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8.22 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am sure that all hon. Members share my disappointment that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) was not here to open the debate. I, for one, would have liked to ask him some questions about the policies that he has expounded in recent months--not least how he squares cutting bureaucracy for developers with giving more power to local people. I wonder whether that policy will continue.

Like many other Members, I am also disappointed that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) is not at the Dispatch Box, but I am sure that everyone awaits next Tuesday's Environment questions with great interest.

This afternoon, answering my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Prime Minister had a great opportunity to start the process of showing the Government's commitment. He could have said that the Government were going to come clean about whether they would provide match funding for areas that have been granted objective 1 status in Wales, the south-west, Merseyside and Sheffield. If he had said that the Government now had every intention of honouring those commitments, the message would have gone out to those areas, loud and clear, that the Government were on the ball and would deliver. I am sure that people living there are greatly disappointed that the opportunity was lost.

I spent 30 years in local government, during which time I chaired a local planning authority in what was probably the country's most densely populated city, and led the largest local authority in the country, with a great responsibility for a sizeable chunk of the south-east. I had expected to discover what the Tories had to say. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) did not allow me to intervene; had he done so, I would have asked what responsibility he felt he and his colleagues had for what had happened between 1979 and 1997. As planning chairman and as leader of a local authority,

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I suffered weekly from the overturning of planning decisions and from the pressure that is placed on local authorities to do more--and from not being able to receive a straight answer, even when Ministers were confronted by delegations of members and the public.

I was interested to read the document "Common Sense Revolution in Regeneration", and to note the sudden conversion experienced by the Tories who wrote it. They speak of restoring contaminated land. Where were they in the 1980s and 1990s, when authorities such as mine and many others throughout the country begged for resources to free up brownfield sites and enable them to be developed? The price for the failure to do that was the taking of hundreds, if not thousands, of the green acres that the Tories now long to protect. They did nothing; and there is no disclaimer in the document. There is not even a footnote saying, "Whatever you do, be careful: there is a denial at the back that you can use in case of emergency." Moreover, we heard nothing from the Tories today about their current position.

In a section entitled "Revised Planning Guidance", the Tories say:

Why now?

Mr. Norman: What is your policy?

Mr. Hancock: Do not worry; we shall come to that. You had years in power, and we are now suffering the results. It is a bit rich for you to come here--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman must remember to use the correct parliamentary language.

Mr. Hancock: It is a bit rich of Her Majesty's Opposition to present a motion that does little other than cry crocodile tears. It would have been nice if someone had owned up to the part that the Conservative party played in creating the present mess.

I entirely agree with the Minister about the difficulty of judging the north-south divide, but it is certainly not right for Members to talk down our northern cities. We need only look at the success stories in Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds, and the huge advances that have been made in Liverpool and Sheffield, in a very short time, under Liberal Democrat control. The figures speak for themselves.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, following the Rogers report, the Labour Government's policy is already being enacted in Liverpool? The regeneration company Liverpool Vision--in which the regional development agency works with the local authority and the private sector--has already begun its work. Perhaps he will thank the Government for giving Liverpool city council additional financial support, thus enabling the Liberal Democrats to freeze the council tax. Will he urge them to do the same next year, as the Government have given them yet more funding?

Mr. Hancock: No doubt everyone can produce similar stories from that area. The hon. Member for Liverpool,

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Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) is a classic example in this regard. He has spoken of the needs of his community. Just over the edge of his constituency, the Kensington community has been given new deal status: it will receive £50 million of investment over the next 10 years. A stone's throw away, a similar community consisting of great people struggling with similar problems will receive nothing.

