Let me deal with the impact of the proposal. The Minister for Transport in London has visited the area. He will know that more than 1,000 homes are directly or indirectly affected by the proposals. In answer to a recent parliamentary question, the Government admitted that the boundaries of as many as 321 homes in Barking are directly adjacent to the rail track. That is more than anywhere in Kent or in Islington.
The proposal tears the heart out of Barking. It destroys the basis of the community in that part of London. It also destroys the Government's own stated objective of urban regeneration and renewal. Take the heart out of Barking and we will destroy the integrity of the community.
The homes in which those people live are not luxurious suburban residences, they are homes that were built for war heroes. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Government admitted that the distance from the back wall of the nearest house to the track is 2.5 m. I am not terribly good at estimating distances, but I guess that that is closer than the distance between the Minister and myself. Trains currently pass the area at about 47 mph. Fast trains will go through at 185 mph. That will make an enormous difference. From calculations that I have had to make because the Government have been unable to provide me with proper estimates, at peak times there will be one train every three minutes going past the homes of people in Barking, at a distance of 2.5 m from their kitchens. We must add to that the problem of freight traffic. Again, the Government's estimates suggest that, instead of the 6.1 million tonnes of freight traffic in 1993, 16.4 million tonnes of freight will be carried on that track. In 2013, there will be a further adverse impact on the quality of the lives of people living close to the track. We have had some noise measurements. I believe that they are inadequate. Even the measurements that have been published to date show--again I make a comparison with Islington, the borough of which I used to be the leader--in Islington 45 properties were affected by noise in excess of 85 DBA. In Barking, 325 properties will be so affected, yet the Government have no proposals on the table to ameliorate the quality of life. There are also vibration levels. The only solution that has been suggested so far is that there should be 10 ft high walls between the rail track and peoples' homes. Again I stress the 2.5 m distance. A 10 ft high wall will do absolutely nothing for people if they have to look out at a mass of concrete. It will be claustrophobic. That is not the environmental protection that we should enjoy today.
Who will be affected ? Some are tenants, some are owner-occupiers. The tenants have no escape ; they are locked into the homes in which they have lived happily for many years. Owner-occupiers are finding their properties blighted. At the peak of the market, their homes were worth £80,000 to £85,000. We all accept that, to some extent, the market has collapsed, but people cannot sell their homes in that area of Barking. One could probably sell for £20,000 to £25,000, but nobody would give a mortgage on such a home, so we are talking about cash purchasers, most of whom are private landlords who would turn the area into bedsit territory, which again would impact on the sense of community which is so important in that part of London.
Column 607I shall tell hon. Members about three people who have written to me ; I have received hundreds of letters. One is a woman who moved into her house when she was just married. She now has three children and she is locked into a two-bedroom house which she cannot sell. The children are now reaching their teens. Another constituent is an old- age pensioner who has an asbestos-related disease and who wants to move, but he cannot sell to move somewhere which would give him the chance to live longer.
The third constituent is a woman whose mother lived down the road. When her mother died, she wanted to sell her mother's house so that she could afford to put her children through higher education. Nobody will buy the house and, as a result, her children are being prevented from achieving their aspiration of an opportunity in life. I wish to deal with a couple of other issues which are of concern to me. We have found that Union Rail is not giving us the information that we require, and we are living in uncertainty and secrecy. My constituents have a right to know. On the issue of freight, there is no clear information.
In November 1993, a representative from Union Rail assured residents of Scruttons Farm that there were no plans for a railhead at Ripple lane. I now understand that Union Rail may have plans to build two railheads in Renwick road and Scruttons, and the Secretary of State has announced that there will be a freight link to Ripple lane.
There has been an intensification of use, and nobody knows why. Union Rail and British Rail have said that they are maintaining and upgrading the line, but I believe that they are preparing for the intensification of use by freight trains and avoiding paying compensation to residents in the area.
On compensation levels, there is no clear information for residents on the level of compensation, and it is unclear how many residents will get compensation. The levels of compensation have yet to be set, and they will be set by private sector companies which will have control of building the channel tunnel rail link. This is a matter of public policy, which ought to be determined by the Government. The veil of secrecy and uncertainty is unacceptable, and I ask Ministers to ensure that, in the interests of my constituents, we bring an end to it.
