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1.12 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). He chided me for not mentioning the suburbs in my intervention in the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley). Had I done so, my intervention would have been as long-winded as his hon. Friend's speech.

I listened with care to what the hon. Member for Harrow, West said about the suburbs. As I represent Reigate, which includes Redhill and Banstead, he will not be surprised that I agreed with much of his analysis of the challenges facing the suburbs, and the danger of their falling between attention on the countryside and attention on the inner cities.

The hon. Gentleman will have great difficulty responding to the intellectual challenge that he will face from Danny Finkelstein, who will be the Conservative candidate in his constituency. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take it amiss if I say that if he is unsuccessful in defending his constituency, as of course I hope he will be, the House will gain an intellectual heavyweight, although I freely admit that it will be denuded of a sporting heavyweight, in the person of the hon. Gentleman. My friend Danny Finkelstein would, I suspect, never recover from a triathlon, rather than taking some time to do so. One of my fondest memories of the hon. Member for Harrow, West is sharing some time on a parliamentary skiing trip. His sporting prowess goes rather wider than canoeing.

I note a contrast between the speeches of the hon. Members for Harrow, West, for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) and for The Wrekin. Both parties have had to wrestle with the issues. The speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central was well crafted and a good contribution to the debate, as is usual from him. I had the pleasure of sharing time with him on the Environment Committee and have considerable respect for his contributions.

The hon. Gentleman made it clear that responsibility for deprivation in our society is shared between the parties, that we all have a duty to try to address the problem, and that the state of some communities is a reproach to those of us who live in more fortunate circumstances. I share that point of view. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention that the number of graduates in Leeds has doubled over the past 10 years. I wonder which Government was responsible for that, as he did not point it out himself. Clearly, both the major parties share those objectives, and that was the point of my intervention on the hon. Member for The Wrekin.

It is worth stepping back to look at trends in our society and consider where population has migrated from and to, so that we can try to see the challenges in a global context for the 21st century. In the 19th century, we saw the flight

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of people from rural communities to the towns. Now, more than 100 years later, we are living with the consequences of the pattern of employment and housing that developed in the 19th century. In the 20th century, we began to see the reverse, and witnessed a move from the towns to suburbia and, especially in the last few decades, the countryside.

As we look forward to the 21st century, we begin to see a new trend. In statistics on population growth, it is noticeable that about half of that growth is coming from outside the United Kingdom. Our own population is now relatively stable. As for population movement, more people, especially if they have the benefit of having English as their first language, will increasingly be expected to spend part of their working lives overseas. We shall increasingly see a more mobile pattern of life both within the United Kingdom and around the world: that will be an effect of globalisation.

It will not be just a few professions that will work around the world. As globalisation takes place, the attraction of being able to have globally mobile people, especially English speakers, will increase. More and more professions and workers with particular skills will move around the world. That will be a consequence of trends that we are now seeing in the 21st century, and will be of particular advantage for the United Kingdom. It will obviously mean more interesting lives for those who can pursue careers that include time spent working overseas. We will also be able to draw on people's talents, as we have been able to historically through the pattern of immigration to our country.

However, we are still faced with challenges, especially in the inner cities and rural communities, which are not benefiting as we would like from the growth in the economy. When we look back at this period, we will see that it was an historic era of opportunity, especially for our country. One simply has to look at the size of the national debt to see the speed with which it is decreasing. Since 1992, there has been an era of sustained economic growth. Since the International Monetary Fund came in to sort out the previous Labour Government's fiscal disaster in 1976, the UK's fiscal position has begun to be addressed. From 1979 onwards, our country has woken up to the fact that it has to be competitive to succeed in the world.

That vision is now shared across parties. In a commentary on the White Paper on inner cities produced by Lord Shore in 1976, Michael Parkinson said:

That is the nature of the change that has overtaken our country and altered particularly the nature of the political debate between the two parties. It recognises the importance of the private sector in regenerating areas of our country that face the greatest challenge.

However, we still live in a state where policies take effect from the top down. The widest and most important policy in that respect is housing projections. We still have housing projections whose effects nobody wants. People want the inner cities to be regenerated and rejuvenated. We want talented and able people to be attracted to the inner cities, so that they will stay in them and help in

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their regeneration. None of us wants the countryside to be concreted over or the rural environment that we currently enjoy to be destroyed for future generations. We do not want to bequeath to our children, grandchildren and, in 100 years, to our great-grandchildren, the problems of a south-east England that is completely covered in suburban sprawl. Nobody would want to live in an area from which people were leaving to go elsewhere in the country or even the world simply to escape. We do not want to replicate in 100 years' time the problems in employment patterns that we now face.

