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Margaret Beckett: I share the hon. Gentleman's view that if the changes that we are announcing today merely add to the sense of fatigue, we will certainly have failed. However, I understand from the extensive discussions that my officials, ministerial colleagues and I have held with all those engaged that there is recognition of the need for change and a great willingness to embrace that change and take it forward.
The hon. Gentleman asked about definitions and data. It is a symbol of the failure of the Conservative party that when we came to power and endeavoured, through the implementation of the rural White Paper, to find out how to address some of the problems that unquestionably exist in rural areas, there was a dearth of evidence, information and reliable data. We had to start from scratch in building an evidence base. We now have an agreed definition. I shall not share it with the House, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and ensure that the letter gets to him this time. Perhaps someone had not been to Walsall and misunderstood the nature of the countryside there.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we discussed the issues with the Treasury. We certainly did and it is very much on board. It has taken on board the issues of rural proofing in its approach to expenditure and assessment of need. He referred to objective 1 status. He will know that no one fought harder than the Government to secure objective 1 status, not least for the area that he represents. Money has been pouring into his area under this Government in a way that has never been seen before. I am conscious of the difference between the concerns and the hopelessness that people saw six or seven years ago and the hope, optimism and fresh opportunities that exist in such areas today.
The hon. Gentleman misunderstood the position of rural community councils. We recognise the dangers he identifies. It is not intended that their funding should come through RDAs; the existing role will be retained.
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The general distribution of moneys between different RDAs will follow the overall picture because we will be contributing to the single pot.
I agree that farmers are critical to the environment and land management. The hon. Gentleman asked what we had done to assist their enduring participation in farming. There have been many initiatives, gestures and support of various kinds, but the most important thing we have done is to reform the common agricultural policy, which sets them free to farm to the best advantage of their business, not because that is how they get the subsidy. On housing, I said that the resources will also apply to housing in rural areas.
Diana Organ (Forest of Dean) (Lab): I warmly welcome the statement, in particular the reduction of the 100 rural agricultural and environmental funding schemes to three major ones. Will my right hon. Friend provide more detailed guidance on that, and if so when? Which funding schemes are going into which programme? Many organisations are delivering in rural areas and will want to know which section they have been put into.
Will my right hon. Friend say a little about funding for areas of outstanding natural beauty? It was clear in the Haskins review that national parks will get 100 per cent. of their money directly from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the future of the money for areas of outstanding natural beauty was not clear. At the moment, some of it comes from local authorities and some from DEFRA.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I must insist that supplementary questions are brief. Perhaps I can also put down a marker for Front-Bench spokesmen. Back-Bench Members also have to be called and that should be taken into consideration.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ). We will obviously publish more detail. A rather attractive diagram shows what schemes will go where. Broadly speaking, the three major funds will focus on natural resource protection, sustainable food and farming, and sustainable rural communities. Although initially there will be an indication of how existing funds fit into that framework, one of my key goals has been that we do not simply introduce three headlines under which remain the existing complexity of schemes, rules, application forms and so on. I am determined that there will be three funding streams and that their delivery will be devolved as much as possible. We will also honour existing commitments, so it will take a little time to introduce the scheme.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con):
If support for rural business is important, which it is, why are the enterprise agencies in Tiverton and Crediton
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in my constituency closing? The enterprise agency in Honiton will no longer be run locally, but from Plymouthhardly ruralon the other side of the county, which is also the case for my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), whose constituency covers Exmouth.
On social exclusion, why are the learning and skills councils cancelling from 1 August all courses that do not lead to a qualification for work, thus depriving all the adult population with learning disabilities of the opportunity to prepare for voluntary work? The Secretary of State painted a rather twee picture of the beautiful countryside, but when animals leave Devon in the next decade, which they will, it will not look like a chocolate-box picture; it will look like a wilderness.
Margaret Beckett: A number of the questions raised on specific policy developments are for other Departments, although I recognise the potential knock-on effect. As I said, we are not only putting more resources into support for businesses in rural areas, but intend to introduce a much more simplified and more effective way in which that support and information can be accessed.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for an insightful analysis of rural life and the view of the future. Will she consider the renaissance market town development of Yorkshire Forward? It has been extended to Marsden and Slaithwaite in my constituency and allows the local community to develop its own plan for sustainable development. Will the new money be accessed more easily so that those plans are not just talked about but properly implemented?
Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is entirely rightthe local project and initiative that she describes is exactly the sort of thing that we want to see spread more widely. The greater resources that we are putting in and the greater freedoms that we are devolving to a local level mean that others can learn from best practice, which can be widely replicated.
Mr. McLoughlin: May I draw the Secretary of State's attention to your ruling on a point of order yesterday, Mr. Speaker? Her Department could comply with that by close of business tonight if she gave the necessary instruction, and I beg her to do so.
On the more substantive issue, she mentioned the RDAs in paragraph 6 of the statement. Will she look at how her proposals will affect the Peak park, which falls into four Government areasthe east midlands, the west midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west? Certain
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parts of the park qualify for grants given by RDAs, but other parts do not. Will she consider that particular problem?
Secondly, we are conscious of the problems faced by areas such as the Peak park. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality discussed that with the relevant chairs of RDAs only yesterday. Although I recognise that hon. Members get upset about the use of what they regard as jargon, it is sometimes hard to explain organisational change in any other way. We are anxious to encourage partnership working among and with the RDAs.
Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, in particular her proposals to prioritise access to transport and affordable housing. Is she aware that £2 million has been invested in rural transport in my constituency in the past 18 months? The improvement in the quality of life of my constituents has been immeasurable. Is she also aware of the housing problems that arise for people born and bred in semi-rural areas, like Hebden Bridge in my constituency, that have become tourist honeypots? Will the new agency prioritise and address those issues of affordable housing in such areas?
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