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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): The Government are committed to halting the deterioration in local road conditions by 2004, and to eliminating the backlogs in carriageway, footway, bridge and street-lighting maintenance by 2010. As well as providing the necessary funding, £10 billion over the next 10 years, we are promoting several initiatives to help local authorities to optimise their road maintenance programmes and improve the quality of roads. These include new codes of practice and computerised management systems.
Peter Bradley: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and, indeed, for the unprecedented increase in highway funding that local authorities such as Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin are enjoying. Having had such encouraging things to say for the motorist, will he give equal heart to people who live and work in rural communities and to those who enjoy the countryside, including those who ride on horseback, who cycle and who walk, by supporting and encouraging local authorities to produce schemes to reduce traffic speeds on country lanes and in villages and to generate quiet lane networks in our rural areas?
Mr. Jamieson: I have seen the early-day motion that my hon. Friend tabled nearly two and a half years ago, and I congratulate him on his excellent work on the matter. I am also aware that accident rates on rural roads are considerably higher than on other roads, which is why we will encourage local authorities to consider designating suitable rural roads as quiet lanes. He rightly identifies pedestrians and horse riders as being at risk from speeding on lanes and in villages, but we are more concerned with actual vehicle speeds than with speed limits, which may be difficult to enforce. Under the
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): When the hon. Gentleman is considering local road maintenance, will he bear in mind the maintenance of the A47 to the east of Norwich, especially the area known as the Acle straight, which the Highways Agency suggests should be widened rather than dualled? I ask him to consider this issue most seriously, and I know that I speak for the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) when I urge him to consider dualling that dangerous stretch of Norfolk road, rather than merely widening it.
Mr. Jamieson: Although the hon. Gentleman did not mention it, he will know that there has been a threefold increase in the highways budget for his area, so Norfolk, along with other authorities, will have the opportunity to consider the schemes that he mentions. The hon. Gentleman often talks about cutting public expenditure, but I notice that he very seldom applies that to matters in his own constituency.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We are committed to testing public opinion, through referendums, before setting up elected regional assemblies. No region will have an assembly unless it votes for one.
Mr. Marsden: I thank the Minister for that reply, but given public opinion surveys and the evidence of conventions on the ground that show support for regional assembliesparticularly in the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and the west Midlandsdoes he agree that it would be sensible and, indeed, prudent to make allowance in the White Paper that the Secretary of State has just announced for a permissive process of referendums as soon as possible, so that if public opinion is in favour we might have regional assemblies in those areas by 2004?
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend will be aware, given the Secretary of State's announcement, that we will set out our detailed proposals in the White Paper, which we intend to publish early next year. I can confirm that that will create a permissive framework, whereby those regions that wish to hold a referendum will be able to do so. The precise timing and other details for the holding of referendums and the creation of regional assemblies and their powers will be spelled out in more detail in the White Paper.
Tony Baldry (Banbury): Does the Minister accept that many people view regional assemblies as just a Government gimmick and that people actually want existing local services to be decently and properly funded? This year, Oxfordshire faces cuts of £3.5 million in its social services budget. I have to tell the Minister, who is a
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman made two points, the first of which concerned local government expenditure. He is assiduous and he looks at the figures, so he will be aware that over the four years in which the Government have been in power there have been real terms, year on year increases in local government expenditure. By contrast, when the Government whom he supported and of whom he was a member were in power in the 1990s, there were year on year reductions in local authority expenditure. We will therefore take no lessons from the Conservatives about local government funding.
The Opposition have a deplorable record on regional assemblies. They abolished the Greater London council and removed Londoners' right to have their own democratic regional assembly. We gave that right back, and our decision was endorsed by the people of London in a referendum. We intend to follow exactly the same procedure for the English regions, to give them the right to have a democratically elected regional assembly if they want one.
Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): Given that one test of public opinion is the way in which the public have already responded to unitary local government in England, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a severe injustice in the east midlands, where all the shire county towns, with the exception of Northampton, have already achieved unitary status? In 1996, the previous Government accepted that a review was necessary because of that injustice. Therefore, before any test of public opinion on regional assemblies, will my right hon. Friend agree to review the fact that Northampton is not unitary, as we seem to have fallen behind?
Mr. Raynsford: I am well aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members have voiced about the case for unitary authorities in their areas. However, those of us who remember the review unleashed by the previous Government under the chairmanship of Sir John Banham will not necessarily want to repeat that experience, which involved a great deal of time being spent on extremely argumentative processes that diverted the attention of local government from the proper concern of raising standards of service and acting as effective leaders of their communities. Our focus as a Government will be on improving standards of service and encouraging local government to act as effective community leaders, rather than diverting their energies into fruitless squabbles and disputes about the respective powers of different tiers of government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Mobile phone mast development close to schools is subject to the telecommunications planning arrangements in place throughout England, which were significantly strengthened in August this year. We have no further plans to restrict the granting of planning permission for mobile phone masts close to schools. Under the new rules, before operators submit an application for planning permission or prior approval for a mast near a school or college, they should discuss the proposed development with the relevant body of the school or college.
Mr. Hendry: I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, but does she not understand the continuing dismay in my constituency and across the country at the fact that the Government have not taken account of the genuine concerns of parents, teachers and governors about the siting of masts near schools? Is not the right way to proceed to require that masts near schools, homes and hospitals go through the full planning process, not prior approval? Why will she not adopt the policy followed in Scotland, which requires companies to group together and share masts so that their number can be minimised?
Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman makes several good points. Since the new regulations were put in place, there have been representations about mobile phone masts, but they have not been made specifically in relation to schools. In fact, only 2 per cent. of masts are currently sited on schools. We have a two-tier system; one tier is for masts over 15 m, which require the full application; the other is for masts of 4 to 15 m, which require prior approval. Both have the same effect, although the procedures are different. I stress that the Stewart report does not propose that we should abolish permission for any mast to be sited on or near schools.
Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Does my hon. Friend recall the 1999 European directive, the so-called RETTE directive, which on health grounds enables member states to establish exclusion zones between mobile phone masts and the public? Will she confirm that the Government have incorporated the directive in United Kingdom law? If so, what guidance have they given planning authorities on establishing exclusion zones?
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that until there is categoric scientific evidence to prove that there are no health risks to children, it behoves the industry to alert residents to its proposals to erect such masts, so that areas have a much longer time scale to present their concerns to the local planning authority?
Ms Keeble: I appreciate my hon. Friend's points; she has been very concerned about this issue. There are currently no established health risks from mobile phone masts. Under existing arrangements, those who want to erect such masts must give the local community, through the local authority, notice of their intent to do so. They must also discuss proposals for masts on schools with governing bodies before submitting an application. So there is a good opportunity for local communities to be informed and to represent their views. Following that, the local authority has 56 days in which to take a decision. We have very significantly strengthened safeguards for the local community.