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National Walking Forum

10. Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): When he plans to establish the national walking forum to implement the national walking strategy. [112182]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): We have already published guidance to local authorities on providing for walking in their local transport plans, and more guidance will be published shortly. That will provide practical advice to planners and practitioners in making it easier, safer and more convenient for people to walk, which we hope will add to the quality of life, especially in our urban areas. We are considering arrangements for continuing consultation with interested parties.

Mr. Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I am sure that, like me, he is astonished by the statistic that about half of all the traffic on the road between 8.30 am and 9 am is the school run--parents taking their children to school. That creates a serious traffic problem, as well as a health problem. Will my hon. Friend refer the problem to the walking forum when it is established, so that it can propose successful measures to bring the numbers down?

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I should point out to him that a separate body, the schools travel advisory group, already exists. It has already reported on these matters and made a number of helpful recommendations to the Government about ways in which we can encourage families to prise their children out of cars and encourage them to cycle, walk or bus to school, as a healthier alternative to the school run.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Deputy Prime Minister said in the White Paper that too many of us are using a car for a short distance instead of walking. Will the Minister undertake that next year, the Deputy Prime Minister will leave the two Jags at home when he goes to party conference and walk between the conference centre and the hotel?

Mr. Hill: This really is becoming rather tedious. I shall treat the hon. Lady's intervention with the contumely that it deserves.

Forth Rail Bridge

12. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): If he will make a statement on the results of his inquiry into the safety and maintenance of the Forth rail bridge. [112184]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I understand that inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive meet regularly with Railtrack to monitor progress against the agreed maintenance plan. The Health and Safety Executive has also undertaken targeted inspections as part of its routine maintenance programme. Railtrack is working to the plan that it produced to comply with the HSE's improvement notice issued in 1996. The HSE's report of its inspection concluded that the bridge was safe; it has no evidence to suggest that the bridge has deteriorated since its inspection. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to my

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hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) yesterday on the matter, and I shall write to the Scottish Executive shortly.

Mr. Dalyell: But deterioration continues. Given that Wilkie-Hooke, the subcontractor for 13 years, has been forced into receivership--blamelessly, in the opinion of its bank chairman, George Younger--and its experienced, skilful and brave employees have been thrown into unemployment by a puerile row between Railtrack and Rigblast, who will carry out the maintenance and painting of the greatest engineering monument to the experience of the 19th century anywhere in Europe, let alone make it safe for rail services north of the border?

Mr. Hill: I understand my hon. Friend's proper anxiety, but the termination of the maintenance contract for the bridge is a commercial matter for Railtrack and its contractor Rigblast, as is the relationship between Rigblast and its subcontractor, Wilkie-Hooke. They are not matters for Ministers' intervention. The key point is that the bridge is safe and that Railtrack is actively planning a programme of work to complete refurbishment of the bridge.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): As someone who uses it regularly, may I say that the condition of the Forth rail bridge is a national disgrace? Is it not time that somebody told Railtrack to show more expedition than it has demonstrated in the years since the matter was first brought up? Surely it is ultimately up to Ministers to do that.

Mr. Hill: The nation knows that the bridge is an epic structure, which needs to be protected, and that it provides an essential route to the highlands. However, let me try to reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that, to date, Railtrack has invested £25 million in refurbishing the bridge, on recoating, new floodlighting and repairs to the steel structure. It will shortly appoint a new contractor to complete the work on the walkways, carry out minor steelwork repairs and enable the bridge to be painted.

Housing Investment

13. Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): If he will make a statement on housing investment. [112185]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The Government have provided a massive boost--around £5 billion over the lifetime of this Parliament--in resources for housing investment that deliver real improvements in the quality of life and well-being of many low-income households. As a result, local authority housing investment programmes have been increased by no less than 48 per cent. in the coming year. That is part of a comprehensive range of measures to tackle the major housing problems inherited from the previous Government.

Mr. Caplin: I welcome the Government's new investment in an important part of the United Kingdom's infrastructure. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the new

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investment that the Government propose will be used effectively to tackle the important social housing needs that exist in many constituencies such as mine?

Mr. Raynsford: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. We are not only providing resources to enable local authorities to tackle the backlog but putting in place proper provision through the best value regime to ensure that authorities achieve real value for money and continually improve the quality of the services that they offer. That is part of the Government's commitment not only to reversing the investment shortfall that we inherited, but to creating a proper climate for efficient delivery of public services to people in need.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The figure has gone up 48 per cent. compared with last year's, which was lamentably low. Does the Minister accept that the figures are £27 billion invested by us in four years in the previous Parliament, compared with £24.1 billion projected through to the fourth year of this Government--a fall of some £3 billion? If he denies that, will he tell me and the House straightforwardly whether the figures for homeless acceptances--which, after all, must be the litmus test of whether the Government are investing in housing--have gone up or down?

Mr. Raynsford: I remind the hon. Gentleman that, by the end of this Parliament, capital investment by local authorities and registered social landlords together will be double that which we inherited from the Conservative Government. That is the truth and I can assure him that we are ensuring that the needs of the homeless are met. As he will know only too well, the numbers have been high because housing provision is not made overnight and recovery is taking time after years of neglect and under-investment by the Conservative Government. However, we are addressing those needs and providing the homes, unlike his party, which has spent most of today trying to make cheap political points at the expense of the homeless by saying, "Don't build any houses in the south of England."

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend and his colleagues on the record housing investment and the change to resource accounting, which are in the sharpest possible contrast with the devastation of house building and housing investment over the past two decades. However, is he aware that my constituency in the inner area of Luton has an acute need for larger refurbished homes? Will he redouble his efforts in discussions with the Chancellor to encourage my right hon. Friend to amend the rules on VAT on refurbishment, thereby making best use of housing investment moneys?

Mr. Raynsford: I can assure my hon. Friend that we are very keen to ensure that we achieve the best possible use of resources. Of course, matters relating to taxation are entirely for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. However, I stress that the Government are not afraid of meeting their responsibilities. We recognise the extent of poverty and deprivation and the wide range of housing needs which have not been adequately met as a result of the previous Government's lamentable failure. We are putting that right and, over this Parliament and the next,

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following a successful general election, we shall ensure that the whole country properly provides for the needs of all its population.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): A great many houses--several million of which are more than 100 years old and received improvement grants 30 years ago--are sick and need money spending on them. Does the Minister recognise that unless the Government are prepared to invest, and unless we have a housing programme that includes several hundred million pounds to enable local authorities to make greater use of discretionary awards, we shall return to the days of the bulldozer and slum clearance and have an even worse housing problem?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point about the backlog of poor-condition properties--many of them in the private sector--in need of renovation. He will want to know that our forthcoming housing Green Paper will set out a number of important new proposals to attack the problem of disrepair in all sectors, including the private sector, with new and imaginative approaches. I obviously cannot give him the details, but I can assure him that when the Green Paper is published, which will be in the reasonably near future, he will welcome many of its proposals.

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