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10.47 am

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): After the speech by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), I should like to change the subject

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altogether. My concern is the compensation regulations that apply to individuals, home owners and businesses affected by major infrastructure schemes--particularly major road schemes.

I raise the issue at this historic moment because nearing completion through the heart of my constituency is one of the most expensive, and certainly one of the most complicated, urban motorway schemes in the country, which was initiated by the previous Government with the best intentions.

As a result, I embarked, like the hon. Member for Winchester--although circumstances were different--on an extremely rapid learning curve. Given that the scheme goes through a highly congested urban area, many hundreds of businesses and properties were affected. My constituents who were affected very quickly realised that the regulations are outdated and anomalous, and that they leave those concerned with a deep sense of injustice.

Why are the regulations outdated? In the main, the regulations that cover compensation and other relevant matters concerning road schemes were established during the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s. As far as I can gather, the most recent such regulations were made in 1973. So review of regulations that directly affect individuals is long overdue--if for no other reason than the fact that the gap between the regulations being made and today is more than 20 years. Circumstances have changed considerably over that time.

The fact that the regulations are outdated is not the most important point that I want to make in this regard. Why are the regulations anomalous? I shall give one or two examples from the experiences of my constituents over the past three and a half years.

The road scheme to which I have referred is coming to a conclusion, but the first phase of it began almost four years ago. We are not talking about amending a road junction or some relatively minor scheme that may take a few weeks or a few months. We are talking about a scheme that was decided by the Government and which affects the lives of individuals and businesses over at least four years. Of course, when the road is finished, the contractors will pick up the mess and take their tools and plans away, and that will be the end of it as far as they are concerned. It is certainly not the end of it for those who have been affected.

If a business or a home owner is directly affected by the scheme, the authorities have a duty to submit a compulsory purchase order. That in itself is a complicated process--although in my experience, it can be relatively simple. It is when one comes to consider either compulsory or discretionary purchase, which is available to the authorities, that one begins to see the problems that individuals and particularly businesses experience. For example, under the regulations, there is no provision for any compensation for loss of business, even if the business is directly or indirectly affected by such a road scheme. A number of examples illustrate that point.

Imagine that a family--mother, father and grandparents beforehand--have been in business for generations when along come the Government and say, "We wish to build a road through this area, and it will affect your business directly. We have provision for compulsory purchase of your property and, subject to certain procedures, that may work out reasonably successfully. You may want to wind up the business, but you could be relocated, which is a difficult process."

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There is no provision whatever for loss of business. It does not matter whether compulsory or discretionary purchase orders are used: there is no right under the regulations to business or trade, even though a business may have been trading for generations. That is extremely serious, and certainly an injustice with which the House ought to be concerned.

Many businesses in my constituency have had to employ professional people to act on their behalf, which is right and proper, although, when they look into possible compensation, they are told bluntly and starkly that it does not matter what effect the road scheme has had, because there is no provision in compensation regulations for loss of business. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, will take particular note of that, and ensure that the relevant Ministers are made aware of it.

What happens if one is a householder whose house is not directly in the line of the proposed road? If it is within 100 m of the centre of the proposed road, one may apply for what is called discretionary blight. But my goodness, one has to jump through some very important hoops before one gets anywhere near receiving compensation under that provision. I shall give the House just two examples to underline that.

If one applies for discretionary blight, one has to satisfy what are called the McCarthy rules. If we think backto the early 1950s, we could draw some perverse comparisons. I will not detain the House with details of how the McCarthy rules came to be. I shall simply refer to two aspects of them.

The first is the principle of prior knowledge. What does that mean? If someone bought a property in the prior knowledge that the road was to be built, they would have no right to compensation. What do we mean by prior knowledge? In the case of my constituency, it meant from the day that the Department of Transport drew a red pencil line on the map. So, if someone bought a property within 100 m of that line after the public inquiry, and so on, they would have no right to compensation under discretionary blight provisions, because they had prior knowledge.