The hon. Member for Walton said to the House, to the Government--I hope--and certainly to his constituents that areas should not continue to be run down while waiting for the result of pilot schemes in other areas. That must be what was behind his leaving the Government so dramatically: he must have seen the dissatisfaction that his constituents saw daily a stone's throw from where they lived. It is not good enough to try to massage the truth.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) was right to mention Liverpool, but since the Liberal Democrats have been in control there has been record investment of £1 billion in the city. Liverpool has been voted the top United Kingdom day visitor destination. Office developments in Princess dock are going ahead without gap funding, for the first time; and 4,500 homes have been transferred from council control to new social landlords, thus unlocking much-needed capital to improve houses. The story goes on--and that came about because a Liberal Democrat-controlled council had the strength, and the commitment to the city, to bring it about.

The same message is beginning to emerge in Sheffield. It is early days, but already a real change is coming over the city. I could list a great many incentives that are already beginning to bring it into the fold. It is not good enough that--

Dr. Whitehead: Does the hon. Gentleman recall a development between his constituency and mine, which is the largest out-of-town development along the M27? Does he recall also the party that was in control of the council that gave permission for that development, and the consequences that ensued?

Mr. Hancock: The hon. Gentleman is right. I intended to give credit to him for his achievements as leader of Southampton city council. We represent similar cities. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) is in his place, and he also can bear witness. Mistakes have been made by local authorities. However, the local authority to which the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) referred was squeezed into a difficult corner. We must try to arrive at policies that allow a reasonable balance. The development could have taken place in the Southampton docks, for example, if Southampton had been open-minded enough to attract it on to a brownfield site. However, millions of pounds would have been needed to clean up the site and make the docks ready for the development. The money was not available because the Tory Government would not provide it. As a result, the development went elsewhere and put pressure on the green belt, and so the story continues.

Portsmouth is a densely populated island. However, as part of its commitment, it is taking another 5,000 housing units. Portsmouth needs new houses like a hole in the head, but it is prepared to do something. As I am sure Ministers and others would say, people living in urban

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areas do not want to see rural communities and the green belt that surrounds our cities built upon all over the place. However, there is a price to pay for urban areas such as Portsmouth, Southampton and Brighton playing their part in the south-east.

The figures are hopelessly wrong. They take no account of the fact that in Portsmouth, for example, there are probably nearly 2,000 empty properties. There are probably 10,000 properties that are under-occupied. Many of them are council-owned properties.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the need to protect the countryside. Does he agree that it is fundamental that we allow some development in rural areas? Through village appraisals and blueprints, local communities often say that they want some housing or economic development because they will suffer just as much as urban areas unless they get it.

Mr. Hancock: Absolutely. I have spoken at numerous village meetings where the village community--not the people who came in for second homes and picturesque thatched cottages--has said that. What about the youngsters, who were born and grew up in the village and who want to continue to live there? Where do they go in the New Forest? Where can they find housing? Do they have to go to Southampton or Bournemouth to live in multi-occupation housing? Do they have to go to Basingstoke? It is the same throughout the south-east. There are obvious needs in the rural community and, once again, a balance must be found.

I hope that the Minister who replies will say that greater help will be given to solve the problem of rundown urban areas, wherever they are. The general improvement areas and housing action areas of the late 1960s and early 1970s have done their job. The 25-year extra life that a general improvement area was supposed to give to an old property has now come to an end in most instances, and most of the properties concerned are more than 100 years old. They now need further refurbishment. We need a return to grants to improve them. Local authorities need help to be able to offer proper and viable alternatives to the elderly who under-occupy. There are some ludicrous examples where one person is occupying a three-bedroom council house with a garden at the front and at the back. At the same time, there are 4,500 and sometimes nearly 5,000 families waiting to be rehoused in many cities. In some instances the figures may be even higher. We need to arrive at policies that offer solutions that do not involve building new housing. In other words, we do not have to build new houses.

A number of things could and should have been done between 1979 and 1997. We know that no one in this place will own up for what did not happen. The Minister rightly applauded the achievements of the last Secretary of State in the Conservative Government with responsibilities in this area, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who tried to halt the development of out-of-town shopping. Unfortunately that finger appeared in the dyke a little too late in the day when most of the damage had been done. Most of the stores have been built, with their acres of car parks. That cannot be reversed.

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