Is there an alternative ? In Kent and Islington, work was done on other options, and in Kent, five options were worked out to see which was the most feasible. Why cannot we have some investigation of other options in Barking ? There has been unanimous support within the community for the channel tunnel rail link to be tunnelled under Barking Reach. That is an empty piece of land, and the project would not impact on the future plans for the reach or on the current residents. Other options were also available for consideration. Some £2.7 billion is being spent on the project, and all I am asking is that we should investigate. If it costs another £50 million or £60 million, it will be a worthwhile investment for the long-term benefit which it would bring to my community. I am concerned that there is has not been a proper estimate of costs and that other costs have not been taken into consideration.
For example, I do not know--perhaps the Minister might enlighten me--what the cost of the disruption to the current freight and passenger services will be during the construction of services on Tilbury dock.
Column 608I ask the Minister to assure me today on three matters. First, he will recognise that there is a case to answer to which he and the new Ministers should now give consideration. Secondly, he should cost all the other options so that at least we can be objective about providing the channel tunnel rail link which we all want. Thirdly, he should leave a mechanism in place in the Bill which gives us time for consultation and for consideration. That may mean widening the limits of deviation around the proposed route so that the alternative under Barking Reach can be considered.
If Jo Richardson had not been so ill during her latter years, I am sure that we would never have got to the position today where the interests of thousands of Barking residents are being ignored, while the interests of other people along the route from Islington down to Kent have been acknowledged. I am asking the Minister to pause for thought, and to give us one more opportunity to provide a sensible and lasting solution. We all want the rail link, but not at the price of destroying a community, destroying people's homes, destroying their environment and destroying their future.
Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East) : In supporting the points made so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on behalf of her constituents, I draw attention to a further issue related to the link as it passes through Barking and the rest of east London. It is clear that significant environmental problems will be caused by the link, whatever the ultimate route. If, as I hope, my hon. Friend is successful in persuading the Government to choose an alternative route through Barking, problems will arise with tunnelling. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) recently convened a meeting with Union Rail to discuss those problems.
In 1991, the then Secretary of State, announcing the east London route for the link told the House of Commons :
"the line will be built through east London, where the prospect is welcomed for the economic regeneration that it will bring."--[ Official Report , 14 October 1991 ; Vol. 196, c. 26.]
Local authorities in east London in Barking, Dagenham, Newham to the west and Havering to the east are imaginative and enterprising. The Secretary of State was right : the authorities spotted from the outset the potential for the link to provide the stimulus for economic regeneration in the area that we so desperately need. Yet it is plain as a pikestaff that there can be no regeneration in east London from the link if there is no international station in east London. Stratford now appears to be the only place where there is still a possibility of an international station in east London. It is now the only way to unlock the potential that the Government rightly identified for economic regeneration in Barking and the rest of east London.
I understand that an announcement is imminent on the matter and that the new ministerial team at the Department of Transport wants to consider the matter before making the announcement. That is entirely proper. I understand that. I urge the Minister to ensure that the announcement contains a commitment to the long box at Stratford so that the Stratford station remains a possibility. Beyond that, there should also be a commitment to the international
Column 609station as a integral part of the scheme so that the regeneration benefits that Barking and east London need, and that the Government have promised, will materialise.
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris) : With the leave of the House, I congratulate the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on securing this debate. It is about what she and I know to be an extremely important issue, not least for those of her constituents whom she has properly represented today. As she knows, during the past few months and indeed, the past few years, Ministers in the Department of Transport have received a number of representations from local residents, the borough and members of the borough council. Councillor George Brooker has a been frequent and assiduous correspondent on the issue and has met Ministers on several occasions.
I shall merely leave on the record the points made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) about the choice of intermediate stations. My job is merely to confirm that the choice of stations will be made shortly and, more importantly, in time for inclusion in the Bill and to confirm, as he probably knows, that it is assumed that the Bill will be ready for November and, subject to the parliamentary timetable, will be brought before the House. I shall savour and enjoy for some months to come the description by the hon. Member for Barking of her erstwhile constituents in Islington as the articulate media pack, the chattering classes' chattering class, as we always knew them to be in Islington. It would be churlish of me to suggest that the hon. Lady was to some degree the doyenne of such a pack, but none the less, whither Islington these days and welcome to Barking and a more realistic view of life than occasionally is held in the borough of Islington.
