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Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: The hon. Lady has mentioned the funds provided by the Government to reduce the number of five, six and seven-year-olds to under 30 per class. Given that her party is committed to scrapping grants under its so-called free schools policy, and given that our Government were able to provide the money because they scrapped the assisted-places scheme that her party intends to reintroduce, can she tell us how her party will fund solutions to the difficulties that she is describing?

Miss McIntosh: We heard some imaginative proposals from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford

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(Mr. Green). In any case, I do not want to spend too much time discussing education policy, as this is not an education debate. I have been highlighting what I consider to be very rural issues. I accept that the hon. Gentleman, who does not represent a constituency as obviously rural as mine, is probably less familiar with our problems, for his own good reasons.

The crisis in the countryside is real. Rural crime is posing a great threat to stability. Recently, Santa Claus did not visit Millgate in Thirsk. Having visited the curiosity shop and, indeed, resided there, at the considerable height of 14 ft--this was a rather small Santa Claus, only 3 ft 6 ins tall--he was stolen from the roof on the morning of Christmas eve.

Although we now have a closed-circuit television system, operated by Hambleton district council and introduced by North Yorkshire police, there are no cameras pointing towards Millgate. I have taken the matter up with the chief constable, but I think the figures speak for themselves. The Government will go into the general election--there is no secret about the election: we all expect it to be this year, possibly in May--with fewer police officers in North Yorkshire than there were at the same time in 1997. By the end of the next financial year, we shall not even have reached the 1997 figure.

Mr. Thomas: Will the hon. Lady give way again?

Miss McIntosh: I have been very generous; now I want to make some progress.

CCTV cameras in Market square now have the perverse effect of pushing crime down Millgate. Recently, a young man who, I gather, was in a state of grief and shock because his mother had died that very day, proceeded down Millgate--having eaten a pizza at the pizza restaurant there--and kicked in the laminated glass window of ECL Computers Ltd.

The owner of that business was not amused to hear that the suspected perpetrator of that crime will not be charged. That sends a bad message. The message that the computer company would like to send to the Government is not only that we need more police in rural areas such as North Yorkshire, but that we need to see them out of their cars and on the beat. I accept that mine is a sparsely populated rural constituency, but the visibility of a police officer is very effective in preventing crime. I make a plea to the Minister to urge the Home Secretary to deal with that issue.

Mr. Peter Bradley: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss McIntosh: I think that we have heard quite enough from the hon. Member for The Wrekin for one day.

I welcome the fact that the Select Committee report states:

The report goes on:

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Since we adopted that report, which reflects our opinion in the Select Committee, I have compiled a list of 10 post offices that have closed or been placed under threat of closure over the past three months--approximately one every two weeks: Sandhutton, Kilburn, Maunby, Brandsby, Little Ribston, Sessay, Aldborough, Nether Poppleton and Scotton. Reduced opening hours have been enforced at Leeming post office.

One of the Government's first actions when they came to power was to cancel the computerisation programme that the Conservative Government had sought to implement. They have now proceeded with their own computerisation programme. The postmistress at Little Ribston opens her kitchen on Wednesday and Friday afternoons to the residents of the village. She is so generous that she makes them a cup of tea while she deals with their postal services in the usual way. She has been given an ultimatum by the Post Office that if she does not computerise and install three or four sizeable pieces of equipment in her kitchen--leaving no room for her cooker and other normal kitchen facilities--she will no longer be allowed to remain open.

The postmistress in Huby, in the Vale of York--not to be confused with the Huby between Harrogate and Leeds--received a letter from her utility company: Yorkshire Electricity, I believe. She was told that, as a local business, she will now be eligible to pay the climate change levy. That is outrageous. Do the Government really intend to clobber a post office whose postmistress is of a considerable age--she would probably accept that she is past the normal retirement age--and offers a service to that village? She is alarmed that she might have to pay up to a 5 per cent. charge and be expected to pick up the cost on all sources of energy that she uses because she runs a business. If she is to be exempt, why do not the Government tell the utility companies to inform the post offices that that is the case?

