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Regional Development Agencies

10. Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): What proposals he has for giving regional assemblies an advisory role in regional development agencies. [54335]

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn): The Regional Development Agencies Bill currently before Parliament

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provides for regional chambers--which are now coming together in each English region--to have an advisory role in relation to the RDAs. The establishment of regional assemblies in England is something for the future, depending on popular demand.

Mr. Mitchell: I am delighted that, in those areas where regional assemblies have been set up thanks to local pride and local initiative, they will play a part in the chambers. I hope that my hon. Friend will pay attention to the strong feeling over the whole of the north of England that we should be moving to elected regional governments for those areas that want them during this Parliament rather than postponing the proposal to the next one. If we had elected regional government, it could give to the development of the RDAs the synergy of democracy that will exist in Scotland so that we can compete effectively, and it would also put an end to the rubbish about an English Parliament which is being talked about by the Opposition.

Mr. Caborn: I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that we are not into gesture politics like the Opposition. In our devolution, we are managing change in concert with what the British people want. As we know, in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and in London, all that has been tested by the popular vote and the electorate have said overwhelmingly that they want that devolution. In the same way, we shall manage the change for England through the regional development agencies and the chambers and, in the fulness of time, through regional assemblies. That is what we said in the manifesto and that is what we will deliver. We will keep to our election promises.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On the subject of what people want, exactly how much will that extra tier of bureaucracy cost?

Mr. Caborn: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was present during the debate on the Regional Development Agencies Bill. We said clearly in Committee and on the Floor of the House that it would be contained within present expenditure.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Will my hon. Friend be meeting his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to discuss the role of the training and enterprise councils, to ensure that they work closely with the RDAs to provide the necessary skills and training in the areas where that is required?

Mr. Caborn: That is an important part of the remit of the RDAs. I have already announced the strategy document this afternoon--copies are in the Library--and part of that strategic overview will be to look at the skills needs of particular regions. That is important and will be carried out across all Departments of State.

Local Authority Capping

11. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): If he will report on his progress towards removing capping from local authorities. [54336]

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The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Ms Hilary Armstrong): Our White Paper in July announced our intention to end crude and universal capping while taking a new reserve power to limit excessive council tax increases.

Dr. Cable: Will the Minister acknowledge that there are many councils under all three parties that cannot meet the Government's expectations for improved education standards, care in the community and the new best value requirements for replenishing reserves without much greater freedom to set expenditure and local tax levels than the Government are willing to give them?

Ms Armstrong: In the comprehensive spending review we announced what we feel are substantial and realistic increases for Government contribution to local government spending and for overall local government spending. I am convinced that the spending limits about which we have been talking will enable local government to meet its targets and its commitment to improve services, and enable local people to take advantage of the opportunity offered by those services. We are ending crude and universal capping but, it is none the less, in the interests of the entire country for an eye to be kept on overall public spending, and that is what we intend to do.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Will the Minister explain how it can make sense for the forthcoming budget round to set capping criteria only after local authorities have set their budgets? Will she also explain why the Local Government Association takes the view that her proposals will lead to

Ms Armstrong: The system that we shall operate this year was introduced by the previous Administration, who changed the way in which they implemented legislation when they felt that local authorities were out of control. We cannot, this year, amend the legislation, so to end crude and universal capping we need to work within the existing legislation, which means no presignalling of individual budgets.


The Secretary of State was asked--

Road Congestion

1. Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): What representations he has received on his Department's proposals to reduce congestion on Britain's roads. [54357]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): We received more than 7,000 responses to our integrated transport consultation, the great majority of which were concerned with the impacts of congestion. Since publishing the integrated transport White Paper, I have received many letters broadly welcoming our proposals.

Mrs. Winterton: Bearing in mind the fact that 80 per cent. of goods in the United Kingdom are transported by

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freight on the roads for the simple reason that there is no good alternative, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the costs of congestion, for example, on the M6 around Birmingham and the M62 around Manchester? Furthermore, is he aware that a company based at Sandbach in my constituency has estimated that congestion on the M6 alone costs it £500,000 a year in vehicle and driver delays? That figure can be multiplied many times for business and industry in the north-west of England. What does the Secretary of State propose to do to assist business and industry in moving their goods?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Lady has given a catalogue of the disasters that we inherited after 18 years of Tory non-transport policy. We have produced a paper on integrated transport--the first for 20 years--which demonstrates how we give a higher priority to rail transport. We have doubled the amount of freight grants, which has increased freight by 5 per cent. in one year--more than the figure has increased over the past decade.

