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16 Oct 2002 : Column 403—continued

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Such a decision would be extremely damaging, which is why Ministers have not supported it.

I want to look further at the question of essential services because people need to have access to high-quality public services no matter where they live. Let us consider affordable homes. Since 1997, the Government have doubled the funding for creating affordable homes to #1.2 billion a year, which is supporting the creation of 20,000 affordable homes every year. The Housing Corporation's rural affordable housing programme has also been doubled. We are ahead of the target set out in the rural White Paper. Restrictions on the right to buy in rural areas have helped, as has judicious use of planning powers by local authorities. We recognise that more needs to be done, but we are working in partnership with employers and public and private landlords. It is worth noting that, since 1997, 20 per cent. of social housing has been built in rural areas.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury may think that it was a clever ploy to suggest a change in the arrangements last week—he has wisely rowed back from what was said then—but the right to buy led to a loss of 91,000 homes from the social rented sector in rural areas between 1985 and 1990. That would be okay if those homes were being replaced, but it is hardly a blinding flash of inspiration to accelerate the loss. We need to ensure that affordable housing is there not just for the short term, but for the long term.

The question of choice and enabling people to have a decent start in life and being able to own their own homes is part of a wider picture, and there is no quick fix. The Rural Housing Trust, with which I have had discussions, and other organisations—charities, as well as housing associations—have a major contribution to make. It is worth making the point again that the target of 60 per cent. of new homes being built on brownfield land has been met eight years earlier than was forecast. The Opposition seem to suggest that there is some sort of threat to the greenbelt, but 30,000 hectares have been added to it since 1997.

Let us consider health and social services. By 2004, there will be 100 new primary care, one-stop or mobile units, 5,000 intermediary care beds in rural areas, and guaranteed access to primary care within 24 hours and a doctor within 48 hours. NHS Direct is now available throughout England, and it is having an even greater impact in rural areas than in urban areas.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Minister is talking about access to doctors. Is he aware that my constituency has the fourth largest ratio of patients to GPs in the United Kingdom, that some GPs are about to retire and that those services are beginning to approach crisis point? How can he make those brave

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boasts about increased access to GPs when the shortage of GPs is already a growing crisis around the United Kingdom?

Alun Michael: Has not the hon. Gentleman noticed that the Government are training more doctors and more nurses, so making available the people who will start to fill those gaps? We are trying to ensure that they can be recruited to provide the service in rural areas, as well as in urban areas. We are trying to deliver services for the whole population, not just for segments of it.

On post offices, there is a requirement to maintain the rural network. Net closures fell from 435 in 2000–01 to 210 in 2001–02 and we are working with local communities and local government to try to ensure that there is no loss from the network. As with shops, there is a challenge to local communities to choose to use facilities to ensure that they are viable and can be maintained.

We recognise the differential needs of rural and urban communities. For example, the new rural police fund has injected an extra #30 million in 2001–02 and 2002–03. The fund was based on research into the cost of providing a rural police service, rather than research into the level of crime. I can say with some pride that I commissioned the research on which that decision was taken when I was deputy Home Secretary.

Mr. Todd: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way once again and draw his attention to the experience in rural south Derbyshire, where a mobile police station, manned by two officers, has been dedicated to the task of working with rural communities, specifically farmers concerned about farm crime. I do not recall that service under the Conservative Government.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes his point very well indeed.

Throughout the country, I do not find that all the problems to do with fear of crime or those to do with housing or transport have been resolved, but people are more and more frequently saying, XSomething has changed. Things are being done as a result of the Government's actions." For example, we have put #239 million over the three years of the spending period into public transport. We have 1,800 new or improved bus routes in England and 81 rural transport partnerships. We have created the formal presumption against closing rural schools, and only three schools have closed since 2001, compared to 30 between 1983 and 1997.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): Will the Minister provide an assurance this evening that he will fight within the Government to ensure that the proposed changes in local government funding, which will have a direct impact on the amount of resources going to Lincolnshire and other shire counties, will not happen? Will he also fight within Government against Home Office proposals to change the way in which police authorities are funded in rural areas, to ensure that there are no cuts in Lincolnshire or other shire counties?

