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The Lord Bishop of Hereford: I rise to support these amendments, in particular Amendment No. 7. I echo all that has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, because there is a real threat to deeply rural areas which form part of a predominately urban region. I speak for the Diocese of Hereford, which is the county of Herefordshire and south Shropshire. That area is very sparsely populated and is part of the West Midlands region. Clearly, we shall be unable to muster a significant number of votes in the RDA in defence of rural interests. The West Midlands region contains some extremely sharp contrasts. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has acknowledged that that is true of most places but I believe that it cannot be truer than in the West Midlands. There are 3,823 people per square kilometre in the middle of Birmingham; there are 39 in south Shropshire. That represents 1 per cent. of the urban density. Those are extreme contrasts. That fact has never been recognised in the standard spending assessment formula for education, social services or roads. Only 1.5 per cent. of the SSA deals with the sparsity factor.
Strangely enough, I believe that in the West Midlands there is a strong sense of complementarity within the region. I agree with what the Minister said about the difficulty of redrawing boundaries. Any member of the Committee who has been involved in ecumenical negotiations will know that the one thing that frustrates the unity of the Church is the fact that no one will change boundaries. In the diocese of Hereford, I relate to Roman Catholic leaders in Cardiff because the Roman Catholic Church regards Hereford as part of Wales; and the Bishop of Shropshire lives in Birkenhead. It is not quite as far as Budapest, but the situation is difficult.
I agree that it is not worth trying to redraw the boundaries. The experience of the voluntary forum in the West Midlands--it has existed for some time--is that it is a coherent region. It does not look like it. From the point of view of Birmingham, Herefordshire and south Shropshire are terra incognita. But we are beginning to get across to our urban colleagues that we can work together and need to do so. We are poor like the Isle of Wight. But that is not a reason for asking to be separate. It is simply a reason for asking for proper representation and for our way of life and requirements to be made known within the RDA.
From the point of view of the Shropshire County Council and the Herefordshire District Council there is a willingness to work in partnership across different areas of interest groups. But those from the rural fringe see a need to include this specific representation of rural interest in the legislation. The point has already been made that there are several references in the White Paper to the desirability of doing so. But those assurances were given during debates in another place. The Government's commitment to the prosperity and regeneration of rural areas must be spelt out by a specific commitment in the Bill. There is widespread awareness of real and increasing distress in the farming industry and the many other industries dependent on it. However, there is no guarantee in the Bill that the RDAs, and our RDA in the West Midlands, will be in a position to be properly informed about those issues, let alone to tackle them effectively. I hope that there will be widespread support for the two amendments, but in particular for Amendment No. 7.
Lord Monk Bretton: I support my noble friend's amendment. I believe it to be a minimal and perhaps inadequate requirement. However, my noble friend has a series of amendments on this issue, including Amendment No. 9, which I support. I believe that these together will help to strengthen the rural interest. I wish to say a little more about how the rural interest expresses itself on a rather smaller scale than the regional. The Bill impinges on that aspect because of its effect on the Rural Development Commission.
For many years I have served on my county's rural forum which discusses such issues as planning and conservation; and I have served on its predecessor committees. Therefore, I have had connections with the rural community council on a range of issues. The work of these councils is important. I have attended that rural
Many years ago--perhaps before even the last local government reforms--there were rural district councils and urban district councils, and the honourable and ancient boroughs. The advantage of that situation was that the rural district councils could decide many rural interest issues for themselves. In the interests of more economically efficient local government, those small authorities were replaced. In order to express their views, those in the rural economy then fell back on to the rural community councils, the rural forums and the organisation called Rural Voice. All three are within the ambit of the Rural Development Commission. That is the vehicle through which many rural problems have been aired.
