicators, such as the state of the countryside, access to services, transport provision, all the key sensitive indicators, and look at what progress going forward or backward has occurred in the last year. That will be made public. The State of the Countryside Report will certainly be discussed in the Cabinet Committee. It may well be, I hope, discussed in the House. We are providing very full information about the state of the countryside in a quantified form which will enable Government to be held to account.

  102. Do you see the Countryside Agency as being much more important than the Environment Agency or English Nature in this rural proofing?
  (Mr Meacher) I think for the purposes of rural proofing of countryside issues, the Countryside Agency is, indeed, in the lead. Those three bodies, of course, have to work very closely together, but for the purposes we are talking about here, yes, I think the Countryside Agency is in the lead. It does give me an opportunity to say I think they have performed very well in the period since they have been set up. I think they have been bold, I think they have been imaginative, and I think they have been effective.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.

Mrs Dunwoody

  103. A special vote of thanks to the Minister.
  (Mr Meacher) I shall miss you over Christmas, although I am seeing you again.

  Mrs Dunwoody: And a Happy Christmas.

  Chairman: Thank you.





 
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