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House of Commons

Tuesday 16 January 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Community Bus Trusts

1. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): If he will make it his policy to encourage the establishment of community bus trusts to provide not-for-profit bus routes in urban areas. [143964]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): The Government's policies recognise the value of community and voluntary transport, and the introduction of the urban bus challenge will further encourage that. Community transport already benefits from our rural transport funding and my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that many local communities will benefit from the 45 per cent. increase in support for rural bus services that was announced in the rural White Paper.

I am also pleased to say that we are announcing today the intention to give local authorities more flexibility to use this funding to safeguard existing bus services, as well as to provide entirely new services. In addition, we will consult shortly on extending the bus fuel duty rebate and other measures to encourage the expansion of the community transport sector.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. Is he aware that some urban bus companies in medium-sized towns and cities try to streamline their services by cutting out neighbourhood bus routes, which are a particular benefit to the elderly, people who attend hospital and those with restricted mobility? Does he think that an effective community bus trust would resolve many of those issues, if implemented well locally? Is he prepared to venture that his Department would look favourably on the formation of trusts that might fall foul of remnants of the Transport Act 1985?

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am aware that the possible loss of neighbourhood feeder services is an issue in Southampton, and he is right to raise it. We are keen to see the development of community provision, and there are likely to be opportunities for that in the urban bus challenge, as announced in our 10-year plan.

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The aim is to contribute towards improving transport provision for deprived urban areas, not only in inner cities but in outlying urban estates. Some £40 million will be available over the next three years, and we would certainly expect community transport schemes, with various structures, to be a prominent part of the project.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the Minister consider the bus routes that are operated by First York, and in particular the increasing unreliability of its bus schedules, from which a number of services have been cancelled? The community element of the service is that it gives people who live in Haxby and Wigginton access to York hospital. Without that bus route, they will simply not arrive to visit patients.

Mr. Hill: The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of bus services in her constituency, and we share her concerns. We recognise that bus services, and in particular local authority budgets for bus subsidies, are under pressure in some areas, and that tender prices for subsidised services have been increasing. She will be pleased to learn that the recent revenue support grant settlement took those pressures into account.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): May I stress to my hon. Friend how important it is that we deal with the legacy of deregulation in our urban areas? Last week, PMT, the local bus company in Stoke-on-Trent, announced the withdrawal of bus services 86, 92, 94 and 96. There will be quality partnerships across the city, but people who live on its fringes and cannot access the fast bus routes will not be able to make use of public transport. Will he look closely at how he can assist us to get back those crucial neighbourhood bus services?

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend is right. It is disturbing to hear of the loss of services in Stoke-on-Trent because PMT has withdrawn some routes. She is absolutely right to draw attention to the disastrous loss of bus services as a result of deregulation and privatisation, which reduced bus passenger journeys by 13 million a day. However, I am delighted that there are signs that the Government are turning around the long-term decline in bus use, and we are determined to achieve further growth.

I believe that the urban bus challenge will offer opportunities for Stoke-on-Trent. We will certainly support the best projects for which bids are submitted and will issue guidance and invitations to bid, with the aim of starting the first round of projects later this year.

Housing Management

2. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): If he will make a statement on tenant participation in housing management. [143965]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We will continue to promote increased opportunities for tenants to influence and have more control over the management of their homes through tenant participation compacts linked to best value. The majority of councils appear to be making good

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progress with introducing compacts and some registered social landlords are also developing compacts with their tenants.

Mr. Plaskitt: In my constituency, tenants in Warwick are looking forward to the local tenant participation compact, but it will involve them in handling some very complex issues. What support will my hon. Friend's Department offer for the training that will be required?

Mr. Raynsford: I welcome my hon. Friend's comments, because I know that there has been considerable progress in Warwick. The tenant participation compact, which has now been agreed by all parties, is due to be launched this spring. On the second part of his question, which was about funding, we have set aside £6 million in 2001-02 to help councils and tenants to develop compacts.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I congratulate the Minister on his forthcoming elevation to the Privy Council. Does he recall that, shortly after the general election, the Deputy Prime Minister promised that there would be a return of council housing to other landlords? How does he square that distinct commitment with the housing Green Paper, which promises to stop the transfer of at least 200,000 council houses every year?

Mr. Raynsford: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. He will know from our housing Green Paper that we have an extremely ambitious programme to achieve a step change in the condition of all council housing in this country and have set the ambitious target of ensuring that all substandard properties are modernised within a 10-year timetable. That will involve substantial increased investment in council housing and the continued transfer of some properties to other bodies, such as registered social landlords, to secure additional investment. That is part of a comprehensive programme in which the tenants ultimately decide the best future for their homes. That is absolutely in line with the principle of tenant participation, which was the subject of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt).

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Under this Government, council tenants at least have choices, are consulted and will have votes. Should they not be warned that, under the Tories, they would have none of that and all their council housing would be transferred at a stroke in an accelerated manner and without votes, choices or anything else?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This Government not only provided extra investment but made it clear that the choice about the future of their homes is one that tenants will make. It is right that they should decide. In somewhat ill-chosen remarks about housing, the Conservative party has implied that it intends forcibly to transfer all council housing to other landlords. I do not think that that is likely to command much respect among tenants.

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Local Government

3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement on the future of two-tier local government and the Government's plans for regional government in England. [143966]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): We remain committed to moving to directly elected regional government, where there is support as demonstrated in referendums. In the meantime, there are no plans at present to reform the structure of local government in England. Unlike the previous Government, we believe in the decentralisation of power at local, regional and national levels.