At present many who live and work in the countryside do not welcome the Regional Development Agencies Bill. They fear that yet again their views will be marginalised and swamped, and that the founding of the regional development agencies may dilute the direct funding for rural community councils. The rural community councils fear other difficulties as regards their funding. Their core funding from the Rural Development Commission is about 25 per cent. of their funding, with the remainder coming from diverse sources--quite a lot from local government; but from many different sources. The useful work that the rural community councils are doing will be disrupted if their direct and other fundings are seriously affected. That is why I believe that the amendments are important.
The Government can no longer be unaware of the deep feeling of those in the rural areas that their lives and their problems are no longer understood by the vast majority of those who rule them. Most of the elected representatives, at least in another place, seem to come from urban backgrounds. Even among intelligent people in urban and country areas there seems a total lack of comprehension of the problems and needs of agricultural activities and communities. It is important that that is recognised.
It is a remarkable demonstration of the change in that respect that the noble Baroness and those who support her feel it necessary to propose such an amendment. Thirty or forty years ago, the concept that a body of 12 people representing any of those regions (with the exception of London) would not have among them a sizeable number of people who fully understood rural matters would be incomprehensible. Forty years ago, the idea that there were people in Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire who did not understand rural matters was inconceivable. Sadly, nowadays it is all too likely. I very much hope that the Government will feel able to include the provision in the Bill.
In relation to the previous group of amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that it was unnecessary to include the provision because there was a firm commitment to it in the White Paper and it would inevitably happen. I found his argument in that respect wholly convincing and followed him into the Lobby. It is obvious whether a member of the regional authority is or is not a local councillor, and there are local councils fully able to complain if ever what is promised ceases to exist.
That is not the case in relation to these amendments. There will be no clear identification as to which of the 12, if any, are duly appointed because of their experience in rural matters; nor will there be any body as powerful as local councils to kick up a fuss if the rural representatives are not appointed. Therefore, I hope that the Government will accept at least one of these amendments, deleting London if they wish.
Baroness Nicol: I have a great deal of sympathy in particular with Amendments Nos. 7 and 11. Although it is likely that in most regions someone with a knowledge of rural affairs will emerge, we should not take it for granted. It is particularly important in regions where there are large industrial conurbations which may well dominate the scene. It is extremely important that we should have confidence in the new authorities. That confidence must go right through society and not be confined to the urban areas. I hope that my noble friend will view the amendments sympathetically. I do not wish to rehearse all the arguments that have been made, but I agree with a great many of them.
Lord Jopling: I wish to stress a point which has not sufficiently been brought out in the discussion. All my life I have been aware of a nervous approach in rural areas to any regional body covering the urban areas too. I have lived all my life in North Yorkshire and have been aware of the views expressed in rural areas when any regional body, whether it be for education, health or transport, has been proposed. There is the inevitable cry, "Well, I suppose that means we will be dominated by Leeds and Bradford". For almost 33 years I had the great honour to represent in another place the southern part of the Lake District. The same attitude applied with regard to regional bodies: "Does this mean that we shall be dominated by Manchester and Liverpool?". There is always such disquiet and anxiety when regional bodies are discussed. It is made all the worse by the sparsity factor, referred to by the right reverend Prelate in his pointed remarks.
I cannot believe that the Government can resist Amendment No. 7 because there are precedents. One need only look at legislation. I remember taking part during the years in discussions on a mass of legislation where various provisos were inserted with regard to the expertise and background of members of the various bodies that were being set up. I am sure that I do not need to quote them.
Finally, my noble friend Lady Anelay, in proposing the amendment, referred to the London problem. She is right. The London regional development agency would be a good deal better off if it had a member with direct experience of rural matters. If one had to give way on that--I would not wish to go to the stake for it--surely the Government could give an undertaking. I ask the Minister to refer to that. Cannot the Government come back on Report with a similar amendment, inserting at the end a reference to London? It would then read:
There is support for the amendment around the Committee, including on the Government Benches, and I hope that the Government will move in this direction. They gave a clear undertaking in the White Paper about having people with strong rural perspectives and I cannot see why good intentions in the White Paper should not be transmitted on to the face of the Bill.
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