Alun Michael: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am bringing to the attention of colleagues across

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Government the needs of rural communities, and that we are discussing these matters sensibly. I must tell him, however, that anybody who has had experience of formulae, and of what happens when any formula is changed, whether in relation to local government, the police service or health—I have had experience of all three—will know the complexities involved and the unintentional outcomes when one seeks to make such changes. It is a difficult, delicate issue that does not get easier as time goes on.

I have illustrated that, in a series of areas, we have brought rural policy into the centre of government. The commitment on rural issues is reflected in central Government by the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the specific aim of achieving thriving rural economies and communities, bringing new focus and drive to the Government's policies for rural England. The establishment of the Countryside Agency, with a budget of some #90 million a year, is helping to deliver integrated and sustainable rural policy. It delivers important programmes combining social and community interests with economic and environmental needs, such as the vital villages and market towns initiatives, and has piloted innovative schemes to ensure that rural people get the services that they need.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) rose—

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) rose—

Alun Michael: I have spoken for some time and have given way repeatedly to Opposition Members. I think that I need to make a little progress to allow other Members on both sides of the House to enter the debate.

We are helping local groups to make the connection between their needs and opportunities, such as that developed by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) with the local parish council—runners-up in the local parish council of the year award—in Waters Upton. Shop and pub closures have been recognised as issues with which local people need to engage. A recent pub closure led to a telling comment from the landlord, who said, XThe problem is that I have trade during the summer when we have visitors and walkers in the area, but local people are not using the pub." The challenges are therefore not only for Government but for local communities in the choices that they make.

The Government are listening to the real concerns of rural people to find solutions, and are working with people on those solutions. We have set up the Rural Affairs Forum for England, which I chair, which works with representatives of all strands of rural opinion, giving rural people a voice at the heart of government. Every region has its own rural affairs forum with representation on the national forum, and sub-groups deal with specific issues such as tourism and urban-rural linkages. Next month, in conjunction with the forum, we are holding a rural conference for the first time to discuss the interdependence between towns and countryside. Opposition Members should work with us to try to recreate linkages and understanding between urban and rural areas rather than encouraging the idea of a divide.

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We are not just listening; we are committed to working in partnership to achieve our aims. For instance, the XYour Countryside, You're Welcome" campaign was designed to assist rural communities to recover this year after the impact of foot and mouth disease. We are also working with the Countryside Alliance on its XFood Fortnight". We can work with all sorts of people to improve the economy and the quality of life in rural areas. We need to reconnect rural people with urban people, however, because we need each other. We need to get rid of the talk of urban-rural divides.

As I said earlier, we appreciate and value the contribution that parish councils make to local democracy, but they can do more. We are committed to giving them a greater role in leading and invigorating their communities. The quality town and parish council scheme will give country towns and villages more scope to shape their future and make local government in the countryside more responsive to local needs. We provided #2 million to help establish a national training and support strategy for towns and parish councils. I am very pleased to hear the responses from the Local Government Association, the National Association of Local Councils, and parish councillors up and down the country, such as those whom I met recently in the Forest of Dean and west Lancashire. We seek to work with parish councils to enhance their role. The message is getting through and it is making a difference.

There are many example of how people in rural areas can take a grip of, and improve, their future. The vital villages project and the information provided by the Countryside Agency show how we can work with the agency and local government to improve the quality of life. Major challenges face rural communities along with those of maintaining a positive quality of life and the environment that is so valued. We are taking action to address the problems that exist and many improvements can be seen, although more needs to be done. We are committed to working with all those who share the Government's vision for the countryside and will empower communities to develop local solutions.

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