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The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): The RDAs are expected to work within the regional transport strategies, which are key parts of the regional planning guidance. The RDAs are making a significant input into those strategies, and will also be invited to comment on the forthcoming 10-year plan for transport.
Gillian Merron: Bearing in mind the inextricable link between economic development, prosperity and transport--which is why my constituents so welcomed the Government's commitment to dualling the A46, and the fact that work on that will commence next year--can the Minister say what action she will be taking to ensure that regional development agencies are able to inform and support the development of much-needed train links to places such as Lincoln? Such a link would enable my constituency not only to be drawn more fully into the regional and national rail transport system, but to benefit more fully from economic opportunity.
Ms Armstrong: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the very constructive role that she has played in establishing the Lincoln rail forum. We would expect that the regional development agency would work closely with the local authority and with the franchise director, who operates within guidance issued by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on the provision of rail services within Great Britain. The guidance requires the franchise director to maintain effective liaison with the RDAs. It is, therefore, linking the national, regional and local imperative that will allow us to develop rail services across the country that really meet local people's aspirations while fitting into a national programme.
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): That all sounds very fine, but where in the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 does it make any mention of transport as a responsibility of RDAs? Is not that something that RDAs have complained about? Is it not also symptomatic of the widespread confusion about the role of RDAs and their relationship with Government, which has been criticised by the Government-appointed RDA board members as follows:
Ms Armstrong: Everyone else in the House recognises that for economic development it is vital to have an effective transport infrastructure. Therefore any organisation that is considering economic development will of course liaise with the organisations responsible for the transport infrastructure. That is precisely what is happening and what RDAs are participating in, and why they meet regularly with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport.
As for the second part of the question, the meeting with RDA chairs in Birmingham was to discuss with them the way in which funding will be allocated and developed in the future, and their role in the future. They warmly welcomed the Government's paper and produced a response to it last week. We will publish our views after the spending review next week.
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Given that the East Midlands development agency was recently very positive about the regenerative potential of the Ivanhoe rail line through north-west Leicestershire and south Derbyshire, is my right hon. Friend confident that next week's comprehensive spending review will free sufficient resources to back such local projects and improvements to the rail infrastructure? Will she encourage one of her colleagues to receive a delegation from Leicestershire, including local Members of Parliament, to discuss the finance potential for that project?
Ms Armstrong: I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport is always happy to meet Members of Parliament to discuss their commitment to developing local transport initiatives. The recent local transport plans demonstrated the Government's commitment to building up local transport that will make a real difference to local people, both in terms of economic development opportunities and more effective public transport. I am sure that those factors will be taken into account in the spending review for the next three years.
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The latest year for which estimates are available is 1997--the last year of the previous Administration. In the three years to 1997, 56 per cent. of new dwellings were built on previously developed land or provided by converting existing buildings.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am glad that the Deputy Prime Minister has chosen to answer this question himself. Does he recall saying that the green belt was a great Labour achievement and we should build on it? Would it not be a better achievement if we stopped the present rate of building on greenbelt and greenfield sites and gave
Mr. Prescott: The area of greenbelt land has increased by 2 per cent. under this Government. In the last four or five years of the previous Administration, it did not increase at all. It might have been useful for the hon. Gentleman to consider the implications of the 56 per cent. development on brownfield sites. That means that 44 per cent. of development under the previous Administration was on greenfield sites.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have been extremely successful in getting some regeneration into inner-city areas, mainly on brownfield sites? Is he aware that there is now a major problem with the European Union's refusal to let us continue with gap funding? Can my right hon. Friend say something helpful to ensure that developers can carry out redevelopment of brownfield sites and existing buildings in our inner cities to continue that urban renaissance?
Mr. Prescott: I very much agree not only with what my hon. Friend says, but with what the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, of which he is a Chairman, has been pointing out to us--namely, that we should increase the amount of building on brownfield sites. I gave a commitment to the House to increase building on such sites to 60 per cent. by 2008 and we will stand by that commitment. I am not sure what the Opposition's commitment is--it has changed five times in five years. The previous Administration stated that it would be 50 per cent. in their housing White Paper of 1995; their household growth Green Paper said 60 per cent.; at the election they said 60 per cent.; the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said 70 per cent. in October 1997 and 66 per cent. in January 1998; and by March 2000 it was 70 per cent. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell the House which figure they are picking ready for the election.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Is it not the case that under this Government the proportion of new development on brownfield sites is falling and that there is no prospect in the real world of the Government hitting even their own targets? Is it any wonder that the Secretary of State is poised to ignore the democratic voice of the south-east regional planning committee and permit large tracts of the south-east to be concreted over?
Mr. Prescott: I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not give us the latest version of the percentage figure that the Opposition accept at present. He is wrong to suggest that the proportion of new development on such sites is falling. I said that in the last year for which figures are available--1997--it was 56 per cent. and the figure for the two previous years was 56 per cent. That is exactly where we are at the moment. To be fair, it fell in only one year, which was 1997--I should have said that it was 55 per cent. then, not 56 per cent. Our target means that we have to increase it by 0.5 per cent. a year. It is a tough target, but we have already spelled out to the House
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): The Humber bridge board, which owns the bridge, is responsible for its operation and its finances, and for proposing any changes in the tolls to be charged. The Secretary of State has responsibility for determining applications to revise tolls solely according to certain statutory criteria.
Shona McIsaac: While I welcome some of the action that the Government have taken to assist the board to restructure the debt on the bridge, does my hon. Friend agree that Europe's plans to impose value added tax on tolls will have a devastating effect on the communities north and south of the Humber? If that is to happen, I suggest that he does one of two things: restructure the debt again so that there is no increase in the tolls, or wipe it out completely.
Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend takes a keen interest in these matters on behalf of her constituents. She has acknowledged that the Government have made considerable progress in finding a solution to the debt problem of the Humber bridge.
On VAT on tolls, I must enter the usual caveat that that is a matter for the Chancellor and the Paymaster General. Having said that, the position, as my hon. Friend said, is that we await the European Court's judgment. As she knows, the United Kingdom has staunchly opposed the Commission's view that tolls involve a business activity and should be taxable at the standard rate. We take the view that tolling is an exempt activity of a public body in pursuit of a statutory obligation. I can make no further commitment with regard to restructuring the debt. Naturally, we hope that our view will prevail in Europe. If the tolls of all tolled undertakings had to rise to take account of VAT, it would not be right to mitigate the effect of VAT by subsidy for the Humber bridge alone.