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House of Commons

Tuesday 4 June 1996

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

ENVIRONMENT

Enterprise Zones

1. Mr. Hutton: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his policy towards establishing new enterprise zones. [29769]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State apologises to the House for not being present for questions today. Madam Speaker, as you and others are aware, he is representing the United Kingdom at the United Nations Habitat II conference in Istanbul.

In December 1987 the Government announced that the enterprise zone scheme would not be extended other than in exceptional circumstances.

Mr. Hutton: Given that the Government's economic advisers, Cambridge Economic Consultants, recommended in 1992 that the Government establish a new enterprise zone in Barrow and that, since then, the number of people out of work and claiming unemployment benefit has increased by 45 per cent.--more than in any other area which is at present covered by an enterprise zone--is the Minister now prepared to accept the principal recommendation of the Furness 2010 conference report, of which he has a copy? The report makes it clear that it is absolutely critical to establish a new enterprise zone in the Barrow travel-to-work area.

Sir Paul Beresford: I am very aware of the hon. Gentleman's interest in the matter. We have discussed the issue with the Government office for the north-west, and I anticipate being able to meet the hon. Gentleman and a delegation to consider the matter. I suggest that we approach the issue with some caution.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, EZs have been successful in the past. However, the European Community rules on state aid mean that there are delays--sometimes of up to three years--between announcement and implementation, and that can cause a dearth of investment in the area and prove counter-productive. I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter, but I ask him to think carefully before progressing.

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Mr. Dover: Does my hon. Friend recall that he replied to my Adjournment debate on Royal Ordnance and the possible establishment of an enterprise zone at Chorley in my constituency? Will he confirm that the exceptional circumstance that would justify an enterprise zone application through the European Union would be a massive rundown in traditional industries, such as the coal mining and the ship building industries in Barrow and the armaments industry in Chorley, which have been designated since 1987? Will he confirm that even a three-year delay would be more than acceptable to the areas in question?

Sir Paul Beresford: I am aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed on several occasions. However, as I have told him before, he must think very carefully before progressing further.

Mr. Vaz: Why will the Minister not admit that fatal flaws lie at the heart of the Government's regeneration policy? There is a lack of cohesion and coherence in the Government's strategy, whether it is enterprise zones or any of the 29 schemes that they have launched in the past 17 years. Will the Minister accept the views of the public and private sectors and implement long-lasting policies rather than the quick-fix solutions that the Government advocate?

Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Gentleman does not learn. If he looks around the country, he will see that any flaws and difficulties are created by the neanderthal Labour authorities in many of our cities.

Mr. John Marshall: Does my hon. Friend agree that enterprise zones are successful only if this country can offer competitive economic conditions to internal investors? Does he believe that those conditions would be improved by the adoption of a national minimum wage and the social chapter or by the abolition of the Government's industrial relations reforms?

Sir Paul Beresford: As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He has touched on the point that Labour local authorities consistently and persistently fail to see.

Air Pollution

2. Mr. Wareing: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received regarding air pollution. [29770]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison): The Department receives numerous representations on that subject.

Mr. Wareing: I am sure that it does. What intergovernmental wrangling is causing the delay in the publication of a national air strategy? Given that my local authority is one of those used to pilot the air quality assessment scheme, should it not be given proper national guidelines and resources? Or do we see another illustration of the Government's lack of real commitment to the environment?

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Mr. Clappison: The local authorities that are involved in the air quality strategy are showing a much more positive attitude than the hon. Gentleman. He could be a little more positive about an important document that follows on from the commitments in the Environment Act 1995, which will stand alongside the Clean Air Act 1956 as a major contribution to cleaning up the air we breathe and will bring about substantial improvements. When the strategy is published, the hon. Gentleman will see that it is based on sound science and will make a major contribution to our health.

Mr. Robathan: Is my hon. Friend aware that air pollution would be greatly reduced if more people left their motor cars at home and walked or used bicycles? Is my hon. Friend aware that this week is National Bike Week, and does he agree that it would be extremely beneficial if many Members of the House took to bicycles and did not create emissions and hot air, which pollute the environment? My hon. Friend might note that the health of one or two Opposition Front Benchers would also benefit.

Mr. Clappison: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to think that if hon. Members took to their bicycles, it might reduce the hot air. If people took to their bicycles more generally, important reductions in emissions might occur. There are opportunities for people to use the bicycle instead of other forms of transport, and that would reduce emissions. I know that my hon. Friend is a major proponent of the use of bicycles and I am sure that he will take to his bicycle tomorrow.

Mr. Matthew Taylor: Given that Europe is due this year to agree stage 3 vehicle emission standards and that the rising levels of asthma, especially in children, are exacerbated by air pollution, will the Government take a robust position at stage 3 and build on the German Ministry of the Environment's proposals?

Mr. Clappison: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have taken a leading role in pushing for higher standards of vehicle technology and fuel cleanliness. That has made a major contribution in reducing emissions, and we will continue with that.

The hon. Gentleman should also bear in mind the leading role that we have taken to try to reduce summertime smog, which can also be a cause of the health problems that he mentioned. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently hosted a conference of European nations in London, which put forward plans to reduce the prevalence of summertime smog. Those plans will bring real benefits and will be an ambitious step to tackle a real problem.

Sir Sydney Chapman: Notwithstanding the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), will my hon. Friend confirm that estimates show that car traffic is likely to increase by between 11 and 19 per cent. and lorry traffic by up to 16 per cent. over the next six years? Given the stricter emission controls introduced by the Government in 1992 and 1996, will my hon. Friend try to plan the Government's air quality strategy so that the amount of pollution from vehicles is lower overall at the end of the six years, and not greater?

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Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the issue needs careful long-term planning. We have been planning carefully on a base of sound science to bring about long-term reductions in emissions. That is why we will introduce a national air strategy, which will be a document for the future and enable major improvements to be made in the air that we breathe.

Council Tax

3. Mr. Miller: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proportion of local authority expenditure is represented by council tax collected in (a) Ellesmere Port and Neston and (b) Westminster. [29771]

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): Forty-three per cent. and 14 per cent. respectively.

Mr. Miller: Those are interesting twists of the official statistics. The Minister will recognise that Ellesmere Port and Neston borough has a better council tax collection rate than the city of Westminster and is better on planning times and a whole host of the measures set out by the Audit Commission, yet the council tax collected from residents in Ellesmere Port--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question.

Mr. Miller: Is it the case that the council tax collected from residents of Ellesmere Port and Neston constitutes 33 per cent. of spending compared with 4 per cent. for Westminster? Is that not a disgrace and yet another Tory fiddle that disadvantages a well-run, Labour-controlled local authority?

Mr. Curry: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman got to his peroration in the end, albeit with some prompting. His figures are out of date, which is not surprising. The key statistic is that Ellesmere Port and Neston council sets a budget that is 20 per cent. higher than its standard spending assessment. If Westminster set a budget 20 per cent. above its SSA, it would have to fund 35 per cent. of its expenditure from the council tax. If Westminster set a budget 13 per cent. below its SSA and Ellesmere Port and Neston did the same, the borough could hand back £85 to band D council tax payers and would have to raise only 17 per cent. from council tax. If the Ellesmere Port and Neston council budget is so terrible, it is surprising that its Member of Parliament made no representations at the time of consultation.


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