Without descending into political point scoring, as I do not see it as a Labour-Tory issue, it is clear to me, having looked at a great many major schemes over the years in the Department, that not the slightest influence is brought to bear by the excellent officials, whose job it is to do the basic work, on the voting preference of those who live adjacent to schemes, whether they are Tory grandees living alongside road schemes that happened to impinge on the fields at the bottom of their rolling acres or the residents of the hon. Lady's constituency ; that simply is not a material consideration. On reflection, the hon. Lady might not want to pursue that point, as it would be a reflection on the integrity of officials, which, with her long experience of local government, she would not like to cast. The hon. Lady was good at defining the problem. There was some excellent hyperbole and my emotions were drawn and strung but, sadly, she said very little about any proposed solution.
In the next few minutes I shall give a little of the background to where we are on the rail link and try to address in a practical way what the actual solutions are. The hon. Lady made it clear--I am grateful to her for doing so--that she is not opposed to the idea of a second rail link and neither are the hon. Members for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and Newham, North- East (Mr. Timms). We are discussing the practical way of delivering that rail link in that part of London, and what the hon. Lady said about the impact of the link and the difficulty there will always be
Column 610--which no doubt she has faced in other fields because of her long career in local government--in trying to find the right way through. As she will recall, the decision was taken in 1991 for the rail link to run from Kent to King's Cross St. Pancras via the so- called easterly approach and, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-east said, to assist in the regeneration and development of the east Thames corridor.
Since the announcement of the general easterly approach, we have done a great deal of work and I would like to express my appreciation of the work of Union Rail over the past few years. I can appreciate that, in the nature of things, there will inevitably be some conflict between those who represent affected residents and Union Rail as, in effect, the proposer of the scheme. My experience has been that Union Rail is an excellent and professional organisation. If the hon. Lady believes that information is being withheld and kept secret by Union Rail in a manner that she believes to be unreasonable, I shall certainly ask Union Rail at the highest level to consider carefully the specific points she raised and I shall endeavour to let her have the information.
Of course there are considerations of commercial confidentiality, but in general it is a matter for the whole community to resolve and issues of secrecy do not arise.
Union Rail submitted its report in March 1993 which proposed a route for consultation which ran through Barking largely on the surface. There was then a period of further work and consultation. The results of that work were reported in Union Rail's October 1993 report. The Government decisions on the route were announced by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State on 24 January this year.
Part of the conclusions reached then included the route of the rail link through Barking. The March 1993 route ran from the portal of the London tunnel to the south-east of the existing Barking station--the route that the rail link would run on the surface along the existing London-Tilbury and Southend railway corridor through Barking. As the hon. Lady says, I and other Ministers at the Department have visited that part of the route on a number of occasions.
The hon. Lady mentioned a tunnel option for Barking as one of the proposals, and then spoke about Barking region. I shall try to relate the two.
Following the announcement of the March 1993 route, and during the subsequent consultations, Union Rail worked up a tunnel option, which was included in the October 1993 report. The option would have extended the London tunnel by about 1.8 km, along a similar alignment to the surface route, thus moving the portal further east to the Ripple area. It was estimated that the tunnel would cost £40 million and the figure could be reduced to between £20 million and £25 million if only one tunnel boring machine were used. That would also introduce a six-month delay in the programme, however.
We were not convinced that the tunnel was the right answer, especially as the scope for further mitigation of the route remained. Yes, it would be in the shape of different types of noise barriers. Also, the modest extension to the property purchase and compensation policy announced at the same time, which would allow hardship terms to be offered for cases in which a home qualified for noise insulation under the draft noise insulation regulations, should help in some cases.
Column 611I am clear that the construction of the rail link through that area of Barking will need to be carried out in a sympathetic manner and in line with an agreed code of construction practice, to minimise the inconvenience to the local community.
Since then, my right hon. Friend, the former Minister for Public Transport, the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), has met Councillor Brooker, who further pressed for the Barking tunnel option, which was included in the October 1993 report. We made it clear to George Brooker that, after carefully considering the points made, the January 1994 decision stood.
