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8.50 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, and a particular pleasure to speak in the same debate as my new right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), who spoke well and clearly and made penetrating points. I thought that the speech by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was lamentable. It was not only bovine and oafish; it was incorrect, and no apology followed.

I want briefly to address planning. I have been here since 2.30 pm, apart from slipping out briefly for something to eat, and nobody has yet spoken about rural areas. The Government have, in many ways, declared war on rural areas, not only by shifting £500 million of central Government funding to inner cities but by coming up with their extraordinary plans to impose excessive numbers of new houses on rural areas without considering whether the necessary government services already exist or what will obviously be the consequences for the environment and transport.

It is proposed to impose 36,000 new houses on Shropshire when indigenous growth requires only 18,000. No one can possibly suggest opposing the building of houses to cope with indigenous growth but, when every single publicly funded service in Shropshire, including education, fire and police, is suffering from underfunding, and when there is a £94 million backlog of expenditure on the roads, it does not seem common sense to build twice the number of houses that are needed.

Mr. Mackinlay: Both parties have got their policy for the south-east of England wrong--the area is on overload. I was listening to the hon. Member for Guildford(Mr. St. Aubyn), who was complaining about the inexorable growth in housebuilding in the south-east. As far as I am aware, Shropshire is not in the south-east. We cannot have it both ways. We have to meet housing need, and a constituency such as North Shropshire could help to spread much more equitably the load caused by the demand for residential properties. From a planning point of view, it would be better if housebuilding were absorbed by such constituencies, taking the pressure off the south-east of England.

Mr. Paterson: I am most grateful for that intervention because it demonstrates the problem that we are up against, which is central planning, similar to Gosplan, by civil servants, mainly in the south of England, who do not understand local circumstances elsewhere.

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The Government have set an admirable target of 60 per cent. of new houses being built on brownfield sites. Even if we include Telford, which is the main urban area in Shropshire, only 40 per cent. of houses could be built on such sites. That figure comes from the county council and the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The figure for Wolverhampton is about 93 per cent., and the figure for the whole midlands conurbation is about 73 per cent. What is the point of bringing people out of conurbations to small market towns in Shropshire so that they have to drive back to the conurbations to their jobs?

That brings me on to the congestion legislation--the parking tax. That is a pure tax on my poorest constituents. In Shropshire, 67 per cent. of people in Shropshire drive to work in towns such as Telford, Wrexham and Newcastle-under-Lyme, each of which has its own local authority. Parking or congestion charges must be significant. The Leicester experiment demonstrated that charges must be £10 if people are to be persuaded to leave their car behind and get the bus. If people in Shropshire pay those charges, the revenue will benefit transport services not in the Oswestry district or the North Shropshire district, but in those smaller urban authorities.

This is a straight hit on my poorest constituents, as is the iniquitous increase in petrol prices. Over the past few weeks, my constituents have seen the price of petrol sail from £3.50 a gallon; it is heading on to £3.60 to £3.70. The Government have been caught out something rotten, because the price of oil has increased from $10 a barrel to about $25, and that cannot be hidden. The last thing people can afford to lose is the use of their cars, because with that they lose their jobs. That is why the intervention of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was most helpful. It is not sensible to move people out to towns when they have to drive back to other towns where they have jobs.

Mr. Mackinlay: So where do we put them?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. If hon. Members wish to make interventions, they must rise and make them in the conventional way.

Mr. Mackinlay: I am extremely sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

When Members advance the argument that is being put forward by the hon. Member for North Shropshire(Mr. Paterson), they must offer a solution. Where are we going to put folk? The quality of housebuilding and the quality of life to be found in Shropshire are most attractive and if taken up will help to stop the gravitational pull tothe south-east of England, which is unhealthy both economically and socially. Housebuilding in Shropshire is an extremely good idea.

Mr. Paterson: I have explained to the hon. Gentleman that we do not have brownfield sites. Telford, for instance, can provide only 40 per cent. of such sites. Why move people out from Wolverhampton, where 93 per cent. brownfield-site building is possible? Is it not more sensible to build there? There is no point in driving up to Shropshire at night and then returning the next day to one's work.

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Having touched briefly on the problem of fuel duties for my constituents who have cars, and who have been hit by a £900 a year increase in tax since the Government came to power, I move on to the appalling damage that is being done to road haulage, England's main strategic haulage industry is responsible for moving 95 per cent. of Britain's goods. Even if rail investment is doubled, the percentage of goods carried by the main industry will decline to only 90. I raised the issue in an Adjournment debate in November, and I hate to say that all my worst predictions are coming true.

We now have easily the most expensive fuel in western Europe. The Minister is bound to say in his reply that the Conservatives introduced the fuel escalator. We did so when there were only two other countries in Europe with cheaper fuel. The price of fuel in this country is more than twice as much as it is in Spain. It is about 92 per cent. more than the price in Luxembourg. Those are two of our main competitor countries. That is almost entirely the result of the duty. We know that 85 per cent. of the price of diesel is attributable to tax. If we take the average price per litre, duty amounts to 47.4p in this country as against 21.3p in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This is an entirely counter-productive measure which will not improve the environment.

The figures produced by the Library show that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign-owned trucks since the escalator was increased so sharply. In 1997, United Kingdom trucks made 543,000 movements to mainland Europe. Over the past four quarters, up to the second quarter of 1999, that increased to 558,000. However, movements by foreign-owned trucks have leapt from 597,600 to 804,900 in the same period. It is not surprising that they are mainly trucks from France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, where there are far more sensible fuel duty regimes.

Vehicle excise duty has been increased to an incredible £5,750 for a 40-tonne truck in this country, whereas it is £486 in France and £328 in Spain. This has put our truckers at a massive disadvantage, with catastrophic consequences for the industry. However hard one tries to explain the problem, the Government do not understand that there is no environmental gain. The Library figures show that, in 1990, 159 million tonnes of carbon were produced in this country, of which 30 million came from road transport. Freight produced only 16 per cent. Only 5 million tonnes of carbon were produced by the road haulage industry. The Government, however, intend to halve that as part of the national reduction. It is simply unattainable: it will not happen. The load must be carried--95 per cent. of freight must go by road. If the domestic supplier is too expensive, a company will move to a foreign-owned trucker. It is as simple as that. The load must be moved, regardless. There is no option of going by rail, particularly in rural areas.

I had a fax today on the subject of rural transport from Mr. W. M. Griffiths, who runs a successful agricultural distribution company near Ellesmere. He states:

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I rang another of my constituents who was in his cab--I am pleased to say that he pulled his truck on to the side of the road--and he sent me his comments. He is Mr. David Yarwood, of Greyroads Ltd. in Oswestry. He writes:

    "Every week I hear of yet more haulage companies and owner-drivers throwing in the towel, either by liquidation or foreclosure by their banks. Fuel companies are now reluctant to supply hauliers due to the high risk of them not receiving payment. Fuel companies who supply us are insisting on prompt payment and in some cases even C.O.D.

    Over the last 20 years my Company and other hauliers stepped in to carry vital coal deliveries. During both the Rail and Miners' Strikes, we kept the home fires burning, Power Stations going and Hospitals open. We weren't very popular with some people but we were dedicated to our Country."

I think that that is at the bottom of the Government's policy. There is no gain to the economy, there is a cost to gross domestic product and to the balance of payments, there is a cost in employment, and there is a cost to every single business in the country. The only explanation is that the policy is a dirty old bone being thrown to old Labour as revenge for what the hauliers did during the miners strike.

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