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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 March 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


Greenham and Crookham Commons Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 14 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Tenant Participation Compacts

1. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): If he will make a statement on the implementation of tenant participation compacts. [112172]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Bringing tenants into the heart of decisions affecting their homes is a vital part of our agenda to improve local services, increase local democracy and strengthen local communities. Tenant participation compacts, which are being introduced by councils from April, will set out how tenants can be involved in local housing decisions in ways that meet their needs and priorities. The Government will make £12 million available to councils over the next two years to help with the extra costs of setting up compacts. Parallel assistance for tenants of housing associations has been made available through the Housing Corporation.

Helen Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and it is welcome to hear how much money will be made available to councils to implement the compacts. What steps will he take to ensure that councils involve the widest possible number of tenants in compacts and spread their net to involve a wide variety of people, not simply a self-selected few?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the importance of ensuring that good practice extends throughout the local authority world. We are keen to monitor progress, to highlight the achievements of those authorities that are doing best in tenant involvement and to encourage good practice to spread more widely.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): While tenant participation compacts can, and probably will, be helpful

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in developing a superior housing service in the future, what does the Minister intend to do now about the scandal across the country of empty council housing that is predominantly the responsibility of left-wing authorities that are providing rotten services at rip-off prices?

Mr. Raynsford: The Government attach the most serious importance to the problem of empty properties, and they occur in all sectors. There are too many properties empty in the local authority sector and there are too many privately owned empty properties. The Government are taking steps across the board to encourage bringing properties back into use. In particular, we are encouraging local authorities to develop local empty properties strategies to identify those homes that are empty, to take action to bring them into use and to put in place supportive measures with other bodies, such as registered social landlords, that can help in that process.

Regional Policy

2. Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): If he will make a statement on his proposals to strengthen regional policy. [112173]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The launch of the regional development agencies last year demonstrated our commitment to maximising the potential of the English regions. We now look forward to seeing their implementation plans for the regional strategies that the Government welcomed in January this year.

We have also secured the establishment of voluntary regional chambers in all the English regions outside London. Together with the RDAs, those bodies are helping to build up the voice of the regions and to enhance regional identities.

Mr. Taylor: Is my right hon. Friend happy that our regional policy adequately addresses the very serious state of the textile, clothing and footwear industry, which employs a third of a million people, a quarter of whom are in the east midlands? The industry is bigger than farming, car manufacturing or the chemical industry. Does he agree that it is as important to defend the interests of poorly paid women in east midlands textile factories as it is to defend the interests of well-paid men in the London-based financial services?

Mr. Prescott: The House is aware of the difficulties that the textile industry and its workers have been facing for some time. I am glad to say that the regional development agency in the east midlands is working closely with the East Midlands Clothing and Textiles Partnership, which is exactly what regional bodies should be doing. It has brought together all the interests in the industry and examined how they may develop and sharpen its competitiveness. That is why the RDAs are so

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important for reducing the disparities between and within the regions, which would be made worse now that the Tories are preparing to abolish them.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): Does the Deputy Prime Minister remember saying in December 1996:

Can he clarify how that pledge squares with a statement made by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions who said, when asked whether she would introduce elected assemblies in the next Parliament, that she had "no idea"? Will "no idea" be the Deputy Prime Minister's chapter in the next manifesto and is not the real truth that Downing street and the rest of the Government have backed off that pledge and left him hanging out to dry?

Mr. Prescott: I am glad that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) has decided to intervene on these occasions and that he has started off by quoting our manifesto. Our position now is precisely as it was then. We are developing the new manifesto--[Hon. Members: "Ah."] We are a party that implements its manifesto. We have already implemented 80 per cent. of the manifesto that we put before the country and we are planning the new one because we have no doubt that we will be the party in power next time. The reason for that is that our policies are relevant to people. For example, the regional development agencies have already done much--and will do more--to reduce the economic disparities between regions. However, the hon. Gentleman proposes to abolish them. Perhaps he should pay some attention to that.