What is not available at that time--nor can it be--is information on the array of side road orders, amendments to plans, closures of roads during construction, and so on. People sometimes have to wait years before details of the scheme become available.

In the case of the road in my constituency, the line was put on the map in 1986, but it was not until early 1990 that details became available. During that time, people may have bought properties. They will not receive compensation because they had prior knowledge--although they had no prior knowledge whatever of the road closures and the direct effect on their property. Therefore, they receive no compensation.

I recognise that we have to have rules and regulations to govern the important issue of compensation. However, it is unacceptable that a line can be drawn on a map and, years later--in this case, five or six years later--details of the road and the effect it will have on the side roads are still not available. People whose homes are affected receive no compensation, because they are deemed to have prior knowledge. They had some prior knowledge, but they did not have the detailed prior knowledge that would have enabled them to make a proper judgment.

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Even people who are able to show that they meet the McCarthy rules on discretionary blight face the problem of market value. The district valuer in Stoke-on-Trent has often told me that it is his job to determine market value having no regard for the fact that a road is to be built. With the best will in the world, the system does not work like that, because, the moment that a road scheme is identified--even only in general terms--the value of the neighbouring properties goes down. It does not matter how well intentioned the district valuer is, because he cannot manufacture an artificial market value, and he would be wrong to do so.

The reality is that people who claim discretionary blight--like scores of my constituents--go through the hoops set up by the McCarthy rules; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions accepts the blight notice and the need to pay compensation, but, when the district valuer sets the market valuation, people are appalled that the value of the property that they have lived in for years is reduced by half. I have personal experience of that happening to my constituents.

The district valuer says in answer to representations that he has set the current market value, and he can do no other. That is a serious anomaly, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take notice of those stark examples of how outdated the regulations are. They leave people--who, through no fault of their own, have their properties and businesses jeopardised by major infrastructure schemes--with a real sense of injustice. An urgent and detailed examination of the working of the regulations is long overdue. We should modernise them, and remove the chronic injustices they cause.

11.3 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to make several brief points, but, before doing so I shall first touch on the speech of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), to whose remarks Opposition Members listened carefully. He has a right to be pleased by his election victory. No doubt the Liberal council in Winchester will put in order some of the difficulties that he articulated. My election in Southend, West was less than satisfactory in certain respects. The campaign started with the Liberal candidate sending me a postcard saying that the Liberals did not want any part in a Punch and Judy show. However, for the four weeks of the campaign, we had a big Punch and Judy show from them.

My result was declared at about 6 am in the midst of a farcical situation. Everyone was very tired because they had been separating the county ballot papers from the general election ballot papers. I was asked if I would allow my vote to be reduced by 120 so that everyone could go home. I said that I was being asked to behave like a gentleman and we all shook hands, but one of the other parties made a fuss and wanted to go through the ballot papers. I could have been difficult and asked for a further count--I probably would have got even more votes. I understand that the hon. Member for Winchester feels hard done by, but he is not alone in experiencing difficulties at counts.

The first matter that I wish to raise is the Kyoto conference. I am very pro-American, but I am a little sick of being lectured from across the Atlantic. The conference was farcical. The European Union commitment was to

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reduce emissions by 8 per cent. on the 1990 level by 2010. It is crazy that the Americans, the most powerful nation in the world, will not agree to that target. The underdeveloped countries, which are in the majority, also have not agreed any targets. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned energy policy, but the situation becomes even more farcical when we realise that the Government are adopting a higher target than the European Union has agreed. Yesterday, I visited the Dunton emissions plant for the celebration of its 40th anniversary, and I know that the Minister also hoped to be present. At that meeting, the chairman of Ford worldwide expressed his concern about the issue of emissions, and we should listen carefully to what he had to say about the consequences for the United Kingdom.

