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12.35 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright). I know that part of the world very well, and I can well understand the problems to which he refers. I was particularly interested to hear his remarks about the A47. I know the stretch of road to which he refers. It is indeed a bad stretch. It reminds me of the A36 that runs through my constituency.

This debate will inevitably focus on the regeneration of disadvantaged urban areas but cities do not exist in isolation. What goes on in them affects small towns and the countryside, whether it is the middle classes relocating from decaying city centres, or highly mobile criminals fleeing closed circuit television and the lean pickings of their urban bases. We must not suppose that disadvantage is an exclusively urban phenomenon, or that the effects of urban deprivation are confined to city centres. I was pleased to hear comments to that effect by my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray).

I intend to slate the Government for their unfair treatment of Wiltshire and for their failure to lift deprivation in my constituency but I am happy that the Government are attempting, so they say, to deal with urban deprivation, by which they largely mean deprivation in city centres, I think.

Ms Keeble: The deprivation strategy that I set out applies to every area.

Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to the Minister for clearing up that point. In west Wiltshire, it sometimes seems that that is not the case. I shall explain our concerns over things such as homelessness, which is a particular problem in my district.

West Wiltshire does not exist in a vacuum. Our interests interdigitate with those of urban areas. To that extent I have a parochial as well as a general interest in the regeneration of large urban areas.

If cities have high crime rates, badly performing schools, unacceptable pollution, high mortality and poor morbidity, people who are able to will choose to live

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elsewhere, particularly when they are sold leafy life styles by developers, who will be delighted by the Government's recent Green Paper, which will give them carte blanche to develop in the countryside against the wishes of local people. Urban deprivation leads inexorably to pressure on rural areas and more concrete countryside.

In November 2000, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions put out a useful publication called "The State of English Cities". It suggested that migration trends reinforce the picture of decline in our cities, with only four moving in for every five who move out. We are told that there are two flows of migration: flows from the north to the south; and down the urban hierarchy, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has already referred, from cities to suburbs to shire towns and the countryside. In most conurbations, rates of net migration are highest for high-status professional, technical and managerial workers. That is certainly evident in the south-west.

Clearly that has implications for house prices in rural areas, pricing out those who wish to live in villages not because they are searching for a developer-fuelled rural idyll but because of work or family ties. That leads to the ludicrous situation whereby poorer rural dwellers are obliged to swap places with well-off commuters from the cities. The incomer rarely gets the satisfaction that he desires from his moving, because it destroys the very thing that he is trying to achieve for himself and his family—life in a rural area. The ex-villager also loses out because he is cut off from work, family and social ties.

That all adds more grief to a creaking transport system and means that formerly healthy and vibrant communities in city centres are increasingly socially polarised. In a written answer I was informed that

Homelessness, especially priority homelessness, has risen in England during the past four years, but disproportionately so in my constituency.

The true picture may be worse than the official statistics show. Homelessness charities claim that people were put in hostels or even threatened with arrest overnight while counts were being made in order to meet Government targets. The charity Shelter observed:

Homelessness charities in and around my constituency would echo those remarks.

I represent green and pleasant Wiltshire, a beautiful part of the country that many Labour Members might suppose to be untouched by their problems of homelessness and deprivation. The problem faced by my constituency, in common with many others with a similar urban-rural mix, is that although we are by and large spared the remorselessness of vast post-war estates, our deprivation is scattered. It is there for sure, but because it is diffuse it is hidden and is difficult and relatively expensive to get at, so it is ignored.

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The ludicrous local government funding formula that acts against the interests of shire counties in general, and mine in particular, as well as the Government's manifest failure to act—despite their admission that there is a problem—strongly suggests that the Government cannot or will not rid themselves of the mindset that holds that constituencies such as mine are populated exclusively by the well-to-do and must be tapped to distribute largesse to what are seen as more needy urban areas.

When I was listening to some of the comments of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) I thought that I had heard them somewhere before. Indeed, I and many hon. Members have heard them before, because they were in this morning's mailbag in a letter from the Country Land and Business Association.

The third paragraph of that letter is especially apposite, and sums up quite well the attitude towards deprivation that is held by many people who live in rural areas. It states that

I fear that that is what is happening.

A local primary school head teacher told me this week that at a recent conference she had bearded the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on the funding formula for Wiltshire. We should remember that at the beginning of last year we heard in the House that funding for Wiltshire was inadequate. When faced with my primary school head teacher the right hon. Lady apparently threw up her hands, rolled her eyes to the heavens and said, "Do not ask me to defend the indefensible with respect to Wiltshire."

Well, I ask the Government to defend their position. When Secretaries of State admit an inequity but carry on regardless, disadvantaged people in my constituency have every right to ask what on earth is going on. Is not the truth of the matter that spending Ministers, for all their warm words and good intentions, are merely onlookers who are powerless to act against the shire-county-averse long screwdriver of the Treasury?

12.44 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Given the crucial importance of regeneration, it is amazing how easily it can send us all to sleep. I am delighted to detect some signs of consciousness among the remaining Members in the Chamber, although I fear for those in the Public Gallery. However, I shall press on because, in my view, no British Government have ever invested as much time and energy as the present Government have in tackling, reducing and eradicating poverty and deprivation. That is reflected in the Government's regeneration policy, which leaves no stone unturned in its search for a comprehensive and effective route out of poverty.

We have learned some lessons. We have learned over the last two decades that simply changing the way that communities look will not change the way that communities live. However, failing to change the poor and brutal quality of the built environment condemns disadvantaged communities to live in concrete cages, which is equally deplorable and unacceptable. Therefore it is crucial that we have a balance.

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In Tower Hamlets, inner-city regeneration is make or break. Unfortunately, during the '80s and '90s, many people felt that regeneration broke apart, and even supplanted, their local communities. As the Minister said at the start of the debate, there was too much emphasis on physical regeneration and not enough on communities, and even when physical regeneration did take place it often went over the heads of local people, who remained untouched by the money that was ploughed in. In fact, the '80s and '90s were the greatest period of degeneration that this country's housing estates have ever known.

We have done two things since. First, we have massively increased investment in the fabric of those estates. Secondly, we have recognised that local problems best respond to local solutions, not Whitehall prescriptions. That means local people deciding where the money is ploughed in and having responsibility for disbursing public money. Regeneration policy also focuses on better delivery of mainstream services to disadvantaged areas, and there is no better example of that than the new deal for communities programme.

I listened with interest to the comments of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). However, my experience as chair for two years of the new deal for communities programme in Tower Hamlets was utterly different from that which he described, because our NDC programme genuinely engaged local communities. Do not take my word for it—obviously, the hon. Gentleman never would—but take the word of the people who have engaged in the programme themselves.

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