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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I note the points my noble friend makes about forestry. Clearly, the decline in forestry employment has helped the shift away from primary production in rural areas. There are opportunities for planting new forests; and for reviving forestry. Under the REDP there are woodland grants; and we give support to both private and corporate forestry proposals.
When we refer to the decline in some of the traditional industries in rural areas, it is important that we also paint the other side of the picture. Many small businesses have been built up in rural areas over recent years. Until the relatively recent decline in agricultural
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister. I appreciate that he had to encompass a great many facts in a short Statement. However, I wish to ask about two issues of importance to many people.
The Minister mentioned the one-stop shop for post offices, chemists and banks. I cannot imagine a man or a woman handing out stamps, aspirin, and cheques. I do not know whether the reference means a kind of lobby involving several businesses together. Will people be directed, or will they volunteer, to go there?
Finally, when the Minister mentioned that the special council tax arrangements for single dwellers would be withdrawn, was he referring to anyone who is a single dweller in the country or only to someone whose house is his second home?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, with regard to the noble Baroness's second point, I believe that she is referring to second homes. In cases where a 50 per cent reduction in council tax applies to second homes, we are giving local authorities the opportunity to raise that tax to the full level. It is a discretionary opportunity and local authorities will have to judge their own housing situation. The money raised would also provide the resource for developing more affordable housing within mainly rural local authority areas.
With regard to the noble Baroness's first point about one-stop shops, it is a tragedy that in many of our villages there is no shop. What remains may be a garage, a pub or a post office. Our objective is for a wider range of services to be provided in that shop or for a new shop to be opened which will not depend simply on the delivery of groceries or post office services but which will have greater opportunities for delivering government services or providing inter-medical or other services.
Historically, post offices have often provided that range of services. Therefore, I do not believe that the situation is quite as difficult as the noble Baroness suggests. Nevertheless, not every such shop provides all the services, and we want to encourage them to deliver as wide a range as possible. The support for rural post offices, in particular, of £270 million should enable such shops to develop in order to do so. The experiment in Leicestershire will be directed at indicating how well that can be achieved.
The Earl of Carnarvon: My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer. I want to raise two points with the Minister, one of which is a question. In the Statement he said that much of rural Britain is thriving. With regard to economy, the White Paper states that farming is in crisis. How can he square that circle?
My second point is that I do not believe that the Minister answered the important point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, with regard to the tenure of social housing in villages. For example, would the occupier of a social house built in these circumstances have the right to buy?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, we are talking about support for social housing principally through housing associations. Therefore, in those circumstances the housing association would have to be prepared to sell in order for a person to have the right to buy. We are discussing the provision of social housing and the encouragement that is required to build cheaper housing in order to keep younger people and key workers in particular in villages where the pressure on prices puts housing out of their reach. That is the case both in terms of rented accommodation, for which people would go through the social housing route, and in terms of smaller, more affordable owner-occupied housing.
With regard to the noble Earl's first point, the question of how far the decline in farming incomes affects the prosperity of a rural area as a whole obviously varies from one country area to another. Total incomes in rural areas have been more buoyant than has been the case in urban areas. The problem is that there is both a geographical difference between areas and, in some cases, a polarisation between people who have done well and are living in the country on relatively high incomes--possibly working in the town or running their own businesses--and those who in recent years have suffered a decline in their agriculture-based income.
It is also true that agriculture accounts for only approximately 4 per cent of GDP in rural areas. In some cases that figure is 16 per cent or so, but not higher. Therefore, 80 per cent or more of the population is employed in industries other than agriculture, even if some of those industries are partly dependent on the buoyancy or otherwise of agriculture. Therefore, the pattern is mixed. There is considerable prosperity and economic success in rural areas as well as a decline in many sectors of farming.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I should be grateful if the Minister would answer two questions in relation to market towns, which he rightly identified as crucial focal points for rural communities. First, does the White Paper mention (because the Minister did not) the importance to the pride and self-determination of market towns and their hinterlands of the maintenance of local courts--county courts and magistrates' courts--which are being closed in unprecedented numbers? If it does not, would the Minister none the less give consideration to and become involved in some joined-up policy on that matter?
My second point concerns local voluntary organisations. Self-help is the key to any long-term revival of market towns. I note the fact that there are over 100,000 amateur sports clubs in this country, the majority of which are in market towns and villages.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord's last point, I do not believe that we deal with the charitable status of sports clubs. We refer specifically to the need for support and encouragement for rural voluntary activity. The noble Lord is right that the self-image of many market towns and other rural communities depends on the level of commitment and activity in rural areas.
With regard to the specific point about magistrates' courts, I believe that the noble Lord will find in the White Paper a table--which at present I cannot locate--which indicates that one of the facilities in larger market towns should be a magistrates' court.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I rise to give an unqualified welcome to the totality of the White Paper. There is no doubt that it seeks to put right the deprivation which exists. I was taken by the part of the report which refers to the fact that farm incomes have fallen by 60 per cent over five years. Many families cannot afford to live in the place where they grew up.
I should not like to accuse noble Lords of collective amnesia. However, when Members on the Opposition Front Bench rightly point out that there is a lack of affordable housing, do they not remember that years ago their government gave the residents of rural communities the right to buy their council houses? As a result, there is an absence of council housing and, thus, in many communities no affordable housing. I believe that Members opposite should reflect before they criticise this Government's policy.
The other part of the report puts that right. It talks in terms of doubling the grant to the Housing Corporation. For five years until 1997 the grant to the Housing Corporation progressively decreased. The report refers to 3,000 houses which are to be ear-marked as starter homes. Therefore, the Government have nothing to be ashamed about in their attempt to put the situation right, especially with regard to rural transport. I have taken up enough of your Lordships' time. I believe that the White Paper is all good stuff.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that endorsement. He is certainly right that we are almost doubling the resources to the Housing Corporation. It is important that we learn from past problems of mismatch of supply and demand in the housing market, particularly in relation to affordable housing. The resources for the Housing Corporation and housing associations go some way to meet that.
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