Mr. Swayne: Has the Secretary of State seen the Library research into the political affiliations of the members of regional development agency boards? It transpires that nearly three quarters of them are Labour cronies, so does he understand the preference of many of our constituents for sticking with their county councils and doing away with the regional development agencies altogether?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman must be including an awful lot of business people in his Labour cronies. That makes a remarkable change in the political situation in the regions.

The Tory party is committed to abolishing the regional chambers, the assemblies and the development agencies, so I shall deal with the direct political representation that it has. More than 105 Tory councillors are on regional chambers and 33 are on the south-east regional assembly, including Councillor Simon Hayes of the New Forest district council in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his answer to the opening question, which made it clear that the movement towards regional government in those regions that make a case for it and can convince the people that it is right will not be blocked or delayed by the irrelevance of dealing with unnecessary local government reform?

Mr. Prescott: Yes, that is the point that we have made. In the referendum on the London strategic authority, 75 per cent. voted yes. On that occasion, the Tories asked people to vote no, but I presume that they have now accepted the result. They always oppose the establishment of development agencies and constitutional change, but they eventually come round to accepting them.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Does the Secretary of State agree that regional government costs the taxpayer a fortune without our being able to see any great advantage from it? Does he realise how angry that makes people in Rochford, where the grant this year is £400,000 less than it was six years ago? The people there think that the money would be far better spent on giving help to existing councils.

Mr. Prescott: Of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there is no form of regional government at the moment, but there are regional organisations. The first regional

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body set up by the previous Administration was that of the regional government offices, which presumably cost a few bob to run as well. There is not a great deal of money being spent on reorganisation.

We believe that it is relevant to have a strategy for the regions, which is why we encouraged the development agencies, which were also supported by the previous Administration. The hon. Gentleman was a Member of Parliament in 1979 when his party fought on an election manifesto pledge to get rid of the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies. However, as soon as they returned to power, they eagerly engaged in using them.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Does my right hon. Friend agree that many fine cities in England would be perfectly capable of running their own affairs, although at the moment they have to suffer being lumped in with county councils, in which rural interests dominate? Does it not make sense for matters that are best dealt with on a regional level to be dealt with in that way, for those best dealt with locally to be dealt with at district or city level, and to deliver, at long last, the unitary status that cities such as Exeter deserve?

Mr. Prescott: It is true that many of the unitary authorities that were established under the previous Administration do a good job, and we see local government being built on that unitary system. It is also true that strategic decisions that need to be made in the English regions are perhaps not being made as well as they are in the London area, where strategic decisions are made by a strategic body. We have said that, ultimately, the people will decide, in a referendum. The people will be given the choice, and if they want the provision we shall observe their wishes.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): After three and a half years in government, has the Deputy Prime Minister forgotten completely that it was a solemn Labour manifesto pledge to introduce directly elected regional government? Is not the truth that, although he is still enthusiastic, he has not succeeded in convincing any of his colleagues? The Prime Minister has cold feet and the local government Minister has said that the issue is all a great diversion.

Four or five weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister said in the House that he was still consulting on the matter. Is he consulting anyone but himself? If he is not going to reaffirm the commitment to introduce regional government--or provide a time scale for its introduction--why should we believe anything that he has to say about local government democracy?

Mr. Prescott: We made it clear in our manifesto that we believed in decentralisation, after 18 years of centralisation and the break-up of local government under the previous Administration. In our three years, we have introduced radical change, in the form of devolution in Scotland and Wales; introduced the necessary legislation to conduct the referendum in London, and established regional bodies such as the RDAs; and reformed the civil service structure to enable us to make joined-up government decisions in the regions. Those are good steps towards our commitment to decentralisation.

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In the manifesto, we said that we would give the choice to people in the regions, and that where there was a demand, we would hold a referendum. [Interruption.] We have not yet received that demand. Consultation is going on in all the regions. Opposition Members can ask their local Tory councillors who are involved in them. They will find that many of those councillors are joining us in the demand for regional government.

Mr. Norman: The truth is that we have no directly elected regional government. All that we have are extremely expensive regional bureaucracies delivering nothing to anybody. After three and a half years, the Government cannot make up their own mind on what was a manifesto pledge. Is not the truth that the Conservative party is now the party of local government, and that Labour is presiding over what the head of the Local Government Association--who is a Labour supporter--described as the strange death of local democracy?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister now affirm the Government's commitment to the future of county councils? If not, does that mean that, if Labour were to be re-elected, county councils that date back to the Domesday Book would cease to exist, and that 3 May could be the date of the last county council elections in the history of England?

Mr. Prescott: The obvious assumption behind the hon. Gentleman's question is that the Conservatives will lose the general election. I agree with him on that. He mentioned regional bureaucracies. The previous Administration set up regional government offices that were accountable to no one but central Government. They were not accountable to people in the regions.

Mr. Norman: What about the RDAs?

Mr. Prescott: It is true that the RDAs are appointed centrally, but they contain locally elected representatives, such as the 105 Tory councillors who sit on the bodies to which they make their reports. The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Conservative party is the friend of local authorities, but in that context I shall mention only the Banham review--a report into the organisation of local authorities that was a total mess and had to be withdrawn--and the poll tax, which cost the country £14 billion. By any fair test, to suggest that the previous Administration were the friend of local authorities is not acceptable.

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