Incidentally, on the hon. Lady's proposal, some of the residents of Essex road and other roads in the area said that they were rather worried about the tunnel option there because, in the short term, it would lead to the existing line carrying increased freight traffic, for which they would receive no compensation, and there would be a possibility of vibration from the tunnel underneath their homes. I am afraid that at that stage there were already widely divergent views, not only on the benefits of the existing option, but on the merits of the 1993 proposal--the tunnel.
On the question of the tunnel under Barking Reach, which was more in line with the original Ove Arup route, as the hon. Lady was told in answer to a parliamentary question this week, we have not received detailed advice on the feasibility or the additional cost of routing the rail link under Barking Reach, and I shall give some of the reasons. That sort of tunnel would affect the flagship east Thames corridor development site there, which is very near to the council's heart.
Ms Hodge indicated dissent .
Mr. Norris : If the hon. Lady disagrees with that proposition, in all seriousness, I invite her--together with the council, if necessary--to let me have at an early stage chapter and verse on precisely why she has come to that conclusion. The route would also pass very near Ford,
Column 612Barking power station, the A13 extension and so forth. The proposition might require a new route to be devised for the rail link all the way to Stratford, which is very important as it would affect many more properties than the present route, which closely follows the existing railway corridor.
I was looking at the route that that option would take and the hon. Lady is more than welcome to see me, or whichever one of my hon. or right hon. Friends is given direct responsibility for the project, to find out precisely what the impact would be. I have always found the hon. Lady to be a reasonable soul and I cannot believe that she would not care about the many additional properties that would be affected by the Barking Reach option. It is utterly symptomatic of her party's pathetic approach to public expenditure that she brushes the cost aside. She says, "Fifty to £80 million--well if it has to be, it has to be, after all, it is a jolly big sum of money, isn't it ?" I suppose that that is one basis on which to monitor public accounting, but it is not one that I commend to her. If she is late for the coronation that is taking place elsewhere in our great city, or if she has not been invited, I am sure that it will not be long before she manages to re-ingratiate herself with the chattering- class leadership of her party, when she might discuss with those who have some responsibility for finance in her party whether they are prepared to be quite so cavalier with public finances as she suggested.
We shall take forward this project sensibly and responsibly. As far as possible, and within the limits imposed by those who propose such major constructions, we shall consider any serious proposals that may achieve what the local community wants, with the least possible disruption.
Neither the hon. Lady nor I had the opportunity to touch on some of the subsidiary issues today, but I want to make it clear that this need not be the end of the discussion. I know that the new Secretary of State will be more than willing to listen to what she has to say, and so will I. As far as practicable, we shall reflect on whether any of her additional points can be accommodated.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : To have two Ministers on the Front Bench for a debate of this sort is a work of remarkable supererogation. It gives me the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on arriving in his new position.
This is an ambitious subject for a short debate, so it will inevitably be perfunctory. The House has become increasingly interested lately in its own proceedings. That is good, because Parliament is losing its power as the world becomes a global village. One result of that is the emergence of the European Union. Despite the Canutes who again this morning have been trying to brush sand in the direction of the incoming tide, it is clear that power will continue to move gradually away from this place and towards Europe. So far, our reaction has been petulant and ineffective. Mostly, decisions in the European Union are made by the Executive, and are reported, sooner or later or not at all, to this House. The European Parliament has just been given new powers. I hope that it will use them particularly to call the European Executive to account. There is fraud, there is incompetence and there is the sheer difficulty of enforcing regulations ; there is plenty for the European Parliament to do. Will it do it ? What will our response be ?
No serious attempt has yet been made to forge and maintain links between Members of Parliament here and Members of the European Parliament. We are now entitled to one free visit a year to the EU--an act of astonishing generosity. No attempt has been made to provide video conferencing facilities between ourselves and Members of the European Parliament. As far as I can ascertain, there are virtually no serious institutional joint committees--yet increasingly our fate and that of the European Parliament are interwoven.
We are always told that there are problems of time ; as a matter of fact, we could have much less to do here, and we could make much better use of Members' time. The worst feature of the British system of government is the Government's under-use of Back Benchers of all parties. Why cannot we work out a timetable to allow Back Benchers to play a serious role in Europe on the United Kingdom's behalf ? It seems to me that the United Kingdom system demands more and more legislation about less and less.
