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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): We are committed to cleaning up the legacy of contaminated land left unremedied by the previous Government. We brought a new regulatory framework into force in April 2000. We have also made significant public funds available both for remedying contaminated land and for reclaiming derelict land.
Mr. Hendrick: Is my hon. Friend aware that low-level radioactive waste is being dumped at Clifton Marsh, on the outskirts of Preston, causing great concern to the residents of Preston and the Fylde? Can she give me some reassurance that the activities taking place there are safe, and are not a threat to public health or the environment?
Ms Hughes: I understand residents' concerns, in view of what has been in the newspapers. My hon. Friend knows that the Environment Agency is carrying out an investigation into those claims. The preliminary investigation has found nothing to suggest that radioactive materials significantly above the de minimis level allowed under the current legislation have been deposited. The agency is continuing to investigate and, if any further information emerges, it will be made available at the earliest opportunity. The EA undertakes regular monitoring, including checks on randomly selected skips, and the results are routinely published annually. To date, nothing unusual has been found, and regulatory conditions have not been found to have been breached. On that basis, I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that he seeks.
Ms Hughes: The Government have brought in a range of measures to ensure that we make progress on cleaning up contaminated land. That includes bringing into force regulations laid by the previous Government, who took no action to implement them and refused to make available the resources that local authorities and other agencies need to progress those orders and to make sure that contaminated land is cleared. Actions speak louder than words, and we have taken the necessary action.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): The Government's action plan, "A New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal", was published on 15 January and sets out our vision for narrowing the gap between poor neighbourhoods and the rest of the country. It aims to deliver economic prosperity, safe communities, high quality schools, decent housing and better health to the poorest parts of the country.
Mr. Henderson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and welcome the introduction of the neighbourhood management programmes that are about to be introduced. They will cover areas in my constituency where there are pockets of deprivation, such as Jaywick, where the grasslands, greens and village areas desperately need help for their roads, poor housing, street lighting, health problems, law and order problems and education problems. Will my right hon. Friend consider seriously any proposal put forward by the local strategic partnership in that area for future bids that would reflect the aims of such programmes?
Ms Armstrong: My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the tenacious way in which he has continued to put the case for the people of Jaywick. He will know that more than £6 million has been allotted to the neighbourhood in the past five years to enable it to seek improvements. It is eligible to apply for neighbourhood management but, as he knows, Jaywick needs the two councils to provide leadership and to recognise that they must pull agencies together to ensure progress. I hope that he will continue to work with them to ensure that that happens.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The urban and rural White Papers, which we published in November, and our housing policy statement, which we published in December, set out a series of proposals that we are pursuing to bring more empty homes back into use. Those proposals include new tax concessions, guidance for local authorities and owners, and increased funding for the Empty Homes Agency.
Sandra Gidley: According to the Empty Homes Agency, there are 87,400 empty homes in the south-east, which is under huge pressure for more house build. Given that that is the case, will the Government admit that although they have said much about the theory of using a sequential approach, involving the use of existing stocks before greenfield land is released for building, they are not doing anything to make that a reality? When will local authorities be given powers to make landlords return empty houses to the housing market? Will the Secretary of State impress upon the Chancellor the need to make
Mr. Raynsford: The Government have done a great deal to change the emphasis and to focus on brownfield and inner-city development, rather than on allowing the profligate greenfield development that was so characteristic of the Conservative party when it was in power. The hon. Lady will be aware of the measures announced by the Government in respect of bringing empty properties back into use. Those measures have been welcomed by the Empty Homes Agency, which says:
Mr. Raynsford: I am happy to agree entirely with my hon. Friend that Southampton's approach to tackling empty properties has been exemplary. It was one of the pioneering authorities in terms of its empty homes strategy, and Councillor Paul Jenks and his colleagues in Southampton deserve every congratulation on what they have done. They have been trailblazers, and if other authorities followed their lead more effectively, further action would be taken in bringing empty properties back into use.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): What will the Minister do about local authorities such as Liberal Democrat-controlled North Wiltshire district council? Some five years ago, it sold off all of its council houses for £90 million and has since spent some £50 million of that money on assorted schemes, but has not built one single house, until now, when it is spending £25 million on building a new headquarters for itself. North Wiltshire has problems with empty homes and housing, but what can we do about the Liberals there?
Mr. Raynsford: I have to say that I have no responsibility for the Liberal party, either here or in North Wiltshire. I am, however, responsible for housing policy. It is the Government's objective to ensure that all authorities create strategies to make best use of the housing in their areas. That should include bringing empty homes into use. Authorities must also meet the needs of their populations through partnership with the private sector and registered social landlords, and use the additional resources that the Government are making available to them. We regret it very much when individual authorities fail to show the enthusiasm that is necessary to tackle problems in their areas.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The control of substances hazardous to health regulations require employers to prevent or control exposure of their employees to vinyl chloride monomer, and several approved codes of practice give practical guidance on the application of the regulations to vinyl chloride. The Health and Safety Commission will consult about proposals to introduce a more stringent exposure limit for vinyl chloride monomer before the European Union directive is introduced.
Mr. Barnes: Workers at the former Vinatex plant in my constituency were exposed to VCM, and many developed cancer. Recent research by the International Agency for Research on Cancer suggests that exposure to
Mr. Meacher: I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has pursued issues that relate to exposure to chemicals in more than one case in his constituency, which I have visited.
Vinatex was a PVC manufacturer at Staveley until 1985. As my hon. Friend said, much research has been carried out, not least by the trade union safety team, into effects on the workers at the plant. It was published last September and showed a higher incidence of respiratory problems than expected, as well as other conditions.
The Health and Safety Executive has established a national register of angio-sarcoma cases to document more accurately the incidence of that rare cancer and to evaluate its possible occupational associations more generally. I want that work to be completed and I am keen to follow it up by taking the necessary action to protect workers better in future.