Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): We have covered an enormous amount of ground during the debate. I shall respond as fully as I can and write to hon. Members on any points that I do not have enough time to deal with. I could just go through the achievements of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the past three years, which are considerable, from the completion of the Kyoto negotiations to common agricultural policy reform and the strengthening of rural economies and communities, but let me first dwell on the topics raised in the debate.

I welcome the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) to her work. Hers was a straightforward and practical speech for most of the time. I particularly welcomed her remarks about the road safety Bill and I agree with her about the value of consensus on that issue. Where she went totally off the rails was when she went on to defend the Conservative record. Has the Conservative party forgotten the centralising influence of Mrs. Thatcher and her Government, and the actions that took place over the 18 years preceding the Labour Government? The hon. Lady had the unmitigated cheek to refer to devolution to Wales. For the Conservative party to take any interest in devolution is amazing. There is not a single Conservative Member of the Welsh Assembly.

Devolution of money and power to the regions of England is an initiative that the Government have taken. I work with local government in my role. I chair jointly with a representative of the Local Government Association the central local partnership meeting on rural local government. It is very productive. We have
25 Nov 2004 : Column 327
just completed work with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning on defining the terms of sustainable communities, because sustainable development is important to us in central Government and to people in local government. It would be nice if the Opposition started to take some interest in those issues.

During the debate we heard some well-informed speeches, starting with the seminal contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who set out with clarity and passion her vision for high standard rail transport and looked forward to the contribution that the Railways Bill will make. I can tell her that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport looks forward to her contribution when that Bill is debated before the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) made a thoughtful speech about transport in his area, particularly in respect of bus transport and the strategic approach which, I know, is important to Manchester. He referred to the importance of devolution and equity, and I agree that regional government is a reality for the future, though I thought he was a brave man to go on to speak of abandoning the Barnett formula. My experience of changing any formula—I have been involved in several over the years—is to avoid doing it if possible, because the unintended and unexpected consequences of changes in formulae can often cause a severe headache.

My hon. Friend spoke about regional economic performance. The Government's approach is to ensure that in every part of the United Kingdom the institutions and resources are in place to allow regions to fulfil their economic potential. I particularly value the work of the regional development agencies, with which I am engaged, along with colleagues, particularly at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) made several points about a number of issues, including race equality and Britain's future in Europe, which I am sure will be read with interest by ministerial colleagues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), as well as speaking about rail services, welcomed the proposals on corporate manslaughter and underlined the hopes of many Members in referring to the need for early legislation.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) made a thoughtful and well-informed speech. He made the general and correct point that we need to meet our commitments in terms of energy and conservation, and that achieving change in terms of air travel requires international agreement and delivery rather than unilateral action.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke rightly of the responsibilities of the developed world to help the third world if disaster is not to befall our environment. On one of the specific points that he made from a position of considerable experience, I am happy to assure him that we are firmly committed to protecting the green belt and its functions, including preventing towns from joining up. We have added—[Interruption.] Hon. Members who grunt might like to take this point on board. We
25 Nov 2004 : Column 328
have added 19,000 hectares to the green belt since 1997. Any land taken out will be replaced. Our policies are delivering—

Andrew Selous: Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael: Would the hon. Gentleman do me the courtesy of listening to a few words before he gets over-excited?

Our policies are delivering more brownfield developments and greater conversion of existing buildings, up from 57 to 67 per cent. since 1997. The new proposals for the east of England, for example, will affect less than 1 per cent. of greenfield land in that region.

Andrew Selous: Does the Minister realise that in the overcrowded south-east it is no consolation to be told that green belt has been added to in the wilds of Norfolk or the north of England whereas it is under attack in the desperately overcrowded south-east?

Alun Michael: That is a false caricature. We have talked about replacement. It is important for the hon. Gentleman to realise that the development and health of his region, and especially the hopes of young people, make it important that we should achieve the balance between housing need and housing provision. That presents serious challenges, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has shown the willingness and determination to tackle.

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) referred to devolved matters. That gives me the opportunity to celebrate the fact that this weekend we shall see the opening of the millennium centre in Cardiff bay, at the heart of my constituency, in Europe's youngest capital. I congratulate Sir David Rowe-Beddoe and his team on creating a world-class landmark building. Nearby that building we see another landmark building under construction, which is the new Welsh Assembly Chamber. I celebrate the developing work of the Assembly, in whose birth I am proud to have played a part.

I was surprised by the cavalier dismissal of the hon. Member for North Dorset of devolution to the regions of England. Ostrich-like, he wants to withdraw from the South West regional assembly. That gives me the opportunity to quote the following words:

Those are words with which I agree. They are the comments of Sue Sida-Lockett, the Conservative chair of the East of England regional assembly. Referring to Conservative criticism of regional assemblies, she said that it

In respect of the South West regional assembly, there are about 51 local authorities contributing £490,000 in total towards the cost of that assembly. Also involved are the regional and local government associations and the regional employment body that supports local authorities in skills and learning.
25 Nov 2004 : Column 329

The hon. Gentleman failed to mention the Rural Pathfinder for the south-west— it may be to the benefit of those in the Chamber to know that it is Dorset. When we met the representatives of the Rural Pathfinder in the past 10 days, I was pleased at the enthusiasm of the county council and the other partners in Dorset to be engaged in improving health and delivery in rural areas. I am sure that it will be a suitable pathfinder for the south-west, and it might even persuade the hon. Gentleman to celebrate that in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) reminded us of much of the history of environmental issues and dealt thoughtfully with the need for consensus and actions in that respect.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) rightly emphasised the personal and tragic consequences of road deaths, and I join her in paying tribute to the work of RoadPeace. She rightly connected, as we should in this Chamber, policy with the personal impact of policies. I was pleased that both she and the hon. Member for Meriden welcomed the road safety Bill. However, I say to the hon. Member for Guildford that it is unwise to mock the contribution of parish councils. They have a growing role, and I pay tribute to the National Association of Local Councils, with which I have been working closely. It has helped, along with the parish clerks, to promote the quality parish council scheme, which is lifting the quality and performance of parish and town councils throughout the country, and whose developing competence and leadership at the local level is recognised in the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill, whose provisions hon. Members will see shortly, as well as by DEFRA, the ODPM and the Prime Minister himself.

Next Section IndexHome Page