We must think carefully about the policies that are being established. On housing projections, the Government have told us that they have moved from predict and provide to plan, monitor and manage. That is merely words. The number of houses that are to be imposed on the south-east has remained pretty much unchanged since predict and provide produced the global total of 50,000 houses a year from 1996. I want to draw attention to my party's policy, which is the right one. We want to move from top down to bottom up. Such a change can be achieved only by empowering local communities to make the decisions for themselves. Communities in inner cities and the most challenged areas will be more liberal about their planning policies, as they want to attract investment. Areas such as my constituency want to be more restrictive about development as they want to protect their environment and because their economic challenges are different from those faced by the inner cities, which, in many cases, remain a blight and a concern to us all.

My party will end central Government's interference in housebuilding levels. Housebuilding is fuelling the exodus from urban areas. It must stop. The most able families are leaving the cities, which causes the problems of school decline, shop closures and rising crime. If my party is elected, it will abolish regional and national housebuilding targets and end regional planning guidance. It will also reduce the power of the Secretary of State and of Whitehall bureaucrats to interfere in local planning decisions. Instead, local communities will decide how much development should occur in their areas.

The Government's plans for new towns in the countryside will be replaced by a Conservative emphasis on urban regeneration, making existing towns and cities attractive and sustainable places in which to live. On its return to government, the Conservative party will also maintain greenbelt land and resist attempts to downgrade existing protection against excessive development on farmland.

Dr. George Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunt: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to give other hon. Members a chance to contribute.

It is the wider picture that concerns me. As a soldier, I see it in terms of the strategic versus the tactical, but it might be better to say that the Government cannot see the wood for the trees. The fiscal changes promoted in the urban White Paper include what the Government say is a comprehensive package of £1 billion over five years. The package proposes exemption for stamp duty for all

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property transactions in disadvantaged communities. We heard from the Chairman of the Environment Sub- Committee, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), that many of the disadvantaged communities do not attract stamp duty because their properties are not valuable enough.

The White Paper also proposes accelerated payment of tax credits for the cleaning up of contaminated land, 100 per cent. capital allowances for the creation of flats for letting above shops, and a package of VAT reforms to encourage additional conversions of property for residential use. Those are fine as far as they go. However, the big target that we needed was equalisation of VAT for development on greenfield sites and on brownfield sites. We did not get it. The Government have failed to produce the necessary fiscal measures, even in their terms.

We have to set the figure of £1 billion over five years alongside the disaster of the European Union's ruling on gap funding, which has contributed £3.6 billion to urban regeneration in the past six years. That take-up rate was growing as people learned about the scheme and development companies started to focus on it and were able to appoint experts, some of whom gave evidence to the Select Committee during our inquiry. The scheme was accelerating and successful. The combination of the two factors that I have mentioned means that, in fiscal terms, urban regeneration has been a disaster.

Far too many schemes exist and too many bureaucrats are required to put them in place. That criticism is made not only by me; I am joined by Tony Bosworth, transport campaigner of Friends of the Earth, which is hardly the provisional wing of the Conservative party, unlike the Countryside Alliance. He said:

I want to conclude by concentrating on the specific comments of the Chairman of the Environment Sub- Committee about core funding and scheme funding. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central talked about empowering communities to have some control over the use of money from different schemes. The Committee Chairman was right to point out that those amounts are dwarfed by the core funding--in housing benefit, social security, social service money, health money and education money--that is allocated to communities. He was right to say that the money is mainly spent on outside experts who come into those communities to provide services. To some extent, therefore, that money disappears.

The Government and the Conservative party should seriously consider schemes for empowering people--individuals or communities--so that they can get hold of some of the core money and use it to rejuvenate their communities. Difficult hurdles will, no doubt, have to be surmounted to enable them to do that. However, we should begin to consider enabling individuals or communities, whatever their size--blocks of flats, streets or villages--to get control of core funding.

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As individuals, families or communities, they should be able to opt out of being told how to spend the central provision of money and gain some control over it.

I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, Central that local people have a far better idea of how to spend the money than bureaucrats in all levels of Government. Dozens of bureaucrats currently make those decisions for people. We need to empower local people through the money that the public already provide and thus ensure that it is better spent.

The rural and urban White Papers are a worthy attempt by the Government to deal with the issues that our country faces. They do not go far enough; they do not empower the people who should make the decisions. Local communities should be given real authority on planning. That would enable great changes to be made to the benefit of the strategic objectives that all parties share. Until we can get to grips with delegating power to local people and communities, we will not make the progress that all parties desire.

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