Mr. Norman: It is hard to tell whether the Government remain committed to elected assemblies. If they do, why cannot the House now be told when they will be introduced? What will happen to the county councils as a result? Will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify why he has described elected assemblies as being very important, whereas the Minister for Local Government and the Regions described them as a diversion? Perhaps both are really saying the same thing, for once--that they are an important diversion.

More importantly, will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify who is responsible for this area of Government policy? First, he had transport taken away from him and given to Lord Macdonald, then responsibility for the countryside was transferred to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and now we understand that the Committee for the Regions is to be chaired by Lord Falconer. Whenever the Government have an expensive failure on their hands, do they not always call for the Minister for the dome? Is not the truth that the Government are moving away from elected regional assemblies because they have learned that the only way to rig elections successfully is to make sure that everyone involved is appointed?

Mr. Prescott: That is really cutting stuff. The Government's regional policy is implemented by me and my Department. I certainly retain responsibility for

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transport: others may say that I do not, but I notice that they are always asking me to make the statements to the House.

The hon. Gentleman referred to regional assemblies. They have already been established, include 100 Tory councillors, and are supported by the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress. Will he say whether he will persist with his intention to abolish them?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Whatever my right hon. Friend does with regional government, he must not have it quoted on the stock market. If he did, would not educated Archie over there buy it, and sell it off to Wal-Mart?

Mr. Prescott: I have no doubt that the experience to which my hon. Friend refers will be best utilised in the next statement to be made to the House.

Road Noise

3. Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): How much will be spent on motorway and A-road noise mitigation in 2000-01. [112174]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The Highways Agency has undertaken to spend £5 million on noise mitigation measures in 2000-01 at high-priority locations on trunk roads, which include motorways and major A-road links. This is in addition to the expenditure on providing quieter road surfaces during the course of normal maintenance.

Mr. Fallon: My constituency includes a triangle of busy motorways that increasingly is to the detriment of the parishes of Kemsing, Otford and Chevening. The ring-fenced funding is very welcome, but when will modern asphalt and better screening be used to give a better quality of life for those who live in those tunnels of noise?

Mr. Meacher: I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He is referring, I think, to the triangle created where the M25 and M26 connect with the M20. We recognise that excessive noise is a major concern to people who live near busy roads. He will know that we set out the sift criteria for dealing with that problem in a parliamentary answer on 22 March last year. A composite list of all roads meeting those criteria was published on 11 November. The Highways Agency is developing the programme of priorities within that list. Some of those studies were completed by the end of last year, and I am sure that the others will be completed soon. The Highways Agency expects that 1,200 lane-km of trunk-road network will be resurfaced in 2000-01, at a cost of about £20 million. Perhaps some will be in the hon. Gentleman's area.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): I thank my right hon. Friend for the information about what the Government are doing to reduce noise from motorways. However, will he investigate a problem in my constituency that involves properties near motorways? When we approached the Highways Agency about the matter, it quoted the previous Government's decision not to make available expenditure

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for reducing the noise suffered by people who live in properties built near motorways. Will he investigate the situation with a view to rectifying it? Under the Tories, motorways were built near properties, yet the people living in them are being denied insulation to reduce the noise.

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. As we all know, under the previous Government, the cheapest measure was often that which was implemented. We do not believe that that is necessarily right. "A New deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" published in July 1998 recognised the problem. The roads review that we implemented at that time said:

We believe that that is right, and it is very different from what happened under the previous Government.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Is the Minister not ashamed that the Government are spending only £5 million on the important topic of noise reduction? Is he aware that of the 174,000 miles of road network, that money will allow noise reduction measures to be carried out on only 60 miles a year? Is this not a case of the Government failing to deliver on the promises that the Deputy Prime Minister made in "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone"? Is this not just another Government failure on roads?

Mr. Meacher: I must say that the hon. Gentleman has a brass neck to accuse us of spending only £5 million when his Government not only did not spend £5 million, but built the noisy roads in the first place. He is also wrong to say that that amount is necessarily limited to 60 miles of road. I have already indicated that operational requirements in terms of maintenance and roadway improvement will lead to resurfacing with a quieter surface as a routine measure. In addition, we will be providing noise mitigation measures over a much greater length of motorway or of other trunk roads by the use of noise barriers and other measures.

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