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Mr. Breed: The overwhelming majority of parish councils operate frugally. What is achieved, considering the amount spent on administration, is tremendous; it is probably the best ratio there is. However, they need support. Of course we need accountability, but spending £5 to look after every pound that is spent is not what we want. We need to have a clear but light touch. The money gushing in at one end of the pipeline must not come out in drips at the other end because it has leaked away in unnecessary bureaucracy and accountability. It all comes down to trust.
In the rural White Paper, the Government trumpet their new commitment to quality parish councils, and I applaud that. More people would offer themselves for election if they felt that they could make a real difference to the community.
How does a quality parish council come about? It happens by achieving centralised criteria, yet I am sure that neither the Government nor parish councils want more centralisation. However, it is a means by which to loosen the strings, create more trust, delegate and provide real authority and real money. Governments should learn the important lesson of trusting and delegating to lower levels to deliver their policies.
My party supports regional development agencies. I know that the Conservative party would do away with them, which would be a tremendously backward step. However, I believe that the RDAs need to be released from central control. If they are to have an effective role in the regions, they must be accountable to a properly elected regional assembly, which I hope will be put in place. Regional development agencies are in their infancy; they are beginning to make real inroads into some deep-seated problems, but they need to be accountable to an elected regional body.
The Government quite rightly commit themselves to better and more housing in urban and rural areas. However, it is ludicrous that it should be financially more beneficial to build from new on greenfield sites than to renovate what we already have. I cannot understand why the Government did not take the opportunity to take on board an important policy, which would have joined up
I welcome the suggestion that the second homes council tax discount will be removed. There is little doubt that the sums discounted to owners of second homes could be much better spent. There is a difference of opinion about whether the entire 50 per cent. should be allocated to affordable housing or whether it should be the portion that is normally discounted to the district councils. The latter amount would be significantly less. Some councillors are working on the premise that the entire 50 per cent., including the portion usually associated with the county council, should be available. That point needs to be clarified.
Money needs to stay in the communities. Money that has been invested needs to remain in the communities and, as far as possible, be recycled amoung the regions and areas. One idea is to have community banks, which keep money at the heart of communities. I hope that the efforts made by many, including those in the all-party group on banking, will arrest the decline in banking services in rural and suburban areas.
We are a major industrial country, with a banking system that revolves around an ever-smaller number of banks. The banks are far more interested in international opportunities, which creates a vacuum that could be filled by an almost separate tier of regional banking. Such a system could address the issues in each region. It could complement the system operated by the big banks, although it would be smaller and address local business issues.
What about the opportunities for capital investment in businesses? Since I have been in the House, I have heard on three or four occasions that the Government will produce local venture capital funds and that capital for small businesses will be a major feature of Government policy. As yet, nothing has been delivered. I know that it is a difficult area, but many people, particularly in the south-west, where they have retired, would be willing to invest in local businesses. However, the infrastructure simply is not in place.
The stock exchange encourages people to put money into huge companies with international obligations. We have no real opportunities for people to invest some of their wealth in local businesses--the sort of over- the-counter market that is prevalent in the United States. We need to consider the means by which money can be recycled at different levels within our regions and rural areas.
The Government have acknowledged that community transport does not consist only of bus services. We do not want to see buses carrying only a few people, but there are many other opportunities. It has been said that not only bus services should be subject to fuel duty rebate, and the issue has gone out for consultation. I am not against consultation when necessary, but I cannot see the need for it here. Most people recognise that if we are to address transport in rural areas, there must be a variety of
Even after consultation has taken place, I fear that complicated detail may keep people out of the market. The barriers that people have to cross to put such schemes in place put them off. Good ideas can be shot down by bureaucratic procedures. The rural bus partnership scheme has already proved too complicated; many people are unable to work out a suitable scheme. The rural White Paper offers not opportunities to support people who want to undertake such schemes, but more money for them. Welcome though that is, perhaps we should find out why we are not spending the money already allocated. The money allocated to such programmes is based on bids that are often expensive to put together, difficult to win and do not address the most needy.
There are some excellent policies. People do not misunderstand the problems. The Government have some good policy ideas, but they are often too keen on headlines, rather than on letting local people take the initiative and, perhaps, some of the reflected glory. They are too keen on complicated regulation that stifles speedy action. We are often too busy producing papers to make enough effort to put into practice the papers that have already been issued.
The patience of our communities--rural and urban--is clear, but it is running out. Hackney's workers have taken to the streets. In March, the countryside will come to town. Although the reasons for that may be denigrated, we should not underestimate the genuine frustration in urban and rural Britain; people's expectations are not being met.
The Government want to deliver those expectations; people want them to be delivered. Can we not cut the red tape, simplify the regulation, use a lighter touch and delegate some of the responsibility and the money to local people? Often they produce much better value for money. Why can we not more quickly spend that money on public services to bring about the change that we all want for our urban and rural communities?
Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): This is an important debate. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) said, the White Papers touch the lives of everyone in our national community. Perhaps it was ungenerous of me to point out that only one Liberal Democrat Member had attended the debate. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it does not reflect well on the House that we have timetabled this debate for a Friday morning and that so few Members are present--although I suppose that does increase our chances of appearing on "Today in Parliament". That might not apply to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), however, who, in 40 minutes of harangue and empty rhetoric, revealed that Conservatives are better at asking questions than answering them.
If the hon. Gentleman was pointing out that the cornerstone of the long-expected but unrevealed Conservative rural manifesto was that the Conservatives would go out into the countryside--into the villages and on to the doorsteps--and convince rural communities to vote Conservative because Tory MPs ask more questions
The White Papers are inextricably linked. Their interdependence has been rightly stressed by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister--not least because it is important that we reject the divisiveness forced into the debate by Opposition Members over recent years and recognise that there is genuinely a common agenda for people living in urban and rural communities. I know that because my constituency is semi-rural--and thus, by definition, semi-urban; it is where the industrial west midlands meets rural Shropshire. When I talk to people in Hadley, Donnington, Ketley and Leegomery--in the urban part of my constituency--I find they have the same agenda as those who live in the villages. Why should that not be so? Only Conservative Members seem to imagine that people living in villages are not interested in the quality of their children's education, do not care about the state of the national health service, are not concerned about job security and decent wages and are not worried about transport. Of course they are--they share that agenda with people living in urban Britain. We are not talking about a foreign country, with alien people speaking other languages and holding different values; they are the same people with the same agenda.