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Column 875that any theoretical examination of the driving test in this and other countries shows that we have the simplest driving testing system and that it leads to the safest driving. We should try to avoid having a sort of GCSE in driving. We want people to be able to negotiate the streets without hitting other people and injuring themselves or others.
Mr. King : I entirely agree. Experience shows that we have produced above-average drivers. Our good record on accidents--high and unacceptable as it is--seems to establish Britain as capable of training and testing its drivers to a high standard. There are grounds for suggesting that we can sub-categorise some of the categories for driving tests and that we can continue with the present arrangements for at least five years at which time the Commission will probably have the right to look again at whether we should all come together in a common cause throughout the European Community.
So things may not be as black as they are painted. But this is very much the thin end of the wedge and I support what my hon. Friend has said, and more power to his elbow in ensuring that we get a sensible result from what at the moment is a rather impracticable solution. 12.55 am
Mr. Garry Waller (Keighley) : As many hon. Members have already said, our standards in this country are high and our casualty rate, although far too high still, is lower than that of other European countries. I believe that our approach, certainly as set out by my hon. Friend the Minister, is that we should not be prepared to compromise our standards in any way. I am delighted that he adopts considerable rigour in fighting our corner over the issue of minibuses and I give him my full support. I do not think there is any need for me to say any more about it because my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and other hon. Members have spoken at some length on the subject.
There is concern in this country about the issue of
interchangeability of the driving licence. I think that many people feel that it might be possible for an individual to escape the consequences of bad driving in the United Kingdom, or anywhere else for that matter, by obtaining a driving licence elsewhere in the Community, perhaps in that member state where obtaining a licence is easiest, and using it permanently here. I am sure that our approach must be that our standards must be maintained, and because we have this system of penalty points and endorsements there may be difficulties in moving towards harmonisation. In doing so we must be prepared to say that our standards are those to which others should aspire, and we should not be prepared to lower ours.
I want to say a few words about the proposals relating to motor cycles because it is in that respect that the directive seems to be particularly half-baked. Let me remind the House of what is proposed.
The proposals are, first, the creation of a separate licence for motor cycles over 400 cc--a level which can also be equated in terms of engine power--not to be granted until the applicant has held a licence for motor cycles under 400 cc for two years ; secondly, the creation of a separate test for such a licence ; and, thirdly, the requirement that all tests for a motor cycle licence should
Column 876be taken on a motor cycle of a capacity of the class of motor cycle that the applicant will become entitled to ride by virtue of obtaining that licence.
The distinction between motor cycles under 400 cc and those over 400 cc is really not justified. The statement which the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) made about the higher casualty rate among riders of large motor cycles was a little simplistic. The situation is much more complex than she suggested. I do not believe that there is strong evidence that there is a higher casualty rate among riders of cycles over 400 cc. There may be a higher casualty rate for riders of motor cycles over, say, 125 cc, but it is much more complex when one comes to a higher figure.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : It is the earliest weeks and months of motor cycling that are the most dangerous and therefore the greatest risk is on lower powered machines. Our licensing system takes account of that. Once people get to a certain age and maturity, the safety improves, which is why a hell's angel of my sort of age is much safer on a 600 cc bike than someone 20 years younger on a lower powered machine. But I believe there is something in what both my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady are saying.
Mr. Waller : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is why I am so worried about the proposal. It seems to me that introducing the extra tier will constitute a diversion of funding and resources from the training and testing of all motor cyclists during the vital period of their first six months on the road. That should be where we concentrate our effort rather than on moving towards an extra tier. By moving towards an extra higher tier, and requiring those who have already qualified to ride motor cycles of 125 cc or more to pass another test later in their motor cycling career, when they are less dangerous, is bound to damage what should be our primary objective. Considerable evidence was provided in this country for the Transport and Road Research Laboratory by Broughton last year, in West Germany by Koch in 1987 and in Denmark by Carstensen also in 1987, which failed to find any correlation between machine size and accident involvement. So we should be careful before we plump for the kind of proposals which the Commission has adopted, which seem to be based on evidence what is at the very least dubious.
