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Mr. Taylor: I do not want a problem to be caused. I want to see vibrant cities in which young couples with children can live and work, benefiting from good schools, freedom from crime and an attractive environment. That is important from the point of view of those living in cities now, as well as those whom we would like to live in them.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Taylor: I will, but I shall take no more interventions after this.

Mr. Drew: I thank the hon. Gentleman. No doubt he knows of the Richard Rogers task force. Surely that is one of the most fundamental and innovative projects that any Government could take on, and we look forward to the results.

Mr. Taylor: I do not think that a task force is ever fundamental or innovative, although its conclusions may be. Let us hope that the conclusions of this task force will be.

The Liberal Democrats published detailed proposals today, including a proposal for immediate revision of planning policy guidance note 3 on housing, and a proposal for the calling in of controversial major development plans to be assessed in the light of the new PPG3. I believe that that would mean the calling in of plans for Stevenage new town, and no increase in housing figures for West Sussex. We propose a clear development hierarchy, with real backing from Ministers--particularly as regards the reuse of existing buildings, as well as

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redevelopment of old sites, before the development of green-field sites. We believe that there should be a levy on green-field development, which could fund urban regeneration and provide new parks. That could improve the urban environment and, perhaps, lower council tax for all.

I also believe--this is a more difficult issue--that we should consider the difference between the nil value added tax on new build and the 17.5 per cent. VAT on renovation. The equalisation of VAT could fundamentally change the way in which older buildings in urban areas are treated, and the state of existing housing stock. All those measures could minimise new development. I understand that some work has been put into that. Belgium, for example, imposes a low rate of VAT, not just on energy conservation materials--as is often said--but on all renovation work on buildings that are more than 20 years old. Some balance between VAT on renovation and new build might be needed so the programme could be self-financing, which would doubtless be controversial for new build. It should, however, be considered.

There are two other key issues. I must be brief, because I have already used too much time. The first is transport. Not tonight, but on many other occasions, the Conservatives have attacked the fuel escalator. How ironic that is, coming from the party that introduced it in the first place. Over 18 years, the Conservatives increased excise duty on fuel by 600 per cent. Between 1992 and 1996 alone, they raised £58 billion from fuel tax, as well as selling off public transport services, taking no action over the loss of rural bus routes and cutting money for transport packages for local authorities. However, they cannot possibly claim to be friends of the motorist--quite apart from their ignoring the fact that one in four people in rural areas have no access to a car. Incidentally, whereas the real total cost of running a car has fallen since the early 1970s, bus and train fares have nearly doubled.

Labour has tried to tackle one element of the problem by providing extra money for bus routes in rural areas over the next few years, but it is still a drop: £50 million is a small amount. If it were all spent on new buses, it would not even be enough to provide one new bus for every major town. Although the rhetoric is good, we must compare that with the extra £9 billion that Labour plans to raise in fuel duties.

I believe in environmental taxation. I believe in a fuel duty escalator. I am not attacking that; I am attacking the hypocrisy of those Conservatives who now say that they oppose it, having implemented it in the first place. I also make a fundamental point about environmental taxation. I do not think that it will command public support if it is always "take" and never "give": it needs to be about changing taxes, not increasing them. That is why Liberal Democrats have consistently argued that the fuel escalator could be used to abolish vehicle excise duty for all cars up to 1,600 cc--two thirds of cars--and so encourage people to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The proposal means that people are getting something back in return for the increases that they are paying. It is supported by the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club and other motoring organisations. It is supported by the public in general. It means that people pay as they go--rather than paying to tax the vehicle up front, which gives them an incentive to maximise their return by using it as much as possible.

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Although Labour has suggested that it will consider a small cut in vehicle excise duty to just £100 for some more environmental vehicles, it is not clear which vehicles will be covered. It does not appear that many will be covered, and I do not think that the public will see this as a bargain. I do not think that it is enough to make a difference; for the amounts involved, more could be done.

Finally, let me say a little about rural housing. The real issue of council house sales, which is touched on in the motion, is the lack of replacement affordable homes for rent--either council or housing association homes--under the Conservatives. The percentage of socially affordable rented accommodation was always lower in rural areas. Between 1980 and 1991, 30 per cent. of rural local authority housing was sold--95,000 properties. In the same period, housing associations built just 10,800 rural properties, and much of that involved shared ownership schemes.