The Chamber is a good forum for debating issues of public concern, but it does so far too rarely. We could debate issues such as euthanasia or genetic engineering, but we leave far too little time for that, even though these topics command considerable interest among the British public.
We also face a new menace : the media. There is a new threat of harassment- -of scrutiny beyond the norm--if any Member of Parliament raises his head above the parapet in an attempt to check the media. Of course, it is all done in the name of accountability to the public, but it is actually counter-productive. What the public need are Members of Parliament who are increasingly willing to defend their constituents and institutions from the overmighty media. A new balance must be struck.
The word "privilege" has been misunderstood ; it should enable Members of Parliament, as the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said last night, to serve
Column 614the public free from restrictions. In a way, one of the most sinister developments has been the advance of Berlusconi. I have nothing against him--I do not know him at all--but for someone to make their way to Parliament basically on the back of owning a massive media empire and a couple of football teams is dangerous, and we need to consider it more closely.
The Government's reaction to the erosion of powers is to interfere ever more closely in the lower tiers of government. In principle, the Government claim that they have delegated powers to national health service trusts, schools, housing associations and other organisations. If they had the courage of their convictions, how good that would be. Their nerve, however, has failed. At every turn, they have imposed constraints on their creatures.
NHS trusts still operate in the shadow of Whitley. They cannot hire and fire consultants without incurring ludicrous costs. They are severely limited in making their own arrangements on contracts. Schools, having been set national curriculum targets, are still not free to choose how to reach them. Even hours of teaching are prescribed,, despite recent research that shows there is no correlation between the hours spent teaching and the results achieved. The methods of teaching are frequently prescribed and one of the results is that professionals feel deskilled.
An enormous amount of power has been removed from local authorities. Planning appeals are so widespread that they emasculate planning committees. The capacity to raise income locally has been circumscribed. The right to be significantly different from neighbouring authorities has, effectively, been largely undermined. The public pressure for uniform standards has been allowed to triumph over the encouragement of local democracy.
That brings me to the local government review, a policy development that I deeply regret. If ever there was a case of putting the cart before the horse, this is it. Instead of asking what local government in the 21st century is for, we have leapt in to change the machinery of local government. No serious debate has been held on the balance of power between central and local government. No attempt has been made to link local government with the health service, despite the shift from institutions for care towards care in the community. No serious attempt has been made to recognise one of the biggest changes in the United Kingdom : the growth in the sophistication and education of the public. The effect of that change is everywhere, yet instead of making coherent attempts to harness it for more responsible local government, we have let it be funnelled almost exclusively into pressure groups and single-issue lobbies which are increasingly distorting national policies.
Like everywhere else, Kent is faced with recommendations from the local government commission which resemble the mule of antiquity, which it was said had neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity. We must choose between structures that set citizen against citizen, councillor against councillor, and that split the county's Members of Parliament down the middle.
It was a great pity that we were excluded from even considering a county council with scaled-down powers. I have been proud of Kent's reputation for good policing, good fire services and innovative social services. I fervently hope that the changes that will be forced on us will improve them, but I wonder if they will. Given the size and homogeneity of the Medway towns, it is difficult to argue that they should not become a unitary
Column 615authority, and people there are keen that that should be so, except the Gillingham Liberals, who apparently have infuriated the Rochester upon Medway Liberals by stuffing leaflets through their doors condemning them for supporting unitary status.
So vicious has the fraternal dispute become that I gather that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) is to be asked to parachute in and to sort it out, if he can spare the time from sorting out Bosnia. We know that the Liberals say one thing in the south-west and another in the south-east, but to have two Liberal groups saying different things within a mile of each other adds a new piquancy to their inability to get their act together.
I should be glad if my hon. Friend the Minister could reassure us that, whatever the final outcome of the Local Government Commission deliberations, Kent will be able to continue to command European Union resources as part of a Euro-region and will not be jeopardised by a reduction of its present size. We have had a considerable inflow of valuable money from the European Union as we have developed as part of a Euro-region, and I would be deeply sorry if any change in the local government set-up put that very valuable development--a development that is indispensable as we are the home of the British end of the channel tunnel-- at risk.
