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7.23 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), and I share his concern about the issues that he has raised

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in respect of gap funding. Like him, I look forward to the response that the Minister will give later. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind my not pursuing the points that he raised, as I wish to address my remarks predominantly to the other report produced by the Select Committee. I also want to make some more wide-ranging remarks about urban regeneration.

I was delighted by the words employed by the Deputy Prime Minister when he launched the White Paper entitled, "Our Towns and Cities: The Future, Delivering an Urban Renaissance". He said that he wanted

Liberal Democrat Members entirely agree with that. More importantly, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared to agree with another key Liberal Democrat analysis when he said:

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches entirely endorse that approach. We also agree with what the Deputy Prime Minister went on to say:

Having endorsed all that, we want to put on record the view that nothing could have been more counter- productive over the past 30 years than the central Government belief that they knew all there was to know about urban regeneration, and that they could hand solutions down to the grateful poor in our decaying cities.

Yet, having criticised central Government, it is only fair also to express some criticism of local government. The same top-down view can be just as harmful when local authorities decide that they have all the answers for the communities that they serve. Local authorities are also guilty of imposing their solutions, of bulldozing existing homes and of creating huge housing developments where people are isolated from their neighbours. In some cases, that has given criminals plenty of space in which to hide from and evade the law.

In principle, at least, there appears to be much agreement between the Government and the Liberal Democrats, but what will happen in practice? The Deputy Prime Minister's speech on 16 November was full of promise, but what about the delivery? This Estimates debate is about money, so we must consider what is being done with the money already devoted to the areas in question, and what will be done with the money that is to be spent. Will that money be spent wisely? Is it even going to be spent at all?

I shall deal first with the question of how the money will be spent. For some time, the Government have trailed their action plan for urban renewal. Their response to the 11th report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs claimed:

Later in the same response, the Government were a little more specific and said that the action plan on neighbourhood renewal was

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Five weeks have passed since then. The date is 19 December, and we are nearly at Christmas. As far as I am aware, there is still no sign of the action plan. I hope that the Minister will say when that much awaited plan will be made available.

Even when it arrives, it will still be only a plan. The question then will be whether the plan, having been made available so late, will be able to deliver much before the next general election.

The Deputy Prime Minister was right to stress that if we want to have urban regeneration we desperately need to ensure that the relevant key workers--police, health workers and social workers--are in place and are able to buy homes. The right hon. Gentleman said that £250 million would be allocated over the next three years for that purpose and that the Government would set out details following on from the housing Green Paper. Even more recently, another Government document referred to

I hope that the Minister will be able to say whether a definitive list exists of who those key workers will be. We know that health service workers will be eligible, but will that mean that a person working in a general practitioner's health centre practice will be provided with support? We know that teachers will be helped, but will the much more poorly paid and vital teaching assistants be helped? Unless those matters are sorted out quickly, there is no chance of action before the election.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish made an important point about what the Government have said in respect of compulsory purchase powers. The judicious use of such powers will be very important in future urban regeneration. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that new legislation will ultimately be provided, yet there is no reference to any legislation to deal with compulsory purchase in the Gracious Speech. So presumably, "ultimately" means that we will have to wait until after the election at least for some movement.

Mr. Bennett: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has looked at the Government's response in which they make it clear that it is possible to make a lot of progress on CPOs without primary legislation, simply using the regulations.

Mr. Foster: I have, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out. He will recall that in his speech of 16 November, the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that there may be a need for further legislation for some of the more imaginative uses and schemes that he--and, I hope, the hon. Gentleman--want introduced. The Deputy Prime Minister has acknowledged the need to consider additional legislation. My question is whether we will see any reference to those changes, and even consultation on them, this side of the election.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Government have not been taking action on urban renewal. The real question is what is happening, and whether it has been happening in the right place. I suspect that if I asked right hon. and

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hon. Members which area of the country was fortunate enough to have eight regeneration projects, they might suggest Moss Side in Manchester, Tower Hamlets or Peckham. In fact, the answer is the county of Herefordshire. It has managed to acquire eight regeneration projects, despite being 196th in the index of local deprivation. Many local authorities which are higher up that list because their areas are far more deprived than Herefordshire have far fewer urban regeneration projects, and some have none.

Chesterfield, for example, which is 91st on the index, has no Government initiatives whatever. Newcastle- under-Lyme, which is 19th on the list--near the top--has only two projects. That is a quarter of the number operating in the far less deprived Herefordshire.

There is, sadly, no correlation between regeneration initiatives under the Government and levels of deprivation. We could say that credit should go to the officers and members of Herefordshire county council for all their hard work on successful bids. However, even the bidding scheme has got out of hand. Council officers are spending more and more time preparing detailed bids for funds of one sort or another through this plethora of schemes. Yet on the whole, that time is wasted and should be spent on service delivery.

The research shows that the majority of bids are unsuccessful. In some areas it is rather more than that. For the European regional development fund, 73 per cent. of bids have been successful. That seems good news until we realise what they were successful in achieving. Even those which were successful got only 37 per cent. of the money for which they had bid.

There is a plethora of different schemes. In my office, recently, we looked at 53 of the schemes introduced by the Government. We discovered that there is a huge and frightening overlap that makes it difficult for people even to know which bid to make for a scheme. All sorts of anomalies have occurred. There was a wonderful example in Staffordshire, where a bid was put in for a crime reduction scheme to help the local community. That included building a path 200 yd long. Because a small part of the path fell outside the precise boundary of the single regeneration budget scheme, the whole scheme was denied.

Other anomalies make it difficult in some of the areas that are not so high on the list of deprived areas. I would never claim that my constituency of Bath is particularly deprived. However, like many other right hon. and hon. Members who represent apparently affluent areas, there is within my constituency a number of deprived but small areas. It is often difficult to find a Government scheme that will enable funds to be provided to help the regeneration of those comparatively small areas.

I recently had a letter from Mr. Alex Schlesinger, chairman of the London road partnership in Bath. He wrote a couple of weeks ago expressing his concern about the lack of availability of funds for the regeneration of relatively small areas such as the Snow Hill estate on the London road. He had been told by the Government office of the south-west that funding would not be available for such an area because it was statistically insignificant. I can assure the Government office that the deprivation in that area is not insignificant.

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Mr. Schlesinger's letter asked what alternative sources of funding the Government had in mind particularly since past Administrations have made it practically impossible for local authorities to regenerate such areas without financial assistance from other sources.

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