26 Jan 2001 : Column 1187

House of Commons

Friday 26 January 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Rural and Urban White Papers

[Relevant documents: Eleventh Report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, on the Proposed Urban White Paper, HC 185-I, and the Government's response thereto, Cm. 4912; Seventh Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, on the Rural White Paper, HC 32-I, and the Government's response thereto, Cm. 4910.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Clelland.]

9.33 am

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the debate. It was allocated to the Select Committee to compensate us for losing a debate in November, when we were promised an estimates day to debate the Select Committee reports on the urban and rural White Papers. Unfortunately, as that date approached, the Government still had not published the two documents. It was therefore agreed that we should have the debate at a later date. I am grateful that we have this day, although it is not quite within the usual formal procedures for debate on a Select Committee report.

As Chairman of the Select Committee, I express my appreciation for all the hard work that the other members of the Select Committee put into the inquiries. My thanks are due especially to Richard Bate, David Lunts and Michael Parkinson, our specialist advisers on those inquiries, and to all the people who submitted evidence to the Select Committee, which was extremely important.

On both urban and rural policy, the Government can influence matters so far, but beyond that it is essential that people adapt and change their behaviour if we are to achieve success. The wide debate on urban and rural policy is important, and the Select Committee has contributed to that. The Government consulted widely on all the issues, which was very helpful.

Some might find it odd that we are debating the two Select Committee reports together, and ask whether there is not a total contradiction between urban and rural policy. I would argue--as would the Government, I think--that there is a total interdependence between the two Select Committee reports and the two Government White Papers. Unless we succeed with both, they will diminish each other. They are interdependent.

I begin by focusing on two issues, one from each report. The first is the urban problem. The perception is probably the reality: for most of last the century, there was a drain away from the cities and towns into rural and suburban Britain. That was a tragedy for the urban centres and for many of the rural centres.

26 Jan 2001 : Column 1188

The good news is that that drain has been stopped in some places. We can visit the centre of Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and many other cities and see how they are now thriving and attracting people back to live in them. Some of the housing often described as the worst, such as some tower blocks, has been improved and good security systems installed. People are clearly happy to live there.

What has been done successfully in a few places needs to be done in much more of urban Britain. The test over the next 20 to 30 years will be whether we revitalise urban living in this country, or look back and say that the improvement that took place in some city centres was the exception, rather than the rule.

The Select Committee identified as the major problem for rural Britain the decline of agriculture and the fact that only 4 per cent. of the people who live in the countryside work in agriculture. A new role for the countryside must be developed, not just to maximise food production but to provide a range of other services. Unless we can find a new role for rural communities, they will continue to decline and there will tend to be increasing conflict among different users.

Within that framework, the first issue that I shall discuss is poverty. We must recognise that in some urban communities, poverty is still a major problem, and also that rural poverty exists. It is easy to see urban poverty. One can go round and look at the housing, the way people live and the run-down shops, and it is evident that those are communities living in poverty. Often, rural poverty is much harder to see, because the properties have nice flowers around them and the scene looks idyllic. In fact, people in those communities are finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet.

One fact that emerged from both of our inquiries is that a huge amount of Government money is being spent in most urban communities and in many rural communities. The problem is keeping that money circulating in the places where it is supposedly being spent--making sure that there is a money-go-round, so to speak.

I talked to one or two farmers recently, following comments about the huge decline in agriculture and the problems involved. I pointed out that they had done quite well out of agriculture subsidies over the years. They were--rightly--pretty indignant because they had not done that well out of those subsidies. In many cases, the banks or those who owned the farms had done well, rather than individual farmers. One problem is that although a large amount of agricultural subsidy appears to have gone into our countryside, it has not stayed there but has come back quickly to the City of London or urban centres. Money in the rural community is important, not just because the farmer receives it, but because he proceeds to spend it on employing people in the countryside and buying and using local services. Keeping money in the community is important.

Exactly the same problem exists in some of our urban communities, where huge amounts of money are spent on social security and health and education services. Again, money comes into those communities and goes out almost immediately, as the people who provide education and health services do not live there. I want to emphasise that we need to try to keep money in the communities to which it is allocated by Government. Mainstream money will be far more significant to those communities than any special money that the Government can come up with.

26 Jan 2001 : Column 1189

Special money is welcome for neighbourhood schemes, rural bus services and things like that. However, the amount of that money is extremely small in comparison with the money that is already being spent by Government. It is crucial to get good value from the money that is already being spent and to get it to recirculate in the communities at which it is aimed. I am worried that, in quite a lot of those special schemes, consultants are appointed but rarely come from the community where the money will be spent. Again, money is being taken away from a deprived community and being spent in a much more affluent part of Britain, where people tell them what to do. The Select Committee particularly likes the fact that many schemes that are now being introduced insist on much more local participation. However, it is not just about participation; I emphasise that it is about keeping the money in those areas.

