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Regional Policies (Dorset)

12.30 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I am grateful to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions for agreeing to respond to the debate. I understand that on Friday she will address the south-west regional assembly in Exeter, in a debate on the south-west; she comes from the north-east, and both it and the south-west are badly affected by foot and mouth disease. I hope that she agrees that the current foot and mouth crisis shows that regionalism is an irrelevance. In the jargon of the management consultant, Government regional policies add no value; indeed, the bureaucracy, centralisation and interference with local decision-making involved in regionalism engender a significant waste of scarce resources and are a drain on local communities. Nowhere is that truer than in Dorset.

I am also grateful to the Minister for responding because she has the greatest responsibility for decisions on the distributions of taxpayers' money to local government. Today I am giving her the opportunity to apologise to the people of Dorset for the consistently unfair discrimination that the Government have exercised against them. Why does a band D householder in Dorset pay 50 per cent. more towards the cost of the police than a similar householder in Hampshire? It is not because the police service in Dorset is any better than that in Hampshire but because the Government's formula is unjust. Why does a band D household in Dorset pay some £45 more towards its county council than such a household in Hampshire?

Hampshire can afford to spend more per pupil on education. One might think that that would suggest that Hampshire council tax payers had higher bills, but the reverse is true. Why is that? This year, Dorset's education standard spending assessment has risen by less than the national average. The county council is forced to spend about 5 per cent. above that SSA, but is still not able to afford to fund its pupils on a basis comparable to that of Hampshire. That is partly because the Liberal Democrat county council insists on holding back too much money at the centre, but also because the Government's funding formula discriminates against Dorset for being in the south-west. In 2001-02, £132.50 less per pupil was spent in Dorset than in Hampshire on pupils aged between 11 and 15 and £82 less per pupil was spent on pupils aged between five and 10.

Why have the Government awarded a special cost-of-living supplement to nurses working in Hampshire when they have denied it to those in Dorset? My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) has campaigned strongly on that issue because he has Poole hospital in his constituency. All Dorset Members of Parliament are united in their opposition to the Government for their unjust handling of that. When Dorset and Hampshire were both members of Wessex health authority, they received equal treatment. However, now that the Government have forced Dorset into the south-west, nurses living and working in Dorset not only pay higher council taxes, for the reasons that I have just given, but are paid less.

To add insult to injury, for the third year running, the additional funding made available by the Government to Dorset health authority is significantly below the

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national average, despite the fact that Dorset has a rapidly expanding population, a high proportion of whom are elderly. Indeed, Dorset receives less than its fair share on many counts--not only for health, education and police, but for district council services. One is bound to ask whether the Government are engaging in pork-barrel politics. It seems that because no Labour Members of Parliament represent Dorset seats, the Government are taking it out on the Dorset people by starving them of an equal share of resources.

Why else are the Government discriminating against the two district councils in my constituency--East Dorset and Christchurch--in their concessionary fares policy? No less than £54 million of taxpayers' money was made available to pay for the Government's compulsory concessionary fares policy. How much of that money reached the people who live in the East Dorset and Christchurch district council areas? Not a penny of that £54 million has been made available to East Dorset council, despite the fact that a high proportion of pensioners live there, and only £20,000 has been made available to Christchurch council; yet the additional burden of concessionary fares costs about £150,000 in East Dorset and £93,000 in Christchurch.

Christchurch has been running a system targeted on those in greatest need, which costs about £72,000 a year. The Government have now imposed a new system that would cost up to an additional £230,000 if the council could afford it. Christchurch has thus been forced into providing the minimum reduced service laid down by the Government, and many of those who benefit under the concessionary fares scheme will now lose out because the council can no longer afford it. The Government do not seem to realise that many elderly people cannot get on buses--it is physically impossible for them--and that a voucher scheme that would enable them to use taxis would be much more attractive. The Government have removed Christchurch council's local discretion; they have instead imposed a new burden, and they expect that burden to be funded through the council tax.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his robust defence of Dorset, which I fully support. It is ironic that many of the elderly who are supposed to benefit from concessionary fares will now be paying far more in council tax for that benefit.

Mr. Chope : Indeed, they will. In Christchurch, about 32 per cent. of households are pensioner households; in East Dorset, the figure is about 25 per cent. The Government are expecting those pensioner households to pay more council tax. Council tax poverty--when householders have to pay more than 10 per cent. of their income on council tax--is a fast growing problem in Christchurch and Dorset. I suspect--my hon. Friend the Member for Poole will know--that it is probably at its worst among pensioners who live in the more rural parts of Dorset. While the Government continue with such regional policies, we shall have to work within that framework when representing our constituents.