There is yet another dimension to this constitutional upheaval. The hon. Member who is just about to be proclaimed the leader of the Labour party has promised a Scottish Parliament within a year of any Labour election victory. That is a very interesting promise. How will that Parliament be formed ? What will it do ? What will be its impact on this Parliament ? The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) suggested the other night that Stormont provided a precedent, whereby hon. Members from Northern Ireland were allowed to vote on English matters and in Northern Ireland took part in exclusively Northern Ireland debates. Northern Ireland constituencies were quite large, whereas Scottish ones are generally considerably smaller than those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I would find any such arrangement for Scotland wholly unacceptable and I do not believe that I would be the only English Member of Parliament to hold that view. If Scottish Members of Parliament were to sit in a Scottish Parliament to debate Scotland's health, education, social services, roads or any other subject and I could have no vote, I certainly would not accept their voting on England's health, education, roads or similar subjects.
If Scottish Members of Parliament are not to take part in a Scottish Parliament, what will it do and who will sit in it ? It does not sound like a particularly useful undertaking and I look forward to hearing the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) explain to the House exactly what this promise, on which so many Scottish hopes have been built, will mean in practice.
I believe that the time has come for Madam Speaker to set up a commission to examine the future of this ancient Parliament and to equip it for the 21st century. We are muddling along in this place. It seems that there is some value in having a change in sitting hours.
Mr. Rowe : I tabled the subject of my debate ; I did not choose the Minister to reply to it. I have enormous confidence in my hon. Friend the Minister, whose knowledge of the constitution is extraordinary. I certainly imagine that he will share some of my anxieties about the future of this ancient Parliament, which, unless we address the matter in a coherent, sensible and radical way, will simply become a talking shop with little effect on the Executive.
Mr. Rowe : Of course I accept the rebuke, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I am entitled to say that part of my unease about this country's constitutional arrangements, whether national or local, stems from the aggrandisement of the Executive at the expense of Parliament or local authorities. We cannot expect the Government themselves to address that. It is up to the House to pay considerable attention to these matters because we were sent here to represent constituents to whom the shape and form of local government is of little concern. Every person who comes to my surgery with a grievance is mistaken about which layer of government is responsible for it. The Government hope that, as a result of the deliberations of the Local Government Commission, the number of tiers will be reduced and people will get it right. If the Government believe that they are fooling themselves, because people who come to my surgery do not know whether Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue, the Department of Social Security or housing or roads departments belong to a particular tier of local government.
Instead of looking all the time to the machinery of local or central government, we should increasingly address the definition of the role of government in a world in which money, information, armaments and everything else can move across frontiers at the drop of a hat.
The telegram totally changed the nature of diplomacy. Lord Stratford de Redcliffe was the last British ambassador to declare war on behalf of Her Britannic Majesty. After that, information was sent home by telegram for discussion by the Foreign Secretary. The communications revolution, the increase in education and sophistication among the population and the way in which decisions are taken around the world have completely altered the nature of the role and authority of government. The relationships between local and central government or between this Parliament and the European Parliament should be urgently addressed.
The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry) : I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your attempts to make sure that I answered only to my brief, but perhaps I will take the liberty of being slightly discursive. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) spoke about the European Union and the European Parliament. I spent 10 years in that institution so I can reflect to some degree on its competencies in relation to the House.
Column 617It is a mistake to believe that power and responsibility exist in defined chunks, and that an absence of power and responsibility here necessarily adds to them somewhere else. I have never believed in the thesis that giving more power to the European Parliament necessarily means that an equivalent amount of responsibility is removed from this or another national Parliament.
There is a real problem in the European Union over accountability for decisions. It depends on the Council and the areas of competence. I have always believed that the way to address that may lie much more in trying to elaborate some of the party links between Members at Westminster and Members of the European Parliament and to appeal via the party network rather than the parliamentary network. But with the best will in the world, the different working methods of the two establishments make that difficult.
For example, some continental Parliaments do not meet on Mondays. There are group meetings at which members of Government, Members of Parliament and Members of the country's European Parliament and perhaps senior party members discuss policy. That forms the network, the link. It is not a parliamentary link, it is a political link, which appears to be effective. One never knows, there may be things that we can learn from continental practice, in the same way as certain activities in the European Parliament, such as Question Time, have been adopted from the traditional practices effective in the House.