The other practical aspect on which I should like to concentrate is the requirement which appears in the draft directive to take a test on a strange higher capacity machine to gain the qualification to ride it. That seems to be based on the system for learning to ride motor cycles in other countries. Most other member states do not grant provisional driving licences for motor cycles or other vehicles. They have only a single system of a full driving licence. People in member states with such regimes prepare for the full driving licence by completing a specified number of hours' instruction with an authorised driving school. Then they take a driving test ; if they pass, a full licence is granted to them. Some people may feel that that system is better than ours, but it appears from the evidence that there is quite a lot to commend our system. It is notable that, except when undergoing tuition with a driving school, persons may not drive on the road prior to being granted a full driving licence. The Commission's proposals relating to motor cycle testing are suited to what might be described as the driving school regime, where
Column 877people possibly hire machines. The provisions are not suited to the British position where a rider takes a test on his own machine, after an introductory off-road session.
The proposals in the draft directive may be counter-productive. The combination of on-road experience and instructor tuition on the rider's own machine has been shown to be more beneficial than off-road testing on a strange machine. The latter often becomes little more than coaching to pass a test. It seems crazy to expect someone to hire a motor cycle to pass a test before he acquiries his own machine. The alternative system does not seem to be suited to the way in which we conduct training and testing. I hope that my hon. Friend will press for the Commission to reconsider that proposal and take account of our system.
I should like my hon. Friend to answer another question. The consultation paper circulated by his Department on 17 March contained under its description of article 4 the following wording : "Sub-categories for motorcyclists not exceeding 400 ccs, exceeding 400 ccs and light motorcycles not exceeding 125 ccs may be provided."
There seems to be some confusion. It is not clear whether that is a mandatory or discretionary proposal. In some translations the word "may" is replaced by the word "shall". In the most recent versions the word "shall" predominates.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : I am not sure whether that is certain. We want to opt for "may". If there is this power or cubic capacity limitation, experience generates a greater degree of safety and that would be more suitable and preferable to requiring more motor cyclists to take another test.
Mr. Waller : I am glad to learn that my hon. Friend the Minister is in favour of a discretionary provision, and I would entirely support that. It would be right for us to adopt our procedure which may differ from that in other countries. I hope that that matter will be clarified, and if there is any doubt I trust that my hon. Friend will press for the directive to take account of what we do in this country.
I support my hon. Friend the Minister's general approach to this matter. We can be proud of the practical steps that we have taken to reduce road casualties, although there is still an enormous amount to be done. We should be willing to consider trading up where necessary if other countries do things that are worthy of consideration. However, we should absolutely refuse to trade down merely for the sake of unnecessary harmonisation if that involves sacrificing road safety in this country.
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on bringing this measure to the House at an early date to obtain the views of hon. Members. On this occasion it is the unanimous view of hon. Members that the directive should be seriously amended before it is brought before the Council of Ministers for decision. I support my hon. Friend the Minister, as have all other hon. Members, in his stand on minibuses. The directive clearly fails the test of safety because travelling in motor cars, the obvious alternative in the voluntary sector, would be more dangerous. It also fails the test of practicability.
I want to suggest a way in which my hon. Friend the Minister should approach the matter so that he does not
Column 878need the derogation to which the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) referred. Article 100A applies to measures designed to create a single market. Therefore, we need not become involved in licensing minibuses which do not cross frontiers or take part in trade between nations in the European Community. It cannot be necessary to harmonise those licences to create a single market. I venture to suggest that the same applies to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) about motor cycles. Generally speaking, they are not part of the trading system between nations. There seems to be very little reason why there should be a harmonised basis for motor cycle licensing.
When the Minister argues these matters in Brussels, we should opt for local and country variations to remain and not be interfered with by the directive. In that way the directive could be made much simpler and we could rely on the testing and licensing method of each country and only legislate a European point of view from when matters affect cross-border trade, as was envisaged by the creation of the power in article 100A to make legislation for creating a single market.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : I am very grateful for the support of the House. I suspect that the House will be returning to these issues not simply on Thursday when we debate a dissociated Bill, but as we move forward in our discussions in the European Parliament which has not entirely disposed of these matters. I hope that in its plenary session the European Parliament will find a way to declare that it will support only measures that maintain or enhance safety and mobility. Its consideration of the draft directive and its advice will then be more welcome than if it were simply the people of Europe who were speaking.