That has meant that, while the wealthy have been moving into rural areas, displacing rural people and forcing up house prices so that private accommodation has become harder and harder to afford, there has been an increase in rural homelessness. According to the Rural Development Commission, homelessness is increasing fastest in rural areas--fastest of all in the deep rural areas, and especially in the south, where prices have risen as people have moved out of the cities and bought holiday and second homes, while also investing in homes to rent for the holiday market rather than full-time homes.

My county of Cornwall is thought to be the one with the biggest gap between house prices and incomes, which are the lowest in the country. It does not have Britain's highest house prices, but they are fairly high and incomes are very low. Such poor rural areas have been devastated by council house sales, and matters have been made worse by the benefit restrictions that apply to the under-25s. They hit hardest in rural areas where private accommodation is limited. Many people do not get housing benefit that is equivalent to the rents that they pay. One of my local authorities, Carrick, has asked for a meeting with the Minister for Local Government and Housing to address the fact that it already has 88 people in unsuitable temporary accommodation and that there will be 27 more in the next three weeks for whom the council cannot find public housing. That escalator will continue to rise.

A recent survey researched the number of those sleeping rough in rural Cornwall. They proved difficult to identify because, unlike such people in urban areas, those in rural areas may be in fields and will not necessarily remain in the same place. They move between towns and between short-term jobs, such as fruit or flower picking. The survey nevertheless showed that a significant number of rural homeless people were sleeping rough. That should not happen and it is an often forgotten rural problem. I hope that the Government will address it, and that the House can be united on the issue.

8.20 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) described a trip around Britain. In fact, it was around the south-east. The Official Report will show that he probably went as far west as Somerset and as far north as Lincolnshire, and ignored the north-west, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Northumbria and the midlands. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should be the Opposition spokesman for the south-east.

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I am worried by Conservative rhetoric, by the propagation of the myth of town against country. Opposition Members want to divide the country to win back rural seats, but that is dangerous. My local paper, The Cumberland News, carried reports of Cumberland agricultural show, which is the largest one-day show in Britain and which is held in Carlisle. The British National party was there trying to recruit people, and it used the same language as the hon. Member for South Suffolk.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): Shame.

Mr. Martlew: I do not accuse the hon. Gentleman of being a fascist, but I issue the warning that people should not try to set one part of the country against the other. That is what the Conservatives have done.

Cumbria has done well under a Labour Government. It received extra money for rural transport. Deregulation and the abolition of cross-subsidy were not mentioned by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. The people of Carlisle were happy to subsidise rural bus services, but the previous Government made sure that that was not possible. As a result, many rural bus services were lost, and the Government's grant of £50 million will help to restore them.

Cumbria got an extra £7 million in its education budget. I was a county councillor for many years, and during that time such an amount was never put into the budget. Some of that money will pay for rural transport for schoolchildren. The pupils in Cumbria's rural schools probably do better in Ofsted reports than children in urban schools. Perhaps that should be tackled in urban areas.

The county council is trying to introduce information technology to villages. Its two projects, Credits and Genesis, will take IT into village schools and also to the villages. The Department of Social Security is discussing with the county council a system under which people can communicate with a jobcentre from a kiosk. That gets rid of the need to take a bus, if there is one, into Carlisle to sign on. Village schools face a strange dilemma, because, although it is said that we should not close village schools, it is also said that we should not build any more houses. Lack of pupils poses a danger to such schools. In some way, affordable houses must be provided for young families, because it is often primary schools that are at risk.

It is said that 60 per cent. of building should be on brown-field sites, and that is obviously pertinent to places such as London. Perhaps we should see whether there are brown-field sites in villages. Sometimes there are, but in my constituency one or two factories would have to be closed to meet the 60 per cent. requirement, and I am sure that that is not what the Government are about.

Unemployment in my constituency is 4.9 per cent. In the neighbouring constituency of Penrith and The Border, it is 2 per cent., and the rate has fallen by 20 per cent. in the past two years. There is no crisis in the countryside there, but, even so, the Government have tackled the problem. They have made Cumbria a pilot area for the new deal. It started in January, and in urban and rural areas, it is getting young people back to work.

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My constituency is to get a new district general hospital costing £80 million to serve Carlisle and the rural area. There were many objections when it was suggested that the name of the hospital should be changed. It is called the Cumberland infirmary, which shows that it will meet the needs of people in rural and urban areas. Rural north Cumbria is a health action zone. The Government have specifically designated it as such, and one of the key objectives is to tackle ill health in rural areas. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will visit Cumbria next week to launch that.


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