On road congestion, we have considered the part of the M6 to which the hon. Lady referred as part of a transport corridor study to find out how we can use under-utilised rail more effectively and reduce congestion on the road. That is the intelligent approach to transport that is embodied in our White Paper.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): As a keen motor cyclist, I am delighted that the White Paper recognises for the first time the role that motor cycles can play in reducing congestion, particularly in urban areas. Will my right hon. Friend encourage local councils to promote the role of motor cycling in tackling congestion in experiments such as those in Reading and Bristol, where motor cycles have been allowed to use bus lanes to great effect? Does he intend to experience the delights of motor cycling in the near future?

Mr. Prescott: No, but I have ridden motor bikes from time to time. They have a role, which must be encouraged, in reducing congestion and providing alternative choices. My hon. Friend referred to towns where motor cycles have been given priority in bus lanes, and I am pleased to say that Hull has done the same. That is in response to the ideas in our White Paper.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): Before the election, Labour promised to reduce traffic. The party's election internet site said that Labour would

Since the election Ministers have repeated that pledge. In June last year the Deputy Prime Minister said:

    "I will have failed if in five years time there are not . . far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it."

The White Paper on integrated transport refers only to reducing traffic growth. Will the right hon. Gentleman reassure the House, business--which loses billions of pounds to congestion each year--and the one out of seven children who suffer from asthma triggered by pollution that the Government will keep their election promises and reduce traffic levels overall, not merely the growth in traffic?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman quoted both the question and the answer and I agree to keep to that commitment: judge my performance in five years.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): I welcome my right hon. Friend's proposal to designate the

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A1 trunk road a core national route. Does he agree that the only way of relieving congestion on that single carriageway bottleneck in the national highway system is by dualling it? Will my right hon. Friend encourage his colleagues at the Scottish Office to follow his lead by designating the A1 in Scotland a core national route?

Mr. Prescott: Our position on the A1 was made clear in the roads paper and announced to the House. The proposal requires a great deal of co-operation between us and the Scottish authorities, and we are working to that end.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I thank the Secretary of State for the illuminating answers given by his Ministers. Despite his newly announced policy on integrated road transport, my question about reducing traffic growth forecasts over the next 20 years has received simply a holding reply. The Secretary of State repeated at the Labour party conference that the volume of traffic is expected to continue to grow, by 30 per cent. over the next 20 years. How will the Government curb congestion and pollution--that is the right hon. Gentleman's manifesto commitment--when even the slashed roads programme that he announced at the end of the summer does not contain a single start date or commitment to beginning a new roads scheme before the next general election?

Mr. Prescott: The 30 per cent. growth figure is based on historical trends. It is estimated that, if we do not change to a better public transport system, we will face that kind of growth.

Our policies in the integrated transport White Paper are about reducing that figure and getting people to change from using cars to public transport. Our policies, once implemented, will begin to have that effect. We face the current problem because the previous Government refused to put resources into either road or rail, and left us with a total mess and the cost of dealing with congestion.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the congestion problem in the west midlands involves not only the raised section of the M6 but all the roads beneath it? It is almost impossible to travel around the black country. Does my right hon. Friend accept that light rail systems are a viable way forward for the black country, where priority bus lanes are unfeasible because of general geographical problems? Will he look sympathetically at the three packages that have been submitted to him jointly by the west midlands local authorities, particularly the line 3 proposal, which involves a £20 million private sector contribution towards opening up rail transport between Walsall, Dudley and the Merry Hill shopping complex?

Mr. Prescott: I am prepared to consider any proposals that reduce congestion and help the public transport system. I do not readily accept that there cannot be priority bus lanes in the area that my hon. Friend mentioned. I think that hon. Members recognise that light rail systems are an extremely expensive way of dealing with congestion problems. We have several of them in this country, but I think that buses can play a greater role than light rail systems.

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