The biggest threat that the post offices face is that, from 2003, the Government have said that they will lose 40 per cent. of their income from the loss of benefit and pension payments through the Post Office. Statistics show that two thirds of the population of England and Wales do not have a bank account, and process their benefit and pension payments through post offices; only one third have a bank account.

Why are the Government imposing a system whereby two thirds of those people will be forced to alter their way of life in that regard? We no longer have a huge network of rural banks in our villages and market towns, and in many places there is simply no choice or even no bank. Why have not the Government considered enhancing the role of the TSB? I take this issue very seriously indeed: the Government, by stealth, are seeking to close our post offices because they consider them to be too expensive to run.

I give an example involving Sessay. An advertisement for a replacement for the retiring sub-postmistress was placed, but held back because the advertised annual salary represented an hourly rate of £2.90, which is 20 per cent. below Labour's minimum wage. The replacement would receive an annual bonus and commission for selling Post Office products, but that was not referred to in the recruitment letter. Who in his right mind would respond to such an advertisement? If the minimum wage does not apply to post offices, is not it incumbent on the

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Government to say so? Should not they have said so when the legislation was passed? The Minister has every opportunity to make that clear.

Post offices are under threat, but the debate gives the Government the opportunity to say that they do not want to close the network. There is a clear lack of affordable housing in constituencies such as Vale of York. Farming is clearly in crisis, in every sector. The floods have caused great difficulties for arable producers--the wheat that was sown and much of the sugar beet and potatoes that should have been harvested over the past two months have been lost.

In addition, this very Minister--the Minister for the Environment--imposed extra burdens on farmers and landowners under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I urge him to join me on the march on 18 March to show that we want not only to continue country pursuits as we have known and enjoyed them over the years, but to put a stop to a ban on hunting for a very good reason.

I want country pursuits to continue as normal and I recognise that the fox is a pest, but the Government's own report, which was produced by the Burns inquiry, ruled that foxhunting is probably the least cruel and most humane way to control the fox population. The perverse consequence of banning foxhunting would be the eradication of the fox from the English countryside. I cannot believe that that is the Government's intention, and the Minister will have the opportunity to deny it.

I urge the Government to be more joined up in their thinking. Most crime in constituencies such as Vale of York is perpetrated by those who live in towns and cities. Let us consider how to control crime in such circumstances and let the Minister prove that this is an opportunity to be grasped. We can generate and regenerate the economy, economic development and employment in inner cities, market towns and rural areas through the policies set out today. That opportunity should not be wasted. Will the Minister tell us precisely what priority will be given to the various measures proposed in the White Paper and how many will be in operation before the general election?

12.29 pm

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): I am afraid that I cannot concur with the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on foxhunting, but it is nevertheless a pleasure to follow her, as she is a most assiduous member of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs.

I should like today to focus principally on the urban challenge. In his report, Lord Rogers, set out a vision of what cities could be like. What matters, however, is not so much what the Government or the House does to provide the right framework, but that cities have their own clear vision of their future. I am very proud that the city of Leeds unquestionably has shown such a vision.

Leeds is obviously a city with a great many assets. In recent years, it has had unparalleled success in creating jobs. In the past decade, the city's employment growth has been three times the regional average--particularly in financial and business services, but it still provides 55,000 manufacturing jobs. I think that that change is best illustrated by Marshall Mills, in the Holbeck part of my constituency. In the 19th century, it was one of the largest flax mills in the country, employing 700 people. Today,

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refurbished, it is home to a wide range of high-tech and new-media businesses and still provides 700 jobs. They are, however, very different jobs from those of the previous century.