I gave the Minister of State's private office notice of some of my concerns about the impact of the latest draft regional planning guidance on my constituency. After extensive consultation and an independent panel inquiry, it seems that planning guidance is being altered

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at ministerial whim. I shall illustrate that by referring to the status of Bournemouth international airport. In 1999, the south-west regional planning conference proposed as part of policy 12 that

I have given the Minister notice of my intention to ask where the proposed change of wording originated, so I hope that she will be able to answer. The introduction to the paper that set out the proposed changes in December stated:

Why is the Secretary of State proposing the change in status? The reason that he gives is that

The Government say that they want Bournemouth international airport to be recognised as having regional importance. However, the regional air service studies that are being undertaken clearly envisage the airport serving a catchment area far beyond the confines of the south-west region. Indeed, some people fear that the aim

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of the regional air service studies is to meet airport demand in the south-east by supplying additional capacity in the south-west. The results of the regional air service studies could be of major significance, yet they are not to be published until after the date of the expected general election and after the closing date for further representations on the regional planning guidance. Is it unduly cynical to view the Government's timing as calculated to deny local people and their elected representatives effective input into the major decisions that may already have been taken within Government but which have not yet been shared outside, for fear of frightening the electorate?

The A31 presents another example of the Government's high-handed treatment of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, as well as the rest of the people of Dorset. The south-west regional planning conference said that policies should

On 14 December, the Secretary of State issued the results of the first full local transport plan settlement, which was undecided about the Poole bridge scheme. Care was taken to explain that, even if a favourable opinion were to be adopted on the Poole bridge scheme, there should not be a read-across to the Poole-A31 local link. All that has been offered is the possibility of a meeting between the local council and the regional office. All that I can say is, "Big deal." That is another example of the Government's ignoring the recommendations of the planning conference and the report of the panel, which examined the issue in detail and the evidence. What is the point of an evidence-based process if the Government tear up the recommendations and do what they like?

The boundary of the south-west region does not serve Dorset well, but I do not have time during this short debate to discuss that in great detail. The Government have decided to divide the south-west into four sub-regions. I have asked some parliamentary questions about that and have been told that the sub-regions cannot be defined by constituency or even by which constituencies are situated in more than one sub-region. We know that there are four sub-regions, which overlap. I have asked--I have not received a reply--whether the south-east spatial sub-region of the south-west extends into the south-west spatial sub-region of the south-east. The Minister has refused to answer that question, which is important to my constituents. The Government are imposing rigid, regional boundaries that are creating a host of anomalies.

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If the Government want to insist on this regional nonsense, they could try to make the people of south-east Dorset feel part of the south-west by improving the road links between south-east Dorset and Exeter and Bristol. I do not know what means of transport the Minister will use when she goes to Exeter on Friday, but when she gets there, she might bear it in mind that to travel from Christchurch to Exeter takes the best part of two and a half or three hours in the summer. Someone representing Christchurch at a regional assembly would have to spend five or six hours travelling. It would be quicker to travel to London for a meeting and even quicker to travel to the so-called south-east regional headquarters that is emerging in Guildford.

Regionalism does not work in the south-west. We know that it is the means by which the European Commission hopes to destroy the individual nations of Europe; its agenda is to divide the United Kingdom and then to divide England by imposing top-down structures. The model that suits Dorset and England better is one in which local communities govern themselves through a network of truly local councils and are represented in Parliament by Members of Parliament who can hold Ministers to account. That is what our debate is all about.

12.47 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on again obtaining an Adjournment debate on Dorset. Not much of his speech was about regional policy and most of it concerned local government, which is not part of the regional programme. He obviously could not find enough to say about regional policies to fill the time available. I shall attempt to deal with the substance of his comments.

The hon. Gentleman continually says that the Government have already made decisions; the conspiracy theory survives. The only reason for his believing that is that he acted in that way when he was in government. I have no experience of the Government working in that way. I am sorry that he continued to push the cynical conspiracy theory until, eventually, we heard his real reason for fearing regionalism. He believes that it will draw us closer to the European Community. His hatred of that is such that it totally colours his perspective. That is very sad. If he ever comes to the north-east, he will see that people were interested in regional policy long before the European Union became interested, and long before the Government introduced a regional policy.

The hon. Member for Christchurch probably cannot remember, but when his Government took power, there were strong protests from people who sought a more regional approach and the equivalent of the Scottish Development Agency for the English regions. That suggestion was rejected by the Conservative Government. The regional policy is not just a whim of the Government but one that comes from a clear understanding of what is going on in the regions now. It is important to address imbalances from a regional perspective.