The general conformity of licensing is welcome. In a way this kind of debate tends to focus on areas of disagreement. It is like some of the meetings of the Council of Ministers where people come together to disagree instead of explicitly saying that there are gains. In this measure there are gains for those with vocational licences where the ease of recognition and showing what qualifications have been obtained are important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) made some important points. I welcome his support, particularly on minibuses. We would not want to take forward his suggestion if we could avoid it because we want conformity and recognition. Let me build on the point that my hon. Friend was making that within the aim of conformity we should have some flexibility and respect for the traditions of each country. Britain will not unnecessarily try to force other countries to give up what works for them if we think that it provides a reasonable standard of protection for other member countries. That is the principle that should increasingly be adopted.
I am encouraged by Commissioner Karel van Miert who will want to bring together the expertise within the EC to try to work together on matters which do not necessarily require legislation but which can improve safety and mobility. I take great comfort from the fact that in 1987 we had the lowest number of road casualties for 34
Column 879years. In the two or three years before that there was no change in law. It was a new awareness that made the big difference. That is one way forward in Europe as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) talked about the casualty rate, which is unacceptably high. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set a target of reducing the number of those killed or seriously injured by one third by the year 2000. He will shortly be announcing the figures for 1988, which will be of interest to the House. My hon. Friend is right to point to the fact that it is the results that matter, not the theory of what in an ideal world the provisions would amount to. What will happen on the road? Will more people be killed? Will fewer people be injured ? Can more people move around? Those are the issues that really matter. My hon. Friend made that point clearly in relation to motor cycles.
I welcome the alliance of motor cycle interests that we have created on training. That will be of enormous value. We are beginning to create a culture among motor cyclists which will transfer the experience and the defensive riding techniques of the mature motor cyclist more often and faster to the younger motor cyclist who is so dramatically at risk.
I said at the beginning that to travel a mile or a kilometre by motor-cycle is 65 times more dangerous than travelling as a passenger in a minibus. That illustrates the extent of the problem. As my hon. Friend said, whatever is right or wrong on the 400 cc motor bike, or whatever it may be, whether it is a "may" or a "shall"--he appeared to lean more toward "shall" but we shall argue for the "may"--it is for the smaller machine for the younger cyclist that we must make the change.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) is an expert in most motoring interests. I am delighted that the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has agreed to a meeting where we could take the manufacturers' interests into Europe. Most people in mainland Europe cannot understand that we have 85,000 minibuses in Britain, of which 60,000 to 70,000 are non-commercial minibuses in the voluntary sector. They cannot understand that we have 11,000 minibuses with lifts to take wheelchairs. That is incomprehensible to other countries. If the system as negotiated by Commissioner Emeritus Clinton Davis allowed the development of the voluntary minibus sector, there would be minibuses throughout Europe for scout groups, organisations for the elderly or students and people who want to go on a pub crawl while the driver stays on the wagon. That would be common throughout Europe, but it is not, because the regime that has been suggested does not work. People would be condemned to stay at home or use cars and neither is desirable.
My hon. Friend also spoke of the Mobility Alliance. It is important for the Government to go on working with the voluntary sector. One thing that we have learnt from local government is that it is possible to work with the voluntary sector to help it. Many county councils have done that. They have said that they do not need a monopoly of the public bus service but want to try to achieve a spectrum of provision to come together and make possible more mobility for those around them.
I pay tribute to the training schemes that many voluntary organisations run. No one should believe that
Column 880most of the major voluntary organisations take people off the street, give them a key to a minibus and ask them to drive 14 people around one weekend a month. Many voluntary organisations provide very professional training schemes and reassure themselves that their drivers know how to cope with their passengers, their vehicle, and the traffic.