There is a large student population in Leeds. Having been to university in Leeds, students often like it so much that they stay on, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the proportion of the Leeds work force who have a university degree has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

We have two major hospitals--the LGI and Jimmy's--with national and international reputations. We have the busiest railway station outside London--when it is open. However, when Railtrack finally completes the job, we shall have a city station that provides a gateway to the city fit for the new century. We also have a revitalised riverside and a very wide range of cultural attractions. I should like to highlight the fact--I think that it is relevant to the regeneration of urban life--that we have one of the largest temporary outdoor skating rinks. It opened yesterday in the brand-new Millennium square in the middle of Leeds and will provide an attraction to bring people into the centre of the city.

Clearly some of those are gifts from the city's proud history; but others are the product of a lot of hard work. I, believe that Leeds's success, particularly in the past 20 years, owes a great deal to the leadership that the city council has provided, under its current leader, Brian Walker, and under his two predecessors, both of whom are hon. Members--my hon. Friends the Members for Hemsworth (Mr. Trickett) and for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie).

In the past year and a half, since becoming the Member who represents the centre of the city, I have learned that, many years ago, Leeds city council recognised that partnership with business and the wider community was the way forward. Working particularly through the Leeds initiative, the council, the business community, the chamber of commerce and the training and enterprise council have all pulled in the same direction to try to deliver the type of vision that Rogers offers us.

That, however, is only half the story. Within the first, successful city of Leeds lies, often hidden to the visitor's eye, a second city, and the daily life of that city is as distant from Rogers's vision as it is geographically close to the heart of the city. I am speaking of the communities that the Select Committee saw when it visited Leeds; they have acute social deprivation, high levels of educational under-achievement, unemployment, dependence on benefits and higher levels of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Those are places where crime and anti-social behaviour are rife. Last night, I spoke to a constituent whose elderly mother is now terrified because, last Sunday night, some kids from the local community threw a stone through her window as part of a campaign of harassment that she and her mother have suffered. I think of the residents of Clyde court, in New Wortley, who in recent weeks have been subjected to a campaign of arson and destruction that has made the place in which they live hard to bear. I think of areas where the local environment resembles a rubbish tip, as if no one cares at all.

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I think of areas where--as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who chairs the Select Committee, said in his opening speech--for all those reasons, house prices are low. They are low because the quality of life is low. Indeed, as a society, we use house prices to measure many aspects of the quality of life in its broadest sense. Nevertheless, very many people still live in those areas and care passionately about the place where many of them were born and brought up. They want to see change for the better.

The one common factor in those parts of my constituency is, in a word, poverty--poverty of income, poverty of opportunity and poverty of expectation. If we are honest, a joint failure across the House has led to such areas existing in this country. What was incredible about the contribution of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was his attempt to say that his party now has the solution to the difficulties, when it was not capable of that in 18 years in office. We face a joint challenge to make a difference.

The challenge was described succinctly this week in an editorial in the Yorkshire Evening Post, which said:

I concur with that view.

First and foremost, those communities need someone to listen and to look at what is happening. Frankly, I have been shocked by some areas in my constituency. It is not acceptable that people should have to live in that way. We must keep alive a flame of outrage at the fact that places such as those I am describing continue to exist in a relatively wealthy country in the 21st century.

Communities also need mobility; 60 per cent. of households in my constituency do not have access to a car. The bus system is absolutely vital in Leeds, and I wish that the bus companies would stop messing about with some of the routes, as they have done recently in Hunslet and Belle Isle in ways that disadvantage my constituents who are dependent on buses--particularly the elderly.

I could not let this opportunity pass without saying that we await with eager anticipation the news that the long-awaited supertram--a product of the city of Leeds demonstrating, over the past decade, a vision of transport for the future--will finally get the funding it so richly deserves.

Education and skills are also important. I believe passionately that investment in education is the best long-term investment that we can make in the city. The more we can enable the next generation to acquire the skills that employers want, the larger the share of the burgeoning jobs market in Leeds they will command. We have high hopes for the Aire Valley employment area. I echo the comments made about the problem with gap funding, which we debated just before Christmas. We have to sort that out and the Commission has to get its act together. We need that support to provide employment opportunities, particularly in that part of Leeds suited to industrial and manufacturing uses.

