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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the reduction of stamp duty in deprived areas, which will ghettoise them. That will be one effect of the scheme. Is my hon. Friend aware that if the Government bring forward their seller's pack proposals, they will replicate the ghettoising, making it even more difficult to sell houses in some areas?

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Stigma is important. People's perceptions of an area can do an area a great deal of harm.

I have concerns about what the Government are aiming to do following publication of the White Paper on local government. For example, they are aiming to introduce corporate performance assessments of local councils. They have four classifications: high performing, striving, coasting and failing. That system takes no account of whether a council is trying to improve, for example. It is a broad-brush approach. I fear that an authority that may be improving will still be classified as failing. In an inner-city area, that in itself may lead to stigma and send out the wrong signals to a potential investor.

We must be careful about targeting measures such as tax relief on an area because that area is perceived as being deprived. We must be careful also about measures that the Government have in mind to try to improve the performance of local government. That could lead to concern that local government in some areas is not working as well as it is.

I know that the Government whom I supported were keen on league tables, but those tables and classifications can confuse as much as inform people. I have concerns about the direction the Government are taking. Although the language concerning change in local government is

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one of freedom of opportunity, there is still a substantial degree of ministerial control. We seem to be going down the road of rather more specific grants, which will diminish local autonomy.

I spent a long time in local government. One of my deepest regrets was that the Conservative Government did not trust local government more but sought to interfere. The present Government, despite the language, seem to be moving in the same direction. If we had let local authorities have more freedom, I doubt whether some of the problems in some major conurbations would be as great. In the great days of local government—the Victorian era—a great deal was produced and built by local business men and leaders of local communities who had a great deal of independence and authority. The way forward is to give local government a lot more support and latitude and to encourage local leaders to get involved in local government.

Like many of my hon. Friends, I am not a great enthusiast for regions. I can see no great benefit in the South West of England regional development agency. No doubt one day I shall change my mind and surprise myself. I would prefer the emphasis to be at local government level—with the people on the ground who know their communities—and I hope that the Government will give local authorities more support.

We are dealing with a complex matter. We may not be able to solve all the problems of inner cities, but we should do our best to improve local communities. The Economist has drawn attention to current trends. The economy is growing and there is evidence of repopulation of many of our inner-city areas. Houses are being done up and there is a certain vitality in many parts of central London as young people move in and there are more nightclubs and so on. There are, however, problems in certain suburban areas that are not as well served by transport links and do not offer the opportunities that people saw there 20 or 30 years ago. There is a trend whereby people are moving back into inner cities, but, as has been pointed out repeatedly today, there is a great deal of inequality. There are extremes of wealth and poverty and many local job opportunities are taken by Australians, New Zealanders and others travelling across the world. We have to do more to improve the skills base to match local potential with the jobs available, instead of looking to people who travel long distances to take advantage of the opportunities in London.

London Members have highlighted the problems facing London. London has always had high unemployment and areas of deprivation, often in areas that are a little off the beaten track—the ones that we do not see on the way into town. We have a great opportunity for the renaissance of our capital. Hon. Members see a great deal of London and we can do more to reverse these trends, but we have to make it a priority.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) pointed out when he described the regeneration in Newcastle upon Tyne, there are many opportunities for improvement providing that there is vision, that the private sector and local communities are involved and that there is a long-term strategy so that people do not think that politicians will walk away. I do not have to tell Labour Members that politicians are often tempted to change schemes and to rebrand and relaunch

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them, but this can undermine regeneration schemes as people think that they are here today and gone tomorrow. Long-term commitment is required.

We are discussing an important issue. As a Conservative I feel strongly that as one nation we have to do the best for all our citizens, particularly those who do not have the ability to help themselves. With leadership, vision and Government help, and by enhancing the great talents of our people, I believe that we can create a better Britain in which all our people can be proud of their communities.

1.14 pm

Phil Hope (Corby): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this important debate. I represent 60 villages in my constituency, together with the town of Corby. I have often spoken on rural policy, but today I shall focus on the urban regeneration that is so desperately needed.

It was interesting to hear Conservative Members talk about a non-partisan approach, promptly criticise the Government and Labour councils for failing to tackle the problems that we have inherited and then complain when we remind them of the cause of those problems—18 years of Tory rule.

It does not help when the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) declares himself to have been a political adviser to the Tory Government on those policies. In sharp contrast, the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), made a very different kind of one-nation Conservative speech, praising a lot of Labour policies and criticising those of the former Conservative Administration. We will not let the Conservatives airbrush out their record of abandoning our disadvantaged areas, because we, in government, now have to clear up the mess that they left behind.

I listened carefully to the proposals. Let us have some constructive options, said the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton–Brown). What did he offer? He said that we should streamline the money and appoint another Minister, have some more tax cuts, and protect greenfield sites. In my book that does not add up to much of a policy for improving disadvantaged areas.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Madame Tussauds has today decided not to make or display a waxwork model of the Leader of the Opposition—arguably, we already have one here—and said, "We've always done the three party leaders, but we thought, hang on, is this guy really going to provoke any excitement in the people?" Clearly, as with the absence of any regeneration policies, the answer is no.