Commissioner Clinton Davis remarked that because minibuses are longer-- often much longer--than cars, their drivers should be required to take the public service vehicle test. The truth is that a car such as the Peugeot 505 family estate is longer than any minibus capable of carrying 14 people. Also, if a licence holder is permitted to drive a van of certain dimensions without being required to undergo a special driving test, why should he be obliged to do so to drive a minibus on the same wheelbase? That does not make sense, and most people understand that now.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) spoke of the importance of handicapped people being allowed to drive vehicles, because otherwise they would be condemned not to share in the community. I pay tribute to MAVIS--the mobility advisory centre at Crowthorne in Berkshire--and to the other advice centres serving the handicapped who drive themselves. I pay tribute also to those who established and have kept going Motability, which makes individual driving possible for many people to whom it was denied before. I pay further tribute to Motability's unleaded petrol campaign, which did so much to wake many of us up to the fact that we were unnecessarily pumping lead into the air, which may harm the development of children.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) helped by providing support across the Chamber for what we are trying to achieve. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) spoke specifically about the letter that I sadly received from the ex-Commissioner. On balance, it is probably right of me not to reply to my hon. Friend in detail. The points made by the Commissioner emeritus were wrong. They misinterpreted the Government's intentions and the unity of the Mobility Alliance delegation. Some of the correspondence in The Guardian made it plain that Socialist councillors from London boroughs wanted to keep politics out of it, and I go along with that. It is better to sacrifice political advantage and to ensure that we continue representing the interests of those with special needs, whether or not they are handicapped. The arguments concerning motor cycles revolve on the question of training more than anything else--though engine capacity is also important. I do not go along with all of the interpretations of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley in respect of the Broughton studies. Nevertheless, we can probably work together and reach agreement. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford spoke about moving the administration of vocational licensing from traffic area offices to Swansea. There are about 30 million ordinary licence holders. It is necessary to hold such a licence before one can hold a licence to drive a lorry or bus. There are about 1 million vocational drivers who are PSV or HGV licence holders.
It is sensible to handle that work at Swansea, where ordinary licence details are already held on computer. That should lead to a better and faster service for vocational drivers. It is important to recognise that, as a consequence of shifting that work to Swansea, there will be greater demands made of the staff there and less of the staff
Column 881at traffic area offices. It follows naturally that that is the way it goes. I pay tribute to the staff at Swansea, who have lifted their efficiency far higher than most of British industry. Efficiency is the ally of compassion rather than its enemy. We should not judge how good a service is just by the number of staff employed to provide it.
As to general licensing, even under the Commission's draft proposals, existing driver rights will be preserved in respect of medium-size group vehicles and for minibuses used non-commercially. On the driving test, we and other member states challenged the relevance to safety of including in the proposed syllabus map reading, repairs and other aspects mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield. We do not understand the proposals requiring a move towards a written test. We shall probably have to ask a few more oral questions as part of our current testing arrangements.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) asked about the upper age limit for lorry drivers. The Bill that we shall debate on Thursday does not prescribe an upper age limit for lorry drivers. Those aged over 65 will have to renew their licences each year, and produce a medical certificate on renewal. If the directive is adopted, other member states such as Italy- -which the hon. Gentleman mentioned--will have to recognise our arrangements. That is a move forward. I do not want to be too diverted by post buses, but if they are used for hire or reward they will need to be driven by someone with a public service vehicle licence. The directive would not change that. If we can obtain a change of heart from those Members of the European Parliament who fell on the side of Clinton Davis in December--if they acknowledge the safety and mobility points, and that is confirmed by Stanley Clinton Davis--it will be much easier to work with the openness of the new Commissioner, Karel van Miert, and his staff. We could then work out an arrangement that would be satisfactory to the European Parliament, agreed by the Council of Ministers and confirmed by the Commission as leading to better safety and mobility.
These are the points on which we rest our case and I hope that the House will pass the motion as an indication that, throughout the country, we support these aims as we consider the draft directive. Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 10357/1/88 on driver licensing ; and endorses the Government's objective of negotiating satisfactory amendments with respect to the drivers of non-commercial minibuses and light goods vehicles, drivers from other Member States resident in the United Kingdom, and disabled drivers.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. John M. Taylor.]