In the 20th century, there were major failures by Government to manage decline successfully. There was decline in the coal industry, shipbuilding and textiles. Too often, people in those communities suffered from that decline and we failed to produce policies to protect them from it. If we are to learn any lessons from the past, we must make sure in future that we protect people from the decline of the industries in which they work. That applies particularly to protecting farmers in rural communities from the decline in agriculture.

As an aside, may I say that we have to look at motor car manufacture in this country? Yesterday's announcement of the extra development in Sunderland is welcome, but we must recognise that cars are lasting longer and that the market for them cannot continue to expand. We probably have too many car plants in Europe now and too many people working in car manufacturing. We must find a successful way of protecting people who may not only lose their jobs, but find that their whole community is devastated by the decline of their industry.

I wish briefly to mention Ministers. I particularly praise the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and my hon. Friends the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for their full commitment to the two White Papers. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will appear before the Select Committee soon so that we can see his full commitment to the White Papers.

When the Select Committee again saw the ministerial team on Wednesday, on the issue of the urban White Paper, I was disappointed that the problem of gap funding still has not been sorted out. That is extremely worrying, as the gap funding scheme was one of the best mechanisms for urban development. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions still does not seem to have grasped just how serious is the damage to the whole Government regeneration programme caused by the abolition of gap funding. I was particularly disappointed that she could not answer questions about how far objective 1 schemes in Liverpool are being held up by the question of infringing European competition rules. I hope that she, and the Government as a whole, will take up much more vigorously with the European Commission the problem of being able to spend money on regeneration in and outside objective 1 areas.

26 Jan 2001 : Column 1190

On the question of housing, when the Select Committee made visits--I am grateful to all of those who helped us with that--we saw a problem in some of our northern cities that is completely unknown in the south of England: large numbers of empty houses. If we go around the north side of Manchester or much of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), we see houses that cannot be sold or let. On Wednesday, the Deputy Prime Minister told the Select Committee that about 6,000 houses could not be let in Hull. We must recognise that there is a serious problem in some northern cities.

I want to describe the situation in Manchester. It is amazing that in a place such as Didsbury, on the south side of the city, nice Victorian and Edwardian houses--some but not all of which have been modernised--are selling for £60,000 or £70,000, right up to £100,000. Identical houses on the north side of Manchester and in parts of Salford cannot be sold. Physically, there is no difference between those properties. However, the perception is that if one buys a house in south Manchester, one is investing in a property that will retain and almost certainly increase its value. It is therefore a good investment, and there is encouragement from the building societies to borrow money on it. As soon as one goes to parts of north Manchester, that encouragement disappears.

I have a constituent who is living in appalling overcrowding. He bought a starter home when he did not have children. He now has two small children, and his house is like living in a small matchbox. Coming home from work, he saw on the north side of Manchester a house selling for £25,000--the sort of property that he could easily afford. He went to the building society to inquire about a mortgage on it, and although he was not told absolutely that it would not lend money on it, he was given all sorts of reasons why it would be foolish for him to consider buying it.

The Government have to look at ways of getting the market back into those communities. One simple thing they could do would be to say that if people buy properties in those areas and cannot sell them, the Government or local authority will buy them back at the price at which they were sold. That would not cost the Government a great deal of money, but it would put confidence back into the market, and it is essential that we do that.

During the Select Committee's inquiry into the urban and rural White Papers, many people spoke about fiscal measures. We have still not got the Government to come to grips with the question of weighting VAT in favour of renovation and renewal, rather than of new build. Exemption from stamp duty has also been discussed. It is welcome as far as it goes, but an awful lot of the properties about which I have just spoken would not attract stamp duty anyway. I hope that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is pressing the Chancellor further to consider the fiscal measures that can be taken.

We must reduce dependence on transport in rural and urban communities. We need not only to secure better public transport, but to ensure that people need to use private transport less. We must allow rural post offices and shops to thrive so that people can use them. People in rural areas should not have to travel to towns to obtain basic necessities. We must ensure also that people in urban communities can walk to work and to places of

26 Jan 2001 : Column 1191

entertainment. They should not find themselves stuck for half an hour in traffic jams when travelling to and from work.

I want to mention a small but important point on compulsory purchase orders. In some urban areas, such orders are very difficult to put together. The Government should consider the arrangements and propose new legislation to simplify them. The Minister for Housing and Planning disappointed the Select Committee about the matter on Wednesday.

I do not want to take up too much time. I finish with a plea on communal space, which was also made in the Select Committee reports. The Government have provided examples of good practice on communal space in the White Papers. Previously, all the emphasis has been put on personal space--people's gardens. The beauty that is to be found in lots of people's gardens is amazing, but often there are neglected public parks just around the corner. It is important for us to find ways of putting money back into run-down urban and country parks.

I do not want to say too much about cemeteries and churchyards, as the Select Committee is currently considering them, but I point out that they are another example of public space that is not being cherished as it should be. The Committee will go on to consider pedestrianised areas in towns. That is another matter in respect of which we are not making the best use of public space.

We need major discussion about the rural and urban landscape that we want in this country. We need especially to reclaim and revitalise public space and encourage the development of the public realm.

Next Section

IndexHome Page