So, if I do not believe that there is a fixed body of competence, which must be divided like a cake between our Parliament and the European Union or its institutions, for the same reason I do not believe that that concept is true in our relationship with local government. I shall not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent in pursuit of the health service or other such areas--I sure that he understands why--but I shall look at the areas for which my Department is competent. The urban development corporations, for example, were established to deliver a particular result : to try to assemble land in areas where there was a tradition of decay and dereliction, to try to do that efficiently and to accelerate some of the set planning procedures. Of course, local representatives sit on those bodies. In my hon. Friend's county of Kent, on the border with the east Thames corridor, we are not adopting that technique, but we are deliberately working through the local authorities. We have brought them together in those terms, for we are shortly hoping to launch our planning strategy for the east Thames corridor, and we have deliberately sought to use the expertise and the competence of traditional, existing institutions. Up to now, touch wood, it is working very efficiently. I hope that we will manage, despite the particularity of the various councils and their obvious competing interests in attracting investment, to succeed in achieving a strategic concept in that whole area.
My hon. Friend mentioned planning and the appeals. It is important to acknowledge the role of the planning function and especially the local plan. We have a regional planning strategy, which is one of the unsung success stories of planning. People find that strategy very helpful. Again, local authorities play the central role in the conferences which bring that decision-making together and that has laid down the broad strategic thrust for developments. Indeed, the south-east regional guide was published relatively recently. We shall boil it down to a local plan.
Column 618If the local authorities settle down and produce their local plan, it enables them to give a clear idea of what sort of development they find acceptable. That gives us runway lights. We never say exactly what will happen, but the plan's purpose is to set a framework- -the runway lights--within which decisions can be made so that there is a great certainty among everybody concerned about the development which may or may not take place. The elaboration of the plan gives local government-- if it uses it sensibly in the manner intended--significant competence in that area.
I shall turn to the role of local government. If we had been holding this debate 120 or 130 years ago, we would have been talking about the creation of modern local government as a task of getting to grips with the unbridled and uncontrolled urbanisation which was the hallmark of the industrial revolution. We would have been talking about providing basic services such as sewerage, water, lights and effective sanitation. Those tasks brought into being Chamberlain's Birmingham and the municipal authorities in Leeds and Manchester ; the great urban areas. The task of the Victorian era was the provision of basic amenities to cope with the vast industrial urban society.
If we then look at the immediate post second world period, we saw the creation of a welfare state in Britain and a significant number of competences, which had been the responsibility of local government, were brought into the national domain, especially the health service. It was a transfer of power, if one wants to put it in those terms, but it was a move to serve a different set of circumstances and conditions. Today, especially in the urban areas, we must tackle the reverse side of the coin to the challenges of the mid-Victorian era. We must deal with the debris of the industrial society. Regeneration tasks have been left in our inner cities, and for those we need a different sort of new local authority.
Therefore, I see a change in definition, but the powers must be relevant to the particular tasks that we wish local authorities to carry out at any time.
I believe that local authorities now have three essential roles. The first role is that of regulator, and there is no point in ignoring it. Local government acts under a statutory responsibility as a regulator in many different areas. Trading standards officers are a county responsibility while environmental health officers are a district responsibility. I have never been clear why those two distinct corps should have a separate constitutional arrangement. However, that is an example of regulatory functions that are carried out by local government. It is clear that that role will remain. The second role is that of a service commissioner--I use the term deliberately--because local government organises the delivery of a range of services, whether the individual services are delivered directly or through the competitive process. The way in which they are delivered is a matter of detail. The fact is that local government has a statutory responsibility for the delivery of a certain number of services.
Local government's third role is that of a regenerator. I realise that that term is not appropriate to all authorities. It is one that will be more relevant in urban areas than in some rural areas. Local government has a role to work more and more with other agencies, with the private sector, with organisations such as training and enterprise councils, chambers of commerce and educational establishments, so as to bring together the resources of the community to tackle specific problems. It is close on the back of the city
Column 619challenge programme, the single regeneration budget and the inter-regional offices, which are all designed to try to harness local resources and bring them to bear on a particular task. I think that the three functions that I have outlined will be at the heart of local government as it is now developing.
In many respects there has been a significant culture change in local government. We must be careful to ensure that where changes have taken place they can be said to be permanent, but where there has been a sea change, it must be recognised. We look to establishing the role of local government in the light of the changes that may have taken place.