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Our commitment to opportunity for all demands a new regional policy. Greater prosperity and rising employment, which I know has been a feature of life for many people in Dorset in the past three to four years, does not automatically mean fairer sharing of prosperity across regions, cities or neighbourhoods. We know that all too well. However, unemployment and child poverty have fallen in every British region since 1997, although I accept that unemployment remains higher in some regions than in the south-east.

Six out of eight English regions have incomes per head below the European average. We can ill afford to view regional prosperity as an optional extra, to be established only after we have established another tier of government. There is nothing inevitable about regional inequalities and incomes, employment or opportunity. We can achieve balanced growth and rising prosperity not only in one or two regions but in every region and city. However, that requires a new approach to regional policy.

Mr. Syms : Does the Minister realise that regional inequality is growing because the Government are giving us less grant? Hampshire gets more money; Dorset gets less. That applies to both Christchurch and Poole.

Ms Armstrong : I shall come to inequalities in local government funding in a moment. Given what the hon. Member for Christchurch said, I need to make it clear why the Government have approached these matters from a regional perspective. It is necessary to back regional and local enterprise and initiative by exploiting indigenous strengths in regions and cities. Regional policy must be bottom-up rather than top-down, and further steps are required to deliver greater accountability and scrutiny both regionally and locally.

The hon. Member for Christchurch referred to local government finance. He will know--I am criticised by my hon. Friends for this--that we have not substantially changed the local government funding system since the general election. We use the system that the Conservative Government operated of standard spending assessments that are linked to need, levels of scarcity and many other things that reflect the position in different areas. He will know that I am not content that that always gives us the best outcome possible, but we have been able to ensure that in Dorset there are now only 219 infants in classes larger than 30, whereas there were 3,736 in such classes in 1997. There are 9,314 people waiting for in-patient operations compared with 12,371 in March 1997. I understand that there was an increase of 8.3 per cent. in 2000-01 and 7.9 per cent. in 2001-02 in the Dorset health authority allocations. The hon. Member for Christchurch will acknowledge that no such increases occurred when his party was in power, and I reject his view--

Mr. Chope rose--

Ms Armstrong : If I am to answer the hon. Gentleman's questions, I must make progress.

I was somewhat confused by the hon. Gentleman's remarks about Bournemouth airport. The wording of the regional planning guidance is subject to a

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consultation process that will not be completed until 14 March, so it would be inappropriate for me to say what the final wording will be. As with all consultation exercises, it is important that we listen to the views of everyone and respond to them, and the views that the hon. Gentleman has expressed today will be taken into account. He asked why we rejected the local panel's recommendation on the green belt around Bournemouth airport. The matter was recently reviewed through the development plan process, and green-belt status would not prevent development of the airport. For example, its situation in the green belt has not inhibited extensive expansion of Bristol airport, which has significantly higher throughput than Bournemouth airport.

The hon. Gentleman said that the change to a policy to support "airport-related development" was not recommended by the panel. However, as he subsequently acknowledged, that phrase was intended to indicate that no one was anticipating general development. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman himself would want housing or industrial development on that site. As I understand it, he wants effective development of the airport and its associated functions, but as he knows, availability of land for development on the periphery of Bournemouth is limited. If land were used for general development, the growth of the airport might well be restricted, which is why the draft regional planning guidance supports airport-related development. However, that does not preclude other development. Primarily, the matter is one for the local district plan, which, as I understand it, states that land with airport access should predominantly be used for aviation-related activities that require such a facility. If

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the hon. Gentleman can demonstrate that the planning guidance runs contrary to the genuine concerns that he has expressed, we will be able to achieve the right wording. However, I suspect that rather more heat than light has been cast on the issue today.

The hon. Member for Christchurch also referred to the road and transport plan for Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth, and asked why the proposed A31 link to Poole had been cancelled. With the reinstatement in 1995 of the A31-A35 trunk road, Poole has retained a core trunk road that is in close proximity to its port. The Government Office, Poole borough council and Dorset county council have discussed the matter constructively, and in the light of those discussions the councils will consider how best to take the matter forward. The local transport plan settlement recognised the importance to the area's regeneration of a second crossing for Poole harbour, and we look forward to examining the councils' proposals in July.

Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth submitted their first local transport plans in July 2000 and subsequently received substantially increased funding, but it is for Dorset county council to determine its local investment priorities and to bid as part of the local transport planning process. No proposals were made for improved links to Christchurch, so we could not fund them. Cross-boundary issues must be considered by Cornwall, Dorset and Hampshire county councils and by the Government offices. They are discussing those matters, and it is important that they do so. The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to see questions settled locally. Those are precisely the mechanisms that we have put in place, and I hope that those involved will work co-operatively to address the issues.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair) : Order. Time is up. We must move on to the next debate.

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