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central) : When the Government first announced their intention to establish a series of urban development corporations throughout the country, the main reason given was that the areas to be covered by the UDCs would, at that stage, be suffering from a lack of investment and development. That was never the case in Leeds. If there was an argument for a UDC in the Government's own terms in other cities, that has never been and is not now the case for Leeds, which is enjoying probably the most substantial growth of any city outside the south -east. There are those who claim that Leeds, under its Labour-controlled authority, has now become the country's second city, and there are many people in Leeds who would regard it as the first rather than the second city.
When establishing the UDCs, one of the Government's suggestions was that they perceived some animosity between the local authority and the private sector. That has never been the case in Leeds, which is a success city as a result of the partnership which has developed between the Labour-controlled city council and the private sector. That success and partnership have enabled the city council to attract investment and to bring about the rebirth and renaissance of the city centre and much of my constituency.
My first point, which is not necessarily central to this debate but needs to go on record, is that if there was ever any justification for a UDC, it could not be justified in Leeds. Under the previous council leader, councillor Mudie, and now under councillor Tricket, Leeds city council has enjoyed much success, taking it beyond the necessity of establishing a UDC.
The Government's motives and their objectives for the UDC were far more sinister, manipulative and political. The Tories in Leeds know that they have no chance of ever gaining control, but it is essential for Tory patronage, influence and organisation to have some quangos appointed by Government and made up of placemen appointed by Government. That is why a proposal was made for a housing action trust, why we have the task force and why the urban development corporation came about--as part of a much larger agenda to subvert the city council and local democracy. It was a recognition by the Minister of his party's failure to attract votes in local elections in Leeds. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) may find that amusing, but he will not want to make any bets with me about the date when the Conservatives take control of Leeds city council as it will be a long time before that happens. There was no need for a UDC, but we now have one in Leeds, and we recognise that it has a potential contribution to make. We hope that it will behave in a socially responsible way, and part of its social responsibility is to consult local business and residents and to be part of the city's government in partnership rather than opposition. The UDC should ensure that its decisions are open to public scrutiny and subject to the maximum involvement
Column 883of local community organisations and local business. That is crucial because people and business in Leeds have a right to know what is happening.
We are discussing major issues that will affect the future of Leeds and its residents for many years. An example of the importance of its decisions is the possible development by Triple Five, a Canadian organisation that has already held talks with the city council and the UDC. According to a UDC press release, the scheme could be worth more than £3 billion. It is a major investment of such significance that it could change the shape of the south central area of Leeds for many years to come. I am not making a judgment on the scheme, but I am asking that the UDC's involvement in it be open so that the public know what is likely to happen and can comment on the way in which it develops.
Another example is the road scheme for the Richmond hill area of my constituency, which is important for local residents and business. It is important that when the UDC, as the planning authority for the area, puts forward proposals for the development of the road scheme it recognises the legitimate interests of local residents, who have a right to know what the UDC intends. Nobody in the area affected by the UDC's proposals is yet aware of them. I am aware of them because information has begun to be leaked that the UDC is thinking of building a road down East street--on stilts at points--which is probably the worst environmental scheme that could be conceived for the area. There has been no consultation or discussion with local residents. That is not the way in which the Minister would go about his business ; it is not the way that the UDC should go about its business.
Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West) : If one considers the Kirkstall valley scheme, there is no evidence that the UDC is trying to bypass local community views. Its strategy and proposals are well known to the community and council, and two councillors serve on it. The hon. Gentleman has not shown why, apart from the overall strategy, which should be public knowledge, its detailed scrutiny of often confidential matters should be in the goldfish bowl of public debate.
Mr. Fatchett : I have already shown that there are important schemes, substantial investment, and substantial local interest involved. I am not saying, and never have, that sensitive commercial interests should be made public. Nobody is saying that, but everybody who has been involved in local government--and I presume that the hon. Member for Leeds, North- West knows the nature of the rules in local government--will recognise that there is secrecy in commercial interest. I recognise that ; I am not asking for that.
