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Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this debate. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), with whom I share that pleasure, and I congratulate him on his speech.

I will return to the subject matter of the debate, but I know that the House will indulge me if I start on a personal note. It is a huge privilege and pleasure to represent in this House the people of Rugby and Kenilworth—a constituency whose name combines two very different towns. From the moment that William Webb Ellis picked up the football and took it down the pitch at Rugby school, the people of Rugby have demonstrated, shall I say, a certain independence of mind, and they do so very often at election time, when they tend to disregard the prevailing political winds and instead send to this House a representative who they believe will best serve their interests. I hope that I shall follow in that tradition. Rugby is a town with a proud industrial heritage. Because of its location and transport links, it is an essential hub in our national distribution network; and because it is the home of the sport that bears its name, we could certainly exploit it far more as a tourist destination.

Kenilworth, which shared a constituency for many years with the towns of Warwick and Leamington and was represented most famously by Sir Anthony Eden, is
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a very different town with its own challenges—for example, the threat to its very distinct character by indiscriminate and unfettered back land development. That is a challenge that must be faced by all those in this House, and it is certainly one to which I shall address myself in the course of my time here.There is also cause to be optimistic about the future of Kenilworth. I am pleased to say that wholesale reinvigoration of the town centre is under way. Last weekend we enjoyed a very successful festival of arts, drama and music, which showed Kenilworth in its best possible light.

Since Rugby's association with Kenilworth in this place, I have been preceded by two well-regarded and well-liked former Members of this House. My predecessor-but-one was James Pawsey, who has left, if I may put it this way, some large shoes for me to fill among the very many of my constituents who fondly remember the last time that my seat was held by a Conservative. I suspect that many Members on both sides of the House also recall Jim Pawsey's time here.

I know that it is traditional on these occasions for a new Member to speak well of his immediate predecessor. I know also that that is harder for some new Members than it is for others. In my case, it is particularly easy. Andy King, my immediate predecessor, who represented this seat on the Labour Benches for the preceding eight years, was a Member of Parliament who always put his constituents' interests first, and I pay tribute to his hard work over those eight years for the constituents of Rugby and Kenilworth. On a personal note, I thank him for his grace and generosity during the course of the general election campaign, even when I know that it must have been difficult—the point at which the result was announced.

I am eager to move from my constituency's past to its future, particularly that of the substantial rural part of it that will be most affected by the Bill that we are discussing today. For example, in my constituency stand the home of the Royal Agricultural Society at Stoneleigh park, Ryton organic gardens, which is a leader in its field, and Draycote water, which is a fine example of the co-operation that can exist between private industry and the wildlife agencies. I also represent a great many farms and villages. I therefore hope that this debate will not simply be about process and structures, but about objectives and aspirations. Before we decide what types of agencies will best serve the British countryside, we must decide what we want the British countryside to be. We must not fall into the trap of regarding it as merely a theme park for those who dwell in the cities to visit at weekends, but see it as what it is—a place to live and to work.

If we are not to regard the countryside as a theme park, neither should we look at it as a museum. It is vital that the agricultural sector, and the rural economy more widely, can prosper, develop and diversify where that is appropriate. Farmers across my constituency and, I expect, across the nation take seriously their obligation to maintain the land and to sustain the beauty of our landscape. I do not accept that the conservation of our natural environment and the practice of agriculture are mutually exclusive; indeed, I would argue that they are interdependent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) observed, it is beyond doubt that farmers do not need from this place
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another large mountain of paperwork and extra regulation; they need support from us in carrying out the vital work that they do in caring for the countryside.

Other matters in the countryside need to be addressed: problems of rural crime and policing; the lack of adequate public transport, and the isolation that that can bring about; the absence of affordable housing in our villages; and the often overlooked but very important issue of drug abuse in rural, not just urban, areas. Those are the real problems of the countryside, and they are daunting. I hope that natural England and the commission for rural communities, if they come about as a result of this debate, will be capable of addressing those problems and will have the full support of the Government in doing so if that is their task. I look forward to the continuing debate on this subject, and I look forward also to serving my constituents and this House to the best of my ability.

7.49 pm

Mr. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) on his maiden speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), who may know that the first competitive rugby match was played between a team from his constituency and a team from mine. I am sure that that spirit of friendly competition will continue, although possibly with less physical contact.

