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4. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): If he will make a statement about parks. [99009]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The House is well aware of my hon. Friend's commitment to improving access to areas of countryside and the parks. We welcome the recent report from his Environment Sub-Committee on town and country parks and we share its concern about the quality and future of our parks. We will publish our full response early in the new year.

Mr. Bennett: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he accept that parks give many people much pleasure, but that the past 30 years have seen a tremendous decline in municipal parks? We must reverse that decline. If we want to stop the drift from the north and from the cities to the countryside, it is important to regenerate our cities. Parks could be one of the key elements in that regeneration and should be a key part of the Government's forthcoming urban White Paper.

Mr. Prescott: The Government share the Committee's concern about the decline of our parks. Since we came to power we have done several things about the green belt and parks. For example, by tightening the controls, we have halted the sale of playing fields, which the previous Administration encouraged. We have also recently announced a new opportunities fund for green spaces, which contains £125 million for developing green spaces, funded by the national lottery. We are currently preparing our urban White Paper and my hon. Friend's report will be considered in that process.

The report contains a powerful quotation from John Ruskin, which should be the guiding principle for the House:

That is the principle that has governed the actions of Labour Governments and councils for many years.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): If the Government feel that the New forest deserves more protection than it has already, why are they insisting on imposing the straitjacket of a national park on it? For many years the New forest has been protected by special

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legislation. If the Government have no parliamentary time for special legislation now, why do they not wait until they can do the job properly?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman properly represents the interests of his constituency--I understand that--but the country generally welcomed the announcement that we made about the two national parks, which followed what a Labour Government had done many years before. The parks policy is important and popular, and we are proud that we have implemented it 50 years after the first legislation to introduce national parks.


5. Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): What measures the Government are taking to promote increased accessibility of housing for the elderly and disabled. [99010]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): My Department is taking a number of steps to promote better access to housing for elderly and disabled people. We have extended part M of the building regulations to improve accessibility of new housing to disabled people, we have highlighted the needs of disabled people in guidance this year on local authority housing investment programmes, we are increasing the resources available for disabled facilities grants by a quarter over three years, and we will shortly be issuing new guidance to local authorities on registers of accessible housing.

Mr. Levitt: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he will wish to pay tribute to organisations such as Scope, which has campaigned for so long for accessible housing, and to local authorities which promote the concept of the lifetime home, something that I hope he will encourage. Can my hon. Friend also tell me how the very welcome initiative of extending part M to domestic properties will be monitored and enforced?

Mr. Raynsford: We certainly pay tribute to the work of the many voluntary organisations, including Scope and the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, which advised us thoroughly and well on the procedures leading up to the extension of part M of the building regulations. We are delighted to have their support.

I assure my hon. Friend that we will be reviewing the effectiveness of part M 12 months after the changes were introduced in October this year. In preparation, we have alerted local authorities and house builders so that they can keep appropriate records to enable us to carry out a thorough review.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): How does the Minister reconcile the answers that he has given so far with his party's abolition of the advance corporation tax dividend tax credit, which has had a serious effect on charities' receipts? Charities such as the Royal United Kingdom Beneficent Association--RUKBA--which help elderly and disabled people to obtain quality housing and give them the support that they require say that they have

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suffered a marked reduction in income. Removing the ACT dividend tax credit sits ill with the Minister's answers today.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is trying pretty hard, and stretching logic to an extraordinary extent, to make his point. I stress that the voluntary organisations which deal with disability have warmly welcomed the Government's actions. They applauded our action in extending part M of the building regulations which the previous Government had refused to do, despite the voluntary organisations' entreaties. It is sheer hypocrisy for the Conservative party to pretend that it is the friend of the voluntary sector.

Bus Services

6. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): What representations he has received concerning the operation of bus services in north-east Derbyshire; and if he will make a statement. [99012]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Three representations have been received regarding bus services in north-east Derbyshire since July 1999, two from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and one from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

It was clear from the bus summit earlier this month that the industry has begun to rise to the challenge of improving bus travel. We are determined to make further progress in ensuring that good-quality, reliable services are available across the country. The forthcoming transport Bill will help deliver this objective.

Mr. Barnes: I could send my hon. Friend another 100 letters and two petitions about Stagecoach problems in north-east Derbyshire, but those have gone to the traffic commissioner. Will my hon. Friend agree that it pays to mobilise and organise where bus services are inadequate? Following his response to Thursday's Adjournment debate, there are signs that things are already improving for Stagecoach. The bus that I caught at a busy period on Monday morning was on time. Buses are being drafted in from Grimsby and London to tackle the problem. Is it my hon. Friend's view that as long an eye is kept on what takes place, matters will work out in the long run?

Mr. Hill: I am delighted to hear from my hon. Friend that things are already looking up. I entirely agree with him that campaigning can lead to improved services. If I may say so, my hon. Friend has proved himself a doughty campaigner on behalf of his constituents and of bus users in the wider Derbyshire area. As a result of his efforts, the bus operator and Derbyshire county council are working together to secure what I am sure will be significant improvements in local bus services.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Is the Minister aware that pensioners in north-east Derbyshire using the bus services benefit from a concessionary fare scheme, and that that scheme is funded by the local council? Is he further aware that since July 1998 the Government have tried to claim credit for the introduction of a Government-funded concessionary fare scheme for pensioners? Will he

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acknowledge that there is no money in the Government's budget for the next two years to fund a pensioner concessionary fare scheme, and will he therefore stop trying to take credit for that initiative? It is one thing to wait hours for a bus but quite a different matter to wait years for a Government-funded concessionary fare scheme.

Mr. Hill: I am fully aware that many Labour authorities provide concessionary bus fares, for which they deserve much credit. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government intend to introduce a national concessionary fare scheme as part of our transport Bill.

Business Rates

7. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): What representations he has received regarding the level of business rates. [99013]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): We have received over 270 responses to our consultation paper on a transition scheme to phase in large changes in rate bills, resulting from the revaluation due on 1 April 2000. The details of this scheme were announced on 25 November.

We have also received representations from various businesses and special interest groups about the level of business rates.

Mr. Ruffley: Is the Minister aware that some large out-of-town superstores in my constituency pay business rates equivalent to less than 10 per cent. of their profits, while some small retailers in the centres of Stowmarket and Bury St. Edmunds pay business rates equivalent to about 35 per cent. of profits? That is a huge burden on small business. Will the Minister explain exactly what she will do to reform the business rate regime to help small businesses in my constituency?

Ms Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman is a relatively new Member of Parliament, and so perhaps does not realise that the uniform business rate was introduced by the previous Conservative Administration, which he supported. The hon. Gentleman will also know from what I said on Thursday that the Government are to review how the valuation is conducted and how it kicks in. I look forward to his comments then. However, I remind him that, because of the impact on small businesses and to take account of the points that he has raised, we have introduced a transitional scheme that benefits small businesses more than large ones.

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