In relation to the road scheme, there has been no discussion whatsoever with local residents. There is no commercial interest that stops that discussion, and it is that degree of participation and openness that I am asking for, a basic minimum. The hon. Gentleman, by his reaction, understands the point I am making. There is a potential degree of consensus there, and I hope that the Minister recognises that.
There is, besides the right to know, a need for openness on the part of the UDC. If it is not open, given the scale of the projects with which it is dealing, there is always an
Column 884argument that there is some lack of legitimacy attributed to the decisions taken by it. Openness gives legitimacy, as does consultation. I would not for a moment suggest that corruption surrounds the UDC. That is not the nature of my accusation. However, if the UDC is open and allows consultation, there is never any question of corruption because we know what is going on. If there is secrecy, it builds up a suspicion that there may be corruption around the organisation. In the UDC's own interest, there is a need for openness. So there are two reasons suggesting that the UDC should change its current practices : the right to know, and the need for openness.
The UDC makes a number of points in its own defence, but one defence it cannot use is that it is the planning authority ; if the planning decisions were taken by local government, Leeds city council, these decisions would be subject to the Local Government (Access to Information Act) 1985. It is a strange paradox that, if there is a major or minor planning decision to be taken by the Leeds city council, that would be open as per the normal practices of local government. If there is a major or minor planning decision to be taken by the UDC, it will be taken behind closed doors. I see no justification whatsoever for that.
The Minister may say that the legislation does not provide for that access or openness in relation to the UDC. I recognise that, but I also say that the London Docklands UDC already allows openness ; it allows journalists to be present at certain meetings, and it allows the public to be present. The Sheffield UDC is moving in exactly the same direction. I hope that the Minister will use his influence and powers to ensure that the Leeds UDC moves further in that direction. A further argument made by the UDC is that openness--what the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West called "the goldfish bowl"--leads to inefficiency, but the fact that emerges from the evidence which has come into my possession is that the UDC is itself inefficient. Its secrecy does not breed efficiency ; I suspect that its secrecy compounds inefficiency.
Let me give one or two examples. A firm called South Leeds Builders Merchants Ltd. received a letter from the UDC saying, without consultation or discussion, that that business would be subject to compulsory purchase. That is neither efficient nor the way in which the UDC should behave. The company secretary wrote to his own solicitor and kindly sent me a copy of his letter. I quote from Mr. Foster's letter :
"To say I am astounded would be an understatement, as you would have thought that someone at The Leeds Development Corporation would have had the decency to forewarn, explain or indeed just discuss the plans affecting our premises and livelihood."
That inefficiency was recognised by Mr. Martin Eagland, the chief executive of Leeds urban development corporation. He replied on 21 March 1989 to Mr. Foster, the company secretary of South Leeds Builders Merchants Ltd., and made the following point :
"I do apologise for the fact that you received no prior warning of the Development Corporation's intention to compulsorily acquire the freehold interest in the site".
The Leeds urban development corporation ought to have talked to a company that it was about to make the subject of a compulsory purchase order.
Another example is Chapman Springs, a well-established engineering firm in south Leeds. It is now the subject of a compulsory purchase order without consultation, participation and information. From time to
Column 885time a number of hon. Members find it convenient to criticise the Post Office or British Telecom. They may feel that that was the reason why the Leeds urban development corporation was unable to talk to either South Leeds Builders Merchants Ltd. or Chapman Springs. Both firms are sited within 100 yd of the UDC's offices. I suspect that Mr. Peter Hartley, the chairman, and Mr. Martin Eagland, the chief executive, pass both firms on their way to and from the UDC's offices. A simple courtesy would have been to talk to the two firms. Jobs in two local businesses are at stake. One of the firms wrote to me and said that the Conservative Government pride themselves on their interest in small businesses, so it is difficult to understand how they can allow one of their organisations--the UDC--to behave in such a way.
