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Disadvantaged Communities

11. Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): What steps he is taking to ensure that local people are involved in renewing disadvantaged communities. [120150]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): The active involvement of local people is critically important in regenerating deprived neighbourhoods, as recognised in the social exclusion unit's recently published consultation document on the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal. My Department's programmes, particularly the new deal for communities and the single regeneration budget, already place great emphasis on the genuine involvement of local people at all stages.

Mr. Rammell: Will my hon. Friend confirm that when it comes to regenerating disadvantaged communities, between 1999 and 2002 this Government will spend six times as much as the Conservatives did during their last three years in office, simply in terms of the single regeneration budget? Will she confirm that it is not just a question of money, and that it is essential that local people are involved in the process that decides how the money is spent? Will she confirm that when we talk about disadvantaged communities, we are not talking only about areas in the north of England, Scotland or Wales, because some are in the south of England?

Ms Hughes: I can confirm my hon. Friend's point about money. Across the board since May 1997, the Government have spent almost £5.5 billion on regeneration schemes. That has been spent by my Department, and in education, health and elsewhere. That shows our commitment to regeneration and to helping those who were disadvantaged for two decades under the previous regime. We have learned from previous approaches to regeneration that unless local people are involved from the outset, and unless they have a say in decisions about priorities for their areas and how those should be achieved, any change will not be sustainable. My hon. Friend will see that the new deal for communities has been applied outside urban areas because there are

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pockets of deprivation in all parts of the country, and the Government are committed to tackling deprivation wherever it occurs.

Road Haulage Forum

12. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): When he last met the road haulage forum to discuss transport issues. [120151]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): The last meeting was on 17 April.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for that informative reply. Given that the much-trumpeted cut in vehicle excise duty applies to only a tiny minority of heavy goods vehicles, will the Minister recognise that with fuel now by far the most expensive in Europe, with domestic profit margins slashed to the bone, with heavier foreign trucks seizing British business and with the Government taking seven times as much from the vehicle user as they spend on roads, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State remains in the sights of road hauliers in my constituency as public enemy number one?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman ought to contain himself--he is not on Lambeth council any longer. I do not recognise the true views of the road haulage industry in his remarks. This year's Budget gave a substantial boost to the trucking industry. For most lorries, real-terms taxation remained the same, and for some--notably the 40-tonne, five-axle lorry--the 10 per cent. cut in vehicle excise duty, worth £45 million, will provide an important boost to the international competitiveness of the UK haulage industry. In addition, the industry will benefit from increased spending on congestion hot spots and new roads schemes out of the extra £280 million for investment in transport announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As the Freight Transport Association said:

It knows what it is talking about, even if the Opposition clearly do not.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Have not all those meetings with the forum clouded the Government's judgment? Is it not simply because of pressure from the forum that they have made the ill-judged decision to introduce 44-tonne lorries? Why have they listened only to the forum and totally ignored the advice from the major railfreight operator EWS, which has made it absolutely clear that the introduction of those lorries will reduce by 19 per cent. the share of freight carried on our railways? Will the Minister at least accept the need to do something and consider reducing railfreight access charges?

Mr. Hill: The introduction of the 44-tonne lorry announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget was made at the recommendation of the Commission for Integrated Transport, which calculated that it would reduce lorry trips by about 100 million a year. That is a significant contribution to the environment, and this Government, with our well-known commitment to the environment, are delighted to have made that judgment.

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Non-domestic Properties

13. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): If he will make a statement on progress in (a) the revaluation of non- domestic properties in England and (b) the revising of the distribution of the income from non-domestic council tax payments. [120152]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): The rating revaluation of non-domestic properties took effect on 1 April. We have no plans to revise the way in which the income from non-domestic rates is redistributed back to local authorities, the current redistribution being based on the size of the local population.

Mr. O'Brien: May I draw attention to the problems and difficulties that small businesses are facing in town and city centres because of the revaluation of their properties? It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that that hardship is reduced in all ways possible. On the redistribution of income from non-domestic rates, may I draw attention to the fact that the Conservative Government withdrew the support to parish and town councils from the industrial rate? Will my right hon. Friend consider reinstating some of that resource to the smaller authorities so that they can generate much greater interest in their communities and provide the necessary services that come with parish and town council status?

Ms Armstrong: The revaluation, which took effect on 1 April, means that the amount paid nationally in rates remains broadly the same, even though rateable values have increased by 25 per cent. That is because the rate poundage has been reduced from 48.9p to 41.6p. My hon. Friend will also want to know that we have recognised the particular pressures on small businesses, so for this year the maximum increase for any small business is 5 per cent., and in subsequent years it will be 7.5 per cent. At the same time, we have raised the level defining a small business to £12,000.

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We are to publish a White Paper on rural policy this year, which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment said earlier, will allow us to examine governance in rural areas. As part of that we will consider some of the issues concerning parishes. In the local government finance Green Paper, we will also be able to consider the specific issue that my hon. Friend has raised.

Empty Properties

14. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): What steps he is taking to minimise the number of empty properties. [120153]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): We have successfully encouraged a significant number of local authorities to adopt empty homes reduction strategies. From this year, we are requiring all authorities to publish indicators of their performance in managing their own stock and returning private sector vacant stock to use. We have set up an empty property advisory group to develop an effective policy aimed at building on the steps that we have already taken.

Mr. Baker: Before the Minister authorises the carpeting of what is left of greenfield Sussex with thousands upon thousands of new houses, will he take steps to change the council tax system, which gives a perverse incentive to leave properties empty? In Lewes district 812 properties get a 50 per cent. discount for being second homes or holiday homes, and 383 properties that get a 100 per cent. discount because they are unoccupied for six months or more. Will he have a word with the Chancellor, so that leaving properties empty will attract a penalty, not a benefit, for the owner?

Mr. Mullin: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point--up to a point. We shall examine in the White Paper the issue that he raises about empty properties. Although his question was phrased in a rather churlish way, the local council in Lewes has made quite good progress in reducing the number of empty properties, which has just about halved in the past four years. We would like other local authorities to emulate that example.

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