I especially congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) on his maiden speech. I support his call for no more racecourses in Ilford. Please send the punters to Cheltenham: that will be no problem. He also set an important precedent in this debate on rural communities by stressing the importance to urban populations of rural England. Cheltenham, too, is not precisely a rural constituency, although it sits in what I would describe as probably the most beautiful countryside in England, nestling as it does on the edge of the Cotswold hills. It is important to note, however, that there are green spaces on the fringes of Cheltenham. The Countryside Agency, which is based in my constituency, stresses that 10 per cent. of the United Kingdom's land area is urban fringe, and that 50 per cent. of all visits to the countryside are made within five minutes of people's homes. Both rural and urban green spaces are important to people in towns.

I join the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Salisbury (Robert Key) in paying tribute to the work of the Countryside Agency, which has extremely skilled staff. If Ministers are looking for somewhere to locate the headquarters of either of their new quangos, I offer Cheltenham as the best possible location. After all, one would not want the headquarters to be too close to one's own office; that might raise suggestions of partiality. The agency, however, was a little premature in releasing its 10-year strategy in 2001. As with a few other quangos, the Government managed to set it up and abolish it in a remarkably short time. I hope that the new agencies will have a longer shelf life than the Countryside Agency in its current form. Like other Members, I fear that they may not have the same clear, independent remit as some of their predecessors and will not enjoy their specific terms of reference. I fear that the objectives of those predecessors may be diluted in these new super-agencies.
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The Secretary of State said that she wanted an independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog, which would also be responsible for ensuring that Government policy made a difference. The two requirements strike me as somewhat incompatible: either the body will serve Government policy, or it will be an independent watchdog. Certainly I see nothing in chapter 2, relating to the commission for rural communities, that establishes it as an independent advocate, adviser and watchdog. That was, in part, the Countryside Agency's role, and—I am sure that the hon. Member for Ilford, North agrees with this—it made the point that the countryside was not there just for those in rural communities. It seems that the new commission will serve only the interests of those people, whereas the agency's role was explicitly to serve those who visited the countryside. It valued the contribution that the countryside could make to them.

I want to say a little about decentralisation and partnership. The Secretary of State said that she wanted to reduce bureaucracy, and the Haskins report praised the corporate example, saying that responsibility for delivery should be allocated

—in other words, to those on the front line. Commenting on the Bill, however, the Countryside Agency identified problems in the roles and responsibilities being allocated, particularly those involving regional development agencies. It said that the roles and responsibilities of regional and sub-regional bodies needed serious clarification and that time was needed for those bodies to adapt. It said that there was

My worry is that the countryside may suffer even more after implementation, because of the increased role of the regional development agencies. That is the way in which regional government seems to be developing under the present Administration. In London and Scotland, elected assemblies have taken powers down from Whitehall. I fear that, as has happened in the south-west, an agglomeration of unelected regional bodies will take powers up from local councils. We have the apparatus of the South West regional development agency, the South West regional assembly and the Government office for the south-west, which constitute a great concentration of power and currently act as bully boys for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—if he needs bully boys—in supporting the plans for unsustainable development around Cheltenham and Gloucester, using as a starting point a document that looks green but is not. I have a copy here.

Only last week, hundreds packed a public meeting in my constituency to object to the development of urban fringe green spaces near the community of Leckhampton, which is in both my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). There was huge opposition to that development. Tewkesbury borough council, which had initially given permission for it, had been bounced into it by the Government office of the south-west, acting on the instructions of the Deputy Prime Minister. Because the green space in question is so close to an urban area, it is not green belt and does not enjoy the
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same protection, but it is nevertheless of distinct and beautiful rural character, and all the more valuable for being on the fringe of an urban area.

If the Bill supports the defence of green land and green spaces on the fringes of towns, it will have my support, and I will join the many bodies, such as the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, that have given it broad support. I cannot support the Conservative amendment, because it strikes me as factually wrong. It says that no priority is given to the protection of the natural environment, although the first priority of natural England is the promotion of nature conservation and the protection of biodiversity and the second is the conservation and enhancement of the landscape. Those are objectives with which I agree, but I hope that the Bill will be improved in Committee and in its implementation, to ensure that my concerns are addressed.

7.56 pm

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