Secrecy in the UDC has not bred efficiency. All the evidence suggests that secrecy has bred inefficiency. So far, the UDC's record is a catalogue of inefficiency and secrecy. For the sake of what I believe is important--the continuing development of Leeds--and for the most constructive relationship that is possible between local business, local residents and the city council, I ask the Minister to use his influence with the UDC to ensure that it conducts its business openly and does not continue with its current
hole-in-the-wall approach. Such an approach will damage the work of the UDC and local business in Leeds. It is important that openness should be one of the UDC's characteristics. I hope that the Minister will join me in that campaign.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : I welcome the interest of the hon. Member for Leed Central (Mr. Fatchett) in the subject. I congratulate him sincerely on securing this Adjournment debate. I welcome the valuable contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) to which I shall return later.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central has already tabled a number of written questions about the UDC's responsibility for planning. I have been pleased to inform him about the very satisfactory progress being made in Leeds. I thought that his summary of the reasons for establishing the Leeds urban development corporation stretched credulity to breaking point.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to know precisely why the Government established an urban development corporation in Leeds, he could do no better than to read a pamphlet called "New Life for Inner Cities" which I wrote and which has recently been released. Unfortunately, I cannot give a copy to the hon. Gentleman. It costs £2.50, which I consider to be good value for money. That money will go to the Conservative party. We are always grateful for any contributions that we can get--certainly from Labour Members of Parliament.
The best illustration that I can give of why the Government set up an urban development corporation in Leeds relates to a meeting that I had with the former leader of Leeds city council, whom I have always liked, councillor George Mudie. He told me of the progress that had been made over the Leeds development company, with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar. That is the longest gestation period known to man. It had been talked about for four years, and it had been in formation for three years. I asked councillor Mudie when he would appoint a chief
Column 886executive and he said, "Soon". It is crass stupidity for the hon. Gentleman to describe to me and to the House anything to do with the UDC as a catalogue of inefficiency when we have such an example. The Government believed that things should move a little more speedily than they have in the urban regeneration for the centre of Leeds. As the hon. Member knows, I visited the development corporation only last month. I was impressed by the way the corporation has started to implement the proposals contained in the strategic plan which it published last October. Land is being brought forward for development in partnership with the other agencies ; environmental improvements are under way, and I know the corporation has the needs of both new and existing businesses uppermost in its mind. Those are no mean achievements for a corporation which has been in existence for only nine months. If not now, I hope that at some time in the future the hon. Gentleman will become as enthusiastic about what is being achieved on the ground in his home city as he seems to be about the procedures required to bring that about. Before I reply to the more specific points which the hon. Gentleman has raised, the House may find it helpful if I say something about how the UDCs operate and relate that to what the hon. Gentleman has said.
UDCs have been set up by the Government as single-minded bodies. Their remit is to regenerate rundown urban areas by bringing land and buildings back into use and creating new businesses, jobs, an improved environment, new homes, recreation and leisure facilities. Already they are doing that, and in my view they are doing it very well. But UDCs are not local authorities, and they are not funded through the rating system. The arrangements established to ensure that local authorities are accountable to the local electorate are not therefore applicable. UDCs are funded largely by the Exchequer and they are accountable to Parliament through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. They are subject to a fairly formidable array of procedures, which includes the Select Committee and Public Accounts Committee systems, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, and the Local Government Act 1988 which brought UDCs' planning activities within the ambit of the Commissioner for Local Administration--the local ombudsman. Each UDC produces an annual report, including a copy of its audited statement of accounts, which is laid before both Houses. Hon. Members will appreciate that those are just some of the arrangements which exist to safeguard accountability to Parliament, but it might help if I explain that when carrying out their development control functions all UDCs are required to operate in the same way as any other planning authority. That includes an obligation to carry out consultations and determine applications as laid down in the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1988. The list of possible consultees, on any application, can be lengthy. It can include, for example, a local authority, the highway authority, the water authority, and the waste disposal authority.
Most UDCs have established agency arrangements whereby local authority staff receive and process planning applications. That hardly equates with charges of operating in secret, and perhaps more than anything else shows that, behind the rhetoric, co-operative and mutually beneficial working arrangements can and do exist between UDCs and local authorities, and I welcome that.
Column 887Councillor George Mudie persuaded me that in this context the Leeds city council should act as a planning agency for the UDCs. Apart from that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, at the time I was convinced that it was quite fair and proper that there should be a number of Labour party councillors appointed to the board.
