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The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the parliamentary statement "Planning for Town Centres", which was issued on 10 April. It summarises and clarifies the Government's planning policy for town centres and retail development. We remain firmly committed to focusing retail development in town centres. This policy is working, and we now have more in-town than out-of-town development than at any time since the mid-1980s.
Michael Fabricant : I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his answer, but does he recall the application for a retail development in the mining town of Burntwood, in my constituency? Some 10,000 people signed a petition in favour of it, the inspector approved it, Lichfield district council approved it and
The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the ruling that I cannot comment on a matter that is under legal challenge. Every Secretary of State would have to give the same reply to the House. It certainly applies in this case. The hon. Gentleman is usually on record as a supporter of out-of-town development. He has obviously changed his mind: we have not.
Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): May I express my appreciation of the Deputy Prime Minister's work to regenerate urban town centres? Does he accept that the urban renewal programme that he has put in place could be another vehicle to help regenerate town centres? Could guidance be given to regional development agencies and regional assemblies to help them to revitalise urban town centres?
The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend knows that that is a key priority for the Government. We have concentrated on urban development, particularly retail development. In 1992, about 190 out-of-town shopping applications were granted, which rose to 1,200 in only five years. We are now concentrating more on the development of in-town urban areasa decision that was greatly influenced by advice from the regional assemblies and regional development agencies. We greatly encourage them to adopt that policy.
The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche): We have invested £2.66 million in each scheme so that long-term, robust plans to revitalise communities can develop. The first tranche of £4 million funding is available for radical action to begin this year, and more for those moving ahead with completed plans.
Jeff Ennis: Is the Minister aware that communities such as Thurnscoe, East and Mexborough in my constituency are already benefiting from the funding that she is providing? The number of empty and void properties in my constituency, which can attract antisocial behaviour and are often the cause of disorder and nuisance, is diminishing. Does the Minister agree that if we are to continue to be successful in the pathfinder areas, we must adopt a bottom-up approach that will give local communities a direct input into resolving the problems in the housing areas where they live?
Mrs. Roche: I agree and I know that the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) visited the pathfinder in my hon. Friend's constituencyand was impressed by what he saw. It is essential to secure community involvement and the
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Does the Minister accept that many pathfinder areas are precisely those with a predominance of houses at the bottom end of the council tax bandings? If the rebanding goes ahead and a half-A or minus-A band is introduced, what will be the impact on councils of a significant increase in council taxes marginally up the bands? Will the nearly poor be required to pay yet again for the very poor?
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I welcome pathfinders in areas such as my own where the housing market has completely collapsed, but rather than more plans, strategies and assessments, people want to see a visible sign of change on the ground. Can the Minister assure me that the pathfinder area in Burnley and Pendle will be adequately resourced so that crumbling and rotten houses can be torn down?
Mrs. Roche: I have to say that that is exactly what is happening. Action is being taken on the ground. I have seen the pathfinders in action and demolition is taking place. Some of the old crumbling houses are going; new mixed housing is taking its place; and communities are being revitalised. The involvement of local people and action plans are necessary to achieve that.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We have asked for further responses by 16 May to our soundings exercise on the level of interest in each English region in holding a referendum on an elected regional assembly. We will announce shortly after that date which region or regions will proceed first towards referendums.
Sir Nicholas Winterton : While I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, is he aware that polls suggest that 78 per cent. of people in the north-west know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about the Government's proposals for regional authorities, and that only three out of 10,000 have responded to the soundings? Does that make it clear to him that the north-west is not interested in regional government? We do not want more bureaucracy. People identify with their districts, boroughs or counties, and I repeat that we do not want regional government and all the expensive bureaucracy that goes with it.
Mr. Raynsford: I am always a little suspicious of polls and I prefer to look at the evidence of individuals who have responded. The hon. Gentleman will probably be interested to know that we have so far had 2,535
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): Fond as we are of Macclesfield on Merseyside, does my right hon. Friend agree that a Greater Merseyside authority would make far more sense than a north-west authority?
Mr. Raynsford: We believe that the people of the region should take the decision, and that is why we are engaged in the soundings exercise. We will make an announcement on the basis of the soundings on whether referendums will take place and, if so, in which regions. It will then be for the people of each region to decide whether they want an elected regional assembly. That is democracy and choice, and we think that it is a good idea.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Does the Minister realise that the level of interest in the north-west is such that the only people who turned up to a recent meeting organised to discuss the issue were a chief executive of a council and his wife? That is not my idea of a good night out. Does he recognise that business, industry and voluntary organisations are pulling away from the existing regional assembly, and does he agree that this is a solution in search of a problem?
Mr. Raynsford: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with meetings with a derisory attendance from his experience of Conservative party meetings. We are seeking the views of people via various options, including letters, meetingsif people choose to hold themand other responses to the soundings. We will take account of the total response. Clearly, if only two people attend a meeting, it would not be given much weight in the assessment of the level of interest.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Part of the confusion in the minds of the people in Cheshire, including the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), is caused by the misinformation that has been put out by Cheshire county council. Will my right hon. Friend tell the people of Cheshire that the proposals for regional government would not create a further tier of government, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but an alternative and much better structure of government?
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have always been clear that there must be no question that any additional tiers of government or bureaucracy will be created. That is why we have made it clear that, when there is a vote in favour of an elected regional assembly, local government in that region must be reorganised to a wholly unitary structure. Through an amendment in the other place to what is now the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003, we have recently provided that people in those two-tier areas will have a say in a second vote on their preferred form of unitary local government. Once again, the Government
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): The Minister said that he would look at the level of interest in a region. In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), he said that he had received 2,000-odd responses from the north-west. What proportion of the total population of the north-west is that?
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will know that other people often undertake similar exercises. For example, the Liberal Democrat party and its Focus leaflets will probably get a derisorily small number of responses, compared with what we are receiving. Getting 2,500 responses from people represents a very good level of response[Interruption.] We look forward to seeing what they say. We will analyse the responses, and take decisions accordingly.