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9.53 am

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on introducing the debate so well, with a speech that was overwhelmingly sensible and pertinent. I apologise to the House, as I shall not be able to stay throughout the debate. As it is Friday, constituency duties require me to be in Kent by early afternoon.

I am delighted in this peculiarly orderly debate to see that the Minister for the Environment will be speaking on behalf of the Government, especially as his travails have provided an accompaniment in a minor key to the main discords that have affected the Government. It is a happy--or, rather, unhappy--coincidence that one of the key issues affecting both urban and rural areas is housing. We know that cities and the countryside have housing problems. We also know that the Minister's only housing problem is counting them all.

The Minister spoke about housing in a speech at the 1999 Labour party conference. He said that the Government were not necessarily going to bar second home ownership in the countryside. He went on to say,

There are obviously questions to be asked about whether he remains a player in housing policy and still takes departmental decisions, especially on the rented housing market.

This country's housing problems--I refer not only to those experienced by the Minister, but to those mentioned by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish--are

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symptomatic of the failure from which the White Papers suffer. That failure is at the heart of the new Labour project. I refer to the gap between promise and performance. Again, the Minister might be said to symbolise my point. He wrote that great tome, "Socialism with a Human Face", which was published in 1982. Interestingly, however, the author of that fascinating tome, which I advise everybody to read, has now become that epitome of capitalism, the multiple landlord. I applaud his move across the ideological barrier, but I wish that his party's policies showed equal common sense.

I should like to deal with the White Papers separately, but I must point out some common failings before I do so. Delay in delivery was the first of those failings. It is interesting that this debate was introduced by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. Its subject was originally intended to be the Select Committee's response to the White Papers. However, the Government took so long to produce them that that debate had to be postponed. They fell behind the Select Committee's timetable. It was promised first that the White Papers would be published in 1998.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I read in The Daily Telegraph on 15 January that the Conservative party was about to unveil a plan for 50 measures to help country areas. No doubt, the plan was trailed by central office. It seems, however, that the Opposition have not yet delivered on those pledges and that their manifesto--if that is what it is--has not yet been published. Are not the hon. Gentleman's remarks a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Mr. Green: It is true that our manifesto has not been published. Some of the 50 measures have already been published, however, and I shall refer to them later in my speech. If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, he will hear about them then. He spoke of a report published in The Daily Telegraph on 15 January, which is about two weeks ago. It took the Government two and a half years to produce their proposals. As I shall explain, they produced only a damp squib.

The proposals were not only delayed but were disjointed. We were originally told in the grand plan that the White Papers would be delivered together. Eventually, however, the Government realised that no common theme or vision existed, so their publication had to be announced separately. I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that it is impossible to solve the problems of the inner cities and of the countryside separately and that both need to be solved if a significant impact is to be achieved on either. One of the principal failures of the Government's approach, as it is expressed in the White Papers, is that there is no common theme.

Another underlying problem is the practical effect of the White Papers, which will be disappointing. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that each of the White Papers contains good ideas, but there is nothing like enough, especially to justify the hype that preceded their publication.

Before I turn to the urban White Paper, I should like to declare an interest, as I am a trustee of the Community Development Foundation. I am happy to be in that position. I know that Government Members always become excited when Opposition Members declare an

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interest, so I point out that I was appointed to the position by the Home Secretary. I am grateful to him for allowing me to serve on that foundation. It seeks to establish best practice so that communities and the people who live in them, who are often disadvantaged, can be empowered. All hon. Members have learned from various attempts at urban regeneration over many decades that permanent improvements are more likely to take root if the people in the communities feel that they can claim ownership of them and feel that they are an important part of the process. That is an uncontroversial conclusion

In the run-up to producing the White Paper, that conclusion was central to some of the more intelligent contributions to it, especially the Rogers report. That report was extremely interesting and full of good ideas, some of which should be taken up. However, the White Paper does not live up to the promise of that report. It contained 105 recommendations, of which only 14 were fully accepted. Action on 34 was fudged or delayed and 57 were ignored or rejected. It is regrettable that the Government have not been more enthusiastic about the Rogers report. In an article in The Independent on 17 November, Lord Rogers said:

He is right.

Not many kind things have been said about the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) this week, but I shall be brave and quote him. He was absolutely right when he said on 24 November:

The urban White Paper assumes that a top-down, centralised approach is the way forward for urban renaissance. It will not work. So much hope and expectation has been invested in the urban White Paper that it is inevitable that communities will be disappointed.

The Select Committee noted last July that it was appalled by the slow progress of the Treasury in evaluating programmes. It criticised the way in which money is spent in too many of our urban regeneration projects. It stated that

That is probably true and will be made worse by the Deputy Prime Minister's creation of a series of quangos, regional bureaucracy and taskforces. There are too many disjointed initiatives, with little rhyme or reason to them, that fail to tackle deprivation.

Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham): Does the hon. Gentleman concede that his party pioneered a top-down approach? In my constituency of Tottenham we inherited an unemployment rate of 16 per cent. We were never consulted about regeneration initiatives. The same applies to St. Paul's in Bristol, Chapeltown in Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool.

Mr. Green: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. It is possible to look back and evaluate the record. My party can be proud of its early regeneration efforts in

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1979, 1980 and 1981. The most visible result is London docklands, where successful initiatives were effected. Docklands in 2001 is unrecognisable when compared with docklands in 1980. It has improved beyond recognition. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) is right to say that not every programme worked and that a specific approach does not have the same effect in every area. However, I believe that those programmes made a positive difference.

In 1979, a Conservative Government were newly elected; by 1980, they were taking practical steps to deal with some of the most disadvantaged areas of this country. Those areas clearly flowered. One of my main objections to the Government's approach is that, for all the rhetoric, it has taken them almost an entire Parliament to produce a White Paper, let alone an over-arching vision.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): The redevelopment in Newcastle was not based on a top-down approach, but a bottom-up approach. It was carried out by the Tyne and Wear development corporation, which is a grass-roots organisation.

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those programmes worked not only in London; they were effective in places where the community, especially the local business community, poured its energies into socially advantageous regeneration. Today, there are many disjointed initiatives, which often seem to exist for the press release rather than long-term benefit.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): Before the hon. Gentleman leaves his complaint about a lack of overview, could he remind hon. Members of the occasions when the Conservative Government published the equivalent of the rural White Paper? It was only in the fag-end of their tenure, when they knew that they were about to go to the electorate and be defeated, that they produced a White Paper after their many years in office.

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