We must recognise the problems, and the work that the Government have done to overcome them. Our programmes are providing tremendous opportunities for towns such as Corby, hit hard in the Conservative 1980s and 1990s with massive unemployment and disinvestment in housing, health and education. The local economy is now recovering. With Labour, the spirit of Corby has come to the fore. We are all proud of our constituencies, but Corby really is special. It is the town that would not die, despite the tremendous challenges that it faced. I hope that, with Government help for regeneration, it will not just survive but flourish and grow.

We have problems, though. We have low unemployment—less than 3 per cent., as a result of the Government's policies—but we have a low-skill,

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low-wage economy. Public transport is still woefully inadequate: we are possibly the largest town in Europe without a passenger railway station. We have more than our share of health problems, with the highest incidence of coronary heart disease in the country. The legacy of poor 1960s urban design has left us with rundown housing estates and a town centre in urgent need of new investment.

We have done a good deal, but we cannot be complacent. I want to set out some particular highlights and challenges. As part of the massive extra public and private investment in our first term, children in Corby have benefited from the education action zone, which the Government have just extended with £5 million of extra investment targeted on schools and children in the areas of greatest need.

Education is a mixed story in Corby: we have one of the top-performing comprehensives in the country, but we also have a few schools struggling to give pupils the best start in life. The education action zone is pulling those schools together to get co-operation and common endeavour in the interests of all the children in Corby, not just a few.

I want to record my appreciation of the tremendous commitment and dedication of teachers, classroom assistants, ancillary staff, and especially the heads, who are working together to raise standards. We are now giving them the tools to do the job: repairing the roofs, providing new equipment for science laboratories and building new classrooms and facilities. Results are improving as a consequence, particularly in the primary sector, and now increasingly in the secondary sector, too.

A key feature of the debate about regeneration is having what the Deputy Prime Minister called a progressive universalism in our approach. We need to fund education and health for the whole community while taking a progressive approach and doing more for those people and areas that need it most. That is what we are doing through the new deal for communities. That targeted help is raising standards and pulling people together in a way that no other scheme has achieved.

The urban regeneration company and the neighbourhood renewal strategy are further examples of how we are doing something for everyone but more for those who need it most. Sure start has been mentioned today. We have an excellent scheme in Corby, targeted at children and families in some of our poorest neighbourhoods. We have good nursery and playgroup provision for three and four-year-olds but sure start targets the most disadvantaged areas and gives them an extra boost just when they need it most.

One of Corby's greatest success stories is the Pen Green centre—my own children went there, some 15 or 16 years ago—which is now a centre of excellence, working with children and families. Sure start is based at that centre, working in the most disadvantaged communities. I describe it as a success story, but I have concerns that my county council, in reshaping its budget, is proposing a significant reduction in funding for Pen Green. I am having a good dialogue with the council—officers and members—to ensure that they listen to my representations not to proceed with that cut and to listen to the hundreds of local parents who rely on the centre for support.

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In regeneration, it is the holistic approach that really counts. In Corby, we have established an urban regeneration company called Catalyst Corby. Ministers know of our regeneration plans; the Deputy Prime Minister visited Corby a year ago this month and launched the company. Since then, the Minister for Employment and the Regions, the Under–Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), and the Minister for Sport have visited Corby to see our successes. These include Rockingham Speedway, a massive new investment of £48 million in an Indy-style racetrack—one of the first of its kind in Europe—which is located in Corby.

Catalyst Corby is building on that investment. In every sense, it is a public-private partnership, directly involving on the board the private sector, regional government agencies, local councils and the voluntary sector. It is a board that I am proud to be a member of as well.

We have some small ambitions for our town. We want to double the size of Corby and introduce a far wider range of housing. We want to transform Corby town centre and provide a much better shopping centre and a fuller range of leisure opportunities. Crucially, we want to secure the re-opening of a good-quality train service to put Corby on the map and open up its potential as a place from which to commute to London and elsewhere. We want to widen the employment base by ensuring an adequate supply of land and by using some of the tax credits that have been mentioned by Conservative Members—another effective Government measure to promote regeneration.

We need a new image for Corby, and we need to promote it throughout the country as a place of growth and regeneration for the future. The board is up and running and we have a group of talented individuals. Our baseline study has been completed and staff are working to deliver the process.

One issue that is related to public confidence in Corby is public transport. Corby's bus services are clearly inadequate and have reached a level where they are no longer viable. I have had lengthy discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my noble friend Lord Falconer, the Minister of State responsible for regeneration, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is on the Front Bench today. I know that there is a willingness to assist.

I know also that there are many demands on Ministers, particularly in relation to transport, but it is absolutely vital that we get this right. I am looking to Ministers to help to make sure that the Government play their part, along with the county council, to ensure that we have a viable integrated transport network of buses and trains in the town. Without that, we cannot succeed in our endeavours.

The regeneration of a town such as Corby is a microcosm of what we want to achieve for the country. We are putting together public and private sectors; involving the community in decision making; identifying key areas for strategic investment; and backing that all the way with political will and Government resources to achieve outcomes. We are working on that in Corby and we are moving forward. I hope that we can hear good news from Ministers in the weeks to come as Corby goes into the future.

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