Programmes such as city challenge and working in partnership are established gospels throughout large areas of local government. That may not have been the position five or 10 years ago. Some of the policies that we have pursued, such as competitive tendering and the city challenge process, were introduced during a period of budgetary constraints. However, they have contributed to the change in attitude within local government.
My hon. Friend asked specifically whether any local government reorganisation in Kent would affect its eligibility for European funds. The answer is no. I can give him that assurance without equivocation.
My hon. Friend talked about changes being forced. I wish to make it clear that the changes will not be forced. The Government do not have a secret agenda. We believe that it is legitimate to test the structures of local government against the functions that I have been describing to ascertain which is the most effective
Column 620mechanism for the delivery of services. If the answer is that unitary councils--one-stop shops--deliver services most effectively and are effective in service delivery, financial terms and identity terms, they will constitute the route that recommends itself. If such councils do not appear to be the obvious formula, if the benefits are not clear, or if the arguments point the other way, there is nothing that states that some preordained plan will determine a particular outcome in any particular area.
I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that when the debate takes place in Kent it is focused on the heart and nature of local government. Let it be a sensible and mature debate on how services are best delivered. Perhaps we can have rather less of the propaganda battle, which in some areas has disfigured debate in the heart of local government.
When the report comes to my Department, we shall examine it in the circumstances that I have outlined. As my hon. Friend knows, the procedure has been set up, but at present the recommendations are with the commission. It will have to test them against opinion in Kent and then make a final recommendation. That may not be the same as the original recommendation. The recommendation will come to us and the Government have options. We can accept it, reject it or send it back for modification. We are not bound by a recommendation that the commission may put forward except in general terms. We must conduct our own investigations and consultations, which will include my hon. Friend and other Members representing Kent constituencies. I believe that they know best what Kent wants and needs. They will be at the heart of our consultation. I give my hon. Friend that assurance. I hope that he will find that I have made a useful contribution to the debate.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : It is an unexpected pleasure to see a bearded Minister on the Government Front Bench today. At last there is a breakthrough for the fraternity of bearded Members who, under a previous Government, were treated like untouchable parliamentary lepers who were doomed to stay on the Back Benches. It is a genuine and unexpected pleasure to see the new Minister, the Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) in his place. I hope that he will inspire others. One Minister actually shaved his beard off under the reign of Madam Thatcher in order to achieve a place on the Front Bench. I hope that he will take courage and now regrow it in these new days of liberty and freedom.
I am less enthusiastic about the response that I will receive from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who has held that office for rather a long time. The new Minister may carry on his intelligent and searching character from his Select Committee work, but I fear that we may be due for a response from the Minister of State, who has been long in office, which is predictable, based on a history of what has happened in this field over several years and is then followed by a period of self-congratulation for the Government.
Drugs are a massive problem. They have damaged and destroyed the lives of millions of our people, but so many of our decisions in respect of drugs are framed on ignorance and prejudice. Perhaps the simplest way to measure the problem is to consider the number of deaths from drugs.
According to official Government figures, no one has died from an overdose of cannabis. In the past year, 94 people died from taking heroin. Two hundred people died as a result of taking paracetamol, which is probably in every home in the land. Two thousand people died from using other drugs. Twenty-five thousand people died from using alcohol and 110,000 from using tobacco. However, as a nation, we spend £100 million encouraging our children to use tobacco and we arrested 40,000 people last year for using cannabis.
When we consider the history of drugs, it is strange to contemplate how we have reached our present position. In the last century, our grandmothers and their grandmothers could buy any drugs, not just in chemists but in local shops. Queen Victoria was a regular cannabis user. She used it every month of her adult life. Cannabis was used by many of the famous names in poetry and literature. They could buy a range of drugs, including heroin, cocaine and cannabis from their corner shops.
In 1928, we decided to criminalise cannabis and certain other drugs. We did that for an entirely irrational reason. The man in charge of a lunatic asylum in Alexandria, Egypt, claimed that all the inmates took cannabis. He assumed from that that the use of cannabis led to insanity. However, he did not point out that almost the entire population of Alexandria--men, women and children--also used cannabis, but they were not insane.
One argument in favour of banning cannabis which was made in the House a short while ago, and about which I was curious, is that it destroys brain cells. I decided to discover upon what that claim was based. Only one