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House of Commons

Wednesday 17 November 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Thames Gateway

1. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): What steps he is taking to ensure that existing communities share the benefits of the Thames gateway development programme. [198432]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): The Government are determined that existing communities will share fully in the benefits of the big new investment to support housing growth in the Thames gateway. I am pleased to say that only last week the Government announced £100 million of funding to new Thames gateway projects, aimed at improving educational, health, environmental and transport provision in the gateway. Since last year, the Government's investment in community improvements in the gateway has risen to £475 million.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for that reply from my right hon. Friend. May I extol the virtues of the All Saints neighbourhood project? It is essential, if the gateway is to develop successfully, that the existing communities not only feel the benefits but are part of the development. That will include not just shiny new buildings away from some of the poorer areas in the Medway towns, but improvements in street lighting, the environment and safety—all the things that impact on people's daily lives when they open their front doors. When my right hon. Friend is giving out the money, will he ensure that councils and other delivery units engage with the communities, especially those in Chatham?

Keith Hill: My hon. Friend may extol to his heart's content, because he is right in everything that he says. He is right about the Chatham social regeneration project, which was one of the successful projects and will, following our announcement last week, receive £550,000 from my Department. That project covers streetscape and public realm improvements in the area around Luton Arches in his constituency and
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environmental enhancements to Fort Amherst. The project also builds on the £10 million ODPM allocation for the regeneration of Chatham town centre.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Unlike the rest of the Government's community plans, the Thames gateway project has merit, but serious concerns about the infrastructure, the environment and community buy-in were raised in the recent debate by the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas). What specific steps will the Minister take, beyond the usual consultation procedures and representative process, to ensure that the existing population's interests are taken fully into account? The people of the Medway towns, Bexleyheath and Ilford want action, not just more talk from this lacklustre ministerial team in a careless Government.

Keith Hill: The hon. Gentleman does his best, but it is a dismal effort. We did have a debate on the Thames gateway on Monday evening and the immense benefits that the scheme will confer on local communities were universally acknowledged by all the hon. Members who contributed. The fact is that absolutely every aspect of the investment programme in the Thames gateway is based on the involvement of local communities. Indeed, the entire mechanism for the delivery of the Thames gateway project is based on local delivery vehicles.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): In my constituency, we have had a £100 million bridge and a £25 million new ring road. We are grateful for those and we are looking forward to the development of the Thames gateway. In conjunction with the housing projection for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, will my right hon. Friend produce an infrastructure audit, so that we will get the schools, the GPs' surgeries and so on at the same time as the housing?

Keith Hill: My hon. Friend is right, and to his list of transport investments in his constituency we can add the Sittingbourne learning hub, the Elmley Sheppey building crafts centre to train apprentices, and the Sheerness children and family centre. All of those are benefits conferred as a result of the Thames gateway projects. He is also right that we need to bring in the necessary health and education provision simultaneously with the housing developments. My Department is working closely with other Departments to ensure that such simultaneous delivery is secured.

Regional Chambers

2. Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): What the cost was of regional chambers in England, in 2003–04; and how many staff they employed. [198433]

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The total Government grant allocated to the eight regional chambers in 2003–04 was £14 million. They employed some 302 staff at the end of the 2003–04 financial year.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Minister for that reply and I note that the Deputy Prime Minister has ducked the
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opportunity to respond to the question. Given that in the north-east the people voted overwhelmingly—by 78 per cent. to 22 per cent.—not to have a regional assembly, those bodies now lack any political or moral authority. Should not we now abolish those white elephants and hand planning powers back to locally elected authorities where they rightfully belong?

Mr. Raynsford: No, and let me quote someone on this subject:

That was written two weeks ago, by Sue Sida-Lockett, the Conservative chair of the East of England regional assembly.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the North West regional assembly does a very good job, as does the Northwest Development Agency, in considering strategic issues in the north-west? Does he further agree that the result of the vote in the north-east the other week in no way diminishes the fact that, at the end of the day, there is still a very strong case for democratic accountability in the regions?

Mr. Raynsford: I agree very much with my hon. Friend. The Government expect the North West regional assembly, like other assemblies, to perform functions in relation to regional planning and the oversight of the regional development agency, but it also does a number of other jobs in the north-west and contributes to the wider debate on economic development and regeneration, which is absolutely critical to that region. Clearly, as I said in the response to the previous question, there is an ongoing and important role for regional assemblies, which include a majority of members from elected local authorities.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Today is the day for quotes. Sir Jeremy Beecham, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, says:

If the leader of the Labour group of the Local Government Association can see the problem, why cannot the Deputy Prime Minister?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Lady will know only too well that there is a strong case for the preparation of regional planning guidance and that that was put in place by the Conservative party when in government. The structures that the Conservative Government proposed called for consultation with elected representatives from local councils, plus others involved in regional development. The difference between the outcomes then and now is that, in those days, the Secretary of State decided what the outcome was—it was entirely a decision by central Government—but we have modernised the system and devolved power so that decisions are taken by bodies such as the one chaired by the Conservative whom I quoted a moment ago, who
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believes that regional chambers are the means to engage local authorities in the formulation of regional planning guidance.

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