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Parish Councils

11. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): If he will make a statement on the future of parish councils. [99017]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): I repeat that we have no plans to abolish parish councils. Our clear and consistent policy is that parish councils will continue to play a key role in many of our towns and villages.

In our forthcoming rural White Paper, we intend to address further how we see parish councils playing their part in rural local governance.

Mr. Blizzard: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and agree with her that parish councils play a vital and valuable role in our towns and villages. Can she confirm that the Government have created 33 new parish councils since they came to power, and will she join me in condemning the irresponsible scaremongering contained in a letter that was sent to all parish councils in Suffolk by the leader and deputy leader of the Conservative group, saying that parish councils might be abolished? Is not that a waste of the money of council tax payers, who had to pay for the paper on which it was written?

Ms Hughes: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a waste of taxpayers' money, and that scaremongering is being supported by Conservative Front-Bench Members for their own political ends. Yes, the Government have created another 33 parish councils since May 1997, and we intend to create another 25 before elections in May 2000. That is our commitment to parish councils. We want them to play an enhanced role in rural communities and in local governance at all levels. Therefore, we intend to strengthen and support parish councils.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): At the Labour party conference, the Minister for the Environment said that parish councils should be replaced by something revolting called neighbourhood forums. Can the hon. Lady confirm that that is wrong, and that the proportion of elected members on parish councils will not be reduced?

Ms Hughes: My right hon. Friend did not make those remarks. That is not our policy, and I am very surprised that the hon. Gentleman, as a member of the Conservative party, purports to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers. I have made our policy clear--we support parish councils.

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Regional Development

12. Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): What assessment he has made of local strategies for regional development. [99019]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): I received regional strategies from the chairmen of the eight English regional development agencies on 26 October. We aim to respond to them by the end of the year.

Mr. Ross: Does the Secretary of State agree that the regional development agencies in England, together with Scottish Enterprise, the Welsh Development Agency and the Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland, have at last put coherence into the economic development policy in the whole of the United Kingdom? What does my right hon. Friend believe the consequences of the Tory party's policy to abolish them would be?

Mr. Prescott: I agree with my hon. Friend that the regional development agencies in the English regions have got off to a flying start. In their first six months of operation, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created and many hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested. That is a matter of public record.

As for whether the Opposition will abolish the regional development agencies, it is interesting to note that, although the Scottish Development Agency and Welsh Development Agency have been very successful, the Conservatives appear to want to deny such an agency for the English regions. However, it may be of comfort to my hon. Friend to learn that in 1979 the Conservatives promised to abolish the Welsh and Scotch--[Interruption]--the Welsh and Scottish Development Agencies. However, when they came to power, they failed to do so.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): Yesterday, in London, the Prime Minister let it be known that there was, he felt, no such thing as a north-south divide. Just three days before that, on Friday, he was in his constituency in the north and said, "We are not happy with the north-south divide." Which is right--the answer that the Prime Minister gave in the north or the one that he gave in the south?

Mr. Prescott: The right answer is the one that the Prime Minister has constantly given: he is concerned about growing disparities in the English regions. That is why the Government introduced regional development agencies to work on reducing the disparities between the English regions. After all, the Prime Minister spoke of concern for the many, and that is behind that policy.

South East of England Development Agency

13. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): What impact the establishment of the South East of England Development Agency has had on the south-east region. [99020]

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The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): The agency has successfully brought together regeneration, skills and business development programmes and staff from four separate organisations to provide an integrated approach to the promotion of sustainable economic development. The agency has also led a highly effective consultative process to develop the first regional economic strategy for that region.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that, as a result of the inward investment that has already been achieved by SEEDA together with the championing of venture capital, proposals to abolish or amend the operation of SEEDA would be neither wise nor common sense?

Ms Armstrong: I agree with my hon. Friend. We inherited significant imbalances between regions. However, within regions there are also significant pockets of disadvantage that need to be tackled. If we are to have sustainable economic growth across the country, we need a much more active regional policy, with organisations such as SEEDA properly consulting and working with the public and other organisations in their regions so that they achieve sustainable development that addresses regional imbalances.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Does the Minister share my lack of surprise that the latest glossy publication to drop on my desk yesterday from SEEDA contained several pictures of its chairman meeting the great and the good? They would have done credit to the most egotistical prospective parliamentary candidate. One picture was of the chairman and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions opening not a new business in the south-east but another set of offices for SEEDA.

Ms Armstrong: We know how low the Tory party's reputation has sunk with business. I remind the hon. Gentleman that all the development agencies are chaired by business people. They look for support from all parties and they are not party political. He may want to improve the Conservative party's standing given how little money the party now receives from the wider business community, so it is a pity that he is prepared to attack the holders of those posts in any way.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Is my right hon. Friend aware that SEEDA's plan not only identifies a north-south divide--if there is one--but a south-south divide and identifies the under-performance of areas such as Hastings and Rye? Its plan suggests that one of the essential things that could be done is the building of the Hastings bypass. Will that suggestion be pursued?

Ms Armstrong: It is of course true, as I told my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), that there are imbalances within regions, and the Government are determined to take a holistic view of how to tackle those imbalances. Unlike the Conservative party, we are not prepared to put up with some people being able to get jobs while others cannot.

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Train Fares

14. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): What steps he is taking to encourage train operating companies to reduce fare levels. [99021]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): Increases in key fares have been restricted to below inflation increases for the second year running, with tougher caps placed on London operators to reflect poor performance over the past year. We look to train operators to consider whether increasing unregulated off-peak fares is the best way to attract new rail passengers.

Mr. Baker: I welcome that answer, but does the Minister agree that one reason why people do not often travel by train is the astronomical cost of many train journeys, which is far higher than the equivalent cost of petrol mileage for the same journey? Will he help to end the mindset that money spent on roads is investment while money spent on trains is subsidy? Does he agree that it might be a sensible use of his Department's money to help to achieve a cut in train fares? Will he investigate that before his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State resurrects the environmentally damaging roads programme?

Mr. Mullin: I certainly agree that price is very important if one is hoping to attract people on to the railways. On average, regulated rail fares across the network will rise by less than inflation for the second year running, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that. The key fares are capped at 1 per cent. below the rate of inflation until 2003. Connex SouthCentral, which serves Lewes, has again had its fares capped below the rate of inflation, and I hope that he will join me in celebrating that.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough): Is my hon. Friend aware that since privatisation, the cost of subsidising the rail services between Loughborough and Leicester, which are subsidised by Leicestershire county council, doubled overnight simply because of the operating costs and profits built into the privatised system? Will my hon. Friend tell me what was the outcome of the review of the rail companies' operating costs and profits, so that the subsidy can be cut and the real benefit will be felt by the passengers, not the companies?

Mr. Mullin: We shall in due course renegotiate the franchises, which will give us an opportunity to consider all the issues that my hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister agree to meet a delegation from my constituency who are concerned about fare levels and standards of service on the railways and the tube, which many of them use on their way to work?

Given that in his answer to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) the Minister referred to London operators, will he comment on the analysis by BBC television's "The Money Programme" of the claims made by the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and the hon.

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Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) that it is completely impossible to fund London underground's reconstruction by a bond issue because the New York bond issue had been a disaster? "The Money Programme" showed that those claims were completely inaccurate--the bond issue in New York was a huge success--and when the private sector was fully able to operate, we had a much better London underground system.

Mr. Mullin: The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he sees on the television; that can be very bad for you. I did not see the programme in question so I cannot comment on it. I, or one of my colleagues, would, of course, be glad to meet a delegation from his constituency to discuss the matters that he mentioned.

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