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Rural issues off the agenda

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: May 09, 2012

The Queen, who recently visited Exeter, will address Parliament this morning. Photo by Sarah Elliott

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MPs have been urged to push for laws to stop litter despoiling rural Britain amid warnings today's Queen's Speech will "bypass" the countryside.

The Queen will address Parliament this morning to set out laws the Government wants to pass in the forthcoming Commons session, as she has done since 1952.

A long-awaited "supermarket watchdog" to protect farmers from sharp practices from retailers is also widely expected.

But there will be little else to address rural issues in areas such as the Westcountry, with countryside campaigners fearing previous Government pledges on broadband for remote areas are slipping.

The Government will dodge any commitment to a repeal of the hunting ban in this session, with the most contentious and eye-catching Bill likely to be a referendum on reform of the House of Lords.

The presence of constitutional reform in the speech is likely to draw criticism when the public is more concerned with the dire state of the British economy.

Other plans to be kicked into the long grass include proposals to prevent people being forced to sell their homes to pay for care in old age, high-speed rail to the north of England and same-sex marriage.

In lieu of rural measures, the Campaign to Protect Rural England has called for MPs to instigate a Private Member's Bill, which later could be adopted by the Government, to outlaw littering. Each year, 2.3 million pieces of litter are thrown away – a five-fold increase since the 1960s.

The Countryside Alliance also wants rural areas to be given funding parity with urban communities. Sir Barney White-Spunner, executive chairman of the Countryside Alliance, warns the rural economy "remains in jeopardy" and wants to see a "level playing field" for rural enterprises and businesses.

He said: "This looks like being a Queen's Speech that largely bypasses the countryside, but there is still much that needs to be done to ensure people living in rural areas are given the same access to opportunities and support received by those in more urban areas.

"The Government's commitment to super-fast broadband by 2015 in the last Queen's Speech was a great start to ensuring rural areas have the same opportunities as their urban counterparts.

"However, we are concerned the Government is falling behind on this deadline. It is vital that rural communities and businesses have access to effective and affordable mobile coverage and broadband if the digital divide is not to grow even wider and rural economies are going to continue to grow and prosper."

State cash, drawn from the licence fee, will fund a plan to give 90 per cent of homes and businesses access to "super-fast" speeds by 2015.

Both Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and Devon and Somerset have been given tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to deliver the technology.

But around 100,000 Westcountry homes and businesses could be left with "super-slow" internet despite the Government's £530 million investment.

Adam Royle, senior parliamentary officer at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, also known as the "supermarket watchdog", will help to ensure that farmers and other producers get a fair deal from larger retailers.

He added a "significant difference" could be felt in the countryside by tweaking legislation to prevent rubbish clogging up hedgerows, an increasingly common sight on the British roadside.

He said: "Many – including the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman – are 'appalled' by our roadside litter problem.

"Existing law allows fines to be levied on people who throw litter from cars. In practice, however, councils have found it very difficult to use this power as it is often impossible to prove who within the car was responsible for throwing the litter.

"A simple amendment to the law would allow councils to issue fines to the registered owner of the vehicle, who would then be responsible for paying the fine unless they nominated another person to pay it, as with speeding fines, seat belt offences and fly-tipping."

Private Member's legislation is one way to get a Bill through Parliament, though it is likely to wither on the vine without Government backing.

Though ministers recently supported a backbench MP's push for a daylight saving Bill, which could have meant pushing the clocks forwards and longer, lighter summer evenings, it ran out of parliamentary time in the last session.

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