My second point is about vitamin B6. I knew very little about the subject until constituents started to write to me, but some 3 million people use that product and it gives comfort to any number of sufferers, although I shall not dwell on that point. The way that the issue has been handled since July is extraordinary. Unfortunately, we read most Government announcements in the newspapers these days. I am sure that the Minister will say that he will not take any lectures from the Conservative party--although we have a new Government and new Labour is walking on water so they will not wish to refer to what happened in the past. I understand that six hon. Members have made representations to the relevant Minister. Has there has been any movement on vitamin B6, because several of my constituents are upset about it?

My third point concerns the Palace theatre in Westcliff. There is a legitimate debate about the funding of the arts and not all my constituents would agree that the arts should take priority over health and education. However, given that it is generally accepted that a certain proportion of the national cake goes to the arts, my constituents want a fair share of the money from the Eastern area arts board. The present situation is unfair. At the moment, the Palace theatre in Westcliff--a magnificent theatre--gets £45,000; Watford gets £204,500; Colchester gets £230,000; and Ipswich gets £322,750. I recently met the chief executive and other representatives of the board and I told them that the share for the Palace theatre was ridiculous. Southend council is the second biggest net contributor to the board, but it gets a poor allocation of resources. It was clear that the chief executive was softening me up so that next year we would get nothing. That is not satisfactory. The Minister for Arts knows how strongly I feel on this issue, and I intend to take every opportunity to make sure that the wonderful theatre in Westcliff receives a fair share of the moneys available.

The next matter to which I wish to refer is Cyprus. Together with other hon. Members, I had the opportunity this year to visit Cyprus, where I first visited Famagusta. We are broadly speaking in agreement in the House that the situation in Cyprus is a tragedy. I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister said at the Labour party conference that we were into new territory, and that he and the Prime Minister took Cyprus very seriously and would ensure that something was done.

The meeting between President Clerides and Mr. Denktash was unsatisfactory. President Clerides's view was that the Greek Cypriots were committed to a just and long-lasting solution in a bizonal, bicommunal federation accepted by both sides in 1977 and 1979 in high-level agreements, while the solution preserves the

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integrity of Cyprus as one sovereign and one international personality. To achieve a just and long-lasting solution, the Greek Cypriots believe that the security aspects should be addressed and that a satisfactory solution to the problem of the displaced should be found, while human rights and basic freedoms are safeguarded in accordance with the acquis communautaire and other international instruments of human rights.

During my two visits, I saw that there was a great fear among the Greek Cypriots about the intentions of the Turkish Government. It is so easy to forget about the situation in Cyprus. The UK is one of the three guarantors and, as a Christmas present, the House should unite in an effort to ensure that Cyprus is united.

The final point I wish to raise is the very serious matter of suicide. A huge number of people in this country commit suicide. Every day of the week, one will read in the newspapers that someone has committed suicide. Many of us who travel on the tube find that it is disrupted and we all curse and blind, until we find that someone has thrown himself on the track. The same is true of British Rail. We can think of the recent suicides of children who have been bullied at school. So many people under different circumstances commit suicide.

In my time in this House, Jocelyn Cadbury--a former Member for Birmingham, Northfield--and then John Heddle have committed suicide. Two of the Members who have taken part in today's debate--the hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg)--were present when we had an all-night sitting on gun law. Because the hon. Member for Bolsover legitimately used the procedures of this House, we stayed in our places rather than constantly dividing. I was next to John Heddle during that all-night sitting and I felt that I got to know him far better than I had done before. I was horrified when he committed suicide a few days later. We have also had the recent, tragic case of Gordon McMaster.

Last year's figures showed that we had the lowest number of suicides this century, but many people in our constituencies are so disturbed and upset that they may be considering suicide. I represent the 31st out of 659 constituencies in terms of the number of constituents who are senior citizens. Many will be spending Christmas on their own, and I simply make a plea. When we enter the millennium, rather than 3,500 people in this country committing suicide each year--with the tragedy that that brings to our lives--it would be a mark of this country's value and civilisation if there were a drastic reduction in the number of suicides. In the milk of human kindness, I hope that all hon. Members--I know that they will--will ensure that all their constituents get help and support not only over Christmas, but in the years that lie ahead.

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