We need safe communities and targeted policing. Oh, that it were a simple matter! Even if today we had the number of police officers that we had in 1997, would that solve the crime problem? I do not believe so. We need to target the police effort and provide time for community

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beat officers to do their jobs. There are some imaginative schemes in my constituency. In the Beeston part of the single regeneration 4 area, four additional police officers have been recruited specifically to work in that community. In Halton Moor, there is a joint police-housing officer team, one of whose principal responsibilities is to collect evidence to pursue potential evictions or anti-social behaviour orders against those who make the lives of their neighbours a misery.

We need balanced developments. I mentioned Leeds riverside, and I want to draw attention to a planning application to demolish a block called the Chandlers that was built only 15 years ago. In the context of Leeds city centre, it provides relatively affordable housing. One can understand that the owner might wish to cash in on the value of his asset, but I think that that is wrong, as we need a mix of affordable homes in the heart of the city.

My right hon. Friend the Minister might like to reflect on the fact that we are encouraged to think these days about sustainable development in planning terms. Could someone explain how it is sustainable in energy and resource-use terms to knock down perfectly good housing that is only 15 years old and that, compared with the life span of many of Leeds' back-to-backs, has been up for only five minutes?

Finally, we need to nurture community spirit; everyone can agree with that, but I know from experience that it is not a cosy concept. It is an essential ingredient of inner-city regeneration. Such spirit recently led the people of East End Park to establish a community association, because they had said to themselves, and to the wider community in Leeds, "We don't want to go on living like this."

Similarly, two women who came to see me at my surgery in Osmondthorpe just before Christmas asked how they could go about setting up a residents group, because they are fed up with the joyriding and vandalism in their area. Such community initiatives are the building blocks of community spirit. They grow out of the community, act as its eyes and ears and become its voice, making demands of us as elected representatives, locally and nationally.

My constituents want practical steps, not policy. When things begin to change for the better, community organisations are the best guardians of the fragile sapling of hope for a better future, as it grows, we hope, into a sturdy and permanent feature of the landscape.

The Government should be congratulated, because one of their defining characteristics has been the attention that they have paid to communities such as the ones that I represent, through the social exclusion unit and the fact that they have been willing to target resources to try to make a difference. They have certainly encouraged innovation.

There has been consensus today on the fact that we need to learn from that experience and recognise that co-ordination presents a real challenge--a point ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish. It clearly makes sense for some programmes to be run nationally--the new deal, for example, and excellence in cities, which benefits several schools in my constituency--but we must recognise that, in the pockets of deprivation, local communities, councillors and voluntary organisations, working together, are best placed to make decisions about how to fit together the various

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initiatives to meet local needs. In that way, we can combine the helping hand from Government with self-help from the community.

It would be useful if the Government said, as we come to the next round of schemes, that they are prepared to allow local authorities, local strategic partnerships and community organisations, working with neighbourhood managers, to make proposals about how the sources of funding could be pulled together to meet local needs. For instance, a local authority could say that it would like to take some money from sure start, some from excellence in cities and some from the neighbourhood renewal fund, to extend the principles of sure start to older children. I was talking about that to people from Leeds home start only last Friday.

As another example, a community safety partnership or the neighbourhood warden could say that they wanted some money from the single regeneration budget, some from the new deal for communities and some from crime reduction funding to employ more police officers as community constables, whose time would be ring-fenced so they would not be diverted to other duties.

In either case, the Government could still say that the local organisations must be accountable for the outcomes while allowing people to decide at local level how best to bring resources together to make a difference.

The challenge is enormous and goes to the heart of creating a fairer and more equal society. It became clear in the course of the Select Committee inquiry that regeneration cannot live by bricks and mortar alone: it has to engage people's hearts and minds. We all know from experience that ideas that come from the bottom up--from the very communities on whose behalf we are holding this debate--have a better chance not only of winning local support but of realising the vision that we all share for our cities.

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