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Council Tax Benefit Subsidy (Worcestershire)

8. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): If he will make a statement on the council tax benefit subsidy payable to Worcestershire county council. [157188]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): Council tax benefit subsidy is paid by the Department of Social Security to billing authorities. Therefore, as a major precepting authority, Worcestershire county council does not receive council tax benefit subsidy.

Mr. Luff: That disingenuous answer from the Minister covers up the truth, as she well knows. She knows that her Government have monstrously cut the subsidy payable to Worcestershire, and that the roots of the huge increase in council tax--[Laughter.] I am sorry that Labour Members find a 45 per cent. increase in council tax in Worcestershire over the past four years a laughing matter. It is not a laughing matter at all. The roots of that increase lie in the incompetence of the Lib-Lab pact that runs Worcestershire, and in the Government's rigged funding for all shire counties. Is not the cut that the Minister knows her Government have made in council tax benefit subsidy a stealth tax on a stealth tax, which the very poorest can least afford?

Ms Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman is clearly very disappointed that more people in Worcestershire are now working, and are therefore not eligible for council tax benefit. The amount going to all districts in Worcestershire is £12.8 million. That is not a reduction. There is a slight decline in the percentage, because there is a decline in the number of people out of work and benefiting from the subsidy. The hon. Gentleman rails about council tax, and he is right: in Tory counties, council tax is higher than in any Labour county.

Planning (Chelmsford)

9. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): If he will make a statement on the impact of his planning criteria in the Chelmsford local authority area. [157189]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): The Government's policies are designed to promote more sustainable patterns of development,

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reconciling the need for new development with the need to conserve the countryside and the character of our cities, towns and villages. It is for Essex county council, in its replacement structure plan, and Chelmsford borough council, through its borough local plan, to ensure that policies in national and regional planning guidance are taken into account in their areas.

Mr. Burns: Is the Minister aware that people living in the village of Boreham, in the Chelmsford local authority area, are appalled at the thought of having 2,000 houses imposed on them by Liberal Democrat-controlled Chelmsford borough council--part of the overall amount of housing that the Government are inflicting on Essex and the south-east? Is the Minister also aware that there is bitter resentment of the fact that 2,500 of the 12,500 houses that Chelmsford must take are intended not to meet Chelmsford's housing needs but to relieve pressures in the south of the county? People in Boreham--in my area--are asking why the Thames gateway cannot take the 2,500 houses which, although they are being inflicted on them, are needed because of the increased employment and industrial building in the Thames gateway that the Government require.

Ms Hughes: The hon. Gentleman will know my responses to those questions, because he asked them during an Adjournment debate not long ago. He will also know that the question of the land allocated for housing in his constituency is still open to consultation--and that in the regional planning guidance just published by the Government, the annual housing figures for Essex as a whole during the first five years of the relevant period are lower than they were in the 1994 regional planning guidance. Furthermore, he will know that the previous Government directed three councils in Essex to increase their housing numbers, and imposed 20-year figures through their regional planning guidance procedure. Ours, by contrast, is a bottom-up process, involving redistribution of housing on a regional basis.

The people of Chelmsford will know that the Tories' policy on these matters is in complete disarray. On the one hand--as we saw today, when they launched their bus--they propose a Nimbys' charter, giving every local authority the right to veto and to renege on its housing responsibility. On the other hand, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) told Show House magazine only a few months ago:

Rail Freight

11. Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): What progress he has made in transferring freight from road to rail. [157191]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Our policy is to help to establish an integrated, sustainable freight distribution system to support economic growth and bring social and environmental benefits. Our 10-year transport plan sets out our long-term plans for rail freight. We have already provided over

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£100 million in grants to move freight from road to rail or inland waterways; we have issued guidance to local authorities to facilitate more use of rail for freight; and we have established a Strategic Rail Authority with a duty to promote rail freight.

Mr. Dobbin: Does the Minister accept that there is an imbalance in a process that allocates the equivalent of about £7 billion in Government funds to the road haulage industry over 10 years, and £3.4 billion to rail freight? That makes it difficult for rail freight to compete. The Treasury should consider creating a level playing field; that would help the funding process, and would also help the Government to achieve their environmental and economic targets. It would enable much more freight to be transferred from road to rail.

Mr. Hill: I recognise my hon. Friend's powerful commitment to the expansion of rail freight. The Government fully support that objective where it provides value for money.

There is good news. My hon. Friend will recall that on 5 April the Rail Regulator published his provisional conclusions on rail freight charges. His proposals halve access charge revenues paid by freight operators to Railtrack, and bring greater transparency to the charging regime. Over the next five years, the bill for that income reduction will be about £450 million. As part of the announcement on Railtrack earlier this month, the Government have agreed to fund that through the Strategic Rail Authority. That is in addition to the massive £4 billion in public and private funding set out for rail freight in the 10-year plan, and represents a significant further contribution to the Government's objective of achieving 80 per cent. growth in rail freight traffic by 2010.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Minister will be aware of my personal interest in Railtrack and FirstGroup, and will probably have received representations from the Potter Group of Melmerby in Vale of York, which is particularly anxious for its businesses at Selby and Ely to benefit from rail freight grants. Would the Government see fit to extend such grants to smaller operators such as the Potter Group, rather than to big players such as English Welsh and Scottish?

Mr. Hill: I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing my attention to the opportunities. The Government are eager to take up any opportunity for the extension of rail freight facilities. The grants vary in scale. They range from £60 million recently allocated to a major port rail freight development in Bristol, to less then £1 million. I will take the hon. Lady's words away and look at the opportunities that they represent.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that the development of a north-west direct freight line to Europe is crucial to the well-being of the north-west? Will he assure me that he will do all he can to promote that development, and that he will help with parliamentary time to ensure that a Bill gets through the House to make the scheme viable? [Interruption.]

Mr. Hill: "Before the election," my hon. Friends mutter. If my hon. Friend is talking about the re-use of

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the Woodhead tunnel, the Government are enthusiastic to see that development. In much of my transport life over the past quarter of a century, I spent the whole of my time campaigning for that reopening. I am aware that it is part of the Northern Spirit franchise bid, which is now before the Strategic Rail Authority.

I think that my hon. Friend was alluding to the Central Railway proposal. The Strategic Rail Authority is carrying out a review of the scheme. Until we know the result of that, it would be inappropriate for the Government to comment on the company's proposals, and in particular its request for a hybrid Bill.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does the Minister accept that the wrong way to drive freight on to rail is by having the highest fuel prices in Europe? Is he aware that freight companies in the west midlands are filling their lorries up in Belgium, Holland and France? Does he know that diesel in Britain is twice the price of diesel in Croatia, for God's sake?

Mr. Hill: I cannot imagine what the hon. Gentleman has against poor little Croatia, but the costs of motoring and road haulage need to be taken in the round. Innumerable costs are imposed on our continental counterparts, including social costs and toll road costs, which are not imposed on British road hauliers. Taken in the round, there is a level playing field in that regard.

Angela Smith (Basildon): May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the proposed development for a new container port in my constituency, which has the potential to create up to 10,000 new jobs? Although that has been welcomed by many people, there is still some concern about the amount of extra traffic, particularly freight traffic, that it will generate. Given that there is already a direct rail link from the site to the main rail network, will my hon. Friend consider meeting the company concerned, and Railtrack, as proposals progress, to ensure that as much freight as possible travels by rail?

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As Britain's shipping Minister, as well as a junior transport Minister, I am well aware of the proposals for major new port installations. Of course I will be happy to meet the promoter of the scheme. I will have the opportunity to look at those matters more thoroughly tomorrow morning when I visit Thurrock district council.

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