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9.5 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), even though his constituency is more eligible for brownfield sites than mine, where we have a dearth of appropriate sites. I was slightly bemused by his comments about the transport settlement last week because I saw that it was only Labour-held seats that received any such settlement. Perhaps the Minister might tell us in which part of north Yorkshire any of my Conservative colleagues might benefit.

For the benefit of interest to right hon. and hon. Members I should declare that in 1978 I was a stagiaire--I did a traineeship--with the Commission in Directorate-General IV where we were all allowed to work on briefs such as this. I worked on joint ventures and was not able to participate in any article 92 agreements.

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We may have had a new insult added to the House's vocabulary today--we could call it a full Monti--in relation to whether it is a greater insult for a Commissioner to be called an unelected bureaucrat or, in the words of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), an academic.

I should like to use my experience to draw hon. Members' attention to why article 92 applies in cases such as gap funding in so far as it affects trade between member states. In May this year, I was on the same Select Committee visit as the hon. Member for Leeds, Central. I understand that this issue was brought to the Commission's attention because a complaint was made by a constituent in another member state where it was felt that state aid had been misused. It was felt that a car distributor was benefiting and was deemed to have been given an uncompetitive advantage over his competitors in other member states. Having said that, I am intrigued as to why it is more appropriate for the state to take the risk than a private sector company. I am sure that all hon. Members would feel much more comfortable if the private sector, which stands to gain, were to take the risk rather than passing it on.

Dr. Ladyman: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss McIntosh: No. The hon. Gentleman has spoken and has intervened on almost every speaker. I hope to allow time for my remaining hon. Friends to participate in the debate.

I hope that the Minister will bring us up to date on her discussions with the Commission and Commissioner Monti on how it will be appropriate to enable local authorities to continue to operate gap funding in assisted areas. There was some evidence to suggest that a slight delay in her Department's drawing up the maps for the new assisted areas had compounded another delay. I hope that the right hon. Lady will report on that to the House. I hope that she will also tell us about her longer-term discussions with the Commission on a possible new regeneration framework and whether the Commission and Commissioner Monti are minded to have regard to that.

We took a great deal of evidence on alternatives, and perhaps the Minister will report on that, too. One possibility was to look at public service exemptions from competition policy under article 88. There were three other alternatives, which included scope within the current EU aid provision so that grant regimes, albeit at a reduced rate, would remain within assisted areas. Another was horizontal aid rules providing opportunities for regeneration funding to a particular industry or region, albeit greatly reduced in scope. A further alternative was direct development, whereby the state undertakes site assembly, reclamation and provision of infrastructure and thereafter releases the development on to the open market.

The evidence taken by the Committee prompts the question of why gap funding has been used so much only in the United Kingdom. At paragraph 102 of the minutes of evidence, Professor Fothergill, the co-ordinator of special programmes for Barnsley metropolitan borough council, said:

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In his evidence, Mr. Chris Brown said:

At paragraph 10, Mr. Gill, the commercial director of English Partnerships, said:

I ask the Minister to confirm that, as the Government's response to the report states:

Such a development would be very positive indeed.

I also query some of the evidence that the Committee took. At paragraph 14, Mr. Gill seemed to be rather surprised that under European Union rules, contrary to our usual conception, a subsidy is not deemed to be a subsidy when the state takes the risk and the hit.

I am delighted to have been able to make this short, modest speech--which has been especially brief to allow my hon. Friends to speak. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to bring the House very much up to date on the negotiations and tell us which assisted areas the Department hopes to ensure will continue to benefit from that status. I hope that she can also tell us how far we are in establishing for the United Kingdom a new regeneration framework that meets with the Commission's approval.

9.13 pm

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) has returned to the Chamber, as I wanted to say in his presence that, in his interesting speech, he made a very interesting observation on contaminated land.

I dare say that other hon. Members will say, "What on earth is the hon. Member for Solihull doing speaking in this debate? Solihull is hardly a place of great deprivation or even of much regeneration." There is certainly not much regeneration in my part of the borough. I should explain that I am in that unusual position of representing a constituency that has the same name as a borough whereas I represent only half of the borough. Arguably, in the north of the borough--in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)--there is some deprivation. However, as there is hardly any deprivation in my constituency, I am not going to pray in aid the constituency of Solihull to inform me in the debate.

Perhaps I shall, however, hark back to a previous existence of mine, in the 1970s, when I was leader of what was called the West Midlands metropolitan county council--which, after the Greater London council, was the largest local authority in the country. A funny thing happened to the GLC. The then Prime Minister considered

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herself somewhat provoked by the GLC and set about abolishing it. To my great disappointment, the other provincial metropolitan authorities--West Midlands, Merseyside, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, and Tyne and Wear--also went. I considered that the West Midlands county authority had a real role to play in regeneration, and it was beginning to develop it. When it granted a peripheral planning permission for a greenfield site--not in the green belt--the authority would set the condition that the developer had to deal with an inner-city brownfield site as well.

The classic example concerned Saltley gas works, and it was that example that caused me to return to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Leeds, Central. At Saltley, the ground was contaminated to a depth of at least 12 ft, and there were very difficult workings underneath the gas works. The problems gave rise to a concept about which I have not heard much recently but which was very current in the 1970s--negative value. Was it possible that a property could become so worthless and rundown that no one would take it for nothing, and that anyone taking it over would have to be paid? There was quite a lot of discussion about negative value in those days.

Incidentally, in the county council areas there were two cities--Birmingham and Coventry--and five boroughs, namely Solihull, Walsall, Sandwell, Dudley and Wolverhampton. Of course, now that Wolverhampton is a city, we would have to say that there are three cities in the area, and I am sure we all very pleased about that.

I have always lived either in Birmingham or close to it. It is possible to see how Birmingham, as a typical big provincial city, has rolled out into the countryside over some 200 years. Its progress at various stages can be traced, rather as the rings of a tree display its growth. What is quite near today's city centre was once the edge of the city: proud villas with a name and a date over their doors can be found there, and one realises that they belonged to what was once fashionable Birmingham. However, the city's progress has gone dangerously far into the Warwickshire countryside, as the economically mobile have headed for suburbia and, ultimately, for rural addresses.

Any constituency with a great industrial city on one side and Warwickshire countryside on the other will experience pressure on its green belt. There are some very sensitive areas in my part of the world and the pressure on the green belt is remorseless.

Mention has been made today of the north, the south and the south-east; I hope that I might aspire to be the authentic voice of the midlands. Our greatest anxiety is that Birmingham will sprawl into Coventry. There is a crucial corridor of green belt called the Meriden gap between the two cities, and everyone in my area wants to defend it.

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