Mr. Fatchett : The Minister talks in detail about the development control procedures, but one or two of my examples concern broader planning and development matters. I talked about the road scheme and about Chapman Springs in relation to the development of a business park. Those schemes are not covered by the development controls. They are the schemes that should be the subject of much greater consultation and much greater public scrutiny. If the Minister is prepared to persuade his colleagues in the UDC to move in that direction, we are beginning to move towards a consensus, but in relation to the road scheme, for instance, that involves the UDC recognising that my constituents, at a very early stage, have a legitimate voice.
Mr. Trippier : I should say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West was very relevant to this case, though I do not think there could be any possible criticism of the consultation that took place. Time permitting, I shall refer to that matter again. Certainly I want to see urban development corporations consulting local people. That is very important if we are to see this form of urban regeneration in that area. If the people themselves do not recognise that that form of urban regeneration is an improvement and that it will benefit them and the area as a whole, clearly the whole policy will have failed. On that matter there is a meeting of minds.
I do not know specifically about the case of the road network. Obviously I am not directly responsible for the Department of Transport. However, in an effort to be helpful, I shall look at the matter. I am anxious to convince the hon. Member that the UDC is very keen to consult, as are all UDCs. There may have been mistakes, particularly in the case of what I call the first-generation UDCs. One hopes that one can learn from mistakes, and that there will be improvements. But in the case of the second and third- generation UDCs it is perfectly clear that it is a necessary prerequisite for successful urban regeneration that they should carry the local communities with them.
Of course, circumstances vary from area to area. No two areas are the same, and no two UDCs are the same. It is therefore right that they should have discretion to organise themselves in the best way to achieve positive results. I must stress that all UDCs are well seized of the importance of carrying local opinion with them. Many UDC chairmen and chief executives spend a considerable amount of their time addressing public meetings up and down the urban development areas. I have indicated that I do not for a moment suggest that they have got everything absolutely right ; I am not that stupid. It is always easy to find fault from the sidelines, as the hon.
Column 888Gentleman has sought to do. It would be wrong of the Government to be too prescriptive about the way in which the UDCs carry out their business, as the hon. Member and certainly the Campaign for Freedom of Information would suggest. I believe that that is a matter for the UDCs to decide, with the overall arrangements that I have already described.
A number of decisions will have to be made by the UDCs--decisions that certainly would be commercially confidential. As the hon. Gentleman made a number of political points--and I realise that he might have felt obliged to do so--may I make one important political point from my party's point of view? I find it a bit difficult to take it when any member of the Labour party talks about secrecy or about excluding the press from meetings. My experience in local government--which, I am glad to say, is pretty long--is that the Labour party is the first to exclude the press from meetings of this kind. I am sure that that experience is shared by my hon. Friends.
Mr. Fatchett : The Minister might be reassured to know that Leeds city council won an award for its willingness to open up and to disclose information. So, in this respect, it is a model authority. The Minister argues that he does not want to be prescriptive. He knows the position taken by the docklands corporation, and he knows the position that Sheffield is likely to take. Will he give the Leeds UDC some indication that it would make sense to move in the same direction as its sister UDCs in docklands and in Sheffield?
Mr. Trippier : The Leeds city council has won an award for openness. I only wish that it had won an award for speed of inner city regeneration through the Leeds Development Company. I accept that a number of urban development corporations provide the type of access that the hon. Gentleman seeks for the Leeds UDC, and the London Docklands UDC is undoubtedly one. Certainly I shall be very happy to draw to the attention of the chairman and the board of the Leeds UDC the matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised this evening, but I repeat that the Department does not wish in any way to be prescriptive in this regard. It is entirely a matter for the UDC. I personally feel that in practice there can be little or no difficulty, in view of the representation on the board not only from the hon. Gentleman's party but from the private sector, which he was quick to mention.
I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North- West that there will be quite a number of interested parties in Leeds whose best interests might not be served by knowing too much about the confidential matters that are discussed before the board. That is a matter of judgment, principally for the board.
I hope that in future the hon. Member for Leeds, Central will find himself able to support the Leeds UDC and the work that it does to regenerate that vitally important city.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Two o'clock.
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